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February 2013

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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Canadian Book Challenge: 2023-2024

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Shutter Island: 02/28/13

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Among book bloggers there seems to be two schools of thought on books to movies: read the book first or see the movie first. I fall into a third school — the "oh hey, this movie came from a book, who knew?" Which is pretty sad, considering I'm both a book blogger and a librarian, and a former film student. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane is is one of my most recent "discoveries" after watching the film twice in short succession.

If you're wondering what the book is about — it's basically the movie, save for a few minor tweaks to better show rather than tell. If you haven't seen the movie — it's about an escaped convict running loose on a high security island and the two U.S. Marshals who are there to track her down in the middle of a raging hurricane.

As with any story involving a creepy, old, mental institution — whether occupied or not — there's bound to be mysterious happenings afoot. Cinematically, this goes all the way back to The Cabinet of Caligari. In either form — book or film — Shutter Island is firmly rooted in that tradition.

Although there is a twist (and there's always a twist), to the observant and genre savvy, there are clues sewn throughout the novel. As I listened to the book in audio, some of those clues weren't as obvious as they would have been in print form.

Five stars

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Strangers on a Train: 02/27/13

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Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith is another of those books I discovered because of its film adaptation. In this case, it's one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, taking turns with Psycho and Rear Window for the honor of being THE FAVORITE of the moment. The novel, though, also has the honor of being Highsmith's debut and damn, what fine debut it is.

Two men — Bruno and Guy — meet on a train bound for Texas and New Mexico. Bruno is a youngish playboy who wants nothing more than to get rid of his father so he can have more access to his mother's money. Guy is an architect (not a tennis player as he is in the film) wants a divorce so he can remarry. Bruno sets things in motion by taking care of Guy's problem.

Here, then is the big point of departure of the book and the film. Hitchcock makes Guy, his girlfriend and her family the indisputable heros. Guy is a victim of a deranged killer.

Not so for Highsmith's Guy. Although Miriam's death still comes at Bruno's hand, Guy's reaction is cold and calculating. Though reluctant to participate in Bruno's experiment, he's not against it on moral grounds — more out of a combination of laziness and a fear of getting caught. While he's not as unhinged as Bruno, he's not innocent — he's cold and calculating and perhaps the scarier of the two.

Four stars

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Angelology: 02/26/13

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Angelology by Danielle Trussoni is set in the last weeks of the Twentieth century and in the years up to and during World War Two. A war between the angels and the nephilim and humanity will be screwed in the process. In the tradition of the religious horror of the 1960s and 1970s, the heros here are religious scholars (angelologists) and nuns. In it's set up, it's most like The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz — except it's about three times as long.

A mysterious and uninvited visitor to a convent in upstate New York, leads Sr. Evangeline onto the discovery of a life time. But she might be too late to save the world. But of course she patiently listens to the elderly Sr. Celestine's long and rambling tales of her life and research in France on the eve of World War Two.

For the reviews that compare Angelology to the Da Vinci Code, I disagree. Although both share Catholic mysticism, they are very different in their narrative structures. Dan Brown's books are basically capers with the good guys either racing to the next clue before the bad guys, or running away from the bad guys. It's charming and silly and there's no real expectation to take any of it very seriously. Angelology is the exact opposite except that it's just as full of plot holes as Brown's books but it takes itself so deadly seriously that there's no fun to be had.

Rather than leaving the plot to a young nun with a closetful of skeletons, what the world needs is the brothers Winchester and their porn watching, booze swigging, on-again off-again angel, Castiel.

All the help the characters in Angelology need. (Sam and Dean Winchester and Castiel)
All the help the characters in Angelology need. (Sam and Dean Winchester and Castiel)

Two stars

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Polly and the Pirates, Volume 1: 02/25/13

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Polly and the Pirates, Volume 1 by Ted Naifeh is is the first in the series about Polly a girl at a boarding school who catches the interest of some local pirates. The only problem is, everyone else tells her there haven't been pirates in years!

Polly, though, has no interest in pirates. She is star pupil at school and believes her mother was a prim and proper lady of society. When she is kidnapped by pirates she's forced to reevaluate what she knows about her mother.

My favorite part of the book is the setting. The town at first looks like any sort of Caribbean town from a hundred or so years ago. But then as Polly explores more of the town, the unique aspect of the town is revealed. It's mostly (or maybe entirely) built upon ships!

For readers familiar with San Francisco, Naifeh includes some details of his home town. These details are like Easter eggs in an already fun adventure.

My one complaint is the artwork. The claw like hands of all the characters took some getting used to. For the sequel, though, there is a new artist.

Five stars

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Deadly Décisions: 02/24/13

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Deadly Décisions by Kathy Reichs is the third in the Temperance Brennan series. In this one the discovery of parts of a girl's skeleton during the investigation into an on-going biker gang war in Montreal opens up a cold case. Brennan is brought in to help identify the remains and is thrust into a turf war that might involve her nephew.

While the TV series spawned from the books has little in common with the source material, the two do share interesting (albeit sometimes obvious) observations on different subcultures and equally interesting scientific tidbits. I suspect the science is closer to reality (though by how much, I can't say) in the books. Certainly Brennan doesn't have access to super smart assistants and their home-brew magic science sleuthing devices. It is for these two details, though (the scientific investigation and the cultural observations) that I both read the books and watch the series.

In the books, including this one, Brennan, while more connected with friends and family, lacks the bravado and fighting skills of her younger TV counterpart. Instead, she seems to have an uncanny knack for getting both herself and her family into trouble with the very folks she's investigating. While these scenes are there for drama, they quickly become tiring.

Take for instance Brennan's nephew. He shows up conveniently enough just as she takes this biker gang case. He, of course, has taken an interest in hogs. He, of course, is naively suckered into a web of intrigue that puts himself and his aunt in danger. His interaction with the ballsy big bad du jour gives Brennan just the connection to crack the case wide open (of course).

All the way through, until the plot paint-by-numbers called for Brennan to connect her personal problems with the case, the nephew insisted he wasn't hooked up with dangerous bikers. It sure would have been refreshing if that had been the case. I realize that probably won't happen in any of the books I read. But I will keep hoping, nonetheless.

Three stars

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The Long Earth: 02/23/13

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The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is the first book in a new science fiction (speculative fiction) that explores (quite literally) the multiverse — one Earth at a time.

In 2015, the plans for a stepper are posted to the internet. It's basically a box, some wires, a switch (don't forget that!) and a potato (a Portal 2 reference?). As people (mostly teenagers) build the steppers and hit the switch (if they have one, most don't), they blip out of this Earth and go one step either East or West to another (but unpopulated) Earth.

In trying to save the other kids from the orphanage who stepped with shoddily built steppers, Joshua (who built his to spec because that's what he does), learns that he prefers the near silence of these other Earths and more importantly, he's a natural stepper (no box needed).

Like the disaster books of the 1970s, this novel has an ensemble cast, though the main ones are an orphan and natural stepper, Joshua, a former Tibetan motorcycle repairman (now computer consciousness) — Lobsang, a Madison police officer, and the daughter of the man who invented the stepper.

Roughly two-thirds of the novel cover Joshua and Lobsang's journey west. The other third is divided up between the mechanics of stepping, the ramifications back on the Datum (original Earth), and some other accounts of people stepping (presented as blog entries, for example).

Lobsang as one of those blank robots from Futurama. I'm not saying he's Lucy Liu. :)
How I pictured Lobsang's ambulatory unit.

Joshua, in his late twenties, is hired to go in search of the end the Long Earth. He will be traveling with Lobsang in a carefully built airship set up record anything unusual that is found along the way. It also serves as a back-up drive (one of many) for Lobsang (just in case). Should something happen (which means something invariably will), Joshua is in charge of brining Lobsang (meaning the airship's datacenter) home to the Datum.

I listened to the book on audio CDs (ten discs), performed by Michael Fenton-Stevens. My favorite character (due in large part to Fenton-Stevens's work), was Lobsang. If I ever have a self-driven car — I'm naming it Lobsang. Realistically, I should name computer part Lobsang, and the vehicle the Mark Twain — but you get the idea.

While I can clearly say I enjoyed the book. And while I can easily recommend the book, I do have some quibbles with it. The first is the authors' choice of Madison Wisconsin (and other parts of the United States) for their setting. The problem is that these American characters were so clearly being strained through a British filter twice (one in the text, and again in the audio performance). Most of the time it didn't matter but sometimes an American character would say something that no American would say ("disorientated" instead of "disoriented"). Or the narrator would mispronounce something and I'd be once again taken out of the moment ("fehma" instead of "f-ee-mah" for FEMA).

My second quibble is the big threat which comes down to what Joshua calls a "migraine monster." Frankly, with Terry Pratchett as one of the co-authors, I wasn't all that surprised that there was a huge ecosystem bearing creature lurking on the Long Earth. So while I was half expecting a giant terrapin / pachyderm combo, I got instead, something that brought to mind one of the water monsters from Pikmin 2 (though large enough to carry an elephant).

But it was still a fun read and I'm planning to revisit the Long Earth when The Long War is released later in 2013.

Toady Bloyster from Pikmin 2 + The Great A'Tune from the Discworld series = First Person Singular

Four stars

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Green: 02/22/13

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Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger was a 2013 Caldecott Honor book. Where One Boy teaches children some basics of counting as well as words within words, this one highlights many shades of green as well as the things in life that are (or in some cases, not) green.

Like One Boy, Green has die cut shapes that help unite the pages by allowing bits of color through. Here, the shapes are much smaller and more subtle — sometimes making just a few petals on a flower or among the camouflage of colors, some relevant text ("khaki" and "jungle").

The illustrations appear to have been painted this time, giving a very lush and eye pleasing exploration of the color green. As Sondra Eklund says, it's "exquisite craftsmanship" makes it "worth another look."

Five stars

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The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland - For a Little While: 02/21/13

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The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland - For a Little While by Catherynne M Valente is a short story prequel to the Fairyland books. It was originally published online at and later as part of This Year's Best Science Fiction (2012 edition), edited by Rich Horton.

In The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, September quests in the shadow of good Queen Mallow. She is expected by those she meets to usurp the Marquess and return Fairyland to its former glory. At every stop she makes she hears more and more of Queen Mallow. Whether or not September's decisions are influenced by Mallow's reputation is never fully stated but she is ever present.

In the sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Mallow's fate is known by September. She continues to remain ever present, but now as a tragic character and a warning to September. Throughout her (almost) return to Fairyland, September begins to worry that she may have unintentionally followed the same path that Mallow does.

This short story takes a small part of Mallow's life in Fairyland. Valente shows how a small girl who wants some peace and quiet can be swept up by Fairyland and be recruited into leadership. Questions asked (mostly in the second book) are answered.

Read it on

Five stars

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The Underneath: 02/20/13

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The Underneath by Kathi Appelt was her debut novel. In print form, it was illustrated by David Small. I happened to listen to the audio but in retrospect, I wish I had read it instead.

The book opens with a very pregnant calico cat being dropped off in a Texas bayou. As she looks for a safe place to bear her kittens, she hears the song of a chained up hound dog, Ranger. They become friends and he provides for a safe place (albeit temporarily) for her and her twin kittens — a boy (Puck) and girl (Sabine).

Ranger's sadness stems from the chain around his neck and a years old wound from the time his owner, Gar Face, shot him. Gar Face who's two main goals in life are drinking and shooting things, is the most dangerous threat awaiting the calico and her kittens. As with so many animal themed Newbery books, an animal dies. It is an unfortunate part of the realism of this book, and might be a difficult story for some children.

Mixed into the story of the kittens and Ranger trying to survive life with Gar Face, is an older tale — a magical one involving shape-shifters who have been part of the Bayou since its earliest days. One of them is Grandmother Moccasin, a creature sleeping in the base of an old tree. She is grieving for loved ones long since lost and she aches for revenge.

The parallel stories are told in a poetic voice. There is repetition to set the mood and tempo of the book. And here, though, is where I had trouble with the audio — the performer chose to read bayou by the regional Texas pronunciation, bai-oh, but the poetry of the book would fit better with the more widely used bai-you. Even though the choice is regionally correct it was jarring.

Three stars

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Sapphique: 02/19/13

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Sapphique by Catherine Fisher is the sequel to Incarceron. It opens in the aftermath of Finn escaping from the prison and the Warden escaping into it.

Finn, who Claudia believes to be the missing crown prince, must now prove his identity, even as his memory remains spotty. To mix things up, another Giles appears, claiming to be the original. With the Queen taking his side, it's clear that civil war can't be far behind.

Meanwhile things inside of the prison are getting more dangerous for everyone involved. The prison AI wants more from its existence and has decided the best way to achieve that is to escape its physical bounds. Doing, that, though puts both the prison and the Realm at risk.

I'm breaking with the majority to say that Sapphique was more of a page turner for me than the original. Now that the big secret is out, namely what the prison is and where's it's located, there's more time to concentrate on how the worlds of the prison and Realm work (or don't).

In the extra space left by the vacated mystery is filled with glimpses of the damage done by the war the necessitated the mandated Era. Things aren't much better on the outside than they are on the inside of the prison.

Although Incarercon and Sapphique are more fantasy than science fiction, I think fans of Maria V. Snyder's Inside Out and Outside In will like these two.

Five stars

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Mariana: 02/18/13

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Mariana by Susanna Kearsley was reissued in 2012. Julia on her third random encounter with a charming old house decides she has to purchase it. She gives up her life in London for the small town life. Along the way she discovers her ties to a woman named Mariana who lived during the Restoration.

I read the book for the description of the haunted house. The initial couple of chapters deliver just that — a mysterious house, a ghost on a gray horse and a woman in a green dress. Rooms flip between their modern setting and older time periods. This set up is moody, atmospheric and completely addicting.

Then the book moves from being about ghosts to being about reliving the past. Julia is suddenly inside the body of Mariana and is basically along for the ride. At first these extended flash backs come without warning but then, for plot convenience, Julia gains control over them and like a drug addict continues to pop back into Mariana's life.

The big hook for the novel is supposed to be Mariana's life and the mysterious Richard and how he ties into Julia's handsome neighbor. If you are a fan of period romances, then you will love the novel. If you're not, you will be left with lengthy flashbacks that feel forced and a modern day story that boils down to drinking in the pub, hanging out with Julia's ever-so-perfect vicar brother, waking up in dangerous situations and mooning over reincarnation.

Read via NetGalley

Three stars

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This is Not My Hat: 02/17/13

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This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen won the 2013 Caldecott. It's the sequel to the equally delightful and minimalist, I Want My Hat Back. He also earned an honor for his illustrations in Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett.

While the first book was told from the perspective of the hat-misser (a bear), this one follows the hat (and the stealer of said hat). As the fish explains, the hat doesn't even fit on the owner's head.

Here, then, the excitement is in the chase. If the previous book was a mystery (where is the hat? who stole it?), this one is a thriller. We know who has it and we wonder how and when he'll be caught.

I don't know if there will be any more hat books from Klassen, but I'm in love with his illustrations and somewhat dark sense of humor.

Five stars

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Why Read Moby-Dick?: 02/16/13

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Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick came to be from the writing of In the Heart of the Sea, a history of the shipwreck of the Essex (the inspiration for Moby Dick). Why Read Moby-Dick, then, like the movie Adaptation is to Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, if she had made the film herself.

Philbrick's book is really more of a lengthy essay in chapter form and comes out at a slim 131 pages. It's his thoughts on the book, it's pivotal scenes and his theories on the meaning of the book. While those theories are interesting, they are light on analysis and citation. Perhaps Why Read Moby-Dick would work better as a readers' companion to In the Heart of the Sea than as a critical analysis of Melville's novel.

I chose to read Why Read Moby-Dick to see what arguments Philbrick uses to encourage reluctant readers to pick up the novel. I did this, though, as an avid lover of the novel. I don't need to be convinced to pick it up and sadly, having read through Philbrick's long plot summary stripped of the woodcuts and Melville's humor, I'm not sure I would want to pick it up based solely on his recommendation.

Why Read Moby-Dick will appeal mostly to Philbick fans and perhaps Melville fans who are more rabid in their devotion than I am and need to have a copy to complete their collection.

Read via NetGalley

Three stars

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f2m: 02/15/13

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f2m by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy is a YA novel about 18 year old Skye deciding to go with her heart and transition to male. Will Finn be welcomed into the once all-girl band? What will her parents and brother think? Plus, there are family secrets!

The book is a pretty quick and tame read. For young adults who might feel the need to transition (especially those in Australia, as some of the steps are very specific to Australian health care), the book reads like a step by step process, wrapped up in a fictionalized package.

To fluff things up, there's Skye/Finn's paricipation a punk band, some stuff about getting a drivers' license and finally, the history of Great Uncle/Aunt Al, whose history is only revealed after Finn begins his transition.

Frankly, Al's story was more interesting than Finn's. From the small handful of transition stories I've now read, they all seem desperate to find a balance between making it seem normal for the character who is transitioning, while making it as dramatic / traumatic for everyone else in the book, while still making the book a "clean" read.

While I still recommended F2M for the logistics of transitioning, I think the best (meaning most believable characters) book I've read so far is Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde (review coming).

Four stars

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The Danish Girl: 02/14/13

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The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff is a fictionalized account of Einar Wegener's transformation into Lili Eiber. When the model for his wife's current painting fails to show, Einar agrees to don the costume and pose in her place. And then he begins to realize he's more comfortable being a woman. Soon he is spending most of his time as Lili Eiber.

The book is set in Finland and in Pasadena, in flashback. Einar's wife was raised in Pasadena, California. I enjoyed seeing the city at the turn of the last century, through the early 1920s, through her memories. Her emersion in the California school of art (plein air painting of sweeping landscapes in bold colors) played against Einar's small, subdued landscapes that he had fallen out of habit of painting. Through their artwork, then, their relationship and personalities are introduced and explored.

I read The Danish Girl in the same weeks as Parrotfish — a YA novel about a female to male transgender teen. The striking difference between the two is the level of support Lili receives from her wife and their friends. How much support the actual Lili received, I don't know. As a story of support in a potentially difficult stage of life — it's a lovely novel.

Lili Eiber

Recommended by the Zen Leaf

Four stars

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The Pirate's Daughter: 02/13/13

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The Pirate's Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson is like Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani, except that it's set in Jamaica and the movie start du jour is Errol Flynn. Whilst Elizabeth Taylor didn't leave much behind on her trip to Big Stone Gap, Cezair-Thompson asks the question: What if Flynn fathered a child while on the island?

In 1942, Flynn did in fact land in Jamaica, his ship damaged from a storm. He did fall in love with the island and did start to build a house there. The remains of the house are still there. For the novel, though, the original landing is pushed forward to 1946 and Flynn's initial stay is much longer to give the first act of the novel time to play out.

Flynn's predatory nature and the effect it has on Ida and later her daughter, May, is drowned out by too many voices. Cezair-Thompson jumps around in points of view, not sticking with Ida or later, May. Either a strict first person telling (from Ida and later May) or a more removed, omniscient narrator would have succeeded in telling a less muddled story.

With all the padding I never felt like I got to know Ida or her piece of Jamaica. By the time she had vanished, leaving her daughter in the care of relatives, I didn't care enough about May to continue reading. Included in my links are more positive reviews if you want a second or third opinion. I though, cannot recommend this book.

Two stars

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Parrotfish: 02/12/13

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Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger is about the transitioning of Angela into Grady — female to male. Problems arise at school — the administration doesn't have a clear cut policy in place and there's of course bullying, problems at home — the mother who desperately doesn't want to lose a daughter (even a tomboy one) and problems with friends (over reacting or not knowing how to react).

The title comes from a species of fish that changes its sex. Grady believes in his heart of hearts that he should be male even if his body isn't. He needs, though, to prove to others that his feelings are natural and normal.

While the book would be useful for teens either going through the same thing or even just feeling like fish out of water, the pacing and characterization felt forced. Except for Grady and a sympathetic gym teacher — and perhaps the father's over the top approach to Christmas decorating, the characters are presented at the extremes of both genders. Men are MEN and women are WOMEN.

In this sort of dichotomy, there's nothing for Angela (pre-Grady) to do except to change into Grady. There's no wiggle room, and therefore no way to explore the nuances of gender. As some one who isn't especially feminine and who has friends and family who fall somewhere between the two extremes — I had a hard time relating to Grady or anyone else in the book.

Three stars

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Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender: 02/11/13

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I have been interested in the American Civil War since high school. I like reading about it, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. As soon as Carrie Jones announced her nonfiction picture book biography of Sarah Emma Edmonds called Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender, I immediately added it to my wishlist.

Using simple, straightforward language, Carrie Jones outlines Sarah Edmond's childhood and early adulthood. Jones explains that Sarah's father wanted a son and she did her best to pretend to be the boy he wanted. When it was painfully clear that she could never live up to expectations, Sarah left Canada for the United States where she started selling bibles. Through experimentation she learned that she could sell far more books dressed as a man than she did dressed as a woman.

But this book isn't about gender identity per se. It's about her part in the Civil War. She joined the Union Army as soldier (named Frank Thompson) and male nurse. When the army needed spies, she decided to do her duty and volunteer. Jones goes through some of her different missions and her different disguises.

Mark Oldroyd's illustrations show the many faces Sarah wore in her life and her army career. Sometimes she dressed as a woman (or as Carrie puts it, a woman pretending to be a man, disguised as a woman). Throughout all the costume changes, Oldroyd is able to let Sarah's personality shine through so we can see it's still her.

It's a fascinating slice of American history seen through a nonfiction picture book. The book includes a short bibliography in the endnotes and I plan to read through the listed books as time permits.

Five stars.

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Demon Eyes: 02/10/13

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Demon Eyes by Scott Tracey is the sequel to Witch Eyes. Braden has come to Belle Dam for answers about his past and his unusual magical ability (as well as the crippling migraines caused by it). Instead, he's found himself in the middle of a decades long feud.

As the book opens, Braden comes to realize that the danger he thought was past is still lingering. No one believes him and he must do everything in his power to prove his hunch.

Along with Braden's family problems, his health issues and the on-going feud, is his homosexuality. In the previous book the plot was more focused on the mystery of Belle Dam than on anything else. Now though as things reach the lull as the midpoint in a trilogy often does, Braden's sexual desires are brought to the forefront to fill in the gaps left by the plot.

Rather than build a single relationship that could put two men in conflict with the town politics, Braden has a rather in effectual love triangle. Really it's more of a lust triangle in that neither man seems all that interested in this outsider with horrendous migraines and a bad attitude. Frankly, given how much Braden is prone to whining in Demon Eyes, I don't blame them!

The book quickly falls into a predictable flow of events: Braden decides to assert himself, someone decides to stop him, one or both of Braden's would be boyfriends comes to the rescue, Branden is forced to use his power, Braden faints. Rinse, wash, repeat. It was an unsatisfying sequel to such a strong start to a series.

Read via NetGalley

Three stars.

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Blood Fruit: 02/09/13

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Blood Fruit edited by James E.M. Rasmussen is a collection of eleven queer, horror, short stories. A lot of them have a paranormal aspect to them as well as the erotica.

The stories all share an element of dangerous hook ups where the promise of sex comes with a price. The encounters are usually between a human and something that appears human but either isn't or is undead.

It's a relatively quick read. One could read a story a night before bed or plow through the entire collection over a lazy afternoon.

The stories are:

  • "The Lure of Dangerous Woman" by Shanna Germain
  • "A Different Kind of Monster" by T.A. Moore
  • "Just Past Winter" by Nathan Sims
  • "Hemophobia" by Trent Roman
  • "The Diarist" by Mark Silcox
  • "After All" by Laramie Dean
  • "Happy Anniversary" by Stephen Osborne
  • "Tombstone" by Raymond Yeo
  • "Captive Magic" by Garry McLaughlin
  • "Hollow" by Jamie Freeman
  • "For Her Eyes" by Quinn Smythwood

Three stars

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Six Chinese Brothers: An Ancient Tale: 02/08/13

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Once upon a time a family of brothers with amazing abilities. One of the brothers commits a crime and is sentenced to death. By asking for one last night at home the brothers were able to take each others place until there were no ways left to run the execution. For their devotion to father and family, the execution is called off.

That's the basis of a Chinese folktale. The number of brothers varies. The version that's probably best known for better (or worse) here is Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Hutchet Bishop. There's also Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy.

My favorite of the lot is Six Chinese Brothers by Hou-Tien Cheng. The brother who can drink up the entire ocean (the final form of execution being drowning in the bay) is replaced by two brothers with stretchy powers (one of arms and one of legs). The drowning is thus adverted by being able to stand on the bottom of the sea.

Somehow the progression of one punishment to another seem more logical to me. The ability to stand on the bottom of the sea seems more likely than the ability to swallow the entire sea!Also, this book avoids the unpleasantness of a child's death in lieu of thievery.

The best feature of the book, though, are the illustrations. Instead of having five identical bright yellow Simpsonesque brothers, there are six distinct brothers created from cutting paper outlines. They are done in red and black paper and are so much more interesting to look at than the westernized stereotype of Chinese men.

Five Chinese Brothers Seven Chinese Brothers

Five stars

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Highway Robbery: 02/07/13

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Highway Robbery by Kate Thompson is a short chapter book with a lovely vintage feel to it. It has a few plates of pen and ink illustrations, something I've not seen in recently published books.

The story is told as a discussion between the main character, an un-named street urchin, and the reader who has presumably met the boy while going about his or her business.

