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Killing Mr. Griffin: 05/31/10
Kids these days. They're out of control. They can't read. They can't write. They're just violent pot smoking thugs. They need tough love from their teachers. But can the teachers survive teaching such barbarians? That's the gist of Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan and about half the other plots coming out of the late 1970s, early 1980s (be they in the form of television, film or novels).
In the case of Killing Mr. Griffin, Griffin is a tough new English lit teacher. He hasn't been there long enough to be an "institution" at the school and thus doesn't have the respect of students he's supposed to be teaching. He expects a lot from his class and won't accept late assignments. The problem with his strict approach to teaching is he doesn't give any hint at being fair or reasonable.
The small group of students portrayed quickly take on a mob mentality. Susan, who ends up being painted as the sweet victim of circumstance comes up with the idea of doing away with him but it's Mark who actually puts the plan into action. The group dynamic with Mark at the helm doesn't ring true to me. Of course there is school violence but it's typically aimed at the school, during school hours and the kids who commit the crimes work solo or possibly in pairs. They don't have a ring leader who comes up with "the perfect crime." They just don't.
Between the accidental death of Mr. Griffin and the end the plot takes a few more unusual turns to show how a single psychotic mind can manipulate a group into doing horrendous things. The whole thing reads like a very dated, "very special" episode. I know the book has won awards and is on the most challenged list but for me the book is a product of its era and doesn't stand up well. Frankly, it would have annoyed me if I'd read it when it was first published.
The Perfect Cup of Coffee: 05/31/10
The first cup of coffee I ever drank was the perfect cup of coffee. Most of that perfection was wrapped up in circumstance. I was backpacking through the Australian bush with a group of fellow exchange students. The tidal river we were hiking along was in the process of flooding making for muddy and sometimes treacherous conditions. We had taken a power boat from our previous camping area to the start of our next hike. The mud made getting to shore impossible and we had to slog through waist high sludge. I lost my shoes in the process and had to fish them out. So I was, wet, exhausted and covered head to to toe in tidal mud that smelled as appealing as week old dead fish.
The local man, a bloke named Bob took pity on me and offered me a chance to share a cup of coffee. So I sat with Bob in his Ford Prefect as he poured coffee into a red thermos cup. I hadn't started reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy yet (that experience was a year away for me). Otherwise I would have been giggling. Anyway, I'd never had coffee before but I was so grateful to have somewhere to sit other than on a rock or in the mud that I said thank you and took a sip. It might as well have been ambrosia. It was perfect.
Perfection comprised: milky, sweet, lukewarm coffee.
For the last twenty years I have been trying to recreate that perfect cup. I have gotten close but never there until today and I did it quite by accident.
I normally keep half and half on hand for drinking coffee and eating hot cereal. Since I've had a bad cold I haven't felt up to drinking coffee. The half and half had expired and we were left with two alternatives: milk and sweetened condensed milk. Since the kids typically put sugar on their cereal too, I figured I'd just let them use the sweetened condsensed milk watered down with a little regular milk.
A little can of the stuff goes a long way. So today with my coffee I decided to use it instead, remembering it being used in books such as The All-of-a-King Family Uptown by Sydney Taylor and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. So I splooped a little bit in and tossed in a splash of milk for good measure. I took a tentative sip and found myself once again in Bob's Prefect, listening to him tell me about his previous career working for Hanna Barbera Australia.
I have found the perfect cup of coffee at long last.
Inside a Zoo in the City: 05/30/10
I'm not a fan of rebus style stories. Nor am I a much of a fan of the House That Jack Built type of story. There are exceptions to both of course, and Inside a Zoo in the City by Alyssa Satin Capucilli is one of those.
This rebus book begins in the wee hours of the morning as various exotic animals wake up and make their commute to work. Where do they work? The zoo, of course.
The book works for me for a number of reasons. The first is its length: short by the standard of this type of book. Next, it has an unusual plot: animals going to work from the city to the zoo. Finally, it has humorous illustrations to accompany the silly story.
A Country Mouse in the Town House: 05/30/10
One of my son's first books was A Mouse in the House by Henrietta, a cute little book where children are invited to find a mouse as she explores a house during a birthday party. Although he's now in second grade, the book remains a sentimental favorite for him and his younger sister.
So when I saw Country Mouse in the Town House by Henrietta at the friends of the library store, I had to buy it. In this book Henrietta and another mouse recreate the country mouse, city mouse story. My son has read the story in school and thought it was interesting to see it retold as a photographic find-the-mice book.
Although the book has the same high quality photographs and intricately created sets as A Mouse in the House it lacks that book's simple charm. The fact that it's an adaptation of a fable by Aesop, the book carries a certain level of expectations. Those expectations hinder the fun of the book, namely the find-the-mouse game.
The Lightning Thief: 05/29/10
On May 13, 2010, the Booking Through Thursday question asked if our book choices are influenced by outside forces. Although I didn't have time to write a post as a response, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is a perfect venue. During a lunch with Pam of Bookalicious she suggested my son might like The Lightning Thief based on how he liked Coraline and his general love of monsters. As she specializes in tween and YA books, I jumped on her suggestion and bought the book the next day.
