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April 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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Scat: 04/30/10

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Carl Hiaasan writes adult and young adult novels. I've read most of what he's written and consider him a favorite author. I prefer his young adult books so I was thrilled to see he had a new one out, Scat.

Nick and Marta dread going to Mrs. Starch's biology class. She's the toughest teacher in the school but she goes missing during a field trip to the Black Vine Swamp after taking on the class bully. Did he do it or is there something more sinister going on?

Scat like Hoot and Flush has a strong environmental message. Here the message is conservation of the Florida panther habitat. The Florida panther is a local variation on the cougar (or mountain lion as it's called in California). Like in Hoot, the main character ends up befriending an outsider (in this case, the class bully).

The novel though has an added layer of depth, though. It includes a sub plot involving Nick's father who is stationed in Iraq. He comes home injured and Nick while trying to focus on his missing teacher and his uneasy alliance with Duane has to also come to terms with how the war has changed his father.

The addition of this plot arc doesn't feel forced as it sometimes can. I can remember a time in the mid 1980s where all of a sudden nearly every male character had to have ties to Vietnam regardless of how plausible that was given the rest of his background. Hiaasen seems to have though through this piece of the story so that it works with the novel and helps Nick to grow as a character.

Comments (2)

The Wing on a Flea: 04/29/10

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I grew up reading Ed Emberley's books. I rediscovered him as a parent. I remember him mostly for his how to draw books but he also has a long list of picture books and books he has illustrated for other authors. The Wing on a Flea is an updated edition of his 1961 book which we borrowed from the library.

As Ed points out at the close of the book, fleas don't have wings. He took poetic license hoping to inspire creativity as he shows children how simple geometric shapes can be used to create complex drawings.

The Wing on a Flea goes through the basic shapes: circle, triangle and square to show how they can be found in day to day things. Each page has a bunch of typically colorful and geometric Emberley illustrations that highlight the shape in question as it works with the others.

Sean enjoyed the book for the artistic inspiration and Harriet liked it because she was studying triangles in preschool.

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Babies on the Go: 04/28/10

Now that Sean and Harriet have a baby cousin they have gotten a little obsessed with babies. I checked out Babies on the Go by Linda Ashman to read to my daughter. It's a picture book about different kinds of animal babies and how the get around.

Each pair of pages shows a different baby animal and a parent. Some babies are learning to walk. Some are riding on the parent's back. Some are carried in the mouth. Some float on the parent's belly and so forth.

The cute illustrations of baby animals help to teach children a variety of different things. Children learn the names of animals, how they move and their basic habitat. At the end of the book they also learn how human parents carry human babies.

Despite all appearances of being an interesting and entertaining book, not too dissimilar from books Harriet has loved, she only wanted to read it one time. Perhaps news of her own baby cousin is all she wants right now.

Comments (2)

Mummies in the Morning (Magic Tree House #3): 04/27/10

Mummies in the Morning is the third book in the Magic Tree House series. Jack and Annie still don't know who owns the tree house but they're getting a better idea on how to control its magic. This time they are lured to ancient Egypt by a mau.

I have mixed feelings about Mummies in the Morning. I like Jack and Annie experience some Egyptian magic and that the mummy isn't a monster. On the other hand, their adventures through secret passages and the way the mummy's burial is described is grossly simplified.

If this were a later book in the series, the mummy would be from a specific time in Egyptian history and would have her story grounded more firmly in facts. I don't know if Jack and Annie ever go back to Egypt but I would be interested in reading such a book if it exists.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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My One Hundred Adventures: 04/26/10

My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath has fourteen adventures and I suppose that's a blessing. Jane and her siblings live in a beach shack with their poet mother.

Jane divides her time with helping the local pastor who has wacky ideas on how to get the WORD out there. One of her schemes involves dropping Bibles from a hot air balloon. When she's not hanging out with the pastor, she's baby sitting, either her own siblings or a neighbor's. The different families make Jane question what it means to be a family. There's also a mysterious stranger and some other odds and ends that bring the book together.

The main character narrates her adventures with a lyrical language beyond her years. The novel has in that regards a Wonder Years feel. Polly Horvarth is also a poet so it makes sense for her protagonist to have an extra special way with words.

Although I enjoyed the book, it wasn't a perfect read. The plotting is a little slow sometimes. Other times I couldn't understand the choices some characters made.

Comments (0)

Letters to Rosy: 04/25/10

Rene Dubois and Roselee Payton were friends together in the 1950s and 1960s in a small town in America. Rene now lives in Germany and Roselee is still stateside. After years apart they pick up their friendship in the form of letter writing. Their letters bring to light a tragedy involving a widower and his missing daughter, Sasha.

I've had hit and miss results with reading epistolary novels. Letters to Rosy suffers from a flimsy premise and an even shakier execution. Worst of all is the characterization. Everyone is "so" this or that. It's a world populated with perfect people suffering through unmentionably awful tragedies. It's just too much to swallow.

The big secret that's revealed at the end is pretty obvious from the get-go because the words the so called modern characters are using are straight out of the 1950s.

