April in Review: 04/30/09
All in all it was a good and diverse month of reading. My favorite book of the month was Jesus Swept by James Protzman. My favorite F&SF story this month was "That Hell-Bound Train" by Robert Bloch.
Since Thanksgiving I've been working my way through the Heechee Saga. A month ago I finished the original trilogy and now I've hit the first of the add on books. The first three covered the life, death and "re-birth" of a prospector turned billionaire. They were fun and full of the sort of adventures that California's early statehood history holds but set in space with alien technology and a planet in crisis due to over population and dwindling resources.
The Boy Who Would Live Forever tries to return to the wild west feel of Gateway but at the closing days of original missions. Instead of following the rags to riches biography of a self made billionaire, this novel looks at the less fortunate and the more cautious. These are the prospectors who have come too late to hit it big and must find a new way of "making it" in the galaxy.
Oh if only the novel were as simple as prospectors coming too late to the party. Unfortunately the original series ends with the revelation of the mysterious Heechee. The problem with the Heechee is that they aren't anywhere as amazing as they were when they were left to the imagination. Since the original protagonist isn't in this book and perhaps the unlucky prospectors aren't as sexy so Pohl dedicates a large portion of the novel to the Heechee. They rapidly go from being incredible to being not much different than the Niblonians from Futurama.
Read other reviews a: Buzzy Media Publishing
Bad Kitty is the first of three books (the other two being Poor Puppy and Bad Kitty Gets a Bath) featuring a "bad bad BAD kitty" who wasn't always bad. Bad Kitty is destructive when things don't go her way. She's somewhere between your typical cat and your typical toddler.
Like many picture books for the children in pre-school to early elementary school, Bad Kitty uses the alphabet to frame its story. In most of the alphabetic picture books I've read, the alphabetic sequence is completed one, maybe twice. In Bad Kitty, the sequence is completed four times.
The book can be divided into the bad and the good of Bad Kitty's day. The family she lives with have run out of cat food. They offer her instead a variety of vegetarian options from A to Z. Kitty retaliates twenty six times, in alphabetical order (of course). Kitty though gets a chance to redeem herself when her family returns with things better than cat food including things like "an assortment of anchovies" and sillier things like "Uncle Al." Kitty undoes her bad things (in a slightly different but still alphabetical order) and decides not to eat Uncle Al (much to his relief, I'm sure).
As with any book in a series, it ends on a cliff hanger. Kitty for being so good gets a reward. Except it's not exactly what she was hoping for. Can you guess what it is?
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Kosher by Design Lightens Up by Susie Fishbein is the sixth in this series of cook books and it's the first I've had the pleasure of reading. The previous five are Kosher by Design, Passover by Design, Kosher by Design Entertains, Kosher by Design Short on Time and Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen.
The book has over 145 recipes, each one with a gorgeous full color photograph of the completed recipe. While all of the recipes are kosher they aren't all Jewish. There is a delicious miso soup recipe that I've tried. It was easy to make and very tasty.
The book starts with a three part introduction that teaches the basics of keeping kosher, some simple tips for lightening up day to day cooking and how to entertain guests in a stylish but fun way. After that the cook book really begins with recipes divided into appetizers, soups, salads, poultry, meat, fish, eggs and pasta and dairy, side dishes and finally deserts. My favorite parts are the soup and salad chapters although the soup chapter is heavily reliant on gadgetry.
Not all of the recipes are things I will want to try or be able to try. Some of them rely on a roomy enough kitchen to house lots of different cooking utensils and tools that I just don't have.
Although I'm not Jewish I do have relatives who are and it's nice to have this resource on hand. I know it will come in handy on a regular basis.
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Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson is eighteen years older than I am but I will always associate it (and the other books that followed) with my early childhood. When I was first setting up this website (way before the word blog had been coined) one of my first posts was a review of the Harold series. I've since taken down that page but you can probably find it cached on the Way Back Machine. Since then I've had two kids of my own and they have discovered the Harold books. So with renewed interest in my old favorite series, I am re-reviewing them.
Harold is an artist boy of undetermined age but probably preschool aged from the way he's drawn. He has a fondness for purple and his entire world is created in three colors only: white black (his outline and the text) and mostly purple (which Harold uses to create his world on his night time explorations).
In this first book, Harold's drawings move and radiate off a single line that defines the horizon. The moon is always there to show that it's night and to give a hint at Harold's location in his walk. Harold adventure is told like a video game sidescroller. It's implied that he's walking across the pages, creating the world as he drags the purple crayon along the paper. Harold may change size relative to the things he draws but he never changes size relative to the page. This fact is called out early in the book when he first draws a road made of lines converging on a varnishing point. Since he can't walk into the page the road is useless to him.
In attention and accidents alter Harold's world. A loosely held crayon results in bumpy lines which in turn become the waves of the sea. A line going up the page becomes a mountain and stopping the line creates a cliff to fall off. In all of this, Harold seems unaware at first that he holds the key to finding his way home, no matter how lost he may become.
For your viewing pleasure, below is the 1969 short adapted from the book.
The closest I've come to seeing a Punch and Judy show is a recreation of an Italian commedia dell'arte performance. Punch comes from Pulcinella who then became Punchinello and finally Punch. The show standardized in the Victorian era. In 1827 John Payne Collier published a playbook for Punch and Judy professors called The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy and claimed it was told to him from Giovanni Piccini.
It's that playbook that forms the foundation for Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's unusual graphic novel The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch. It's set in a similar failing seaside resort as MirrorMask but twenty or thirty years earlier. A grown man recounts the summer he spent with his grandparents while waiting for the birth of his sister.
