Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Can't See Me: Dazzled and Deceived

How does camouflage work, and who invented it?  Is a history of camouflage a military history or a Darwinian narrative of biology and genetics?  Well, if Peter Forbes writes that history (which he did in Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage), it's both.

He traces the discovery of butterfly mimicry and its importance in the development of the theory of evolution, from Darwin's ideas through the controversies of the 1800's and early 1900s, and then turns to the artists who pioneered the ideas of camouflage in World War I.  From there he moves back and forth between soldiers, artists and scientists, following the various attempts at human and vehicle disguise through World War II into the modern day, the fight for precedence and credit for that work, and the theories and counter-theories of animal appearance as the understanding of genetics deepened.

Forbes isn't afraid of going deep into a topic.  The chapters on genetics worry at individual chromosome traits; chapters on naval painting trace which committee listened to which similarly declaiming expert and who officially gets credit for each new technique.  Sometimes the crannies he delves into leave me skimming, while other times I'm willing to follow his interest every step and hope he keeps drilling down.  It's a strange mix of a wide subject, which indicates a more popular touch, and a willingness to bore down into the fine details of the topics of each chapter.  Mostly it works, although I doubt my seventh grader would be interested enough to stick with it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rewound Ending: Heat

My hobby this year has been devouring critical analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reading books that use the show to examine ideas about gender or race or ethics or whatever floats the academic's boat.  I've also read some of the graphic novels and comics based on the series, including some of the "official" continuations of the story.  But there are also a flotilla of fiction books set in the world of the show, some of which are written by authors I've heard of in other contexts.  I've read some vampire anthologies written by Nancy Holder (as well as some non-vampire books written by a different Nancy, Nancy Springer, whom I somehow confused with Holder which is why I read the first books), so I decided to try one of her Buffy books: Heat.

It was all right.  The big problem with books written inside a series is that nothing interesting can happen to the characters -- they have to fit into the shows that happen before and after the book.  So nobody can change or grow.  Occasionally a book will manage to sneak in some hidden information that explains things without contradicting events; the classic version of this is Orson Scott Card's Abyss which encompasses the movie it is based on but includes a lot more.  Heat does not do this, being set somewhere in Buffy Season 7, sometime before Principal Robin comes out to Buffy and sometime after Spike's insanity subsides a bit.  I forget where this places it in Angel Season 4.

It's also a bit too long; when reading a snack book it's best to get through it before noticing how shallow everything is.  Heat is about twice as long as it should be, probably because it stuffs in all the characters from both Whedon shows -- Buffy, Angel, Spike, Cordelia, Willow, Xander, Anya, Wesley, Gunn, Dawn, Fred and Lorne all get some screen time as viewpoint characters.  So do Connor, Lilah, Jhiera, Robin, and a slew of original characters, mostly villains or doomed witnesses.  This drags down the story.  Then, to emphasize the low stakes involved, Xander gets killed off in the final climatic battle, forcing the author to make the characters reverse the polarity of time (or something) so that everything that happened didn't.

There's a reason I don't super-size my junk food orders, and reading novel serializations of TV stories is really just literary junk food.  I'll pay stricter attention to page count next time I feel like indulging.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Name Drops of Coffee: How Starbucks Saved My Life

My TBR list is about two years old, which means I rarely remember why a particular book showed up on it.  I can see how the premise of Michael Gates Gill's book How Starbucks Saved My Life intrigued me -- I too have a fear of outliving my pension and ending up broke and wandering in the wilderness eating berries.  It almost makes it worthwhile to budget like I was planning to leave money to my kids.

Anyway, Gill wrote his story of how he managed to fritter his life from his high-flying days as an advertising executive who fraternized with everyone from Jackie Kennedy to the Queen of England to a guy hoping desperately to keep his job as a Starbucks barista so he could afford to make one more months rent on his tiny apartment.  And then he suddenly noticed that actually, he was a lot happier with his new job, which was all about making people happy by giving them something they wanted.  A guiding principal at work urged employees to support each other, while great benefits provided health insurance and college assistance to help build better lives.  In the old days, his co-workers competed to see who could sabotage each other the quickest, while clients casually paid as much in contempt as they did in revenues. His new life fed his soul at a much deeper level.  He also figures out how much of his success came from his privileges as a rich white guy, who now works for a black woman.

Unfortunately, every moment is seasoned with another chance to drop a name, so we all know how important Gill was before he donned the green apron.  I was not joking about the Queen of England -- he works in a moment where he embarrassed himself by pushing her aside to get at a cucumber sandwich.  He brags about clients from his advertising past, famous people he met at Yale, or through his dad's connection with the New Yorker, or at his country house, or anywhere else he can drag in a big name.  The name-dropping really slowed down the story of his sudden growth through blue-collar work.  

Rushing To Keep Up on Monday

There will be no scheduling of this post; I'll be lucky to finish it on Monday.  But I'm determined to get it in.  Sheila at Book Journey hosts this meme where book bloggers report what they've read, what they're reading, and what they plan to read.  I also peek at my challenges to see how I'm doing.  This week I've finished:
Still not reading very efficiently, but I enjoyed most of these books.  Some could have been shorter and kept me happy, though.  Well, the novella was just about right.

I'm currently reading:
  • Effective Curriculum for Underserved Gifted Students, Tamra Stambaugh. A gift from LibraryThing's Early Readers.
  • Scrawl, Mark Shulman.  A Cybils book.
  • The Tempering of Men, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear.  Very harsh companion-to-animals book.
  • Pluto Confidential.  Laurence Marschall and Stephen Maran.  Nifty science book from my TBR list.
  • Dark Whispers, Bruce Covelle.  Reading my library.
  • Fatal Judgment,  Irene Hannon (NOOK).  Free book from Barnes & Noble.
  • The Vampire Defanged, Susannah Clements.  Another literary look at vampires.
  • Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott.  I'm now in her adulterous youth.  Still lots of drugs.
  • The Terrorists of Irustan, Louise Marley.  They are going to get caught real soon.
  • The Secret Duke, Jo Beverly. She must go on without him. And without sex.
  • How I Met My Countess, Elizabeth Boyle.  He's still an idiot. The child isn't hers either.
  • The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza.  He's looking at SAT scores now.
What will I read next? I'm trying to get those challenges done!  I'm going to concentrate on Cybils books, alternating a YA book with the remainder of the middle grade categories.  I have another science book from my TBR shelf waiting.  And another EarlyReader arc. And a book my fifth grader recommended.

