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July 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




Swine Not?: 07/31/10

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I grew up with Jimmy Buffett's music but I won't go so far as to call myself a Parrothead. Around the time I was first starting off with being a Bookcrosser I was introduced his books. I'm probably more a fan of his books than I am of his music. Each book I've read has had something different to offer. I appreciate it when authors who try new things.

The other Buffet books I've read have involved his three loves: music, flying and the Caribbean. Swine Not? is a departure from those themes, being about two pigs who are desperately want a reunion, and their human families who help and hinder the process.

The book is catalogued and marketed for adults but it reads like a young adult novel. All of Buffett's books have a certain sophomoric joviality to them but Swine Not? is tamer than the others. Having the parallel structure told from a pair of pot belly pigs just adds to the feeling the book should be aimed at younger readers.

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The Titan's Curse: 07/30/10

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I will forever associate The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan with Fort Bragg. My husband read aloud to us as I drove. As it turns out, the climax of the book takes place on Mt. Tamalpais. We drove by it twice on our day trip. That physical connection makes the memory of reading the book all the more vivid.

Artemis and Annabeth have gone missing. Percy and Thalia and the Hunters go on a cross country quest to rescue both. The quest takes them to the edge of the world (currently located in and about the San Francisco Bay Area). I liked the local connection, seeing how San Francisco and points north map to Greek mythological geography. It gave us talking points as we were driving by spots mentioned in the novel.

Thrown into the mix are the di Angelos: Bianca and Nico, who don't quite fit in at Camp Halfblood. Ian especially likes Nico for his geeky gamer qualities.  While I can appreciate the need to add new characters and mix up the dynamic that had been settled upon in the first two books, I missed Annabeth and Tyson.

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: 07/29/10

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Back in January I wrote a review of the film version of Cloud with a Chance of Meatballs and I promised a longer review of the book by Judi Barrett. I apologize for the delay. I really don't know where the time as gone!

The book has a framing story that begins with a mishap during breakfast. The grandfather is inspired and tells the children about a place called Chewandswallow where the weather brings food three times a day. Except near the end of the town's existence, the food gets too big and starts to be a threat to the wellbeing of the townspeople.

As the story is presented as a tall tale, there's no need to explain the mechanics behind the food weather or the sudden increase in the foods' size. Without that framing story I would have found the book annoying.

Although the illustration style of the book is very clearly a product of the late 1970s, the film manages to recreate many of the iconic scenes (though with different circumstances behind them). I liked seeing that connection between book and film even though they are otherwise so very different.

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It Looked Like Spilt Milk: 07/28/10

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It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw has the honor of being the first book Harriet has recommended to me to read. It's on her short list of favorite library books (tied, I think with The Book That Eats People by John Perry).

The book begins with a simple white blob and an explanation that "Sometimes it looked like spilt milk." From there the white on blue shapes take on other familiar forms: a tree, a duck and so forth. In the end of course the shapes are revealed to be not spilt milk but clouds. It's a delightfully simple but uplifting book.

Harriet loves to name the objects when I read it to her. When I'm not reading it to her, she can read it to herself. It's also one of the first books I've overheard her reading it. She's not yet four but I could understand what she was sounding out!

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Here Lies the Librarian: 07/27/10

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Last summer when I was newly laid off I needed some easy to read books to lose myself in. Richard Peck fit the bill perfectly. I chose Here Lies the Librarian because I loved both the cover and the title.

Peewee and Jake are siblings who run an auto repair shop. It's 1914 so auto repair is still a relatively rare skill to have. The town has been without a library since the old librarian was found dead amongst her beloved books. Now that's all going to change after Peewee is befriended by a carload of library students.

Here Lies the Librarian is one of those rare books that hit me with a confluence of elements seemingly at odds with each other but completely coherent with my own life. That connection took me from liking the book to loving the book.

Now I'm no mechanic but I grew up amongst classic cars including some the same vintage as in this book. I can remember my father fixing them, talking about them with other aficionados and attending car shows with him. So I could feel, smell, taste and hear Peewee's obsession with cars.

Secondly just before losing my job I had decided to apply to the MLIS program at San Jose State. I've loved books most of my life and back in 1997 I half considered going for the MLIS then but I was feeling burned out and needed a break from higher education. While I had been working on my masters in Critical Studies (that's UCLA speak for film theory) I had been working at one of UCLA's libraries and loved my job. After ten years of being a web designer I'm feeling the need for a career change. Library science has changed and a lot of my skills will carry over but I  need to the MLIS to follow this new calling.

Anyway, the point is, Here Lies the Librarian has a strange mixture of old cars and library science. It's just so me, I couldn't help but fall in love with the book.

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Under the Lemon Trees: 07/26/10

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As a native Californian, I love reading books that let me experience my home state in new ways. Under the Lemon Trees by Bhira Backhaus draws inspiration from her experience as Indian American child growing up in California's central valley.

The novel is set in fictional Oak Grove which is within driving range of both Berkeley and Sacramento. It's described as having as many Sikh temples as Christian churches. It's an agriculturally dependant town.

The main character, Jeeto, is on the verge of going to college. She's struggling to find a balance between family traditions and her own desire for freedom and self determined fate.

While I really wanted the best for her, I never felt like I knew her. That human connection though was missing for me, hidden behind a dull, homogenous tone. Good things and bad things, some of them absolutely tragic, are treated with the same even tone. Without that rhythm to mimic the highs and lows of the narrative I felt like an observer instead of a participant. That degree of separation prevented me from any emotional attachment.

Handled differently, I think Under the Lemon Trees could have been a wonderful and memorable book. As it is, the book fell flat for me.

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The Economy of Vacuum: 07/25/10

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"The Economy of Vacuum" by Sarah Thomas explores Virginia is a celebrity explorer, sent to the moon to get people excited about colonizing the moon while testing the limits of the human psyche by an extended period of time alone.

