Wednesday, September 30, 2009

We'd Like to Thank You Henry Huggins



Today is H day on Reading at the Beach's A-Z Wednesday, so I looked through my pile of unread books and found Henry Huggins, by Beverly Cleary. Now, I'm pretty sure that I've read this before, but my rule is that if I buy a new copy of a book, I should read through it because what if they printed it wrong? Or something? So I dove into this short kids book.

And found to my surprise that some chapters seemed completely new to me. I vividly remembered chapters 1, 3, 4, and 6, but found 2 and 5 to be completely fresh. Did I manage to forget them that completely? Had I read this book out loud to my son years ago, and skipped chapters he read on his own? He's only been reading independently for a four years or so, which is pretty fast for me to forget things. I could have read the book as a child (and I'm fairly sure I did -- I've liked Beverly Cleary for as long as I could read). And I really liked these chapters -- Henry gets some guppies and manages to raise a zillion of them; Ribsy wins a prize at the dog show despite showing up in pink and attacking a fellow finalist. It's a fun story of a boy in fourth grade who has small problems that he mostly solves on his own, but with a supportive family watching his back. For fans of Cleary's more famous series, Henry is a peer of Ramona's big sister Beezus; the Quincy's make short appearances in this book. A-.

I'm not grading it higher because of the lingering doubts of my own mind, caused by the disappearing chapters. Surely I'm not that old...

If you want to play along, grab an H book, put up

More Sammy!




I'm a firm believer in the adage "Too much is never enough," or "More better" or "Whaddya mean, I can't have my cake and eat it too?" So, when I decided I liked the Sammy Keyes books enough to order them from the library, and then eventually realized that order does matter, I started sensibly getting one at a time. Except then I ran over to the other library and just checked the shelves, and then I found myself near the other branch, and so I've zipped through three. I'll put the next one on order, and then I'll go pack to my measured pace. Of course.

The Sammy Keyes books are by Wendelin Van Draanen, who has also written the Shredderman books. I'll have to ask the boys if they've ever heard of that. In the meantime, I read Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf, and Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy. I learned more about Sammy's relationship with several of her mentors, and I watched the trust between her and her grandmother waver and then grow. I like Sammy's general competence -- when assigned to work at her local church as part of a detention, she gets the task of painting an office, so she just pulls out the rollers and gets to work. I am personally terrified of house painting and sure I'll mess up my boys' room forever, so her calm completion of the assignment reassures me. Later she gets the chance to mentor a younger kid, and she recognizes that she is replaying some of the gifts her friends have given her. And she confronts her mother, who has left her with her grandmother in an apartment where children are not allowed, a complication that contributes to many of the twists in the book.

Well, I'll be hornswaggled. I just checked the author's homepage, and she thinks you don't have to read them in order. I think it's better, though, because there are ongoing themes and stories -- Sammy's attitudes towards many people evolve over time, and it's fun to watch things unfold.

My poor third grader has misplaced his copy, so I'll try to pick that up from another library. I hate to suffer an addiction alone.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Found Something to Nitpick


I went to Foolscap last weekend and was on a panel about the SF fan's love of nitpicking. Of course, immediately I blanked on any problems I ever had with any text, so I'm quite happy to have a bone or two to pick with Allen Steele's Coyote Horizon. Steele's Coyote books are a future history of the colonization of another planet, with hard work and danger. I've read the first one and didn't realize there were more until I saw this one on the new book shelf. It appears that I've missed a few volumes in the middle; the characters I knew are all a few decades older.

I liked the description of Coyote's society, with its frontier setting but modern technology. I enjoyed the sections with Sawyer Lee, a wilderness guide who helps find a lost group of mystics, and then helps them get lost again. He returns in a later section to describe the start of a expedition to navigate the globe; again the stress and interests of people seeking to expand their boundaries entertained me. A second thread follows Hawk Thompson, nephew of the colony leaders and paroled felon serving out his life in a boring job. As part of his sentence, he wears a monitoring device that sedates him if he ever feels strong emotion. This started out promising, but then, it became time to nitpick.

Hawk is given an ebook describing the religion of most of the non-human races in the universe. It revolutionizes his life, and he jumps parole to go teach this new and life-changing ethos. The idea is that there is no God, but that divinity resides inside every sentient being, and we should all be nice to each other because of this. This idea of a religion without a God is incredibly new and transformative, and everyone who hears it is amazed and converted, except for a few priests of the Church of the Dominion (who aren't Catholic, oh no, not at all), who are horrified and determined to burn everyone at the stake. Um, has Steele ever heard of Buddhism? Confucius? It was impossible for me to take the rest of this plot strand seriously, with everyone falling over at the idea of a moral structure without a central, Christian-like God at the center. So for me the book fell off the rails about there, and never got back on. I can swallow the wasp-thingies that give the mystics telepathy, no problem, but the idea that all of Asian moral thought (among others) has vanished from human knowledge? That I can't swallow.

