Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tales of the Vampires

Another comic compilation from Dark Horse, Tales of the Vampires (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has stories going back to look at vampires in the Buffy/Angel universe, with a slim frame story that (sometimes) (occasionally) ties the stories together.  Some are creepy, some try to add some humanity to their vampire protagonists, some add some back story to Buffy characters. It's an interesting form of collaboration with both authors and illustrators adding their ideas to a shared world situation.  Some or maybe all of the writers are from the Buffy show itself (including Joss Whedon), but the stories are still allowed to contradict each other.

I'm still learning the rhythms of comic books; it's often not apparent how these originally appeared, whether the framing story was added later or if they were intended to go together all along. Wikipedia tells me it was a five issue series, with the bridging story added by Joss Whedon.  Interesting.  B

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sing It: Scit-Scat Raggedy Cat


I'm enjoying the selection of picture-book biographies brought to me by the Cybils NonFiction Picture book category.  I've mostly missed this entire category of book up until now, since I rarely wandered into the nonfiction section when browsing for picture books except when given specific instructions (which really, only N tended to do), but my sons and I are enjoying the selections the Cybils team offers us.  Roxanne Orgill's story of the childhood and early career of Ella Fitzgerald, Scit-Scat Raggedy Cat, was my first glimpse of the life of the famous jazz singer.  The pictures (by Sean Qualls) and text brought her beginnings as an energetic young girl singing and dancing on the street to vivid life, followed by the dark times after the death of her mother and her loneliness with her aunt, in detention, and on the street.

After reading the book, we went on the internet to hear snatches of the songs referenced in the story, many of them new to me.  My only quibble was that the text frequently refers to her as homely, stressing that this ugly girl was making the beautiful music, but the pictures belie that, showing a pretty little thing.  B

Grrl Power: Tortall and Other Lands

Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales (Beka Cooper) by Tamora Pierce provides a set of stories featuring primarily young women struggling to assert their power.  Often their society restricts females in particular, leading to quite a few male disguises.   Most of the stories take place somewhere in Tortall, sometimes using characters from previous books.  I like the action and the clarity; even murky situations have a comforting clear resolution.  My sixth grade boy also enjoyed the book.

In "Elder Brother", my favorite part was watching the (disguised) girl's double-take on learning that Qiom's self-identity as an ex-tree is not a metaphor, but a literal history.  Reading "Nawat" I was left mainly with the impression that Pierce hasn't been near infant twins, let alone triplets, but I doubted whether my son even noticed the baby care anomalies.  And "Lost" features a mathematician heroine, which won my heart despite the standard plot.  Recommended mainly for fans of her existing series, the stories don't break new ground but provide good landscaping for familiar territory.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ex-Navy: Frisco's Kid

Frisco's Kid (Tall, Dark & Dangerous #3)I'm a sucker for the romance trope where one character is saddled with a good kid, but those are few and far between.  Suzanne Brockman delivers a decent version in Frisco's Kid (Tall, Dark & Dangerous, Book 3), the first in a series about really tough SEALs and the women who (eventually) love them.  At least I think it's a series; I've only read this one.

Frisco has just been medically discharged.  Although he confounded doctors by learning to walk on his combat-injured knee, he's nowhere near the fitness demanded by the special forces.  Barely able to climb the stairs to his rarely-used apartment, he has no plans except booze-scented despair, which is interrupted by his irresponsible sister dumping her daughter on him while she enters an alcoholic treatment program.  Downstairs is the cheerful school teacher Mia, who is not impressed by his drinking or his war stories.  Will their physical attraction over come their distaste for each other's professions? Will Frisco's sister's troubles come back to plague them?  Will Frisco learn to handle his neglected niece? Well, you probably know all the answers to those questions, but Brockman delivers them in a fast-paced, interesting story with only a few annoying detours along the way.  I wouldn't mind reading other books by her.

However, not the next one in this series.  The book came in a two-book package (Tall, Dark and Fearless: Frisco's Kid\Everyday, Average Jones (Hqn)) and I bounced hard out of the second book.  It involves a girl hiding a pregnancy from the father, which I usually dislike since it requires a woman selfish enough to hide a man's child and a man too dumb to understand where babies come from, and when I skipped to the end to see if I wanted to slog through to get there, I found her refusing an emergency c-section because she had promised the dad he could be there for the birth.  I can't fathom the stupidity required, but I'm sure these are not a couple I'd want to spend a book with.

Cat Saves World: Plain Kate

I've seen Plain Kate by Erin Bow on book store shelves and in library branches, and while it looked possibly decent I didn't bother picking it up until the Cybils Young Adult Fantasy finalist list made it a challenge book.  Once again, I want to thank the Cybils committee for leading me to a good read.

Plain Kate is about loving and losing family, making choices, saving the world even when it hurts, and sometimes saving a little bit of grace as well. It takes its young characters seriously enough to let them suffer damage when the risks they take don't pay off; it respects betrayal and death in ways that many modern texts don't.  All this and an awesome talking cat make for a powerful story.  I hope I can get my sixth grader to read it; the cover has an appropriate tone but doesn't really have anything to do with the story and won't be a selling point for him.  A-

(He wouldn't try it. Humph.) (The Amazon link is for the Cybils committee, I think.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bad to the Bone: Blackout

Blackout 1240x2000 BLACKOUT: Cal Leandros, Book 6Rob Thurman writes an urban fantasy series that I haven't been reading. The latest installment, Blackout (Cal Leandros, Book 6), is clearly an attempt to lure in readers who usually hesitate to start in the middle. Since I am a reader who delights in starting in the middle, I figured I'd encourage authors to encourage this by reading the book.

