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June 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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Dead End: 06/30/10

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When I was new BookCrossing, I signed up for a bunch of different book boxes. A book box is just as it sounds: a box full of books, but each book is registered with the site. If one wants a book out of the box, one must replace it with a different book. One of the books I claimed from a box happened to be Dead End by Helen R. Myers. I grabbed it for the blurb on the back.

Dead End starts out strong. A postal carrier making her rounds finds a bloody handprint on the newly installed "dead end" sign on the road leading to the Pugh Farm. The Pughs have a bad reputation but her first thought is that either her son or his best friend were down this road to play a prank. When one of the boys doesn't come home, she begins to think the handprint might be something more sinister.

A missing child (even a teen) and one with a mother who is too busy to be all that interested in her child put a bad taste in my mouth. Things got worse moving from a who-done-it to discussions of pedophilia.

All these subplots about broken families and child abuse ended up being filler and failed attempts at red herrings. The book as a whole leaves me feeling dissatisfied and somewhat dirty.

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Two Little Trains: 06/29/10

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According to the Boolynite review, the 1949 version of Two Little Trains by Margaret Wise Brown had a boy driven train (streamlined and blue) and a girl driven train (smaller and pink). For the 2003 re-issue, new artwork was commissioned.

Although the artwork is new it is done in a retro style reminiscent of the late 1940s. The streamlined train depicted is the short of engine you'd see pulling trains across the country back then. The toy train is a clearly a wooden toy which in itself is timeless. It travels through a house full of things that could easily be from the late 1940s.

I checked out the updated version for Harriet. The streamlined train is now a train going cross-country while the "chug chug" train is a toy train going through a house. Their parallel journeys are shown side by side.

I read the book to myself before I read it to Harriet. I thought the parallel structure might be over her head but she not only understood the book but loved it. She declared it was the "best book" I've ever checked out from the library for her.

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The Soul of the Rhino: 06/28/10

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Hemanta Mishra has made his lifetime work the conservation of the Indian Rhino in his native Nepal. The Soul of the Rhino highlights some of the most memorable times in his career.

I have to admit that I didn't know there were rhinoceroses in Nepal. My knowledge of rhinos is limited to what I learned from countless trips to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. They have had success with the Southern White Rhino, so much so that it's the mascot of the park. The Southern White species, though, live in Africa.

So I went into The Soul of the Rhino hoping to learn about the Indian Rhino. I expected Mishra's passion to come through his memoir. As I've mentioned in other reviews of biology memoirs, I'm looking for the next Your Inner Fish.

Mishra's book didn't even come close. Instead, it's a lot like Lost Worlds by Bruce M. Beehler. The emphasis on the book is on the people Mishra has worked with, met or otherwise had to entertain as part of his mission. He spends a lot of time giggling over mistakes foreigners make while visiting.

Once again I think my disappointment in the book stems mostly from misguided expectations. The book is clearly a memoir by a scientist; it's not a science book. Unfortunately it's catalogued and shelved (at least at my library) as a biology book.

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A Dark, Dark Tale: 06/27/10

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Sean chose A Dark, Dark Tale by Ruth Brown for Harriet when we were at the library. It was first published when my brother was three but I don't remember reading the book back then. It feels like a modern picture book so I have to admit to being surprised at its age.

A Dark, Dark Tale builds on a suspense, starting in the forest and following a black cat as he creeps through the forest and into an apparently abandoned old manor. Somewhere in the heart of this house is a dark, dark secret.

Up until the end, Harriet loved the book. The artwork is gorgeous and it's a good mix of a ghost story and a cat story. The ending though was a let down. After all that suspense there isn't a ghost or a monster or anything remotely scary.

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The Essential Basho: 06/26/10

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I remember learning the basics of writing Haiku in fifth or sixth grade. I don't however remember any of the poems I wrote for school. Since then Haiku has been out of sight, out of mind for me. That was until my son and I read Dragon of the Red Dawn (Magic Tree House #37) by Mary Pope Osborne. The story centers on Jack and Annie meeting Matsuo Basho.

Whenever Sean comes across an interesting factual detail in a book he's reading he likes to research what he's learned. Usually he and I will do a web search to find an article but sometimes he wants more.

In the case of Basho, he wanted a book of his poetry. Luckily our library has a copy of The Essential Basho by Sam Hamill. It includes a brief biography of the poet and his most famous haikus. Sean was mostly interested in reading more of his work. So we took turns reading haikus to each other.

I love it when one book will lead to another as Dragon of the Red Dawn lead us to The Essential Basho.

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Little Quack's Hide and Seek: 06/25/10

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Little Quack's Hide and Seek by Lauren Thompson is a cute book about a family of ducklings playing hide and seek with their mother. It has bright illustrations that delighted Harriet.

Little Quack is the last to hide when her mother starts counting. She watches as all her siblings take the best hiding places. In desperation she ends up finding the best hiding spot. Her solution is a humorous twist on the typical hide and seek picture book story.

As a parent I laughed along with my children as Little Quack pulled that trick on her mother. I can't tell you how many times my children have been right beside me and in my panic to keep them near me I haven't seen them doing exactly what I've asked. The only unbelievable part of the book was how the other ducklings kept quiet. When one of my two is hiding in plain sight, the other doesn't keep quiet about it.