A-Z: 46/52.  Need authors for Q, U, and X and titles for J, and Q.  Hey, I already read a Z author that I forgot about! Checked out a Q title for my NOOK.  I think I'll concentrate on digital books here.
Cybils: 69/76. Just started Scrawl.
Global Reading Challenge:19/21. Read the South American novel.  May be forced to count memoirs as fiction.  I need an Australian book and another South American, and I'm using memoirs in North America and Africa.  Humph.
Take a Chance: 10-ish/10. I read the picture book for ten, but it feels weak.
20/11: 20/20. Done! 
Where Am I Reading?: 36/50. OK, I'm counting One Door Away From Heaven as Idaho, because that's where it ends.  I need Alaska and Arkansas.  Delaware, Hawaii, and Indiana.  Also Maryland, Minnesota, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

More Manga: Twin Spica 2

Image of itemI was interested enough in the story started by the Cybil Finalist Twin Spica 1 by Kou Yaginuma to ask for the second book, because the story of kids learning to be astronauts seems like a lot of fun.  I'm getting impatient with this series though, because the second books seems to spend even more time with set up and there isn't really much action.  We again see the various characters who have made it through the entrance exams, we get reminded of their roles (loyal friend, disdainful aristocrat, snide bystander, etc.), but this is all repetitive.

As an ex-lifeguard, I wasn't all that impressed with the water scenes, either from a safety aspect or the details of the various rescues attempted.  That was the main physical action.  Then we had a lot of flashbacks, very slowly providing new insight into the crash the spun everything into motion years ago.  But I found the pace drained this plot of tension, and I only felt impatience when the teachers tried to use some of the limited information to convince the heroine to quit.

I'll probably try one more, but then forget to summon the others if it doesn't grab my attention.  I'm slowly getting better at reading the left-turning manga, but it's still unnatural enough that a book has to work even harder to draw me in.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sweet Little Lies: Hill Hawk Hattie

Deception is the theme of my latest Reading My Library find, Clara Gillow Clark's Hill Hawk Hattie.  After Hattie's mother dies, she and her father face off in glum depression, until he orders her to pretend to be a boy so she can accompany him on his annual raft trip down the Delaware River.  Luckily she recently cut off her braids in a fit of mourning.

Of course, the father still isn't telling her the truth.  She alternates between joy in the excitement and skill of rafting and worrying about keeping her gender secret, not finding out until the end that her dad already told their crew mates, who for unknown reasons didn't tell her they knew.  I couldn't tell either, actually, but I did notice that everyone but she knew the final secret her dad kept as they complete the trip to the city where her grandparents lived.  Meanwhile she kept all her own counsel, telling her hopes and dreams to a diary addressed to her dead mother rather than speaking them to her distant father.  This actually helped give the book a sense of historical realism, since the modern habit of sharing all with everyone doesn't seem very deep.

I was disappointed when I figured out they they never got any where near Delaware, since I need that state for my geography challenge.  Foiled!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fun Family Stories: Clementine and the Family Meeting

Sara Pennypacker puts out the next installment of Clementine's life, and I admit that things are getting a bit repetitive.  Clementine is still the bright bundle of energy, but many of her patterns are set -- she's a good older sister, she calls her brother vegetable names (I can't remember his real name any more), her parents are kind, understanding, and strict, and her school is endlessly patient.

In Clementine and the Family Meeting, most of the big problems fall onto Clementine, rather than having her create them, which slows down the urgency a bit. She manages to deal with delusional science partners, missing laboratory rats, and a changing family situation, but I still wanted her to cause the problems that she wrestles with.  I'll leave the book out for the boys; it's a nice quick snack of reading that no one could regret.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks To the Library

Last week was a very short library trip, and actually so was this week although it was extended.  My book count is creeping back to highly unsustainable, so I'm trying to limit my picks to the hold shelf, but that shelf is full of the books I have to read Real Soon Now for my challenges.  Also, I had stuff coming due at odd times which forced me to go back a few times.

Thanksgiving was a true feast this year, helped by my sister's Amazing Culinary and Organizational Powers.  I made the turkey, although she comes over to make sure I don't mess it up, and I also contributed some onions which were nice.  Our friend Jen came bearing potatoes, and with the broccoli casserole, the corn bread stuffing, the home-made gravy, the canned cranberry sauce (yum) and the pumpkin soup I just realized I never went back for pie.  Clearly Black Friday will be a day of left-overs.

I got three books last week, and then went back for my Reading My Library selections, and then got two more books this week, plus some CDs:
  • How to Save a Life, Sara Zarr (A-Z challenge!)
  • New York to Dallas, J.D. Robb
  • Molly Bannaky, Alice McGill (mentioned on Book-a-Day-Almanac)
  • Which Big Giver Stole the Chopped Liver, Sharon Kahn (TBR list)
  • This Is a Book, Dmitri Martin
I made a special trip for my next batch of Reading-My-Library titles, because I forgot to get them at the regular time. I'm in the D's!
  • Dark Whispers, Bruce Corville
  • Border Crossing, Maria Colleen Cruz
  • Liberty Porter: First Daughter, Julia Devillers
  • Bindi Babes, Narinder Dhami
  • The London Eye Mystery, Siobhan Dowd
    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.

    Hard Place: Split

    I'm moving faster through the 2010 YA Novels Cybils finalists, since that's the largest category left for me this year.  Luckily King County has Swati Avasthi's Split for my NOOK, so I could read it conveniently.  I also tend to read my NOOK in short bursts, which helped me with this novel, which had me in turns dreading to see what main character Jace would do next, or what would happen next.