The Lightning Thief and the four other books in the Percy Jackson series ended up being a family favorite. My husband and son read it (with Harriet sometimes listening in) and then it was my turn to read it. It speaks well of a book (or series) that can bring an entire family together.
Percy Jackson is twelve at the start of the series. He's ADD and dyslexic and has a bad history with schools. Something always goes wrong and he ends up blamed for it and expelled. He's nearly survived a year at his current school, a personal best when things go wrong once again. Except this time, one of his schoolmates, Grover, lets him in a big secret. He's a demigod, just like his namesake, Perseus.
At the very basic level, Percy Jackson is like another Harry Potter: a boy with a rough life in the normal world finding a home in a magical school and faced with newfound powers and dangers. That's though where the similarities stop. Percy, though he's had a hard time in school, comes from a loving family. Sure, he has a nasty step father but there's a reason for his nastiness. He otherwise has a loving (and living) mother and father. Secondly, Percy's world of the gods, demigods and monsters isn't separate and parallel to the mortals the way that it is for muggles and magic users in the Harry Potter series. The two exist (for the most part) together, hidden by the Mist. Finally, Percy Jackson lives in New York and his summer camp is on Long Island. His quest takes him across the United States and back, giving a very different setting to his magical tale than the more typical British isles (be it England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland).
Best of all though, The Lightning Thief got my son thinking and asking questions about Greek mythology and American geography. Although he's finished the series, he's still talking about it and still asking questions. That earns it five stars on the GoodReads scale.
The series includes:
Libraries in the Ancient World: 05/28/10
In the fall I'm going back to school for an MLIS. Since I'm unemployed I've also been trying to transition into a career that will use my web production experience with the sorts of jobs I'll be able to apply for after I complete my degree in 2 years. Some of the jobs require a basic skills test. What better place to get review materials for the test than the library? Along with the test materials, I also picked up Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson.
The copy I picked up happens to be a slimmed down, best of edition from the more scholarly work published the year before. Had I known that when I was reading it my reactions to the book would have been less harsh. As I don't know what the original version covers, please keep in mind my review is for the abridged version only.
The ancient world for this book covers Mesopotamia and points west. The library of Alexandria, the ruins of Pompeii and other famous locations from the area are discussed. What's missing though is any mention of India, China (and points in between) or the New World. If the book is only going to focus on a small part of the world it should be named accordingly.
Katie Loves the Kittens: 05/27/10
Sara Ann has a trio of new kitten and a very enthusiastic dog named Katie. Katie Loves the Kittens by John Himmelman portrays with humor what it can be like to introduce a kitten to a dog.
Sara Ann tries to follow all the steps to keep Katie and the kittens separated while the two get used to each other. Unfortunately Katie is so excited by the kittens that she does everything she can to see it. And when she does, she lets out a happy "AROOO!" which scares the kittens and sends them spiraling off in all directions.
The illustrations (of the kittens especially) remind me of the Chuck Jones shorts with the dog and the kitten. I love the way the kittens are shown flying off in all directions each time Katie barks her hello.
I read the book to Harriet who know dogs and cats but has never seen them living together. She though the kitten was cute but she didn't understand why I was laughing at Katie's reactions to the kitten. The book would be probably best suited to children who have dogs and cats instead of one or other another.
Inside Time: 05/26/10
I associate the stories I read with where I read them especially when the two link up thematically. For instance, I read "Inside Time" on a BART train and it fit perfectly with the small vehicles that deliver people to the station inside the white hole.
The station is a prison and a way station. Mae, the permanent resident is a political prisoner, from the far future of her latest visitor, Herel Jablov. Most of the short story is Mae explaining the future to Jablov and how his invention made it possible.
"Inside Time" is written in the style of a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. It's one of psychological drama and turn-arounds. The twist at the end is pretty obvious to anyone who is familiar with this type of story, but it is still satisfying.
It's interview time at the Armchair BEA. I interviewed the lovely Valerie of Life is a Patchwork quilt who enjoys blogging about cooking, quilting and books.
Q You started your blog with a broccoli recipe. What inspired you to start there? Are you still using that recipe? (It sounds good!)
A Wow, I forgot that I posted that recipe! I have to admit it's been a long time since I've made it, although it is good and easy. When I started blogging back in January 2008, I envisioned it as being a very general blog about all my interests and my family; and my interests include cooking. As many blogs tend to do, it evolved to where it is now. At one point, I even tried maintaining a second blog that was devoted solely to food and cooking, but it kind of fell by the wayside after we moved to Colorado in the summer of 2008. Lately, I've been thinking about occasionally sharing recipes again.
Q What advice would you give to someone who wants to try quilting?
AFind out where the nearest quilt shops are, then find out if they offer beginner's classes (most do). If you live far away from a quilt shop, and are still determined to learn how to quilt, a good basic book I recommend would be "Quilts! Quilts!! Quilts!!!" by Diana McClun and Laura Nownes.
Q Which book is your favorite that you've reviewed on your blog?
AI'd have to say A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. This is an epic, 1,000+ page book set in India during partition days in the late 1940s (when part of India was formed into a new country, Pakistan). So many characters and incidents are in this book that still stay in my mind. I first read this book when it came out about fifteen years ago, then I read it again in October 2008 and blogged about my thoughts in some posts here and there -- I'm not sure if I have a formal review. Maybe I need to re-read it for a third time :-). I certainly would like to .... someday.