I think Steele should go back to the "hard SF" stuff of his early book -- he doesn't seem to understand religion, which makes both his hero and his villain cardboard and soggy. C-

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Summary


This is another sanity check to see if I'm finishing anything, or hopefully at least finishing as many as I keep picking up. To cheer myself up, I'll start listing the ones I've finished:
I'm sure I'll review them any second now... Bookmarks are now in these library books:
  • What to Read When, by Pam Allyn. I've finished the parts about why reading is great and how to read with different ages of kids, and I'm now in the giant book lists by theme. Lots of good suggestions for me.
  • The Science of Fear, by Daniel Gardner. More discussions about how people think and how that leads to mistakes in risk assessment.
  • Shakespeare Wrote For Money, by Nick Hornby. His last collection of books about what he read and what he bought. So far I'm averaging a book a month for my to-read list.
Finally, here a few of MY books with bookmarks in them:
  • American Gods, by Neil Gaimon. This is an award winning SF book that I've been meaning to read for about a year now. I have commenced with the reading process!
  • Whiskey and Water, by Elizabeth Bear. I always enjoy her books, and it always takes me ages to get into them. I shall keep pushing until I'm caught in the current, and then I'll stay up all night to finish it.
  • Astroturf, by M.G. Lord. This is a quirky book about the space program, women, and M.G. Lord's family. I got it at my favorite birthday ever, and I'm finally reading it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Late Library Haul


Well, I didn't get around to posting my library haul last Thursday, which I can only blame on having snuck into another library on Wednesday and finding a few extra books. It did not help that my kids were with their dad all day, so I was unescorted. My children know they are there to help me exercise restraint. They will take my hand to lead me past the wall of library recommends. Alone, I can browse, stumble across books I've been meaning to read, find new suggestions, discover authors I've wanted to read or who have surprised me with a new book. And then there are the books I've arranged to have on the hold shelf...

From the hold shelf, I got:
  1. Dragon Flight, by Jessica Day George. A sequel to Dragon Slippers, which I forgot to mention reading.
  2. A Fatal Waltz, by Tasha Alexander. Sequel to A Poisoned Season, which I just finished.
  3. Fire Dancer, by Ann Maxwell. I have no memory of requesting this. Hmm.
  4. Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf, by Wendelin Van Draanan. I'm really enjoying this kid mystery series.
Books I happened to see, through no fault of my own -- I can't be blamed for the new arrivals shelf, can I?
  1. The Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King. A new book in the Sherlock Holmes gets married series, which I've kept seeing but thought was a new issue of Beekeeper's Apprentice.
  2. Nine Gates: Breaking the Wall, Jane Lindskold. 2nd in the series about mah jong and alternate worlds and magic. Non-SF readers who need to read a SF book for a challenge should look at her Child of a Rainless Year, which reads more like magic realism.
  3. Magician's Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo & Yoko Tanaka. At this point I figured I might as well browse a little, so I wandered into the shelves and also found:
  4. Ring of Fear, by Anne McCaffrey. I've never seen this book before.
  5. Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy. Hey, these are short! And at first I didn't think the order would matter, but it turns out that Sammy is growing and changing.
  6. Marcelo in the Real World, Francisco Stork. I've been meaning to read this YA title.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Book of Questions


I looked at but didn't actually read Dan Gutman's Homework Machine, but I knew my son A. had liked it. So when I saw Return of the Homework Machine on the library shelf I pointed it out to much acclaim. And after A. galloped through it I stuck it on my to-read library pile, where it sat until its final due date of today. Luckily it's a short book, told in tiny sections inside short chapters. There are four kids, their teacher, their nemesis, and a Really Bad Guy, and they all get turns in the tiny sections. I found this annoying at first, but after a few chapters I found the rhythm.

Now I'm left with huge burning questions. What happens with Brenton's cult following? Does anyone care about the archaeological find of the century? What idiot of a sixth grade teacher thinks five students can keep a secret? Will there be jail time for him? Do things really burn up in atmosphere from a height of seven miles? Did the police have anything to say to the Japanese mob? What is the terminal velocity of a computer chip? Shall we all forget what Ronnie's last name means? If this isn't an ongoing series, and it really doesn't feel like one yet, then I'm left with a distinct lack of closure. I enjoyed reading it, but now I'm hungry.

