Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z: Naomi Zucker (Book Review)

Review: Callie's Rules, by Naomi Zucker.  Middle Grade fiction; 225 pages (fast read).

Callie's RulesI was attracted to this book in the beginning, because Callie is a bit like I was in Jr. High--still a kid, and clueless about all this new stuff the other girls all seem to know.  And right off on page 7 there's a great quote about rules, the kind of rules that govern the behavior of teen girls, not the kind that schools make:
Stupid rules.  Well, rules are rules.  They're not supposed to make sense.  they're supposed to make the people who know the rules feel good and the people who don't know the rules feel stupid.  Too true!  These are rules for how to fit in, how to be cool, and by the end of the book Callie figures out that the girls who slavishly follow them are fools.

The premise of the novel is two-fold: Callie is just starting middle school (6th grade), which is a huge transition and she really doesn't get it.  At the same time, the richest woman in her rather small town has decided that Halloween is a pagan festival, both too frightening for small children and designed to lure kids into satanism or something.  Since she is the banker's wife, she is able to convince lots of people, including the Town Council, that she is right.  So while Callie is trying to fit in at her new school, she is also trying to save her favorite holiday.  The two tasks seem to be completely incompatible, since being an activist means standing out.

The story is fairly well told, and the message is sound: to be yourself and to stand up for what you believe in.  I think it will appeal to middle-grade girls, and may be of some help to those trying to navigate all those unspoken social rules of middle school.  Overall, however, I wasn't satisfied.  The story didn't feel real, with characters and situation that were just a bit over the top.  That's fine, of course, in the right book--one that knows it's over the top.  I didn't feel like this one did.  It was good enough, but just didn't work for me, despite my appreciation of the message.

Three stars.

So that's it.  A to Z is finished!  Tomorrow I'll be doing my reflections on the Challenge, and laying out some of the things I've learned and decided about my blog.  I will then return to my 3-4 day/week blogging schedule!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y: Richard Yancey

                         The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs (Highly Effective Detective #2)

Mystery Monday review: The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs

Unlike my recent Mystery Monday posts, this is an actual review of a book I read over the weekend.  I couldn't think of a single author or book that would fit the "Y" requirement, so I went and searched the mystery shelves at the library.  Richard Yancey is what I came up with, and as we had only the second book in the series, that's what I read.

The Highly Effective Detective is touted on the back cover as being something like Donald Westlake, and I can see the basis for the comparison.  Humor is definitely part of the story--as is the incompetence of the protagonist.  Teddy Ruzak is the Highly Effective Detective--except that when the story opens he's being shut down because he has once again failed the state licensing exam.  He's been calling himself an "investigative consultant" rather than a PI, but the state doesn't seem to think that's good enough.  They want him closed down, and now.  But when he turns around and finds a body in the alley behind his office, Ruzak can't stop investigating, license or no.  That's okay, because no one is paying him.

Like Sam Spade or Guy Noir, Teddy Ruzak is a loner.  Unlike the true hard-boiled detective, that seems to be more a failure than a choice.  While Ruzak forges on toward a solution to the crime (more by blind stubbornness than any great insight), he contemplates life, women, and God.  What?  Although the contemplation of God seems to be in part sparked reasonably enough by the mysterious letters of religious significance associated with the corpse, I found the thread to be a little disturbing and out of character with the general tone of the book.

The dog of the title is a rescue from the pound, and given the importance implied by the titling, I kept waiting for him to play a more significant role.  He's fine, he's just not that important.  I wondered at times if it was just an add-on to allow for a fun title.

In fact, I have been unable to completely decide if I like the book or not.  The mystery is fine, Teddy and his troubled relationships are entertaining, but there is a persistent religious theme running throughout that I could live without.  It's not that the author is blatantly preaching.  Often, it's hard to tell what he really thinks--Ruzak is the narrator, and he clearly doesn't know what to think.   Despite this there is at times a preachy feel to the contemplation of God, which doesn't do much for me.  To balance that, however, there is the more purely existential question he faces, because his ancient friend Eunice believes that he is a character in the book she is writing, which may have started as a memoir but has become a work of fiction.  I thought the subplot with Eunice was probably the best part of the book.

Overall, I give the book 3.5 stars.  The writing was entertaining and the plot gripping enough that I had no trouble in plowing through in a few hours (a good thing, given my time frame for reading and reviewing this!).  And the contemplation of the nature of the human and divine is not entirely out of place in either a murder mystery or a book set at Christmas, and this is both.  It's just that it feels a bit out of place in humor, which this book also is.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X: Xavier and the X-Ray Eyes


Flash Fiction Friday: a bit of space silliness
Xavier and the X-Ray Eyes

Xavier and the X-Ray Eyes

Xavier Xanthum explored space.  With his Arcturian Warp drive, he’d been doing it long enough that time and age no longer had any meaning for him.  Twice he had passed through random uncertainty fields, and met himself coming.  Once he’d hit something strange, and the next ship he met told him a hundred years had passed.  He'd aged two days.

After that one, he’d sold his ship to an antique dealer for enough to buy one of the new-fangled ships with an even better faster-than-light drive, one that was guaranteed to keep him from ever being stranded in a gravity well or adrift between galaxies, both of which had happened to him in the past.

All of which is to say he'd seen plenty of weird things in his indeterminately long life.  None of them prepared him for the eyeballs.

The eyeballs first appeared in the galley.  That was where Xavier usually saw odd things, because this new ship’s robo-kitchen had some very strange menu items.  He didn't think anything of it until he'd had a good sleep and awakened to find the eyes still watching him.

He didn't know then what they could do.  He only knew that there was now some kind of alien--something--sharing his ship.  He supposed he might have picked it up in that last singularity, or maybe it--they?--came aboard from one of the planets he'd visited.  Maybe the one that he'd thought was uninhabited.  It would have been easy to miss a modest population of disembodied eyeballs.

After a week he began to notice that he was seeing things.  Not seeing things the way he did when the robo-kitchen got too imaginative.  That made him see things that were not there.  Now he was seeing things that were there, but not here.  He called it X-ray vision, but it wasn't really.  Not like the kind he'd dreamed of as a kid, that let you see through clothes and into locked safes.

But he found that he could see whatever the eyeballs were seeing.  Even if they were in a different part of the ship.  And they could see a wider spectrum than he could.  He stopped burning himself on his coffee, because he could see when it was too hot.  If, that is, the eyes happened to look at the coffee.

It was when the turbo-warp booster started acting up that Xavier got serious about the need to communicate with the eyes.  He couldn't fit even his face into the service tube, so he was trying to install the replacement twerger by feel, and it wasn't working.  He realized that the eyes could fit in the tube easily, and then he'd be able to "see" it all.  But he had to find a way to tell them where to go, and to keep them looking at the repair until he'd finished.  The eyes had a limited attention span, and were always drifting off after dust motes.

Xavier now had a near-perfect understanding of the air filtration system, but he needed something more.  How did you communicate with something that had no ears, and maybe even no brain? 

No, that wasn't right.  The things were flighty, but there was an intelligence there.  He tried sign language, since that was visual.