Q How have you grown as a book blogger?
AWell, when I started blogging, I didn't know there was a whole community of book bloggers out there! I somehow stumbled across a few book blogs, and reading them inspired me to write more systemically about the books I read. As a result, I now blog more often about books than other topics. I'd like to think that I've improved in writing blog posts, also. Over time, I have found more and more book blogs that I enjoy following. I am convinced it is a great community to be part of, especially after I participated in my first read-a-thon in the fall of 2009. Armchair BEA is another great example of book bloggers getting together and sharing!
Q My son and I were recently studying Haiku. Who is your favorite master?
AI'm no expert on Haiku or even poetry in general. I feel that I am still discovering many good poets, and Haiku masters. From "The Essential Haiku" that I recently read and reviewed, I'd say that I liked Basho the most. I'm currently reading "Haiku: The Other World" by Richard Wright (author of "Native son" and "Black Boy"), and am enjoying it. He devoted much of his time on haiku during the last years of his life, and this volume was published posthumously.
Q What are your favorite genres to review?
AThis is a tough one to answer! I enjoy reading so many different types of books. Therefore, I enjoy reviewing whatever I read. Sometimes I wonder if this affects my blog audience -- would I have more readers/commenters if I focused more on one or two genres? I don't know. I want to avoid burn-out by reading/reviewing just one or two type of genres, though.
Q What is the most surprising thing that's happened while blogging?
AIt's fun when I get appreciative e-mails (sometimes they are in the comments instead) by an author, or a relative of a deceased author. Also, when I started blogging, I didn't realize that there'd be emotional connections I'd make with other bloggers.
Q If you could attend BEA this week, what would you be doing?
AI'd be trying to meet up with as many other book bloggers as possible :-). I'd probably be in several lines for getting books autographed, too -- although I didn't look up who all the authors are present at BEA this year.
QWhat books are you most excited about this year?
AThrough other book bloggers, I find out about so many books that I might not have otherwise heard of or maybe not picked up. I recently picked up Let the Great World Spin by Column McCann because of several positive reviews by bloggers -- I want to read it very soon! My to-be-read (TBR) pile is ever-growing, and there are so many I'd like to get to. So many books, so little time!
QWhat have I missed that I should have asked?
AAlthough I have several interests, reading is my earliest one. That is probably why it feels most natural for me to talk about books on my blog. But, I also enjoy (you guessed it) quilting, textile art, food and cooking, fitness (also I just got golf clubs for Mother's Day!), art appreciation, making and trading ATCs (artist trading cards), and most of all spending time with my family. It can sometimes be hard to balance it all with blogging, but I enjoy trying!
Bad Matter: 05/25/10
Bad Matter by Alexandra Duncan is set in Mumbai but it involves space travel. Travel though is slow and dangerous, like the old days of sea faring. Languages and cultures develop on ships and linguists have made careers studying these ship born dialects.
One of these linguists is called to a ship recently landed, having received a letter about a "virus come upon" a girl named Ete. The linguist, the daughter of the late doctor the letter was meant for, goes to answer the call for help, unsure how much she can possibly help.
Much of this story's strength is in the language. The dialect of the crewe has a cadence similar to the old west dialect (or at least the way it's been rendered on film and tv). In this regard I'm reminded of Firefly.
You have a book blog. The process of writing such a blog seems simple enough: read a book, post a review. You've also heard that "content in king" and "regular updates" are a must. Sometimes though you will find yourself reading too slowly to make regular book review posts.
What do you do?!
There are many more ways to engage with your readers than just post reviews. Think of all the people that go into the world of books: authors, editors, agents, publishers, publicists and librarians to name a few. That's just a starting point. Below are some topics that you might not have thought about but could work for your blog.
Read a fantastic book that sparked tons of questions? Why not put them down in a list and write a query letter to the author. Many authors have blogs and websites now so finding them is a lot easier than it was in pre-internet days. Chew and Digest Books has some excellent advice on getting that interview.
Maybe you have a favorite author that you've spent time learning about. Why not write a up biographical post? You can share links to other sites or a list of recommended reading to go with your post.
Got a bunch of authors who seem to exemplify a genre? Why not write a post about them and highlight their books. Or maybe you live in a town that is author rich. Let your readers know about them!
Location, Location, Location:
Do you have a favorite place you love to read about? Write a post! Or maybe you live somewhere that's been featured in a lot of books. Maybe you're an "armchair traveler" and like to visit lots of out of the way places. Write a post about your favorite books. You could even make an itinerary of books to read in a certain order.
Make it a Series or a Read-Along:
Maybe you're reading through a chunkster and you can't find your grove. Make miniposts as you work your way through the book. I did that with Don Quixote, Ulysses and Swann's Way. I was doing the same with Within a Budding Grove but I've misplaced my book!
There are also a number of bookish memes that can help inspire a post in a pinch while helping you network with other like-minded bloggers.
Adventures in Cartooning: 05/24/10
Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics by James Sturm was short listed for the middle grades graphic novels category for the 2009-2010 Cybils. There were a lot of excellent books on that short list and I think in a different year this book could have won.
