Reading Challenges

Library Challenge
2015

Canadian Books 8
July - June 2015



 

 



March in Review: 03/31/09

I only went over my quota of review writing by one this month. I have been enjoying having more time each night to work on one review instead of trying to get two or three out as I have done in the past.

All in all it was a good month of reading. My favorites include Catalog by Eugene Mirabelli, Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo, The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay and Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. The turkeys this month were Black Rainbow by Barbara Michaels and Love in 90 Days by Diana Kirschner.

  1. Alphabet Mystery by Audrey Wood (March 22)
  2. The Best Friend I Ever Had by David Nuffer (March 5)
  3. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl (March 27)
  4. Black Rainbow by Barbara Michaels (March 3)
  5. The Bomb That Followed Me Home by Cevin Soling (March 11)
  6. Catalog by Eugene Mirabelli (March 28)
  7. The Chemist by Janson Mancheski (March 7)
  8. Culture Shock! California by Mark Cramer (March 6)
  9. The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig (March 8)
  10. Duck on a Bike by David Shannon (March 17)
  11. Duck for President by Doreen Cronin (March 1)
  12. Heechee Rendezvous by Frederik Pohl (March 31)
  13. How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague (March 18)
  14. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (March 24)
  15. Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo (March 23)
  16. Keeping Hannah Waiting by Dave Clarke (March 16)
  17. Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish (March 9)
  18. Love in 90 Days by Diana Kirschner (March 30)
  19. The Night We Buried Road Dog by Jack Cady (March 14)
  20. Of Dreams and Reality by Frank L. Johnson (March 8)
  21. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (March 13)
  22. Purplicious by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann (March 19)
  23. School Days by B. G. Hennessy (March 2)
  24. The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay (March 25)
  25. Sister Margaret by Rhonda Parrish (March 28)
  26. A Surprise for Rosie by Julia Rawlinson (March 12)
  27. Texas Bake Sale by Charles Coleman Finlay (March 7)
  28. There's a Wolf at the Door by Zoë B. Alley (March 20)
  29. Tiger Burning Bright by Theodora DuBois (March 26)
  30. Venice by Adrian Stokes and John Piper (March 4)
  31. Winding Broomcorn by Mario Milosevic (March 21)
  32. The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris (March 10)


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Heechee RendezvousHeechee Rendezvous: 03/31/09

The original Gateway trilogy ends with Heechee Rendezvous, wrapping up many of the plot points but leaving a few open for future books. I have two more books in the later series that I'll be reading and reviewing.

One major thread through the three books is the life of Robinette Broadhead. We see his childhood in the food mines, his time as a prospector, his rise as a businessman and venture capitalist and ultimately his death. What happens after his death though made me think immediately of the CEO in a Jameson body in the Ghost in the Shell: SAC episode "The Fortunate Ones."

In fact there's a lot about the scientific developments and the business side of space travel that reminds me Ghost in the Shell: SAC. The planet is still suffering from food shortages, poverty and a population explosion but for those who can afford it, things are improving. The humans are starting to understand Heechee technology and are making it their own, improving health care and in Broadhead's case, a chance at immortality.

The exploration of the growing divide between the haves and haves-not is one of the novel's strengths. Unfortunately it's there are a few glaring inconsistencies between Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous in the way some key supporting characters are presented, especially Essie Broadhead.

Essie in the second book is given a Russian back-story but she speaks fluent English. Come the third book and she's suddenly a far more brilliant computer scientist / robotic engineer than she was previously but she's lost her fluency in English. She goes from being a believable and well suited spouse for Robinette to being a cardboard cutout of a character. Of course she has to change to give Robinette reason to pine over his long lost first love who was trapped in a black hole.

The whole plot with the long lost girlfriend detracts from the bigger question of where are the Heechee and why are they hiding. The girl friend is a device to force angst where none is needed and it's not even as funny as the Futurama episode "The Cryptic Woman."

Of course like all series that don't want to come to an end despite being originally set up like a trilogy, the book ends on a cliff hanger. Since I come into the series with 20/20 hindsight and have already purchased the remaining books, I'm curious to see what happens next. Were I reading the series in 1984, I'd be annoyed because I hate cliffhangers. I have a bad feeling the next two books will play out like the Niblonians vs the Flying Brains.

Read another reviews at Books I've Read Lately, Rescepto Indablog, Jamdin's Journal,

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Love in 90 DaysLove in 90 Days: 03/30/09

Love in 90 Days by Diana Kirschner is not a book I would have read or agreed to review if I had been asked. I am not part of her narrowly defined target audience. Except for the fact that I am female and was one upon a time briefly single I am not nor would ever have been interested in this book. Yet a publicist rather than risk taking "no" (I would have been polite about it) sent it to me unsolicited. Now I could have just given the book away or wild released it through BookCrossing but I would prefer to instead give one negative review amongst all the fawning praise this book has garnered (mostly from the press). I have a feeling there were many more unsolicited copies sent out to regular book blogs such as mine that have been quietly disposed of.

Love in 90 Days has a catchy and promising title. Were it as inclusive of more kinds of romantic partnerships as Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson is, then the advice might actually be useful and credible. The problem I have with this book is it is designed solely for single heterosexual women who want to find the perfect hunk among all those eligible bachelors out there because of course that is the one true road to happiness! (Sorry guys of either sexual orientation or lesbians).

Kirschner mentions studies that show married people are happier, healthier and more secure in their lives than their single counterparts. What she doesn't mention is that correlations do not equal cause and effect. Happy, healthy and secure people might be more likely to seek out or find relationships because they are happy, healthy and secure.

The book offers advice on how to attract a man and includes things like how to make yourself pretty (gag), how to flirt with threatening men in public places (yikes!), how to do online dating and speed dating (how infomercially!) and finally the importance of dating three men at once to fine THE ONE. Oh yeah, and you had best be white, well educated and not too fat for this program to work. Otherwise you have to do extra credit for your problem areas (bletch).

To wrap everything together in this 90 day program there are sets of affirmations and daily journal writing. These homework assignments. Because of course writing things like "I am a good person and I deserve love" x number of times a day will of course cure you of whatever funk you're in. Or you might actually be depressed!

When I was briefly single I suddenly found myself being pursued by three men. One man clearly just wanted to get in my pants, one might have been okay but rubbed the wrong way and then there was the smart one who was a great conversationalist and a bit of a klutz. From my own limited experience, three is too many to handle at once. I felt so much better when I gave two of the three the heave-ho. I stuck with the klutz and later married him. We've been a couple now for almost 18 years.

Now had this book existed 18 years ago and had I been foolish enough to read it, I probably would have gussied myself up and gone after the drop dead gorgeous player despite my better judgment. I would have ended up just another of the drunk floozies who hung out in his room until they dropped out of college with an std or two. See if you by the STUD or DUD test, Mr. player would have gotten higher points on the STUD test because he knew how to play the game (and he ran the dorm's bible study group).

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Sister MargaretSister Margaret: 03/29/09

A few days ago I had a nice email from author Rhonda Parrish asking if I would review her upcoming short story "Sister Margaret" which she described it as a story of a vampire hunter and a half-incubus swordsman. I was a bit wary only because vampire books (beyond Dracula) aren't my normal fare but I said yes and was in for a very pleasant surprise.