I didn't manage to read the book in its entirety. I got about a third of the way through and skipped to the end. I received the book for review from the author. I have since released it through BookCrossing.

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Guy Time: 04/24/10

Happy Birthday Frankie and So B. It by Sarah Weeks were both such delightful (but very different) books that I have decided to read every book of hers I can find at the library. The first one I picked up with this goal in mind is Guy Time. As with my usual luck of not managing to pick the first in a series, it is the second in the "Regular Guy" series.

Guy Strang's parents are newly separated. His father had invented something fantastic that has revolutionized a piece of the tech industry and somehow in all the excitement his parents drifted apart. His father is now living in California in a fancy condo while Guy and his mother are at home and she is dating.

Guy has two problems in his life right now: a potential girl friend whom he's accidentally offended and his mother's weird taste in men. In trying to put an end to his mother's dating, he and best friend Buzz try to get his parents back together without letting her know.

My favorite characters in the book are Guy's mother and Buzz. The mother is an oddball in some regards but her quirks aren't so outlandish that she becomes an unbelievable character. When faced with typical adult problems she acts as one would expect an adult to react. Likewise, Buzz has a distinct voice from Guy. He's not a clone with a few minor changes of the protagonist. He has his own history and shows in how he speaks and reacts to things.

I currently have Guy Wire checked out from the library and will go back and read books one and three as I get the chance.

The Regular Guy series includes:

Regular Guy (1999)
Guy Time (2000)
My Guy (2001)
Guy Wire (2002)

Comments (0)

The Man Who Lost His Head: 04/23/10

Recently my library put together a display highlighting classic children's books. I brought home a few of them to share with my children, including The Man Who Lost His Head by Claire Huchet Bishop.

The illustrations are what make this book. They were done by the artist who did the pictures for Make Way For Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal and Homer Price among others.

A man wakes up the day after a trip to the county fair to find his head missing. His last memory is of the fair and he figures he has to go back there to find it. He makes for himself a number of dummy heads until he finds one that doesn't turn heads as he makes his way to the fair.

The story is surreal, funny and creepy all at once. It's as off the wall as an Edward Gorey book and just as memorable. The book was put back in print recently so it's readily available. If you see a copy at your library, check it out.

Comments (4)

Keys to the City: 04/22/10

Apparently Keys to the City: Tales of a New York City Locksmith by Joel Kostman was featured on This American Life. It must have been before I started listening regularly. I picked the book up at random from walking the shelves at my local library because I liked the title and the book wasn't very long.

I had the book out just before the craziness of the Cybils judging. So the book sat on my library shelf until I'd run out of renewals and had to return the book. So I sat in my car and read the book while I was waiting for the library to open. It made the time pass very quickly.

Keys to the City is a collection of short fictionalized anecdotes based on Kostman's career as a locksmith. He has stories about trying and failing to open up a fancy sports car (the owner ends up smashing a window),  waiting for payment in a room full of grumpy relatives, and installing extra fancy locks to ward off a lovers spat that might not even exist.

None of the stories is extraordinary but together they paint a picture of life in New York. It's full of little pieces of time and reminds me a bit of the quiet moments in So B. It by Sarah Weeks.

Comments (0)

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook: 04/21/10

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis won the 2009 Cybils award in the middle grade graphic novels category. It's the story of Julian Calendar coming to a new school and hoping to fit in by being one of the cool kids. Unfortunately he's a diehard geek and he's decided the way to gain friends is to act stupid and uninterested school.

This time though, things are different and not because Julian is successfully pretending to be an average student. Two other classmates have taken notice of his talents and have decided to recruit him. They do it ways only a super smart kid could figure out and he falls for the bait.

A few things put The Secret Science Alliance at the top of the list of nominees for me. First and foremost, the other two kids in the club aren't your stereotypical nerds (even though Julian is). Secondly the book is populated with a diverse cast of characters. Finally though, there's the artwork. There is an amazing amount of detail on many of the pages, pushing the boundary of the graphic novel. It's not a fantasy story with illustrations; it is a fully integrated dance between text and art.

I have heard that this book is the first of a planned series. I certainly hope so and look forward to reading the further adventures of Julian, Ben and Greta.

Comments (2)

Swim to Me: 04/20/10

Delores Walker in Swim to Me by Betsy Carter loves to swim and is enchanted one summer by the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. She decides to leave her home in the Bronx after her father abandons the family to become a mermaid herself. She reinvents herself as Delores Taurus as the Springs is trying to do the same in the shadow of the recently opened Walt Disney World.

The Walt Disney World plot point is the weakest and most distracting part of an otherwise charming coming of age novel. Yes, both places still exist and yes, Walt Disney World was opened in 1971 but the book makes it sound like Walt Disney himself is threatening to close Week Wachee Springs. First of all, he couldn't have done it himself as he died in 1966 of congestive heart failure brought on by invasive lung cancer. Secondly, the company itself was in a bit of a managerial blackhole as Walt hadn't named a successor. The park in Florida was completed because the company had so much invested in the project; it would have been financial suicide to pull out. Walt Disney Productions (yet to me renamed The Walt Disney Company) was not the powerhouse in 1971 that it is today. Finally the two parks are separated by roughly 90 miles of driving along a state highway. That happens to be the same distance between Sea World in San Diego and Disneyland in Anaheim; they are worlds apart and completely different tourist destinations.