The book uses the medium to teach the methods behind the medium. The focus is on the method of building a good story, not on drawing in a certain style. In fact the illustrations are done with stick figures and doodles very much like Order of the Stick or similar web comics (in terms of style, not content).
The book though isn't strictly a how-to. It's also a graphic novel in that the stick figure knight has a quest and a story apart from the lesson plan. Best of all, there's an excellent twist at the end of book.
Book blogging has grown up with social networking. Book bloggers connect with each other, other non-blogging readers, authors, publishers, publicists, librarians and all other manners of bookish people through sites like Twitter, GoodReads, Ning and Facebook to name a tiny fraction of sites available. With dozens, if not hundreds, of book bloggers to connect with and follow, the easiest way to recognize one's favorites is through their branding.
Branding started with the marking of livestock with a small icon that was easily recognized as belong to a specific ranch or farm. Since then the brand has moved into all forms of marketing and includes things like logos, trademarks, jingles and so forth. While the average well established book blogger probably isn't necessarily running a business, an easily recognizable identity is paramount to making and keeping those social connections.
When I first started my site, I had a completely different goal in mind than book blogging. The word "blog" (as in "web log" hadn't even been coined yet (but would at the end of the year). My site's original purpose was to find web design clients. Since I needed something to build my blog's look and feel around, I picked my then calico cat, Caligula as my inspiration. Her tricolor fur set (and still sets) the basic color scheme. Her ability to reboot my computer at the most inopportune times inspired the name: "Puss Reboots."
Brands can transcend their original purpose
Although I started this site as a web design site, I've kept the name and the brand and let it evolve over time. My post current version to the brand, involves the square icon of Caligula stretching her paws against a purple background. I use it in one form or another on most of my online activities: leaving blog comments, writing on livejournal, blipping and tweeting.
I originally had to create it when I started my Livejournal site. A friend had already started streaming my RSS feed to livejournal under my old online handle: caligula00, so I had to create a new handle. It made sense to have a handle that matched my main website's name: Puss Reboots. Since spaces complicate things in URLs, I merged the two together into "pussreboots" and the new online brand was born.
It's not just book blogger brands that can (and should) evolve over time. Take for instance, Motorola. Back when it was a new brand, it was attached to an innovation at the time: the car radio. MOTOR for the car and OLA because the big music playing brand at the time was Victrola. Motorola has since broadened its horizons to "electronics" from car radios and is probably best known for cell phones (which are often used in cars and can often play music). So the basics of the brand are still there but the brand itself has transcended its original purpose of selling car radios.
If you are just starting out as a book blogger, don't stress about not having a brand or a customized template. First and foremost you need content written in your own voice that shows your passions for what you read. A well branded, beautiful site won't invite visitors back if it lacks original content. That doesn't mean every piece has to be letter perfect. Of course not! The blogging process is organic and bloggers learn as they go. Look at the earliest posts by any of your favorite bloggers and I'm sure you'll see they have grown as writers since then.
Be flexible but be consistent!
You might be a picture book blogger now. Or maybe paranormal romances are your thing. Your reading choices might evolve over time. Don't paint yourself into a corner with your brand. Make it something flexible, something that can evolve with you over time as your tastes change. If you don't, you'll find yourself with a blog that was once fun that now feels like work. Unless you've managed to make your blog into a paying job, don't let it become work. Don't be a slave to your branding!
Do however, use that brand in all your social networking activities that directly reflect on your blog.
In the Land of Cotton: 05/23/10
I am embarrassed by the length of time between reading (and loving) In the Land of Cotton by Martha A. Taylor and reviewing it. I keep a list of books I need to review but some how this book and a half dozen others didn't make it onto that list.
I read In the Land of Cotton just after reading her novel Outside the Lavender Closet. I commented in my review that her novel reads like a memoir. Here, though, is a memoir and it reads like a novel.
Taylor describes her childhood from the point she and her family moved to a new home in Tennessee. The family hires Lucy, an African American woman to clean the house and watch the children. Martha curious about Lucy's life follows her home one day and meets the rest of Lucy's family on a farm. It's been their land since the end of the Civil War and the only remnant of a the plantation that has since become the suburban neighborhood that Martha now lives in.
I read the book as a novel. It's written in that style. The author calls it a "docu-drama." Except for a map of Lucy's farm, there isn't much in the way of documentation. The book may very well be a very personal memoir. Whether it's completely fact, completely fiction or somewhere in the middle, doesn't bother me. It's a compelling read. There are a few editing oddities near the end and the book as a whole would benefit from another round of editing. That being said, I still thoroughly enjoyed it.
My local coffee shop has a bookshelf. It's a place where regulars drop off books they've read or pick up books to take home and read. One day while I was enjoying my morning bear claw I saw a copy of Pigsty by Mark Teague. Since children's books are rare on the bookshelf and kids come in frequently, I read the book and left it on the shelf.
Wendell Flutz's room is a mess. It's gotten so bad that his mother has refused to clean it. That's fine with Wendell; he'd rather just leave things as they are. Unfortunately as it gets too messy it gets mistaken for a pigsty and pigs move into his room!
I normally adore Mark Teague's books. He has a lovely retro, 1940s style of illustration. This one though didn't quite work for me. The moral seems too forced and Teague's paintings just can't improve this heavy handed story.
