Monday, August 31, 2009

Everyone is DOOMED

Catherine Asaro has a space opera series called Saga of the Skolian Empire. It's about an evil torturing empire (The Traders), an authoritarian telepathic empire (Skolians), and the Earthlings trapped between them. The main characters are the telepathic ruling family of the second empire, except that one of them has secretly infiltrated the evil empire as its Emperor. He is trying to bring peace to the galaxy, but it is hard work. Many of the books show him struggling mightily. But I know it is all useless, because an early book in the series is set about fifty years further along, and the war still rages. Evil is winning.

This makes reading all the books a little more interesting. I don't know if Asaro had an overarching plan or if she got many more chances to write in her universe than she expected and is frantically trying to have happy endings along the way. Either way, I recently wanted to reread the book that tells me it is all a wasted effort, Catch the Lightning. It was interesting reading, especially now that so much of the history has been filled in. Tina is a strong telepath from an alternate Earth, and Althor is a warrior from the telepathic empire, one of the super powerful royal family. But he is also deeply handicapped, with a warped family life caused by the manipulations of the general who fostered him. His vulnerabilities lead him to keep many secrets from Tina, which she accepts as the sort of thing men do. The story lurches along several different settings, with little transition between them. We start off on an alternate Earth, then jump to a space station, than an evil empire yacht, then an ancient planet from an extinct civilization. The plot weaknesses I remembered, but I like how Asaro's characters seem real even as her dialogue and internal thoughts are clumsy. It's also fun to see characters I know from other books in their early incarnations, since this book was written first even though it is chronologically last. It's more interesting as an alternate viewpoint and a future point for the histories than on it's own. C+

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bully Bully

My son had a bad time in early elementary school, getting teased and picked on at school -- classroom, playground, and bus. He's also a hot tempered kid who still reacts with his hands rather than his words -- in other words, if you make him mad, he's likely to hit you. And he's not good at decoding other people's emotions, so it's hard for him to notice when a friendly game of wrestle has gone too far. All of these things make me very aware of bullying, especially at school.

Barbara Coloroso has written several kids books, some of which I've read. A friend recommended The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander to me, and I enjoyed reading through it. She talks about the different roles, and how kids can move between them, and the dangers of ignoring bullying and just assuming it's a normal part of childhood. I particularly liked her distinction between teasing and taunting (my son was not "teased" at school, he was taunted), with teasing being consensual, mutual, and fun. Taunting is none of these things. I like her idea of teaching kids what they can control and what they can't in a relationship. I'm familiar with her three types of family -- brick wall, jellyfish, and backbone (guess which one she approves of!), but I'm not as convinced that families are that simple. I think children themselves have a great deal to do with how the family dynamics are set. I liked the sections of the Bystander, and how children can expect better of themselves than just silently being glad to be on the sidelines.

In general, I find her ideas good but not original, and I tend to hate her examples. When she talks about how to deal with a sister caught hurting her brother, I found the child's reactions to the "correct" discipline techniques unbelievable and wildly optimistic. I wonder if Colorosa had handy children who did respond that way, and that's why she has such a rosy belief in discipline as opposed to punishment. As a child and as a parent, I think the distinction is more in the heads of the parents than in the child. It's a nice idea, but in the real world many children will have the same reaction to her supportive discipline as they would to the frowned upon punishment.

My final quibble is that the book addresses bullying from elementary through high school but doesn't really discuss the difference between problems in young children and in teens. The bully is demonized in most of the book as a evil person bent on ruining the life of some contemptuous worm, but in my experience elementary school bullies aren't that complex. I'm not even talking about my son, who by the definition of this book is not a bully, but the kids who hurt him in first and second grade weren't evil, they were just clueless. I do like the attitude that it is a school's responsibility to be a place where bullying is not tolerated -- this should be true in all schools, elementary, junior high, and high school. I recommend this book, but I found it to be more the start of a dialogue than a set of answers. B+

Friday, August 28, 2009

Avatar and Round-up

I'm in the middle of an almost unprecedented number of books, but the only one I actually finished today was a corporate by-product. My kids and I were big fans of the Avatar show, and we've been picking up some of the books at Scholastic Fairs for a few years now. I finally read one last night, because it bugs me to have books my kids have read that I haven't. I found The Lost Scrolls: Air lying about and zipped through it.