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Now back to the book. Ignoring the glaring anachronisms in a minor subplot, the book is basically a coming of age story about a young woman with an extraordinary talent for swimming and the drive to make herself something more than she is at first glance: a scared and homesick girl from the Bronx. Her mentor in the book is a washed out Mermaid, turned owner of the resort who reminds me quite favorably of Lily Charles from Pushing Daisies.

There are quirky characters and silly turns in the plot reminiscent of Big Fish and any number of Carl Hiaasen's books (also set in Florida). I liked the mixture of real life albeit wacky setting, odd ball characters and crazy schemes. Were it not for the lingering Walt Disney errata, I would have given the book a 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.

The worst part of this plot thread is that it is completely unnecessary to the book.

Comments (4)

Promotion Denied: 04/19/10

Promotion Denied by Joseph Hoffler is a memoir that promises to out line acts of racism in the form of denied promotions at the USAF Academy. The book chronicles Hoffler's military career until the point where he was denied promotion to colonel and the aftermath of that decision.

As a self-published memoirs, the emotions in Promotion Denied are raw and uncensored. As this book is one man's very personal recollection of events, it's impossible to form an educated opinion of his allegations based on what he's written. I had hoped to see more evidence (interviews, surveys or other data).

The writing is technically competent. It's overly formal in places but that's understandable given his long time military career. What's lacking though is the next step, the point where the author leaves his story and expands his search to include other stories. In this regard, the book leaves me wanting more.

I received a copy from the author for review.

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Agent to the Stars: 04/18/10

Sitting on the shelf above Shriek in the new science fiction books at my library was Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. What attracted me to it was the retro cover the Tor paperback edition has. What I didn't know is that I was picking up a book with an interesting pedigree. Like the Nancy Drew series, Agent to the Stars has been rewritten to modernize it. At least it was done by the original author and not entirely at the behest of the publisher.

Thomas Stein is mid level agent in Hollywood. He has the usual selection of TV stars and movie starlets, each one requiring special handling. He thinks he has everything under control until his boss calls him in with an extra special assignment: finding a way of selling the Yherajk to Earth.

The Yherajk are an intelligent, peaceful species but they look like newfu (Teen Titans, "Employee of the Month") and they smell like my husband's socks. They have created a half human / half Yherajk who is to work with Thomas Stein to come up with a way to introduce his species to the rest of humanity.

While all this intergalactic stuff is happening, Stein still has his regular clients. Things quickly get complicated.

The rewrites that Scalzi did were to update the jokes to bring the story from the 1990s to the late 2000s. What I enjoyed most was how he captured how the film and television industry works. Pop culture jokes or not, his basic understanding of the Hollywood culture is what makes the novel work.

Agent to the Stars was my introduction to John Scalzi. I have since subscribed to his blog, read a second book and bought a third to read.

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Tigers at Twilight (Magic Tree House #19): 04/17/10

Tigers at Twilight is the third in a miniseries where Jack and Annie have to find four gifts to help an enchanted dog. The dog they met on the Titanic and has since been following them through their adventures.

For their "gift from a forest far" they travel to a remote part of India where they befriend langur monkeys, ride on some elephants, get followed by a tiger and meet a swami.

It's a good introduction to the animals of the Indian jungle but like Lions at Lunchtime it fails to connect man's impact there. Sean's question throughout the book was: "Don't lots of people live there?"

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Crogan's Vengeance: 04/16/10

Crogan's Vengeance by Chris Schweizer is the first of a planned sixteen volume graphic novel series that covers the adventures of the Crogan family through three centuries. This volume was short listed for the graphics novel category for the 2009 Cybils. I read it as a panel judge.

At first I was excited to jump into the book. It's a nice hard cover with an obvious pirate theme as shown by the artwork on the cover. Although the series is aimed at boys, I grew up reading pirate stories, watching pirate films and even researching pirates. So no, I wasn't expecting parrots on the shoulders.

My excitement though quickly vanished when I saw the framing story. The youngest Crogan has gotten into trouble at school and dear old dad has decided to use the situation as a teachable moment (gag). He tells his son about Catfoot Crogan, the unwilling pirate who maintained his honor in the face of temptation. Let's just do away with the humans and stick the Veggie Tales characters on board because that's what Crogan's Vengeance is most like.

Without a compelling story to keep me going, I was left with the goofy artwork. Except as a Sunday school comic it doesn't work. Since though this book (and maybe the whole series?) is heavy on the morals, I suppose the artwork is appropriate.

I showed the book briefly to my son who is technically younger than the intended age group but he's reading through older books such as the Percy Jackson series so I wanted his honest opinion. He politely read a couple pages and handed it back to me telling me he wasn't interested.