The Order of Things: 05/22/10
When I was studying for the library media technician test (for a job that lost funding before they finished the hiring process) I spotted The Order of Things by Barbara Ann Kipfer. The title intrigued me and the author's name seemed familiar.
Turns out Kipfer wrote another index style book that I took with me to college, 14,000 Things to Be Happy About. I read that book cover to cover, annotating the ones I agreed with and the ones that left me scratching my head.
The Order of Things is a compendium of things one might want to know. It's basically a list of lists across a wide range of subjects from the arts, sciences, history, mathematics and so forth. As the book covers so many topics in such fine detail it's not something to read casually from cover to cover.
It would, however, make an excellent reference to a home library. If I had a copy, I'm sure I'd quickly have it annotate and flagged with Post-It Notes. I love a good and quick reference book.
Loudmouth George and the New Neighbors: 05/21/10
If Loudmouth George and the New Neighbors didn't have Harriet the dog in it, we probably would have skipped it. Loudmouth George isn't a very likeable character and he doesn't want to play with the new neighbors (who happen to be pigs).
The story pits George against Harriet. Harriet wants to play with the pig girl and George doesn't. He tries spreading rumors about all the "bad" things pigs do. Harriet throughout the book continues to do her thing and ignore George when he's at his worst.
While it's important to teach children tolerance I found Loudmouth George's behavior too self serving to the moral of the story. In the previous books from the series the plots aren't so obvious, aiming instead for a subtle humor.
My Harriet enjoyed the book more than I did although she didn't ask for a re-read like she has with others in the series.
Other books featuring Harriet and the rest of Nancy's Neighborhood
Civil War on Sunday (Magic Tree House #21): 05/20/10
In Civil War on Sunday, Jack and Annie travel back to the American Civil War to help King Arthur. Camelot is in trouble and he needs four special forms of writing to help save the kingdom. The first one is "something to follow."
While back in time they meet Clara Barton, serve lunch to the soldiers and help in the hospital tent. They learn the harsh truth about the battle field and find their own bravery along the way.
Like Ghost Town at Sundown, there's an element of time travel in Civil War on Sunday. This time the children end up helping one of their relatives.
Although Sean I enjoyed the book, it was tough for my son to get through certain parts. I also think Civil War on Sunday was the point where Sean started to lose interest in the Magic Tree House series. He hasn't started learning about either the Revolutionary or the Civil War yet in school. So the frank (but not graphic) portrayal of the wounded was hard for him.
Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:
Gossamer by Lois Lowry is the shortest novel by her I've read. It's more mood piece than a full novel. It deals with dreams, nightmares, love and abuse.
Littlest One is learning how to bestow dreams. She is assigned the home of an old woman who is fostering a child with a history of abuse. His dreams are troubled and he's a prime target of the Sinisteed who inflict nightmares.
What I love about Lowry's novels is that they are all so different: in tone, plot and setting. This one I'd classify as thoughtful (and thought provoking) fantasy. On the surface it's just the story of a dream giver learning her craft and an old woman trying to give a loving home to a troubled boy. It's also though about love and patience and their abilities to help one heal from painful experiences.
Lowry's books are typically ones that I read in one sitting and Gossamer is no exception.
Diary of a Fly: 05/18/10
Sean's had a copy of Diary of a Worm since he was a toddler. Recently he readDiary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin at school and insisted I read it too. Since I try to read all the books my children recommend to me I grabbed a copy from the library.
Diary of a Fly comes as a the sequel to Diary of a Spider. Here the main character is a fly who wants more than anything some time away from her 327 siblings.
Like Diary of a Worm and I'm assuming Diary of a Spider chronicles the childhood of the main character. The fly describes her childhood as a maggot and her first day of school and typical day to day life at school and home. It's a nice combination of gross out humor and relatable events.
The books in the Diary series
Dragon of the Red Dawn (Magic Tree House #37): 05/17/10
Sean and I left off with the series at High Tide in Hawaii (#28). My son picked up Dragon of the Red Dawn because of the dragon on the cover. The Magic Tree House books build on each other and a lot has happened between those ten books.
The Dragon of the Red Dawn is a Merlin mystery. In the books we read, Merlin was a minor character. Now he's a recurring character and he's troubled. He's not eating and sleeping. Morgan needs help to cheer him up. Tim (the ex-dog) is also there to advise to the siblings and he has given them a wand to help them in their time of need.
Despite our initial confusion, once Jack and Annie leave for Edo (now Tokyo) to find the secret of happiness, Sean and I were in love with the book. Sean has been studying haiku in school so it was fun for him (and me) to see Jack and Annie meeting Matsuo Basho the poet who is known as a master of the haiku.
Besides Basho's poetry, the book includes a Japanese water spirit dragon. Sean is also learning about Chinese dragons at school and the dragon who comes to the rescue here is very much like Jin Jin by Grace Chang. It was fun to see Sean's face light up as he recognized the dragon and knew how it would be able to help.
After we had finished reading Dragon of the Red Dawn Sean asked me to check out a book of Basho's poetry. Fortunately our library was able to oblige his request without even needing a hold. We checked out The Essential Basho (review coming). Any book that inspires further reading or research gets top a rating.
Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:
Lost Worlds: Adventures in the Tropical Rainforest: 05/16/10
Bruce M. Beehler is an ornithologist specializing in the birds of Papa New Guinea. Lost Worlds: Adventures in the Tropical Rainforest is a memoir of his career.
I keep hoping to find another science memoir like Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin and Beehler's book comes close but still doesn't hit the mark. There are a few moments in the book that I wish were the norm for it.
For example one early chapter ends with a side note about a poisonous bird who might be the key to understanding the toxin that makes the poison dart frog so deadly. The bird eats beetles that contain a toxin nearly identical to the frog toxin. The current theory is that the frogs and the beetles eat a mold and that mold is ultimately the source of these posions.
Mostly though the book is about the places he's been and his mishaps and misadventures while trying to do his field studies. These anecdotes are nice to give a feel for what it's like to start a career but by themselves don't make for a particularly interesting science memoir.
I am the Dog, I am the Cat: 05/15/10
I am the Dog, I am the Cat by Donald Hall was one of Harriet's library choices. It's a free verse alternating voice story told by a dog and a cat. Think of it as a call and response or a dialogue between two unlikely friends.
Donald Hall is a well known poet who has also written eleven children's books. I am the Dog, I am the Cat is his fifth such book. His skill as a poet comes through when the book is read aloud (as all picture books are in this family).
For instance, the dog brags:
Coupled with Halls' poetry are Barry Moser's gorgeous illustrations that are lifelike and full of warmth. We had a few flips through the book just to admire the pictures.
I am the Dog, I am the Cat is a perfect picture book for preschoolers who are growing up with cats and dogs.
Hurry Freedom: 05/14/10
My library maintains a shelf of featured nonfiction at the front of the children's wing. The topic changes periodically. When it was highlighting the diversity of California's history, I chose Hurry Freedom by Jerry Stanley.
The California Gold Rush brought in hordes of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Hurry Freedom looks at the African American experience. The men and women who came were a mixture of slaves and free blacks. In California slavery was illegal but enforcement was lax. It was up to the slave to escape first.
Regardless of how a person came to California, there was the dangled carrot of opportunity. Most people who came to California didn't become wealthy and many ended up going home with only the clothes on their backs. Hurry Freedom has biographies of some of the rare success stories.
The book also covers the political atmosphere in California as the infant state struggled to take sides in the slavery issue. There were those who wanted to side with the slave owners and those who didn't. There were others who helped run California's very own underground railroad, something I didn't know we'd had here.
The book is short, only 96 pages, and densely packed with facts, dates and photographs. It is a good introduction to a fascinating piece of California history that I hope to read more about in greater depth.
The Curious Garden: 05/13/10
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown has been short listed in the fiction picture book category of the Cybils. I borrowed it from the library when the long list was first posted. I'm not on either of the fiction picture book panels but I was curious to see what the potential winners were. My children are voracious readers so I grabbed as many of the nominated picture books I could find.
Of the ones we read, The Curious Garden was our favorite. It's about boy, Liam, who discovers a dying garden on an abandoned piece of the city, high above the street. He secretly cares for the garden and it begins to thrive. Under his watch the garden spreads. As it grows he gets help from other city gardeners.
By itself the book is magical. Then at the story's close there's a note explaining the inspiration for the book. It's based on the true story of the High Line, an abandoned rail line in New York City that began a hanging garden. That added bit of reality put the book over the top for all of us.
Horrible Harry and the Ant Invasion: 05/12/10
Horrible Harry and the Ant Invasion by Suzy Kline is the third in the series and the second one I've read. I keep thinking my son would like them but he's not interested in them. So I'm reading the series for my own fun.
Things begin with Harry's teacher setting up an ant farm in the classroom to go with the other pets. I've never personally had a teacher who has kept pets, except for a summer school biology class that had a pair of rats. Harry who is friend to all living things and fascinated by insects volunteers to take care of the ants. Although he and his teacher are careful, some of the ants get loose.
A later chapter exemplifies why I think my son would like the series. The classroom has a tank of tropical fish that must be kept in water of a certain temperature. One day some of the fish are found floating in the tank, dead. Harry, being the odd ball of the class is accused. Harry though, as demonstrated earlier in the book doesn't like hurting animals of any sort. He's like my son who will rescue snails and worms after it rains.
Harry is "horrible" only in that he's unconventional. He's not a bad child. He's just interested in things that the other kids in his class aren't. Although he's called horrible he's usually the catalyst for the class as they come up with new ways of learning their subjects.
The entire list of Horrible Harry books:
Robert Reed stories are typically among my favorite from any issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The October / November issue's story, "Mermaid" while not my absolute favorite, is still high on my list.
"Mermaid" is subtler than a other Reed stories I've read. The story unfolds as a meth addict and a young woman come to his house seeking help when their car breaks down. The man shoos them away, saying they are scary but really it's the woman who has him freaked.
The main character later explains, "'Soon that creature is going to require endless devotion and all of a sober man's conviction and resources, and I don't think you can manage that trick for five minutes.'" This sentence brought the story into focus for me, making me realize that a more obvious title would have been "Siren" instead of "Mermaid."