As Jeff explains at Filling my Mind with Geh, Sarah Thomas captures the raw pioneering spirit and the horrors that go hand in hand with being one of the first.

For me the story was mostly a mood piece. There are some moments of dialogue at the start when Virginia is preparing for her mission and at the end when she is brought home. Mostly though, "The Economy of Vacuum" leaves us inside Virginia's mind as she slowly slips into madness.

The story reminds me in tone of The Twilight Zone episode, "Where is Everybody"  which aired December 31, 1969.

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What Are You Reading: July 26, 2010: 07/26/10

What Are You Reading

It's Monday! What Are You Reading, is where we gather to share what we have read this past week and what we plan to read this week. It is a great way to network with other bloggers, see some wonderful blogs, and put new titles on your reading list.

I love being a part of this and I hope you do too! As part of this weekly meme I love to encourage you all to go and visit the others participating in this meme. I offer a weekly contest for those who visit 10 or more of the Monday Meme participants and leave a comment. You receive one entry for every 10 comments, just come back here and tell me how many in the comment area.

I am still reading what I highlighted last week. I also finished a couple of books and started a couple more. My priorities in reading this week are the library books due on August 3rd and a hold book that came in last week. Since there are probably people on the list after me, I have to read it with the assumption that I only have three weeks to finish it.

Finished Last Week:

  1. Al Capone Does My Shirts (library book)
  2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (library book)
  3. Bollywood Babes by Narinder Dhami (library book)
  4. The Light, the Dark, and Ember Between by J. W. Nicklaus (review copy from the author)
  5. The Magic Gourd by Baba Wagué Diakité (library book)
  6. Queen Sophie Hartley by Stephanie Greene (library book)

Currently Reading:

  1. American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940's Until Now edited by Peter Straub
  2. City-Makers: The Story of Southern California's First Boom by Remi A. Nadeau (personal collection)
  3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (library book)
  4. Indigo Blue by Cahty Cassidy
  5. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
  6. Mary Modern by Camille Deangelis (personal collection)
  7. Vampire Theory by Lily Caracci (review copy)

The three books that are my main priority are American Fantastic Tales, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Vampire Theory. I won't list what I will be reading next because I don't plan that far ahead. I used to but I found that the planning for my pleasure reading was adding unnecessary stress.

If you have any questions about the books I finished or am currently reading, please leave a comment. So what are you reading this week?



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Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos: 07/24/10

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At the library I picked up a copy of Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris and quickly realized I had picked up the second book in the series. Since it was obvious to me that I would adore the series, I took the book back and found the first one so I could start at the beginning.

Now I cut my mystery reading teeth on Elizabeth's Peter's Amelia Peabody series. In that one Peabody and Emerson have a son who promises to be a better Egyptologist than either of them. He's so perfect at it (and everything else) that he's on my list of most annoying series characters ever. Theodosia is a lovely and refreshing parody of characters like Ramses.

Theo's parents specialize in Egyptian antiquities. Her father runs the museum and her mother mans the digs. What they don't realize is their precious antiquities are usually cursed. She has the inborn talent to recognized cursed items and the know-how to neutralize them.

Like her male counterpart, Theo has a cat of dubious personality. The cat becomes even more a difficult creature to handle when its accidentally cursed. The cursed cat brings to the book a nice mixture of humor and suspense.

I've only scrapped the surface of this book. Although Theo tends to ramble at times, I loved the book and I plan to read the other books in the series.

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A Gift of Magic: 07/23/10

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I can't remember why I put A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan on my wishlist but I did. I've started to try to read through that list by locating the books at my local libraries.

A Gift of Magic differs from Duncan's typical young adult thrillers. This one has magical realism instead of a mystery. A mother recently divorced moves her three children into the home she's inherited from her mother. Along with the home the children begin to develop heightened skills: one gets music, one gets dance and the third gets ESP.

Mostly this book is about the children coming to terms with their new lives. They had been used to traveling all over the world and now they are grounded in a small town, in a home they have no emotional attachment to. For the most part the book is slow and different from other Duncan books I've read.

But there's an underlying twist that's foreshadowed throughout. A few details struck me as odd and I have to admit that I kept reading to see if those details would work themselves out. They do in the epilogue. For that tight ending I'm giving the book a perfect rating. If I did partial ratings, I would drop it down by half a star for the some awkward pacing earlier on in the novel.

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Building Manhattan: 07/22/10

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Sometimes a book will call to me from a shelf at a book store or more likely a library and I will ignore it. It will keep calling me each time I return. Building Manhattan by Laura Vila, is one of these books. I didn't check it out until my son asked me to. It's bright color had been calling to both of us, apparently.

Building Manhattan uses beautiful and bold paintings to illustrate the history of Manhattan island from the first human settlers through modern times. The emphasis is on how mankind has changed the island over time. It's focused and simplified but a good starting point for a number of different discussions.

Sean and I took the book and went on to talk about who lived on Manhattan, where the island is located, the history of the island (including the destruction of the World Trade Center towers), Percy Jackson (specifically, The Last Olympian) and finally the fact that Sean has family from nearby Long Island.

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ABC I Like Me: 07/21/10

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ABC I Like Me! by Nancy Carlson is the follow up to I Like Me! Harriet and I haven't read the original book so I can't comment on how well ABC I Like Me! complements the original.

ABC I Like Me! is an alphabetical list of positive messages. Harriet liked listing off the letters of the alphabet but was disinterested in the rest of the book. She has a pretty strong self esteem so the messages aren't so much self affirming as obvious.

For young kids who do need a boost, ABC I Like Me! is charming and not overly saccharine. For fans of Nancy Carlson's books, it can be skipped for books with more plot.