Signs meant nothing to an entity with no body.

Writing came next.  Again, beings with no corporeal presence had no way to develop a written language.  The eyeballs glanced at his message and drifted off after a dust mote.

With the ship drifting helplessly in space somewhere between the Horsehead Nebula and an unnamed star system he wanted to investigate, Xavier grew frustrated.

"Blast it all!" he exclaimed.  "How in space am I supposed to tell you what I want?"  His voice squeaked.  He wondered how long it had been since he'd spoken aloud.

The eyes turned to look at him.  And the answer appeared in his brain.

Just say it.

Unwilling to believe that the eyeballs had ears, Xavier tried an experiment first.  He thought back at them.  You know what I'm saying?

There was no response.  He said it aloud this time.

"You understand what I say?"

Of course.

Cheeky beggar.  "How can you--never mind now.  Let's fix this drive."  Years of talking to hallucinations had made it easy for him to adjust to the idea of talking to a pair of eyeballs.  He explained what he needed, and received the promise that it could be done.  The eyes disappeared down the repair shaft, and an hour later the ship was up and running.

After that, Xavier began to enjoy the eyes.  Not only did they give him "x-ray" insights into the bowels of the ship, but he enjoyed having someone to talk to.  In an odd sort of way, they became friends.

It wasn’t until the eyes helped him through a second repair that he realized the truth.

The eyeballs were a part of the ship.  The part that prevented him from being stranded, because they not only could see all the places he needed to work, but they knew what needed to be done.

The eyeballs were a manifestation of the ship’s computer.  A computer that perhaps had grown as bored with the empty space between ports as he had.  Were they part of the original program.  He asked.


After a long, thoughtful silence, Xavier asked no further.

Friday, April 26, 2013

W: Wreading like a Writer

Couldn't resist playing with the spelling there.  Call it the Two Ws.

I've not written much this month on being a writer, but "W Day" seems like the obvious time to get back at it.  Thanks to the Progressive Book Club, I've been thinking more lately about reading as a writer (which is yet another task from reading in order to review, though the two are related).

What do I mean by reading like a writer?  Are there really different ways of reading?  You bet--I can think of at least 4 big ones without even trying.  Let's start with the way I read when I just want to shut my brain down so I can go to sleep.  This is what I think of as reading in lieu of watching TV.  I'm letting a story unfold, not putting a whole lot of myself into it.  Just absorbing and enjoying.  Beach reading.

Other times I may read for information or education. That's not just how I read things for work, it's also how I read a lot of non-fiction.  I want to know things, to increase my understanding of the topic at hand.  This requires a conscious engagement, and I usually try to avoid falling asleep.  Still, I'm reading for content, still not reading as writer, though I may look up at times to acknowledge the writer's use of language, if it's that kind of book (I'm fond of natural-history with a literary twist).

Occasionally these days I'll read a book primarily to review it (though mostly I review books I've read for fun).  In that case, I'll read with special attention to the effect on the reader.  If it's a kid's book, I get to try to imagine how a kid would react.  I pay more attention than if I'm on a mental beach.

So what more do I do when I'm reading as a writer?  I pay attention to everything.  How did that plot twist work?  Why that word?  What did the author do to make my pulse increase there?  It's a bit like what we did in school, and there's no question that it's not the same experience as just reading for the fun of it.  But a writer needs to sometimes (not always--by all means sometimes you should just read for the sheer joy of absorbing a story!) look at how other writers' technique works.  Ask yourself what that scene did for the story.  Why this character here?

I like to read mysteries, and I'm writing mysteries too (the first one that might make it to publication is in the final-edit stages).  It's more fun to read them without thinking too hard.  But if I want to learn how to make those false clues and red herrings work, I have to pull back sometimes and study them.  It's easier to do this on a re-reading, but I think at times it's helpful to ask those things of a fresh text.

Reading as a writer isn't easy.  It requires thought and effort, just like everything to do with becoming a good writer.  When it's too much--I just relax and enjoy a book.  But I also remind myself that learning a craft takes time and effort.  If I pay my dues, study with the masters, and really work, I might become the sort of writer someone else might point to and say "see?  That's how it's done."  I can think of no higher praise.


 Also: Only a few more days to enter the Princelings drawing and win a copy of the Ninja Librarian!
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Thursday, April 25, 2013

V: Vacations

Okay, I'm reaching and I know it.  Just couldn't get a good idea for V, and vacations are starting to be on my mind, what with the end of the school year looming. 

First, a few books that take place on vacation, or center around a vacation, not in any particular order.

Middle grade:
The Penderwicks (Jeanne Birdsall) and the second sequel, The Penderwicks at Point Mouette
Walk Two Moons (Sharon Creech)
The Moon By Night (Madeleine L'Engle)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis) (well, they are at the big country house because of the War, but also because school isn't keeping.  Most of the books start with school hols).
Summer According to Humphrey  (Betty Birney)

Adult mysteries:
The Five Red Herrings (Dorothy Sayers).  Also Have His Carcase
Sue Henry's Maxie and Stretch series is almost always on vacation
Borderline (Nevada Barr)
Holy Terror in the Hebrides (Jeanne M. Dams)

Now, because vacations are good for the brains, I'm going to throw up a few shots of my idea of a great vacation, just for fun.  They aren't times to write, or even think about writing, but a good wilderness trip really does restore the little grey cells.

Second Son hip deep in the Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park

Self-portrait atop my first 14,000' mountain.

Following my three guys up the trail.  I'm always following.  Can't keep up with any of them anymore.

Hauling my pack up another pass in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains

My boys near the top of 12,000' Knapsack Col in the Wind Rivers.

Sunset in the Winds.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U: Captain Underpants


 Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers (Captain Underpants, #10)

Yep, that's right.  I shall go boldly into the fray, and talk about Dav Pilkey and Captain Underpants.  A recent article forwarded me by my boss noted that libraries received more complaints last year about Captain Underpants being inappropriate than they did about Fifty Shades of Grey.  Naturally, this is in part because parents worry about what their little ones read, and not what they themselves are reading (though of course there is nothing to stop us checking  Fifty Shades out to young teens, and in fact though I feel it is completely inappropriate for teens, we do not and cannot censor.  But that's a different post).

So why do people, er, get their undies in a bunch about Captain Underpants?  I have a list of possible issues:
--Potty humor
--disrespect for authority
--pranks and bad behavior
--deliberate use of misspelling
--complete and utter absurdity of the plots

To help me think about this, I read the latest, Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers.  I hadn't looked at any since about 4 books into the series (this is #10), and was struck by a couple of things.  For one, the text seemed more substantial.  Also, the segments which George and Harold "write" themselves (with the bad spelling and all) were very limited.  And the story?  Well, "absurd" does pretty well describe it.  I can't say it was laugh-out-loud funny for me, but I can definitely see the appeal to the kids.

So the issues:
Potty humor.  Show me a little kid who doesn't love potty humor, and I'll show you a robot from the planet Dullness.  Seriously, if parents think their kids are learning potty humor from these books, they are deluded.