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The Ladies' Paradise: 06/24/10

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When I think of Émile Zola, I think of long drives through Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. He was one of my go-to authors for the long summer camping trips. It's been two decades since my last family trip but I've been trying to get back into the groove with Zola. I had some success with The Earth. I wish I could say the same for The Ladies' Paradise.

The Ladies Paradise takes place in Paris at the time when city is modernizing and gearing up for the 20th century. A young woman and her brothers come to live with an uncle who runs a small dress store. He's scared by modernization or maybe he can't afford to upgrade. Whatever the reason, it's impetus for his niece to seek employment at the Ladies' Paradise, a brand new department store.

As many of the other reviewers note, the department store is the main character of the novel. It's like a Macy's or similar but it's affect on the smaller stores is more like a Wallmart. In this regard the book reminds me of The Jungle and Sister Carrie (where Chicago is presented as a character).

I really wanted to connect with the novel but I didn't. Maybe I need those long drives through picturesque landscapes to get into a Zola mood. Maybe I just need less distractions. Here I felt like I couldn't find the right pace to read the book. I got through about two-thirds of it with out feeling the spark I needed to keep going.

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The Sea of Monsters: 06/23/10

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The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan is a retelling of the Odyssey and continues the story arc begun in The Lightning Thief. This time Clarissa is sent on the official Camp Half Blood quest but Percy and his friends though have their own agenda, namely to save Grover.

I'm going to let you in on a secret. My favorite character isn't Percy or any of the other Camp Half Blood heroes. Nope. My favorite character who shows up in The Sea of Monsters for the first time is Tyson, the young cyclops.

Tyson brings humanity to the other side of the Gods' infidelities. Gods have children who are gods, demigods and  (yes) monsters. The Gods aren't fair or just parents; they show favoritism and they ignore others. Tyson like most monsters is cast aside, growing up on the fringes of human society. He's a rare one though in that he gets a second chance, being befriended by Percy and therefore brought into favor with Poseidon.

The book begins with Percy and Tyson being friends. Percy's aware that Tyson isn't quite normal but he figures it's because he's a homeless kid and just hasn't had the same support other kids have had. Later, of course, he has to rethink the friendship when he learns that Tyson is a very young cyclops and therefore a monster and a half brother.

Two factors made me love Tyson from the get-go. The first is his eager, toddler approach to things. From how he acts he seems about the same age (or cyclops equivalent) as my daughter. So there's a motherly connection.

My second bonding point comes from Percy's sudden realization that he's a big brother. I was only child until I was seven. My brother was born three weeks before my birthday. So that birthday just felt ruined by everyone cooing over the baby. It took a long time for me to adjust to being a sister and to finally warm to and ultimately love my sibling.

The series includes:

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The Thanksgiving Door: 06/22/10

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The Thanksgiving Door by Debby Atwell from the themed shelf my library set up last November. I picked it for its title. Typically Thanksgiving books involve turkeys, pilgrims and the occasional cornucopia. I've never seen a door mentioned in any other titles. So from that alone, I picked the book.

An older married couple with no immediate family in the area have a burned turkey and no enthusiasm for a Thanksgiving meal when it's just the two of them. They decide to go out to dinner and end up inviting themselves to a family dinner being held at the closed restaurant. The door had been left ajar and they took it mean that the restaurant was open.

I've never gone out to dinner for Thanksgiving but I do know of restaurants that cater to older patrons typically plan special meals on the holidays. Where I felt the most connection with the book though was at the long chaotic table where the family has combined their traditional dishes with typical American Thanksgiving dishes. My mother in law in the past has invited graduated students and other people who didn't have anywhere else to go for the holiday to her table.

The Thanksgiving Door is a gem of a book. It's by far the best Thanksgiving story I've read and refreshingly different from the typical Thanksgiving. It focuses on the way the holiday is actually celebrated and embraced in this country, instead on the glorified history we've written to justify the holiday.

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Cat Heaven: 06/21/10

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Both of my children have chosen Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. Harriet chose it because it has cats. Sean, I think he picked it because he recognized the author's name. Both kids though respond with "what a strange book" after I've read it to them.

Cat Heaven offers a simplistic view of what heaven would like to cats who have died. They can share the bed with God, drink milk, have catnip and all sorts of other things cats like to do.

I suppose the idea is to ease the pain for children who have lost a beloved pet. Caligula cat is going on 15 so she can't have many more years of life left but I don't think pretending that she'll be off having fantastic feline adventures will make her loss any easier. Our plan instead is to offer our home to a new shelter kitty who is in need of a "forever home."

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Twister on Tuesday (Magic Tree House #23): 06/20/10

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Twister on Tuesday by Mary Pope Osborne, Jack and Annie are sent back to the plains in 1870 to find "something to learn." While there they learn about one room schools, sod houses and tornadoes.

Sean and I got the impression that Jack and Annie were back on the same plains area that they visited in Buffalo Before Breakfast. After we both read the book we compared and contrasted life on the plains for the Lakota and the pioneers.