His summer is punctuated by scenes from Punch and Judy and he finds disturbing parallels with the violence of the show with his own life. Meanwhile his grandfather's arcade is on its last legs and he's there for its closing. The reasons behind the arcade's closure are tied up in dark family secrets, all of which are overwhelming for a young boy and still puzzling for the man as he reminisces.
What makes the graphic novel stand out as something more than just a dark nostalgia piece is Dave McKean's illustrations. They are a collage of photography and drawings. Sometimes in the photographs the characters are wearing masks to mimic the drawings. Sometimes multiple photographs (including blurred ones) are put together to give a still frame effect of the rapid and chaotic motion often used to show possession in horror films. McKean's work mirrors the violence of the Punch and Judy and reveals the horror inside something taken as children's entertainment.
In the time since the graphic novel was first published, it has been adapted for the stage.
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The bard Gorlen Vizenfirthe first appeared in "Catamount" in 1996. He returned last August in "Childrun" and now makes his third appearance (though more are promised) in "Quickstone."
In "Quickstone" Gorlen finally catches up with the gargoyles he's been seeking and hopes he will find a way to return his stone hand to flesh. The Gargoyles are made of living stone called quickstone and with the help of his own quickstone limb he's able to infiltrate their society briefly.
As with the other two stories, Laidlaw focuses in on the pieces of Gorlen's world that are directly relevant to his current situation. This time, it's the village of Dint, suffering through a depression now that the quarry has run dry, and the gargoyle society just outside of town.
Gorlen's situation reminds me of "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings" from Futurama. Unlike Fry, though, Gorlen can't just give back his stone hand and have everything go back to normal. Instead what he gets at the end of this quest is a broken foot and a new traveling companion. I look forward to the continuing adventures of Gorlen Vizenfirthe.
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The ninth episode of Ulysses called "Scylla and Charybdis" takes its name from the two monsters who block the narrow strait that Odysseus and his crew must pass to get home. It's also the inspiration for the expression "between a rock and a hard place" which brings me to my choice of last week's episode, "If I Had a Hammer..." on CSI.
Episode 9 is also in terms of episode numbers the halfway point of Ulysses but like Don Quixote there is still 2/3 of book left. I expect the remaining episodes to get steadily longer.
This episode takes place entirely in a library. Stephan (whom I've compared to Kif) takes center stage again and engages in a lengthy argument over Shakespeare, his life, the meaning of his plays and most specifically, Hamlet. Most specifically, they argue about fathers and sons vs. mothers and sons. Stephan explains: "The son unborn mars beauty: born, he brings pain, divides affection, increases care. He is a male: his growth is his father's decline, his youth his father's envy, his friend his father's enemy." (pgs 207-8)
The way time changes the relationship between fathers and sons is a theme of The Odyssey, Ulysses (to a lesser degree) and to "If I Had a Hammer." Odysseus's son was an infant when he left for war and is now in his twenties. Part of Odysseus drive to get home despite all the obstacles is his desire to see his son before he loses any more of his son's youth. In Ulysses the theme is more complex as adults, some of them parents are also still children to their own parents. Some have parents who have died (Stephen and Bloom) and still feel like children in the eyes of their dead parents. Then in "If I Had a Hammer" we have the playing out of Stephan's quote as the evidence unfolds the truth behind the crime and Clint Owen's motivations.
Since most of Episode 9 is from Stephan's point of view, I think the person here stuck "between a rock and a hard place" is Stephan. He sees himself like Hamlet torn between familial duties and larger responsibilities, though what those larger ones are isn't clear yet. In "If I Had a Hammer" the person caught in the middle is Catherine Willows who has her first solo case from 1991 unexpectedly reopened. The man, Clint Owen, convicted of a homicide during a robbery wants his case reexamined claiming innocence.
Clint, like the water belching Charybdis, never shuts his mouth. He is a talker and a provoker. On the other side of the case the evidence now points to Serina who like Scylla is a beautiful but dangerous woman. Scylla is depicted as having dogs heads around her body and Serina is introduced surrounded by her teenage children who bark at from the car that they will be late to practice if Jim Brass doesn't leave.
Next Saturday I'll post my thoughts on Episode Ten: The Wandering Rocks. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print
Doctor Who and the War Games is a novelization of the last ten episode serial of "The War Games"(1969) to be filmed in black and white and the last regular appearance of the second Doctor. The novel takes about 250 minutes worth of story and boils it down to 143 pages. What's left is a quick but thought provoking look at war while providing some glimpses at the truth behind the Doctor.
The Doctor and his two companions, Jaime and Zoe land in what appears to be the middle of a WWI battle field. They hook up with a volunteer ambulance driver and quickly begin to realize that the battle field contains more than just one war. Between being captured, interrogated, and escaping they manage to put together a map of the different "time zones" where the different historical battles are taking place.
The reason behind this elaborate war game and the Doctor's reaction to it continues to have repercussions in the series. The Doctor's reactions to the War Lord and to the planned creation of a super army for some future invasion bring to mind the ninth Doctor's anger. His love for Earth and humanity and his flippant remark about stealing the TARDIS sounds more like sometimes goofy exuberance of the tenth Doctor.
The War Games is also the last appearance of the second Doctor (except for future multiple doctor episodes). His forced regeneration and exile on earth (see Spearhead from Space) makes me wonder if tenth doctor will have a similar fate. We know a regeneration is coming later this year since Tennant has bowed out of the show. The tenth Doctor as portrayed by Tennant has frequently reminded me of the second and third doctors so it wouldn't surprise me if the upcoming regeneration harkens back to The War Games.
I am not a fan of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie or Miley Cyrus. Even with young children I have never seen an episode of Hannah Montana and we don't plan on seeing the film. I've never read a tabloid. I come to Overexposed: The Price of Fame not as a rabid fan but as a curious outsider.