Disrespect for Authority: See above.  In fact, despite the boys being constantly in trouble, I don't find their behavior extreme (it was worst in the earliest books).  And they DO make the principal into a super-hero.  In many of the books, the boys do engage in pranks that we as parents our kids will not emulate.  I think that most kids, though they will laugh at the pranks, also understand the consequences (and Harold and George do suffer consequences for most of their pranks).  Oddly, there are no pranks in this book, only a desperate battle to save the universe with the boys working alongside Captain Underpants.

Deliberate use of misspelling.  This is actually limited to the "comic book" sections that the boys write themselves, which seems to me to provide readers with a) easy recognition that this is not the writing to emulate, and b) a chance to feel superior because frankly, nearly all the kids reading this can do better than that.  It's part of what's funny.  The bulk of the narration is fine.

Complete and utter absurdity.  I don't think this even deserves a response.  I like absurd.  Certainly it is so far over the top that there is no worry that any kids are going to mistake it for reality.  And the claim that we now know what killed the dinosaurs is pretty funny.

Oh, and I gather some parents claimed "nudity" was an issue.  I guess that's because Captain Underpants runs around in a pair of tighty-whiteys and a cape.  If a cartoon drawing of a rather stylized human in underwear is their idea of nudity, I hope these people never go to the beach.

My bottom line: when kids are making the at times difficult transition from reading to learn to read to reading for pleasure, if some potty humor and laughter at the expense of an authority figure gets them to read, go for it.  And for some suggestions on how to deal with various issues you may have with the books, check out this piece from NPR.  My biggest issue with the current addition to the series is that it ends in a blatant advertisement for the next book, which I thought was a bit tacky.  As opposed to tasteless, which defines the whole series, but in a good way.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T: Ten Things I Didn't Do

Today's topic is talk about tasks that time has taught me thorough types tackle (but I didn't, both during the A to Z and more generally about my writing).  (I thought about writing about taxes, but I've finished with that annoyance, and don't want to think about it--nor do I particularly want to risk sharing my dubious decisions).

These first five are about the blogging thing:
1.  Because you already figured this out, I didn't write a post for today.  Or even figure out what it was going to be (I don't consider a vague note of "something about Tess?" to be a plan).

2.  Housework.  Blogging is a great deal more fun than housework.  Oh, I've kept the laundry done and fed people most days, even swept the kitchen and dining room a couple of times.  But please don't look too closely at my dust bunnies.  They are getting large and savage.

3.  Talk.  I haven't made enough time this month to talk to my friends.  It's very easy for an introverted writer to crawl into a cave with the computer and not emerge.

4.  Visit.  I'm guilty of failing to visit as many blogs as I'd like, though I think I've hit everyone who's left me a comment.  Where do people find the time for this?!

5.  Prepare.  Next year (and yes, I'm already planning on doing the next A to Z!) I want to prepare more posts in advance.  Prepare, plan, and execute, so that I can spend more time reading.

Six through ten are about writing, and publishing:
6.  Plan ahead.  I wrote the book, then I started thinking about covers, formatting, etc.  The sad thing is. . . I did it again with the second book, which is why instead of it coming out in Feb. as promised, it's still not out.

7.  Invest.  Spend a little to make a little.  In other words: hire a cover artist.  Maybe an editor, but especially a cover artist, because without a decent cover you just don't sell books.

8.  Build a platform before you publish.  Everyone says to do it.  Unfortunately, for many of us, once we've published THEN we start reading about how to promote our books.  But you know what?  Since my indie-published book is not under the gun to reach a certain level of sales by the end of six months, that's okay.  I can take my time and learn the ropes and get there by and by.  Or not.

9.  Perfect my record-keeping.  After figuring out the taxes, I noted that I now knew how to keep my records (what categories to use, etc.) to make it easier next year.  I can't help noticing that I haven't changed my record keeping yet.

10.  Pick an age and genre and stick with it (in a particular book).  The Ninja Librarian  grew organically out of stories I wrote for my co-workers, and only when I had about a dozen did we start to think it was maybe a kids book, maybe YA (turns out not).  So the poor Librarian hovers between the children and the adults, and no one is quite sure where to put him.  So I'll clarify: the Ninja Librarian  books are completely suitable for kids, and adults will get even more out of them.  Some of the humor verges on slapstick, some is more subtle.  I think the story works either way.   But, from a purely marketing standpoint: don't do this at home, kids!

On the up side, there are a few things I've done and want to keep doing: I've read a lot of books this month, after a bit of a slump where I was just noodling around on line.  And I've been finishing books.  That's something to be proud of.

Monday, April 22, 2013

S: Dorothy Sayers

First, I want to take a moment to acknowledge a nice (meaningless) threshold, which is that sometime over Saturday night I passed the 10,000 page views mark.  Unfortunately, since Blogger doesn't sift out the robovisits, I think a significant portion were due to Russian sites of dubious virtue checking out that "old-fashioned girl" post.  Still.  Ten thousand views.

And I only need 13 more members to hit the 50 follower mark!

Now for our regularly scheduled Mystery Monday post: Dorothy Sayers and the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

First I want to say that Ms. Sayers was a serious scholar and she herself considered her Lord Peter stories (and other unrelated mysteries) as a sort of sell-out.  But, let's be frank: who reads her theological works today?  A whole lot fewer than read her mysteries, that's for sure (for the record, I have read at least one of her non-fiction works, The Mind of the Maker, and it is an excellent exploration of the relationship between the creativity of God and the creativity of the artist, for those who think in those terms.  The woman could write, whatever her subject matter).

The 12 Lord Peter novels (and 3 collections of short stories) are definitely products of their period (the 1920s and 30s), being more intellectual than action-oriented.  The series is also slightly schizophrenic.  In 8 of those 12 books, Lord Peter appears alone, and the books are classic intellectual puzzles.  In Strong Poison, she introduces Harriet Vane, and (after ignoring her existence in intervening books) develops a complex love interest in Have His Carcase, which erupts into the central place in the last two books, Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon.  Gaudy Night in particular stands out because the entire story is from the perspective of Harriet Vane, and we finally truly see Peter through another's eyes.  Busman's Honeymoon shifts perspectives, but her view again predominates, leaving me to wonder what kind of change in the nature of her mysteries, or maybe in the mystery novel, Ms. Sayers was contemplating.

Gaudy Night, in particular, is a great read for a writer, as Harriet is (just by chance, of course!) a writer of mysteries.  In many ways the book (which contains a perplexing mystery but lacks a corpse) is a meditation on marriage and work, for women (and especially the woman artist), as well as on the value of writing as work.  It is a theme that I think Sayers would have further developed had she continued to write, and in fact is developed in Jill Paton Walsh's completion of Sayers' unfinished final novel, Thrones, Dominations.  It is unclear in that work what is Sayers and what is Walsh, but I suspect that the concern with the difficulty Harriet has with her writing was planned by Sayers.