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

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The Channel: Stories From L.A.: 07/20/10

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Some cities evoke the tropes of certain genres. Old Los Angeles, in the days of the pueblo is action adventure (thanks mostly to Zorro) and twentieth century Los Angeles brings to mind hard boiled detective novels. Since the mid 1990s Los Angeles has been recast as a site of paranormal activity. There are a few earlier exceptions: some episodes of The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories were set in Los Angeles, but it was really with Angel, Constantine and similar films and shows that the city became a paranormal haven.

The Channel by Susan Alcott Jardine is a ten story collection that combines the hardboiled style of writing with the paranormal themes, some reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and some more modern. The stories take place in different decades eras from recent history to a possible near future.

As a lover of short stories especially those in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, I found the book a quick and enjoyable read. I would like to read more stories by Susan Alcott Jardine.

In closing, the stories remind me very favorably of two Connie Willis novellas with a Los Angeles connection: D.A. and An Inside Job (review coming).

I received the book for review from the author.

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The Frog Prince Continued: 07/19/10

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While waiting in the library for my children to find books I spotted a copy of The Frog Prince, Continued by Jon Scieszka sitting on the table. I decided to read the picture book while I waited.

The book as the title implies, is a sequel to the Frog Prince story. The Frog Prince story seems to be coming back in popularity, although by publish date, Scieszka's book is about a decade ahead of the curve.

Here the frog is a human prince, married to a human princess. She nags. They aren't living in the opulence promised at the end of the tale. Their relationship is depicted as being like Ralph and Alice Kramden. The prince wants out of the marriage and wants to be a frog again. He goes out into the forest to find a magical creature who can turn him back. He needs Bombina from For Biddle's Sake by Gail Levine (review coming).

Although the ending is happy I didn't like the book. There was too much emphasis put on the fantasy cameos and not enough thought to the big picture. The gags feel disjointed and the main character is so unlikable that I couldn't get into the story.

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The Archivist: 07/18/10

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There seems to be a trend towards complex debut novels with multiple timelines, parallel structures and themes evolving across points in history. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. For me and the reviewer at Curious Bedfellows, The Archivist doesn't work.

Matthias Lane works at the Princeton archive that houses the T.S. Eliot papers. The letters of Emily Hale are sealed until 2020. A young poet, Roberta, who happens to remind Lane of his own wife (deceased) and of Emily Hale, asks to see the papers. He decides to show them to her (secretly of course) and that's how the novel begins to unfold.

I'm sure there are archivists who abuse their power to get in someone's pants but I so hated Matthias and his disdain his job that the rest of the novel just couldn't win me over. Then there was the over all "convenience" of the parallel time lines as the Curious Bedfellows review points out that just brought to the forefront the artifice of the novel to further sabotage my reading experience.

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Stage Fright on a Summer Night (Magic Tree House #25): 07/17/10

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Stage Fright on a Summer Night by Mary Pope Osborne is my son's favorite Magic Tree House. The time travel story that takes Jack and Annie back to meet William Shakespeare captured his imagination and ended up being the topic of conversation at every meal for about a week.

I don't share my son's enthusiasm for this book but since the goal was for him to read and he did so with enthusiasm, my rating at the end reflects his feelings for the book. My problem with the book is the choice for another celebrity visit.

How William Shakespeare managed to actually write anything is beyond me given how many time travelers he seems to have visiting him. Besides this book I can also think of King of Shadows by Susan Cooper and the Doctor Who episode, "The Shakespeare Code."

For my son though, it was his first introduction to Shakespeare. When he's a little older I'll read to him King of Shadows which is an excellent time travel to work with Shakespeare young adult novel.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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Mrs. Dalloway: 07/16/10

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I came to reading Mrs. Dalloway in a back to front fashion. First I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham and saw the film. Then I went back and read the source material for the Women Unbound Challenge.

What I hadn't expected was just how much The Hours for all it's time travel and artistic license mimics and parallels the original novel. If Mrs. Dalloway were an orange, The Hours would be fruit opened up and taken apart.

Clarissa Dalloway is planning a party. The plans bring to light the lives and troubles of the people in her life: an ex lover, her daughter, a teacher and a war vet who is suffering from shell shock. Coming to the book via an adaptation, I could see the themes unfolding before I would have otherwise.

I think that the experience of having read and loved The Hours and having seen the film helped my understanding and appreciation of Virginia Woolf's novel. By itself I might have found it a ponderous and oddly paced novel.

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The Staircase: 07/15/10

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If you've been to Santa Fe, New Mexico, you've probably either seen or at least heard of the spiral staircase at the Loreto Chapel. I took to staircase tour about 20 years ago so when I saw that Ann Rinaldi had written The Staircase,  a novel about the creation of the staircase I had to borrow it from my library.

Lizzy Enders is left at an all girls school in Santa Fe, run by the nuns who also run the chapel. Her father is heading towards Colorado and promises he'll be back for her but she doesn't believe him. To make her life more bearable at the school she befriends a grieving woman who goes the cemetery out of town every day. Later she befriends a stranger, a mysterious carpenter named Jose who might have the solution the nuns need to finish the staircase.

If the point of the book is the building of staircase and the miracle behind it that so many people believe in, why have the story told by an outsider? Lizzy doesn't care about the staircase, the chapel or anything else at the school or convent. She misses her recently dead mother and her father who has gone onto to Colorado.

My biggest problem with the book is Lizzy and her story. It competes too much with the story of the nuns and their chapel. The on-going tug of war between the two biggest plot points creates a sense of poor pacing for the book as a whole.

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Bone: Eyes of the Storm: 07/14/10

Eyes of the Storm plays out the consequences of Phonicble and Smiley's scheme to rig the cow race. They are up to their eyeballs in debt to Lucas and must work at the tavern to pay it off. Turns out they're very good at running a tavern (after some initial hiccups). Meanwhile, Thorn and Fone start having scary nightmares and Grandma Ben starts making plans to protect the village.