Overexposed is part biography, part history and part psychology. The book is mostly the biographies of Spears, Lohan, Hilton, Richie and Cyrus. The information contained in the biographical sections isn't anything new beyond what even a disinterested bystander like me will have already picked up from local news stories. The history part covers the rise of the modern tabloid from the transformation of the National Enquirer from a racing sheet to celebrity gossip paper and how the industry grew up around this new found public demand for gossip. Finally the psychology section tries to look at the causes of celebrity and the effects of fame on celebrities. Unfortunately these sections are done as interviews with TV personalities such as Dr. Phil. Regardless of his background, his participation in cheesy tabloidesque television lessens the credibility of his opinions in this book.
The "overexposure" of the five celebrities highlighted in this book is nothing new. The silent film stars went through the same overexposure as have headliners in every decade between then and now. I would hazard a guess that entertainers have been paying the price of fame throughout history. A more in depth look at the history of celebrity scandals to put the five highlighted ones into context would have made Overexposed something special. As it is there isn't enough substance to get a good sense of what "the price of fame" is.
Twoo wuv, the bread and butter of romance and inspirational fictional. Where would we be without that first moment of two strangers realizing they are soul mates. Now add put in a war to keep the lovers apart from their happily ever after and you either get a tragedy or you get schmaltz. The Last Valentine by James Michael Pratt is the latter.
February 14, 1944 Caroline Thomas says goodbye to her husband as he ships off the Pacific. They last embrace at Union Station in Los Angeles and he promises to be back in a year. Every year after that Caroline goes to the station to wait even though there is no evidence that he has survived the war. In the present, Caroline's son from that very short marriage tells this story of eternal love to a local television reporter and together they witness the miraculous return of the missing husband. Because of course twoo wuv transcends everything.
The World War Two pieces of the book are interesting. As a historical novel, The Last Valentine is pretty good. The details are convincing and the coverage of the war has some dramatic moments. Likewise, the reporter's skeptical approach the son's story has some mystery and could have been fine by itself. The weaving of the two together with the over-wrought theme of true love didn't work for me.
If Caroline and Neil had known each other longer and been married longer their love for each other would have felt more real. Caroline's devotion to a husband she knew only for a few months doesn't explain why after fifty years of waiting she hasn't moved on with her life. I know that present day me with nearly two decades of shard experiences with my husband would be far more willing to wait for him to return if he disappeared than I would have been at the start of our relationship. For a better and more believable example of transcendent true love, read Persistence of Memory by J. M. Snyder.
I read and enjoyed Jesus Swept by James Protzman during the Easter weekend. It was the perfect antidote to the all the cute bunnies and religious well wishing. The novel tracks the events of an almost miracle and almost second coming in North Carolina. Centered around the almost miracle is an ancient bracelet, three young men (who take turns being Jesus) and the woman who finds the bracelet and tries to make the miracle happen.
The narrative is told in short snippets moving from different characters, not always being where I wanted the story to be. There are the street sweepers: Gary, Luke and Mark. Gary, the novel implies is the second coming of Jesus except that Gary doesn't believe it and is perfectly willing to share the job around with Luke and Mark. Then there are Liz and her husband. Liz has the bracelet for most of the book. There is Hook and Sinker (I kept waiting for Line to show up) a sister and brother pair who have a hand in the miracle too, although they don't see it that way. There are a handful of other colorful characters who make up this tale of "Do Good, Be Nice, Have Fun."
The goofy matter-of-factness to Jesus Swept reminds me favorably of Christopher Moore's books. Although I'm a fan of Moore's novels (especially the ones set in Pine Cove), I liked Jesus Swept more than I did Lamb. I like it more because Protzman keeps the story short. The novel makes its point, tells its jokes and then ends before there's a chance for rambling tangents.
There's also a hint of Dogma and Oh God! too. I suppose I would remise if I neglected my favorite character: Ho Dog. She shows up around the midway point and offers advice but doesn't tamper too much in the overall miracle.
The author information on the back of the book mentions a second novel in the works, Plaid. I'm looking forward to it.
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My reading this month seems to be converging on a theme of perception. In A Very Hairy Scary Story by Rick Walton, Sarah learns what happens when her imagination runs amok. Things go amiss when Sarah accidentally stays to late at her friend's house. Her walk home at dusk brings to life lots of imagined monsters. Can she make it home safely?
The illustrations by David H. Clark bring this book to life. Each page shows a shadow of the thing Sarah will see next. My son and I like to stud how the normal surroundings will become a monster in Sarah's imagination. The next page of course is the monster, followed by Sarah taking a second look and realizing her monster is something ordinary like a mail box, hanging laundry, a barbecue and so forth.
Besides being about perception and imagination, A Very Hairy Scary Story is about responsibility. Although my son enjoys the different monsters jumping out he always admonishes Sarah for not doing the right thing. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble and worry if she had just called her parents to say she had stayed too late. I'm glad he's seeing the messages in the books we read especially when they aren't the point of the books. It thrills me to see him learning to reason for himself in such a mature fashion.
Read other thoughts at: Squeetus Blog
To learn more about the author, check out his web site
The short story collection has fourteen short stories. They are set in very different places and in very different eras. They all focus around a supposedly strong female narrator who must prove herself during impossible situations. With the exception of "Spring, Mountain, Sea" and "A Gleaming in the Darkness" I didn't like the stories, the themes or the protagonists.
It seems that Edwards has found one thing to write about no matter where or when she sets her stories: women are beaten down by the patriarchy. I'm not denying that women have been (and still are) being denied basic rights for one reason or another but it's not enough of a hook to tie a group of stories together. After the third or fourth story, Edward's pacing and characterization becomes predictable and that adds to the tedium of reading the book.