I can heartily recommend any and all of the Lord Peter books, though a couple get a little dense and dry (The Five Red Herrings according to rumor was written to demonstrate the perfect construction of red herrings, and I could believe it).  The books can be read in any order, as they are only very loosely tied, though I think a little sense of development is gained from reading them in the order written.  Other details of Lord Peter's life are added by reading the short stories, though any effort to construct a timeline would, I think, lead to madness and despair.

Oh, and one final reason I like the books?  Lord Peter is addicted to word play.

Whose Body?  (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #1)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R: Return to Skunk Corners


Most folks manage a cover reveal, but I'm still struggling with that.  But I wanted to throw out a teaser as we get closer to release for the Ninja Librarian sequel, Return to Skunk Corners.  So here's an excerpt from the first chapter.

It didn’t come as any surprise.  When we sent the toughs from Endoline packing without any help from the Skunk Corners librarian, I knew what we’d proven.  I’d known the Ninja Librarian long enough to guess what came next.

Still, it had been a nasty shock when I woke that morning to find an envelope on my kitchen table.  Only one person could’ve snuck in and left it without me waking.  With a sinking feeling, I slit the envelope with my hunting knife, feeling the big brass key inside.  Along with the key to the library was a single line penned on a bit of stationery in the Ninja Librarian’s fussy, old-fashioned handwriting:

It’s yours now, Alice.

Mine?  I knew even less about running a library than I did about running a school.  Which, despite several years in charge of the Skunk Corners school, wasn’t much.  Anyway, I couldn’t run a library and a school, could I?  I raced to the library, meaning to stop him if I had to sit on him, but he was gone.

Just like that, I’d lost my best friend, my teacher, and my mentor, and gained another unwanted responsibility.  If Ninja Tom wanted me to grow up, he’d opted for the sink-or-swim approach.
I was giving some serious thought to sinking.

So begins the second saga of Skunk Corners, and though things start off a bit gloomy, they look up soon.  Here's a selection from later in the book, when Big Al encounters the most feared beast on the mountain:

I was walking home in the evening coolness, well satisfied with my mission, when I encountered the one thing that scares me.

No, not a bear nor yet a courting fellow—I can cope with those.  This, my nose told me, was much more unnerving.

A skunk.

I froze in my tracks, my eyes swiveling like they were on lantern-poles, trying to spot the critter without making any move that might startle it.

The little black-and-white animal stepped onto the trail right in front of me, and I turned to stone.  I put all my efforts into offering neither threat nor surprise to the thing.  I scarce breathed while the critter looked me over and began to saunter up the trail away from me.  It was while I considered my options—following a skunk didn’t have much appeal, but I needed to get home—that I realized I hadn’t seen our town’s namesake for a long time.

Maybe not since the Ninja Librarian had so expertly ejected one from the library, his first morning in town.

Now, I like animals, and teach my students respect for all the critters, but I can’t say I’d been pining after the skunks.  And I wasn’t any too happy now to realize I’d have to follow one up the trail, or else take to the woods and beat through the brush in the near-dark.

I decided maybe I’d just set a while on a handy tree trunk and think, while Mr. Skunk, or Mrs. Skunk—I didn’t know and didn’t care to get close enough to ask—went wherever he, or she, was going.

If any of you would like to read more, contact me to see about being a Beta reader, as I move into the final editing stages.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Quick and the Quicker


It's another Friday and another Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge. This week he presented a list of (reader-provided--that was last week's challenge) opening lines and asked us to write a 1000-word story starting with that line.  I chose “I never trusted that statue in the garden behind the house.”

The Quick and the Quicker

I never trusted that statue in the garden behind the house.  The place was crawling with statues, but the rest remained well-behaved, doing as they were told and returning to their appointed places when asked.  It creeped me out a little, but Mom and Dad took it all for granted, and said I was much too sensitive.  Mom liked it.  She said it was like living in an art gallery and that helped her create.

Mom’s an artist, and she’s had a lot of trouble working lately.  She says all artists go through dry periods, and she just needs inspiration.  I don’t know what inspiration one gets from statues that won’t stay put, and I’m not sure I want to know.  Mom’s work is a little weird.

There was one statue that did the washing-up for us every evening.  She looked like some kind of queen or something to me, but seemed to like scrubbing pots, so we let her.  It was only later that I thought how weird it was that a bronze statue could plates and teacups.  At the time, it seemed natural enough, and what surprised us was that a queen wanted to wash dishes.

The place was doing strange things to us, and I blame the statue in the garden.  It bugged me because it was the only one that didn’t ever move.  Maybe  that should have been reassuring,  but not in a house where every other statue, sculpture, or bit of three-dimensional art wandered the house at will, trying out new points for displaying themselves.  Not many were as active as the Queen, of course, but even the paperweight on the library desk, an amorphous blob probably made by someone’s 4-year-old, drifted around.  Once I caught it hiding in the drawer.  But though the statue in the garden behind the house never seemed to move, I noticed it didn’t have any weeds or vines or even lichen growing on it.

We’d taken the isolated house for the summer, and at first it was great. Then, at the end of the second week, it rained, and I stayed in.  By now I’d gotten pretty used to the statues, and learned to look where I was going in case one had moved into my path.  Once in a while I chased one off to keep the hall clear enough to get to the bathroom in the night, or asked the man-sized abstract to move so that it wouldn’t block the front door.  They didn’t talk, but moved politely.

But the statue in the back garden.  .  . I sat in the library that rainy morning, looking out and debating if it was worth getting my boots and rain jacket and going to see if the creek was rising, when it caught my eye.  It still hadn’t moved from where it stood—and it’s a sign of how the place was getting to me that I found that creepy—but I could see its head swiveling from side to side, watching the house with blank eyes.

After a few minutes, I began to hear the familiar shuffling of the statues rearranging themselves.  It sounded like they were all gathering in the hall, and suddenly I didn’t like it one bit.  I crept to the library door, and opened it just enough to peek out, down the hall toward the entry.  The big abstract had blocked the door again.  And all the other statues, I’m pretty sure it was every one in the house, stood before it, as though they were receiving commands from a leader.  Aside from the shuffling noises, they were as silent as always.

Suddenly frightened, I ran back to the window.

The statue was gone.  Now I heard a noise in the hall that sounded—but I must have imagined it—like a murmur of angry voices.  Now I was really scared, and I wanted Mom.  But I stopped with my hand on the doorknob.  If I opened that door and went out, I’d be in full view of all the statues, and they were between me and the studio.  Whatever was happening, I didn’t want them to know I was watching.

That left the window, and just before I climbed out, I turned back and picked up the fireplace poker.  It was the only thing at all like a weapon that was definitely not also a work of art.  I’d wondered about it.  In a house where everything was art, this one tool was clearly just that: a tool, bought at the hardware store, straight, dull, and heavy.  That weight felt good in my hand as I crawled out the window into the rain.

Creeping behind the bushes, I make my way toward the front of the house, where I hid behind the largest bush of all.  The statue from the back garden stood on the porch, and the front door was opening, ever so slowly.  The noise from within grew louder.

At that moment I knew that statue must not be allowed to enter the house.  In my most commanding voice I yelled to them all to go back to their places, but the garden statue only turned to fix me with a malignant gaze from it’s blank stone eyes.  If the statues wouldn’t obey me, I knew what I had to do.