The gimmick worked for me; Cal Leandros wakes up on a beach with amnesia, and starts trying to figure who he is and what he does. His frantic brother finds him quickly, but his memory returns very slowly, giving him most of the book to interact with his former friends, peers, acquaintances, enemies, and lovers. Thurman doesn't bury the current story with backstory; in fact, Cal's family deliberately lets him rediscover most of his background instead of pushing forward with their memories of him. This gave me a slow and fun introduction to the setting and characters, which is important since both have some rough edges that might put me off. I'm off to get the first book in the series now, because I want to see if Cal was right about who he was, and what his brother does for him.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Growing Up Fast: Every Time a Rainbow Dies

I put Rita Williams-Garcia's book Every Time a Rainbow Dies on my TBR list early last year, and now I can't remember who or what recommended it to me.

This thin novel covers a few months in adolescent Thulani's life, from his lonely isolation with only his pigeons to console him for the death of his mother through his shocking encounter with Ysa that eventually leads to friendship. His obsession with Ysa helps convince him to connect more with some of his classmates, healing him up enough to weather the next set of catastrophes when his brother abandons him.

I found Thulani's family chilling, both his loving but casually cruel mother who abandoned him and his overbearing and overwhelmed older brother forced to parent him. And although his relationship with Ysa eventually warmed into a real friendship, his pursuit of her was creepy and alienating. I also can't see his life going in very good directions; he's still very young and terrible at long term thinking, where long term is more than a week away. I prefer it as a short story, which leaves more room for hope; as a novel it was profoundly depressing. I read this quickly on an airplane trip, but immediately jumped into a romance for some optimism therapy. B+

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Defective Druid: Unshapely Things

Mark Del Franco writes an urban fantasy series (starting with Unshapely Things (Connor Grey, Book 1)) about a druid, Conner Grey, who used to be a hot-shot with magic, but has been sidelined with a work-related brain injury.  So instead of living high on the hog, he's scraping by on disability payments and occasional work consulting with a human detective.  It gives Del Franco a character with a lot of knowledge but unhampered by enough power to blow through problems.  Conner also gets a personal arc to work through as he confronts his new identify as a magic-less under-employed guy, who finds the world a lot different than he did when he was a super-powerful high ranking guy.

I found it readable but not outstanding; the story moved along and Conner changed a bit and learned a bit; sometimes too much was handed to him but his actions proved important in the end.  I wasn't captured enough to search out the other books, but I won't mind reading them if I come across them.  B-

Monday, May 23, 2011

History For Dessert: Sit-In

My next Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book Finalist entry was read to me over two nights by my fourth grader, with an instruction by my sixth grader that he wanted the book when we were done.  I always feel a sense of pride that my kids still read picture books, although I don't know what I had to do with that or really why it gives me such warm fuzzies.  But I take my triumphs as I find them.

Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea David Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, tells the story of the fight for integration in the south, focused on the Woolworth counter where David, Joseph, Franklin and Ezell sat down in a quest for a coffee and donut with justice on the side.  The words of Martin Luther King Jr are sprinkled throughout, both showing how he inspired the students and linking the text to things my boys knew about. We dated the events by distance Before Mom, establishing me as somewhat younger than the dinosaurs.  The illustrations built on the text, bringing out the emotions and hopes of the people and times.  It was interesting to me to see how my son identified some of the races of the people drawn at the counter, because clearly we have different markers; his idea of white and black overlapped mine but were clearly not identical.  It was a fascinating peek into courage in the past.  A-

Monday Catch-up

Last week I fell off the reading bandwagon.  Instead of studiously finishing the books on my various lists, I wandered aimlessly about the house, picking things up and putting them down, occasionally panicking at the sight of upcoming library due dates or drooling over favorite passages in whatever caught my eye.  I've now spread books all over my house, and finding and maybe finishing everything I've started will be a bit of a project.  I didn't even record my latest library finds because they too were scattered about.  So this is a two week summary, plus extra bonus library accountability.

What did I read?
  • Unshapely Things, Mark Del Franco
  • The Seige of Macindaw (Ranger'sApprentice 6) by John Flanagan
  • Meet Kaya: An American Girl by Janet Beeler Shaw
  • Nightlife, Rob Thurman
  • My Lord and Spymaster, by Joanna Bourne
  • Evolve, Vampire Stories of the New Undead, Canadian stories edited by Nancy Kilpatrick
  • If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, by Gernifer Choldenko
  • Tinker, Wen Spencer (and large parts of her other books)
  • Indulgence In Death,  J.D. Robb.
  • Circles in the Stream (Avalon: Web of Magic #1), Rachel Roberts. 
What trends do I see? My brain is made of tapioca.