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My favorite part of this year's issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction has been the classic reprints. March's reprint is "That Hell-Bound Train" by Robert Bloch who I only know for writing Psycho. The story appeared originally in the September 1958 issue and won a Hugo in 1959.
Martin is abandoned by his mother after his drunken father is killed by a train. He escape the orphanage and grows up doing odd jobs and crimes to stay alive. One night he meets the devil, here identified as "The Conductor" of the Hell-Bound train. He is given a watch which he can use to stop time at his perfect moment of happiness.
Mostly the story is that of Martin's life, where each year brings something new and interesting. He gets older and fatter but more successful and finds many different ways of being happy. He never though does find the perfect moment of happiness in life.
That's not to say Martin doesn't get his moment to one up the devil. He does in a true train-lover's way. It was a delightfully funny story and character driven. It holds up all these years later. I can see why it won the Hugo.
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In the eight episode of Ulysses called "The Laestrygonians" takes its name from the giants who destroy most of the returning fleet of ships. Odysseus and the other captains had stopped at an island for supplies and repairs. Nine of the ten ships went into the harbor and Odysseus moored his ship on the rocks being a cautious man. From the rocks Odysseus and his crew watch smoke and dust rise up from harbor as the giants throw boulders onto the harbor-moored ships.
Now Bloom being a modern bloke living in Dublin doesn't run across any boulder wielding giants. Instead he spends his walk thinking about all the different things in life that consume a person's time and alter their perceptions along the way. The giants then in Bloom's life are responsibility and consequence. As he thinks about adult life he also thinks about the limitations of the human body: blindness, deafness and confusion.
During all this thinking, Bloom ducks into a number of places, the last one being a museum. That's when everything clicked for me: the "Earl's Court to Islington" episode of Neverwhere. Both episodes illustrate altered states of perception. Neverwhere manages to "mind the gap" between the two stories by having elements that are both mythical and metaphorical. In fact much of Richard Mayhew's journey hinges on his ability to sort the two out.
While Door needs to take advantage of their status as invisible to the people of London Above, Richard desperately wants to be seen and acknowledged as a member (or ex-member) of London Above. Bloom during his walk does a similar dance between hidden and visible as he only wants to talk to certain folks he knows and not others. His ducking into the museum at the end is a way to escape just as ultimately Richard and Door must escape from their pursuers through the museum (albeit through a door made by Door).
For all three narratives, this head on confrontation with perception altering experiences marks the halfway point. Now for Neverwhere the remainder of the series is a quest to return to the Angel Islington under false pretenses. The giants for Odysseus were a stumbling block. I will have to wait and see what this eye opening walk will bring for Bloom.
Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Nine: Scylla and Charybdis. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print
Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria with art by Warren Pleece is another of the graphic novels short listed for the Cybils earlier this year. Life Sucks is about a baby-faced geek stuck working the night shift at a convenience store. All he wants is a normal life and perhaps a better job. The only problems: he's a vampire and his boss is also his master.
Apparently there are only two places in the United States for vampires: Louisiana and California. If you're in the Anne Rice club, it's Louisiana. If you're in the Joss Wheadon club, then it's California. Life Sucks is clearly aiming for the Wheadon club. I suppose the Twilight crowd will spark a new club of vampires up in the Pacific Northwest someday given the series popularity but right now Vampires still seem fall into two parties.
As much as I enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the film and most of the series) and most of Angel, I'm truly tired of teenager wangsty vampires speaking pseudo-California slang. In fact, I'm plain bored with vampires. Life Sucks plays with many of the same themes already done to death in Buffy and even more so in Angel. It doesn't bring many new ideas to the table. If you want a fairly conventional teenage vampire story set in California, Life Sucks delivers.
There are a few things I chuckled at in Life Sucks. First of all, there is the protagonist's addiction to Mexican novellas. That's a cute detail. I liked the practicality of keeping vampires on the graveyard shift since they probably won't be killed during a conventional hold-up. I liked Warren Pleece's artwork. He makes the neighborhoods and towns in and around Los Angeles recognizable. Nice illustrations though were not enough to keep me turning the pages with enthusiasm.
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In 1955 The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney was published. A year later Invasion of the Body Snatchers hit movie theaters. In 1978 Finney rewrote the novel and fleshed it out from novella length to a full length novel. There have been a number of film versions and homages. The most recent take on the story is The Host by Stephanie Meyer.
Finney's novel was set in the North Bay, in The Host the story is set in Arizona (except for a few scenes in Chicago and San Diego, though how they relate to each other is never adequately explained). Finney was writing about his home town and Meyer who lives in Arizona is doing the same thing. So far, no surprises. Science fiction often starts with the familiar and then tweaks it.
Where Finney's novel ends with the humans in the North Bay beating back the invaders and preventing a full scale invasion, The Host begins with the assumption that the heroes of Finney's novel failed. Melanie, a rebel human trying to fight the aliens, has been implanted with Wanderer (later known as Wanda) to discover where the human resistance cell is hiding and what their plans are.
In a bit of religious squickery, the invaders call themselves souls. To save humanity, the resistance wants to remain soulless. Where Finney's book was social commentary on the xenophobia of the 1950s, Meyer's seems to be trying to tackle atheism. The resistance believes life is better without the Souls and of course Wanda tries to argue just the opposite; senseless crimes have stopped, there is no more money because everyone shares, everyone is always together and happy, there is eternal life through the living in many different Hosts.
Wanda / Melanie (who refuses to give up her will to Wanda) manage to find the human outpost in the caves near Tucson. While all other infected humans who have found this remote location have been vivisected on the spot, for some reason they decide to keep Wanda alive because she was "belongs" to one of the men in the group. That's Meyer's way of being romantic. Personally, if my husband ever said I "belonged" to him, he'd be out the door and the locks would be changed. Anyway, lucky for Wanda, she's property and gets to live long enough to prove her good intentions.