The Lost Scrolls seem to be collections of information -- there are details about the Airbender tribes and then stories from the series apparently narrated by each of the three main characters. Being a big fan, I recognized all three episodes, so none of the narrative had any surprises. I think the authors are listed as Tom Mason & Dan Danko, but they stuck very closely to the story from the show. It really reminded me more of fanfiction than anything else. But the short sections were an inducement to my less addicted reader to try it out, and I like fake nonfiction quite a bit. So an interesting sixty pages of so. C+

Since that was a less than overwhelming book, I'm also looking at the magazines I've skimmed this summer. I'm not a big magazine reader, although sometimes I pretend to myself that I am, and then I drown in the issues delivered to my door. And I'm incapable of throwing them out without at least leafing through them. A few years ago my cousin, who worked at the New Yorker at the time, gave me some invaluable advice -- don't read the articles you aren't interested in. Be ruthless; it it doesn't grab you in the first few paragraphs, move on. So now I have hopes of working my way down the stack of magazines I'm still hoarding, but at least that pile is getting shorter. I shall be recycling: 10 New Yorkers, 3 Natural Historys, 1 Redbook, 1 Parent & Child, 1 Journey, and 1 Economist (with Tech Quarterly). I haven't subscribed to the Economist for almost four years -- when you find yourself lugging around WEEKLY NEWSMAGAZINES for this long it may be time for an intervention. But it was actually quite interesting -- I knew all the long-term results of the crises and issues reported upon. And I got some good book recommendations, and they are probably all out in paperback by now!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Werewolves are the New Vampires

Patricia Briggs is another fantasy writer lured into the paranormal genre. She has some regular fantasy books, of improving quality, and I met her through her first werewolf series, featuring mechanic and shapeshifter Mercedes. It has complicated love lives, lots of strange creatures, fast plots, and a likable heroine. She likes the setting enough to spin off another character, Anna Latham, whose second book is Hunting Ground.

Hunting Ground does some interesting things. There's the plot, covering werewolf politics, scary vampires, and a mystery, and also there is the developing relationship between Anna and Charles. The couple are forced together by complicated reasons, but they also think they would choose each other. We alternate viewpoints, seeing each one's insecurity and how differently they see the same events. Anna is also relearning her place in werewolf society -- she is a rare Omega wolf, who lives outside the usual hierarchy. I didn't feel the different strands work all that well together, so although I enjoyed each part on its own, I never felt the whole book came together. But it was a fun read, in an interesting world, and I'll keep coming back for more. B.

Sweet Weirdness

Daniel Pinkwater is one of my favorite children's authors. He's nerdy and funny and interested in the oddities of people. His books always take intelligence seriously while also valuing creativity and humor. He writes picture books and easy chapter books and YA books, or just anything he feels like. Sometimes he hits his mark, sometimes he misses, but he's always good for the journey.

The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror is a bit of a miss. It's a sequel to The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, and a lot of time is spent revisiting the eccentric characters of that book. Much of the fun of these books is discovering what makes each character interesting, and how these people interact, so sequels aren't Pinkwater's strong point. There was a bit of suspense in the wolfman build-up, but the humor distracts from it. The narrative voice kept changing; I didn't mind the jumps to the wolfman's view because they were short and just a note that he was out there, but otherwise I prefer staying with our viewpoint character. Even the even nemesis seemed muted; he also returned from the previous book. An amusing hour of reading, but definitely not the place to start this author. B-.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Nancy Drew, Jet-Setter

Nancy Drew is just awesome. She just is. The date on The Clue in the Crossword Cipher says 1967, which means it is part of the second wave of Nancy Drews, with shorter texts and a more perfect Nancy. In the first chapter she bounds down a hill after a dinner plate and dives into the river to rescue it. Then she drives home in her convertible (she puts the windows up) and is met by Hannah, who doesn't even blink at the young girl's sodden state. A motherly housekeeper who doesn't notice river weed hanging from Nancy's ears? We know we are on a wild ride!

My next jolt of delight was the invitation to visit an acquaintance in Peru. In two days. Why, go along, honey, says daddy, and then he suggests calling Bess and George to see if they want to hop on the plane too. Well, of course! And luckily the Peruvian friend's father is fabulously wealthy and has them flying all over South America in his company's aircraft looking for clues. George makes fun of Bess's weight at least four times, but that doesn't stop our Bessie from going for that THIRD slice of bread. Well, OK, it does stop her, but she comes back for seconds at the buffet dinner soon after.