Right now I'm reading: 
  • Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold.  Book about the Well in the 90's.  Interesting perspective.
  • Aunt Dimity and the Family Tree, Nancy Atherton.  The saccharine level is dangerously high.
  • Curse of the Wolf Girl, Martin Millar, recommended by Jenny's books.  Fun in short dosages.
  • Queen's Play, Dorothy Dunnet, my library Nook book, which disappeared. Must re-check out
  • Territory, Emma Bull (vacation book)
  • Hammered, Elizabeth Bear (vacation book)
  • Bad Prince Charlie, John Moore (vacation book)
  • Interior Life, Katherine Blake (vacation book) 
  • The Rogue's Return, Jo Beverly (vacation book)
  • The Hob's Bargain, Patricia Briggs (vacation book)
  • The Secret Duke, Jo Beverly.  Found under my bedside table with a bookmark.
  • How I Met My Countess, Elizabeth Boyle.  Also found.
From the library I retrieved:
  • Cagebird, Karin Lowachee.  Reloot.  This is the weakest of the three Warchild books so far.
  • The First Cut, Diane Emley.  There's an alphabetical online book club reading this.
  • Pod, Stephen Wallenfels.  Cybils book.
  • Nightlife, Rob Thurman.  I read this already.  
  • The Battle for Azeroth, ed by Bill Fawcett.  Nonfiction about my other popular obsession.
  • A book for my son and a movie for my nephew. Because I'm nice that way.
This leaves me with 67 things checked out on my card.  Soon I will be down in the 50s!

Quick stats on my Challenges:
A-Z: 30/52.  Small progress, OK as long as it continues
Cybils: 39/76. Inching along.
Global Reading Challenge:  9/21. Stuck.
Michigan: 2/2.  Finished!  Hooray!
Once Upon a Time: 9/5.  I'm an overachiever.
Read Around the World: 11/20.  Seven are Ranger's Apprentice books, which seems like cheating.
Science Book Challenge: 1/3.141...  Haven't read the science books out from the library.
Stream: 3/3, 2/3.  One stream has branched.
Take a Chance: 3/10. My dad had the Economist's Best of the Year 2010 list, which helps.
20/11: 16/20.  If I finished my library reloot, I'd have #17.
What's In a Name?: 4/6.  Very hard! I found a more acceptable choice for #4 though.
Where Am I Reading?: 20/50. Woot!  One of the series books I'm reading on my way around the library was set in Pennsylvania.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mean Little Men: House on the Strand

The House on the Strand (Virago Modern Classics)I thought I'd like Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand because it has so much going for it: strange concoctions that teleport people into the past.  Stepchildren. Recommendation by a friend. English.  But for me all that was shadowed by being trapped in the head of the narrator, a selfish, greedy, mean-spirited man.

He resents his wife's overbearing attitude.  Can you imagine, she'd like to know his plans for the future! She dares to want to know what continent they'll be living on, or whether he plans to get a job. Every month or so she nags him about this, because she is so annoying.  The kids keep expecting to, well, actually they don't expect much, and are happy and grateful for whatever comes their way, but still, having them around crowds his style.

The enjoyable part for me were the jaunts into the past,  but those are surrounded by the idiocy of the men doing the jumps.  See, only your mind goes into the past, so you wander about the present-day land, seeing what happened there hundreds of years ago, when people were much more interesting.  Of course, when modern things like trains zip through the land, unfortunate accidents occur.  It's not hard to think of a few safeguards to keep things safe, but that would require thought, which the protagonist avoids at all costs, preferring whinging and sulking as full-time occupations.  The call of the drug that brings on the past is clearly a metaphor for addiction, where the next fix becomes the only important thing, but I get enough of that from melodramatic YA books; seeing it in a supposedly worldly adult is dull.  I kept rooting for his wife to take the kids and leave.

I think my main problem with this book is that I approached it from the wrong genre.  In science fiction (time travel), the protagonist is usually someone worthwhile, or at least trying to be.  Also, intelligent. The reader is expected to root for them.  This book is literary fiction, where the protagonist is often encouraged to be vile.  I forgot that, so by the time I got my footing I had identified with the narrator too much, and couldn't distance myself from my contempt enough to enjoy the book.  Much the same thing happened to me when I saw the movie Fargo, which had been described to me as a light romantic comedy.  Or the movie The Sixth Sense, which I rented on a recommendation for a good date-night movie.  C-

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Comic Book Action: Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000

Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000Eric Wight's Frankie Pickle books provide a bridge between picture books and graphic novels (or novels); the pages are illustrated and often burst into full comic-panel form, since Frankie spends a lot of his time day-dreaming his life in that media. In the Cybils Early Chapter Book Finalist Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000 this provides the boost to the plot, since the day-dreaming causes problems when real life moves on without him, leaving Frankie the only Pygmy Possum Scout without enough points to advance to the Shrew level.

(Possum Scouts seem to be a pastiche of Cub Scouts, hopefully without the homophobia).

Frankie dashes about on his last-ditch effort for points, of course refusing all help and relying on his  daydreams for inspiration until he Learns His Lesson. Well, actually, he appealingly seems to learn nothing, but there were lessons there if you wanted to see them. The text and colors charmed me, and both boys enjoyed the book as well.  B+

Cops and Demons, Working Together: Secrets of the Demon

Diana Rowland writes the fun kind of urban fantasy -- regular person with a regular job is trying to get along, but they have this other stuff. Angst level kept low, action level high.  In Secrets of the Demon (Kara Gillian, Book 3), Kara is working hard to make it as a cop in her small Louisiana town, but she makes time for her family hobby of summoning creatures (demons) from other dimensions.  This has led to complications.