    The plot follows Jace's escape from his abusing father; after Jace finally hits back and gets thrown out, his mother gives him the address of his older brother who had disappeared from Jace's life five years ago.  Then things start piling up -- Jace seems determined to sabotage himself.  I started to wonder if Avasthi was deliberately making him hard to like -- he's a thief, he's rude to his peers, he resents his brother's girlfriend, he lies to his brother.  Pieces of his past float up, memories of the abuse he watched his family suffer, and then what happened when his father included him in the violence.  And the destructive relationship with his girlfriend that ended with him hitting her, the act that really precipitated his flight.

    Jace is trying really hard to not be his father, and he's terrified that he's already lost this battle.  He tries to keep all girls away from him, fearing that he'll erupt again.  And he's terrified about his mother and desperately wants her to escape with him.  Avashti depicts the relationship between Jace and his older brother Christian with harsh accuracy; Christian is both the beloved older brother from Jace's childhood and a young man still trying to deal with his own abused childhood that he's not sure he escaped.  Jace's arrival also brings forward the fears for his mother that Christian has buried deep, mainly because there is nothing he can do. The story of Jace's step forward is a very powerful one, although I don't think I'll order the print version to give my thirteen year old.

    The climax of the novel happens around Thanksgiving, so I'm glad I finished this one in time for Turkey Day.  And I'm grateful for all the good reading the Cybils have brought me this year.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    Unpleasant Heroes: Reckless

    Reckless Cover art

    I feel a bit like I'm double-dipping from my library; I have two copies of Cornelia Funke's Reckless checked out, one in hardback and one for my NOOK.  But I need the hardback to convince my kids to read the book while I prefer ebooks if I can get them.  I'm glad I had both copies of this 2010 Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction (Middle Grade) finalist out because my seventh grader gobbled it up.  Now that I've read it however I'm not as keen to pass it on to the fifth grader.  His to-read pile intimidates him if it gets over two inches tall, so I'm very selective about what I place on it.

    To be brutal, I found the book unpleasant.  The concept is nifty: Jacob finds his father's secret passage to a magical kingdom but never tells his little brother about it.  Little brother eventually finds it, gets in danger, and Jacob has to save everyone.

    But little brother Will doesn't find the passage until they are adults, and he brings along his girlfriend (fiance?) Clara, and nobody really has any great magnetism. Will poisons himself within minutes of blundering through, and his brother is frantic to pull out a rescue that has never been done before.  Clara is clearly in the way and will certainly slow them down, but she insists on accompanying them anyway.  Which does indeed mean that they don't save Will in time, due in a large part to Clara refusing to believe that Jacob could possibly know more than her about this world in which he's been working for fifteen years.  After all, she loves Will, and she's been in there several hours! Or days, since they don't move too quickly with her assistance.

    I need to talk to my son about why he liked it so much, and maybe that will realign some things for me.  The only redeeming quality I saw in Jacob was his loyalty to his brother; Will was too ill for most of the book to have much personality, and I spent most of the book rooting for the Goyl, who I think were supposed to be the bad guys.  The emotional arc of the brother's relationship doesn't seem as if it would be interesting to kids; I'm not sure my son really noticed how much Will resented his brother's constant disappearances.  The book never explained what happened to their father, another emotional loose end. And I was a bit surprised in the many sexual encounters in a book on the middle grade list; I thought this book was YA until I went to grab the link for this review.  Huh.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    They Liked It!: Old Man's War

    Ever since a devastating misunderstanding around Grendel (note: it's not primarily an AU Beowulf) which nearly led to me getting kicked out of my book club, I've been nervous about recommending books.  Never mind that my new club is much more laid back, and that we have a strictly enforced rule about not reading the book if you don't want to, the scars remain.  So I was very sensitive to the skeptical looks when I proposed John Scalzi's Old Man's War to them.  Most of of the members are not into the space war genre, except for the occasional Bujold.

    To my great relief, it was a complete success.  Not everyone finished it, since Scalzi's demand is apparently greater than King County can keep up with, but everyone declared they enjoyed it.  We met on Veteran's Day, so talking about a book starring soldiers seemed especially apt.  It turned out than no one else had read Heinlein's Starship Troopers, so there wasn't a lot of contrasting with other SF soldier-building stories, but we looked at the differences between old age and youth, at what grief meant at different stages, and what the effects of war would be on anyone from an adolescent through a retiree.  The delights of snarky comments also got mentioned.  And I had some tasty food.

    As an added bonus, my oldest son pulled off a successful babysit of my youngest nephew.  The adults concerned were all a bit nervous about the arrangement since when the two of them are near other responsible parties, things tend to degenerate into screaming and wailing, but apparently when it's just the two of them and a remote control to the television, things go a lot smoother.  Although they deny it vehemently they share many video preferences.

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    Rotten History: "I Am a Man"

    "I Am a Man" - Joe StaritaI picked Joe Starita's "I Am a Man" from the library catalog because I need a Nebraska book for my Where Are Your Reading challenge, and the last few ones I tried didn't actually have anything to do with Nebraska.  Starita's history of the Ponca tribe's struggles with the American government's constant treaty revisions and lies seemed safely Nebraskan, although I admit to having qualms when their reservation was accidentally given to the Lakota (yes, that's right) so the administration decided that the best thing to do was force all the Ponca to move to Oklahoma, which was clearly better than admitting to making a mistake.

    By that time I was less interested in qualifying for my challenge and genuinely caught up in the disaster wrecking upon Chief Standing Bear's people.  Corruption, incompetence, and prejudice resulted in several horrific journeys causing the death of hundreds of people, especially young children.  The last third of the book showed the legal struggles of Standing Bear; when he snuck back with the remnant of his family and was arrested for basically not dying, he found some legal help which established the right of Native Americans to sue in federal court (something the feds contested).  One part of the legal decision involved legally declaring Indians to be human, which is frightening in that this was actually a contested point.  The court battle ended with partial restoration of their home lands, although it let me to consider the issue of granting tribal lands to a tribe versus to individuals and maybe I'll read more about this (another Stream idea!).  Starita did a good job describing the people and events involved to a popular audience, since I didn't have more than a basic knowledge of the history involved.