Clutching the poker in both hands, raising it over my head, I ran for the porch, and brought the weapon down on the stone head with all my force.  The impact numbed my hands, and bits of stone stung my arms and face.  The statue split in two, and lay still.

The door swung open, and I felt the gaze of all the statues in the hall.  Pretending I wasn’t scared to death, I stood taller, held onto that poker with both my stinging and numb hands, and faced the crowd.

Then I commanded them to return to their places, and they went.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

P: Progressive Book Club


This month's PBC book is The End of Your Life Bookclub, by Will Schwalbe, and I'm a day late again--on purpose, since that made it come on "P."

This book affected me on a number of levels.  Although the book is in no way morbid or even, in some sense, about death, it is never far from the reader's mind that this is a narrative of the dying of the author's mother.  Though Schwalbe and his mother have always talked about the books they read, in a sort of accidental development, they began deliberately reading the same books at the same time, and discussing them (usually while she underwent her chemo or they waited for doctor appointments).  So, as a middle-aged adult who has already lost one parent (also to cancer), I was a bit gob-smacked by that aspect of the book.  As when I read Bill McKibben's Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously which also narrates the gradual death of a parent, I was treated to all my own feelings about losing a parent, including guilt that I wasn't able to be present for my Dad in the way that these authors were for their parents.

Mary Anne Schwalbe was an amazing person who dedicated much of her life to helping people in places where most of us won't even consider going.  She was all over the world, in and out of war zones, working in refugee camps and pushing charities to help the refugees.  Through it all, she remained a caring person who connected on a personal and individual level with everyone she met (in this way she reminds me of my own mother, who would make no difference in how she'd chat with the queen or the queen's charwoman).  So I also felt a bit of a jab at how little I've done in my life to make a difference (and occasionally felt a snarky urge to point out that a lot of what the author's family could do came of their rather obviously coming from money).  Mostly it's inspiring, though.

Then there were the books.  These two and their book discussions make me want to be a better reader, to resume reading more serious fiction (the stuff that I probably too often avoid as grim and depressing).  I actually would have felt a bit better if they'd occasionally trashed a book.  I'm not sure if they did a very good job of filtering their reading list to contain only books that they could truly appreciate, or if Schwalbe just didn't discuss the failures.

In the end, the best I can do is share some random quotes that I liked.

Early on there's a discussion of print books vs. electronic that totally tickled me:
Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind.  But printed books have body, presence. . . . they'll confront you, and you'll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn't thought about in weeks or years.  I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me.  They may make me feel, but I can't feel them.  They are all soul and no flesh, no texture, and no weight.  They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it.

Another great bit, on the value of reading for children:
There was one sure way to avoid being assigned an impromptu chore in our house. . . and that was to have your face buried in a book.  Like churches during the Middle Ages, books conferred instant sanctuary.  Once you entered one, you couldn't be disturbed.

As the book progresses, I am forced to think more about what it is saying about watching a parent die.  I am struck by a line:
So often over the course of Mom's dying, I noted how people would avoid touching Mom or talking to her, addressing comments and queries to us, even when she was right there. ("Does your mother want something to drink?").
I have been there briefly, just once, when my grandmother (then pushing 90) was taken ill, and the usual suspects (the older cousins) were for some reason not available to go to the hospital.  They finally phoned my older brother, but he was away and I was staying at his house.  So I drove 30 miles to the hospital, largely to provide Grandma with transport home.  But as soon as I was there, people started talking to me instead of her (not helped by her poor hearing--but she was totally present mentally, and could hear well enough if she could see them and lip-read some too).  I knew nothing of her meds, routines. . . and had to keep saying so, directing them to speak to her.  It's a sort of infantilization of the elderly, and a giant discourtesy.

Again, on how we see our parents, compared to how others do:
A friend's father introduces himself to the waiter at the start of every New York restaurant meal by saying: "Hi, I'm Eric, and this is Susie, and we're from Vermont."  My friend cringes ever so slightly whenever his dad does this.  I cringe a little when Mom is talking to Curt, thinking that he doesn't want to chat; he's trying to concentrate; she's just another old person dying of cancer.  But this isn't true--it's just the childish embarrassment we all develop about our parents: they are too effusive, try too hard; they just aren't being cool.

And, finally, there is the harsh truth:
I'd seen so many movies where characters sit by beds as their loved ones die.  They give speeches, hold hands, and say, "It's okay--you can let go."  What none of those books and movies conveys is how tedious it is.

What Schwalbe manages to convey is how much life a person can still have and share while dying.  Showing it through the insights he and his mother brought to and took from the books they read reminds us all of the power of the written word, as well as through the effort she continued to put into her current project (a library and mobile libraries for Afghanistan) right up until her death.

A final thought: the first two books we read for the PBC were about writing.  This book is about reading.  But without reading, there is no writing--reading by those for whom we write, and reading by those of us who also write.  This is a great book for writers, because it makes us think about how we read.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O: An Old-Fashioned Girl


I waffled a lot about this post, because I couldn't come up with an "O" book I wanted to review.  I finally decided to take a book that was already old when I read it as a kid, and look at it with a modern, critical (adult) eye to see how it held up.  So I reread Louise May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl.  First, a quick synopsis:

 Polly Mason is the "old-fashioned girl" of the title, and the story narrates her relationship with her wealthy, and urban, friends the Shaws.  The story is divided into two parts, the first taking place when Polly and Fanny Shaw are about 14, and the second six years later when a now-adult Polly moves to the city to pursue a career as a music teacher.  The first portion was serialized in 1869, then expanded with the second portion and published as a book in 1870.

Now for some things I noticed.  Right off I was struck by the narrative voice.  Ms. Alcott is definitely present, not only occasionally addressing the reader directly, but also as a moral arbiter.  I am fairly certain this is the result of both common practice at the time and her desire, perhaps especially in this book (but on reflection probably in all her books), to model a world and set of behaviors she wishes were true.

An Old-Fashioned GirlAnd that voice, which is far too often preachy, leads us to the other thing I noticed right off, which is Alcott's conviction that the country or the village is superior in pretty much every way to the city.  Having read her biography, I find this interesting, because Alcott herself was clearly ambivalent.  Her father was 100% clear: healthy bodies and healthy minds were made through outdoor work and play far from the city.  Louisa seems to have tried very hard to go with that, but spent much of her life moving to and from the city, where she in fact found better inspiration for her writing.

To return to the Old Fashioned-Girl.  As I watch the story develop from the arrival of Polly Milton (a name I think not at all chosen at random) in the city, awed and prepared to admire all she sees, through her disillusionment and struggle to find a place for herself there, I think that modern children (okay, girls) will both enjoy Polly and find her too good.  The old-fashioned values will seem as strange and absurd in many ways as do the values of the fashionable girls (and I wonder if a child will see, as I do, the universality of the the absurdity of fashion!).  Thus the first half of the book.