The best part though was the tornado. It was nice to focus on weather instead of American historical figures. Getting trapped by a tornado is far more plausible and dramatic than a pair of elementary school aged kids helping out in a war.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Princess Ben: 06/19/10

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Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is told from Benevolence's point of view from the future where she's Queen and a mage. She recounts how she came to be where she is now.

I normally love this sort of book. Seriously. Add into the fact that Ben isn't a typical princess (not especially feminine, not shaped like a Disney princess) and she should be my perfect heroine.

And yet... try as may, I could not finish the book. I found present day Queen Benevolence's observations on past events too disjointed from what was happening. Every time the suspense started to build, she would break in with a reminder that everything would work out for the best, turning fantasy and adventure into something more like a book report.

I made it through the first hundred pages and then I skipped to the last couple of chapters. There just wasn't enough in the close of the book to motivate me to read the chapters in between.

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Grampa's Zombie BBQ: 06/18/10

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I continue with my luck of picking the second book in a series first with Grampa's Zombie BBQ by Kirk Scroggs. It's the sequel to Dracula vs. Grampa at the Monster Truck Spectacular. The books are hybrid graphic novels.

In this book the family is planning for a town barbecue. Something goes wrong and zombies end up invited too! Rather than freak out, Wiley and his family just serve them barbecue just as they do all the other guests.

I liked the book. It reminds me of a juvenile (and violence free) version of the film, Shawn of the Dead. I'm thinking of the ending when the survivors have come to terms with the fact that the zombies can't be defeated and decide to learn to live with them.

The book is aimed at kids about my son's age but he wasn't interested. Traditional monsters aren't his thing. I though zombies might be an exception since he and his sister like to play zombie but, no.

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Revolutionary War on Wednesday (Magic Tree House #22): 06/17/10

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There are so many retellings of key moments in the American revolutionary war that the battlefield must have been littered with ancestors of celebrities and time travelers. There doesn't seem to be much room left for the people who were actually there. Add to the list now Jack and Annie as they visit in Revolutionary War on Wednesday.

Sean and I both were disappointed by the book. I get that it's fun to hook up the main characters with famous people. In this case it's General George Washington. Unfortunately they are children. They show up on a battle field in a snow storm. They stand out.

They get caught. Twice. They get warned about the dangers of the battlefield. Twice. But they are so intent on their mission  and the thrill of seeing George effing Washington (my emphasis, not theirs) that they act stupidly and dangerously.

Sean spent more time yelling at Jack and Annie for being idiots than he did on reading the book. I had to agree with him. The set up made no sense and therefore failed at the presumed goal of teaching about this critical moment in the Revolution.

Other posts and reviews

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Bailey's Day: 06/17/10

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Bailey's of Bailey's Day is a humane society rescue dog. Her owner and the author of her picture book story, Robert Haggerty, is a mailman. On the Bailey's Day website, the author explains the inspiration behind the book.

The book takes Bailey through a typical day where she goes on adventures in and around her neighborhood while her owner is out delivering mail. She plays with a lizard, a neighbor dog, goes exploring and for a swim. The problem with having a mailman for an owner in a small town is he's close enough to home to catch Bailey during her misadventures.

At the back of the book there are photographs showing the real Bailey, her friends (including the lizard) and the places she likes to explore. Harriet especially loved making the connection between the picture book dog and the real dog.

A few of the reviews I've read complain that the book doesn't drive home the moral of obedience. When Bailey's taken home she isn't exactly punished and she doesn't exactly look apologetic about disobeying. My kids came away with a message of unconditional love, rather than obedience. Yes, Bailey's hard to handle but she doesn't get hurt and she doesn't cause problems. She's not much different than my own children who are now old enough to explore between the houses with the neighbor kids.

My one misgiving with the book is the play between the illustrations and the text. There needs to be better integration between the two. Sometimes the illustrations are obscured by a swatch of color to make room for the words. It looks slap-dash and it distracts from an otherwise delightful book reading experience.

I received the book for review.

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The Kayla Chronicles: 06/16/10

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When I sat down to write my review of The Kayla Chronicles by Sherri Winston, I thought it would be a simple process. I had read it and loved it. Since it wasn't a review book I wasn't tied down by FTC regulations regarding endorsements. It would just be an enthusiastic post about a book with a positive message for teen girls featuring an African American main character and her extended, stable family all of whom live if Florida.

Then I read the review at Black Eyed Susan's which made me pause and rethink my reaction to the book. Susan came to the book with more knowledge of black feminist history and felt that the book missed the mark by what it didn't include. I am not an expert in black feminism nor am I even conversant in the subject. I'm not saying I have to read The Kayla Chronicles, even though Kayla and her friends do quote a lot of famous people (much like some of my friends took to quoting Shakespeare for a couple years in high school). Instead, I'm asking, what am I missing in my ignorance and can I even gauge how well the book will do with its intended audience (I'm assuming teen girls of color).

The answer is, I don't know. I can tell you that I as a late thirties white woman loved the positive messages in the book and found Kayla to be a believable and likeable teen character. She reminded me of many of my teen friends who were also juggling activism and cheer leading. Were I still a teen, I'm sure I'd love the book. But even as a teen, I wouldn't exactly be the target audience, although I'd have two circles in common with that target on a Venn diagram.