    Monday Again

    I'm scheduling this post, that's how early I finished it.  I like the idea of checking what I'm reading.  Sheila at Book Journey hosts this meme.  This week I've finished:
    • Wild Things, Clay Carmichael, a Reading My Library book)
    • Heat (Buffy/Angel), Nancy Holder
    • Split, Swati Avasthi (NOOK), a Cybils nominee
    • Twin Spica Volume 02, Kou Yagimuma
    • Report Card, Andrew Clements (audio)
    I really don't seem to be reading too much this week.  On the bright side, I've caught up on a lot of TV lately.  And my currently-reading shelf is a measly 10 books wide!

    I'm currently reading:
    • One Door Away From Heaven, Dean Koontz. Still working my way through, hoping that the three, now four main plot threads eventually meet up.
    • Boiling Point, K.L. Dionne.  The volcano has erupted.
    • Dazzled and Deceived, Peter Forbes.  Nifty science book from my TBR list.
    • Prophecy, T.C. Southwell (NOOK).  Free book from Barnes & Noble.
    • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba( NOOK).  Library book from my TBR list.
    • Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott.  I'm still in her druggie youth days, yawn.
    • The Terrorists of Irustan, Louise Marley.  They are going to get caught soon.
    • The Secret Duke, Jo Beverly.  Poke book.  They've just agreed to part..., oh wait maybe not. 
    • How I Met My Countess, Elizabeth Boyle.  He's an idiot.  Could the child be his?
    • The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza.  I disagree with most of his conclusions.
    What will I read next? I'm trying to get those challenges done!  I'm going to concentrate on Cybils books.  I have another science book from my TBR shelf waiting.  And my latest batch of books for Reading My Library were chosen with location in mind.

    A-Z: 46/52.  Need authors for Q, U, X, and Z, and titles for J, and Q.  
    Cybils: 69/76. Just finished Split.
    Global Reading Challenge:17/21. Reading a South American. The novel restriction is unexpectedly constricting. 
    Science Book Challenge: 3.141/3.141... Done! And hey, Switch is sorta science. I should add that.
    Take a Chance: 9/10. I have the last book at home. Unread, but at home.
    20/11: 20/20. Done! 
    Where Am I Reading?: 35/50. OK, I read a North Caroline book.  Fifteen left to go.  I need Alaska and Arkansas.  Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho and Indiana.  Also Maryland, Minnesota, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. 

    Sunday, November 20, 2011

    Following the Footsteps: Any Which Wall

    Any Which WallE. Nesbit wrote some great books about groups of children, usually siblings, who find magic in their everyday world (a carpet, a creature in the sand pit) and then have adventures which usual ending untidily.  The kids then have to deal with awkward interactions with adults who don't want to hear "magic" as part of any explanation.  I love those books.

    So did Eager, who added to the tradition by writing his own books about kids, sometimes using cousins to round up the numbers, who also come across magic and have their own adventures, sometimes mentioning how much they learned from reading Nesbit about how to handle these kinds of things (a magic well, or lake, or a partial coin).  And now in Any Which Wall Laurel Snyder also embraces this tradition with her group of kids (neighbors, two sets of siblings) who find a magic wall and use their knowledge of magic learned from Eager and Nesbit's books to figure out the system and how to handle the magic-induced fall out.

    It's hard for me to judge how kids would appreciate this book, since they would not feel the warm cozy blanket of nostalgia.  But they'd probably like it for the same reason that Nesbit and Eager's contemporary children liked their books -- interesting children solving interesting problems on their own, and the problems range from esoteric magic theory through escaping danger to facing unpleasant facts about yourself.

    I'll try it on my seventh grader.  And my fifth grader, if he catches up on the reading I've already piled around him.  They are good test cases, as I don't think they've ever read the Nesbit or Eager books.  Humph.

    Saturday, November 19, 2011

    Juicy Pulp: Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom

    If I ever get to go back to homeschooling, I have a new handbook.  Among the many delicious asides in the wildly goofy and pulpy Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom by Tim Byrd are many descriptions of the lessons learned by the young explorer siblings Brian and Wren Wilde.  Twelve year old Brian gets introduced while translating an ancient Greek text, only to squabble with his younger sister over some vocabulary.  They trade insults in four languages from three continents, then thankfully hear the call of another adventure beginning.

    Of course they are both martial artists as well as young scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers.  They can't help but be modest in the shadow of their superlative father, who is ably assisted by several side kicks.  The family chases about a secret South American volcano in battle against the wily and inter-dimensional frogs in an rollicking adventure helped along by cheerful cliffhangers highlighted with bold fonts and text balloons.  My seventh grader delighted in the short romp, and my fifth grader wants to try it out as well.  As a final spice, I am claiming the book as a South American novel, so it works for a neglected challenge.  Another fun selection from my Reading the Library journey.

    Friday, November 18, 2011

    Sekritz: If You're Reading This, It's Too Late

    Image of itemThere's a special niche in kidlit aimed at quirky, smart kids with a sarcastic sense of humor.  The Lemony Snicket books rest here, as do the Benedict Society stories, and I've suspected that Pseudonymous Bosch's books also belong to it, and now that I've read If You're Reading This, It's Too Late, I can confirm it.  Alas, I can't interest my kids in this book, since they recoil from starting a series with the second book.

    Max and Cass have interesting home lives, although Max's bifurcated home life probably seems amusing rather than horrific to kids.  They also confront puzzles and villains with a combination of homegrown skills and native intelligence, which often prove more affective against villains than against their school nemesis.  There's a nice interleaf between the annoyances caused by cliques or foolish teachers at school and the frustrations with working for a secret society against diabolical criminals.  There were no unexpectedly moving emotional truths, but I don't really need that in a book of this sort.

    I'm glad my Reading the Library quest inspired me to finally read one of P.D.'s books, and I'll leave the first one lying around for my younger son when he has a little reading breathing space.  Too many choices frighten him.