A final note -- recently there was a big stink about a kids book, Liar, which was almost published with an interesting cover featuring a white girl, although the story itself is about a black girl. There was a lot of talk on kidlit blogs about the white washing of books, with publishers reluctant to feature non-white teens on covers because it seemed to signal that the book itself was about race (and hence, possibly a boring issue book). The cover for Homework Machine featured a white-bread kind of boy, but this book has a more colorful style. Interesting, and I like it.

R. the Magic Dragon, Lived By the Sea

Today is Wednesday, or was Wednesday, so Reading at the Beach has declared it "G" day. Unfortunately, none of the many books I have active bookmarks in start with the letter G, so I went back to my to-read bookcase and found a new one: Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning.

It's a Puffin book, which tells me I will probably like it. The font feels homey. I've had it for ages, and I think I even started to read it on a trip with my kids a few years back, but I got distracted. A girl named Susan goes to the Cornish beach for a holiday with her parents, and she meets a dragon who tells her stories of King Author and other magic stuff. They eat biscuits and buns and drink orangeade. R. Dragon is not as youthful as Puff, but I bet they'd get along. It's a quiet book, but lively and cosy. I'll put it out for my kids to read, although I suspect they'll find the cover a bit juvenile (mine is even worse than the one on the link above). B, good for old-fashioned elementary school kids.

(This post is also my homage to Mary of Peter, Paul & Mary)

What's On Your Desk Wednesday?



Kristen of BookNAround tagged me for this meme, so I'll give it a go. I should probably mention that I run this blog on Hawaii time, in honor of my awesome vacation there last year, so I consider today to still be Wednesday.

What's on your desk Wednesday? is a weekly bookish meme hosted by Sassy Brit of Alternative-Read.com. Check her blog out each Wednesday for the post titled What's on your desk Wednesday?


You can do one of two things or both!

Grab a camera and take a photo of your desk! Or anywhere you stack your books/TBR pile. And no tidying!
Add this photo to your blog.
Tag at least 5 people!
Come back here and leave a link back to your photo in comments.

OR

List at least 5 BOOKISH things on your desk (I'm thinking your TBR pile or books you haven't shelved...)
List at least 5 NON BOOK things. (I'm thinking some of some of the more unusual items on your desk/table?)
Tag at least 5 people to do the same.
Come back here and leave your link, so we can come and visit your blog. Or add your answers in the comments if you don't have a blog.


Like Kristen, I am temporarily camera-less, since I loaned my only memory card to my kid's school and haven't seen it since. But my trusty macbook has a tiny camera, and it peeped at my bedside table before fleeing in fear of the tumbling book piles. On the left you see my current reads, all bazillion of them, with Gaiman's American God's on top. Behind that is the other pile of my current reads. I'm indecisive, OK? And I have a very short attention span.

Teetering to the right is the review pile, many of them due back at the library tomorrow so I'd better get cracking. And behind THAT is my TBR real-soon-now pile, which is supposed to be only books that I've recently bought and I'm not supposed to buy any more until that pile could pass a safety inspection. Hmm. And peeking dimly out behind them all is my bedside lamp. I should read more so I get better light. And finally, you see some forgotten change between some of the mountains of books. I have no idea why that is there.

I'm too shy to tag people; maybe after I start commenting more.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Race Matters


I think I've mentioned that I'm actively looking to read book by non-white people. Part of the reason is an internet scuffle a few months ago about race and racism. One recommendation that I got from the sound and fury was for Beverly Daniel Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, a book that explains a lot about how it feels to grow up Black or otherwise non-white in America, and how things can appear different depending on what side of the race line you are on.

I found a lot of this book illuminating and fascinating. It directly addresses the reluctance many parents have to talk about race, and the mixed message this gives children. It talks about some of the blind spots developed simply by being part of the majority, and how this hurts everyone, not just people of color. I'm not sure I agree with all the details -- it seems odd to me to affirm my White culture, when I'm not sure who or what defines that. I'm uncomfortable claiming a culture defined by what it is not. I'm also interested in the boundaries between ethnicity and racial definitions, which is mainly because my sons are half Greek, and I'd like them to feel like that is more than words. Some of the details about how children approach race also didn't match my observations, but I think that may be because my children are growing up in a multiracial community -- our neighbors are white, mixed-race (Black & white), Black, and many different Asians, including Chinese and Philippine. I think this book has made me more comfortable talking about race, both with my kids and with other adults, and I hope it helps me become less casually annoying. One of the reason Black kids sit together is to get a break from many small expressions of entitlement that the white kids don't even notice expressing, but which are obvious to kids who don't get those breaks.