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Little (Grrl) Lost: 06/15/10

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Having so enjoyed three books by Charles de Lint, I decided to try one of his young adult books. I chose at random Little (Grrl) Lost.

TJ has been forced to move into the city of Newford from the country. She misses her horse and the freedom she had. On her first night in her new room she meets Elizabeth, a teenaged Little looking for the same freedoms as TJ, except that she's willing to runaway from home to get them.

With the introduction of Littles into the novel, I was at first excited. But my warm fuzzy feeling didn't last very long. The novel changes direction when Elizabeth's family abandons her. TJ now has to help Elizabeth find her family.

In the other de Lint books I've read when something fantastic happens the characters who live there take it in stride. There's usually someone who can mentor the main character in the legends and magic of the area. In Little (Grrl) Lost most of the other characters are openly hostile to the thought of magic existing in Newford.

Little (Grrl) Lost is the 20th book of the Newford series. I could understand magic being an unusual or unimaginable thing if it were the first book. But the 20th? Shouldn't Newford have a reputation by now? Or an explanation as to why it's magical properties haven't been known to the general public? Is it the Mist, a spell or a pact of silence?

The final blow for me though was how dependent TJ and Elizabeth were on male help. They are the most stereotypical damsels in distress I've read in years. All the other books I've read by de Lint have had strong, well rounded and believable female characters. They only difference is that they were in adult books. I hope this book is a fluke and not something he does on a regular basis in his young adult books.

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Nerds Heart YA Bracket decision: In Mike We Trust vs Pure: 06/15/10

For our bracket assignment, Tasha and I were assigned In Mike We Trust by P. E. Ryan and Pure by Terra Elan McVoy.

We have chosen In Mike We Trust by P. E. Ryan to move onto the next bracket.


My Thoughts:

In Mike We TrustBoth are about honesty and repercussions of dishonesty.

In the first book, the protagonist is a teenage boy who wants to live an open and honest life as a gay adolescent but is forced back into the closet by his recently widowed mother. Garth of course is also still reeling from his father's death and doesn't know how to cope with it and his mother's desire to protect him by keeping him silent. Brought into the mix is the father's twin brother, Mike, who offers the support and encouragement Garth is craving but is otherwise a scoundrel.

PureIn the second book, a group of fairly well off Christian girls have formed a friendship over their purity rings. When one of the girls who is in a serious relationship with her boyfriend decides to start having sex with him, her so-called friends turn on her, except (of course) for the protagonist who tries to keep the friendship going.

Honesty, trust and support among family members strikes me as a far more interesting and important storyline to pursue. Purity rings by themselves make me want to scream but I was willing to see what the author did with them as a starting point for discussion about honesty and other teen issues. Unfortunately the book fails to do more than just brush the surface to stay on the "no sex before marriage EVER" message.

Tasha's Thoughts:

First, the run-down:  Pure is about a group of girls who have all sworn not to have sex until they are married.  I think we can all predict how this is going to turn out.  One them does the horizontal nasty and it's like, gasp, shocking!  Exclamation mark!  Then there's a bunch of girly drama with all the friends.

In Mike We Trust is about Garth, a gay teenager who feels stifled and isolated because 1. his dad died about a year ago; and 2. his mom told him he needs to pretend to be not-gay until he turns eighteen.  Or at the very least not tell anyone.  Then his long-lost Uncle Mike shows up, and even though he's super-sketchy, Garth starts to trust him and lets himself get talked into all shorts of stuff he wouldn't do otherwise.  Some of it good, some of it really not.

The Results:  As you can probably tell by the summaries, I enjoyed In Mike We Trust a lot more than Pure.

Pure was actually much better than I expected it to be after reading cover summary--the writing style is very vibrant and readable, and I think the author is quite good.  But nearly all of the characters were insanely annoying--they were like teenagers on bubble gum steroids, and suuuuper-duper shallow.  The main character, Tabitha, was okay but kind of a blank slate.  Her bestie, Morgan, on the other hand (whom I started thinking of as The Morgantroyd, because whenever she appeared I thought of that cat saying, "Heavens to Murgatroyd!") was pretty evol.  The other friends kind of fade into the background, except for Cara, who was the only character I liked and connected with.

Basically, the writing was solid on this one, but I found myself completely unable to connect with teenage girls who (supposedly) don't want to have sex.  And the fact that they kept thinking about how they didn't want it made me think about it constantly!  In the meantime, the story seemed to go freaking nowhere and there wasn't much development with the characters, especially Morgantroyd, who remained evoyl.  In the end, the message or theme of the book seemed murky, if there even was supposed to be one.

Side note for this book: it made me feel old.  And no, that is not one of the reasons I didn't like it so much.  Okay, maybe it is...