"Sister Margaret" is in deed about a vampire hunter and his hired swordsman who may very well be half-incubus. They are sent to kill a local "leech" (vampire) who is demanding protection money from the local temple girls who have been saved by Sister Margaret from a life on the streets. The story is set in Haven, one of those fantasy metropolises like Ankh-Moorpork or the Bazaar on Deva. The vampires therefore are just one of many different species living in the city and are not presented as the mysterious lust-worthy nobility with a dark side as they so often are these days. Instead, they are desperate creatures who are superstitious and from the hunter's point of view, predictable but dangerous.

"Sister Margaret" reminded me favorably of any number of fantasy short stories I've read in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story mostly reminds me of these stories in terms of tone and setting: Catamount by Marc Laidlaw and Dance of Shadows by Fred Chappell.

Rhonda Parrish is also an editor of Nightblade Fantasy and Horror Magazine and you can read her blog here

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FSFCatalog: 03/28/09

Here it is the last week of March and I'm just finishing up the February issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

"Catalog" is the third story by Eugene Mirabelli I've read and by far my favorite. It poses the question of what sort of alternate world an unhappy graphic artist would want to escape to. The answer ends up being a mixture of old short stories and catalog photo spreads.

John flits around from place to place (ad to ad and book to book sort of) much as the characters in "The Nocturnal Adventure of Dr. O and Mr. D" by Tim Sullivan (F&FS April 2008). The world he finds is a mixture of LL Bean, Edgar Allen Poe stories and the reading primers of "Dick and Jane" and "See Spot Run."

I liked the way Mirabelli imagined what life could be like if bodged together from the way we represent ourselves in print. It's fun, lighthearted and silly story. It was the perfect way to end the February issue.

See Eugene Mirabelli's home page.

Other posts and reviews:

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Ulysses Everett McGill and Bloom both have a thing for hair tonic.Ulysses: Episode 5: The Lotus Eaters: Down to the River to Pray: 03/28/09

In the fourth episode of Ulysses called "The Lotus Eaters", Bloom is finally ready to get started with his day properly. His morning chores involve a trip to the post office, a walk around town and brief rest in a church during services. Blooms lengthy monologue about the church service and organized religion is the connecting point between The Odyssey and Ulysses. It's also my reason for picking O Brother Where Art Thou? (another funny update of The Odyssey) as this week's point of comparison.

Lotus eaters in modern usage are people too strung out on narcotics to be a useful contribution to society. In Bloom's case religion is the opiate that keeping the masses from thinking on their own or being useful members of society. Bloom like Odysseus is intrigued by the lotus eaters and their strange was but not especially tempted to join in.

Born again Christians as lotus eatersUlysses Everett McGill and his two traveling companions religion in the form of a mass baptism are at first puzzled by what they see. To emphasize the strangeness of their activity the crowds show up in the background as the men argue over the best way to find transportation to meet their deadline. Here more and more white clothed men and women start streaming on screen and soon the hymn they are singing, "Down to the River to Pray" becomes only thing in sound track.

Like Odysseus, Ulysses loses his "crew" to the over whelming temptation of the swelling music and the lure of peace of mind in this case through being reborn through baptism. The remaining part of the scene involves the baptism of one as he runs down into the river almost up to his armpits and cuts in line for a chance at salvation.

Sins washed away but it will still take a pardoning by the governor for this chap.For Bloom though the stop at church is no different from any of the "sins" he has committed so far that morning (receiving a love letter from someone other than his wife, giving betting advice on a race horse, lusting after a young woman in town and so forth). For Ulysses's companions, the baptism gives them a chance to admit to the crimes they had committed before being sent to jail, ones that up to now they have professed innocence over.

So far Ulysses has been a fun, silly and crude read. I've found similarities with Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, Kif and Capt. Brannigan (from Futurama), Georgia Nicholson (created by Louise Rennison), Fry from Futurama and the baptism scene in O Brother Where Art Thou?

Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Six: Hades. I will probably be talking about the Robot Devil in Futurama. Stop by to see if I do! If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print

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Beyond the Blue Event HorizonBeyond the Blue Event Horizon: 03/27/09

Back in December I started the Heechee saga with Gateway, one of the best science fiction novels I've read in a long time. The series continues with Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. The wild west days of space travel are over and things have settled down to a more controlled methodology. No one still knows who the Heechee were (or even if they still exist) but even that mystery seems possible to solve now.

Robinette Broadhead the depressed ex-prospector is now wealthy and owns most (all?) of the space exploration interests. He is now married but still haunted by the tragic events that made him his fortune.

Mostly though, Broadhead is a secondary character. The novel focuses around a family of explorers more akin to Swiss Family Robinson or more recently Lost in Space. Their journey out to the CHON Food Factory in the Oort Cloud was interesting and almost as entertaining as the prospecting in Gateway. Unfortunately they have to run into Wan, a wild child of outer space who ends up dominating much of the plot of Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous.

Wan is one of the major detractors in the novel. He has about as much appeal as Wesley Crusher in Next Gen. combined with the temper and sex drive of a Vulcan going through Pon Far. I spent much of the book wishing evil things at Wan.

Despite Wan running amok in the novel, there is still the fascinating world building and imagined technology of Gateway. This time it's combined with long lectures on cosmology which are interesting but basically filler. If you don't want to sit through the long discussions of how the universe works you can read up on the basics in The Whole Shebang first.

Read another reviews at Blog di Carti (in Portuguese).

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Tiger Burning BrightTiger Burning Bright: 03/26/09

Tiger Burning Bright by Theodora DuBois is an exercise in the adage of "don't judge a book by its cover." Looking at the cover alone, it looks like a light-hearted young adult novel with perhaps a dash of romance. While it is a young adult novel and there is a romantic thread it is by no means lighthearted (except in its start and finish).

Open the book and there is a single page with a title: "A Few Facts about India" which contains three brief pages about the Sepoy Rebellion. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 is the setting for Tiger Burning Bright. While the introduction sets the stage for a nail bighting historical drama, DuBois's view on the events is decidedly pro-British and some of her prejudice does bleed through into the novel.

The novel is written from the point of view of Anne Burney a young American Missionary whose family is in India. While they are in the south away from where the rebellion explodes, Anne is sent north to serve as the governess to an English family living in Delhi. When most of the adults are killed, Anne, her friend Jack from America and the English children from the village make the long and dangerous walk from Delhi through the desert to Multan (now part of Pakistan).

DuBois's choice to two Americans as the leads helps some to balance the different sides in the rebellion: the British (many of whom were civilians), the Hindus and the Muslims as well as a few smaller groups. The Muslims in the book get the worst treatment being almost universally presented as dangerous and savage even those such as Usef Ali who helps them at great risk to his own family. Given the circumstances of the war raging just outside of the walled compound of his home I think he acted fairly reasonably.

My understanding the geography and the history of the rebellion helped make the novel far more frightening than I think it would have been had I read it even as recently as three years ago. Back in 2006 I researched the area for a Nanowrimo I was writing that year set along the Indus River.

If you decide to read Tiger Burning Bright or other novels set during this time period, I also recommend:

To learn more about Theodora DuBois, please see the Guide to the Theodora DuBois Papers.

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The Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret of Lost Things: 03/25/09

Sometimes a book will just click with a reader. Everything (or almost everything) will fall into place and just be a shared experience between the author, the fictional characters and the reader. The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay was one of those books for me.