Tatum was a professor at Mount Holyoke College, which is another point in her favor. Then she moved into administration, first at MHC and then at Spelman College. Her prose is crisp and approachable, explaining sensitive matters with honesty and without condescension. I recommend this book to everyone, especially parents and educators. A

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mixed Bag of Short Stories


I like Charlaine Harris's Sookie stories, so I'll hunt them down when I see them. So I put Strange Brew on my library request list, and was pleased to see that it also included stories from Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs. So I skipped around and read my favorites, then went back and finished the other stories as well.

The three big names had decent contributions; nothing soul-shaking but skillful explorations of their world. Briggs looked into the back story of a character mentioned in her latest novel, with an interesting view of how her werewolves seem to an outsider. Harris avoids her main characters but gives a story showing the darker sides of both vampires and werewolves. Butcher lets Harry get into big fights involving sexy villains and booze. P.N. Elrod (the editor) included another Jack Fleming story, with lots of double-crossing and thirties style gangster action.

The other stories were a bit disappointing, with Rachael Caine and Karen Chance showing the traits that made me stop buying their books. Their protagonists make too many silly choices, or explain their actions in unlikely ways. The romance in Caine's story may set a new record in severe creepiness, while the misunderstanding in Chance's effort deserves a spot in Silly Romance Hall of Fame. The final three authors were new to me, but I probably won't be seeking them out. Faith Hunter's story wasn't bad, but wasn't amazing, and Caitlin Kittredge and Jenna Maclain's offerings were weak. Maclain's story provides a textbook example of a deus ex machina, since the protagonist can't figure a way out of her situation. A goddess literally shows up, tells Our Heroine that she is silly, and grants her enormous powers. Heroine messes up again, but nice goddess fixes everything. Again. Nothing our character thought or did made any difference. If this is explaining something inside a larger story, that might be acceptable, but as an introduction to an author it doesn't make me look for more.

Mainly the book provided small doses of familiar authors. I don't think any of it is a good introduction to the authors, but for us devoted fans, it's a nice snack while waiting for our next novel. C+

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sunday Summary


I think I'll admit to the library books I have bookmarks creeping along in, just to keep tabs on how many I actually finish. I'll also have to start reviewing more often, as some books are cluttering the nightstand when they should be resting in the library bag.

  • A Poisoned Season, by Tasha Alexander. I like the story, but I find the voice of the protagonist a bit tedious. She reports even her tantrums in a calm, detached way. But I'm enjoying the mystery and the glimpse of Victorian England, so the bookmark moves on.
  • What to Read When, by Pam Allyn. This discussion of books to read with your kids jumped on me from a library display table. I'm hoping to find some gems I've overlooked, and to reinvigorate my reading out loud, which has gotten a bit lost with the summer schedule craziness, and now with the harshly enforced school night curfew. I was shocked at how many landmark books my boys didn't recognize, but admit that perhaps they were a bit young when exposed to Pat the Bunny.
  • The Science of Fear. The first few chapter discuss the difference between our gut instincts and our mind's rational thoughts, and how the modern world often leads our guts astray.
  • Coyote Horizon, by Allen Steele. I've read the first book about the colonization of the planet Coyote, but didn't go back for the others. But I kept hearing recommendations, so I picked this off the new book rack. There is an annoying religious subplot that strains credulity, but I'm enjoying the explorer strand.
I'm also reading a few of my own books, but I won't mention those. I'm in denial. I'm impressed that these all came from the adult side of the library, and half are non-fiction. Only one is SF -- I'm clearly becoming an intellectual in my old age.

On the kids' side, A has spent the week re-reading old friends, including a slew of Animorphs and some Captain Underpants and Frannie K Steins. Since the book on reading just discussed how great it is for kids to read both challenging books and low level books, I feel smug that my child is a poster kid for just that. P has been lured into a share-read of the first Sammy Keyes book, and tonight I caught him reading ahead without me. SUCCESS. He's still plugging away at Number the Stars for school & car rides.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thursday Is Library Day


This Thursday I averted my eyes from all shelves at the Fairwood Library, and just picked up my stuff from the hold shelf. Then I dropped off the books at the other library. I'm trying to get my book pile down to a reasonable size. Good luck with that.

So, this week I brought home:

  • The Science of Fear, by Daniel Gardner, recommended by someone ages and ages ago, and which I'd better read quick because there is a wait list as long as my arm.
  • Underground, by Kat Richardson, the third in a series about a Seattle private investigator who sees ghosts. I've already started this with the library's digital version, but I prefer reading on paper than on my computer.
  • Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, by Wendy Van Draanen, the third in a kidlit series about a seventh grader who solves mysteries and gets in a peck of trouble (I read this the day I got it, and I've requested the next one. And tonight I got my youngest started on reading the first. Go me!)
  • Queens: Portraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair, by Michael Cunningham & George Alexander. This was recommended on the livejournal group 50books_poc, which challenges people to read 50 books by non-white people. I'm not officially signed up because I don't want to have to worry about what definition to use for "book," "person of color," or "read" but I have been trying to actively look for books that would qualify. This one sounded fascinating.
I'm now down to 24 things checked out of that library, which is great because that doesn't even include CDs or movies. Of course, I have a bunch of things from the other library, including two books that I haven't seen for a while, which isn't quite so good...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

There's a Reason It Got an "F"



Today is A-Z Wednesday, from Reading At the Beach, and today's Letter is F. My book is Fearless Hearts, by Linda Hudson-Smith, and it was really awful. Romance books often skimp on characterization, and I only wish this one had done that much more, because almost every effort to depict the characters failed miserably. Well, sometimes it failed hilariously. I found myself laughing out loud during this read.

Taleah and Lorenz meet when her brother-in-law brings along an military buddy during a leave. They fall in love, get married, discover that Lorenz is a bigamist, and get remarried. I'm sorry if I'm spoiled any plot points, but honestly, the plot is not what you notice. You notice the prose. I offer a selection from a page chosen at random: "...I know Lorenz is the man for me. Our spirits became entwined the same moment our eyes locked for the very first time." Er, ouch?

From Jared, Talah's brother: "Jared was actually heartbroken over Taleah moving away to another continent, but he'd never let her know how deeply hurt he was. Since they were so sensitive to each other's emotions, he figured she already knew." Hudson-Smith uses this contradiction effect quite often, with one sentence making the previous one meaningless. The constant product placement also kept jarring me; when Lorenz and Taleah come home from a romantic dinner to dance in their living room, the groove to "the old-school album Rufasized featuring Chaka Khan, now available on CD." What, no label information?

I liked the book's depiction of the struggles military families have, but small details irritated me -- on the second page, we learn that Taleah won't drive because of an accident that she only survived by NOT wearing her seat belt, Lorenz has a child that he completely ignores until the very end of the book, Taleah's complains that Lorenz does too much housework (actually, I liked the complaint -- she worries that he doesn't approve of her or won't accept things from her, but her idiotic way of complaining was irritating). I can't really recommend this book to anyone except aspiring editors looking for something to practice on. I ended up having a lot of fun; if my sister had been around I probably would constantly poke her and make her listen to good paragraphs.

On the other hand, I don't read many modern romances; I got this one from a friend when I mentioned I was trying to read more books by people of color. So maybe it's just using a different set of expectations, and the whole line specifies what brand of lipstick each character wears.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Autism With a Sword


Nick loves his brother but finds most other people incomprehensible. In Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon, that seems the least of his troubles -- he defends himself from demons with his sword, his brother was crippled in a magicians attack (that killed their dad), two annoying kids from school show up and attract danger, his insane mother hates him.

"You get the magician," Alan whispered. "I'll take the demon."
"I'll get them both," Nick said roughly, and shoved Alan for emphasis.

The plot takes off with the two kids, who stay with Nick and his older brother Alan as they try to sort out the dangers menacing them. Alan is desperately lonely, and sweet, and loyal to his family. Nick is loyal to Alan, but utterly disconnected from everybody else. James, the boy in trouble, is timid and snarky and scared, while his sister Mae refuses to let the universe harm her brother, no matter how mad the dangers get.

I loved this book. The bond between the brothers hooked me from the start, and Nick's lack of empathy made him interesting and kept the book on edge -- I was never sure I was rooting for the good guys. The ending was spectacular, and I'm delighted to hear there will be a sequel. I don't want to say too much about it, because the ride means more if you don't see what's coming. A.

(The cover is awful; don't let that put you off.)

Sunday Summary

Sunday is a good time to look over all the books I have bookmarks in, but unfortunately I have gotten completely out of control and I refuse to admit how many books I am currently reading. Anyway, I don't have enough fingers to count them; even taking off my shoes hasn't helped. So instead I shall look at some of my kids' reading for the week.

P is a slow reader, often caught without a book in his hand. He claims to be safe from the dangers of the book bug, as he has seen the havoc it wreaks on lives such as mine and his brother's. This week he has re-read the best bits of all our Calvin and Hobbes books, highlighted by our library's acquisition of the Lazy Sunday Book, which is missing from our home collection. We are reading Kneeknock Rise together, but painfully slowly since I am trying to force bed time at a reasonable hour. So by the time the kids are ready for bed, I only read for a few minutes. I keep hoping that he'll read ahead on his own, but he's not that into it. He has a book at school, Number the Stars, which he is enjoying, but I suspect he is on page ten or so.