There are some interesting pieces to the novel. Despite the weird happy-joy-joy Soul Society collective, there are glimpses at life on different planets and the structure of the Soul culture. There is a hierarchy to it but these are mere glimpses in between some very long and tedious scenes in the resistance caves.
There are three hundred pages of Wanda being a prisoner in the caves and learning how the uninfected humans live. It's basically three hundred mind numbing pages of playing house: cooking, eating, doing chores, walking around the caves and sleeping. No sex, no violence, no swearing, no danger except for a few small fist fights. Seriously, I wanted to claw my eyes out at the end of this section.
Basically there is a decent three hundred page Body Snatchers inspired novel hidden in a novel that has bloated to 650 pages. It has a pretty good start, an incredibly boring middle and a clever ending. The ending though isn't good enough to inspire me into wanting to re-read the novel or to read her better known Twilight series. If in the future she writes another stand-alone novel, I might give it a try.
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Last month I reviewed the second book (Alphabet Mystery) in the alphabet series by mother and son team Audrey and Bruce Wood. The series starts with my favorite, Alphabet Adventure. It introduces the lower case letters of "Charley's Alphabet" and the world in which they live when they aren't at school with Charley.
Before they head off to school to meet Charley for the first time, their uppercase teacher letter takes them on a field trip through the city. Along the way the curious letter i has an accident and loses (or misplaces more accurately) his dot.
Observant children will notice that the little dot isn't far behind the rest of the letters who are frantically trying to find the dot so they can be a complete and proper alphabet for Charley. The unspoken detail of this extra hide and seek game on all the later pages of the book makes a cute book into a fun book.
The second thing that I love about Alphabet Adventure is the world that Bruce Wood has created for the letters. It's populated with more than just the 26 letters of Charley's alphabet. There are capital and lowercase letters of different sizes, colors and fonts going about their lives and business in a world that's reminiscent of Venice and any number of other far away places.
Sean and I both eagerly awaiting for a chance to check out the third book in the series, Alphabet Rescue.
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My son takes after his father. He is a re-reader, far more than I am. His current re-read obsession is Dragons, Dragons edited and illustrated by Eric Carle. It's a library book from his elementary school and his name is the only name in it for the last three check-outs. I can see why he loves it, it's a fantastic bestiary with quotes from a number of authors and well known book and each mythical beast is illustrated in Eric Carle's unique style.
The book has mythical beasts from around the world including western and Chinese dragons, Greco-Roman beasts, Egyptian beasts, Australian ones and Sean's personal favorite Anansi the spider. Along with the illustrations, each beast has a little bit of poetry. For instance, the western dragon has a quote from Anne McCaffrey. Other authors included are Sir Richard Burton, John Gardner, X. J. Kennedy, Laura Whipple, William Blake, Myra Cohn Livinginston and many others. There is a full bibliography in the back of the book for anyone interested.
Dragons, Dragons is not a typically short Eric Carle book. It is sixty-eight pages of complex text and sometimes hard to pronounce words. It typically takes us two nights (of about ten minutes each) of reading the book when I read it out loud. It though is worth the effort and may very well inspire discussions of mythology, poetry, history and geography. With Sean's interest in Anansi, it has also gotten us talking about Neil Gaiman and Anansi Boys (although we don't plan to read it to him until he's older).
California's history is rich with Chinese culture. Growing up here you'll learn a thing or two about feng shui but usually in as it relates to architecture and home decorating. I did know about the importance of water and wind chimes for movement and sound to soften up an area from my father who takes gardening seriously but until reading Feng Shui in Your Garden by Roni Jay, that's all I knew.
Feng Shui in Your Garden by British author Roni Jay looks only at how feng shui and the directing of ch'i in the garden can improve one's well being on a number of fronts. This short but beautiful photographically illustrated book has three main sections: principles of feng shui, general garden shapes and features, and types of gardens. Each chapter in these sections addresses specific pieces of feng shui to use when designing or redesigning a garden.
One of big points of the book is the dividing up of the garden into the eight compass points, each of which represent a different aspect of ch'i influence on life. I thought briefly about doing a chart for my own tiny patio garden but frankly there's all of about twenty square feet of it and not much wiggle room. Since I'm not a serious follower or believer in the magical or spiritual aspects of feng shui, I decided to give the exercises in the book a pass.
From a stylistic point of view, though, I enjoyed the suggestions and made some notes for future improvements for my garden. Again, though, this book will work best for people who have actual gardens (with dirt and trees and land) and not a tiny row of pots on a patio during a drought (my current situation).
In 1982 Larry Walters flew from San Pedro to the Long Beach airport and ascended at one point to 16,000 feet in a craft consisting of a lawn chair and 45 balloons. Although "The View from on High" (the current online reprint at Fantasy & Science Fiction's web site) doesn't mention Walters's flight, the events in the story are close enough to bring it immediately to mind.
Of course to be science fiction or fantasy "The View from High" can't just be a retelling of Larry Walters's flight. There has to be something unusual about the flight (beyond the crazy idea of flying a lawn chair). In Eldon Turner's case, he sees angels. When and how he sees them influences the decisions he makes in his flight.
The entire story is a stream of consciousness account from Eldon's point of view. There are a few interruptions from the radio and from other people he passes by but it's all filtered through him. If you've read Ulysses, Eldon's flight isn't much different in format than any of the Bloom's walking around town scenes.
There really isn't much else to say. The story is very short and very enjoyable. The online version doesn't give a page count but it couldn't have been more than a few pages.