I reviewed the book for the Cybils but I bought the copy I read.

Comments (2)

Shadows on the Wall of the Cave: 04/15/10


Kate Wilhelm's stories always carry a theme of loss and surviving under extreme circumstances. "Shadows on the Wall of the Cave" looks at the underlying horror of finding a long lost relative assumed after many years to be dead. Imagine too that the relative in question was a child. This being science fiction, imagine that he still is.

Ashley and Nathan last saw Joey inside a cave the trio had been exploring as children. Joey disappeared. The cave was searched. The surrounding areas were searched. Eventually he was presumed dead. Now he's back and shocked to see that Ashley and Nathan have grown up even if he hasn't.

Wilhelm goes further by presenting an upsetting family reunion with the parents and extended family. I read this story just as the Stacy Dugard case was first playing out. She (and children she had while a captive) were recently rescued and reunited with her family. Of course she didn't stay a child but I can imagine her daughters must look a good deal like she did when she was kidnapped. What she is experiencing provided an uncanny and off-putting backdrop to Kate Wilhelm's story.

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Jeremy Draws a Monster: 04/15/10

For as long as Sean has been drawing, he has been drawing monsters. Sure, he draws other subjects too, but monsters are his favorite creative pass-time. So when I saw Jeremy Draws a Monster by Peter McCarty among the Cybils nominees, I had to check out a copy for my son to read.

As the title says, Jeremy draws a monster. In fact Jeremy spends most of his time alone in his room drawing like Chloe does in "Fear Her" (Doctor Who, Tenth Doctor, Season 2, episode 11). And like Chloe, his drawings start to come alive. It starts with the monster and progresses as the monster makes demands of Jeremy.

Besides reminding me of Chloe, Jeremy reminds me of Treehorn who has magical adventures right under the nose of his unobservant parents. Fortunately there's a happy ending for Jeremey.

Comments (4)

The Balloon Boy of San Francisco: 04/14/10

In October 2009 we had the "Balloon Boy" hoax. Back in 1853 Oakland California had it's very own real life balloon boy, Joseph “Ready” Gates, a sixteen year old San Francisco produce merchant. Shortly after the October hoax, I saw The Balloon Boy of San Francisco by Dorothy Kupcha Leland on prominent display in the children's room at my library. As you can imagine I had to check it out.

Although my decision to read the book was based on current events I would have enjoyed the book without that motivation. It's a fascinating and well written glimpse at life in San Francisco when the gold rush was going strong.

The balloon incident while the climax of the book is not the main focus. Randy spends most of the book helping a woman locate her brother. She has arrived in San Francisco on a ship and is dismayed when her brother isn't at the docks to meet her. Randy and his family help her adjust to life in the city and Randy goes the extra step to use his connections to track down leads on her brother's whereabouts.

The balloon ride then comes as a dramatic climax and pause in the mystery of the missing brother. There's a map included that shows the path of the balloon as it leaves Oakland and flies up and over the Oakland hills, over Mt Diablo, towards Martinez over where the Benicia bridge now stands, up to a piece of land just north of Grizzly Bay.

For me the big treat was reading the descriptions of all the East Bay landmarks I am so intimately familiar with. So often when a novel is set in San Francisco, everything else around The City is forgotten or ignored. It was refreshing to see Joseph living San Francisco in the context of the other cities and towns.

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Shriek: An Afterword: 04/14/10

The strange cover with an old manual typewriter covered with white mushrooms caught my eye at the library. After weeks of ignoring the book I gave in a checked out Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. It's the story of Janice and Duncan Shriek and their unusual adult lives after being left emotionally adrift after the unexpected death of their father and their mother's mental breakdown.

It's written in the style of the serious bits of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It is further confused by Duncan's edited in commentary [which always comes in square brackets like this and is very hard on the eyes]. What it lacks are the humorous sections and illustrations that go with Moby Dick. If you don't have a copy of Moby Dick with illustrations, find a copy!

The next big strike against the book for me is the setting: Ambergris. It's apparently the second book set in this unfortunately named town, the first being City of Saints and Madmen. I have not read the first book so I can't say if it helps one understand the setting. I can tell you that the name only made me think of the scene where the whale vomits on Kif in "Three Hundred Big Boys" (Futurama Season 5, episode 11). Which brings us back to Moby Dick who was after all a sperm whale (source of ambergris).

Shriek ended up being a "did not finish" book for me. I really wanted to like it. I really wanted to finish it but I just couldn't. I wanted to know more about Duncan's story but not with him butting in as editorial asides. Better options would have been: the book written in Duncan's voice without his sister, alternating chapters so both characters could tell their stories, or two separate stories that work together bound up like Tim Roux's Blue Food Revolution (review coming).

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Urban Fantasy is a Two Way Street: 04/14/10

Last month I was reading Un Lun Dun by China Mièville. As I got to the halfway point where the novel takes a completely new direction, I had an "aha!" moment. What sets Un Lun Dun and the other urban fantasy novels I've read apart from traditional fantasy isn't so much the setting as it is the ease of travel between the real and fantasy worlds.