This book was pure delight, with adventure and silliness crowding the page. I'm pretty sure I haven't read this one before, although honestly, with these series it can be a bit hard to tell. I'll see if my fourth grader wants to try it; the adventure is good, but I doubt he will appreciate the nostalgic silliness.

ETA: I saw a note that today was C day on Reading at the Beach's Wednesday A-Z theme. So I'm in!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

They Shoot Horses, Don't They

Marguerite Henry is most famous for her Chincoteague books, but she's also written many other books, mostly about horses or ponies. I just read Black Gold, which tells the story of a real Kentucky Derby winner. It has the strong bond between a jockey and his horse, and lots of good detail about the life of Black Gold and his mom, but reading it as an adult I found it hard to concentrate on the main character when the men around him were behaving so shamefully.

Al Hoots owns Black Gold's mother, and wins everything in sight with her, apparently because of this great trainer he's found. Then he loses the right to race after he reneges on a "claim" race that his all-wise Indian wife asks him not to enter. He comes home with a plan to race the mare's foal by registering it in his wife's name, and sends the horse off with the trainer to a Kentucky stud farm. Then he dies, and is much mourned by everyone who apparently doesn't mind that he's an idiot.

Black Gold grows up to be small but fast, and loses a lot of races under the care of the acclaimed but useless trainer, Webb. Luckily, our human hero, jockey Jaydee, has grown up and fallen in love with the horse, so he talks the trainer into hiring him (a bit of a hard sell, because our incompetent trainer thinks he's a cheat). Jaydee and Black Gold understand each other, and start winning everything in sight, including the Derby. Webb lets the fame go to his head and enters the horse in a zillion races until he gets injured. Then great-trainer Webb ignores all advice and races the horse some more. Jaydee finds that only an operation will save Black Gold, so he arranges everything and quits. Trainer promises to do the operation, but forgets because it seems like too much effort. Then he races Black Gold some more, the horse breaks his leg, and dies. Everyone is sad, but figures that the horse would have wanted to go out racing.

Indian Wife (the owner?) is completely ignored. I sure hope she found a good lawyer to sue the pants off that so-called trainer. My copy of the book is dated 1992, which made me very uncomfortable with the depiction of Indians, but I believe the book was written in 1957, so I cut it more slack. It's written in a cheerful and hero-seeking manner that is very typical of many older kids books; I sure hope I would have noticed the callous and unscrupulous behavior of the men as a kid, because the text is very kind to them. B-

Monday, August 24, 2009

Forced into Childhood

My idea of Holland is set by Meindert DeJong, who wrote The Wheel on the School (as well as many other books, including Hurry Home Candy, the book that made me sob harder than just about any novel in the world). It doesn't matter that I've lived in the Netherlands for a few years; my first ideas are set by the books I read in childhood. But somehow I missed one of the Dutch stories, so when I found Journey From Peppermint Street in a library discount sale I picked it up.

The book is written for elementary aged children, and the main character is in fourth grade, but it is set about a century ago in a Dutch village, so the children seem simpler and more naive. Siebren's journey is a few miles long -- he is walking with his grandfather to a nearby village, but it is farther than he's ever been in his life. The first half of the book looks at the quaint life he lives; helping with his little brother, playing on the dikes, and cutting himself on a tin box of chocolates. Then he gets the treat of a trip with his grandfather to visit his great-aunt.

The second half has the same tone -- we are gently but firmly centered in Siebren's viewpoint, hearing his childish daydreams and fears and excitements. As I kid, I fell into this easily, but as an adult it's a bit constricting. And I found the action in the last part a bit too melodramatic, a complaint I doubt I would raise as a kid. Siebren saves his grandfather's life, which I found a bit dubious, then catches a giant fish, which, OK, and then survives a crazy tornado attack, at which point I started losing faith in the narrative. But I bet my children will be happy to have the thrill level raised a bit. It was a nostalgic hit for me, but a bit disappointing in quality. I'll see if my son will read far enough to meet the tornado. B+

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Howling Good Fun

I love puns. I'm not very good at making them, but I like hearing them and reading them. James Howe also likes them; there is no pun too lame. That's why I enjoy his Bunnicula books, about the dogs and cat and their friend the vampire bunny. But sometimes the pets head off to a kennel, for more punny adventures. Return to Howliday Inn is one of these, with very little of Bunnicula but a chance for new animals and a variety of plots. Everything is played for jokes, and even though I spotted the mystery early, I didn't come up with the exact solution. I liked Chester's hysteria and Harold's more phlegmatic way of panicking. I'm going to try to interest my eight year old in there; I think he'll like the broad humor. B.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Silly, But No Nightmares

The Anita Blake vampire series by Laurell K Hamilton has become a guilty pleasure of mine. The pages turn easily, but the dialogue and plot are often laugh-out-loud funny. Her characters will very sincerely have the most insane concerns and conversations in the most ludicrous of situations, and the plot constantly throws out multi-colored spurs that rush up blind alleys and then teleport back to the main plot.