A has read a lot, and I know he is currently listening to some Percy Jackson book on CD, but he won't admit to anything. He and his teacher are involved in a battle of the books, where he thinks he should be reading all the time, and she thinks he should pay attention when she is talking. I sympathize with him, but repeat that he needs to finish his work before clandestine reading, and that he can't do the work if he has no idea what the assignment is, since he was reading while she explained it. I have suggested that he try a few days in the class without a book, and he has recoiled in horror at my attempt at his total destruction. We'll see how things go.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Library Thursdays


Thursdays are currently my family's Library Day. We have two libraries, our local Renton Public Library, which is great for browsing and has a wonderful children's area and warm, helpful librarians, and the branch of the ginormous King County library. I reserve books at Fairwood Library, and they also have nice librarians and a good browsing section. On school days the kids are only really good for one library, so I do one while they are at school and then we all zip over the the other.

Today I went first to Fairwood, where they had three books waiting for me.
  • The Demon's Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan. I've seen this reviewed in many places, so I finally put in a request. It's a YA about a boy who isn't sure if he's the hero or the villain.
  • Saplings, by Noel Streatfeild. I stumbled across a web page devoted to her while checking on how to spell her last name, and there I discovered recommendations of some of her adult books. I'm a big fan of her kidlit, so I called on the library.
  • A Poisoned Season, by Tasha Alexander. I enjoyed the first book by this author, so as I reviewed it I tagged the second.
Then I tried to escape, but unfortunately I was tackled by
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. I believe I have this on my to-read list, because of a recommendation by BookNAround. Of course, she may have recommended something completely different; it's not like I had my list with me, but the book looked interesting.
Then I picked up four more passengers, and headed for the next library. This is my browsing library, and the kids' favorite place for videos and DVDs. My children, for example, checked out NO BOOKS but several alternate forms of media. But I got
  • Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor, which is the book club book for tomorrow
  • Welcome to Lizard Motel, by Barbara Feinberg, which was on a display. It's a memoir about reading, about books you pick and books the school hands you, about what it means to be a book for kids. I think, anyway -- that's what I remember from reviews I think I read a few months back.
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: The Junior Novel. My nephew recommended I get this, as he thought I'd enjoy reading it to him, and that it would console him for the slowness with which new Transformer DVDs are being made. I must say, I'm not looking forward to it. But he was the only kid asking for anything with text...
On the brighter side, my son brought home an imperfect behavior report. Apparently he's been ignoring everything in school and choosing to read instead. I got all stern and told him that if he doesn't shape up, I'm going to confiscate his books at night. HA!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rotton Schools


My favorite blurb for this book is the one Daniel Pinkwater wrote for himself: "The Education of Robert Nifkin is a true-to-life story of a sensitive and affectionate boy and his heart-warming adventures with his perfectly normal friends in Chicago in the 1950s." That is, if normal includes the high school from hell, complete with anti-Semite teachers, Marxist ROTC leaders, and math taught by copying text into a notebook. Luckily Robert meets some normal friends, who lead him to a progressive school where no one expects students to attend class. Instead, he hangs out at lunch rooms, smokes cigars, and wanders the city. In Pinkwater's world, that is normal.

Robert manages to get a good education, especially during the summer session where the cynical teachers actually challenges the kids to learn. As a kid, I'd enjoy the satire of traditional schools and the cool private school where kids have the freedom to actually learn. As an adult, I couldn't enjoy the joke as much -- these kids deserved better! B

I read this book today in honor of the letter "E" -- yes, it is A-Z Wednesday at Reading At the Beach again.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

More Dark Stories




Charlaine Harris is a little bit famous now, since her Sookie Stackhouse books were picked up by HBO and turned into True Blood. But she writes several series. There was the librarian, Aurora Teagarden, who started stumbling across corpses when her murder club got a little more life experience than they wanted. Then the house cleaner, Lily Bard, who also solved mysteries but more importantly made a life shadowed by a horrific experience that she never quite walked away from. The Sookie books were actually a bit lighter, despite all the vampires and killing. Now she alternates the Sookie books with the Harper Connelly books, and these are dark as well. Harper has a tough past, losing her sister, dealing with drug addict parents, and getting struck by lightning. But she gained something as well; a courageous heart, compassionate acts, and an ability to sense the dead. She turns this last talent into an unusual occupation -- she can find a body for you, or tell you what caused the death of a body you've found.