    High Hopes: Witch Eyes

    An author I stalk follow on the internet started hosting a permanent floating YA diversity book club, so I amiably ordered my library to deliver the first book to me, and then managed to read it on time (given my library habits, this is a strong achievement).  Scott Tracey's Witch Eyes sounded great -- a boy with magic eyes (I love magic eyes) goes home to face feuding families (I love feuds) while finding his true love (OK, I can handle teen love).  And his true love is another boy, which should be fun.

    It even has two hot love interests, although our hero Braden quickly focuses on the correct one, the one in the opposing feudal family (the other one is a werewolf type, who I hope does not fall in love with Braden's child in book four).  Unfortunately, Braden's first person account kept annoying me too much to really appreciate the book.  I find that if a main character is going to constantly make what I find to be really dumb moves, it's better for me to read about it in the third person so I can make excuses for him. When he decided to raise the town founder from the dead so she could answer a few questions, I pretty much gave up on him. OK, his plan did end up getting him his first kisses from his boyfriend, but that was just dumb luck.

    The romance was OK; I was judging it against Bella of Twilight fame, so my standards were low, but it was fun watching Braden fumble about with Trey, and it was cute when Trey's sister started frantically matchmaking for them.  Braden kept the secret about his family for a fairly long time, and since I had already established that I thought the boy was as dumb as a post it seemed a reasonable move for him.  I never did get a real sense of what the witch eyes could do; Braden's powers seemed to ebb and grow depending on what the plot needed rather than on what he expected to do or what he had done in the past.  

    I'm going to try this book on my middle school son; maybe he can bring me to a better appreciation.  Otherwise I probably won't try to hunt down more in the series.

    Update:  My son gives this book much higher marks, especially in terms of Braden's agency and intelligence.  X pointed out triumphantly an earlier trip to the library -- raising a witch from the dead wasn't Braden's FIRST idea, just his second choice.  X liked the various mysteries, and how Drew and Trey played into them.  He also pointed out that Braden didn't really have a choice of two hotties, since Drew isn't gay.  I asked him point blank if the gay protagonist bothered him, and he looked started at the question; he doesn't like it when characters fall in love at all, but the gender of the love interest is irrelevant.  And Braden ran about fighting enough demons and bad magic that a few kisses can be overlooked.  I am instructed to keep my eye out for future books.

    I highly suspect my critical eye towards first person teen narratives reflects my personal fears for my kid as he enters these teen years; it is much more painful for me to see kids making (dumb, i.e. appropriate) mistakes.  My boy has boundless self confidence and no worries about his looming adolescence.  Also, I have already warned him about trying to raise anyone from the grave unless he's tried at least THREE alternate means of getting the information he needs.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011

    Men, Fish, and Cycles: The Last Man 2

    Y - The Last Man 23 - Widow's Pass 03 - 00 - FC.jpgI confess that I'm only slightly interested in the ongoing saga of Y:The Last Man, a comic I'd seen recommended on  But since I'm a list-checker, I automatically ordered up Brian Vaughan's second volume Y: The Last Man, Vol. 2: Cycles after I read the first.  Now I've got X hooked on them, so I guess I'll keep them coming.

    The second book established that Yorick's sister Hero is no hero, but a weak willed murderer.  Not all women are bad; a bunch of ex-convicts show true grit.  Yorick himself is mostly anti-killing, even when it might be a good idea. He still doesn't see it as his job to repopulate the planet, and since we don't know why all the males died, maybe it wouldn't work anyway. He may get some help in that department, since some guy astronauts are returning from their mission.

    The pictures are a bit too gruesome for my taste, especially when the Evil Amazon women (such as Hero) are shooting people in the face and whatnot.  Also, Yorick is still a goofball.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011

    Extended Family: Anna Hibiscus

    I am chasing down the finish line of the Cybils challenge, although I don't have much low-hanging fruit left.  A quick lap came with Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, my penultimate read in the Early Chapter Book finalists group.  I've had this on hold for about eight months now; it was one of the books I requested my library buy (King County Library is awesome in many ways) and the first one to magically show up in my hold list because I had asked them to buy it.  Computers are nifty.

    It's a gentle read about Anna Hibiscus and her life among all her brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents in their sprawling family home in Africa.  She goes on a holiday, meets a new aunt, learns a lesson, and gets a wish granted in four chapters liberally illustrated with cosy black and white depictions of the events.  A few times the lessons learned grated for me -- her parent's wish for a private vacation is revealed as foolish and nearsighted, and the problems of space available in a small holiday cottage are ignored out right.  But I doubt kids will mind; they will have too much fun watching the parents stumble about making mistakes that only more family can fix.

    I'll offer it to my kids to see how they like it; it's a fun child-eyes view of life in another country.  Unfortunately they are all dragging their feet because of the obvious lack of robots or dinosaurs in the book, but I will keep trying.  After all, X will read anything.

    Monday, November 14, 2011

    Damaged Kids: Zebra and Other Stories

    Image of item

    I use book challenges to prod myself into reading things outside my comfort zone, books I'd never noticed if I wasn't fulfilling some arbitrary goal.  Sometimes these are books that's I'd have read eagerly anytime I noticed them, but it took some silly challenge like finding a book that starts with the letter Z to stumble across it.  For example, I have no idea that Chaim Potok wrote a book of short stories called Zebra and Other Stories until I was casting about in the library catalog to fill that hole in my A-Z challenge.

    Potok delivers the highly articulate children that I know from his novels, but the kids in these stories deal with family problems and solutions.  They also are not conspicuously Jewish; some are explicitly Christian.  Each story confronts the child with a detailed tough situation, from obvious problems such as an injury through damaging secrets and family conflicts.  I recognized themes from his books (loyalty to one's family and parents balanced against personal needs, the pain caused by rigid gender roles, the inherent decency of children), but short stories give a chance for single facets to shine.

    Monday Status Check, Maybe on Time

    Well, I just missed last week's Monday check-in, but this week I'm ready! It's a habit I want to get back into, so I can see what I've been reading.  This week I've finished:
    Wow, the majority of books finished this week were nonfiction.  And adult books.