Rosemary born on Anzac Day and therefore named for the herb often worn on lapels in Australia. Until her eighteenth birthday her home is her mother's hat shop in Tasmania. When her mother dies she is sent by a bookseller friend to New York with her mother's ashes in a box of Huon pine, one of the most pungent pine scents I have ever smelled; it seems to permeate the entire island.

In that first chapter I was drawn back to my own experience as an exchange student in Tasmania at the age of 17. I can picture the very first place I visited on my own, a used book shop in Ulverstone to buy Nova by Samuel R. Delany for $5.20. I was just as naive and confused by Tasmanian culture (which is a blend of mainland Australian and British ex-pat cultures) as Rosemary is in New York. I can remember being overwhelmed by homesickness at the aroma of the Huon pines (which aren't really pines but smell enough like them to confuse a jet-lagged nose) growing at the Don college.

Then there is Rosemary's time in New York where she works at a place called The Arcade (and apparently inspired by the author's time working at the Strand). Although I haven't worked in a bookstore (would love to someday) I have worked in a university library and in my father's antique shop both which attract people similar to the characters in The Secret of Lost Things.

The final point where I clicked with Rosemary was with her involvement in the search for Melville's lost novel, Isle of the Cross (1853). While I'm no Melville scholar, I am a bit of a fan of his and Hawthorne's books and was vaguely aware of their odd friendship.

Had all those different pieces in my life not been in place I probably would have been more troubled by the novel's flaws. The wacky characters are sometimes too two-dimensional, Rosemary stays naive too long, her obsession with Oscar is just as creepy as Geist's obsession with her is. Yes, those flaws are there but the connection I felt with the book was so strong I don't care about any of them. For a completely different take on the novel and a better look at the book's flaws, please see the review at The Keeping it Real Book Club (listed below).

Learn more about author Sheridan Hays at Backstory.

Other posts and reviews

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The Importance of Being EarnestThe Importance of Being Earnest: 03/24/09

Fandom is a double edged sword. It can be good for the ego and dangerous for body. Add to the mixture of a sexually repressed society, a homosexual extra marital affair and a homophobic father and you have a career ender. That's of course not the plot of Oscar Wilde's most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest but the true life drama surrounding the play.

The play itself is a pretty tame farce of mistaken identities and promises of marriage if only the parties involved can unravel who is who. At the heart of the matter is the question of who is Earnest and who is Jack Worthing. Jack is a foundling, having been left a train station in a bag as an infant.

The play is three short and silly acts with lots witty dialogue. Sometimes it's confusing to read but on stage it's a riot. I've seen it performed ages ago but this was the first time for me to read it.

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Jane Austen Ruined My LifeJane Austen Ruined My Life: 03/23/09

I feel about Jane Austen as I do about Joseph Conrad; I prefer the adaptations to the original novels. I like Jane Austen slightly than Conrad in that I've actually managed to finish two of his novels and I've yet to make it past about twenty pages of any Austen novel. If loving Jane Austen is a requirement for the girls only club, then I'll have to tender my resignation!

That being said, I love the title and I tend to love bookish books. Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo imagines a secret society to protect the reputation of Jane Austen while keeping the truth of her life alive to only best and most dedicated scholars. Enter Emma Grant who has been lured to England after her husband and his lover have ruined her promising career. She is their latest recruit if she can successfully accomplish their list of tasks without betraying the deathbed wishes of Jane Austen.

Secret societies in fiction tend to send off warning bells for me as they can be so over done. Sometimes through an author makes them an interesting and believable part of the fiction (The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl and The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte and now Beth Pattillo with her Formidables in Jane Austen Ruined My Life).

For the most part I enjoyed the book and the tasks that Emma had to complete which lead her through key points in Austen's life. I liked Adam and was interested in his romantic history with Emma. I have a few quibbles though with the novel's set up; if Emma is as much an expert on Austen as everyone claims she is, her university wouldn't be so quick to take the word of her husband and his lover on the groundless claims of plagiarism. Grant earning professor trumps grad student. Also, the ending didn't seem in keeping with the chick lit genre but a romantic ending wouldn't be true to the parallels between Jane and Emma's lives.

All in all, other than a rather weak plot device to get the novel rolling, Jane Austen Ruined My Life is a charming and entertaining blending of literary fiction and chick lit. Fans of Jane Austen will probably enjoy the novel most but this non fan enjoyed it too.

Learn more about author Beth Pattillo at her website.

Other posts and reviews

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Alphabet MysteryAlphabet Mystery: 03/22/09

Now that my son can read and has access to library books through his school, I am being introduced all sorts of new to me authors and titles. One of these new to me books is Alphabet Mystery by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Bruce Wood.

Alphabet Mystery is the second of three books involving the letters of "Charlie's Alphabet." When they aren't needed by Charlie when he's at school, they live in a world of other alphabet letters (upper and lower case). In this book, the letter x has gone missing and the others don't know why.The remaining letters go on a quest to find the missing x. The journey takes them a haunted castle inhabited by a Monster M.

The solution to the mystery is unexpected given the horror film setting but it's charming and something Sean could relate to. We spent about a week talking about the book's ending so I consider the book a success.

The book is cute and brightly illustrated with 3D renders by Bruce Wood. Each page has a number of visual puns and other silliness to keep children and parents entertained for many readings.

Other posts and reviews

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FSFWinding Broomcorn: 03/21/09

Before I begin my review of "Winding Broomcorn" by Mario Milosevic, the Hugo nominations have been announced. FSF has a number of entries but the one that has me most excited is Gordon Van Gelder's nomination in the "Best Editor, Short Form" category. The magazine and the forum wouldn't be the same without his hard work and sense of humor. Congratulations! I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

"Winding Broomcorn" is Mario Milosevic's second story in the magazine. The first one, "Dead Letters" was published 30 years ago. This very short story delighted me and reminded me of Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin. I think it's my favorite of the February issue so far.

In it, a man who specializes in handmade brooms is approached by a witch who needs a broom made a certain way for an unspoken reason. He nods knowingly, remember a woman he loved and has lost and makes the broom to her specification. In turn he is invited to a gathering where he is allowed one last change to say goodbye to his lost love.

I hope I don't have to wait another 30 years for another of Milosevic's stories to appear in F&SF.

See Mario Milosevic's blog.

Other posts and reviews:

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Fry and Bloom have some things in commonUlysses: Episode 4: Calypso: Parasites Lost: 03/21/09

The fourth episode of Ulysses called "Calypso" begins the second part of the novel. This is "The Odyssey" section and all the titles reflect key points in Homer's epic. If you haven't read The Odyssey in a while (or ever), Calypso imprisoned Odysseus on her island trying to force him into becoming her immortal husband.

Calypso in Ulysses isn't so much about a man trapped on an island while trying to get home to his wife. It is though, the introduction of Leopold Bloom who like the "Eds" in Episode One just wants his breakfast but also has to contend with keeping his wife happy.

For Leopold Bloom, happiness is a visceral thing. He likes to eat organ meat and he spends most of this section either thinking about organs he's going to eat or how his own organs are fairing. Since the whole love and happiness is tied up neatly with kidneys and bowels, I have to nod my head to one of my favorite Futurama episodes "Parasites Lost."