Some of the complications come with benefits, as is traditional for female protagonists.  In the previous book Kara promised to bring over a major player, a Demon Lord, every month in return for the life of the man she's been considering as a boy friend.  MEANWHILE, There's a new case involving several murders and several petty crimes, all centered around a small group of people.  Kara and her task force (including the possible boy friend) work on figuring out how they connect while Kara also struggles with her relationship with the gorgeous creature she's been summoning.  The sex is great, but she's not sure whether she's just imagining a friendship growing as well.  And should she stop the great sex in case her human friend wants to move to the next level? Nothing too earth-shattering, but readable prose and a lack of pretension makes this a good book for a lazy afternoon or a relaxed vacation.  B

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Boy Against THE MAN: Dirt Road Home

I'm continuing my path through the 2010 Cybil finalists.  Somehow I put my hold for the first YA Fiction finalist on a freeze pattern, and then uncovered a bug in the new library software by being unable to release it when I got back from vacation.  Eventually I dropped and recreated the hold, and soon Watt Key's Dirt Road Home came to my house.

Hal is facing up to some bad choices in his youth. Only fifteen, he's turned himself into the law knowing he'll be sent to Hellenweiller, the juvenile hall for dangerous, irredeemable boys.  He's determined to go straight; he and his father have promised each other to reform. What Hal doesn't expect, however, is that corrupt officials at Hellenweiller see it as their duty to keep any of their "boys" from returning to the outside world, and they are willing to document anything they need, true or false, to keep any boy from achieving parole.

The boys in the home divide into two rival games, most of the youth completely oblivious to the adults pushing them toward violence between each other, both as an excuse to keep everyone locked up and to justify the occasional attacks by the guards.  Hal's extreme, rather incredible, self-restraint bring him to the attention of the better sort of boys, who have mostly given up hope after their years in the home.  The book is labeled a companion book to Alabama Moon, and I suspect it would read better if I had read that first; a lot of Hal's journey takes place there, I think, and I might believe him more if I had seen the transformation from angry boy into determined adolescent.  I'll put that on my TBR list.  B-

The link to Amazon (never used as far as I can tell) should benefit the Cybils committee.

Old Acquaintances: Dead Reckoning

The new Sookie Stackhouse book is out, and I had some qualms about buying it new. The best part of the Sookie books is the fresh way Sookie herself deals with the new situations Charlaine Harris dumps on her, but by book eleven there aren't that many fresh situations.  And I dread the ones that appear because the cast of characters is already top-heavy, making the books a bit lumbering with all the pauses to explain backstory.  She's got several vampire boyfriends, each with a complicated history both back in the past and with Sookie personally, there's the shapeshifter friends and enemies, including the werewolf pack which has a long and complicated history with her (including another boyfriend), there are the fairies currently living with her and their connection to her family, there are, well, you get the idea.

Luckily I had an option between hardback and patience -- I have my NOOK. So I bought the ebook, and I'll share that with my friends.  Even more luckily, I wasn't disappointed. Dead Reckoning (Sookie Stackhouse, Book 11) has the usual multiple mysteries, although Harris seemed more concerned with with straightening out some of the emotional complications that Sookie finds herself in that the problems of the people trying to kill her, which get a bit of short shift. (The motives of one bad guy is that raving loonies get fixated on trying to kill our Sookie. Homicidal mania is not that interesting in a book that is all about the characters.)  But more interestingly, Sookie spends some time thinking about who she is and what she does, and whether she likes how they impact each other.  She begins to admit to herself that having non-human friends means having different ideas of what friendship means.  And the book was fairly short (under 300 pages) which meant that unnecessary backstory got trimmed out. I ended up enjoying it, although I don't recommend it as a starting point for the series. B

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sulky Selkie: The Folk Keeper

The Folk Keeper by Franny BillingsleyFranny Billingsley has a new book coming out that has a lot of people excited.  I had never heard of her before, so instead of waiting for the new book I ordered up the older The Folk Keeper so I could see what the fuss was about.  I do like it when the world arranges things so I don't have to wait.  Books are like pots; they should wait for me, not me for them.  At least I think pots are like that; I heard my sister say something like that once.

The Folk Keeper is the perfect book for a school library; interesting, with the focus on the main character, youth-oriented, with little ambiguity about the adults because all the moral issues are left for the adolescents, and short, thin enough to read in one day so you can go back the next morning to check out more books.  Corianna, the main character, is self-absorbed enough to miss a lot of clues around her, allowing me the smugness of figuring stuff out first.  I knew why lying is dangerous for her! I knew her true nature! I knew which boy liked her! (But everyone knew that, so it wasn't such a big deal.)

The end disappointed me a bit, because most of the high prices the characters paid were refunded to them, which cheapens things. I'm the type that leaves the little mermaid walking on knives, even if I relent and let her have the prince.  B

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mock My Pain: Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum

I can't chew gum without risking damage to my jaw; I have a light case of TMJ, or a weak ligament in my mouth.  Normally this isn't a problem; I bring hard candy on planes instead of Trident, and I say "no thanks" when nice people offer me sticks.  Sometimes I miss it though, for example when reading the Cybil  Nonfiction Picture Book finalist Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy.

My fourth grader read this to me, enjoying the simple rhythms and bright colors of the pages. I enjoyed watching the Edisonian efforts of Walter Diemer, former accountant, to achieve the holy grail of gum -- elasticity on bubble-blowing scale.  The pictures happily backed up the text, but rarely gave new insights into the facts.  They did help set a pleasant, optimistic tone, and the final page of gum facts was fun and informative.  B

(The link should benefit the Cybils committee.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fickle Will: Sorcerer of the North

The Sorcerer of the NorthIn the next installment of Jack Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series, Will is fully adult, an accredited ranger.  We don't even get to see his grueling Ranger Trials, which he apparently passed with flying, er, camouflaged colors.  Instead, the nineteen year old Will sets off on an undercover investigation in The Sorcerer of the North, which he finishes in The Siege of Macindaw.