At least Skin Trade has a plot -- now that Anita has a very complicated sex life that is no longer a given. This time she travels out of town, and must wait for the next plane to bring her a bevy of lovers to keep her refueled. The book is given up to the hunt for the serial killer vampire that has appeared and escaped in early books. She teams up with the enormously accepting team of assassins that she played with a few books back -- Edward (oops, I mean Ted), Bernardo, and Otto. She puts up with disapproving cops and feds who condemn her for being a woman, not to mention a woman who sleeps around (and around and around and around). But gritty Anita keeps focused on the bad guy, only pausing a few times to play vampire servant or sex fiend (she accidentally enslaves several men; I lost count). It's actually one of the better books in the series for a while. C.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Spooky, But No Nightmares

I picked up Patricia C. McKissack's The Dark-Thirty years ago as part of my Newbery collection (it won an Honor), but never started reading it. I knew it was scary stories, and I remember reading some scary Alfred Hitchcock stories in elementary school that created a fear of the dark that extends to the present. So I'm reluctant to dabble in horror short stories. But it was my loss.

These stories do dabble with ghosts and unworldly creatures -- the dark thirty is the time between sunset and dark, perfect for family spooky stories. But the emphasis is on family -- these are tales that you could hear from your grandmother or your father, stories wrapped in love even as they tell of mean spirits or lost children. The stories run about ten pages each; I think I'll be putting this on my read-aloud shelves for some bedtime stories. I'll wait for my oldest kid to get over his fear-caused insomnia, though. He doesn't need to add scary statues to American super volcanoes as reasons why he can't fall asleep. B+

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I think I got Spindles & the Mystery of the Missing Numbat from a used book store, probably years ago. Its cover advertises itself as "wild adventures for a young Australian boy." If I had paid close attention to the back, I might have noticed that Spindles will learn about "faith, friendship, and relationships" through his incredible adventures. And that the author, Barry Chant, is a pastor. So I didn't, and was completely gob-smacked when the talking emus and gum trees began leading Spindles to Jesus. Which was actually sort of interesting, in a bizarre way, but I resented when they started teaching him how to bring his parents along as well. His parents were the sort of misguided people who store their bibles in the darkest corner of the darkest bookshelf, and who would sooner believe in bandicoots surviving locally than in the resurrection.

I usually like books with talking animals and trees, but I didn't like it when they give boys bible verses to look up and meditate on, or when they explain to the child that letting him try to climb a cliff was God's plan because the fear may encourage his dad to attend church more regularly. I don't think I'll be offering this one to my kids -- the didactic tone spoils the story, and the demands of the lesson to be learned warp the plots of the short stories. As recreational reading it fails, although if I were trying to teach some of the bible lessons the gum tree covers I might use the stories to start a conversation. C

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Loving a Lost Lord is a historical romance by Mary Jo Putney that appears to be the result of a bar bet about hitting the most romance tropes in a single volume. It sets up a series (there are a bunch of boys all raised by the same time-traveling, progressive aristocrat in her anachronistic school). There is amnesia. There are wastrel sons who race to Gretna Green and are cut off from their families. There are scheming relatives. There are attractive half-breeds (both Roma and Indian) who face unfair discrimination. There are mothers thought to be dead who miraculously appear, assassins shooting from trees at people galloping horses early in the morning (before the ton come out). There are rough-hewn valets devoted to their employers.