Fry and Bloom both have to keep their trousers cleanIn "Parasites Lost" Fry, like Bloom has three concerns: love (Leela), hunger (sketchy gas station egg salad) and his bowels (where space parasites have taken up residence). The episode draws its title from Milton's Paradise Lost which is written in the style of The Aeneid. The Aeneid is seen by some as the third epic in a three part trilogy which includes: The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Personally I see Virgil's Aeneid as bad fanfict that has been unfortunately associated with two much better works.

Now in "Calypso" the basic events are this: Bloom wakes up, talks to his cat, decides what he wants to have for breakfast, goes to the butcher to buy breakfast, comes back and makes it, reads the mail with his wife, eats breakfast and then takes a leisurely crap. In "Parasites Lost" Fry finishes a delivery, talks to his robot, eats a tainted egg salad sandwich, gets hurt pulling a stupid prank, successfully woos Leela and then has his body invaded by miniatures of his coworkers who want to rid him of the parasites that are making him smarter. They will set off a giant explosion right near his sphincter causing him to crap his pants in the process of getting rid of the parasites.

So far Ulysses has been a fun, silly and crude read. I've found similarities with Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, Kif and Capt. Brannigan (from Futurama), Georgia Nicholson (created by Louise Rennison) and now Fry from Futurama.

Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Five: The Lotus Eaters. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print

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Historical Fiction: 03/21/09

There are two ways to go back in time with a book: read old contemporary fiction (books written in the time that they portray) and to read historical fiction (books that portray a time before the book was written). Of the two options, I tend to go for the old contemporary fiction. If you were to look at my personal library, most of the 2,800 books are published before I was born. I'm not against new fiction but old books are cheaper and harder to find in libraries or to borrow from friends. I have also ended up adopting (for lack of a better word) old books from people who can no longer keep their collections for one reason or another.

Five years ago I adopted a collection of about one hundred books from a man who had been reading and collecting books from his favorite authors over the course of his life time but was now moving into a retirement home that didn't have the room for his books. He introduced me to a number of "new to me" authors including: Clarence Budington Kelland (who created Mr. Deeds among many many many other characters), Joseph Crosby Lincoln, Peter B. Kyne and others. I have been reading and reviewing the books as I have time on my blog.

Clarence Budington Kelland wrote contemporary fiction starting in the 1910s, all the way through the 1950s. If you want to see what life and culture was like in the United States and see it change over time, you must read his books. If you are a movie buff, you've probably seen adaptations of his books. His most recent adaptation was the Adam Sandler version of Mr. Deeds. It's from a short story called "The Opera Hat" and has been filmed twice.

My reviews of Kelland's books include:

Joseph C. Lincoln wrote novels set in fictional towns up and down Cape Cod. For the most part, the books have a heavy nautical setting, are often a mystery and some could even be classified by the modern genre of "paranormal romances."

My reviews of Lincoln's books include:

Peter B. Kyne is another American novelist with a long career. He wrote from 1904 to 1940 and had 110 films adapted from his novels. He was born and lived his life in San Francisco. Tracy High School's football field is named for him. A number of his novels are available online at Project Gutenberg. I haven't reviewed any of his books yet but I plan to later in the year.

But What About Historical Fiction?

When it comes to historical novels, I don't have a favorite era or a favorite genre. With that in mind, I'll list the ones that came immediately to mind.

  • Immortal by Traci Slatton is set in various cities in Italy over the course of a couple hundred years. While the set up is pure fantasy, the historical setting is convincingly Italy in the years before, during and just after the plague.
  • City of Light by Lauren Belfer does a really good job of capturing Buffalo New York at the time that it was getting electricity run throughout the city. As a study of that piece of the city's history it's fascinating. As a romantic thriller, it falls short for me.
  • Keeping Hannah Waiting by Dave Clarke is both a contemporary novel and a historical fiction. The historical fiction part focuses on Marc Chagall and his relationship with a young woman who would later die in a concentration camp.



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There's a Wolf at the DoorThere's a Wolf at the Door: 03/20/09

There's a Wolf at the Door takes five fairy tales that feature wolves and retells them. They are illustrated in a manner similar to a graphic novel and the book did make it to the finals of the graphic novels panel for the Cybils this year.

The five retold stories are: The Three Little Pigs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, and The Wolf and the Seven Little Goslings. While I applaud the attempt to retell these well known classic fairy tales, I think they could have been better.

First and foremost, the layout of the panels lacks the necessary unity between text and illustrations. Typically in graphic novels and comic books the text is hand lettered or set in a typeface that mimics hand lettering. In other words, the text looks like it is part of the illustration as the two are telling the story together. Here, the typeface is a generic looking serif font; it looks like a Times variant. Regardless of what the typeface is, it jumps off the page in a very jarring fashion, pulling my attention away from the illustrations. Every so often, though, some of the lettering is done by hand which makes the presentation all the more bizarre.

Each story has a moral as many children's stories do. The message though seems to be emphasized at the expense of the humor of the story. Sometimes the moral is literally screamed by a character in ALL CAPS. Subtly is often a more effective teacher than a lesson shouted on a bull horn.

The one thing though that really does work are segues between stories. There is just one wolf looking for a meal and failing each time to get what he wants. Each story takes off where the last one ended proving a seamless transition through five very different stories.

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PurpliciousPurplicious: 03/19/09

Two of the most popular night time books in our house right now are Pinkalicious and Purplicious by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann. Boy will my kids flip when they hear that Goldilicious is coming out this June.

In Purplicious, Pinkalicious is a little older, maybe having gone from kindergarten to first grade. Her schoolmates have decided to give up on their younger obsessions, declaring "pink is passé." The new pink is black.

At home though Pink finds no comfort from her family. Not in a house where her parents and brother are almost as crazy about pink as she is. She can't escape the color and it depresses her as her diary shows.

What Pink ultimately learns is that it's okay to be different from the "in crowd." She does find her own niche with a new friend. She also learns that pink mixed with light blue makes a lovely shade of purple.

As a former Goth who went through a phase of wearing almost nothing but black and still consider black one of my favorite colors, I find Purplicious especially touching. Fancy me with two children who are nuts about the color pink. I have had to come to terms with the color as it's now a constant part of my life.

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How Do Dinosaurs Go to SchoolHow Do Dinosaurs Go to School? 03/18/09

Sean and I adore the How Do Dinosaurs... series by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. The latest one they've written is How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? The book comes at a perfect time with Sean starting his first year in elementary school.

As with all the dinosaur books, the book has two parts: the bad examples and the good examples. Each and every book starts with very silly examples of what not to do followed by dinosaurs acting properly for the situation. In the bad examples section there is an especially funny page with a dinosaur making noises during show and tell time while a grumpy teacher glares at the dinosaur. What cracks me up about this page is that it is a problem Sean has been dinged with and his teacher looks remarkably like the one on this page of the book.

Now Jane Yolen's rhyming text is cute by itself but it comes to life with Mark Teague's retro style illustrations. Besides being cute they are also informative. Each page is labeled with the species name. Besides learning how to behave at school, one can also learn some different types of dinosaurs.

You can read my other reviews from the series:

Read another review at Suite101 and stop by Jane Yolen's website

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Duck on a BikeDuck on a Bike: 03/17/09

In my son's life time it seems that the children's book market has been flooded with duck picture books. I've reviewed a number of them: Duck for President

  • Ducks in Muck
  • Five Little Ducks
  • Hide-and-Seek Duck
  • One Stuck Duck.