The Siege of MacindawLuckily he has backup.  Besides his trusty and ever-young horse Tug, he acquires a dog, who will eventually have just the right name, although Will doesn't manage to come up with it during the first book.  Almost as useful as Dog is Alyss, his orphan companion who now serves as a promising diplomat.  That orphan class of Will's is very accomplished, with three of them at the top of their respective professions.  I expect we'll eventually get back to see the super-chef and uber-scribe that made up the rest of the group.  Anyway, Will and Alyss fail to penetrate the mystery of the north, but luckily events force them into an understanding of the situation, Will gets to demonstrate his wall-climbing skills, and then the book ends with Alyss in PERIL, possibly magical PERIL.  And Will has a major crush on Alyss, just like he did with the princess.  But since he is almost entirely unself-aware, he doesn't think of himself as fickle, even when flirting with the local bar maid.  Horace, who also shows up to join in the fun, finds their clumsiness baffling; as a straight-forward warrior, he can't see why they never talk to each other.  Horace and Will get to do lots of battling, sometimes alongside some handy Skandians, while Alyss deals in exploits of the mind.

The heroes relied a bit heavily on luck in the first book, but lots of non-stop action in the second kept me happy.  B

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Invisible Teacher: Flying Solo

Flying SoloI read Ralph Fletcher's Flying Solo in two bursts; I started it and then my fourth grade niece stole borrowed it when I described the setting -- a classroom of kids left with no teacher; through a bureacratic error no substitute appears for their class.  The kids decide to run things on their own, and thanks to the rule-following girls they mostly attend to the schedule their teacher left on the board for the missing substitute.

Of course, Fletcher has to raise the stakes a bit, so he has the class recovering from the death of a pupil several months ago. The most obviously affected is Rachel, who hasn't spoken since the death.  Other students face a sudden move, distant parents, or other typical kid issues.  I actually preferred the mundane problems much more than the big, traumatic DEATH thing.  The story moves along fairly quietly, told in a rotating mosaic of viewpoints, sometimes just the journal entries of various students,  sometimes focusing on their thoughts and observations.  It's a fun read, and the form reminded me of Because of Mr Terupt, although everything is squeezed into a few days instead of a school year, so the focus is more on a single transformative event, not growth over a year.  Of course, any book that leads a kid to pounce upon and read it gets props from me.  B

Friday, May 13, 2011

Harriet and Peter; A Presumption of Death

During World War II, Dorothy Sayers wrote a few letters from her Peter Wimsey series for the Spectator, which gives hints of where the major players were at the beginning of the war. With these,  Jill Paton Walsh constructs a new Lord Peter tale, with Harriet and the great one solving a murder in the village near Talboys, scene of the last real book. Although not up to the brilliant sparkle of Sayer's Harriet Vane and Lord Peter, I still enjoyed the visit back with such wonderful characters, and it doesn't hurt that I enjoy World War II Britain stories on their own.

There's a new Walsh/Sayers book out, but I grabbed this one first since I can barely remember what happened, just enough to know which way the murder tended. I did remember the scene with a disheveled Bunter, because of course, as Lord Peter acknowledges, it is frabjous day when Bunter is not at the top of his game. Anyway, not for rabid Sayers fans, but a fun read for more easy-going devoted fans.  B

I Just Want to Read All the TIme: 48 Hour Book Challenge

48 Hour Book ChallengeOne of my favorite book events of the year is approaching -- MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge will be June 3-5th.  Pick 48 continuous hours with that weekend and READ.  This is the challenge that got me started with blogging.  I'm not really a contender for any top prizes, because I do have a family, although they get plenty of neglect from me that weekend.  Luckily their aunt usually steps forward to feed them occasionally.

Even better, now they are old enough to read along.  So that makes things a meaningful family activity, not just me locking my kids in boxes!  Last year I made 31 hours, 29 reading and 2 blogging.  My older son made 4 hours, which I hope he exceeds this year.  And I hope to entice my younger son to join in. I've been giving them a 24 hour window for their junior challenge, because I'm busy enough tracking MY time.

This might be a good year to again clean up my currently-reading stack, which has remained at alarming heights since my last vacation.  My chosen charity is our elementary school library; I pledge $1/hour plus $1/book finished.  Hmm, and $1/comment on the posts.  And I'd better go stock up on an audio book for any driving I have to do (last year I made my son read aloud to me when he wanted me to run an errand during my precious reading time).

Making the Erotic Boring: The Man-Handler

The Man HandlerI picked this book from a list of books challenged from a major library; the other books on the list that I had read I liked, which usually promises good things.  This one was challenged for having too much sex and being basically pornography, so I was ready for a standard romance story.  Instead, I have to agree that Cairo's The Man Handler: A Novel had way too much sex, read like stage directions to a porno-flick, and I think my library wasted its money in purchasing it.

Here's the plot: Girl has a lot of sex.   She has no friends. She gets pregnant (in the last few pages).