In Mike We Trust is a much more accessible story, with characters I definitely connected to.  Garth is such a likable, every-man type of guy that it would be hard not to sympathize with him and also see why he becomes so trusting of his Uncle Mike, even though it's pretty obvious the guy's sketchy at best (note to all teens out there: any adult who encourages you to quit your job, no matter how bad it is, is up to no good).  Garth's sexuality was integrated perfectly into his personality and the story line; but at the same time, this book is really not about that at all.  As you can probably guess from the title, it's about trust--trusting yourself as well as your parents or friends or family.  When do you trust other people to make decisions for you or trust others to do the right thing?  I think nearly every character in the book has an issue with that at some point.

Plus, the novel is very funny an entertaining, and actually made me laugh out loud at work.

In Mike We Trust is simply an excellent book and I'm very happy I had to read it for Nerds Heart YA, since I probably never would have picked it up on my own.  I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Side note for this book: all the guys at work were super-interested in this novel and kept asking me about it, which was kind of odd.

Tasha B. aka Heidenkind

Comments (8)

Veracity: 06/14/10

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Veracity takes place in the near future in a dystopian society that becomes frightenly familiar as the novel progresses. Science fiction is built on a solid foundation of social commentary and the dystopian subgenre holds true to that tradition. By taking the worst pieces of modern society to extremes a novel can provoke discussion on those very flaws. It's not so much about how plausible is the imagined future as how much of ourselves can we see reflected in this society?

The first person heroine, Harper Williams was born the same year my own daughter was. She is just barely old enough to remember life before the Pandemic. At a time when the human mind was opening up to psychic powers (as Harper has), the population was dying off, leaving behind a shattered society that is forced to control the survivors. They do so with an implanted device called a slate.

The novel is told in chunks of time told out of order. It starts in media res with Harper choosing to abandon society and break her slate at the risk of death or worse. It then goes back to different times in Harper's life to explain how she got to where she did. As the present day (2045) plot gets into gear, I wish the flashbacks would stop but they don't completely. Please give the book more than 50 pages. It's worth the initial effort.

A totalitarian society is only as strong as it's propaganda machine. Veracity is about getting to the truth behind the recorded history. Veracity is also much more but I don't want to spoil it for you.

You will probably like Veracity if you like:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Postman by David Brin

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A Brief History of Time: 06/13/10

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I am drawn to books for any number of reasons: familiarity with the author, familiarity with the location, a love of the title, a love of the cover art and so forth. For A Brief History of Time it was location, title and cover and having "met" the author via twitter. In fact, she's the first author I've asked up front for a chance to review.

The title, bringing to mind instantly the Stephen Hawking book, combined with a typically American windmill on against an expansive blue sky and rolling golden hills made me think of all the road trips I've taken across California and surrounding states. We live on the border between urban and rural, so the farmlands come up quickly and take most of time driving whenever we go anywhere by car outside of the Bay Area. Tucked among the active farms are the old barns and other structures slowly falling down hinting at the passage of time as they fly by our car window. So that's what the book made me think of before even opening it up. The passage of time, the demands of rural life and how both affect a person are all there in Beers' poetry.

Shaindel is currently located in Pendleton Oregon, a place we visited on our last big family road trip. It was the turning around point, the halfway marker of our adventure. So that added personal connection with the location inspired me to take the plunge and ask for a review copy.

I admit that I struggle with reading poetry and even more so with reviewing it. That being said, those connections made the process much easier. The poems drew me right in: sparking all my senses and stirring up emotions. These aren't picturesque vignettes of simpler times; they are heart wrenching, politically charged commentaries on the best and worst parts of rural living.

I received my copy for review from the author. To learn more about her, please read the links below. Most of them are interviews where she discusses her life and her craft.

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Chronicle of a Death Foretold: 06/12/10

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Gabriel García Márquez is best known for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have many book blogger friends who love his most famous book but my husband hates it. Now I'm not the sort of person who can't read something my husband hates but I know my own tastes and I feel that I'll end up agreeing with him.

So rather than jump into his most famous book, I decided to try something else. I picked Chronicle of a Death Foretold because it was the shortest book available.

I read the book but I have to admit that I had as little luck with it as I've had with Heart of Darkness. I got the general idea about a previous murder being the impetus for a second murder years later. Many different people had the chance to set things right and prevent the killing. Complacency, grudges and so forth get in the way of compassion.

But did I connect with the book or feel the urge to read more of his work? No. 

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Spot Visits His Grandparents: 06/11/10

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Spot the puppy first hit the picture book scene right around the time my little brother was born. So although I didn't grow up having them read to me, I do remember reading them to him. Being a much older sibling Spot was off my radar except for my baby sitting duties. Now that I'm a parent, Spot is back in my life. First my son and now my daughter have been taken with this British puppy whose markings (according to the author/illustrator Eric Hill) mimic old fashioned fighter planes.

For our trip down to Ian's parents' for New Years, I had the children pick out some library books. Harriet appropriately chose Spot Visits His Grandparents for her trip to see her grandparents.

Spot spends the day mostly with grandpa and they get into all sorts of mischief. I have to say the book had some added situational humor. Here Harriet and I were reading the book while Sean and his grandfather were outside getting into mischief.

As with so many of the recent Spot books this one is a "Lift the Flap" picture book. Every page has something to open, move or lift to see something revealed. The flaps are by far Harriet's favorite part of the Spot books.