    Duck on a Bike by David Shannon is in the style of Doreen Cronin's farm books (see Duck for President and Click Clack Moo, for example). Duck here is the ring leader in a series of bicycle thefts. After Duck borrows a snappy red bike, the other farm animals follow suit after initially poo-pooing his desire to go for a ride. As silly as the concept sounds, it works brilliantly. The bright illustrations bring story to life with humor and just enough plausibility to work.

    Like so many children's picture books, the story builds on repetition: first duck telling all the animals that he wants to ride the bike and them laughing at them. Then one by one the animals take up riding too. It comes to a silly conclusion as the animals run the risk of being caught. Were this by Doreen Cronin, Duck and the others wouldn't care if they were caught. In fact they would probably either demand their own bikes or a time share on the available ones.

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    To learn more about the author, check out the No Dave site at Scholastic.

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  • Keeping Hannah WaitingKeeping Hannah Waiting: 03/16/09

    Writing a review of a historical fiction that covers a recent and painful piece of world history is a daunting task. Add to the mixture, a book that offers to teach about the continued wrongs being propagated against the original victims and their families while being a source of charity income for an organization that is striving to undo some of those wrongs and it leaves me not sure how to proceed.

    Keeping Hannah Waiting by Dave Clarke is just such a book. At its most basic form, it is a historical and contemporary fiction about a fictional Marc Chagall painting (Girl with Flowers) found under extraordinary circumstances with an even more extraordinary history. It is also a teaching device about events leading up to the German concentration camps and the on going repercussions. Finally all the sales of the book go to benefit the Survivor Mitzvah Project.

    For the purpose of this review, I am only going to focus on the fictional aspects of the book and way in which the story is told. Keeping Hannah Waiting has three distinct parts: Kate McBride's story of her mother's death and the discovery of the painting, the story of Lilly called Hannah, and finally Kate's attempt to do some good with her ill gotten gains.

    The novel excels at building a convincing timeline for both Kate's story and Lilly's story, though it does take advantage at dramatic coincidence to keep things tight. I especially loved Kate's part of the book as she goes through the emotional roller coaster of losing her mother, having to settle her mother's estate, finding the painting, thinking all her financial problems were over and then realizing the human cost of her gain. How Kate manages to track down Hannah and learn her story was also fascinating and reminded me favorably of The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

    Just as all the pieces of Kate's quest are coming together, the novel steps away from her for a hundred page flash back that features the story of Marc Chagall and the real Hannah. By itself this section is just as well written as the modern day parts that book-end it. Coming though when it does, it's jarring and to some degree it soured my appreciation of the novel. The two timelines would have been better presented in a parallel structure.

    Despite my quibbles about the placement of the historical section of the novel within the contemporary part, I still think it's a book worth reading.

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    SurvivorSurvivor: 03/15/09

    I'm typically not a fan of movie tie-in. Novelizations are one thing but to create an entire series of books from one film seems like a bit much. With that in mind, I reluctantly read Survivor, the first of the Scholastic books based on the Sixth Sense film. The film is now ten years old and the book series is nine years old so the hype has long since died. Can the book stand on its own after all this time?

    Surprisingly (to me), the answer is yes. The main character is now Cole Sear and I suppose he was in the film too if you know the twist. There are ghosts and a mystery but the kid who sees ghosts could have been anyone. Cole here is angrier and more self confident than the withdrawn kid in the film.

    To make this a "Sixth Sense" book, Cole needs dead people to see and the book delivers with an entire planeload of dead people when the plane crashes next to the museum where Cole and his classmates are on a field trip. What Cole sees in the very first minutes of the crash are crucial to solving the cause of the crash; he just doesn't know it yet and won't for a long while. In the meantime he has to do deal with a gaggle of ghosts who all want to be heard.

    The two though who want to be heard most are the sister of the only surviving member of the crash and a Russian passenger suspected of being a terrorist. Like Philip in The Dead Father's Club, Cole has to set his priorities between the living and the dead. He has to sort through all the stories he's being told to find the truth and to decided who needs his help most.

    Survivor doesn't require knowledge of the film to make sense. It stands by itself and would have been an excellent 'tween horror without the extra help. | | | |

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    FSFThe Night We Buried Road Dog: 03/14/09

    "The Night We Buried Road Dog" is the February classic reprint in FSF. It is a long novella and its length caused delays in its original publishing date as Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains in her introduction. The novella though went on to win the Nebula and World Fantasy awards (among others) and is the title story in a collection of fiction by Jack Cady.

    "...Road Dog" is set in Montana and Minnesota in the mid to late 1960s. It's devoted to cars, dogs and the open road. It is also reminiscent of Don Quixote but with a hint of The Mark of Zorro. Jed (the Sancho Panza for this tale) and Jesse (Don Quixote) set out on the quest to catch the Road Dog. Their only clues are a series of humorous graffiti left at the favorite watering holes along the highway.

    Along the way a number of cars are buried in a cemetery run by Jesse. The first to "die" is Miss Molly (good golly!) to a cracked crankshaft. All of these sacrifices though lead Jesse and Jed no closer to discovering the identity of Road Dog.

    As the title implies, the Road Dog is discovered but he is never caught. Who and why he is part of the sweet beauty of this story. The revelation didn't come as a surprise to me but was still satisfying. It reminded me of Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King without the horror, though there are moments of magical realism.

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    UlyssesUlysses: Episode 3: Proteus: Georgia Nicholson: 03/14/09

    The third episode of Ulysses called "Proteus" ends the first part (The Telemachiad) of the novel. Proteus is the Greek shape-shifting "Old Man of the Sea" who can see the future but will only answer to whomever can catch him.

    In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus having had a shitty day at work goes to sea perhaps to find answers but mostly just to throw a hissy fit and cuss at life until he feels better. The entire fifteen page episode is written as stream of consciousness that blips between languages and mixes up literary allusions and is peppered with swearing and observations of the life happening around him as he storms down to the seaside.

    What this episode reminds me of more than anything is one of my all time favorite young adult diary writing characters: Georgia Nicholson. She first appeared in Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (1999) which lead to sixteen more books. The books are written as diary entries in a stream of conscious flow with a similar (albeit more juvenile) mixture of slang, mangled allusions, foreign languages (bad French and German mostly) and funny observations of her day to day life.

    The first book has also been adapted into a film (which I haven't seen) and the title cleaned up to Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. I'm including the poster to the film just because it's a perfect illustration of stream of consciousness except perhaps that Georgia looks much too calm. She and Stephen are more high strung than that poster implies.

    The stream of conscious diary is such a common literary technique in British young adult fiction I found it (perhaps unintentionally) amusing to be reading the same thing in a classic. Then I start imagining young budding authors being forced to read Ulysses in school and drawing on the stranger parts of the novel in the future when they are bringing their own characters to life.

    Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Four: Calypso. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print. For more information about the novel, check out these wikipedia articles: Ulysses (novel) and ProteusLouise Rennison, and Georgia Nicholson's "homepage."
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    Our Man in HavanaOur Man in Havana: 03/13/09

    Carol Reed and Graham Greene collaborated on a number of films. Their best known collaboration is The Third Man (1949) but my favorite one is Our Man in Havana (1960). Procrastination and budgetary problems ended up putting the filming right at the start of the Cuban revolution and forever changed a little film about a vacuum salesman into something extraordinary.