In the introduction before the story, Gordon Van Gelder explains that Yoon Ha Lee lists Anne McCaffrey and Orson Scott Card as two influences in in her writing (p. 40). Having not read any of Card I can't speak to his influences but I can see McCaffrey in the music and dragons of "Unstrung Zither."
Xiao Ling Yung is the unstrung zither of the story. She's a musician for the Phoenix Command in a world at war with the ashworlders who are dragon riding assassins. There is a lot of mysticism, music, role playing and military maneuvering in "Unstrung Zither." A basic understanding of the tonality of Chinese and some cultural practices helps but isn't completely necessary to enjoy the story.
The world in which Ling Yung and the others live is only hinted at and that's fine. The only bits of information are that the population on the main world is roughly 110 million (about three times the size of California) and the population of the ashworlds is roughly 70 million. Military forces for both sides is classified. Ling Yung decides to make up her own mind about the prisoners by interrogating them herself, unusual but not unheard of.
I like political stories where information is uneven or completely hidden intel. I like stories that present a world based on different traditions than my own. Having had this one glimpse at the world of Ling Yung I want to see more.
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In the seventh episode of Ulysses called "Aeolus", Bloom spends a long and frustrating time at the local paper trying to get an ad published. Aeolus in The Odyssey gives the crew a bag of winds to help guide the ship home. A bag of winds becomes a wind bag in Ulysses in the form of a very busy but substance lacking daily newspaper.
Wind bags and newspapers brings immediately to mind J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle and Peter Parker's bombastic employer. Now of course Parker isn't a writer, he's a photographer but Jameson still has headlines to worry about and they are often as sill as the section headers in Episode 7.
The Aeolus section is so far my favorite part of Ulysses (with Episode 1 coming in a close second). I like it for its lambasting of publishing, news reporting and marketing. Every short scene is given its own title, things like: K.M.A (kiss my ass), and SOME COLUMN THAT'S WHAT WADDLER SAID. (pages 146, 147).
In between the silly titles are scenes, often not more than a couple paragraphs and some lines of dialogue, that show the chaos of the newspaper. People are busy taking orders, shouting over headlines, and scrambling to get the paper ready for printing. There is even a fantastic scene describing the noise and action of the printing press in the HOW A GREAT DAILY ORGAN IS TURNED OUT section.
As with most of the episodes so far in Ulysses, the newspaper is a loud, crude place filled with loud, crude people. The machinery of the paper is compared to organs and the resulting papers as excrement. The papers are only meaningful on the day they are printed (and sometimes not even then). They are quickly relegated to being bum wipers, fish wrappers and lining for bird cages. And yet each and every edition is a frantic affair brought to life with shouting, sweat, cursing and long hours.
Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Eight: The Laestrygonians in which Bloom continues his walk and thinks of a number of health issues including stds. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print
Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto comes in the middle of his writing career but is one of the fist books he wrote after taking over the family farm. Much of his apprehension and frustration is recorded in this memoir but structurally it has many similarities with Four Seasons in Five Senses (2003).
The book starts as he's pulling out the oldest of his peach trees and he's not sure of his future as an organic farmer. He laments over the development of new varieties of peaches that ripen earlier and sameness of mass produced produce. The negative tone to the book took me by surprise in comparison to the quiet and poetic opening of Four Seasons...
After that initial chapter the memoir falls into the same structure as Four Seasons... by following the seasons as he reminisces over his life on the farm and how his new way of doing things compares to how his father did things. He starts with spring and ends with winter.
The similar structure made for an easy read but it wasn't as enjoyable or savory as Four Senses... Clearly in Epitaph for a Peach Masumoto was still finding his place as an organic farmer and his voice as a writer of quiet memoirs. Had I read Epitaph first I would have enjoyed it more than I did reading it second.
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One of my goals this year is to read through books I have been given in recent years: either through BookCrossing, from friends and family or through Craigslist. Among those books is Beyond Another Door a young adult paranormal romance from the late 1970s. I actually finished this book about a month ago and I'm still struggling with how best to review it.
Beyond Another Door is about Daria Peterson who lives with her single mother in a quiet little town far from the rest of the family. After winning an ugly dish at the carnival, Daria's world changes. She begins to see ghosts and have visions of the past and future. Can she make sense of it all?
For the most part I enjoyed the paranormal twist to the book. I liked how the relationship with Rob grew over time. I also liked Daria's new found abilities helped her connect with Nanette. A few things though dampened my enjoyment of the book: Daria's relationship with her mother, the big horror over being a "love child" and the uneven style of the writing.
Daria's feelings for her mother are never well established in the book. Throughout the novel she calls her mother by her name instead of "Ma, Mom, Mother" or something similar implying they aren't all that close. The opening scene though implies from their camaraderie that they are very close and in later scenes Daria says they are close but the remaining confrontational scenes they have together show exactly the opposite.
Next is the dragged out revelation through her visions that Daria was probably conceived out of wedlock. The first big mistake in this plot point is Daria's lack of understanding. She doesn't know what the term means. When she finds out from boyfriend Rob she is horrified and convinced that now the whole town will be out to get her. This one plot point sends the book hurtling backwards in time about twenty years. Daria though isn't old enough to have been born in the hyper conservative 1950s. Finally, though, if the town really did care about such things, Daria would already know. Pearl certainly did at a much younger age in The Scarlet Letter.
Both problems: the relationship between mother and daughter and the question of her legitimacy could have been blended more evenly into the story. Unfortunately the uneven writing emphasizes all the wrong parts, dragging out insignificant scenes and racing through the pivotal ones.
Choosing to Be: Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master by Kat Tansey is autobiographical fiction in the vein of Philip Roth if he had decided to become a Buddhist.
The book twelve lessons in three big categories: ordinary mind, hindrances and Buddha mind. Each lesson has a series of dialogues between Kat and her cat Poohbear. He teaches Buddha's lessons through observations on the younger cat, Catzenbear's antics.