The second half takes on, for me, a very different tone and purpose.  When Polly returns to the city as a working girl, she lands smack in the middle of one of Alcott's pet topics, class (for want of a better word).  While the young reader will see this section as part coming-of-age and part love story, I see it as an exploration of class, work, and the place of women in a society that Alcott found unacceptably repressive, not to mention grossly unfair.  In that, I think that the second half is a much more interesting book than the first, which reads much more as a sermon.

As a side note: I don't think any of Alcott's books fails to include the death of a loved parent, sibling or other important person.  She was not merely unafraid of tackling a subject that I think was more in-your-face in those days, when far more children died and far more lost parents, but I think determined to help make it less frightening and devastating.  Her books advocate for a fairly orthodox Christian belief in a deity and and afterlife, despite the rather less orthodox ideas her father explored.  I've never been sure if Alcott was a true believer or merely knew what had to be said to sell, but she does at times adopt the standard line and religious tone, which grates a bit on my modern agnostic sensibilities.

Finally, here's one bit that I can totally identify with:
. . . she had nothing to do but lounge and gossip, read novels, parade the streets, and dress; and before a week was gone, she was as heartily sick of all this, as a healthy person would be who attempted to live on confectionery.  (p. 35)
Kind of how I feel about many people's idea of vacation, lying on beaches or sitting around on cruise ships or the like.  I go nuts if I can't get exercise!  Alcott clearly was right about one thing, given what we know now about the value of exercise, for people of all ages and genders.

So do I think that Alcott's book stands up to the passage of time?  Yes, and no.  I think many modern children will find the language a little challenging (not that that's all bad!), and many will also find the tone preachy, though it's less clear to me that that stops children--the Berenstain Bears and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle both have great circ at the library, and to me they are both preachy as all-get-out.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Ninja Librarian--and National Library Week!


Bonus fiction today--more from the Ninja Librarian himself to celebrate National Library Week.

Notorious Nate Nevada meets the Ninja Librarian

Most people who have read Miss Alice’s book assume that she has recounted the whole of my exploits in our town.  That could not be farther from the truth, for indeed, even to tell all she knows would fill several books.  Nor have I shared with Alice every minor disruption I have dealt with.
Consider, for example, one quiet day in November.  Alice was in school with her pupils when the notorious Nate Nevada rode into town and straight up to the library.  I suppose he had heard how I had managed Jake and Harry, not to mention all those rowdies from Two-Bit and Endoline who tried to disrupt our Fourth of July party.  Perhaps, in the local parlance, he “figgered he would show me a thing or two.”

As has so often been the case in such circumstances, it was my pleasure to improve Mr. Nevada’s education instead.

The gentleman in question—you understand that I use the term in the loosest possible sense—entered the library with a swagger, slamming open the door so that it struck the wall.  A couple of poorly balanced books teetered on the edge of a nearby shelf, and one fell, landing, to my distress, in the sort of crumpled heap which is so very hard on bindings.

I looked up from my desk and studied the newcomer.  As always in such cases, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and a civil greeting.  That does so infuriate the toughs.

Please refrain from mentioning that last to Alice, as she would be only too delighted to find I do at times provoke intruders deliberately and with malice.  I believe she already suspects me of enjoying the exercise perhaps more than is strictly polite.

In any case, my greeting, however genteel, served only to escalate the situation.  Slamming the door shut once more, so that the second book teetered and fell, he stepped forward and said—well, on second thoughts, perhaps it is best if I merely note that words were exchanged.

During this exchange, Nate strode to the center of the room and pulled off his riding gloves one finger at a time.  Watching him, I let my hand drift to the black silk in my breast pocket, but if he had heard of my penchant for wearing the mask, he did not react.  Perhaps he assumed the tales were exaggerated.  Perhaps he was merely too absorbed with himself to notice the subtle warning.
Tiring of our badinage, I took up once again the book I had been perusing when he entered.  For all my apparent unconcern, however, when the rough fellow laid a hand on the bookshelf housing the children’s books, I knew at once, and rose.

“I strongly recommend that you reconsider your intended actions, Mr. Nevada.”

In response, he swept a shelf full of books to the floor and leered at me with his black and broken teeth all showing.

“I does what I wants, and if any fool tries to stop me, I might just kill him with my bare hands.”  He flexed his big fists.

To speak truth, that wasn’t the whole of his utterances, but it was the only part which I might comfortably repeat to you.  And it was enough to make me act.

I believe he expected a great deal more talk, for he was unprepared for me, and I swept the floor with the Notorious Nate Nevada, and had the books repaired and reshelved before school let out.  Nevada left town slung over the back of his horse, to be taken wherever the horse believed his home to be.  I folded my mask and stowed it neatly in my pocket once more, and resumed my interrupted reading.

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for More Mysteries: MacLeod and Marsh


It's Mystery Monday again, and I'm back to suggest some more of my more-cozy-than-gory mystery favorites.

The Bilbao Looking Glass (Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn Mystery, #4)
First up, the grande dame of goofy mysteries and unfettered fun with the English language: Charlotte MacLeod (also wrote at Alisa Craig).  MacLeod wrote several series of mysteries that were never afraid to abuse alliteration, name characters with Dickensian significance, and require the ever-so-willing suspension of disbelief.
Set in Boston, the Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn books waltz through the somewhat ingrown soi-dissant upper crust of New England Society (and don't leave off that capital S!).  Max is a detective by trade, but his trade deals with stolen artworks, so the number of bodies he and Sarah stumble over through the years is shocking, but the murders are less disturbing than Uncle Jem Kelling's tales of his extremely misspent youth.

MacLeod's second main series is even more deeply entrenched in word play and bizarre local history (this time in the totally fictional setting of Balaclava County, somewhere upstate from Boston.  Way up state) and the Balaclava Agricultural College.  Professor Peter Shandy is known worldwide for breeding the Balaclava Buster, a turnip that has revolutionized livestock feed, but he is increasingly known locally for solving mysteries.  Usually he is more than a little spurred on by the college president, a Norwegian of mythological proportions known as Thorkjeld Svenson.

Additional stand-alone books and two other short series, the Madoc Rhys books and the Grub-and-Stakers Garden Club books, are set in the almost equally mythological land of Canada (as she explained it, due to family history, Canada was where the stories came from).  The latter series perhaps takes the greatest leave of reality, and embrace of the absurd, of any.

There is nothing serious or substantial about Charlotte MacLeod's books.  But they are a heck of a lot of fun, and clean enough for anyone.

A Man Lay Dead (Roderick Alleyn, #1)Ngaio Marsh is a much more serious writer, of the earlier and more literary period of British mystery writing (even though she was a New Zealander), one of the four "Queens of Crime" between the wars (the other three, if you care, are Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margery Allingham).   Marsh's books feature Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, and the murders are only slightly more graphic than MacLeod's, but the detective process is a great deal more complex, in the puzzle-unwinding style popular in the period.  