    I'm currently reading:
    • One Door Away From Heaven, Dean Koontz.  I think this is the first Koontz I've read; it was a gift from the school bus driver.  I'm mid-way through.  Again.
    • Boiling Point, K.L. Dionne.  A South American book for my challenge.
    • Dazzled and Deceived, Peter Forbes.  From my TBR list.
    • Prophecy, T.C. Southwell (NOOK).  Free book from Barnes & Noble.
    • Split, Swati Avasthi (NOOK).  Library book on the Cybils list.
    • Heat, Nancy Holder  My finisher award book.
    • Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott.  I'm in her druggie youth days, yawn.
    • The Terrorists of Irustan, Louise Marley.  They are going to get caught soon.
    • The Secret Duke, Jo Beverly.  Poke book.  They've just agreed to part..., maybe I should stop here.
    • How I Met My Countess, Elizabeth Boyle.  She's an idiot.  They broke up because they didn't talk.
    • The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza.  I disagree with most of his conclusions.
    What will I read next? I'm trying to get those challenges done!  I have almost all of the remaining Cybils books from the library, and I'm trying to combine the alphabet and state books.  And work in the Globals.  Ack! 
    A-Z: 45/52.  Need authors for Q, U, X, and Z, and titles for J, and Q.  Need to write up Z.
    Cybils: 68/76. Just finished Zapato Power.
    Global Reading Challenge:17/21. Need 1 Africa, 1 Australasia, 2 South America.
    Read Around the World: 21/20. Done!
    Science Book Challenge: 3.141/3.141... Done! And hey, Switch is sorta science. I should add that.
    Stream: 3/3, 1/3, 3/3, 3/3.  I have to figure out how to register myself as done.
    Take a Chance: 9/10. I have the last book at home. Still.
    20/11: 20/20. Done! 
    What's In a Name?: 6/6.  Done!
    Where Am I Reading?: 34/50. I read a New Hampshire book and realized I meant to read a Vermont one.  Oops.  I need Alaska and Arkansas.  Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho and Indiana.  Also Maryland, Minnesota, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.  

    Sunday, November 13, 2011

    Friends Despite Themselves: Ivy and Bean

    When I'm doing my Reading-My-Library shelf crawl and I see a book I've been sort of meaning to read for  a while, I tend to grab it.  Annie Barrow's Ivy + Bean starts a series of early chapter books that I didn't notice until my sons were out of that genre, so they weren't a huge priority of mine, and I also got them confused with some other series about two girls that I liked but didn't love.  But when I saw them on the B shelf they clearly were their own thing and a thing I hadn't read yet.  So I grabbed what turned out to be the first one, and found it charming.

    Ivy and Bean are two little girls who live near each other on a cul-de-sac.  Their parents are accidentally waging a campaign to keep them apart by constantly urging the girls to play together, which makes them instinctively draw away.  But when Bean is on the run from some mischief Ivy steps up to save the day, and the girls soon find that their parents were completely wrong and they do belong together.  My favorite part of the book is seeing how Ivy organizes her room into different sections that reflect her current interests.  Maybe I'll try some of Barrow's adult fiction now that I see how much fun she has in the kidlit arena.

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011

    Immortal Beloved: Tuck Everlasting

    TUCK EVERLASTING (NBRY ATHR LC))Our latest car book was Tuck Everlasting, written by Natalie Babbitt and read by Melissa Hughes.  It took a while to find a pattern for listening; X is the main audio book enthusiast but actually spends very little time in the car.  Neither N nor A showed much interest, while P remembered his teacher reading this book to his class last year.  The final decision had me listening when alone or with just P, since he could dip in and out and use his memory to fill in the blanks.

    As with most audio books I pick, I had read this before, but not for decades.  I liked Hughes's narration; she gave each character a distinctive voice without sounding fake or pretentious.  It was fun for me to see what was familiar and what had completely vanished from my memory.  The toad and Winnie's choice had stayed vividly in my mind, but I had forgotten her crush on Jesse.  I remembered there had a been a villain planning to commercialize the spring, but his actual plot and his death had fallen through the cracks, so the story had suspense for me this time around.  At three disks long, it's pretty much the perfect length for a week or so of trundling around schools, and Winnie's grasp of the issues and problems stayed both realistically young and respectfully profound.  I did quibble at some of the legal issues, but in general really enjoyed hearing this story again.

    Late Monday Status Check

    I'm trying to slide into  bookjourney's Monday check in, where everyone reports on what they've read and what they want to read and what they are currently reading. It's a habit I want to get back into, so I can see what I've been reading.  This week I've finished:
    Three of them are for my Reading My Library project, one is because I love the author (Pennypacker), one is for an online book club, and one is a Cybils books.  The pattern seems to be that I read a lot of children's books.

    I'm currently reading:
    • One Door Away From Heaven, Dean Koontz.  I think this is the first Koontz I've read; it was a gift from the school bus driver.  I'm mid-way through.
    • I Am a Man, Joe Starita.  Reading because it's about history in Nebraska.
    • How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gill.  From my TBR list
    • Prophecy, T.C. Southwell (NOOK).  Free book from Barnes & Noble.
    • Heat, Nancy Holder  My finisher award book.
    • Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott.  I'm just poking at this book from my nonfiction shelves.
    • The Terrorists of Irustan, Louise Marley.  Again slowly moving through.
    • The Secret Duke, Jo Beverly.  Poke book.  They've just agreed to part...
    • How I Met My Countess, Elizabeth Boyle.  She's an idiot.  They broke up because they didn't talk.
    • The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza.  I disagree with most of his conclusions.
    What will I read next? I'm trying to get those challenges done!  I have almost all of the remaining Cybils books from the library, and I'm trying to combine the alphabet and state books.  And work in the Globals.  Ack! 