The reason behind Tansey's path towards enlightenment was to help combat depression and chronic fatigue. The cats provide moments of insight and humor in what could easily have been a very monotonous memoir.
In terms of learning about meditation and Buddhism, Choosing to Be has many practical exercises with a light approach. It maybe especially approachable for cat owners. The book reminds me favorably of Buddhism for Mothers by Sarah Napthali and The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth.
See the author's blog here.
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The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr is the sequel to The Alienist. Both are psychological dramas wrapped in historical fiction. I have not read the first book but Carr spends a good portion of the book filling in the blanks. He probably spent too much time.
The book picks up a year after the first book ends when the wife of a Spanish diplomat begs them to help her find her kidnapped baby. This comes just as Spain and America are at the verge of going to war. Where the last book looks at the psychology of a male serial killer, this one tries to do the same with a female serial killer.
Fans of historical fiction and psychological thrillers seem to love these pair of books. What The Angel of Darkness has reaffirmed for me is that I don't especially like either genre. Put together they are a sure fire combination to have my tuning out a few chapters into the plot.
The problems I had with The Angel of Darkness have to do with the use of language and the description of the setting. All of the characters in the book speak in incredibly ornate and complex ways, even the ex-street urchin. The men and the women alike regardless of background or personal stories all speak like aristocratic book worms.
Combined with all of them speaking like Thurston Howell III or Major Charles Emerson Winchester III is the problem that all of them seemed amazed by the world in which they live. Sure, there are the new inventions like the telephone, the phonograph, the camera and the automobile but almost every generation lives with some form of technological innovation. These new things are there alongside older ways of doing things. Whenever characters stop to marvel at the world the historical fiction loses credibility.
If the dialogue and narrative descriptions were simplified for something more realistic and in keeping with a reformed street thug living in New York City in the late 1890s and most of the explanations of the modern marvels were excised too, this 700 page tome would shrink to a manageable and tightly written thriller of half its current size.
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Here I am again with the unpleasant task of reviewing an unsolicited book. It's a book that I would have never said yes to because I don't like reading self-help or get-rich-my-way type of books. Rich Brother, Rich Sister by siblings Robert and Emi Kiyosaki has the added squick factor that rich brother won't help out sick sister with her health care costs unless she helps him write a book. And I'm somehow supposed to get the warm fuzzies from this? No, what I want to do is give both siblings a boot to the head (but for different reasons).
The book is written in alternating parts by both siblings. They spend a good deal of their time reminiscing about how tough their childhoods were in Hawaii growing up in a family of well educated parents with a tight budget. Gosh, it sounds terrible growing up in a stable loving family.
Robert's parts are further tempered with his time in Vietnam and his anger at God. He tries to use these experiences to explain why I should want to use his system for getting rich and for why he's making his sister write this book. It doesn't work. He just comes off as annoying, whinny and selfish.
Emi's parts don't fare much better unfortunately. I expected a little more insight from a Buddhist monk but none of that comes through in this book. Instead her chapters about how hard it was to be a girl in a family of boys and how she felt compelled to abandon her daughter with her ex-husband to seek out spiritual enlightenment and how she's now a better person for all of it. That's nice message but it's not presented in a convincing manner.
The only thing I came away from this book is something I already knew: siblings are very different people even when they have the same parents. The same set of experiences can have very different life lessons and that's just part of life.
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Jellaby Volume 1 by Kean Soo was short listed for the Cybils this year. It is one of a number of graphic novels set in Canada from the short list. It follows Portia Bennett's friendship with a purple monster she's named Jellaby and her goal to help it get home. Her only clue is a photograph of a mysterious door in nearby Toronto. Can she get Jellaby there safely and find the door?
Jellaby begins like a lot of the manga I've read: in school bringing together an unlikely set of characters into a friendship based around something fantastic (in this case the existence of Jellaby). Although Portia is a bit of a loner at school and a latchkey kid at home (single mother with a busy schedule), she becomes friends with Jason, a kid who is fond of carrots and ramen.
Since this book is only volume one, the answer behind the mysterious door is not answered. The characters and plot is entertaining. Soo's illustrations are cartoonish and charming. They fit well with the story and are fun to look at all by themselves. To keep with the purple jelly theme most of the illustrations are done in shades of purple except for the orange carrot on Jason's shirt.
The second volume, Jellaby: Monster in the City is now out and I'm looking forward to reading it when I get the chance.
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The first story in the March issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine (yes, I know, it's already April!) has left me grumpy. It's a pair of magical realism stories set in the American south west but framed by a Joseph Conrad-esque narration during a night when a man is trying to introduce his fiance to his family. I can't even begin to explain how much I detest stories that use extended multi paragraph quotes of stories told through not one but two narrators (the one listening and the one telling). It is an awkward way to tell a story.
There's first the man who takes Abby the fiance to meet his family. Apparently how they met and why a southern boy is dating a Yankee is a "long story" but fuck if I know what it is because he never tells us.
No instead we have to "listen" to his crazy Uncle tell two completely unrelated stories, first about a truck driver on the old route 666 who comes across a Navajo ghost out for revenge and how he talks her out of it. The second story is about a black man named Swede who goes to a Curandero for help with these weird moving bumps all over his body. His cure involves a third story involving a young pregnant girl who has to perform a ritual in front of the red virgin and the story behind the virgin's creation.
By themselves these are all interesting stories. Brought together in this mishmash of over heard tall tales does not work. It's a literary train wreck. I hope the rest of the issue is better.
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In the sixth episode of Ulysses called "Hades", Bloom and his kith and kin make their way to the funeral of a friend who died in a drunken stupor. In The Odyssey one of the crew dies after falling asleep on a roof in an opiate induced haze. His falling off the roof death serves as a moment of dark comedic humor that later haunts the surviving crew until things are put to right.