The Nine Lives of Aristotle: 05/10/10
The Nine Lives of Aristotle by Dick King-Smith is about a young kitten who finds an unusual forever home. Aristotle is a white clumsy and overly curious kitten. He's chosen by the kindly witch Bella Donna to be her familiar if she can just keep him from burning through his nine lives.
Every kitten I known has gotten into things, taken spills and done things to make the old saying about cats having nine lives seem plausible. For Aristotle, the saying is true and if the witch can't keep him out of trouble he'll run out of lives before he reaches adulthood.
I checked out the book with some trepidations. The last Dick King-Smith novel I'd read with magical (or in that case, extra-terrestrial) overtones, I hated. The illustrations by Bob Graham though caught my eye and I was hopeful that it wouldn't be as off-putting as Harriet's Hare. The book ended up being delightful.
I love Twitter. A few nights ago a handful of us who aren't able to attend either BEA or the Book Blogger Convention decided to have a little fun. Out of that was born Armchair BEA (#armchairbea). The credit for organizing this virtual event goes to Florinda of the 3 R's Blog with thanks to Danielle of There's a Book for launching the idea and Aarti of Booklust for coining the name!)
Armchair BEA will be on the same time as BEA: May 25-8. In that time we will be hosting giveaways, interviews, themed posts and twitter parties.
Everyone who loves books and blogging is invited. Florinda has put together a sign up form.
The Stonekeeper (Amulet #1): 05/09/10
I read the second book in the Amulet graphic novel series for the Cybils. Intrigued by where the series was going, I went back and read the first book, Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi.
It starts off with an accident and a family tragedy, leaving Emily, Navin and their mother to make a new life for themselves. They are forced to move into an ancestral home in the forest far removed from the city. On the first night there the mother is kidnapped and the children must venture into an alternate world to rescue her.
Both Amulet books are heavy on action – lots of running, chasing, hiding and so forth. Usually I complain about alternate worlds taking too long to introduced or world building getting in the way of story telling. Here I'm going to sound fickle and wish for more of both: introductions and world building. I didn't notice the lack of this in the second book because I had assumed the work had been done in this volume. It wasn't.
Like a typical modern, hour long, Doctor Who the explanations and explorations that one used to see in the multipart series are gone, replaced instead by many scenes of running. Here it's a chase to rescue the mother. In the second book, they are either running away from the bad guys or they are racing to find a cure for their ailing mother. The characters (and readers) need a moment to catch their breath.
That being said, I am still enjoying the series and plan to read the third in the series when it's released. I love the artwork and I'm intrigued by this alternate world. I just want a little more time to get to know it.
The Last Surgeon: 05/08/10
The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer, Nick "Fury" Garrity, veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder spends his days and nights helping people from a mobile clinic on the streets of Washington D.C. He is contacted by a nurse who wants to prove her sister was murdered even though the evidence points towards her death being a suicide. Together they go against a brilliant but evil foe, a man who has perfected the art of the "no-kill", making his murders appear like accidents and self-inflicted deaths.
That's the gist of the book. The reviews I've read call The Last Surgeon an interesting page turner. While it had its moments, I'm finding myself getting tired of brilliant psychopathic serial killers. They seem to be a dime a dozen these days. Granted, I've never been a huge fan of serial killer novels (I laughed while reading Silence of the Lambs), sometimes I'm in the mood for one. The medical thriller angle for The Last Surgeon lured me into a book I'd otherwise not pick. I should have gone with my initial gut reaction and skipped the offer to review it.
The book for me suffers from two main problems: too many points of view and too much time spent with the serial killer. The idea is to make him seem threatening to build the sense of suspense but all his crazy thinking lessens the believability of his informed attribute (namely we're told he's brilliant) and distracts from the mystery at hand (can Dr. Garrity find medical evidence that links these deaths and proves that they are murders?).
The book for me would have been tighter and more of a page turner if it had only focused on Nick Garrity's scenes. The other scenes don't play as convincingly and pulled me out of the medical thriller moment.
I received the book for review.
I'm Not Going to Chase the Cat Today: 05/07/10
>Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could just get along. That's the idea behind I'm Not Going to Chase the Cat Today! by Jessica Harper.
Instead of chasing the cat, the dog decides to dance. As the dog dances and gives the cat a day off, she in turn decides to ignore the mouse. The mouse then decides for the day to avoid harassing the woman who owns the house.
Through out the book the illustrations have a 1980s Fame dance theme with leg warmers, leotards and the like. I got the book for Harriet for the dancing dog and cat but the book isn't really about dancing. It would have been a better, stronger book if the dancing theme of the illustrations had been more centrally tied to the plot.
Dingoes at Dinnertime (Magic Tree House #20): 05/06/10
Dingoes at Dinnertime (Magic Tree House #20) by Mary Pope Osbrone is the final book in Teddy the dog series. Their final gift is somewhere in the Australian outback.
This book is another of the Jack and Annie commune with nature plots. I get that Osborne is trying to introduce children to a wide variety of subjects through her books. Her nature heavy books just don't ring as true as most of her history based ones. She's best at recreating historical events. Her trips through time are always more dramatic, suspenseful and thought provoking.