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Are You Afraid Yet? 06/10/10

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I'm always on the lookout for new books for my son to read. He has the potential to be as voracious a reader as my husband and I are. He loves monster books and science books. Are You Afraid Yet? by Stephen James O'Meara seemed like the perfect combination of the two but the book fell short for him.

The first thing that put my son off was it's comic book approach. The illustrations are all done in a Roy Lichtenstein, popart inspired, over done comic book style. He's not a comic book reader and is very selective of the few graphic novels he reads.

For my son science inspires the creative process behind the monsters who inhabit Monster City. By itself science is a fascinating subject. He loves a good science book and has a wide range of interests: geology, biology, botany and so forth. Looking for scientific explanations behind well known monster stories is counter intuitive for my son. He felt like the book was saying that science is boring except for when it is inspiring monster stories.

Creativity for my son is central to his love of monsters. The standard monsters with their well established stories and powers seem like copouts. According to him vampires, werewolves, golems and the like are the stuff for people who can't (or don't want to) think up anything new.

After Sean tried and promptly nixed the book, I gave it a go. Although I don't share my son's dismissal of the standard horror creatures I did find the comic book illustrations a distraction rather than an asset. The book also suffers from trying to get too many stories crammed into too short of a book. It's only 80 pages long and it jumps through topics every page or so. There's really not enough time to go into depth with any one topic.

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Excuse Me... Are You a Witch? 06/09/10

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What do you do when you have a problem and need an answer? You go to the library. That's what Herbert the cat does in Excuse Me... Are You a Witch by Emily Horn. He's lonely and he wants a new home.

Herbert's a black kitten and he's read that witches like black kittens to keep as familiars. So he decides he needs to find a witch to take him home. His data points are striped socks, black dresses and pointy hats.

The review on RE Booked points out that Excuse Me... was first published in Britain. It shows most in where Herbert's new home ends up being. There's also an odd formality to the language that shows up in British picture books.

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675 Books in a Year: 06/09/10

Book Diary

Twenty three years ago on this day I started a book diary. My first book diary was a Holly Hobbie diary, too small for the long entries I liked to write. Rather than toss out the book I decided to keep a list of everything I had read.

The original book had eighteen lines. I had no idea how long it would take me to fill up my first page and the book seemed to me infinite in the number of lines it had for recording what I had read. On January 23, 2006 I finished my first book diary and started my current one. This book has nineteen lines.

The book diary now is mostly a tradition than my primary method of keeping track of what I read. I use it in conjunction with BookCrossing, GoodReads and this book blog. Even though I publicly keep track of my reading, June 9th is still an exciting day for me. It's the end of a year of reading and a chance to look forward to and plan another year's of reading.

Since June 2009 I've read 675 books, a personal record. I think some of that extra reading comes from being unemployed. I also have been watching less television and reading more to my children. Some of the extra comes too from just having lots of practice. Looking at the books I've reading since January 9th (the halfway point), I'm on track to read 540 books in my 24th year of keeping a book diary.

I started this year with R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton and I ended it with Pinkalicious and the Pink Drink by Victoria Kann.

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The Man Who Did Something About It: 06/08/10

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By the title alone, "The Man Who Did Something About It" by Harvey Jacobs had me thinking of the Ben 10 episode "Tourist Trap." I can just hear the mayor warning the Tennisons  to not touch It, photograph It or use electronic devices near It.

Of course though the "It" in "The Man Who Did Something About It" is completely different from the "It" in "Tourist Trap" but they do share an out of the way location and an alien / human interaction.

The big difference between the two is that in the short story, It is never defined. The mechanic believes he is doing something about it, but whatever it is, he doesn't say.

As the Filling My Head with Geh review notes, "The Man Who Did Something About It" has a Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy vibe. It does in that the alien visitor is simultaneously more advanced but just as mundane as humanity.

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The Great Kapok Tree: 06/07/10

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Stories with a strong environmental message lend themselves to children's picture books. The Great Kapok Tree by Lynn Cherry is in this tradition being a book with gorgeous illustrations of rainforest animals and plants with a message about protecting the Amazon.

This one embraces magical realism bringing an outsider face to face with the creatures who rely on the kapok tree for their livelihood. When the lumberjack comes to the Great Kapok tree he is overcome with fatigue and falls asleep at its base. There he is visited by the creatures of the forest.

He is visited by reptiles, insects, birds, cats and finally the natives of the forest. For this lumberjack the experience is enough to convince him to leave the tree standing. Realistically, that's often not the case. Cherry's take home message though is that if enough people learn about the diversity of the forest, maybe it can be saved.

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The Electric Church: 06/07/10

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I am so often reading series out of order. It's not that I do it on purpose but sometimes things get in way. I might not have access to the whole series at the same time, the newest books might catch my eye first or the books themselves might not be labeled well enough to make the proper order obvious to someone unfamiliar to the series. For the Avery Cates series, the library had The Digital Plague on display up front and I only learned about the first in the series, The Electric Church by Jeff Somers by reading the second.

At age 27, Avery Cates is an old man. He makes his living as a high paid assassin. He's about to go head to head with organized religion. The Monks of the Electric Church scare the bejeebers out of him. If they can scare a cold hearted hired killer, they must be bad.