In Un Lun Dun, answer to the abcity's problems lies in the city of London. When Zanna and Deeba first arrive they are told that travel between the two is difficult and dangerous. Nonetheless, they find a way home. In fact, Deeba later finds a different way back to the abcity when she realizes she can help. She even comments on how much easier it is to travel to Un Lun Dun than any of the residents think is and goes on to mention all the ways she knows how to go between the cities.

Traditional fantasy novels though have one trip from the real world to the fantasy world. The focus of the book is on a journey through the fantasy world with the goal of getting home to the real world. If there are multiple trips to this fantasy world, they are contained to separate books.

For example:

  • Alice goes to Wonderland twice, once via a rabbit hole and once via a mirror.
  • Although Oz has many points of entry, there is only one trip in per book.
  • Wendy, John and Michael Darling fly to Neverland and have to find a way to fly home after their adventures.
  • Milo goes through a Tollbooth to get to the "Lands Beyond" and spends the rest of the book exploring and trying to get home.
  • Gulliver travels to four island nations on his search for a way home. He visits each one once.

Using this criteria to divide up fantasy books into traditional and urban, the first example I can think of is Winnie the Pooh (1926). Christopher Robin has the ability to travel to and from the Hundred Acre Wood at will and goes to it and home numerous times in the book and in the sequel, The House at Pooh Corner.

Other examples of Urban Fantasy:

  • Grace goes back to her city from the alternate version three times in The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint
  • In Stardust by Neil Gaiman, the hole in the wall makes getting into Stormhold (a kingdom with in the land of Faerie) so easy that there's a guard to keep people from crossing over.
  • In Neverwhere also by Neil Gaiman, Peter Mayhew learns that there's an entirely different London existing in the same place for anyone whose willing to see it. Of course, it helps to have an opener to get around but it's not entirely necessary.
  • Coraline (another Gaiman creation) visits the Other Mother multiple times via the bricked up door.
  • In Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, Gods and Demigods live in and within close access to the mortal world. There are numbers of ways into the worlds of the gods if you know how to find them and how to see through the Mist.

Can you think of examples or counter examples? Let's talk urban fantasy!

Comments (14)

Out of Time: 04/13/10

James has a lot of time on his hands. His parents are busy either with work or their social life. He seems to live on or near a military base and he has access to a lab where his old friend Dr. Woodforde has been developing a time machine.

As with so many time travel novels, Out of Time has to be carried on the strength and likeability of its main character. Unfortunately for Out of Time James keeps to himself. He doesn't even share his thoughts with the readers leaving only descriptions of what he's doing and where he's going.

What's left in place of dialogue (internal or external) is "artful" description (as Laura calls it in her review). The artfulness though leaves everything too ambiguous for me. When my husband asked me to describe the book I called it "an attempt at Picnic at Hanging Rock with time travel."

I realize that the Dreamtime is a popular (dominant?) theme in Australian literature and there's a hint of that in Out of Time but it just doesn't gel. James needs to be a more engaging character for it to work.

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Immaculate Deception: 04/12/10

Immaculate Deception by Courtney J. Webb sounded promising. An ex-con sees his chance to begin again when a priest dies in a car crash. He takes on the dead man's identity which leads him onto a wild adventure into rural Australia.

If only the book delivered. Instead of wit or mayhem there's childish humor that falls flat. There's a poor attempt at regional dialects, none of which are convincing. There's potty humor and even that fails to liven up the book.

By the time Immaculate Deception had moved to Australia I had to set the book aside. The Australians were even less convincing than the Brits were. This book ended up being a "did not finish" for me.

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Is There a Monster Over There? 04/11/10

Last year I was offered a chance to review No, Never! by Sally O. Lee. Since Harriet liked that one I was thrilled to be offered one I was sure she and her brother would love, Is There a Monster Over There?

My son (and now my daughter who wants to like what her big brother likes) is nuts about monsters. While Sean works on creating new monsters, Harriet makes sure he remembers to include some girl monsters. Is There a Monster Over There? seemed like the perfect compromise for both my monstrologists. It was!

The day the review copy arrived Sean and Harriet hone in on it and demanded I read it. So we snuggled together and read about Mabel, her cat and the monster who lives in their bedroom.

The first thing Harriet loved was Mabel's name. See, Harriet knows she has an old fashioned name and she could tell that Mabel's name was also old fashioned. That made her an instant kindred spirit.

So for the first half of the book, Mabel and Tiffany see their monster trying to pounce from under the bed, from the bedroom window, from the foot of the bed and so forth. They make a fort out of the bed blankets. Having listened to my children's stories of the monsters in the room they share, I've lost track of sheer number and variety of them. So Mabel seeing a monster at every corner of her room rang true to them.

What took this book from good to great, though, was Mabel deciding the monster might be a potential friend. She starts by first touching its nose; it's "wet and slimy." She goes on to pet its fur and so forth. The tactile descriptions made the three of us think of Wally dog, my in law's bouvier de Flanders.