    Graham Greene is no stranger to combining humor, politics and war. The Heart of the Matter set evokes Greene's experiences in Sierra Leon during WWII and it while humorous is a much darker and serious novel from the very beginning. Likewise, The Third Man is set in Vienna in the aftermath of WWII and has its mixture of pulp culture humor and post war-time commentary.

    Our Man in Havana, though, starts off both in the book and in the film on a much lighter note. Havana is presented as an out of the way place too off the radar to be of much interest to anyone. Nonetheless, the home office needs a man (spy) there to keep tabs on the local situation in case things hot up. The man sent to recruit a spy, Hawthorne (played by Noel Coward in the film) sees this directive as a complete waste of time and makes a half-assed effort by recruiting James Wormmold (played by Alec Guinness), a vacuum salesman. Likewise, Wormold (who is only ever called James or Jim if the situation is serious enough), doesn't believe anything will ever happen in Havana either but needs the money. To meet his quota, he makes up stories based on local people and submits diagrams based on his vacuums.

    Had things gone very differently or the film been made five or ten years earlier, Wormold would have had a few lighthearted scrapes with the local authorities and Hawthorne would have been taught a lesson for his laziness and that would have been that. It would have been a cute parody on Reed and Greene's earlier and more serious films. But that's not what happened about midway through the book and the film the narrative takes a left turn.

    Wormold's diagrams of "silos" (actually vacuum hoses) end up being eerie predictions of the near future Cuban Missile crisis. And as the film's opening text states: "This film is set in Cuba before the recent revolution." The story though it takes place before Castro (and Castro and the revolution are never named in the novel) the film was shot after Castro.

    If you haven't had a chance to see the film or it's been a while since you've seen it, add it your Netflix queue or buy a copy. Then read the book. Or do it the other way around. But the two really do go together.

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    A Surprise for RosieA Surprise for Rosie: 03/12/09

    In A Surprise for Rosie by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tim Warnes, Rosie gets a birthday surprise from her father. Before she finds out what it is, she spends the whole day trying to find out what her father has planned.

    The book is divided into three parts: introducing Rosie and her friends, Rosie's search for what the surprise is and then finally a day spent with her Dad enjoying her surprise. Rosie's friends are the different animals who live in the forest and the cliffside near the ocean.

    Tim Warnes's cheerful illustrations are the best parts of this children's book. Rosie lives in a magical but recognizable world. The cliffs remind me a bit of the California coastline but it's probably the British coastline as Julia Rawlinson and Tim Warnes are married and living together in a rural village in southern England.

    I have a couple reservations about the book. Although the story has a simplistic plot, I find it tricky to read aloud to my children. The text uses some stilted phrases and has an awkward meter (to an American ear). My second complaint is Rosie's characterization. She's described as a rabbit who has everything and likes to know everything. When her father and her friends don't tell her what she's getting for her birthday she acts like a spoiled brat trying to sneak around behind her father's back to spoil the surprise. Despite her constant whining about the present her father still gives it to her as if her behavior is normal and acceptable.

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    The Bomb That Followed Me HomeThe Bomb That Followed Me Home: 03/11/09

    At the start of the year, I (along with most of the rest of the book review blogosphere from the look of things) was asked to review The Bomb That Followed Me Home by Cevin Soling, apparently the third fractured fairy tale in the Rumpleville series. From the reviews I've read, most reviewers expected a light-hearted children's story. Come on, the title has the word bomb in it. How does that connote anything light-hearted or innocent. It sounds like subversive satire to me (think A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift [1729]) or more recently, Monty Python's Flying Circus.

    I happen to like subversive satire so I was intrigued. Then there's the teaser for the book: "We've all heard of stray cats following kids home or a lost puppy yelping by a kitchen door for food, but did you know that even a wayward little bomb needs love and attention too?..." I couldn't help but think of my son who is constantly making up stories that are just as bizarre sounding as The Bomb That Followed Me Home.

    The book is 40 pages long and in the style somewhere between a picture book and a graphic novel. The illustrations by Steve Kille remind me a mixture of the original Fractured Fairy Tales on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Dave McKean's artwork. The story itself is on the surface and absurd tale of a bomb following a boy home and being the solution to a tricky problem.

    On closing though, the book brings up questions (as any satire should). How is the bomb following the boy? Is it any different than the smart bombs we're using in war? Is it's cuteness a stand in for how complacent we've become to our own weapons of mass destruction? Then there is the name of the neighbors: Greenspan. When the book was published Alan Greenspan had just ended his tenure as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. The Greenspans in the book have an annoying hedge and I can't help but think hedge fund. That's the fun of a satire; there's wiggle room for interpretation.

    I've read the book to my son and his main reaction is why was the story written and how could the parents be so irresponsible with the bomb?

    I'll close with one parting thought. The book reminded me most of all of the exploding penguin sketch from Monty Python.

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    The Whole ShebangThe Whole Shebang: 03/10/09

    Timothy Ferris's enthusiasm for space is infective. In Seeing in the Dark he wrote about his love of astronomy (and many others who share his love of it). In The Whole Shebang he tries to tackle the current state of our knowledge of life, the universe and everything. The title is also a delicious pun on the "big bang" and he has things to say about it too.

    The Whole Shebang looks like a hefty book at first at 400 pages, but the last hundred are devoted to the end notes and bibliography. The remaining 300 pages is divided into 12 chapters that cover many of the different ways of thinking about the universe: how it expands, how it is shaped, the big bang and the evidence we have for it, dark matter, the structure of the universe, the evolution of stars and other bodies in space, and chapters on quantum physics (but presented in Ferris's engaging and easy to follow manner) and finally where we fit into all of this.

    I enjoyed The Whole Shebang more than I did Seeing in the Dark because there is less focus on Ferris's interviews with other experts in the field. The Whole Shebang instead sticks with the topic and only glances at the people responsible for advancing our understanding of space and the universe. I came to this book with a layman's basic understanding of the science in the book and so found it a relatively quick read giving the complexity of the subject. Others who aren't as familiar with the subject might want to take it in smaller chunks than I did but I think it will still be an interesting and understandable book.

    To learn more about the author, check out his website.

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    Little HeathensLittle Heathens: 03/09/09

    I grew up listening to my maternal grandmother's stories of growing up during the Great Depression. She was eight when the stock market crashed so her memories were vivid. Reading Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish was like having a visit from my grandmother.

    Mildred Kalish lived in Iowa with her mother and siblings, half the time of the year in her grandparent's farm in Garrison and the other half in nearby unincorporated Monroe county on a farm owned by the grandparents. The book is full of her memories of her large family which included aunts, uncles and cousins, the chores they did together and how the seasons dictated the timing of the chores and her family's deep roots in Garrison.

    What set this memoir apart for me was Mildred Kalish's frankness. Mixed in with the schmaltz is some straight talk about what life was like for the adults (and the big kids). She has a long and very silly discussion on slang and swear words. I could have checked off most of them from the list I had learned from my grandmother. Ian had a similar reaction when I read the juicier bits to him.

    Nut gathering was a big part of the family ritual from the black walnuts and hickory nuts in the family graveyard. My grandmother when she was dating my grandfather had her first experience with nut gathering. She was usually one to do things from scratch the but nut gathering and preparation was one thing that tried her patience. As soon as they were married and far away from his family, she put an end to nut gathering. So when I was reading chapter 19, I was giggling, knowing that here was one thing grandmother wouldn't agree on with Mildred Kalish.