    A-Z: 45/52.  Need authors for Q, U, X, and Z, and titles for J, Q, and Z.
    Cybils: 67/76. Just finished Reckless.
    Global Reading Challenge:17/21. I'm counting kids books.
    Read Around the World: 21/20. Done!
    Science Book Challenge: 3.141/3.141... Done! And hey, Switch is sorta science. I should add that.
    Stream: 3/3, 1/3, 3/3, 3/3.  I have to figure out how to register myself as done.
    Take a Chance: 9/10. I have the last book at home.
    20/11: 20/20. Done! 
    What's In a Name?: 6/6.  Done!
    Where Am I Reading?: 33/50. I'm reading a Nebraska book, and possibly an Idaho one.  We'll see if the characters travel in the Koontz book.

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    Sister Power: Children of the Waters

    Carleen Brice's Children of the Waters follows two women with completely different lives who discover that they are sisters, and from that discover what family really means and how they can define it.  Trish is struggling to define herself as a divorced mom, worried about her son's edging into manhood and especially confronting how his mixed-race status defines him in ways she doesn't want to consider. Worrying about the way her family seems to be fraying, she delves back into some family history to discover that her younger sister didn't die; her grandparents put her up for adoption.

    Billie grew up with educated and rich parents who take pride in their African American heritage.  She has immersed herself in spirituality and healing to control her lupus, and her unexpected pregnancy may push this technique to the limit.  Her relationship is tottering under the stress of this pregnancy, and then her connection to her parents is also strained by the sudden revelation that she was adopted, and that her sister is white.  Billie and Trish slowly become friends despite their differences, although each step closer meets a hesitant step back.  The intersection of race and family issues develops organically, with the gentle and rhythmic prose keeping each woman distinctly understood.  I'll look for more books by Brice.

    And of course, it takes place in Colorado, which makes me even happier.

    Sunday, November 6, 2011

    Kids Dying Young: Yummy

    The latest 2010 Cybils Graphic Novel (Young Adult) finalist book definitely represented a change of pace.  Yummy: Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri delivers a tough history lesson about the decaying culture of the Chicago southside, where children turned to gangs for support, and the gangs exploited the kids by using them in violent crimes for which juveniles received almost no punishment.  Neri invents a child to view the events, someone who played with Yummy when they were small and who never knows whether Yummy has turned up to bully him for lunch money or to show off a frog found in the sewers.

    When Yummy tries to impress his gang leaders by shooting a rival, his world collapses.  He kills a neighborhood girl instead, and the authorities who ignored him while he stole cars and mugged his peers instigate a man-hunt (a boy-hunt) that leaves Yummy terrified and lost.  The nation solemnly discusses Lost Youth and gang violence while Yummy huddles in derelict houses and under dripping bridges, until the gang decides he's more trouble than he's worth.  My seventh grader had eagerly grabbed this book (he loves graphic novels) and then indignantly told me that it wasn't fit for kids.  He views the death of children as too harsh for his eyes, and he was shocked to learn that it basically told a true story.  Neri tells a powerful story, but one that is probably more appropriate for high school than junior high. Sad that the boy in the story might still be in elementary.

    Library Loot!

    I've been forgetting to note my library loot, although I haven't been forgetting to go to the library.  I've even snuck in a few extra trips when my car accidentally swerved into the parking lot, or when we only averted book-store induced bankruptcy by driving directly to the library to get the new releases that snuck up on us.

    November is a very slack month for schooling, so I hope to get a lot of extra time in for reading.  My kids just got a new baby sister via their dad, so it is possible they will spend a little extra time here to allow the adults over there to sleep more.

    I'm getting serious about my incomplete challenges, so most of my reading is centered there.  Not that I'm stopping my Reading My Library adventure, or the nibbling at my TBR list that I keep on GOODREADS. But I keep plugging along:
    • Rosa's Bus, Jo Kittinger.  Random Walk book for Take a Chance.
    • Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off. Jacquiline Jules.  A Cybils book.
    • An Unspeakable Crime, Elaine Marie Alphin.  Another Cybils book.
    • Some Girls Are,  Courtney Summers.  Cybils book.
    • Stolen, Lucy Christopher.  Still another Cybils book.
    • The Wager, Donna Jo Napoli.  Yet another Cybils book.
    • The Shadows, Jacqueline West.  Cybils book!
    • Ice Wager, Robin White.  I got another book for the Take a Chance because I thought a picture book felt a bit cheap.
    • Eutopia, David Nickle.  Author's name: N. Setting: Idaho. Two-fer!
    • Tempering of Men, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear.  If two brilliant authors collaborate on a book, and then it shows up on the library new books shelf while I'm waffling between buying it in hardback or for my NOOK, then I grab it.
    • The Blessing of a B-, Wendy Mogel.  Parenting book that probably agrees with my general philosophy, so it will be pleasing to read.  And maybe have some good advice.
    • The Male Brain, Louanne Brizendine.  No idea how I got this, but it looks OK.
    • The Romeo and Juliet Code, Phoebe Stone.  I got this to read at the school showing of Gnomeo but I ended up working concessions and didn't have to watch anyway.  I bet that just like in the movie not everyone dies at the end.
    • Clementine and the Family Meeting, Sara Pennypacker.  And I read it already, so it's filling up my library shelf.
      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.

      Saturday, November 5, 2011

      Reasons To Be Self-Centered: Milo, Sticky-Notes, and Brain Freeze

      As I started Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, my penultimate read in the Cybils 2010 Middle Grade Novel finalist section, I thought I recognized the genre Alan Silberberg was writing in: annoying middle grade boys who draw cartoons.  The Wimpy Kid types, ranging from the selfish Roddy and the slightly nicer Nate the Great.  My kids love these books, but I find them a bit dull.

      But Silberberg surprised me with a sharp turn towards the Newbery type of things -- Milo's mom is dead, and a lot of his self-centered behavior directly stems from his attempts to deal with this loss.  His family, all equally shell-shocked, provide little help.  Dad tries hard, but is clearly overwhelmed.  His sister never emerges as a character. Milo is all alone with his grief.