With The Digital Plague, the focus is on action over world building. The Electric Church is just the opposite. It takes a little longer to get going. Normally I like to learn thing or two about the world in which characters live especially in a dystopian future. Having come to the start of the series after its madcap sequel, I find myself missing the non-stop chase through scenes, each one more violent and surreal than the last.

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The Wolves in the Walls: 06/06/10

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Sean's first introduction to Neil Gaiman was Coraline. Since he has talked about his own monsters living the walls of his bedroom and inside his clock, I figured he'd like The Wolves in the Walls too. He did.

Lucy like Coraline lives with clueless parents. She can hear the wolves in the walls just as Coraline knew something was up with that walled up door.  Her family though ignores her warnings.

Now you might think they ignore her because wolves in the walls is complete fantasy. It isn't – not in their world. Wolves really do come out of the walls and really do take over homes. 

Lucy, again like Coraline, has the pluck to put things right. Coraline can trick the Other Mother by playing her own game. Lucy can evict the wolves by recreating their method of terrorizing a family.

The Wolves in the Walls has Dave McKean's excellent illustrations. They are dark, wild and off kilter, a perfect mix for this picture book that dances on the border of horror without actually crossing over.

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How to Host a Killer Party: 06/05/10

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Last January Booking Through Thursday asked for our recommendations of "favorite unknown" authors. I posted about Penny Warner and quickly received a lovely response from her with an offer to review her newest book, How to Host a Killer Party. I was even invited to the launch party which I attended and came home with bookmarks and other fun stuff. So please go into this review knowing that I am a fan who carried my review copy around as if it were glued to my hand for the week I was reading it.

In How to Host a Killer Party, Warner introduces a new sleuth, Presley Parker, a party planner who lives and works out of Treasure Island. Her first big event is the crime themed wedding of the San Francisco mayor, staged on Alcatraz. Unfortunately for Presley the girlfriend and then the original event planner are murdered.

Even if I hadn't been a fan of Penny Warner's, I would have wanted to read this for a number of reasons. First and foremost: my experience with event planning. Secondly, the location: it's set in and about San Francisco. Finally, the genre: it is a cozy mystery, a favorite genre of mine.

My grandmother worked as a wedding coordinator. It was a job she sort of fell into. As she was also my primary care provider after school while my parents worked, I fell into being her assistant. So starting off a new mystery series with a wedding reception gone completely wrong gave me a personal connection making the book all the more special. As it turns out Penny Warner, when she's not writing, she works as an event planner (doing more than just weddings). Her experience comes through in How to Host a Killer Party.

Next is the location: San Francisco. It's not San Francisco as viewed by an outsider (Fisherman's Warf, Golden Gate Bridge and Sauselito as a neighborhood). Instead, it's San Francisco from an insider: Treasure Island, San Francisco State, and Sauselito being a city in North Bay). Although the mayor in the book is fictional, anyone who's familiar with the City's politics will nod along and snicker. Likewise, Treasure island's history and current revival is there making me want to plan a drive out there.

Finally there's genre. I like all sorts of mysteries but the cozies are lovely to curl up with or read in snatches. I did both with this book: carrying it in my purse to read whenever I could and enjoy a chapter before bed.

As it turns out, the second book in the series is coming out in August. I plan to treat myself to a copy of How to Crash a Killer Bash for my birthday.

I received a signed copy from the author for review but I would have bought a copy anyway.

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Owly Volume 1: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer: 06/04/10

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The Owly books have been on my radar for a while. I remember reading a review of one of the recent volumes on a book blog I follow. What caught my attention was the sorrowful eyes of the titular character. That, and the fact that he's an owl. Owls have been a part of my life for almost six years now, ever since Sean first fell in love them as a toddler.

So you'd think Sean would be reading Owly too and when I originally checked out Owly Volume 1 by Andy Runton I thought he'd like to look at them too. Although he's still nuts about owls, he politely turned down my selection because the book has no words. I can understand, since reading comprehension and speed are two big concerns in school right now. A book without words to him seems counterproductive.

I don't however, need my children's approval to read a book. I still wanted to read Owly and did. Although it has no words, it isn't exactly a fast book to read. The two novellas, "The Way Home" and "The Bittersweet Summer" are as densely packed with emotion and pathos as a typical silent drama from the early days of cinema. Runton clearly understands the importance of the eyes in the conveyance of emotional states and Owly's eyes speak volumes as do the supporting characters.

In "The Way Home" Owly befriends a worm. You'd think an Owl would want to eat a worm but he's a very special owl. He's not a very owly owl, and that's part of his charm. He's an odd ball, somewhere between Charlie Chaplin's tramp character and the well meaning but off center characters that Buster Keaton played. The relationship between the worm and Owly reminds me most of all of the Chaplin film, The Kid (1921)

In "The Bitterweet Summer" the worm and Owly befriend a humming bird. Here Owly needs to learn the important lesson of knowing when to let someone go. Owly and the worm live in an area that has a harsh winter, not somewhere a hummingbird can stay year round, no matter how welcome he is. Seeing Owly come to the conclusion that he has to say good bye to his friend is heartbreaking and yet charming.