    To learn more about the book, please see the Little Heathens website.

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    The Dead Father's ClubThe Dead Father's Club: 03/08/09

    The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig is written in diary form making it a very typical British young adult novel. All of these novels have a hook to set them apart; The Dead Fathers Club is a retelling of Hamlet.

    To be Hamlet a story needs: a dead father, a lecherous uncle, a mother, and a depressed girl friend. Philip Noble, the eleven year old protagonist doesn't just have the icky fact that his uncle is now dating his mother, he also has the ghost of his father demanding revenge by his next birthday.

    Fathers who are murdered, his dad's ghost explains, join the Dead Fathers Club. If their deaths are avenged before their next birthday they can move on to heaven. If not, they are forever doomed to suffer Terrors and stay ghosts forever. (p. 19) What Philip has to do is decide whether he wants to believe his father and take up the call for revenge or ignore him and let life go on regardless of whatever horrors might exist in the afterlife.

    As The Dead Father's Club is a full length novel, and not a play, Philip has more time to think and it does give him longer moments of clarity over the Danish prince. His mother and uncle, also not constrained to the cliches of tragedy are more fully fleshed than the Bard's characters allowing more options in the narrative beyond the usual ending. That's not to say that everything ends rosily, there are unfortunate consequences to actions taken but I don't want to give anything away.

    Like David Almond's The Savage, The Dead Fathers Club is written to reflect Philip's voice including a lack of sensible punctuation, strange capitilizations and words running together. It takes some getting used to before the story will start to flow. The familiarity of Hamlet makes the process easier.

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    Of Dreams and RealitiesOf Dreams and Realities: 03/08/09

    One of my on-going goals as a reader is to read more poetry. It's a type of writing outside of my normal comfort zone. Of Dreams and Realities is a "collection of poems that examines the little things in life that are often overlooked." (GoodReads description) While the subject matter covered in this collection is enlightening in it's quaintness, the execution of the verse fell flat for me.

    The poems are typically quatrains with a standard rhyming scheme except that the words don't always rhyme when they should and there are often too many syllables squeezed in to upset the meter. These poems would have been better as free verse.

    Visually the typesetting is distracting. Each poem is set with it's own typeface and size. Some are large. Some are small. Some are serif and some aren't. There is no rhyme or reason to the typesetting for any given poem. Finally there is at least one poem repeated in the collection with hints at sloppy copy editing on top of the bizarre typesetting.

    Other poetry collections I've reviewed include: Forgive My Trespassing by Cynthia Blomquist Gustavson, Gag by Lovechild, Strike Anywhere by Dean Young, One Crossed Out by Fanny Howe, and Some Ether by Nick Flynn.

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    The ChemistThe Chemist: 03/07/09

    Debut novel The Chemist by Janson Mancheski introduces Detective Cale Van Waring and a new mystery series. The book is set in Green Bay Wisconsin, an unusual but refreshing location.

    The Chemist opens with the kidnapping of a young woman by a man calling himself the Chemist. As things switch to Van Waring's point of view, we learn that she is the forth woman to go missing, one of whom has been found decapitated in Lake Michigan. With her body, Van Waring is running on the assumption that the other women are dead too.

    Mancheski peppers the mystery with enough red herrings to keep one guessing. I fell victim to one of them on page 75 when I was sure he had revealed the killer's identity. I worried that the book would suffer from too small a cast of characters. Fortunately, though, the book went on a completely different direction and opened up the fictional world to include a number of possible but wrong leads. This approach added to the suspense (especially later when the Chemist's identity is revealed to the reader) while making the proceedural aspect of this mystery feel more realistic.

    My only quibble is with the ending. Without giving anything away, I felt cheated by the choice to go with the melodramatic ending over the a more straight-up conclusion to the investigation. There could have still be a dramtic rescue and a show down without the contrivances. After all the convincing world building and characterization, the ending flung the fact that I was reading fiction right back in my face.

    Nonetheless, I enjoyed The Chemist and am looking forward to future books in the series. Janson Mancheski's website mentions that he's working on a second book. I am curious what sort of case Cale Van Waring's next one will be.

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    FSFTexas Bake Sale: 03/07/09

    In the previous issue, Charles Coleman Finlay had a historical fantasy set during the revolutionary war called "The Minutemen's Witch." This month's offering is in the near future (about a hundred years from now) and set in what remains of Texas.

    "Texas Bake Sale" is by no means a fluffy piece about selling brownies in the future. "Operation Bake Sale" as this band of Marines calls their operation is a way of securing needed funds, equipment and recruits. Imagine a future where the economy has plummeted to the point of a civil war that has obliterated the United States. There are nation states from the remains of the old states but they are not necessarily the same fifty we have now.

    The post United States science fiction story isn't anything new. I could make a long list of them but I won't. The primary example that jumped to my mind is The Postman by David Brin (and the lame movie staring Kevin Costner). In Brin's version, things started to get back in order slowly when a confidence man weasels his way into a walled city by claiming to be mailman. Of course like Henry Hill in The Music Man he ends up being tricked into making good on those promises and becomes a better person for it.

    "Texas Bake Sale" offers no such glimmer of hope. Instead it is just a slice of this future history with a few hints at how we got from now to then. There are also discussions on the history of piracy and the nebulous line between legitimate, government backed forces and pirates.

    Of the four stories I've now read by Charles Coleman Finlay, "Texas Bake Sale" is my favorite followed by "We Come Not to Praise Washington."

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    UlyssesUlysses: Episode 2 - Nestor: Kif: 03/07/09

    Last week I started off my eighteen post series on Ulysses with a comparision of episode one (Telamachus) to Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy. This week we look at Stephen's job as a teacher and perhaps his own self styled (but perhaps misguided) role as an elder statesman.

    Stephen tries to keep his class entertained as he's giving the day's lesson. He doesn't have much luck. He tries a riddle on them but it is over their heads and further alienates him from his class. Frustrated by a failed day of teaching he goes to the headmaster for his pay. Instead of being able to slip in and slip out and be on his way, he has to listen to the headmaster go on about his hatred for Jews.

    Although Stephen doesn't say much inresponse to his students or to the headmaster I could just hear him sighing in the way that Kif does whenever Zapp Brannigan opens his mouth. Now Brannigan isn't as hateful as headmaster Deasy but he is officious and boreish and completely convinced that he's right.

    Episode two is called Nestor. He is an argonaut just as Kif is a member of the space crew in charge of policing the galaxy around Earth. Nestor is used as the voice or reason in The Odyssey but is also the butt of a number of jokes. Kif is clearly the smartest one on the ship but is nearly always humileated during a gag. He also more than anyone has to listen to Captain Brannigan's endless speachifying.

    Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Three: Proteus. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print. For more information about the novel, check out these wikipedia articles: Ulysses (novel) and Nestor

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    Culture Shock! CaliforniaCulture Shock! California: 03/06/09

    I'm a native Californian. I grew up in southern California, about 24 miles north of the border, went to college in Santa Barbara and now live in the Bay Area. So what am I doing reading Culture Shock! California by Mark Cramer, a travel book about my home state? Curiosity of course. It's good to take an outside point of view to get a new perspective on things.