This book does introduce Jack and Annie to the Dreamtime but it's done without much in the way of context. They do it with the animals of the bush not with the people who live there. Why is it when Jack and Annie go somewhere with exotic animals they don't get to meet the people (except perhaps one token person) who also live there?
Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:
Owly Volume 3: Flying Lessons: 05/05/10
All of the Olwy books are picture only graphic novels. I've been snagging them from the library as I see them. They are a lovely way to unwind at the end of the day. I've tried getting my owl loving son to read them but he isn't interested. He's getting into chapter books so a graphic novel without any words seems like a huge step backwards for him.
In Owly Volume 3: Flying Lessons by Andy Runton, Owly and Wormy see a strange swooping creature at dusk. After a long discussion and comparing of pictures they discover their flying neighbor is a shy flying squirrel.
Owly as he always does, sets out to befriend the squirrel. There's just one big problem. Most owls eat squirrels. How can he convince the squirrel he's a friend and not a threat?
As the book progresses, it comes out that Owly can't fly. We get a glimpse of his past with traumatic flying lessons at school. Owly's friends decide its time for him to learn how to fly. As always, little Owly breaks my heart. He's such a charming and sweet character.
The Owly series includes
Aya of Yop City: 05/04/10
I love my library but there are some shelving decisions there that baffle me. Graphic novels, for instance, are shelved separately but within reach of fiction for middle grades and young adults. Adult graphic novels though are put with the nonfiction according to their Dewey decimal call number. Because they aren't put near fiction I had no idea there were any adult graphic novels until I happened to see the cover of one from the reading area at the back of the library.
The cover I happened to see was Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet. As it turns out Aya of Yop City is the sequel to Aya (which I didn't see on the shelf). Thus it continues my near perfect record of accidentally reading everything out of order.
There are a lot of characters and plot lines in Aya of Yop City that I gather are continuations from Aya. From the reviews I've read, people who have read Aya love Aya of Yop City. Coming to the second book without the benefit of the first left me confused in a number of parts and having to re-read sections.
Marguerite Abouet based the setting on her childhood in Yopougon, a neighborhood in Abijan, Ivory Coast. With the time period set in the mid 1970s and the focus being on family life, I am reminded most of Kampung Boy by Lat
I hope to track down a copy of Aya and the third book which hasn't been translated yet because I'd like to see how the cliff hanger plays out.
Monsters Don't Eat Broccoli: 05/03/10
Monsters Don't Eat Broccoli was nominated for a Cybils award in the Fiction Picture Book category. The monsters on the cover are in a similar style to how my own monstrologists draw monsters so I checked out a copy from the library.
A pair of monsters are in a restaurant that is only serving broccoli. They complain bitterly that monsters don't eat broccoli and go on to describe all the things they'd rather eat. That list includes things like cars, rocket ships, boulders, buildings and so forth. The illustrations are colorful, outlandish and fun.
All in all my kids loved the book until the very last page. See on the last page the monsters are no longer monsters and the trees are no longer trees. They are children and the trees are broccoli. Sure there are some cute graphic matches between the monster world and the real world to show how their imaginations created the monster world but to my children, the ending felt like a cop-out. They wanted the monsters to stay monsters regardless of whether or not they learned to eat broccoli.
If you want to learn more about the decision to make the story about monsters being stand-ins for children reluctant to eat broccoli, I suggest reading the interview of Barbara Jean Hicks on Terry Pierce's blog. Having read the explanation of the creative process, I'm left feeling less negative towards the book than I originally did. The gist of the interview is this: the illustrations were planned for a pop-up book that never came to fruition. The publisher hired Hicks to repurpose them for a picture book. She saw the broccoli like trees the monsters and was inspired to make the book about healthy eating in a round-about way.
Never Blood Enough: 05/02/10
I like it when science fiction is used as a setting and the plot borrows from other genres. In "Never Blood Enough" by Joe Haldeman we have a classic locked door mystery. Start with Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and put it on a distant planet in the early days of colonization where the police are overworked and understaffed.
That's where Travis Dodd comes in. He's a xenobiologist called in to give his opinion on the death of young woman. She was found dead in her room with three small punctures on her body. She'd been exsanguinated.
I won't go into who or what did the deed except to say I enjoyed the visual. It was another one of those unexpected connections between the fiction I was reading and my real life adventures; this time a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Cynthia Rylant has written more than 100 books for children. Her career spans back to 1982 but I only "discovered" her a couple years ago. Sean and I chose Poppleton from the library because it's a collaboration between Cynthia Rylant and illustrator Mark Teague.
Poppleton is a gentleman pig who has moved to a small town to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Over the course of the book Poppleton meets his next door neighbor and settles into his new life. For instance, on Monday's he goes to the library to read a book.
It's a cute chapter book in the vein of the George and Martha or Frog and Toad books.
Series fiction is one of those sore spots for me. As a writer, I understand completely the desire to stay with characters until every last piece of their story is explored and told. For publishers I understand the desire to have a long term product. As a reader, they can be exasperating.
Series should NOT:
That's not to say I don't read series. Of course I do. Some of them I've been following for most of my life or all of my adult life. The ones that I still read aren't necessarily perfect in all books but follow my basic "shoulds" enough that I continue reading the series even if I don't like all the books in the series.
Series that work for me:
Series that I have abandoned: