Reading Challenges

Canadian Books 8
July - June 2015




 

Take a Stand Rosa ParksTake a Stand Rosa Parks: 03/31/08

Take a Stand, Rosa Parks! by Peter and Connie Roop. It is one in a series of chapter book biographies the Roops have done for Scholastic.

Rosa Parks is best known for her refusal to give up her seat on James Blake's bus. Take a Stand explains the circumstances of Rosa's life that lead her to take on James Blake.

Although the book is written for elementary school readers it is written well enough to hold an adult's attention too. The book is also illustrated. While 59 pages isn't long enough to fully understand Rosa Parks, it is a good introduction to this remarkable woman and the role she played in the Civil Rights movement.

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Q & AQ & A: 03/30/08

Facing jail on a fake charge of cheating, Ram Mohammad Thomas tells his life story to a friendly ear. Each piece of his life broken into thirteen chapters correlates to one of the answers Thomas has managed to get correct. It is his own itinerant life that has given him the background he needs to win the billion rupees.

As preposterous as Q & A sounds, Vikas Swarup's novel is based on fact. At the back of the book, Swarup includes a brief history of a young Indian who won the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Swarup also includes the winning questions. If that isn't interesting enough, Swarup also discusses the process of writing the book and the research done .

Although the setup of Q & A sounds lighthearted, there are some depressing subjects: physical abuse, sexual abuse, child exploitation, war, autism, prostitution and poverty. It took me a couple of chapters to start enjoying the novel but once I was done, I was happy I had read it.

Readers who enjoyed Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo and Immortal by Traci L. Slatton will enjoy Q & A.

Read the reviews at High School Book Review, Face Like Fizz, Wine & Giggles Book Club, Real Desperate Housewifes Book Club, Dasi Uvacha, Eli Bendersky, Something About Nothing, Tal Cohen's Bookshelf.

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Stanley in SpaceStanley in Space: 03/30/08

I first ran into Stanley Lambchop through the "Flat Stanley Project" when Sean and I participated in a Flat Stanley in 2005. Stanley Lambchop, though is a character from a number of books by Jeff Brown, the first being Flat Stanley (1964).

Stanley in Space is one of the last books in the series and was published the year Jeff Brown died (2003). In it, Stanley and his family (for reasons unknown to me) are requested to fly into space to visit a distant planet that the United States and Britain have been in contact with.

What follows is a space adventure reminiscent of A Grand Day Out (2000) or any of a number of Danger Mouse episodes . The Lambchops meet with the residents of an ecologically destroyed planet that can recover but the people living on it run the risk of starvation while waiting. Stanley and his family must think of a way to save the people and return to earth safely. Can they do it?

It took me a while to get into the story. The set up seemed to take to long but once the Lambchops are in space I was enjoying the book. It's a short book, only 112 pages and can be enjoyed in one sitting.

Read the reviews at Book Talks, Brian's Journal.

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Magnificent Mummy MakerThe Magnificent Mummy Maker: 03/29/08

According to the insert at the back of the book, Elvira Woodruff was inspired to write The Magnificent Mummy Maker based on an actual school project mummy she had seen on one of her many classroom appearances. The real mummy was made by a pair of girls but in the novel it's done by Andy who wants one chance at doing something better than his step-brother, Jason (aka "Mr. Genius").

The Magnificent Mummy Maker has the same theme of competition between siblings of blended families as Yours Turly Shirley. Of the two, Andy's relations with Jason and their younger half-sister strikes me as more realistic than that of Shirley and Jackie. Woodruff gives each family member a chance to voice his or her feelings and perspectives which makes for a more interesting and believable story.

Mummy Maker isn't just a story of sibling rivalry, it also has a strong fantasy element. The mummy that Andy draws in school is inspired by the mummy of a priestess the class sees in the local museum. After seeing her, Andy believes that her ka has entered his body and has started to grant him wishes. Through these wishes Andy and Jason learn to be better brothers and to appreciate their family situation.

Read the reviews at Danny's Reading Passport, Chapman's Chief Bloggers.

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Count to 10 Piggy WiggyCount to Ten Piggy Wiggy: 03/28/08

My son likes to bake so when he was looking for books to read to Harriet at the library, Count to Ten, Piggy Wiggy by Christyan and Diane Fox was the perfect choice.

Count to Ten is a simplistic cake recipe disguised as a counting book. While the ratios are a little off to keep the counting easier, a parent could easily help a child cook the cake that Piggy Wiggy is baking for the bear.

Sean and Harriet both enjoyed the book. Sean liked making the connection between cooking and math. Harriet liked the silly illustrations of the pig.

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NeverwhereNeverwhere: 03/27/08

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is a fun example of the "fish out of water goes on a quest" type of fantasy. In this case the fantasy world is London and the points of interest are the stops along the Underground except they're not like what Richard Mayhew expects.

Neverwhere is not a unique fantasy but it is still a fun take on a standard form of fantasy. Gaiman playfully acknowledges the books that have come before his with twisted literary references. My favorite is his gory allusion to Winnie the Pooh.

Like all good fantasy quests, the hero (or heroine) must join up with a band of local travelers to complete his journey. Like Dorothy and Alice, Richard just wants to get home to the London he knows, not this London Below. As with Through the Looking Glass where it's helpful to have a chess board nearby to track Alice's progress, keep a map of the London Underground handy to see where Richard is in his quest.

There are too many literary allusions and puns to mention them all. While understanding them or knowing your way around London isn't necessary to enjoy the story the extra knowledge does make the experience of reading Neverwhere all the more fun.

Read the reviews at Things Mean A Lot, My Own Little Reading Room, Melody's Reading Room, Dewey, Just a (Reading) Fool.

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The Middle MoffatThe Middle Moffat: 03/27/08

The Middle Moffat is the sequel to The Moffats and is a Newberry Honor book. It follows Jane Moffat's attempts to make something of herself as she's tired of just being the middle child.

Each chapter is a different adventure of Jane Moffat: she plays basketball, gives an unusual organ recital, and confronts the local fixit man. Her main goal though in this book is making sure that her 99 year old neighbor (a Civil War vet) make it to his 100th birthday. Jane likes him because he calls her the "mysterious Moffat."

Although the overall tone of The Middle Moffat is upbeat the book does cover a number of tough subjects: poverty, death in the family and war. Although the book was published during WWII, Jane Moffat most likely living through WWI.

The Middle Moffat was illustrated by Louis Slobodkin and his drawings highlight a lot of the humor of the book much as William Steig's drawings do for Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House.

Read the reviews at Mr. M's Reading Response Blog, In Need of Chocolate, Soul Travelers III, I'll Eat My Words Medium Rare, Thank You, LG 4th Grade Readers, AJ's Club House.

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ParkPark: 03/26/08

Park is from the "The Very Busy Life of Olaf an Venus" series by Canadian author Pierre Pratt. Sean checked this book out to read to Harriet because it has bright illustrations and is very easy to read (having only one word on each page).

With Pratt's background in magazine illustration it's understandable that the emphasis of the book is on the illustrations over the text. Frankly there a such few words the book could do away with all of them and not change anything.

Park reminds me most of the "Good Dog, Carl" books that Sean used to "read" in one of his previous day care. Park and Carl's Afternoon in the Park both tell a story of an adventure in the park through bold illustrations and only a smattering of words. Of the two, I prefer Park because the gag of the irresponsible parent gets old quickly in the Carl books.

Read the review at Book Carousel.

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Leadership BrandLeadership Brand: 03/25/08

In modern business, the brand is king. A company's survival depends on its brand. Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood offer Leadership Brand as a method for company leaders to inspire and mentor employees for the betterment of the brand and the business.

Leadership Brand is divided into nine chapters and includes two appendices. The book begins with a fuzzy definition of leadership brand and the difference between leaders and leadership. The remaining chapters show how to make a leadership brand part of the company's operations from creating the "brand statement" to assessing the leaders, investing in leadership, measuring the ROI, building awareness, preserving leadership and finally helping employees internalize the brand.

While Leadership Brand will probably become the next hot business book among managers, marketing departments and human resource departments, reading it made me glad I'm no longer working one of the huge corporations where the brand is everything. Entrepreneurs and managers at small companies probably won't benefit from reading Leadership Brand as most of the case studies and examples are based around huge multi-tiered hierarchical organizations.

Read the reviews at Visimandiri, Inside Knowledge, Duffbert's Random Musing.

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Manhattan is MissingManhattan is Missing: 03/24/08

E. W. Hildick is partially responsible for why I have been keeping a list of every book I've read since 1987. He wrote memorable books but for whatever reason, didn't have a memorable name (for me). One of my all time favorite YA books is one of Hildick's: The Active-Enzyme, Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch (1973). I think I worked so hard on remembering the long winded title that I forgot his name. Later when I wanted to reread the book I couldn't remember the author's name and I had mangled the title so much I couldn't search by title either. Thus my need for a list of books read by title and author was realized.

Fast forward twenty-one years and 3851 books I have read a second hugely enjoyable Hildick book, Manhattan is Missing (1969). Since his name had slipped from my memory again, I would not have made the connection were it not for my list (which does include a later reread of TAELFJHSW).

Manhattan is Missing is part cultural study of the differences between Chelsea and Manhattan in 1969 and part young adult mystery. The premise is this: a British family of five sublets a Manhattan apartment while the owner is traveling to Nice. The only caveat: they must take care of Manhattan the siamese cat. Manhattan is a valuable cat and a like most siamese cats, very high strung.

When Manhattan later goes missing and a ransom note shows up, the two brothers must overcome their cultural shock to find Manhattan before she can come to harm. The three brothers team up with other children living in the apartment and neighborhood to solve the mystery.

The interactions of the Clarke family (mostly the children) with the various people they meet in Manhattan is what brings this otherwise competent mystery above the more typical child sleuth books. Hildick captures the different nuances of New York City along with the broad differences between American and British culture and language. So often these sorts of books will get the foreign culture completely wrong but not Hildick.

Besides Hildick's entertaining story, the book is peppered with illustrations by Jan Palmer. These illustrations both firmly plant the book in 1969 (see the illustration on page 8) and bring the story to life. I especially love the many drawings of Manhattan the cat (including the cover).

I highly recommend Manhattan is Missing. Look for it at your library or get a used copy online.

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Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? 03/23/08

When Sean was about Harriet's age his favorite book at daycare was Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by Eric Carle. He would recite the story to us on the way home from school. Although we haven't read the book in a while it remains a favorite of Sean. Based on his fondness for the book, he insisted we check out Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear, the companion book, for Harriet.

A big part of Brown Bear's charm is its surreal combining of animals and colors and the almost Remy Charlip conclusion. By changing colors for sounds the book loses one important visual element. Yes, the book still has Eric Carle's delightful style of illustrations but this time they are too grounded in reality.

A second problem with Polar Bear is the meter. Martin seems to be trying to keep the original sing-song meter of Brown Bear but his choice of animals and sounds gives him much longer words and often times too many syllables to fit into the simplistic meter of Brown Bear thus making Polar Bear hard to read out loud and frustrating to listen to (according to my children).

If you are a fan of Eric Carle's artwork or fans of Bill Martin Jr.'s books, then Polar Bear, Polar Bear What Do You Hear? will be a welcome to your personal library. For everyone else there are better board books.

Read the reviws at My State of Crazy, Games' Gang.

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Trucks and DiggersTrucks and Diggers: 03/22/08

On a recent trip to our local library, Sean picked out Trucks and Diggers by DK Publishing. Sean comes by his love of trucks naturally. Although I am fascinated by them too I really don't know that much about them, especially the ones used in construction. Thankfully publishers like DK (Dorling Kindersley) and Usbourne seem to have picture books on any subject that kids might be interested in.

Trucks and Diggers is a board book that covers many of the different kinds of trucks the average young truck enthusiast might be interested in. Each pair of pages has first the colorful photographs of a set of trucks (construction equipment, for example) and then a quiz or game about the trucks. Some of the games are "eye spy" types and some are matching games. They are all fun.

With the exception of the distinctly American style mail truck, many of the photographs appear to be from Australia, Britain or South Africa. The road train looks like its driving across a stretch of the outback. All of the vehicles have right hand steering. I wish that DK would list country of origin for their photographs in the back just as an extra talking point with my children.

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Last Chance SaloonLast Chance Saloon: 03/21/08

Marian Keys has improved and matured as a writer since she wrote Last Chance Saloon in 1999. The story covers the year between birthdays for Tara and how things change for her and her two best friends. Unfortunately their lives are dull and they are emotionally shallow. Tara has an abusive boyfriend, Katherine is an ice queen and Fintan has cancer.

How this mediocre plot about not yet thirty-somethings feeling old is deserving of 500 pages of book is beyond me. Nothing actually happens and the book makes as much sense being read in random order as it does from start to finish.

Then the final insult was the copy editing. Fintan and the rest worry about AIDS but it's written Aids. It is an acronym, not a proper noun. If the book had been otherwise interesting I wouldn't have minded the error.

Read the reviews by Reading Aventures, Meet Me in the Bookshop, My Crib.

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TallTall: 03/21/08

Sean picked out Tall for Harriet on our recent trip to Oregon. On our last two days of driving, Sean read it to Harriet repeatedly (by her request). Tall by Jez Alborough was also the subject for Sean's first book report.

Tall is the perfect book for a young reader to share with a younger sibling. The vocabulary is limited (mostly repetitions of "short" and "tall") and the illustrations are colorful and engaging.

The story of Tall is that of a short monkey (Bobo) who wants to be tall. He and his friends (various other animal children) collaborate to make Bobo as tall as possible. Of course things finally go pear shaped for Bobo and he learns to appreciate is own stature.

As a mother to two energetic and adventurous young children, I love the overall message of Tall. Bobo's mother lets Bobo play and explore to his heart's content but when he needs her she is right there to catch him. I feel like Bobo's mother every time I take my two to the park.

Read the reviews at Children's Books Aloud, The Celebrity Cafe, Bottom Shelf Books.

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Mommy HugsMommy Hugs: 03/20/08

Mommy Hugs is one of the books we brought at Powell's during our five day road trip. It's a board book of typical length (16 pages).

The book by Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben is a series of mother and child interactions. There are of course the elephants shown on the cover, a swan and cygnet, a tiger and cub and so forth.

Harriet likes the different animals, especially the tiger page. She meows whenever we read that page together. I like that the book teaches the proper names of the animals in their adult and infant forms.

Mommy Hugs is a nice "celebration of a mother's love" as the back of the book promises.

Read the reviews at My Wee Being Reads, The Magic of Books.

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Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked ManDon't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man: 03/19/08

I wasn't sure what to expect from Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man but I was hooked and laughing myself silly half way through the first chapter. The book was written midway through Home Improvement (1991-9) but only mentions the show in passing. The book is mostly a memoir told as a series of stand-up routines.

Allen begins the book by explaining why he's a comedian. He points the finger squarely at his last name (Dick). I had to giggle there not because of the many penis tangents he takes but because I've heard these jokes before. I have a BookCrossing penpal whose last name is Dick and I've heard the same complaints from her that Tim Allen makes in his first chapter. That strange bit of synchronicity was what sold me on the book.

From there Allen goes through childhood as a series of lessons, on through the teen years, his relationships with women, his time in jail (and how being funny was a survival technique) and finally onto his marriage and life as a father (to a daughter).

Don't be confused by Tim Allen's character, Tim Taylor. Although Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked man is packaged as another humorous take on Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Allen is better read and more philosophical than his Taylor counterpart. For many of stereotypical examples of men versus women he mentions, Allen comes up with a counter example to balance things out. He never goes so far to say all men are this way and all women are that way. Rather he plays out the examples of his own life to their silliest possible conclusions.

Read more at Hollywood Celebrities.

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Rocky Mountain Moving Picture AssociationRocky Mountain Moving Picture Association: 03/18/08

The early years of filmmaking, and the move to California is a favorite topic of mine. The days before the film industry in America was known as "Hollywood" was a free for all of mavericks going up against huge monopolies. Tiny fly by night companies popped up as fast as Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) could shut them down. The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association is a fictional one of these rogue "indies".

The hero of this odd ball historical novel is Dmitri Andreivitch Pulski an ice sales man from northern California who leaves the family business to become a scenario writer under the name Tom Boston. As Tom learns the ropes we learn what it was like to run one of these silent film studios. We also get a glimpse of what Los Angeles was like.

From my own research and experience, I can vouch for Loren D. Estleman's descriptions of things. Take for instance the bungalow that Tom and Yuri rent, these bungalows still exist in Los Angeles county. In fact, Ian and I lived in one from 1997-9. They really are as tiny and noisy as described.

The Rocky Mountain Moving Picture Association isn't a typical novel. Although time passes and the characters do evolve, the chapters are more like the two reel shorts that the studio is making. There are flash forwards to the Depression where Hollywood as we know it had taken firm root in the film industry, thoroughly crushing the old MPPC system.

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He Rents, She RentsHe Rents, She Rents: 03/18/08

He Rents, She Rents (1999) now is an out of date book of movie recommendations based on the likes and dislikes of stereotypical man vs. stereotypical woman. You can guess how this goes: men like adventure, scifi, war, sports. Women like: comedy, romance, drama. By the very concept of the book I'm already put off. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I adore most of the genres that are stereotypically male (sports films can go away and die right now, please). Force me to watch most romances (unless it's a screwball comedy) and I will be begging for mercy.

The two authors are Richard Roeper before he teamed up with Roger Ebert (and became a better movie reviewer) and Laurie Viera (Rigler) before she wrote Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. The Jane Austen connection is another mark against Viera's choices. I'm not an Austen addict or even a fan. Overall I preferred Roeper's choices. He tended to stick with classics and things that any well versed film lover should see. Unfortunately at the time he wrote this book he was a terrible writer (or maybe his editor forced him to write like a cheap Tim Allen knock-off).

What the book suffers from most is hasty writing. There are no good or interesting reasons given for any of the films included in the book. The shtick of boys vs. girls was the only thing carrying this book an that just isn't enough to make a good book.

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flush.htmlFlush: 03/17/08

I much prefer Carl Hiaasen's young adult novels. My all time favorite Hiaasen novel remains Hoot but Flush comes in a close second with Basket Case in third.

Like Hoot, Flush is an ecological mystery. As the title implies that the story revolves around sewage washing up on the local beaches, presumably from the Coral Queen, an gambling boat run under questionable circumstances.

Flush is narrated by Noah Underwood and begins right after his father has been arrested for sinking the Coral Queen. Throughout the novel, Noah believes in his dad even if he's embarrassed by his father's actions and worried that his parents might divorce over them. Noah gets his sister and an adult friend to help solve the mystery of the sewage.

The book is short compared to Hiaasen's adult novels, coming in at 272 pages. The story is engaging and funny although there are moments of suspense and surprise. For me, Flush was the perfect book to curl up with during an afternoon of reading.

Read the reviews at Kid's Book Blog, Turning the Paige, Brookerz Books, Kid Book Club, Help Readers Love Reading, Teen Book Reviews.

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Lorna Doone, AbridgedLorna Doone (Abridged): 03/16/08

I don't usually review books twice but I will make an exception for Lorna Doone because this review is for only half the book. I got through BookCrossing a number of years ago a paperback edition of the novel to read after I heard a lovely adaptation of it on Radio 4. Life being what it is, the book got shelved and ignored until I made time to read it because it fit into one of the many challenges I'm participating in this year.

As I was reading the novel it quickly became apparent that the book I was reading was either vastly altered from the Radio 4 version or my memory was playing tricks on me. I remembered the novel being witty, well written and exciting. This version, though claming to be "complete and unabridged" was chopping, confusing and sometimes just weird. A quick search online brought up the Google Books version of Lorna Doone and after comparing a number of pages between my copy and their copy, I realized what was wrong. To get my copy down to 200 pages from the 524 pages, the "editor" had systematically stripped out the last two sentences of every paragraph except for at the ends of chapters.