Despite the bingo game of cliches, the story itself is nicely told. Mariah and Adam's relationship grows slowly, halted by the lies Mariah tells and Adam's slow recovery from amnesia. As in many of Putney's books, their emotions are drawn a bit clinically, pressing in the idea that the book is written from a modern perspective. The end triggers a cascade of coincidences, so many that I passed through grumpiness to giggles. Fun for fans of Putney, but I don't recommend it as a starting point. C+

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Seventh Grade Troubles

Barbara Park is probably most famous for the Junie B Jones books, but I much prefer her middle school books, which also feature kids that aren't completely likable. Beanpole is about a middle school girl who is very sensitive about her height, which is much taller than the other kids she knows. She wants to be normal, to be popular, and the book follows her mostly amusing attempts at fitting in. Nothing great, but lifelike and comfortable. B-

Monday, August 17, 2009

Blog to Book

I enjoy the web site, so when I heard they had a book out I picked it up. Beyond Heaving Bosoms, by Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan is the result. It's the same tone and information as the blogs, with a bit more structure and historical perspective. They talk about what makes a romance, who reads them (a lot of people), the changes over the years (less rape, more varied sex), and why they like them.

I'm a late convert to romance books; like many people I thought they were all the same and anyway they were dumb. Then I found some I liked, so now it's one of the genres I read, and yes, many of them are dumb, but I also read SF and fantasy and chick lit and kidlit, so since when has that kept me out of a genre? The blog is fun and amusing, and so was the book. I liked the attitude that romances are fun to read, and that there are good ones and bad ones, but the message did get a bit repetitive. Still, I picked up some good author recommendations, so it was time well spent. B+.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

As old as my mom

I think I confused "B" Is For Betsy with Understood Betsy, another old book. But this book, by Carolyn Haywood, is about the first grade year of Betsy, in a place and time much simpler than our own. The children read more like preschoolers in modern books, especially in the chapter about the circus. The book was written in 1939, which makes it about as old as my mother.

Young Betsy does get to walk to school by herself, but she gets lost and relies on a stranger to drive her in. She goes mad one day and PICKS FLOWERS that don't belong to her, but she soon repents and goes to make restitution. I can't see either of my kids reading this book, unless like me they have a historical interest in what books thought kids were like back in the old days. Maybe if I tell them it's as old as Gramma they'll read it to see if the dinosaurs roamed the earth. The author wrote other books that I remember enjoying, so maybe kids today will also like to read about the days when birthday parties had prizes only for the winner, and girls wore skirts, and mothers wore hats. B-

Friday, August 14, 2009

I Even Enjoyed the Football Scenes

Well, it turns out that Do the Funky Pickle is the third School Daze book by Jerry Spinelli, because Who Ran My Underwear Up the Flagpole? is the second. This one might be my favorite; I laughed out loud several times. Eddie's wimpiness is still a bit too slapstick, but that is concentrated in the first chapters. His crush on Sunny is developed here, but the meat of the story is Eddie's attempt to grow up by joining the football team, and Salem's spontaneous job as student manager of his team.

This time the kids grew and changed without any obvious moral lessons -- the coaches never complained about Salem's management techniques, Sunny was not traumatized by her expulsions from the cheerleading team and school mascot position. I even got to see inside Pickle's thoughts for a few minutes, to see that he isn't as all confident and knowing as he sometimes appears. He's just a good decent kid who likes to build stuff. Good, simple reading that has my fifth grader's seal of approval. A.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Modern China, Venerable Genre

The giant eye gazing out of the cover of The Eye of Jade met mine from the library recommended shelf, so I threw it in my bag and brought it home. It turns out to be a detective story set in China, with Mei trying to make it at a private detective after she quit her government job rather than compromise her principles. One guiding principle being that she didn't want to be raped, for example. Her mother figures it's just another way this lesser daughter has disappointed; at least Lu had the sense to marry a rich successful man with lots of power.

Mei works at solving a mystery brought to her by a close family friend, but when her mother suffers a possibly fatal stroke she also has to confront her relationships with her family and her attitude towards people. The mystery spirals in towards her mother's past and the grim and amoral choices everyone was forced to make during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Terror.

The author, Diane Wei Liang, spends much more time on Mei's connection with her family then on her career as a detective, which is good for me since I'm not a big mystery reader. The details of life in modern China are fascinating, with the layered importance of wealth and power, and the buried secrets of recent and generational history. The complex emotions of fear and grief for the ill mother and the anger at some of the secrets uncovered in the investigation give the story its power. Yet I never felt completely engaged; the tone and language kept me at a remove. It was the same feel that the book Waiting gave me, so it might be a style of Chinese writing that doesn't work well for me. I also didn't like the end; Mei makes a major decision essentially off-stage. I would have preferred to see her confront it before the book ended. I probably won't pick up the next book in this series, but I think the author has a new memoir out that I might look for. B-.