But sometimes the secrets that death holds cause the living to twist and turn, and it is these dangerous situations that the stories take place. I've been re-reading the three books in the series in anticipation of the next (and probably last) book. I mistimed things, since now I have to wait a month or two, but I enjoyed spending the time with Harper even if she spends it in tough places. The complicated lives and secrets of the small town Sarne in Grave Sight which would puzzle even Yoknapatawpha residents, the grief of a family who wanted to know the fate of their daughter but desperately hoped it wouldn't fall under Harper's expertise in Grave Secrets, and finally the all-out horror of a serial killer preying on a small community's boys in An Ice Gold Grave, all of these stories are hard and sad, but Harper confronts them with common sense, decency, and a determination to use her gift and accept her life as she makes it. I'm hoping that the new book steps back from the grisly intensity of the last, but I'm looking forward to seeing what place Harper makes for herself. A

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tasty But Not Filling


I enjoyed Kat Richardson's second Greywalker book, Poltergeist, but it left me hungry for more. The returning characters are interesting, from Harper, the Seattle detective who can see into the magic world, to the yuppie magic experts wrestling with their toddler (whom Harper dislikes and fears, as she does most children), through Carlos, the scary vampire whom Harper goes to for advice and help. The plot is straight-forward but twisty, with a complicated mystery involving personalities as well as magic complications. I liked the resolution, which involved cleverness, compromises, and regret. And I liked the voice, which kept me turning pages and holding my breath.

The magic itself doesn't work well for me; the Grey that Harper moves through is very physical, and I'm not good at grasping the many layered descriptions. I also wanted more of Harper's background and character; she doesn't have to confront many personal demons this time. There are many hints and shadows to tell me that Richardson knows more than she's telling, so I'll pick up the next ones to find out more. B+

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dead and Canadian


I'm going to a convention at the end of the month, and the guest of honor is Peter David, whom I'd never heard of. So I went to the library and checked out some of his books, and the first one I read was Beam Me Up, Scotty, James's Doohan's autobiography, which David helped write. He also wrote some Wolverine stories, but my son stole those.

I mainly knew James Doohan as Scotty, the engineer on the original Star Trek. I never noticed him in anything else, and it turns out that he found it hard to get work afterwards because of the typecasting. I find this a bit ironic, as I could barely pick him out in the photo section of the book and he says that he could do many accents -- as a kid it was one of his hobbies. I also had never noticed that he only had nine fingers, although in my defense Doohan mentions using a hand double in a couple of close-ups. I liked the discussion of the ambivalence Doohan had for his Scotty role -- he appreciates the fandom and the legacy, but realizes how severely it curtailed his career.

The book reminded me of other Hollywood biographies, such as David Niven's and Errol Flynn. The sense of camaraderie and masculine pranksters and women-chasing and drinking felt similar. Doohan concentrated on his career; detailing his military service and acting training in Canada and New York, then his work in radio and television. His personal life is described at a bit of a remove -- his regrets over his first marriage, his Catholicism, his shorter second marriage, and his last marriage to a much younger woman, which lasted until his death. His love for is children comes through, but his family is not the focus of the book. I felt a moment of grumpiness at his description of leaving his first wife; one of the problems was her refusal to take care of the kids, and it so disgusted him that he left, which meant the kids were stuck with her. I guess she rose to the challenge.

Anyway, it was a fun read, if a bit dry, and gives me a new urge to watch some old Star Trek episodes. Now I'll be looking for the missing finger. B+

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dead Husbands Are So Much Nicer


In Tasha Alexander's And Only To Deceive, Emily is comfortably settling into her role as a widow. She really only got married to avoid her annoying mother, and thought that one of her husband's more endearing traits was his habit of going off on prolonged hunting trips. And now, after only a few months of marriage, he conveniently dies on safari, leaving her with nothing but a lot of nice houses and a vast fortune to console her.

Of course, it is a bit disconcerting when all his friends come by to express condolences, since really, Emily had barely begun to know the man. Even more disconcerting to discover that he considered her to be the great love of his life. Talking to his friends and reading his papers brings her much closer to Philip than ever, and also leads her to a new fascination with ancient Greek art and literature. But unsettling hints of a wide-ranging theft of artifacts has her doubting her husband's integrity. Emily works on the mystery of her love life and of the thefts and frauds in closely linked steps, while beginning to test the possibilities of new love. Of course, most of the candidates for her hand are also suspects in the mystery, and anyway, being a widow is a lot of fun. Very conveniently awesome girlfriends help with the puzzles, and the whole is a very entertaining piece, especially if you like books set in the Victorian era. B+

Whiny Kid Does Good


One of the hazards of being a parent is that when I read a book in which the main character has flaws I would despise in my progeny, I dislike him. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming stars Anand, a boy who has renounced his family to join a brotherhood of magical do-gooders. He spends the first few chapters whining that the other kids (who have been training for months or years) are better than he is at many of the magical exercises. Since he can't do these things on the first try, he assures himself that he will fail forever and should probably give up.

Strike one.

His friend Nisha actually had a good day, and is excited to tell him of her success. This is especially important to her, since she feels insecure as the only female in the society. Anand resents her success, wishes she had failed like he had, and never even considers feeling happy for her.