Other oddities I noticed included huge passages being deleted (like the entire monologue of the author describing his grandson's mocking of his story). The dialogue was rewritten in a strange dialect and the chapters had all been given new titles! How exactly this version from 1993 can count as Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore is beyond me.

So rather than try to review the book in this bastardized form, I released the book via BookCrossing and promptly ordered a "new" copy (published in 1880 something) for myself from Alibris. It should arrive any day. Once it does, I will curl up with the real Lorna Doone and write a proper review.

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Sea TurtlesSea Turtles: 03/15/08

Sean has been learning some basic biology at school and that has lead to some interesting conversations in the car about frogs, turtles, snakes, butterflies and birds. Last month we checked out two books to answer some of his questions: Frogs and Sea Turtles.

Sea Turtles by Emilie U. Lepthien is a good introduction to sea turtles. It has some stunning photography to accompany the text. Like Frogs, the book covers the life cycle of the sea turtle, it's anatomy, habitat, different species, and how humans are a threat to sea turtles.

Of the two books, Sean preferred Frogs but I liked Sea Turtles better. The book reminded me of the one time I was lucky enough to actually swim with some in the waters off Maui.

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Hotel CatHotel Cat: 03/15/08

Hotel Cat is the last of the "Cat Club" series by Esther Averill. I would like to read more in the series after having so enjoyed Hotel Cat but my library doesn't seem to have any more in the series. When I clear my current back log of "to be read" books I might treat myself to more of these books.

Hotel Cat is told from the point of view of Tom, a stray who is befriended at the start of a winter of the "burst boilers" by the maintenance man at an old fashioned hotel in a big city (Manhattan, perhaps?). The hotel is falling on hard times, its glory as a host to royalty and celebrities long since faded as newer and taller hotels have gone up around it. To Tom, the cat off the street, it is a marvelous and magical place. He takes his new job as a ratter (in the basement) and greeter of the guests (upstairs) very seriously.

As winter progresses Tom to his consternation has to share his beloved hotel with a host of cats all chased into the hotel as the boilers have burst in the nearby apartments. The first two are stray cats but Tom knowing his own recent misfortune lets them into his basement home. Upstairs though, problems are brewing with rooms and rooms of nervous cats locked up while their owners are displaced.

Through Tom's interaction with these different cats and a strange woman he meets every night on the stairs at midnight we learn both about the Cat Club (fans of the series will recognize all the characters who are guests in the hotel) and about the history of the hotel. Reluctantly Tom helps bring the Cat Club members together which in turn gives the hotel one last chance to shine.

Peppered throughout this delightful book are illustrations by the author. She captures the personality of all her cat characters and brings them to life. I especially like the cover illustration of all the cats gathered together.

The entire list of the Cat Club books are as follows

  • The Cat Club, 1944
  • The School For Cats, 1947
  • Jenny's First Party, 1948
  • Jenny's Moonlight Adventure, 1949
  • When Jenny Lost Her Scarf, 1951
  • Jenny's Adopted Brothers, 1952
  • How the Brothers Joined the Cat Club, 1953
  • Jenny's Birthday Book, 1954
  • Jenny Goes to Sea, 1957
  • Jenny's Bedside Book, 1959
  • The Fire Cat, 1960
  • The Hotel Cat, 1969

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionA Ten-Pound Sack of Rice: 03/14/08

The final story in the March 2008 issue is an interesting WWII inspired story called "A Ten-Pound Sack of Rice" by Richard Mueller.

Richard Mueller took his inspiration from the heroic service records of two men: Jefferson de Blanc and James Swett. Combining their lives together and adding in some supernatural events, Mueller tells the story of Nathan Roullon and his interview with the Devil.

As Nathan observes in the middle of the story, "A Ten-Pound Sack of Rice" is like A Christmas Carol except with visits from an old friend, a talking cat and the Devil. Like Marley, Satan offers Roullon a chance to better his life. He isn't looking for a soul in return, just an interesting man. Unlike Scrooge, the change comes not in the present, but in the past. The closing glimpse of Roullon implies that the Devil got his wish.

To learn more about the story, please see the interview on the magazine's blog.

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ImmortalImmortal: 03/13/08

Luca Bastardo doesn't remember anything beyond his early life on the streets of Florence in 1330. His first person tale covers the next 167 years. In this time he looks for love, tries to better himself and find the secret behind his apparent eternal youth. Although he has a chance to learn the secrets of life he is still the lonely and scared street urchin hoping to find his family.

Immortal is the debut novel by Traci L. Slatton. It the sort of book that is perfect for curling up in a comfy spot on a lazy afternoon and just losing oneself in the book. Although the book is 515 pages, I would have welcomed more time with Luca Bastardo.

The book covers some grim subjects like child prostitution, the Plague, the Inquisition and war. It also though covers the advances in art; Giotto and Leonard da Vinci both make appearances. With the tight timeline and numerous historical references, it helps to have a working knowledge of the Italian Renaissance but the story is told well enough that readers who aren't versed in the subject will still enjoy the novel.

Read the reviews at Book Chase, Books Are Pretty, Wordcandy Books, The Loud Librarian, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, Bookgasm.

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionThe Second Descent: 03/13/08

"The Second Descent" by Richard Paul Russo is the fifth story in the March issue.

Rafael, Iliana and Father Dominic are making their second descent down an unnamed mountain but from how it's described, it could be Everest.

The descents, first and second, are told through Rafael's muddled, oxygen starved point of view. We only get glimpses of his life and the circumstances of the climb. We never though have a reference point outside the realm of Rafael's confused state of mind to get a clear picture of what's happening.

"The Second Descent" is a story to ponder over and reread. It's the sort of story that would make a good prompt for an essay in a literature class.

For more on the story, please see the interview posted the magazine's blog.

Read more at The Worm Seat, Spiral Galaxy Reviews, Waiting for Aineko

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Women & Self-EsteemWomen & Self-Esteem: 03/12/08

Sometimes books I would normally not read fall into my possession and I feel compelled to read them before I release them through BookCrossing. Women & Self-Esteem: Understanding and Improving the Way We Think and Feel About Ourselves is one of those books.

As the title suggests, this thick volume from 1984 begins with the thesis that poor self-esteem goes hand in hand with being a woman. Men are so favored over women that there is nowhere but down for our egos to go. While I certainly know women (and men) with poor self-esteem, I mostly read this book as an outsider looking in. I have not experienced the put downs and other negativity described in the book.

The book is divided into four sections: Making the Connections; Close To Home, Close to the Heart; Far From Home, Far From at Home; The High Costs of Low Self-Esteem. The first part defines the terms used in the book and states the bleak thesis. Part two looks at how families contribute to the problem. Part three looks at outside forces that contribute to the problem (religion, education, work, entertainment, being in public). The final section looks at how low self-esteem gets in the way of day to day living.

If you are a woman with self-esteem problems or know a woman with these problems, the book might help. Otherwise it's a long winded strange look at one piece of psychology.

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Bleach Volume 9Bleach 9: Fourteen Days for Conspiracy: 03/11/08

It's been two months since my last Bleach review. Other reading commitments have gotten in the way of the reading for fun. I took some Bleach volumes along for the ride during our Oregon road trip but I only managed to read Volume 9.

In Volume 9, subtitled "Fourteen Days for Conspiracy" Ichigo and his friends make it into the outer ring of the Soul Society. Unfortunately there's the little problem of the four gates blocking the inner circle.

If they can't go through the gates the only other choice is to go over them. That's where "Rukongai's Premier Fireworks Expert" comes in. Her plan though is in Volume 10.

On a bittersweet side note, Chad is briefly reunited with the spirit in the parrot who serves as a tour guide as Ichigo et al. get their bearings.

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Science Fiction: The Best of 2004The Lost Pilgrim: 03/10/08

The third story in Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 is "The Lost Pilgrim" by Gene Wolf. Unfortunately I've misplaced the book so this review will be the last until I find the book.

A Chrononaut ends up sailing with the Argonauts. I really want to say that the Chrononaut's name was Jason but he's only ever known as the Pilgrim.

It takes a while for the Pilgrim to get his bearing in time and space so the first few pages of the story don't make much sense. Slow though things start to come into focus and the story isn't the crossing of the Mayflower as planned but the voyage of the Argos.

Of the three stories I've read so far, this one comes in just behind "The Best Christmas Ever."

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionExit Strategy: 03/10/08

"Exit Strategy" by K. D. Wentworth is the fourth story in the March issue. So far it is my favorite for its humor and its look at the difficulties both teens and parents face.

Charlsie decides she's had enough with life. She isn't in any of the cliques at school. Her essay got a C- and her dad is too bossy. She decides to donate her body to the Church of the Second Life.

Through Charlsie's half hearted attempt to kill herself and give her body to someone else we learn how the Church of the Second Life works. We also hear from Charlsie's dad that the Church is a cult and he vehemently tries to keep her away from them. All of this comes to a head for a very funny but touching end.

For more on the story, please see the interview posted the magazine's blog.

Read more reviews at Spiral Galaxy Reviews, Eyrie.

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Forgive MeForgive Me: 03/09/08

Forgive Me is Amanda Eyre Ward's third novel. It's a powerful piece about forgiveness and love in the aftermath of apartheid and the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Protagonist Nadine Morgan is a journalist who specializes in covering dangerous events. After she is mugged and beaten in Mexico City the TRC's hearing on the death of Jason Irving draws her back to South Africa after a decade's absence.

Overall I enjoyed the story but it has its weak points. The attack in Mexico City and Nadine's sudden appearance in Cape Cod to recuperate was too abrupt and unexplained. Even Nadine seems pulled out the story by the plot needing her to be Cape Cod to recover and to meet important characters.

Later, the journal entries of Jason Irving which are there to tell his part of the story broke the narrative flow for me. Nadine's descriptions of this wonderful journal doesn't mesh with Jason's mediocre writing nor does Jason's ramblings add much to the already poignant story.

My favorite of the book is Dr. Hank Duarte. He was a believable and charming love interest for Nadine although for the first half of the book I though he could do better than Nadine. She may be a good journalist but she is lousy at empathy and has to learn it through her return visit to Cape Town.