Along the way, she tells you about all the sex she has, lectures the reader on why she hates most women and men and distrusts them all, tells you more about sex she remembers having, discusses why she refuses to get to know the men she has sex with, even when for some inexplicable reason they want more of a relationship with her, fantasizes about having even more sex with even more men, and wonders if her child will impact her sex life.  Most of the sex reads like bad letters to pornographic magazines, catering exclusively to a male perspective despite the narrator's gender.  I'd put this with other experimental novels that didn't work; the narrator pushed so strongly for the greatness of her life that it seemed the author must be trying to be ironic, but I was never sure whether its theme of the soul-sucking nature of sexual promiscuity for women was intentional or if Cairo agreed with the narrator that it sounded like fun.  The repetitive, constant, and dull sex scenes made the book seem three times as long as its almost 400 pages. I admit to skimming a lot when my eyes threatened to permanently glaze over.  F

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Selective Blindness: You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know

You Don't Look Like Anyone I KnowHeather Seller's memoir, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, concentrates on the confusion and isolation caused by her prosopagnosia, a rare condition the prevents her from recognizing faces.  As an adult, she often accidentally insults friends and co-workers by ignoring them when they meet, or by constantly re-introducing herself.  Even her closest intimates can confound her; she cannot recognize her step-sons when picking them up, and often startles at the sight of a strange man in her house, before he identifies himself as her husband.

Seller's explanation for why it took her until her forties to realize she had a problem lies in her childhood, where she moved back and forth between an alcoholic father and a perhaps schizophrenic mother.  The family explanation for her problems with her situation was that she was crazy, and her frequent confusion seemed only a small part of the chaotic environment she found herself in.  Reading her stories, I did often worry for her sanity; everyone does "crazy" stuff sometimes, but usually we can identify it; Seller's doesn't seem able to differentiate when she is reacting strangely from when she is handling life appropriately.  She addresses some of the problems with memoirs directly; how everyone constructs stories of their lives from the pieces available, and sometimes we choose very carefully to fit the pieces to the story we want to tell, either to ourselves or to the peers we are sharing our past with.

I don't completely feel I understand what was happening in Florida as she grew up, and I'm still baffled by her relationship with her (sort-of-ex-)husband, but Sellers has a deft hand with words and narrative that make this a quick and engrossing read.  B-

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tiny Library Haul

Renton Library
We had several visits to the library this week, with our regular trip, our extra trip because some kids missed the regular trip, the community sponsored walk-around-downtown, which of course included the library (a prolonged visit, due to an expected rain shower).  But I firmly held myself back from excessive check-outs, and only took the three tiny books the hold shelf offered.  And five CDs.

Today the hold shelves delivered:Image of itemImage of itemImage of item
  • Crunch, a Cybils middle-grade book
  • Baking Cakes in Kigali, from my TBR list
  • Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down, another Cybils book, non-fiction
  • Kidz Bop 14, part of our continuing musical journey
My older son checked out a ton of books, but all on his cards.  Many of them are research on Alexander the Great; I hope he actually reads them.  N has refused to part with any of the Elephant and Piggy books, so I'm restraining his check-outs as well.

That brings me to 76 items out on my card.  That is much less than 87.  Go me!  It's less than my grandmother's age. Marg at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and Clare from The Captive Reader take turns with the linky for Library Loot. That's where all us library lovers go to compare our hauls for the week.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Close Look at WWII: The Occupied Garden

My favorite types of history books tell what life was like for individuals as the vast sweep of history passes across nations.  The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland has a thin viewpoint; the lives of the author's grandparents and their children during the German occupation of the Netherlands.  Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski never asked their Oma and Opa about their war time experiences during their lives, but decades later they became fascinated with this family history and devoted themselves to finding out as much as they could about those years.  They interviewed the five siblings (dad, aunt, and three uncles) over and over again, using the memories from one to trigger more information from another.  They went to Holland to pour over archives and interview more relatives, neighbors, and friends.  The result is a detailed book that both conveys the hardships of the war years and the strains and strengths of a devout Dutch family.

Occasionally the story pulls back to look at Queen Wilhelmina's actions, which gives a chance for more of an overview of the course of the war and events on a wider scale.  Even this feels intimate, since Gerrit and Cor often have a child matching ages with the Queen's grandchildren, and the author uses this connection to move between them.  The focus is on family, and the details of the strict and unsentimental child raising philosophy drew me in as much as the worries about food, bombs, and resistance fighting.  

I found this book through den Hartog's blog, and now I'm very inclined to pick up some of her fiction titles.  A-

Monday, May 9, 2011

Burning Down the House: The Ghost in the Little House

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the world-famous Little House books, chronicling the life of Laura from the Big Woods through the First Four Years.  They mix a charming, energetic girl's family life with fascinating details of pioneer crafts and ingenuity; I still vividly remember Laura's moccasins and pig-bladder toy as well as her wild struggles with a mean teacher in her adolescence.  But I hadn't known that Laura's daughter Rose was also an author until I read Borrowed Names, a poem about the relationship between Laura and Rose.

This led me to The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane (MISSOURI BIOGRAPHY SERIES) by William Holtz,  a biography devoted to Rose Wilder Lane, from her harsh life on the failed farm from the last Laura book through her journalist years, her novels, her extensive help to her mother's writing, and finally her status as an idol of the libertarian movement, a woman who refused to register for Social Security, who churned her own butter rather than register for rationing during World War II.  Although I enjoyed the frisson of finding that Rose rewrote all of the Laura books except the last, I found her trips abroad more interesting.  She spent time in Europe after the first World War, documenting the work of the Red Cross, and then went back to America to face the deprivations of the depression.  The text tends towards dryness, and I wish Holtz had forced more of a narrative; I often felt he was arguing towards a point but that he kept shifting directions.  I enjoyed this book, but won't search for other books of his.  B-

Mondays in May

Each Monday Sheila at Book Journey asks about how the reading week went -- what people read, what they are reading, what they will read.  This May has been rainy and cold, and I find myself just dipping into rereads insteadof concentrating on new reading.  With an overwhelming library pile this is not a good thing. 