Although the first face to face meeting doesn't go well with the monster getting scared, the two do strike up a friendship. For Harriet, the win comes with a dress up tea party. For Sean it came with the fact that monster stays a monster all the way to the end. He likes the closing illustration of Mabel and the monster playing hide and seek in the forest.

For my son (7) and daughter (3), Is There a Monster Over There? was a perfect book for them to enjoy together.

I received my copy for review from the author.

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Scary Party: 04/10/10

I'm always looking for monster books for Sean. Books that satisfy his craving for monsters while being humorous enough to keep Harriet engaged are extra special. Scary Party by Sue Hendra fits the bill perfectly.

The brightly colored cover featuring monsters in costumes coming in at all different angles caught my attention at the library. The book has an engaging but simple plot of monsters at a Halloween costume ball. Each page focuses on a different body part: heads, eyes, feet, hands and so forth of the monsters as they dance and cavort.

Often times in these monster picture books the monsters aren't really monsters. They are children pretending to be monsters and that isn't revealed until near or at the end. That revelation often bursts the bubble of fun for my son. He wants monsters being monsters all the way through. Scary Party follows through and delivers. The monsters are in fact monsters. They just happen to be dressed in costumes for Halloween. Keeping them monsters from start to finish makes this book a five star picture book for Sean.

Harriet on the other hand enjoys the repetition and the building up of the monsters from the sum of their parts. She likes looking at all the different hands, feet, eyes and so forth. When I read with her we stop for questions like: "Do I have hands like that? No!" or "Do I have feet like that? No!"

The book is also short enough for Sean to read to his sister, something he did a number of times while we had the book checked out from the library. If you have monster lovers who are young children they will like Scary Party.

Comments (2)

Do Not Open This Book: 04/09/10

My kids seem to have inherited my love of metafiction. After enjoying The Book That Eats People we checked out Do Not Open This Book! by Michaela Muntean.

What do you do with a title like that? Of course, you do exactly the opposite. You open it right up. Inside the book is a harried pig who is trying to finish the book before you read it. Every page turned is another moment of frustration for him.

In the middle of the book there's a funny mad lib style story where you're supposed to substitute in your own name. The result is a story within the story about how you as the monster are terrorizing the poor author pig as he's trying to finish his book.

The entire book is an on going argument with the pig. The reader gets to tease him as he writes. It's fun way to introduce writing to children as the story makes them think about what might go into a picture book.

Do Not Open This Book has been as much a hit with Sean and Harriet as The Book That Eats People was. 

Comments (8)

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: 04/08/10

Although the illustrations in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst are firmly planted in the early 1970s, Alexander's bad day and his on-going grumpiness still rings true.

Alexander is having one of those days that starts off bad and gets worse. He has gum in his hair. He doesn't find a toy in his cereal when all his friends have. He gets squished in the middle of an old style VW bug on the way to school. He just can't get it together at school. And so forth and so on.

Like so many of us, Alexander just wants to run away from his problems. He'd rather go to Australia than continue facing his bad day. Heck, there are days when I'd like to that too!

The book has made such an impression on people especially of my generation that you will find many "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day" blog posts. Very few of them are about the book or Alexander. They are all though about bad days.

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The Travesties: 04/07/10

Sometimes the randomized approach to reviewing I implemented last summer causes unfortunate gaps in reviews. I'm afraid the last (and my favorite) story in Like Twin Stars, "The Travesties" by Giselle Renarde got lost in the shuffle, only coming up now for review.

Sebastian, an up and coming researcher in the travesity intersex variant dreams of co-authoring a paper with the expert in the field. However when he meets her he is saddened and disgusted at her underlying hatred of the very people she studies. He realizes he must rethink his position.

Travesties (a pun on transvestite) are people who can change their displayed gender at will. To simplify things for normals their names mark their status. Sebastian disheartened by what he learns about the research project, befriends one of the subjects: Cam/ille. The slash in the middle of the name shows how the name is shortened when the subject is displaying a male gender.

This being a story in an explicitly erotic collection does have a sex scene but it comes near the end and is really secondary to the exploration of the bigotry faced by the travesties (and by extension anyone who doesn't conform to traditional gender role binaries). Its emphasis was on social commentary in lieu of setting up sexual situations, is what earns it the place as my favorite of the three stories.

I received the ebook from the publisher for review.

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War, Women and the News: 04/06/10

I saw War, Women and the News by Catherine Gourley at the library on display in the front room. Every month the librarians put together a set of books on a certain subject. I think this book was part of the World War Two display.

The book has a bunch of brief introductions to some of the first female journalists to cover war and other male dominated fields of the news (sports, international affairs and politics). The bulk of the book though focuses on coverage of World War Two by women.

Included with the biographies and timelines are photographs from the period either of the reporters of if they were photojournalists, their photographs. There's a section on the women who took some of the most iconographic shots of the Great Depression.

The book for its length needs to be more focused on only one or two women or it needs to be longer to give each woman more time. As it is, it feels rushed and disjointed.