Despite the minor flaws with the book, I did enjoy it and found myself sucked in.

Read the review at Musings of a Bookish Kitty.

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionThe Overseer: 03/09/08

The third story, "The Overseer" by Albert E. Cowdrey, in the March issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is the cover story.

After having so enjoyed "The Recreation Room" in the October/November issue, I was looking forward to Cowdrey's novella. I have to admit that it disappointed me. Much of the story is written as a confession as a first hand account by antihero Nicholas Lerner. The problem is that I didn't think Lerner's voice was as strong or engaging as Cowdrey's descriptions of the events in the present day parts. Unfortunately for me two-thirds of the novella are this written confession / flashback.

The ending was satisfying with the same turn around that "Recreation Room" has but coming at the very end of a much longer piece the surprise wasn't enough to win me over to loving the story as a whole.

For more on the story, please see the interview posted the magazine's blog.

Read the reviews at Vagabond Voice, Spiral Galaxy Reviews, Jason Sanford.

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Brighty of the Grand CanyonBrighty of the Grand Canyon: 03/08/08

Marguerite Henry made her career on writing novelizations of the lives of famous equines and other animals (dogs mostly). Of her 59 books I've only read Brighty of the Grand Canyon.

Brighty the burro was named for Bright Angel Point on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. There is a statue of him at the Grand Canyon Lodge which you can snarf. He helped build the modern day trails and was known by President Teddy Roosevelt.

Although I love the Grand Canyon and its history, both times I've tried reading the book, I've had to struggle to finish it. The writing is choppy, swinging wildly from melodramatic to dry book report. As the hero of the story is a burro, the book is light on dialogue and heavy on description.

I decided to reread the novel to give it a second chance. My first attempt at it had been in 4th grade at a time when I was not the book lover I am today. I thought perhaps my dislike of the book had been more a result of my overall disdain for reading. Now I think it is just my dislike of animal centered books.

Read more at Fresh Air, Pssequimages' Photopossibilities.

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The Ka of Gifford HillaryThe Ka of Gifford Hillary: 03/07/08

I've been having a really good run of books so far this year. The Ka of Gifford Hillary unfortunately breaks my streak coming in as the first turkey of 2008.

Most of The Ka of Gifford Hillary is an incredibly boring, long paragraph with little action and no dialogue recollection of espionage and other Cold War stuff. If you enjoyed Day of the Jackal and want to see it peppered with some occult stuff, then you'll probably like this book.

At about the midway point, just when I was going to chuck the book across the room unfinished, Gifford Hillary is suddenly a ghost and he spends much of the remainder of the book trying to bring his would-be murderer to justice while of course saving the free world from Cold War baddies. Unfortunately Gifford is as boring a ghost as he was a living character!

Of course though Gifford isn't really dead. He's just having an extended out of body experience. To see it done better, watch the Family Guy episode where Death pulls Peter out of this body on the golf course.

Read the review at IdiotsGuideToCentrelink.

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Frogs (Animals Animals)Frogs: 03/06/08

Sean and I love to chat to and from school. He has been learning about different kinds of animals and had some questions about frogs. While we were chatting the topic of poisonous frogs came up. I described how colorful poisonous frogs are and Sean wanted to learn more. Rather than look them up on the internet, we decided to put his new reading skills to use and we checked out a book from our local library.

The book we selected was was Frogs by Martin Schwabacher which is part of the Animals, Animals series. We picked it because of the fantastic blue poison dart frogs on the cover.

Frogs covers all the basics of frog biology from the life cycle of the frog, the typical environments frogs and toads live in, the difference between frogs and toads, frog anatomy and of course a brief list of some different species of frogs.

The most interesting thing we learned from the is that frogs close their eyes to swallow. Their eyes push into their heads to force the food down their throats!

Sean and I both wish the book had more pages devoted to the different species of frogs. The photography in the book is excellent and it would have been nice to see more than just a half dozen or so types of frog.

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionRumple What?: 03/05/08

The second story by Nancy Springer in the March issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction takes a new look at the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale.

"Rumple What?" breezes through the fairy tale in a chit-chatty sort of way. Springer dives into the heads of the main characters: the miller's daughter, the king and of course Rumpelstiltskin. Not concerned with adjusting the plot any she instead focuses on what the characters might have been thinking as the story progresses.

I liked the silly tone to "Rumple What?" having never really been a fan of the original story. Springer's take on the different characters makes this contrived plot work and she even delivers a few laughs along the way.

Read the review at Spiral Galaxy Reviews.

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Number the StarsNumber the Stars: 03/04/08

Annemarie Johansen is a ten year old girl who just wants to get on with her life of school, friends and family but it's 1943 and Denmark is occupied by Nazis. Things go from tense to dangerous when the Nazis begin to round up the Jews.