Alleyn is urbane, of the nobility (however much he has let down the side by becoming a cop), and eventually married to Agatha Troy, an artist.  This last allowed Marsh to indulge her love of the art and theatre worlds.  Cozy is probably not the right word for these mysteries, but they are definitely more intellectual pursuits than thrillers, and well worth reading both for a well-crafted story and her excellent use of the language.  As her work spanned the years from 1934 to 1982, there are notable differences in style as you progress.  Marsh dealt with the changes over time, as near as I can tell, mostly by ignoring chronology and aging the characters as she saw fit, while the world advanced around them.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

L: Literacy

Today our school district is celebrating Literacy Day (with a side-order of heath and multi-cultural celebrations--budget cuts make for strange bedfellows!), and I'm out soaking up the events.  But it made me think, because literacy is at the heart of everything we word-wizards do.  I mean, no literacy, no one to read our stuff, and we might as well go take a nap (well, that's not all bad).

So here's the thing: yesterday was Drop Everything and Read day, so I just want to urge every one of you to do something that makes someone more able to do just that.  Help a child read a book.  Read to your baby.  Donate to a literacy campaign.  Or go big.  Volunteer at the school.  Volunteer as an adult literacy tutor.  Donate outgrown books to a preschool near you.

And don't forget to model what you want to see.  Take an hour, drop everything, and read.

Hi, Just needed to drop back in and urge you all to pop over to Jemima Pett's blog and see her review of The Ninja Librarian--and enter the drawing to win a copy of it (or any of a bunch of other great reads).

Friday, April 12, 2013

K: Kicked Out of the Library

It's Flash Fiction Friday, and time for another bit from Skunk Corners.  Today we hear from two of the more colorful residents about their view of the day the Librarian came to town.



Kicked in the Dust: Crazy Jake and Wild Harry's Story.

T’other day, me and Crazy Jake Jenkins was complainin bout how everyone talks about the Ninja Librarian and the way he took care of us when he came to town.  We don’t think it’s just fair.  I s’pose Teacher got tire dof hearing us, cause she said if we didn’t like her version, we had ought to tell how we saw it, so here we are.  I wanted her to write it so’s it would sound smart, but she says we gotta do it our ownselves.

I’m Wild Harry Colson, and me an Jake been hanging around together since we was little, dodging school masters and keeping them librarians in their place.  Nowadays, we’re both havin a little trouble recommembering how come we hated librarians so much.  Miss Tess says it was on account a bein ashamed we didn’t know nuthin.  I dunno.  We thought book learnin’ was fer sissies, but I reckon we’ve learned better since.  Though Big Al read this and says it don’t look like we’ve learned much, but that’s just her way.

Anyway, our Librarian ain’t no sissy.  We learned that, sure enough.

Way it happened is this.  We was out squirrel huntin when the train come in, so me n Jake didn’t see the feller.  We heared when we come in to Two Timin’ Tess’s Tavern that first evening, an everyone was talkin about the poor old white-haired fellow, and laughing a bit about how he’d never last a day.  And they was lookin at us, cause we always take care of the librarians.

So we figured when the book-place opened next day, if he had nerve enough to open it, we’d just go in and beat the guy up a bit and stick him on the next train outta town.  Just like always.  The kids and the ladies, they come up with fancy plans, and new ones every time, but me and Jake, we stick with what works.

‘Cept it didn't. 

It should have. Maybe we weren’t too early in town next morning, an the library was already open when we rode in, but that didn’t matter.  Lots of folk was outside watching, and them ladies was carrying in their nasty little hot dishes, and maybe haulin off a book or two just to get his goat, account of they sure wasn’t reading em.  Cept maybe one or two had a sneaky look, like they was maybe planning to do jest that, but didn’t want nobody to know.

Them kids were all over, some in, some out, and all watching out for someone.  Turned out it was Tommy, my no account little brother.  They wouldn’t none of em tell what he was up to, but it made for a lot of giggles.  Only that little freckle-nosed Peggy Rossiter, she watched a bit, but when she saw Tommy and Hank comin, she sloped off somewhere.  That’s one smart girl.  Too smart for Skunk Corners, I reckon.

We went on in, and slouched around the room some, tryin to catch that there librarian’s eye and get him to talk to us.  He just plumb didn’t seem interested, which was making me mad.  We had to have some excuse, you see.  Even us, even then, we wouldn’t just jump him without words.  You had to have words with someone before you did something like that.  I ain’t sure why, but them’s the rules and we stick to em.

Finally, I jest let fly with a gob of tobacco spit right in front of his desk.  That got his attention, you bet.  He said something to me that I couldn’t make out nohow—I keep forgetting to ask what he said, too, so I still don’t know.  A bunch of ten-dollar words.  I figgered that for an insult, one way or another, and told him as how he couldn’t talk to me that way.  Fer some reason, that made him smile, which made me meaner.

I’m not right sure what happened after that.  Big Al says the boys let loose a skunk, and the librarian kicked it out, and knocked me and Jake out, just one punch fer each of us, and pitched me out the window.  That part must’ve been right, because I came to in the dust, with a head like you wouldn’t believe, and when I crawled around front I found Jake laid out neat and pretty at the bottom of the steps.  And the whole place smelled of skunk.  So’d most of the townsfolk, turned out.

Now, since you can see that I can read and write now, and Jake too even though he made me write this, you might think we must’ve been converted by that kick into the dust.  I dunno.  Maybe we were.  Jake says it sure made him stop and think, that a fellow could be a librarian and still pack a punch that could put both of us out at once.  Like maybe just because we learned a few things we wouldn’t have to stop fighting.

It wasn’t that simple, though.  Some of it was Big Al, and some was Tommy, making fun of us for not being able to read, once that librarian had made him admit he could.  And some was Ma kicking me out and saying I had to find a job or my own place or somethin, cause she was finished  with me. 

Felt like one long series of kicks, until I started stealing primers and learnin’ to string letters together.  Now Tess says I’m makin’ somethin’ of myself, and Tom—that there Ninja Librarian—he just smiles.  And Al says to shut up and get to work.

And that story about us killin librarians, what Big Al tells right at the front of her book?  We never.  I made all that up to get a rise out of Al, account of her wantin to teach folks to read.  But it was a lie, and worst we ever gave anyone was a broken snoot.  I swear.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

J: Jeeves--and Jemima Pett!


Okay, I admit it.  The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the letter J coming up was Jeeves.  P.G. Wodehouse's brilliant creation.  The ultimate butler.

Now, Wodehouse is someone you either love, or someone you just don't get.  British humor and lots of "what-what's" and "I say old chap" and absurd situations that no one but Wodehouse could dream up (and no one but Jeeves could untangle).  On top of all that, Bertie Wooster, who really can't seem to do much of anything right.  And truly terrifying Aunts, who are often behind Bertie's most absurd actions.

So I'm not reviewing any of Wodehouse's 96 books (and I don't even know how many of them I've read; I just keep stumbling to the library, or the electronic version of same, and checking out the books, the recorded books, whatever I can lay a hand on when in need of a bit of lightening up, and I don't always even care if I've read it before or not).  I just wanted to give a shout-out to Jeeves, and to his creator, who might well have noted that it's hard to get taken seriously when you're writing humor.