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Bandits of the Trace: 04/05/10

Before I go into the review I want to tell you how I read and review. I used to plan my reading (and thus my reviews) on an elaborate calendar. For a while it worked but it began to wear down my enthusiasm for both reading and blogging.

A year ago I abandoned the schedule and decided to read what I wanted when I wanted. For the reviews, I didn't want to get stuck in what ever arbitrary list I had generated by my reading for fun. So I assign each book and story a number. Then I pick a number at random and I write that review. I keep a file of my written reviews to pick from when I am ready to update my blog. What this means to you, the reader, is that I might mention books that seem out of order from how you remember them being reviewed.

I read "Bandits of the Trace" by Albert E. Cowdrey between reading The Lost Symbol and Duma Key. It was another of these weird random moments where the story provided the perfect bridge between the two. A professor sets his grad student to work on an old cryptic message that leads to a treasure, an enormous fortune.

The treasure hunting part of the novella is similar to the ones that Robert Langdon is always trying to solve as he's being chased by crazed fanatics. The solution though leads them to the same hiding place as in Duma Key with a similar lurking evil.

Reviewers of the Cowdrey's story fall into two camps: those who love "The Overseer" and those who don't. I am among those who didn't but do love "Bandits of the Trace."

Stories by Albert E. Cowdrey reviewed here

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Buffalo Before Breakfast (Magic Tree House #18): 04/05/10

In Buffalo Before Breakfast Jack and Annie are sent to a Lakota village where they must earn a gift of courage to help Arthur in Camelot.

Jack and Annie have to tread carefully when making contact with the Lakota villagers. The rely on Morgan's book for how to introduce themselves and how act respectfully and bravely. They meet a boy of similar age who lives with his grandmother.

Together Jack, Annie and the Lakota boy go hunting for bison. The learn an important lesson about the difference between being careful and brave and being careless and brave. The three get carried away with being brave that they end up starting a bison stampede.

It was an interesting introduction to Lakota life as it must have been like before homesteaders started taking over the land. It seemed though simplistic compared to recent books (and later books) in the series. Here they are supposed to be brave but that need is brought on by an act of stupidity. It would have been better if the stampede had been the result of something unrelated.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Bone: Out From Boneville: 04/04/10

Since I've started reading and reviewing graphic novels on my blog in earnest, lots of readers and friends have told me I should read Jeff Smith's Bone series. Turns out my library in the new Y.A. reading room has the entire series.

Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith is the first volume of the Bone series. It opens with the three Bone cousins stuck in the desert, in mid argument over whatever it is that got them run out of town.

Had the story stayed in the desert with the three cousins I would have closed the book and chalked up the experience as a "did not finish." Fone, Phoney, and Smiley by themselves are derivative of typical American comics and animation. They take the stock poses; they make the stock facial expressions.

It wasn't until the three Bones get separated and Fone ends up in the forest by himself that I started to warm to the book. The turn around point came with the scene where winter falls as a giant mound of snow dropping in from the top of the page.

What finally converted me from mildly enjoying to loving the book though were the secondary characters: the rat beasts, Thorn and her grandmother, Rose. If I had to pick a favorite character it would be Rose. She's like a female Popeye.

Out from Boneville is mostly an introduction of characters and a hinting of plot arcs. It's a rough start to a series but it ends on a strong enough note that I went back to get the next three volumes in the series to read.


Dragon's Teeth: 04/04/10

Paulus of the king's guard has made a career of questing for his monarchs. After brining home the spirit of a long dead king he is sent to kill a dragon for the queen. He must prove his deed with the teeth and tail. He succeeds but the task nearly costs him his life.

Like so many heroes, Paulus finds himself in the care of a maiden who mends him back to health. Their friendship and his commitment to the Queen drive emotions of the story.

When I first read "Dragon's Teeth" I struggled with it. I'm not of a reader of high fantasy (Tolkien being the one big exception for me). In between that first read and my second I've read two other quest stories, Un Lun Dun by China Mièville and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Between the two, things clicked for me with the story; Joy is Paulus's Circe.

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Coraline, the Graphic Novel: 04/03/10

A year ago my family went through a Coraline frenzy. With the film coming out my husband saw that I had a copy of Gaiman's book and decided to read it. He hadn't yet become a fan of the author's books so was reading it out of skepticism. When he loved it he lent the book to his family. When we got the book back he read it to our son (then six) who thought the Other Mother was the coolest book monster ever.

After the book reading frenzy we rented the film which I loved. Although I adore most of the things by Gaiman that I've read, Coraline didn't wow me as much as it did the rest of my family. The film did, though. When we rented the film we didn't show it to either Sean or Harriet, feeling they were both too young for it.

Sean though, having heard of the movie through friends at school pestered us to see it (for about six month). I decided to test his readiness by getting P. Craig Russell's adaptation of the novel as a graphic novel. I figured if he liked seeing the Other Mother in that form he could handle an animated version of her. Sean ended up reading the book in about a week. It was a hit and he showed it to his sister.

Anyway before I returned the book to the library I read it to. I still prefer the film to either version of the book but I see it as a sliding scale. At one end is the book and at the other end is the film. Bridging the gap is the graphic novel.