Although Annemarie isn't Jewish, she has friends who are. She learns first hand the danger her friends and their families face. The second half of this book covers how Annemarie and her family put themselves in danger to protect their neighbors.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry reminds me of The Key is Lost by Ida Vos. Lowry's novel is a story of friendship in extraordinary times and gives a brief glimpse of what life was like in Denmark in the last years of World War Two. Key is Lost is about Jewish sisters in Holland who go into hiding to escape the Nazis. With the extremely personal nature of Vos's semi-autobiographical novel, Key is Lost darker and more depressing.

Lowry's novel focuses on the extraordinary things people will do to help their neighbors showing humanity even in the darkest moments of human history. While by itself Number the Stars wouldn't be enough for young readers to learn about the persecution and genocide of the Jews during World War Two, it can contribute to the learning experience.

Other books for young-adult readers I would recommend:

  • Key is Lost by Ida Vos
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
  • The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

To learn more about Lois Lowry, check out her blog, Lowry Updates.

Read the reviews at Things Mean A Lot, Maw Books, Callista.

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The Four Ugly Cats in Apartment 3DThe Four Ugly Cats in Apartment 3D: 03/03/08

A forgotten key leads to a friendship between Lily and her "mean, unfriendly, and nasty [and] ugly" neighbor Mr. Freeman and his four equally ugly cats. Lily learns to appreciate the cats for their own unique qualities and decides to find homes for them when Mr. Freeman dies.

The bulk of the story is Lily's attempts to find homes for the four cats whom she names Barney, Barbie, Dolly and Leonardo. Her goal is to find homes for them before the apartment manager calls the SPCA and has them taken away and killed. There is just one problem with this threat, the San Francisco SPCA is a no-kill shelter; had this book been set anywhere else, I would have believed the treat. Nonetheless, Lily does believe the threat and works quickly to find homes.

What I liked most about the story was how Lily took responsibility for the cats even when the adults around her were unwilling or unable to help her. Marilyn Sachs did a good job of revealing the cats' personalities as Lily gains their trust. She wisely chose to end the story on a bittersweet note in regards to Leonardo's fate; not all animals can be found homes but it is worth trying to anyway.

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The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionThe Boarder: 03/02/08

The first story in the March issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a historical piece called "The Boarder" by Alexander Jablokov.

"The Boarder" chronicles a series of boarders the protagonist's parents had in their home during his childhood. As his parents are Russian they feel most comfortable bringing in Russian boarders.

The most interesting boarder and the one that the protagonist lingers on the longist is a man named Vassily. He is a tinkerer and has ties to the Soviet space program. Over the course of his ten pages of the twenty page story Vassily gives commentary on the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

"The Boarder" is an interesting off-beat look at the early years of the space race but I would have prefered more science fiction or fantasy.

Read the review at Spiral Galaxy Reviews.

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Blind Willow, Sleeping WomanBlind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 03/01/08

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the first book by Haruki Murakami I've had the pleasure of reading. It won't be the last. This slim book contains twenty-four short stories that range from subtle character studies of ordinary folks to journeys into the surreal.

These stories were translated beautifully by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin who have translated many of his other books. Gabriel did the English translation of Kafka on the Shore, for example.

My favorite story is "Chance Traveler" which recounts a series of coincidences. First the author injects himself into the story explaining his weird moments with jazz and from there launches into a wonderful story about a piano turner who ends up reconnecting with his sister after the meeting with a stranger. "Chance Traveler" captures the magic of serendipity and how it inspires our some of our most important actions in life.

Another story that tickled my fancy was the more surreal "Dabchick" that has a wonderful Twilight Zone pay off. It's a completely silly story and written for laughs just as Asimov's "Shah Guido G" was.

My least favorite was "A Perfect Day for Kangaroos" because the characters didn't understand kangaroos. Like all marsupials, kangaroos are born extremely premature. A kangaroo joey won't leave the pouch until it is at least 3 to 4 months old, not 1 month old as described in the story.

The entire list of stories is:

  1. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
  2. Birthday Girl
  3. New York Mining Disaster
  4. Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself As If Reciting Poetry
  5. The Mirror
  6. A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism
  7. Hunting Knife
  8. A Perfect Day for Kangaroos
  9. Dabchick
  10. Man-Eating Cats
  11. A "Poor Aunt" Story
  12. Nausea 1979
  13. The Seventh Man
  14. The Year of Spaghetti
  15. Tony Takitani
  16. The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes
  17. The Ice Man
  18. Crabs
  19. Firefly
  20. Chance Traveler
  21. Hanalei Bay
  22. Where I'm Likely to Find It
  23. The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day
  24. A Shinagawa Monkey

Read the reviews at D-cast, Apple Geeks, Lotan, Digital Buryong.

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Kirby Went to the BeachKirby Went to the Beach: 03/01/08

Permit me a moment of motherly pride. Over the last week Sean has been working on his first book called The Kirby Went to the Beach. He typed the words (I helped with spelling) and did the illustrations himself.

It's the story of a "happy little Kirby" (from the video games) who goes to the beach, has a picnic and plays ball with some friends.

The story is board book length (ten pages) and colorfully illustrated in classic Sean style artwork. We have scanned his book and made a PDF version and we're giving a copy to his school.

You can download a copy to read for yourself. Enjoy!

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