Funky Pickles

The second School Daze book by Jerry Spinelli is Do the Funky Pickle, in which our heroes have a crush, a school dance, a fight with a bully, and a meeting with an author. This book concentrates mostly on Eddie, the wimp with the crush on Sunny, and Salem, whose attempts to help Eddie don't advance him much, and who then ignores her friend's escalating crisis to obsess about a favorite author's impending visit.

This one was light and pleasant, with a few morals learned but mostly accidental; it is actually hard to have a book about kids without them learning something at some point. But I found myself wishing for more time with Sunny, who gets very little attention, and for a rock to fall on Pickle's head because he just has much too perfect a life. He's kind, calm, talented but without stress, confident, athletic, and resourceful. He wins contests without trying but then gives away the prizes. He understands his friends' weaknesses, but doesn't make a point of his compassion. He's an all-round nice kid, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. We need a little time inside his head so we can see some insecurity, because all the rest of these kids have it in spades. B-

My fifth grader really likes these books, including this one, although I haven't pinned him down for his specific response. He thinks the third grader should read them too. Third grader keeps falling asleep, I think his bedtime needs to be moved up about two hours. I hope summer doesn't end anytime soon; we are just not ready.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Friendly Middle School

Report to the Principal's Office is the first in Jerry Spinelli's school daze books. I read a later book, where the four kids are already friends, but in this one they are meeting each other and their new junior high. I found the principal deeply unbelievable, because he was so darn nice and so darn willing to embrace the unconventional. There is only so much quirkiness I can take, and in kids books I prefer the adults to be grounded in reality because really, who cares about them anyway? When I was a kid, I thought making the adults fun just seemed like the sad grown-ups who kept trying to be with-it. Now I'm an adult and I know better.

On the plus side, I really liked Eddie, the shrimpy kid whose greatest ambition is not to get beat-up that much. The other kids, the confident pickle inventor, the ambitious writer, and the rebel with a best friend, where too obviously painting their labels, but I hope in the other books Spinelli can relax and just tell the story, now that he's established who the characters are. C+, but with hints of improvement.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I think, Ergo I Laugh

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar... is a slim book that explains many philosophic terms and movements through jokes, many of them almost as old as the philosophers they illuminate. The authors, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, seem to enjoy the philosophy almost as much as the jokes, although they will clearly walk a bit farther for the jokes than for the fine thinking. I don't think I learned anything new, although I was reminded of things I learned in school but didn't bother remembering. Or just forgot. Many of the jokes aren't funny for kids, so I won't even try to pass this book along.

It's a good summer vacation book, not too strenuous but not as fluffy as my pure fiction diet can get. B.

Avoid At All Costs

I like vampire books. I started with Sunshine, moved onto Charlaine Harris, and enjoy Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, even Laurell K Hamilton, who is awesome in her awfulness. But L.A. Banks' books are painful for me. It seems as if the sentences come careening out of some dark space, colliding and crashing into paragraphs assembled by random destruction. I couldn't get into her vampire books, but I heard a lot of people liked her stuff, so I tried a werewolf one. It was even worse.

Sasha is a werewolf. Well, sorta. See, there are good werewolves and tainted werewolves and shadow wolves. Sasha is a super-secret army shadow wolf with a hint of werewolf taint but not the bad taint because she is all good. The other shadow wolves don't like her, but they are just mean. She finds Hunter, who is another shadow wolf who also has some werewolf badness but he's still good. He's a Ute, and is in touch with nature and the land and his shaman grandfather. His pack peers resent him and don't want to let him play their reindeer games. He gets to be the leader anyway, and they turn to the bad side, but not until the last chapter. Her army buddies also face the bad side. There is lots of danger and badness, much of it utterly random, and a big conspiracy that relies on endless stupidity for success, a clever move in a book such as this. Sasha and Hunter trust each other in all sorts of strange rituals that they invent that only true love can survive, but Sasha is shy of commitment. The sex scenes are very explicit. Oh, I am frantically scrubbing this book from my brain, but I have officially given up on this paranormal author.

"Having to put down she-shadows gone were-demon had really messed with her man's mind. That would haunt Hunter for a long time; regular doses of primal female medicine seemed to be the only cure." Ugh. F.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Girls and Wizards

Lloyd Alexander has written dozens of children's fantasy stories, from the award winning Prydain series to numerous one-offs with strong characters and swift action. The Wizard in the Tree aims at a slightly younger crowd, more solidly elementary school but still with interesting plots and ideas.