Most of the book though takes place during a fierce rain storm. The Rat Creatures are back with a vengeance and in Doctor Who fashion there's a lot of running.

From this point on the series goes into high gear. More and more of Rose and Thorn's background will be revealed. By Eyes of the Storm I was hooked. I am currently trying to finish the series but books five and nine are hard to come by at my local library.

The Bone series includes

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The Clue of the Broken Locket: 07/13/10

My library mostly has copies of the re-written versions of the Nancy Drew series from the 1950s and 1960s. So when I saw a reprint of the original text (obvious from the reproduced cover art) I had to grab it to see what an unaltered Nancy Drew is like. The one I read was The Clue of the Broken Heart which is the 11th in the series.

The story begins in media res. Nancy's father is working on the adoption of twin babies by a celebrity couple. Just after the deed is done a note surfaces begging the adoption process to be stopped. Nancy decides to investigate into the twins' background. Her only clues are a leaky boat, a broken locket and a newspaper.

The Clue of the Broken Locket falls into the category of "parents these days." Clearly the author (which ever one was taking the pen as Carolyn Keene for this volume) was anti adoption and anti wealth. The adoptive parents are horrible from the very get-go.

Ignoring the horrendous parents, there is a well crafted mystery. Those initial clues combined with some leg work by Nancy and her friend turn up a series of leads that come back together for a happy ending.

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Star-Crossed: 07/12/10

"Star-Crossed" is Tim Sullivan's sequel to "Planetesimal Dawn" (FSF, 2008). Although I liked both stories, something is missing from them for me to quickly make the connection.

Wolverton and Nozaki need to escape from a dangerous situation. Their only option is to hope through more time bubbles or vortexes. They visit many alien civilizations, affect time and find true happiness along the way.

Like "Planetesimal Dawn" I had to re-read the story before I was sure what was going on. The story continues with the Doctor Who feeling. Of the two stories, I prefer the first one.

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Bone: The Great Cow Race: 07/11/10

The Great Cow Race by Jeff Smith turns its focus from the Bone cousins showing up in the valley to Grandma Rose's strength and long history of winning the Great Cow Race. Two of the Bone cousins decide to rig the race to reap a profit.

The light-hearted tone though is a ruse to introduce plot developments that will come to a head a couple books down the line. Pay attention to the goofy rat creatures.

Mostly though, this volume is a character builder, specifically for Grandma Rose. I already liked her from the first book (Out From Boneville). Although she's played as a comedic character here, her potential as a serious and strong leader begins to come into focus.

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The Little Band: 07/11/10

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Harriet seems to be developing my approach to reading: picking things at random. When we're at the library she will typically stand in front of a shelf and pick three books. If she likes the covers she'll hand them to me. If she doesn't, she'll put back the ones she doesn't like the look of and try again.

One Harriet's most recent random choices was The Little Band by James Sage. The book is colorfully illustrated and follows a band of childlike musicians as they march through the countryside playing their music. No one offers and explanation for their parade, where they came from or where they are going. Instead the story is about their affect on the people they pass by.

Harriet especially liked the illustrations. We stopped on each page to discuss who was there (what people, which animals and so forth). She also liked the costumes the children were wearing. We read the book right after her graduation performance where she and her classmates had to sing and wear costumes.

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Jenny's Birthday Book: 07/10/10

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The first Esther Averill book I read was The Hotel Cat. What I didn't realize at the time is that most of the other books are significantly shorter, being picture books instead of a middle grade novel. Working on the assumption that the other books were just as long I didn't think to look anywhere else in the children's library. It took my daughter looking for any picture book featuring a cat to find the others. The book she picked was Jenny's Birthday Book.

Jenny's an adorable black cat who likes to wear a red scarf. Jenny's Birthday Book explains how she gets it. She's invited out to celebrate her birthday with Checkers and Edward. They take her to a party in the park with all the other cats.

Harriet and I love Averill's bold use of color and her cute loosely drawn cats. Harriet spent a lot of time looking at all the different cats and describing them to me. She especially likes Jenny's "beautiful scarf."

Averill's Cat Club books are thankfully back in print. I recommend them to anyone who is a cat lover or a parent of a cat lover.

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Within a Budding Grove: 07/10/10

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I started reading the In Search of Lost Time series (for lack of a better word) last year. For Swann's Way I did a weekly post covering thirty pages of the book. I started to do the same with thing Within a Budding Grove but in April I misplaced the book. By the time I found the book again I had fallen out of the habit of writing these posts. Plus, they weren't exactly popular, so I just decided to keep reading my thirty pages a week and finish the book.

In Within a Budding Grove the unnamed protagonist has grown up. After his romance with Swann's daughter has gone sour he flees Paris to find solace with his beloved grandmother. His time with his grandmother comes together as a mixture of comparisons with his childhood memories and his adventures as a young adult.

Of the two books, I feel like I connected better with Swann's Way. Now part of that might be the fact that I misplaced the book for so long. Part of it too is that I was reading the first book with greater care.

That said, there are excellent scenes involving the protagonist's attempts at finding a girl friend, over indulging at the local hotel restaurant and other juvenile pursuits.

I'm still debating whether I should continue with the remaining books. What do you think?

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The Maze Runner: 07/09/10

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Back in March of this year Megan at Posey Sessions asked me to read The Maze Runner and write a guest post for her blog on some aspect of the novel. For the guest post, I focused on the maze.

Many of the reviews I've read compare The Maze Runner to Lord of the Flies by William Golding but I disagree. Yes, both are about boys forced to live together in a remote location under extraordinary circumstances. But that's where the similarities end.