Now please don't get the wrong idea; Russell doesn't change the text of Gaiman's novel. He doesn't introduce characters like the film does. But his visuals are similar. The house looks a good deal like the Pink Lady in film and the location is once again moved from Britain to the United States.

Since Sean ended loving the graphic novel and the original novel, we re-rented the movie and let him and Harriet see it. Although Harriet had a few hide behind the couch moments she stuck with hit through the end (about six times too) with her brother. Sean loved it, even the changes. Yesterday I saw the film on sale and bought a copy for our DVD collection. We've already watched our copy twice.

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Checking Out the Libraries: 04/03/10

When I was my daughter's age we didn't have a library branch in our neighborhood. I was living in University City at the time. Once a week a librarian would come and open a store front branch that was a few stores down from Bradshaw Market. They would try to stock the shelves with what the patrons liked and you might have been able to have holds delivered there too. Of course this was the mid 1970s so putting things on hold was a different process than it is now with the ease of the internet. I remember though the long narrow line and all the books being behind the counter. You had to ask to see a book before you could decide if you wanted to check it out. It was very much like going to an old fashioned general store.

By the time I was five or so the work on our branch library had been finished. By the standards of the library I use now it was small but at the time it seemed huge. It even had two meeting centers, one which was used as a movie theater sometimes. The new library happened to be down the hill from where we moved so I was able to walk there pretty much whenever I wanted to. My mother now volunteers there on a regular basis.

Where I live now I'm surrounded by libraries. Down my street I have the Hayward City library but I don't go there very often because it requires a different card from the other libraries and the parking isn't as easy. Also nearby I have the San Lorenzo, Castro Valley and Dublin branches of the Alameda County Library. The one I go to most is the Castro Valley library.

Last Halloween the C.V. library moved to its new location. It is about 2 and a half times as large as the original library. I wish Alameda county had the money and manpower to keep the old one open too. Now the old 1960s branch is sitting abandoned on Redwood Street. Although I love the new branch I think the old one could have continued to serve the community side by side the new one.

I don't think the internet is a threat to libraries. There is a high demand actually for people with web skills to work in libraries. Unfortunately those jobs also require an MLIS. So I will be going back to school in the fall to get the degree.

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The Clue of the Tapping Heels: 04/02/10

The Clue of the Tapping Heels is only the second Nancy Drew I've read. My copy was published in 1969 so it went through the massive hatchet job. The book was originally published in 1939.

This late in the series, Nancy's fairly well established as an amateur sleuth. She is in the middle of telling her school friends about a case when she's trust into the middle of a new one involving the theft of some Persian cats and a mysterious tapping noise.

The mystery itself has some creepy elements to it worthy of an episode of CSI. There is a man with a history of mental health problems stemming from abuse, a house with hidden passageways, fraud and identity theft. Unfortunately the plot is hacked to bits, lacking coherent segues as the old text and new text lie side by side with piss poor editing.

I would like to find an original copy or perhaps a reprint that has the unaltered text because I know in a few years my daughter will love this mystery. She'll enjoy the odd ball combination of missing cats, tap dancing and Morse code.

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Within a Budding Grove: Shell Beach: 04/01/10

I'm now up to page 570 in Within a Budding Grove. I am still unemployed but waiting to hear if I have a face to face interview. Fingers crossed.

I guess there's too much of a good thing, even for the protagonist. He's tired of eating out with his friends and is back to dining with his grandmother. The return to domesticity, or maybe the boring dinner parties, has his mind back on the girl with the bicycle.

He has tried looking near the hotel and the surrounding businesses with no luck. Now he's being called to the beach, hoping against hope she will be drawn there too. The combination of the unattainable woman and the beach had me singing Sway, a song revised for Dark City. The wife who because of the tuning becomes the girl friend shares a memory with the hero, Shell Beach. The hero believes if he can find the beach he can find the love of his life. In the process of course he ends up uncovering the dark truth of the city and his own role in its destiny.

I doubt that the girl with the bicycle will have the same reality altering effect on the protagonist as the girl in Dark City does but she seems vitally important to him now.

See you back next week for my thoughts on pages 571-600.

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 Book That Eats People: 04/01/10

I heard about The Book That Eats People by John Perry via the Cybils. It wasn't in my category but I made an effort this winter to read as many of the nominated picture books. This book with it's evil grinning cover was top of my list of books to check out since Sean is such a fan of monsters.

The Book That Eats People is metafiction at its best. Here is the story of a book that gets hungry for human flesh, its victims and how it is finally caught. As the story progresses, the monster book becomes more and more like the cover art.

The first time I checked out the book, Sean grabbed the book and read it for himself. Later Harriet pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it to look at the wild illustrations. When she asked me to read it to her, I added some fun into it by making the book chew on her hands every so often. She squealed with joy.

I kept the book out as long as I could and I though the kids had tired of it. Harriet though out of the blue started asking for the book again. She even requested that I put a hold on the book (which I did). So the book is back and we're reading it again and giggling all the way through it again.

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