    Culture Shock! California was published in 1997 at the start of the real estate bubble that popped about two years ago. With the dot-com bubble growing too, incomes were rising as were property values. There was money to be made in building: malls, homes, and amusement parks. Southern California got hit more by the madness of new buildings and widening freeways. Stretches of the I5 around Disneyland are almost unrecognizable to me now.

    Coming into the midst of this building frenzy, Mark Cramer's initial pessimism about the state makes sense. His thesis s that there is no "sense of place" in California because of the over abundance of strip malls and franchises. Driving along the major highways it's easy to get that impression but go a few miles off the main drag and the neighborhoods reveal their personalities. And as you go north from the border, the state takes on a different feel. Likewise, go east and it's different again.

    The book has a chapter on the state's history, a look at immigration through the years, a look at a "typical Californian" (conclusion, there isn't one; we're a state of iconoclasts), some tips on etiquette for social and business situations and some tips on fitting in and surviving. At the back of the book is a quiz to see how well the reader is ready to travel to California. I took the quiz and passed with flying colors, so I guess I get to stay.

    Although I had a few quibbles with Cramer's observations and wished he would have covered more of the rural pieces of the state, I enjoyed the book. I think he did an admirable job at capturing the California culture and the differences at least between northern and southern California. His comparisons of Los Angeles and San Francisco were fascinating. If I come across more books in the series (the first one being Culture Shock! Bolivia, I will read them).

    Learn more about the publisher Graphic Arts Publishing Center by visiting their website. You can even download their catalog.

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    The Best Friend I Ever HadThe Best Friend I Ever Had: 03/05/09

    David Nuffer's fascination with Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899 — July 2, 1961) in 1971 when he read a library copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Something clicked with him and the book and he began a thirty year quest to learn every thing he can about the author. Nuffer's book The Best Friend I Ever Had is the scrapbook compilation of his travels to Hemingway's places and his correspondence (and sometimes friendships) with people who knew the author.

    The most interesting parts of the book are the photographs and reproduced letters, articles and maps. They are worth looking at to get a sense of place with Hemingway. What the book lacks is organization. Nuffer's enthusiasm for Hemingway carries the first couple chapters but it's not enough to lead the book to a satisfying conclusion.

    Finally Nuffer's devotion to his subject is creepy. As he shares more of his correspondence and interviews I got the impression that not everyone from Hemingway's inner circle were happy to have him tagging along. Hemingway for all his fame and persona was a living, breathing person and he left behind friends and family who have their own lives. They might want to get on with their own lives without the constant reminder of their association with a long dead (but famous) writer.

    Other posts and reviews:

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    VeniceVenice: 03/04/09

    I have a list of places I want to visit. Venice is on it and has probably been on it longer than any other place. My love affair with Venice began when I was about two or three with a trip to the San Diego Museum of Art where I saw The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco, Venice, 1748 by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal). The cityscape captured the most magical place I had ever seen and I was amazed to learn that it was a real place.

    I have a friend through BookCrossing who travels to Italy a couple times a year. She shares with us her books about and set in Italy. Her most recent shared book is a lovely essay and art collaboration from 1965 called Venice. It contains a series of excerpts that are part poetry and part essay written by Adrian Stokes. These sections are illustrated by the energetic pen sketches by John Piper.

    The John Piper plates by themselves are just hints at the architectural wonders in Venice but they come to life when combined with Adrian Stokes's descriptions. Stokes's text comes from these books:

    • The Quattro Cento (1932)
    • Stones of Riminui (1934)
    • Colour and Form (1937)
    • Venice: an Aspect of Art (1945)
    • Art and Science (1949)
    • Smooth and Rough (1951)

    Molo from Bacino di San Marco, Venice
    The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco, Venice, 1748
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    School DaysBlack Rainbow: 03/03/09

    A black rainbow is a moon rainbow. It is the also the opening scene for Black Rainbow by Barbara Michaels. In this gothic romance Megan O'Neill, governess falls in love with the handsome but dangerous Edmund Mandeville while sister Jane looks on helpless.

    Black Rainbow is the prequel to Someone in the House (1981). As it's basically the back story for a much better sounding (and more typical) Barbara Michaels horror novel, the story reads like a forced march. I haven't read Someone in the House (but want to).

    The novel has moments of dark and atmospheric tension reminiscent of better novels. Edmund's past hints at Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Megan's role as an outsider and governess, at Jane Eyre.

    Unfortunately these scenes are weakened by bland characterization and gender stereotyping. Megan's attraction to Edmund or his interest in her are never fully explained to any satisfaction. If the novel were more clearly a retelling of Jane Eyre or more clearly a bodice ripper, I would let their flimsy relationship slide.

    Typically the heroines in Michaels's books are strong, smart and stubborn. Megan is certainly stubborn but she is neither strong nor smart. If Jane is the heroine (and she narrates the second half of the novel), then more time should be spent on her background and her rivalry with her brother. Yes, they have their fights and yes, Edmund does try to get her out of the picture but all this comes so late in the novel that it felt like it was added at the last minute.

    Other pages of interest:

    My other reviews of her books:

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    School DaysSchool Days: 03/02/09

    With Sean now in elementary school and Harriet in preschool, both kids like stories about school. One of the books we started reading together at the start of school year is School Days by B. G. Hennessy and illustrated by Tracey Campbell Pearson. The story covers a day in the life of an elementary classroom.

    There are lots of books about school. What sets this one apart is two fold: the simple and easy to read text by B.G Hennessy and the colorful and busy illustrations. Each page shows a different time in school day and a different activity.

    The rhyming words stay on topic and help build vocabulary for preschoolers and reinforce high frequency words for beginning readers. Meanwhile Pearson's illustrations back up the text. Sean likes the pictures for confirmation that he's reading the words correctly and Harriet likes to point things out as her brother reads to her.

    Finally there are little recurring details that the kids and I have been pondering over. For instance, there is a cat who shows up on the playground and is there for the remaining pages. Harriet and Sean have come up with a dozen different reasons for why the cat is there and what she's doing.

    Read another review at goodnight moon, goodnight. Visit the author's website. Visit the illustrator's website

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    Duck for PresidentDuck for President: 03/01/09

    I've had a number of people recommend Duck for President by Doreen Cronin to me especially after my review of Click Clack Moo. The latest person to recommend it was my son. I take recommendations from family very seriously. Now having laughed myself silly, here is the review.

    Duck for President follows the political career of Farmer Brown's duck, Duck. Farmer Brown perhaps having learned something from his experiences in Click, Clack Moo now divides up the chores among the animals. If they want perks, they have to earn them. Duck's job is to "take out the trash; mow the lawn; grind the coffee beans." (p. 5). He finishes every day "covered in tiny bits of grass and espresso beans." (p. 7). He decides the best way out of this daily ritual is to take over the farm (through a democratic election, of course).

    When I went into reading Duck for President, I wasn't expecting the book to go all the way to the Whitehouse. Of course, the cover art should have been a clue. The copy I have shows both mascots of the two major political parties. To be honest though, I didn't really look at the cover. I was so excited to read the book that I just jumped in.

    What follows is a hilarious series of events as Duck's political career takes off. He doesn't stop with the farm. No. He goes on to be governor and even the President of the United States (but does he blog about it?) .

    As the book came out in 2004, it's a clear and very funny parody of the dog and pony show that was Bush's second election. Having now survived eight horrible years of so called leadership it's nice to be reading this parody with optimism as we try to dig out of his legacy.

    Other posts and reviews

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