What did I read?
  • Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales, short stories by Tamora Pierce
  • Flying Solo, kidlit book about six graders running their class for a day with no teacher
  • Betti on the High Wire, next Cybils middle grade book
  • Dirt Road Home, my first Cybils YA
  • Dead Reckoning, the next Sookie Stackhouse
What trends do I see? I'm lazy.  On the plus size, my currently reading pile is trending downward, which is a good thing.

Right now I'm reading: 
  • Cagebird, Karin Lowachee. Leftover from trip.
  • Unshapely Things, Mark Del Franco.  Urban fantasy in Massachusetts.  I misplaced it for a while.
  • Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold.  Book about the Well in the 90's.  Interesting perspective.
  • Curse of the Wolf Girl, Martin Millar, recommended by Jenny's books
  • Tinker, Wen Spencer.  Reread for book club.
  • Queen's Play, Dorothy Dunnet, my library Nook book, which disappeared. Must re-check out
  • Territory, Emma Bull (vacation book)
  • Hammered, Elizabeth Bear (vacation book)
  • Bad Prince Charlie, John Moore (vacation book)
  • Interior Life, Katherine Blake (vacation book) 
  • The Rogue's Return, Jo Beverly (vacation book)
  • The Hob's Bargain, Patricia Briggs (vacation book)
  • The Secret Duke, Jo Beverly.  Found under my bedside table with a bookmark.
  • How I Met My Countess, Elizabeth Boyle.  Also found.
I'm just poking at the vacation books; mostly I'm reading the top four.  I've got the new Walsh/Sayers on my list, as well as some books due next week. I may have to do some fast reading tomorrow if I can't renew some stuff.  I also think I'll pull out some nonfiction from my TBR piles.

Quick stats on my Challenges:
A-Z: 26/52.  Halfway!
Cybils: 38/76.  Halfway!
Global Reading Challenge:  9/21. I'm counting everything I've read so far.
Michigan: 1/2.  Halfway!  Review waiting to be posted.
Once Upon a Time: 8/5.  I'm listing them before reviewing them.
Read Around the World: 9/20.  Half of my books will end up being Ranger's Apprentice books.  I'm signing up for a setting challenge because authors are hard. 
Science Book Challenge: 1/3.141...  I'll probably use a children's science book for the fraction.
Stream: 3/3.  I found another biography in the references for my next read.
Take a Chance: 3/10. My dad had the Economist's Best of the Year 2010 list, which helps.
20/11: 16/20. Piece of cake!
What's In a Name?: 4/6.  This is taking much longer than I thought it would!
Where Am I Reading?: 19/50.  Argh! I went back to Alabama, Louisiana, New York, Massachusetts, but no new states. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Anonymous Children: Betti On the High Wire

My last 2010 Cybils Middle Grade Novel finalist was so popular in my house that it was chosen by the fourth grader as our April family book club book (Belly Up).  This one may be a harder sell; Lisa Railsback's Betti on the High Wire is a realistic book about an international adoption; the high wire is metaphorical which I suspect will be a disappointment to my boys.  After all, Alex Rider walked a high wire without the benefit of living in a circus camp.

Babo, renamed Betti by her American adoptive family, is a refugee child from an unnamed war-torn country.  The oldest in her small band of lost children, she deputizes the elderly Auntie Moo by taking care of the other children, telling them stories and encouraging them to run away from the strange Melon People from foreign countries, who sometimes choose a child to take home. Betti is astonished when she and her friend George are chosen, because she had a bad eye and he has a missing arm. She is determined not to like her new life and to return to her known and beloved Auntie Moo.  Railsback writes Babo as a standard literary child, who carefully narrates her misunderstandings so that the readers always know what she refuses to understand -- that her parents are dead, that she won't be going back, that her new family loves her, that George is willing to assimilated by his nearby family.

Railsback deliberately never identifies where Babo comes from; it could be any violent place on the planet. We don't know her language, her alphabet, her culture.  An afterward explains this choice -- there are so many places like this in the world that picking one might seem to ignore the others.  It didn't work for me, though; it seemed to disrespect Babo, who shouldn't have to be an avatar of all displaced children; she considers herself unique and important, the child of two circus superstars.  Depriving her of any identifying culture or background makes her seem smaller and sillier -- clearly the America around her is better than the poverty-stricken nothingness she left behind, so her reluctance to engage can only be because of her childish fears of impermanence, such as any foster child might feel.  I never got any sense of her adoptive family's location either, adding to this sense of displacement.  Maybe somewhere on the East Coast, with a Betsy Ross elementary? C+

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Too Old For Beauty: The Scarlet Pimpernel

This lush and romantic tale of the French Revolution by the Baroness Orczy has the lovely Marguerite watch helplessly while the dashing and clever Scarlet Pimpernel battles the diabolical M. Chauvelin for the lives of French aristocrats in the path of the guillotine juggernaut.  It has vast sweeps of emotion, true love battling pride, sisterly love opposing romance, and I can see myself eating it with a spoon only a decade or so ago.  Alas, though I enjoy it still for the sake of past-me, I can't quite get caught up in the whirlwind anymore.  Cranky current self finds these kids just a wee bit too emo for comfort; when Blakely kisses the steps Marguerite just walked on, instead of sighing tragically I wonder how clean the stairs are.  When Marguerite realizes THE TRUTH too late and begins her frantic dash to join her beloved in danger, I find myself wondering what she hopes to accomplish.  As it turns out, she doesn't actually do anything, but does get kissed again much sooner than if she had waited at home, which old me would have considered sufficient reward.