      The mourning seems very realistic, and Milo's general boyishness reinforces and parallels the parts about his grief.  His is lucky in his friends; his best friend, the amazingly kind neighbors, even the final connection with the girl of his dreams.  I'm still unsettled by the tone shift in the middle, where we suddenly learn where Milo's mom has been -- not divorced but dead.  I gave it to my son to read, and he devoured it eagerly because of the illustrations, and then knocked straight into the same issue ("Mama, is Milo's mom DEAD?").  And we both cringed during some of Milo's more spectacular social failures; the seventh grader actually skipped the pages around Valentines Day because they were too painful to read. I admitted to zipping through them with my eyes half-shut.  My fifth grader also likes it although he's less influenced by the emotional storms. It's truly an unexpectedly powerful addition to the reluctant-reader shelf.

      PS: Congratulations to my sons for getting a new baby sister!

      Friday, November 4, 2011

      Robot Love: Celia's Robot

      Celia's Robot by Margaret Chang: Book Cover

      I've read a lot of middle grade fantasy, especially on my walk through the shelves, but not as much science fiction.  That made Margaret Chang's Celia's Robot especially pleasant.  Celia is a disorganized fifth grader whose busy parents don't have time to walk her through her chores.  Her computer scientist dad does have time to build her a robot for her birthday, a mobile, voice-enabled, motion-sensing interactive machine that keeps her on track and helps her clean her room, do her homework, practice her piano, and feel safe at home until her parents arrive.

      The book treats the robot as of equal importance to her school, where she juggles best friends and tries to ignore the boy who used to be her friend but now just likes to tease her.  She worries about her parents when they argue.  She feels awkward sometimes because she's the only Asian child in her Connecticut classroom.  And she ventures out into a snowstorm to rescue her dad's invention when his evil business rival tries to steal it.

      I'll leave this for my seventh grader to try; it's a gentle book of a kid with a nifty treasure; I liked the way Celia's biracial heritage matters but isn't an "issue" and the way that her friendship with the neighbor boy gets messed up by school but then gets resolved without romance.  I'd also give it to my fifth grader, but he's far too slow a reader and I've already given him three books to read this month.  I'm glad I found another good read as I journey around the shelves of my library.  I'm about to round the first corner of Children's Fiction.  Well, if by "about" you mean "in two weeks."

      Thursday, November 3, 2011

      Literary Detectives: Talking About Detective Fiction

      Long, long ago, in the century prior to this one, I read a book about detective fiction from my boyfriend's father's shelves (he had a grand and delightful library, one that almost made visiting the boy's 'rents worthwhile.  Almost).  I can't remember the title, but it was a collection of essays about various detective stories.  The authors of both the essays and stories reviewed were English, and the writing was brilliant -- taut, precise, with an economical use of five-dollar-words that punched straight to the heart of the topic.  It was delicious and it reminded me that college essays were not the pinnacle of literary criticism, that thinking about and enjoying books was a true and worthy passion.

      While P.D. James's short book Talking About Detective Fiction does not quite rise to the heights of that long-ago memory, it has the same feeling.  A smart, invested person looks critically at her field, discussing English and American detective fiction and looking at the big names involved and the processes used.  It reminded me why I enjoy so many mysteries, from the puzzles of Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason and Miss Marple to the more psychological twists of P.D. James's work herself.  Reading about reading is true bibliophile's joy.

      Wednesday, November 2, 2011

      Depressing Choices: The Last Town on Earth

      Last To

      Thomas Mullen's The Last Town on Earth: A Novel is a book about people consistently making poor choices, through good intentions, through greed or anger, through grief or frustration or weakness or because of needing to justify earlier poor choices.  No one has a chance; some of the best endings come to the people dying of the flu.

      The Last Town on Earth is a place founded on idealism; a well-off man hopes to build a lumber mill in cooperation with his employees rather than through exploitation and union-busting.  The town bands together in their optimism, reinforced by the suspicion that other communities have towards their socialist tendencies in the militant days of World War One.  When the flu spreads across America, the town leaders decide to isolate themselves in hopes of avoiding the disease.  Things do not go well.

      Philip, the young adopted son of the mill owner, moves from a slightly insecure youth to an embattled young man who can longer trust his father or his best friend.  He leaves the book attempting to cling to some strands of optimism -- he did grow in strength through the horrible events of the book, but it's pretty clear that the next few months will break him and destroy that hope.  Graham, his friend and mentor, also faces a grim future, since even if he manages to avoid prison (very doubtful) he has lost his job, his home, his wife's trust, and his self-respect.  The town is probably doomed, and the few characters who still show hope seem more misguided than reassuring.

      Tuesday, November 1, 2011

      Lazy Reading: Born To Run

      Born to RunAs a kid I enjoyed lounging on the couch and watching aerobics shows.  There is nothing quite as relaxing as sitting in air conditioned splendor watching other people sweat uselessly.  Even watching sports isn't as perfect; after all, it is possible that athletes are having fun.  The literary equivalent is reading books about ultramarathoners, such as Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, which I read on my NOOK so I wouldn't have to exert myself by holding an weighty tome.

      The interesting parts of the story followed several of the elite athletes who do ultramarathons, where the first 26 miles are just the warm-up.  The Tamahumara Indians are the holy grail of this sport; they are a tribe in Mexico who run for days on end as a matter of course.  They rarely come out into the world after a few distasteful episodes, so for a one day race (helped along by the author of this book) many of the top runners came to them.  The book weaves about, talking about the Tamahumara, about the people who stumble into running, about how the author's injuries during his own running training and how that sparked his interest in people who broke all the rules and yet stayed healthy, and how various trainers and experts approach gear and style to help athletes protect their legs while running.  One theory is that most of the advanced technology in running shoes has never been tested; another is that running barefoot helps prevent injury because things hurt faster, making you stop.  Except it doesn't seem that any of the ultramarathoners described in this book stop just because things hurt.

      I'm not sure about a lot of the science I read, but it did make running sound like a possibly enjoyable activity.  Maybe I'll try it again.  In a desert.  Wearing tire-treads for shoes.  Or maybe I'll just read about it.