Mallory, an orphan who likes fairy tales, finds a wizard in the tree the local squire has cut down. She has to deal with the wizard's often impractical ideas for saving himself while his magic returns, the greedy bullying of her employers, and the evil plans of the squire. She does this while facing the difference between magic stories and human heroics. I like the real violence -- some people do die, and Mallory is horrified, but as a child I always hated stories that pretended the stakes were high but shied away from real consequences. Alexander doesn't hesitate to address real values and issues in his book, and although I've sometimes felt his foot was a bit heavy, I always appreciate the respect he gives the reader, whom he treats as a real and honorable person. I've recommended this to my older boy, who is already an Alexander fan. B+.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Old Fashioned Syrup

I used to have a Raggedy Ann doll, although I was more of a stuffed animal kid for play value. I was vaguely aware that there were some books about them, so when I saw Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees at a garage sale I picked it up. Then a decade or so later, I read it.

Johnny Gruelle's story has a copyright of 1924, many years before my mother was born. The main characters are dolls, with a few probably human children discovered during their adventures. The tone reminds me of Oz books, although I found it more grating than I remember with Baum stories, a treakly sweetness as all the queer creatures are adored. Ann and Andy go off to rescue their friend, who is stolen by a sneaking pirate. They follow in pursuit, and enlist the aid of other interesting creatures during the journey, with a detour to help some abandoned children. The story is comic and active, through the surprising reveal of the pirates' secret identities. And then the witch waves a magic wand and finishes solving everything, in a jarring summing up that knocked me off balance. I suspect if I was reading the book aloud that's when I would be plenty ready for the book to end, though.

An interesting read, but only for those who want to immerse themselves in an olden style. I'll put it out for the kids, but I don't expect them to pick it up. C+

A Parent's Dream Alley

The neighborhood lust that engulfed me while reading Eleanor Estes' The Alley made it hard to concentrate on any literary merit. The story takes place in the walled off play area of the alley, 27 houses with a common play area. The kids from babies on up play in each other's back yards and ride bikes up and down the common area, with occasional interference from a mom (of course, since this is the early 1960's, all the moms are home just in case). Some kids are annoying, some are bossy, but all are part of the community, even the biters.

Our hero, Connie, knows how good the situation is, and she gets along with almost everyone. She and her best friend, Billy, swing on her playset and encourage each other's ideas and plans, especially after a string of burglaries give a frisson to the neighborhood. Connie takes herself and her fears seriously, and the narration is almost condescendingly close. I enjoyed the old-fashioned feel of the story, with the now quaint home lives juxtaposed with the investigation of the criminals by the children. This book is not quite as cosy as the Moffats, since Connie as an only child can't have the same warm family (adults are by definition a bit removed). I'll offer to my kids, but I won't be surprised if it doesn't take. B+.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Good Ol' Days

Robert McCloskey, who wrote Make Way For Ducklings and a few other famous picture books, also wrote a few chapter books, including Homer Price. It's a fun little story, with little self-sufficient Homer wandering about finding bank robbers or watching the adults do silly things like build a track neighborhood where everyone gets lost because all the houses look the same. The book is copyright 1943, but the world war is completely in the background -- some moms are knitting for the Red Cross in about the only explicit mention of the setting.

I did notice the old fashioned rules for race and gender. Females are apparently a different species, either a mom-type or a alien who plays by a different code. I noticed one black character with a speaking role, and his one sentence was in dialect, and the Indians described in the town's historical pageant would not win any sensitivity awards. It's strange how I notice these things now. But it's more an omission than a problem; I'm passing this book along to my fifth-grader to read; I think he'll enjoy Homer's autonomy as he runs the unstoppable doughnut machine or rescues a SuperHero from a ditch. My third grader might like it if I read the first chapter or so. B.

ETA: My fifth-grader read this too. His review: "It was good, it was great. Everyone should read it. My brother will like it. It was funny. [I asked him if there were any quibbles -- hard bits or anything.] The sheriff has a 'way with words.'" (Yes, he made the air quotes.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What A Friend We Have

In honor of the VBS I've enrolled my kids in (Vacation Bible School, did you recognize the song in the title?), I'm reviewing a religious book I picked up at the library because the title reminded me of a good friend. Lisa Samson's The Passion of Mary-Margaret reads as the memoirs of a devout Catholic, an orphan and a confident of Jesus. Jesus literally appears and talks to her, comforts her, and directs her through her life. Mary-Margaret at first assumes she'll be a nun, but her path is first diverted to a marriage with her childhood crush, a boy who has grown into a deeply troubled man.