The boy defensively explains why he's holding onto such a fine black mare, far better than any boy in his situation should ever have access to. He's been entrusted with the mare by a well dressed man who has business in town. The boy plans to take good care of the horse because it's more interesting than begging and if does a really good job, there might be extra coins in it for him.

In this dialog, the boy reveals details of his day and hints at who this mysterious man might be. One, of course, can guess from the title that the man in question is up to no good.

For a book where very little happens in the present, it's a quite the page turner. It can be read in one sitting.

Five stars

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How to Dine on Killer Wine: 02/06/13

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How to Dine on Killer Wine by Penny Warner is the fifth of the Party Planner mysteries, all of which are set in and around San Francisco. This one takes Presley to Napa — one of two large wine producing areas in the North Bay.

Presley has been hired by a winery to put on a party to celebrate the launch of a new line of wines. There's also a lot of bad blood between the rival wineries. At the two extremes: an eco-warrior who wants to get every winery to be green certified; and a giant conglomerate who is buying up the smaller wineries to produce massive amounts of cheap (box) wine.

So of course a guest ends up dead. Her most memorable parties end up this way. And of course, her client is accused with the crime. Somewhere in the middle of the rivalries and the Bingo night gossip is the truth. Presley with the help of her mother are on the case!

Any qualms I had about the direction of the series (see my review of How to Party with a Killer Vampire) were put to rest in How to Dine on Killer Wine. Clearly Presley is back in her element — catering at famous landmarks around the Bay. The Napa Valley felt like Napa and the rivalries came off as believable.

The tension between the different characters as well as Presley's removal from the urban bustle of San Francisco, brings to mind another book I read around the same time, Winter Study by Nevada Barr. The approach, though, is much lighter in Warner's book.

Five stars

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One Crazy Summer: 02/05/13

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One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia covers the summer trip of Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonette and Fern to visit their mother in Oakland, California. Big Ma has declared it time for Cecile to act like a mother to her daughters, years after leaving them, if even for a few weeks in the summer.

Delphine (the oldest, and narrator) expects the California of television and movies — beaches, Disneyland and summer heat. She gets instead, Oakland — fog, hills and the beach is a long bus ride away. She also gets a distant mother, greasy food from the local Chinese takeout, and days spent at the Center — run by the local Black Panthers. It is nothing Delphine expected or wants. All she wants to do is take her sisters home.

One Crazy Summer is one of those books I'd like to see made part of the California curriculum. Although it's historical fiction, it touches on so many issues and themes that are still relevant. It's also a well crafted story with believable, positive characters.

The sequel, P.S. Be Eleven comes out later in 2013.

Five stars

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Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life: 02/04/13

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Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer is part memoir, part interview, and part history of the Ojibwe and the Leech Lake Reservation.

Individually these pieces of Ojibwe life are well written, fascinating views into a piece of Native American culture. Where the book falters is in its organization. With little or no segue, the narrative jumps around through memoir, interview and history.

This book would be best suited for readers familiar with the Ojibwe and / or Northern Minnesota. There's not enough by way of introduction or logical structure to aid the uninitiated reader. I would recommend reading this book in conjunction with other texts.

Three stars

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Teaching children to read: 02/04/13

Sean and Harriet reading a dinosaur book

Literacy is one of the best tools a parent can give to a child. While it's tempting to rush the process, the child's brain needs to ready. While children tend to reach these milestones around certain ages, children don't come with pre-programmed schedules.

What parents can do to help the process, is to recognize what stage their child is at and provide skill appropriate materials. I know — that sounds really clinical and scary. Don't worry — much of this involves playing games with your child and can be done during down times like driving in the car between errands, during meals, or during bath time, for example.


Babies are like foreign exchange students. They've been studying the language but they either can't speak it or they don't speak it well yet. To get your baby ready for reading, talk, sing (or listen to music) and read those baby board books as often as you can. Baby talk helps children learn those tricky vowels but regular talk helps too.

If you don't know any nursery rhymes — your local library will have them — often both in book and on CD. The Dewey number for nursery rhymes is 782.4

If you don't want to sing nursery rhymes — any sort of nonsense song will do. Practice your rhyming skills and make stuff up. When my son was little, I'd sing: Mister, mister, Sean —
Get your jammies on


Once your little one is up and about and babbling, start singing that old alphabet song. Along with memorizing the order of the letters, start naming things:

A is for apple
B is for banana
C is for cabbage
... and so forth.