I plan to read the whole series. My local library has every volume except for two. Fortunately the books seem to stand alone so I can enjoy the others while tracking down the second volume.

The Owly series includes

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The Texicans: 06/03/10

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The Texicans by Nina Vida is set in a time when Texas in a tug of war between Mexican control, U.S. control and independence. Joseph Kimmel has come from Missouri to settle his dead brother's affairs. Meanwhile Aurelia Ruiz is honing her powers to heal and to curse.

The book includes the mixture of people who were part of the Texas Republic. What they share is a desire to improve themselves and make a living. Kimmel grows out of his naivety into becoming a powerful rancher. Aurelia makes tough decisions to stay alive, making her an interesting but not necessarily sympathetic character.

Although The Texicans has the set up of a romance: a historical setting, a man with a good heart and a woman facing a rough life, it isn't a romance. It's historical fiction with the emphasis being more on the fate of the Texas Republic than on any of the main characters. 

I received the book for review from the author.

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All Aboard the Dinotrain: 06/03/10

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Dinosaurs and trains... I don't know who first though of combining the two but now it seems impossible to escape stories involving the two. All Aboard the Dinotrain is yet another of these stories.

In All Aboard the Dinotrain, a group of dinosaurs decide to go for a train ride. Where they are going isn't really explained. Why the train doesn't fit them isn't either. It's too small for most of them. Why none of them seem to know how to drive it is another detail over looked.

My favorite combination of dinosaurs and trains (or anything else modern) provide an explanation as to why the two should be together. Either the dinosaurs are modern day circus animals, or they are sentient semi-magical beasts who have an equally magical train to take them wherever they want. Here though its like the dinosaurs have decided to play with a train without an explanation as to why or how that's possible.

That being said, although this particular dinosaur and train story didn't work for me, my son liked it. My daughter and I though prefer Dinosaur Train by John Steven Gurney.

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Dreamstone: 06/02/10

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Dreamstone by P. A. Hendrickson, Prothia is set up like Australia, a former penal colony, but on a planetary scale. The descendants of the original settlers have made a nice life for themselves and are now hearing rumors that slave ships are coming. In the midst of the panic that's brewing over the news, Joebin Vassiter and some other men start having terrifying dreams that might contain answers to their dilemma.

The novel starts off strong with opposing sides making plans. There's enough left to the imagination to make the opening mysterious. Joebin's family life is mundane compared to the excitement in orbit.

After such a strong start I was hoping for a parallel structure that switched between space and Prothia. Unfortunately the next bunch of chapters stuck with Joebin. By staying on the surface and focusing on this quest to find the Dreamstone the plot lost its momentum and apparent direction.

The other reviews I've read have been very positive and I think Hendrickson has potential as a science fiction writer. Dreamstone, though, did not work for me.

I received the book for review.

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Freckle Juice: 06/02/10

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Freckle Juice by Judy Blume has been around since I was a kid. I could have read it when I was in school but I didn't. When it comes to reading I was (and to a degree still am) an ornery and sometimes obstinate reader. As a child I was told repeatedly by teachers and other well meaning adults (except immediate family members) that I had to read Judy Blume. Guess what I did; I didn't read her. No sir. My free reading time was my time and I wasn't going to take assigned reading.

Thirty years later I have a son who had Freckle Juice assigned to him for reading group at school. He loved the book and insisted I had to read it. I have an open reading policy with him which includes my vow to try any book he recommends to me. When he recommended Freckle Juice I made it the next library book I had to read.

Freckle Juice ends up being one of Judy Blume's shortest books, coming in at only 48 pages. That's half the length of even the shortest of the Magic Tree House books. The plot is pretty basic too in the form of a problem, a solution, a failed result, a new problem, a new solution. It's classic plot progression A to B to –A to B' to A'.

Andrew hates having to wash his face every day before school. He feels it's making him late to class but his mother insists. He figures if he just had freckles like his friend at school he could get away with not washing face in the morning. Sharon, another classmate, says that for a price he can buy her family recipe for "Freckle Juice." All it ends up doing is giving him a stomachache and to save face he has to come up with some other way of having freckles.

It's a cute and obvious plot with not much in the way of twists or turns except perhaps for the teacher's solution near the end of the book. I can see though why my son liked the book.

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Farewell Atlantis: 06/01/10

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"Farewell Atlantis" by Terry Bisson begins innocently enough with a couple watching a film in a theater. The man asks the woman if she's seen anyone else: an usher, other audience members. She hasn't. They are alone and somehow they know each other's names even though they don't remember ever having met before.

It's a modern rendition of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. As a film studies student, the Cave comes up frequently in discussion. It's one of the foundations of film theory and there are some similarities between the Cave and the typical movie theater, so it's natural to draw connections between the two. In both cases, the illusion is broken the moment someone decides to look away from the shadows on the wall or worse, exit the cave. That's exactly what Frank convinces Stella to do: leave the theater through the only exit.

From here things go from ancient allegory to more recent Twilight Zone. Frank and Stella go through the process (told in a very lighthearted and humorous fashion) of figuring out who they are and what their purpose is. I don't want to spoil the ending but will say that I loved it.

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