I don't think Paddy Dignam will be haunting Bloom. His death here is a reminder of the unexpected nature of life (and death). This episode and the ride to the funeral gives Bloom and the others to talk about death and those that they've lost. It has moments of humor but so far this the most serious episode in the novel.
The theme of "unexpected death" brings to mind a three part story arch in the second and third season of NCIS when Agent Caitlin "Kate" Todd was assassinated by Ari. Although I don't Ari as the early on-going "big bad" of the series I do like way in which the different characters got to say good bye to Kate in "Kill Ari" parts one and two.
Just as the different agents have their own way of approaching and coping with Kate's death, the different funeral attendees in Ulysses have different death stories to share. Interestingly, Paddy's death (and life) is only mentioned in passing compared to the many other people remembered. His death is perhaps too new to sink in or perhaps too expected to be a surprise or something worth morning. His death though is there to remind the mourning of others they have lost.
For the NCIS crew though, the death was too unexpected, coming right after Kate had been shot point blank but in the vest she was wearing. She stands up, cracks a joke and then is shot right through the head. The suddenness of her death makes saying good bye all the harder until her funeral she appears to her former colleagues to help them grieve. How she is imagined says a great deal about the person who is grieving and a bit too about her own personality.
Only Gibbs and Ducky see her as she is in death (bullet hole included). Ducky as the medical examiner has perhaps the most straightforward confrontation with her death: speaking directly to her corpse as he does with all of the bodies he examines. Kate, though, is special and even Ducky isn't immune, she talks back. For the others she is a Goth (Abby), a pin-up school girl (Tony) and a superhero and dominatrix (McGee).
Next Saturday I'll discuss Episode Seven: Aeolus which among other things has Bloom's thoughts on reading the Haggadah. How appropriate that it comes during Passover. Nothing has come to mind yet so next week's post will a surprise to me too. If you want to read along, Ulysses is available online at Read Print.
Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Anne Miranda and illustrated by Ed Emberley teaches about emotions and the things that can trigger them through this colorful and interactive book. Each page has a color coded monster (often times in a color associated with a given emotion) who is feeling a certain way. To add some silliness into the reading experience, each monster page also has a mask for either the child or the parent to try on and act out the emotion.
I personally am not normally keen on these forced interactive experiences but hey, it has Ed Emberley's illustrations and I've been a fan of his since I was about two. His monsters are colorful, primal and easy to draw (a plus for my son who is into drawing monsters).
Despite my own reservations about putting on a mask an acting the part of a monster, my two kids think the book is hilarious. Fortunately for me, they much prefer taking turns putting on the masks then having me do it, leaving me to read the book and do the monster voices. Pretty soon I might be out of the monster Foley business, though, as Harriet is developing quite a repertoire of voices and sound effects.
In terms of plot, there is none. It's just a series of color coded monsters and their emotional states. For a quick and silly book to get kids involved it's a good start. The book also has a convenient envelope in the back to hold the masks.
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Angels of Interstate 29 by Donald James Parker is a Christian fiction romance that can't quite figure out what genre it belongs in or what story it's trying to tell. There are three competing stories: the car thieves looking for revenge, Tex's desire to do something good for Sioux Falls in his retirement from the force, and the romance between Lizzy and Tex. All three of these plots in the end get tossed aside for a deus ex machina of biblical proportions.
Tex Harris and his Angels of I29 plan was my favorite part of the book. He reminds me of my own grandfather who has been volunteering nearly every day of his life since he retired. He'll be 90 in about six weeks and he's still volunteering. With him in mind, Tex rings true to me.
The banter Tex has with his close group of friends also has some endearing moments. They share jokes and pop cultural references from their youth all the way to modern times, sometimes smoothly and sometimes awkwardly. Early on there is a very funny running joke from The Music Man, one of my favorite musicals. Unfortunately, a little banter goes a long way and the dialog in this novel tends to run on at the expense of setting, plot development and internal monolog.
It is through the lengthy dialog that the novel goes from being a romantic thriller with mature characters to being a blatant Christian novel. Lizzy begins by asking Tex about his religious beliefs and he believably dances around giving an answer but she persists. Her long passages on God and scripture completely break the flow of the story. To force everything to stick together in a tidy conclusion the main characters end up being held hostage only to be saved by the act of prayer. Unfortunately for Tex to be "saved" both literally and spiritually he has to have a complete change of character. I just don't buy Tex's tragic past or his sudden change of heart. People don't change like that under duress; if anything, they become more stubborn.
Although Christian fiction isn't one of the main genres I read, I do occasionally enjoy a book in the genre. I have a certain weakness for Richard Paul Evans. I wanted to like Angels of Interstate 29 more than I did. With less dialog and a more subtle hand with the religious message, this book could have been a charming romance.
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Chiggers by Hope Larson is another of the graphic novels to make it to the second round of judging for the Cybils.
Abby goes back to summer camp hoping to spend her time with her old friends Rose and Beth. There's one problem: Rose is too busy because she's a cabin assistant / camp counselor and Beth is now pierced and has declared herself too cool for the likes of Abby. Chiggers follows Abby's reluctant friendship with Shasta after another girl is sent home early for an infestation of chiggers.
The artwork is drawn with a bold stroke in stark black and white. The characters are often wild looking, bordering on animalistic. The style captures the awkwardness of teenagers as they transition from children to adults.
Until the end, Chiggers is pretty much just a coming of age at summer camp story. It tries to add in a bit of magical realism through these electrical balls that are following Shasta. I'm not sure what the point of these balls are. They come so late in the book that they are like an after thought. The novel could have been better with a greater sense of narrative direction.
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