In Lord of the Flies, the students crash land on an island when their plane crashes. The teens in The Maze Runner are selected one by one and appear on a certain schedule. As they are specially selected and arrive with the memories wiped clean, they don't have the same pre existing history as Golding's schoolboys do.

Frankly, the teens in Dashner's world are more civilized. The main theme of the book isn't the degradation of friendships and social norms when people are removed from society. The Maze Runner is the opposite; it's the building of society from unlikely choices (rowdy teenage boys).

What gets in the way of the discussion of building society is the very thing that's there to make the story interesting – the maze. To present his unusual and artificial  world to us, Dashner starts the story with a newly arrived boy, Thomas, who then has to learn everything and as he learns, we learn. Sorry, but this technique of story telling gets old really fast and it's by far the weakest part of The Maze Runner. I would have much preferred to have had the story told from one of the other boys who had a longer history of living in the maze.

That being said, the second thirds of the book are much better as Thomas comes into his own as a character. After the info dumping on the world stops, Thomas and the others get to work on understanding the maze and mapping it. This part is fascinating and it's shoved in after all that unnecessary explanation.

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I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said: 07/08/10

When I read "I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said" by Richard Bowes I knew nothing about the author. The story though was one of my favorites from the December issue.

From reading the review posted on If You Like That Sort of Thing, I've learned that story is a semi-autobiographical account of his time in a hospital during a life-threatening disease. That personal connection explains why the main character's experience in the hospital rings true.

Hospitals are strange places. It's a place where people are being born and where other people are dying. And a whole bunch of other people are there to recover from goodness knows what. Add into the mix the medications given, the sleeplessness from the night staff checking in on patients routinely and the hospital takes on an otherworldly aura. Now add into the mix a speculative fiction author who is at death's door.

I don't want to spoil anything, nor will I do the story justice by rambling on about it. Instead, find a copy of the story and read it. Then read the If You Like That Sort of Thing post.

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Ottoline and the Yellow Cat: 07/07/10

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Ottoline of Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell is another of the child protagonists who have world traveling parents and are stuck at home basically alone except for a loyal crew of servants. Although the book starts with a trope that often annoys me, Ottoline is different. She's happy and she's clearly loved and in contact with her parents via postcards sent on behalf of their explorer's club. Ottoline also has a pal, an odd creature who looks like Cousin It, named Mr. Munroe. To her neighbors, Mr. Munroe is usually confused for being a pet dog.

This book isn't so much about Ottoline living alone. Instead, it's a mystery. The local wealthy adults are being robbed and the police are without any tangible leads. The only clue is the fact that their recently adopted dogs have also gone missing.

By itself, the mystery probably wouldn't be enough to sustain my interest in the book. What kept me turning the pages were Chris Riddell's lovely illustrations. As the pictures out number the text and are such an integral part of the plot I think the book qualifies as a hybrid graphic novel. It certainly has more in the way of artwork than other hybrids I've read (Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom for instance).

Riddell's illustrations have a complexity similar to Elenor Davis's The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook with a style that is reminiscent of Edward Gorey and Ian Falconer.

I checked out Ottoline and the Yellow Cat from my local library but I would love to own a copy.

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The Blue Food Revolution: 07/06/10

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Rather than write up a review of The Blue Food Revolution by Tim Roux, I'm featuring instead an interview that I did with the author shortly after I finished reading the book. It's an unusually presented book, as two novellas, printed back to back that can be read together or separately. The novellas though share characters and plot points.

Questions for The Blue Food Revolution

Q: The book is designed for reading in alternating chapters, whether it's one chapter per story or a few at a go. Did you alternate when writing them?

A:"The Blue Food Revolution' is one of two books that have come to me without my having the least intention of writing them.

The first was "The Dance of the Pheasodile' – probably my most popular book, about a London commercial architect who goes for a hypnotherapy session and comes out finding that his soul has entered the body of a seedy Northern English petty gangster whom everybody hates (think New York and Pittsburgh) – whose first chapter turned up in a dream which I copied down word-for-word. In "The Dance of the Pheasodile', I hadn't a clue what the story was about but I was highly intrigued by the opening scene of a man suspended from a helicopter naked outside his wife's 18th floor office, so I had to keep writing to find out the plot, and the denouement, of course. That book literally (literally literally) wrote itself. I made my first plot decision 40,000 words in (halfway through), I only made three plot decisions in the entire book, and it was published virtually unedited except that I had to knock out about 1,000 "h's as some of the dialogue is in Northern English dialect.

With "The Blue Food Revolution', the process was very similar. The first story – the "his' Magogia tale – actually came from a conversation with the British singer-songwriter Joe Solo whose songs about the First World War – "Potter's Field' – I was reviewing (as I explained in the dedication). The conversation was about how difficult it is to treat WWI in fiction and drama because everybody knows everything about it. As you will probably have realized, this Magogia story has many references (to the proposed banning of the birka in Europe – thus the nakedness, to the Swiss army being the largest army per capita of population in the world and it hasn't fought a national war since the 13th century, to the creep of the corporate ethos into military life etc.), but the central one is replaying WW1 as farce, as anti-war, similarly to "Oh What A Lovely War'. Having got Magogia out of the way, the dam burst. I think I wrote the "his' version of the "Reuters' story next, followed by the "his' opening chapter, which was based on the remnants of a book I abandoned 30 years ago. I cannot remember what happened after that, but I think I wrote the "his' version of "her' home town with motorist-lunch falling from the sky, at which point I evened up with a series of "her' stories, starting with "her' version of her home town, her visit to the island where the murders take place (based on a little island off Ibiza in the Mediterranean called Formentera), "her' London story and "her' Magogia story. After that, I think they were mostly written at random but I was aware I wanted to match at least half of them – to match them all would have been overly formulaic; I was stretching readers' credulity enough as it was.