Strike Two.

There is a magical crisis, and his favorite teacher is dispatched to deal with it. To Anand's shock, the teacher elects to bring along a competent senior apprentice, not our hero. Anand decides the world needs him, and convinces his reluctant friend and his magical object, the Conch, to join him on a hair-brained attempt to reach the teacher. The Conch sets him up to fail, and finally Anand is on his own to have some adventures. At this point the book picks up, and there are gambits and evil magicians and time-travel and Anand interspersing his whining with some courage and action. There are a few stumbles -- he finds his teacher, who begs him not to approach again because they are in great danger and the only way the evil magician can discover them is if they kept meeting. A few hours later Anand shows up again to relay some unimportant message and has his feelings hurt by being urged to go away already. But hey, boys will be boys. But at the end, when it is time to return home, his friend has the opportunity to stay. Remember, her position at the Brotherhood is precarious, and in this world she has the chance to have good friends and do good work. She wants to stay. Anand throws a tantrum, refuses to look at her, and whimpers for pages that he will miss her, never once thinking about where she could be happy or successful. At the last minute, she decides to return with them, and even the selfish prince says he'll miss her but he understands she has to go where she can be happy. This concern would never occur to Anand, because his vision of love is all one-way; it's how people make him feel and what they do for him.

Strike three!

On the other hand, the book has some interesting magic and a great setting; it's fun to have a fantasy set in India instead of generic Europe. And it's a real India, not a story book one -- the food and curses and clothes and details bring the setting to vivid life. Anand is an interesting kid; I would enjoy him if his flaws didn't push my buttons so hard. I'd give this book to my fifth grader to read, but it's the second of a series and he's a bit of a purist. B-

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sex, Drugs, and Rock n Roll


Catherine Asaro's latest Skolian novel is Diamond Star, about the quiet brother Del-Kurj who hasn't been mentioned much. The prurient (like me) will have noticed that he shows up in the genealogies as married to his twin sister -- ew! We know learn that as a rebellious young man he took some drugs that reacted very badly with his unique brain chemistry and was slapped in a cyrogenic vat for decades until the government could figure out how to fix him. His sister was so upset she went in one for a while as well, but then the government got all panicky about losing some of their star telepaths and secretly impregnated her with his baby. Twice. Asaro's characters aren't into abortion, so she loved and raised the children. Whew.

Anyway, after Del gets out of the vat, he has a lot of re-hab to do, and a lot of changes to face. The rest of his family has grown up around him -- instead of the third oldest, he is now the youngest. His other siblings have gone on to super-achieving lives; several siblings have died in the war, his baby brother is now the head of the military and one of the most powerful men in the universe. Del is the illiterate brother (severe dyslexia) who majored in screwing up his life. But he can sing. And he discovers that he loves the current Earth's version of rock n' roll, and starts climbing the charts. No one on Earth knows where he is from, with the exception of the military who had basically kidnapped him and his family in an earlier book. Del struggles to handle his new fame when he's never even had to carry his own money before, and has never had a real relationship with a woman. His family has never taken his music seriously -- they are used to "real" music that the bards sing, not the loud crazy stuff. Brother Kelric thinks Del doesn't have the sense to come in out of the rain, and tries to protect him as if he were a child. Del continues to make mistakes, picking up a new addiction in an attempt to handle the pressure of performing (not easy for an empath, especially live and in concert) but also learns to stand on his own.

I was interested in seeing the family and society from a very different angle, and although Del's immaturity and inferiority complex got a little wearying I liked watching him slowly develop. I never believed in the love story between him and his producer, but I liked that he was trying to have a relationship. And the battle with the Aristo at the end gave the book a nice plot boost, and allows me to use my favorite tag. Not a good introduction to the series, but a nice read for people who are alrady fans. B-

ETA: And, it works for the A-Z Wednesday from Reading at the Beach -- the letter D!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Excuse in a Book


Malcolm Gladwell writes fairly easy reading NF that make for good conversations. It's good book club material, because he has a lot of starting points but no one has to pay too much attention to the details. Outliers: The Story of Success fits that mode. The theory is that great success is never purely the result of being a wonderful person -- everyone needs good luck and hard work. This did not strike me as all that original an idea, but it gave Gladwell the excuse to write a group of entertaining essays covering the luck and hard work behind several success stories: star hockey players -- born early in the year, Bill Gates -- given a computer in junior high, Asian kids -- taught to work hard, Gladwell's mom -- assigned an extra scholarship.

Clearly, the reason I haven't achieved my life goal of world domination is that I didn't get a lucky break. And that I'm lazy. For want of a nail!