The tone of this book was delicious, written in the no-nonsense gentle voice of an older Mary-Margaret looking back at her life. She has compassion for her younger self, and acknowledges that hindsight is smoothing out the bumps, but also looks at the problems (and a few horrors) in a clear, non-sentimental way. I liked the looping narrative -- seventy-year old Mary-Margaret alternates between her current life, in which she is surprised to find information about her unknown father, and tracing the story of her youth and adulthood. There isn't much suspense about the major parts of life, since she is writing to her fellow religious and they know how she ends up, but watching the relationships grow is part of the beauty of the book. The theme is God's love beyond reason, and how people can show that in real life, not in a stilted kind of way, but in a faltering human path. Of course, it would help if Jesus would come to take tea with us all, but each life is different.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Ten Years Old Fifty Years Ago

Jean Bothwell's children's book, The Mystery Cargo features a ten year old boy named Micky Devlin, who lives a very interesting life. His mother is an Italian professional pianist, his father an Irish business man, and he lives with his two siblings and the housekeeper's family in a loft apartment over his dad's warehouse. The building overlooks the Hudson River, close to the docks where his father's goods arrive, and the time is the early 1960's, so the live-in housekeeper and chauffeur isn't quite as incredible.

The story itself was thin, but I enjoyed the sense of place and time. Micky could walk home from school, but if he were even a few minutes late, there was a panic. His older siblings were embarrassed at their uptown school about living over a warehouse, but took the full time servants for granted. The children could all speak Italian, like their mother, but didn't find that exceptional. Ten year old Micky seemed much more naive than my eight year old in terms of his understanding of adult problems and worries. The book stayed very true to itself without condescending or moralizing. It was a fun book to read, although it's a bit hard to picture modern children reading it. I'll offer it to the kids to see what happens.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Aliens and Bureaucracy

Like many Baen authors, Michael Z. Williamson writes military-SF, with different planets and advanced weaponry and highly trained professionals from the good-guy planet and mostly corrupt officials from the bad-guy planet (Earth). Although I enjoy a lot of military SF, I mostly cheat by skimming the combat rich parts, either the gory one-on-one bits or the technology rich battles between space ships. I just like heroes in space.

Contact With Chaos is about the first contact humans have with a real alien race, and the attempts to build a trade relationship without destroying the alien culture or starting a war. But it mostly reads as an outline of the event, and I think that is because the characters don't really affect anything. They are doing their job, and anyone else could have done it too. Maybe other people would have done things a little differently, but it never felt like the personalities of the main characters had much to do with their decisions, or that they learned and changed because of what was going on. There wasn't really any character arc for anyone. The closest was that some of the male protagonists occasionally noticed what hotties most of the females were, and thought that maybe sometime when they were off duty maybe they could do something social. But no one ever got off-duty. There was a character from an earlier book, who had a few brief thoughts about the difficulties some of her personal history caused her (her father was a notorious officer in a previous war), but it wasn't a big deal and nothing was resolved. It was a fast read, and I don't begrudge the time, but I don't recommend this except to Williamson completists. C.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Scholastic Treasures

There are several classic kidlit books that I somehow missed reading, and I ordered a bunch of them from one of the boys' book order forms early this year. Then I misplaced the bag of books, and came across it a few days ago. I'm trying to pass them on to whichever boy I think most likely to read it, so I'll hopefully have some feedback from Actual Children on some of these children's books. I find it really hard to make my age or grade recommendations, because I can't remember when I read things or whether it mattered. I really like that my kids aren't afraid to read all over the reading spectrum -- they'll read adult texts if the story is worth it, and they'll gobble up Easy Readers that are interesting.

Today I filled in one of the holes in my Newbery collection. Kneeknock Rise, by Natalie Babbitt. I haven't read this Honor Book before, although I've enjoyed her Devil's Storybooks and Tuck Everlasting. Her books are interesting and simple stories with often fascinating philosophical underpinnings. The main character, Egan, visits the town that celebrates the terrifying Megrimum, a ravenous beast that lives at the top of the nearby mountain, a peak that is always cloaked in ominous mist. Egan's cousin goads him to climb to the top, where he discovers the true nature of the beast. But is the truth important, or is it irrelevant when the society values the stories it tells more?