I also wish that just once, even accidentally, she could have done something right. Or at least that the author had stopped assuring me that she was the wittiest woman in Europe as she wanders the countryside without a thought in her pretty but disheveled head.  But, ah, womanlike!, she never concerns herself with practicalities.

(The picture was taken by helen.2006 who posted it on flickr with a shared license. )

Less Challenging: 2011 Global Reading Challenge

My current global reading challenges asks both for authors from different countries, but also for books I can share with my kids.  This turns out to be hard, even if I count books I try and fail to share with my kids, and counting books when I can't tell where the author originates frustrates me.  Since my general approach to challenges is to avoid being actually challenged, I need a new list to use when books are useless for my read-American challenge (Where Are You Reading?).

Luckily the 2011 Global Reading Challenge fits right in.  At the Expert level, it asks for three novels from each continent, with an extra continent thrown in for those space-station kind of books.  I am of course back-dating all my reading so far, or at least the books that I consider real novels and that take place somewhere.  I'm going to try not to count books set in the US, so I hope Canada or Mexico come through for me.

North America
  • Victim Rights (Canada). Hey, I forgot to review this!
  • Hammered (Canada: Ontario)
  • Border Crossing, Maria Cruz (Mexico) (a real novel)
  • Born to Run (Mexico)  (technically not a novel)
South America
Seventh Continent

Reading My Library: Milestone Approaching

I have a goal of reading a book from every shelf in my hometown library.  Actually, I'm doomed because the library has announced plans to abandon our beautiful library over the river and move several streets over to an abandoned small box store location.  Apparently there are unspecified problems in the beautiful library location, and it's very hard to fix because it's over a river, which makes construction difficult what with regulations against polluting the water and all.

Anyway, it's taken me over a year to read just the picture books, so I doubt I'll even finish the kids section before I have to start all over again.  On the other hand, this goal is more a journey than a destination, so having the end posts frequently reset might not be such a bad idea after all.  Worst case, I keep reading.

One reason the picture books have gone so slowly is that I insist on sharing them with my kids, and sometimes they aren't here, or are reading their own stuff, or have to go to bed instead of reading ten books a night.  Darn educational system, hindering our family reading time!  But I'm finally on the last row of picture books, and then I move on to children's series books, which might go faster since I can read on my own pace.  Here's what the end of the alphabet provided me:

  • Image of itemCaptain Small Pig, by Martin Waddell and Susan Varley.  Old Goat, Small Pig, and adjective-deprived Turkey have a day out together.  Old Goat seems to be a grandparently person, endlessly pampering Small Pig, while Turkey is a cranky parent type, trying to rain common sense on the day but being foiled by Old Goat at every turn.  Good, cosy fun. I picked it because I like pig books, of course.
  • Image of itemChester's Back, Melanie Watt.  Chester the cat fights for control of this book, wanting to be recognized as the awesome sauceness that he is.  It was a fun readaloud, with two kids sharing the parts of the author and Chester, who often find themselves at loggerheads.  I took the part of the mouse.
  • Image of itemIf I Were a Lion, Sarah Weeks.  An ugly child sits in the time out chair, amazed at what her mother considers bad behavior.  Why, she can describe MUCH WORSE behavior, with the help of her toys.  We liked watching the evolution of the crayon drawings on the walls.
  • Image of itemYoko's Paper Cranes, Rosemary Wells.  Yoko is a anthropomorphic cat from Japan, who still writes her grandparents every week.  She makes paper cranes for their birthday, since they taught her the skill.  Turns out my son can also make a paper crane, and he was quite interested in the origami pointers.  
  • Image of itemKnuffle Bunny Free, Mo Willems.  My sixth grader had already read this, and he was surprised to hear there were previous books.  I've read the other two.  The fourth graders liked the story, and took over reading, which was good because I became a bit verklempt.  I hope it's based on a real story, because otherwise I hate the ending.
  • Image of itemI Hate School, by Jeanne Willis / Tony Ross.  The title lured me, since I have several kids who protest the formal learning process on an almost daily basis.  This fun read accepts the complaints of the child at face value, allowing us to be shocked at the horrors perpetrated on the young, which are outlandish enough to make the final twist amusing rather than didactic.
  • Image of itemHere Comes the Garbage Barge!, by Jonah Winter.  Mostly true story of the famous garbage barge that wondered the East Coast from New York to Mexico looking for a place to dump its load.  Real garbage was used in the dollhouse-photo illustrations.  Very popular with both boys.
  • Image of itemChild of Faerie, Child of Earth, Jane Yolen.  Interesting rhythms tell a story of a fae and human pair meeting and trading experiences.  Pretty, but terrible advice if my children ever visit a faerie circle.
  • Image of itemFamiles Have Together, Harriet Ziefert.  A poem about family life and families, cute but not life changing.  The cat on the bed in the first picture made us tear up a bit, since our Basil just passed away.  Also, my fourth grader grimaced at "Father has Mother" because that isn't true for our family.  Of course, he also doesn't have a sister, but that didn't seem to bother him.