Trying to name one thing for each letter of the alphabet helps link those letters and the things they stand for. Q, X and Z will be tricky but you can have fun with them. There are a number of these alphabet books available.

For example:

Rhyming Words:

Practice those rhyming words! Here's where Dr. Seuss's easy readers come in handy: Cat in the Hat, Fox in Socks, and Hop on Pop, for instance.

If you have PBS, you can watch Super Why! with your child. Red's power is rhyming words.


If your child knows the alphabet and can come up with words for different letters of the alphabet, he or she might be ready to try reading. The last major hurdle are the blends. You can use letter blocks, Scrabble tiles or similar to bring together letters that make different sounds together: F+L, S+H, T+H, etc.

Either version of The Electric Company (the 1970s version or the more recent relaunch) are good for learning blends. Frankly, I find the new version has more practical advice for reading but the older skits go more for slap stick and might appeal better to the younger set.

Those first books:

Harriet reading Banana

When your child is ready to start reading on his or her own, pick books that are big on pictures and light on text. Reading in those first few attempts is HARD work. Fortunately there are TONS of fun picture books available for the beginning reader. For my daughter, the book that took her over the edge and made her a reader was Banana by Ed Vere.

Last but not least:

Let your child pick out some of the books he or she wants to read. Pay attention to your child's hobbies and pick accordingly. There is no one right book for every single child.

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Extra Yarn: 02/03/13

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Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett is illustrated by Jon Klassen, the author of I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat (review coming). For fans of Klassen's books, there's a cameo tucked inside.

Annabelle finds a box of yarn. It's the most colorful thing in her dreary village — a place that reminds me of the painting Jagers in de Sneeuw (1565) by Pieter Bruegel. Just imagine that snowy landscape filled with Klassen's characters, being slowly but surely covered in knitted sweaters and blankets and whatnot.

Hunters in the Snow

Presented with a box full of yarn, Annabelle sits down and knits herself a sweater. When the box remains full of yarn she knits sweaters for all her friends and family, neighbors, and the local wildlife and pets. When she still has yarn, she yarn bombs the village and the forest until everything is colorful.

It's here that her knitting draws the attention of a jealous duke. He steals the box but the yarn isn't there. It doesn't matter if you have the tools and supplies if you don't have the drive to create.

Five stars

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Poor Rich: 02/02/13

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Poor Rich by Jean Blasiar is about an asthmatic teen who is trying to fit in. When his asthma suddenly seems to vanish he sees his opportunity to make something new with his life. Part of this involves writing poetry and short stories.

The first half of the book is written in first person from Rich's point of view. It's in a style somewhere between Jean Shepherd and Allen Zadoff. There's a family crisis (Dad leaving because he realizes he's gay) and a parrot (U2) who has more personality than anyone else in the book.

Unfortunately, just as the book really seems to be going somewhere it stops. The second half of the book is instead, Rich's stories. Of course they're supposed to continue on the plot and Rich provides explanations behind each one. The problem is, the break the flow of an otherwise funny story. I didn't want to change gear and start reading Rich's fiction. The sudden change left me feeling cheated.

One star.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again: 02/01/13

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Before starting in on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce, read the introduction. Boyce explains why he wrote this sequel and why he wrote it the way he did. Boyce, like I think many people of our generation, saw the movie before reading the book, and was shocked by how little the movie resembled Ian Fleming's book. The only thing the book and the movie agreed on was the make of the car and the fact that it could fly of its own accord.

Boyce goes one further — deciding that it could be any model of flying car. Well, not exactly, but the Tooting's vehicle of choice is one of those old air cooled VW bus — something vintage with the movie. I have to admit that a flying VW bus gave me pause but Boyce trundles on with the comedic confidence you'll find from the likes of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. And he pulls it off.

In all fairness to the cover art — the Tootings don't start off with a flying car (or a VW bus). Both come over the course of the first third of the novel. The bus is part midlife crisis and part family hobby, a means to a family vacation on an extreme budget after dear old dad is made redundant.

The remainder of the book is the adventure itself — some of which involves flying. There are baddies who are a stylistic compromise between the straight up gangster types of Fleming's book and the more magical (surreal) baddies of the film.

And, just as the film broke for Boyce, right as things were getting really interesting, the book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. As this is a book about a flying car, the cliffhanger is rather literal.

The relaunch continues (thankfully!) with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time (March 2013).

Four stars

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