As background, in general I write as an avid reader (I read probably 50-60 books a year, including editing work nowadays). I start with a problem to be solved and then write to solve it, so that I am discovering the story in parallel with the reader. I never decide the ending until I get to it. I wanted to give "Girl On A Bar Stool' a happy ending, and fully intended to do so as I sat down to write the last chapter, then suddenly Adam's son was lying there in the middle of the road killed by Adam.

Q: From the book description, the "Blue Food" novella is described as: "a metaphor for the pursuit of happiness." In the first chapter though Gabriel uses words like "enlightenment" and "rite of passage" to describe the reason behind his sudden journey. How do these three concepts come together in "Blue Food"?

A:The book overall is my surrealistic take on the world, written in homage to two of my favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges (especially "The Book of Sand') and Italo Calvino (especially "Invisible Cities'). It is mostly looking at that moment in history where duty gave up at least some ground to the right to self-actualize, to "follow your bliss' as all the self-help pundits put it nowadays. In Britain at least, but wider than that, 1945 was a watershed. Everybody expected Churchill to be re-elected Prime Minister, but instead Clem Atlee got voted in on a "people's charter' – the national health service, social security etc.. The old class system of duty above all began to fall apart. You were allowed to explore and, to some limited degree, indulge yourself – all the more so as the "60s took over, introducing both the Hippy Revolution and the Consumer Revolution.

BFR is about a couple doing just that. The one ("her') seeks liberation from a claustrophobic social system, the other ("his') has liberation thrust upon him. Freedom has its wonders but it also has its horrors and terrors. Travel may open the mind, and certainly provides many enjoyable experiences, but it is also sometimes lonely and may ultimately prove to be mere wandering the globe purposelessly in search of an unarticulated something. So, the two of them are separately going through a rite of passage towards maturity, learning many lessons and hoping, as we all do, to find happiness at the end of the rainbow.

I tried to make the "his' stories more grandiose and the "her' stories more down to earth, but without stressing this point too much.

Q:John Parfitt seems to jump through time and space where as Marion seems to travel by more conventional methods. How does their method of travel define or reflect their characters?

A:The thought behind that, which may or may not be a good or correct one, is that men tend to pontificate about world affairs and jump around between one "hot spot' topic and the next, whereas women tend to be more socially aware and inclined to seek the continuation of relationships. So, there is no continuation of relationships in the "his' stories at all, as I remember. He leaps from place to place without looking back until he meets her. In the "her' stories, she has several continuing relationships – with her friends in Magogia, taking the restaurant owner into the land of euthanasia (Switzerland again - Dignitas), and staying in touch with her family and her sister, even though she hates her sister much of the time.

Q: Marion's first chapter shows how her village found a unique way revolt against Hitler. How does the theme of revolution continue through the remainder of her novella?

A:The term "revolution' is used both as a pun and as a reality of the world in the novel. It is what the book is designed to explore.

The pun is that the book is literally revolutionary because you have to flip it around.

The revolution in the content is primarily the social revolution I have described – the move in Western Europe from "we' to "me', at least to some extent.

However, as it happens, there are several revolutions in the book: the first against Hitler in Austria, the overthrowing of the Queen in Magogia by her son to end her anti-violence cultural revolution, the revolutionary poets in Saastopia (based on Osama bin Laden who is a member of the Saudi Royal Family which owns most of Saudi Arabia – SAAS stands for Saudi Arabia al Saud) etc..

There is also a scientific revolution described in two chapters – Quantum Mechanics (the "his' story where he is executed in two places at once – or is he? – and the "her' story where she is married to a professor of Quantum Mechanics who is buried so deep in his sub-atomic world among the quarks and the scintilla that he doesn't notice her at all except when he needs her for physical and logistical reasons).

There is also a sort of cultural revolution in one of the last stories where the king destroys the civilized fabric of his country (based on Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, but it could have been Mao Zedong in China during The Great Leap Forward when he got everybody melting down their woks in the name of national economic regeneration with the result that millions upon millions starved). This story also references an ancient North American Indian tribe who worked off a system of inverted capitalism. Each year they would have a big ceremony in which they would burn their blankets – whoever burnt the most blankets was declared the most important person in the village.

Come to think of it, there is another one – the branding revolution – "Reuters' and "her' story about becoming the Marketing Manager for the Bata ice-cream company. How lost we would be if the labels were switched around. Some of those branding references will probably be lost on a non-UK audience. For instance, in "Reuters' there is a perfume called "Carl Findus' – Findus is a brand of frozen fish meals in the UK - games, games, games.

Q: From your dedication you mention music inspiring the scenes in Magogia. Did music inspire any of the other countries?

A:Not particularly for BFR as far as I recall, but definitely for the immediate follow-up, a book called "(Just like) El Cid's Bloomers', which is a romantic comedy about a singer-songwriter built around 19 actual Joe Solo songs. In the e-book version, the songs themselves are embedded, but in the paperback you only get the lyrics. I claim that this is the world's first musical written specifically for an e-book format. I haven't a clue whether it is true or not, but I couldn't find any others. When Anthony Burgess said that he fashioned his novels after symphonic notation, I thought he was being hopelessly pretentious, then I found myself writing my first book, "Blood and Marriage', to the rambling rhythm of a rock song – "Michael Picasso' by Ian Hunter.

Q: What's the one thing you want readers to come away from your book?

A:Laughing, perhaps moved in places, but above all perhaps recognizing that the actual world is even weirder in reality than I have described it in BFR. Almost every piece of action in BFR is referenced to a specific event or specific country.

The teazer you quoted about Albania (Shqipëria) came from a conversation with a friendly woman in a bookshop in Belgium who is Albanian and who told me about Albanian customs. The idea of covering a country in toxic sludge may seem at first absurd, but large parts of several countries are covered in toxic waste, many tracts of land are littered with hidden landmines, the use of Agent Orange and Napalm didn't do too many of the locals any favors, the Bikini Atoll was uninhabitable after the dropping of the first hydrogen bomb etc., and some Pacific Islands (Naura / Banaba) were cleared of people in order to mine phosphates to the point where there is no island left (the basis for the story about the people walking around a blasted choking valley in formal Edwardian dress).

We are brought up to believe that the world is causal and controllable and only what we can objectively sense. There is no question that that teaching is plain wrong (Quantum Physics proves that). One of my favorite quotes is from a guy called Hugh Prather who said something like "Oh what a fool I have been to spend so much time trying to figure out how the world really is, when all the time it wasn't".

I mentioned the company Bata, in reality a shoe company originally based in Czechoslovakia in an HQ with two floors. The management couldn't decide which floor they should be stationed on, so they created an office in a specially-built elevator so that they could be on one floor some days of the week, and on the other floor the rest of the time.

I can tell you the actual reader reaction I have had to BFR. It is totally polarized. Some people absolutely love it; others absolutely loathe it. A good friend who is a New York writer said that if anybody told me they liked it, they must be obsequious, self-seeking fools. Then, the next day, as I prepared to shoot myself, someone popped up and said "That was absolutely fantastic". So, for me, it is a perfect book – provocative of thought with a few laughs for some people along the way.

Thanks so much for asking, Sarah.

Tim Roux.

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The Blight Family Singers: 07/06/10

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Ever see the film A Mighty Wind? That's what "The Blight Family Singers" by Kit Reed reminded me of, with a science fiction / horror wrapper.

The story is narrated in first person by a bunch of different key players. Each one has something to complain about (the venue, the other acts, the pay, and so forth). Their collective flippancy brings to mind characters from the Georgia Nicholson series.

I can't say that "The Blight Family Singers" was my favorite story in the December issue but it had some humorous moments. I especially like the ending. It has an off the wall simplicity that just makes me smile.

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Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School: 07/05/10

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I discovered Nathan Hale via his wonderful work illustrating Shannon and Dean Hale's Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. He has his own series of children's picture books staring Yellowbelly and Plum. The one I picked at random to read first was Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School.

Yellowbelly looks like a yellow furry friendly monster. Plum looks like a purple teddy bear. Now at first glance, the book is about a young monster who goes to school for the first time and like many children, takes along his favorite toy. The older, more experienced kids, tease the new student and take away the toy to roughhouse with it. If this were a typical book, Yellowbelly would learn not to take his favorite toy to school and the other children would learn not to tease the new kid.

This isn't one of those books. First and foremost, Yellowbelly lives in a world where monsters (for lack of a better word) and humans live side by side. If monsters are possible, it's equally as possible that Plum might be more than what he appears to be. The other students pick up on this and soon both new students are welcome members of the school.

As I mentioned I came to the story already in love with Hale's artwork, sense of humor and blog. For my son though, this was his introduction to Hale's work. He loved the book because the monsters and children were living together in the same world. The monsters were monsters and the children were children. It was, as far as he was concerned, perfect.

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Oscar and the Cricket: 07/04/10

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Oscar the cat is the lead character in a series of educational picture books by Geoff Waring. Each one teaches a new concept through an illustrated Socratic method. Oscar and the Cricket teaches the basic physics of movement.

I personally love the art style and the gentle approach to teaching basic science concepts. I thought since the book features an adorable cat that my daughter would like the book. She unfortunately saw right through the cute pictures to the lesson at hand. She was not impressed. She is going through an escapist literature run right now and nonfiction isn't on her radar.

If you though have children who constantly ask questions about their world but maybe aren't ready for the longer nonfiction books in the children's library, I recommend the Oscar books.

The Oscar books include:

  • Oscar and the Bat: A Book About Sound (2006)
  • Oscar and the Bird: A Book About Electricity (2009)
  • Oscar and the Cricket: A Book About Moving and Rolling (2006)
  • Oscar and the Frog: A Book About Growing (2007)
  • Oscar and the Moth: A Book About Light and Dark (2007)
  • Oscar and the Snail: A Book About Things That We Use (2009)

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Take Me Out to the Ballgame: 07/03/10

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Rewrites of previously published books make my hair stand on end. Had that pitch mentioned that Take Me Out to the Ballgame by Gary Morgenstein was the author's self published rewrite of a book previous published by St. Martin's Press in 1980, I would have passed on the book. Rewrites like this create messy situations that are difficult to review: how much of my reaction is the effect of conflicting writing styles or genuine faults with the original text?

Take Me Out to the Ballgame is about a farm league team, the Buffalo Matadors who are constantly down on their luck, so much so that their fans call them the "Door Mats." Flamboyant Harry Witowsky buys he team and vows to make changes. Things look good for the Mats but their new fortune might be tainted by corporate greed.

I like baseball. I'm not a rabid fan but I like the game and I like reading about it whether it's fiction or nonfiction. I really expected to like Take Me Out to the Ballgame but the writing was sloppy and the jokes felt dated against the modern-day backdrop of bank bailouts and the recession. The book suffers from the same odd ball pacing and dialogue issues that the 1950s and 1960s reissues of the Nancy Drew books.

I gave up on the book at about page seventy-five. That being said, I do want to track down a copy of the St. Martin's Press version from 1980 to see what the original is like. I have a feeling I will like it better.

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Earthquake in the Early Morning (Magic Tree House #24): 07/03/10

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I'm a second generation Californian. My roots here only go back as far as the end of WWII but it's enough to have a solid respect for earthquakes in my blood. Having lived in the Bay Area now for more than a decade, Mary Pope Osborne's book Earthquake in the Early Morning instantly brings to mind just what it should: the San Francisco earthquake that struck just before dawn on April 18, 1906.

Although there are only a handful of survivors left (and all of them were infants), the earthquake is still commemorated with a ringing of a bell at the time the earthquake struck. The anniversary also always brings reminders of the big ones still to come and dire warnings of what will most likely happen when the Hayward fault finally ruptures. I'm two and half miles away from the fault and can see the way it slowly but surely warps the streets and sidewalks of downtown Hayward.

In Earthquake in the Early Morning Jack and Annie go back in time to experience the earthquake and the aftermath. They try to help survivors and have some limited success. Their time in the City is spent experiencing the fires, the rubble and the tent cities.

The best parts of the book though are the illustrations. Usually I just pass over them but this time they struck me as familiar. Sean and I researched the illustrations together and found some of the photographs from the aftermath of the quake that must have inspired the scenes depicted and illustrated.

Out of the books in the series I've read Earthquake in the Early Morning is among my favorites.

Other Magic Tree House books reviewed here:

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The Light Fantastic: 07/02/10

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I can remember standing in the duty free shop before the start of the Alaskan cruise. There was a spinning rack of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks. I had the money for one book. It came down to two: The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. As I was in a hurry I didn't even notice that they were books one and two in the then new Discworld series. I chose The Colour of Magic because I liked the title best.

I promptly forgot about The Light Fantastic until nearly twenty years had passed. In fact, I forgot about Terry Pratchett except for remembering that I had loved The Colour of Magic until my husband discovered my old copy. He is a more avid reader of series than I am and promptly went on a Discworld binge. In 2002 while on a business trip to Vancouver he picked up a bunch of the early Discworld books, including The Light Fantastic. He brought them home, read them and put them on our bookshelves before I even noticed that we had them.

In the meantime, I'd taken to reading the more recent Discworld books. When I was doing a shelf purge for the Friends of the Library I found our copy of The Light Fantastic and realized I had never read it, even though I knew the basic plot both from my husband describing the book to me and from watching the The Colour of Magic miniseries which combines the first two books. I read the book during down times at my Census enumerator training back in April.

Anyway, the book starts off where Colour of Magic ends. Rincewind, Twoflower and his luggage have fallen off the disc. They are saved by a very powerful spell with a mind of its own. Meanwhile, the entire world seems to be swimming towards certain doom in the form of a bright red star. If the wizards of Unseen University can stop fighting amongst themselves they might be able to put things to right.

When I talk to other Pratchett fans about The Light Fantastic the general consensus seems to be that the second book is better than the first. Here I have to buck with popular opinion and choose The Colour of Magic. There's something so delicious absurd about a tourist who acts like someone from any generic metropolis here on Earth going on vacation in a city built up of fantasy tropes such as Ankh-Moorpork. I think part of the magic for me is that I was playing tourist while reading the book.

With The Light Fantastic Pratchett expands his focus from Ankh-Moorpork to the disc as a whole, including the great Atun and the four elephants, to explain how the world works and all the other fantastic creatures and magical places. It's fun and all but it seems like too much jumping around from location to location for such a short book.

That being said, my favorite version of The Light Fantastic has to be The Colour of Magic miniseries. It's worth seeing if you haven't had the chance.

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A Pale View of Hills: 07/02/10

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It seems that every review I've read of A Pale View of Hills has a story behind how the reviewer came to read the book. My story begins at work sometime between 2004 and 2006 when I was working onsite in San Carlos. While I worked I listed to the stream of Radio 4. They presented A Pale View of Hills and their reading of it enthralled me.

The novel is framed with a present day visit between Etsuko and her youngest daughter, Niki after the suicide of her oldest daughter. Her suicide prompts Etsuko to remember her life in Japan, recently widowed and pregnant. She befriends a mother who is emotionally distant from her daughter and wants to emigrate to the United States.

The detached way in which Etsuko remembers her past and the dispassionate way the people act in her memories implies that her memory is either faulty, having creating things from scratch or that the mother and daughter are reflections of her own unhappy time before leaving for England.

It's been four to six years since I listened to the book. I started the book with expectations of hair standing on end but I ended up having to read it while being rushed with work and other deadlines. My first experience with A Pale View of Hills was far superior than my most recent.

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The Dreamer: The Consequence of Nathan Hale: 07/01/10

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The first volume of The Dreamer by Lora Innes describes was short listed for the 2009-10 Cybils in the graphic novel category. Perhaps it's my stats as a judge for that category that has contributed to my prolonged procrastination in writing this review. By making it to the short list, it's clearly one of the best of the graphic novels from last year. Nonetheless, it was one of my least favorite books to read for the cateogry.

Every Day is Like Wednesday's review  has the perfect one-liner description of the comic: "All American Shojo." That description sums up what the comic seems to be trying to accomplish and my reasons for not liking the volume I read.

There seems to be a trend in the United States of giving all the main characters in comics perky, gorgeous teenage bodies, no matter what their age. For The Dreamer that means all the girls have pouty lips and all the men look roguish (or like clones of a single rogue). I suppose for the target audience it's all eye candy to keep the attention while the plot progresses. To me though it seemed over done and distracting from an otherwise potentially interesting plot.

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Go Away Big Green Monster: 07/01/10

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Both For me, Ed Emberley's name conjures up happy memories of learning how to draw at my grandmother's kitchen table. For my son, the name brings up visions of colorful monsters. Recently he told me that his favorite Ed Emberley book is Go Away, Big Green Monster!

The book takes Emberley's geometric approach to drawing to build a story of a monster being scared away. Piece by piece (with the shapes cut out from the paper and the color building from the pages beneath) the monster appears and then disappears.

I think part of the allure for him is the same as the older books were for me; it's the piece by piece lessons on how to draw a monster. For me, there's not enough there to be a full book but my son loves it.

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