And the other bit in my title?  Just another reminder to pop on over to visit Jemima Pett and enter the raffle to win a copy of The Ninja Librarian and other great kids' books.  While you're there, check out her beautifully written and illustrated books about Fred and George, a pair of princely guinea pigs!  Actually, this should have been a review of The Princelings of the East, but, well, another J word: I just didn't get to it.

Tomorrow: more fiction.  Also sort of related to J, since for the first time Crazy Jake (and Wild Harry) speak up about the Ninja Librarian's first day in town.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I: Igraine the Brave


Igraine the Brave
Back to the kids: Igraine the Brave, by Cornelia Funke

The only other book by Cornelia Funke that I have read is The Thief Lord, so I really wasn't expecting such a light-hearted romp as Igraine provides.  A somewhat tongue-in-cheek version of a knights-in-shining-armor tale, the book opens as Igraine is turning 12.  Though her parents and brothers are magicians, all Igraine wants is to be a knight, and for something exciting to happen.  By the end of the book, she certainly has gotten the second wish, and appears to be well on the way to getting the first.

The castle is threatened by a nefarious knight, the neighbor's nephew wants to steal their magic books, and her parents render themselves unable to protect the castle through a small magical accident.  Only Igraine can save the day, with a little help from her friends, old and new.

A quick, fun read, Igraine should appeal to readers from 8 or 9 up (occasional big words might give pause, but the writing is essentially simple and the story clean and not terribly tense).  Girls will appreciate the heroine who isn't willing to let her gender dictate her choices (nor her family--everyone else may be a magician, but she is going to be a knight, thank you very much).  And before she has finished, she has proven her courage, saved the castle, and become squire to the knight who has helped her.  And her parents have been disenchanted so that all can live happily ever after.

The intricate pen-and-ink drawings that illustrate the book add a final delightful touch. 
4.5 stars.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H: House of Rain (book review)


House of Rain: Tracking a V... 
For H-day: a review of House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest, by Craig Childs.

Craig Childs is well known in certain circles for his almost poetic meditations on the land, water, and creatures of the southwestern U.S.  His books resonate deeply with those of us who also love the land of little rain (that's another obscure literary reference.  Go ahead and go look it up).

In House of Rain, Childs takes on the great mystery and fascination of the region: the ancient culture(s) that built the silent ruins preserved in Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, as well as those that you may stumble on unexpectedly in a cave or overhang in any canyon or wash.  Half travelogue, half archaeological discussion, and half fantastical recreation of a world that is--and isn't--vanished, at one point while reading I jotted in my journal that the book is "the work of archaeologists filtered through the mind of a poet."

And that pretty well sums up both the strength and the weakness of the book.  Childs has a vivid imagination, a boot-soles-and-spirit knowledge of the region, and enough knowledge of archaeology to present the science cogently--and then to draw his own conclusions.  Many of his conclusions do not bear the stamp of approval from the archaeological community.  They may be no less valid for that.  He is a powerful proponent of the idea that a gut feeling might be the final tool needed to put the story together.  And he is willing to walk through country that would not only daunt but kill many of us, in order to string together the story.

Chapter by chapter, mile by mile of walking in blazing summer heat and blowing winter snow (yes, the region is extreme in both seasons, though the snow is never deep--it is, after all, desert), Childs tracks the movements of the ancient people around the Colorado Plateau, down into Arizona, and finally into northern Mexico.  Sometimes he travels alone.  Sometimes with others who share his interest, amateurs or experts.  Sometimes he travels with his wife and infant son.  Always he travels with the ghosts of those who went before.

This is by far the most thorough and most brutally honest account of what archaeology tells us--or implies to us--of the people who inhabited the southwest before Europeans arrived.  Childs is not afraid to tell of the evidence of violence, nor of the evidence that drought and possibly mismanagement of resources drove people from place to place.  In the end, he also reminds us that the cycle of drought and uninhabitability (if that's a word) isn't a thing of the past.

Five stars, for great literary non-fiction and an education in 500 pages.

As a bonus: a sampling of my own photos from just a few places on the Colorado Plateau.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park

A lone wall, Wijiji, Chaco Canyon

Stone dwellings and caves in the rhyolite cliffs of Frijoles Canyon, Bandelier National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument.  I particularly like this picture, as it was the last trip we took with my Dad.

Monday, April 8, 2013

G: Dorothy Gilman, Kerry Greenwood

Monday Mysteries!  This time, not a specific book review, but a couple of authors (filed under "G") whose work I have enjoyed a lot.  Also, on reflection, we could call it "Girls Gone Independent" (sorry, couldn't think of a "g" word to finish the alliteration).
First: Dorothy Gilman, author of the Mrs. Pollifax series and a number of stand-alone books.
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax  (Mrs. Pollifax #1)

I have to admit it, though it probably marks me as a fogey: I love Mrs. Pollifax.  There she is, 60-something, bored with retirement, so she becomes a spy for the CIA.  Realism?  Check that at the door and get a load of fun instead.  This isn't gritty and hard-core, this is the head of the garden club (and from New Jersey, at that!) stumbling her way through mysterious spy rings and capture by evil-intentioned enemy agents and coming out on top because she doesn't know the meaning of defeat. The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, the first book in the series (also the first Gilman wrote, I believe) is my favorite, even though structurally it violates most of the rules.  Fully 1/3 of the book could be called set-up, before the action really heats up.  But what a set-up it is!  And then to see Mrs. Pollifax blithely corrupting communists with ideas about democracy, trusting all sorts of dubious people--and getting them to do exactly what she wants.

Despite the essentially light nature of the Mrs. Pollifax stories, Gilman is no pussycat about hairbreadth escapes and flirting with death.  Mrs. Pollifax does it all, and is no stranger to carving victory painfully from the iron grip of defeat.  In many books, she faces death with a calm born in part of her age: she's been there before, and knows it's only a matter of time.  In fact, on reflection, Mrs. Pollifax is a great role model in several ways.  Heck, she even takes up yoga and karate so that she can be better at what she does.  Plus: taking volunteerism to a whole new height (did I mention she just walked into the CIA and volunteered to be a spy?).

For an extra treat, get hold of the Recorded Books versions of the stories read by Barbara Rosenblatt.

Second: Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher mysteries, set in Australia in the 1920s.  Another female who doesn't follow the rules,  Phryne (pronounced "fry-knee"), the daughter of an English lord, has moved to Sydney, Australia just to get away from a family that would insist she be modest and chaste and marry the man they chose.  She has no plans to do or be any of those things.  Rich now, but from a poor background, she has her own unique take on the world of both the rich and the poor.

Phryne parties hard, sleeps with her Chinese lover (and at times with any other attractive young men she wants to), and drives fast cars to chase the bad guys, all the while dressed to the nines.  Like Mrs. Pollifax, she's not terribly realistic, but she's a lot of fun, and her adventures are fast-paced, entertaining, and occasionally thrilling (I wonder how Phryne and Emily Pollifax would feel about being lumped together this way?  Maybe less upset than you'd think).  However, while Gilman keeps her writing PG, Greenwood definitely embraces an "R" rating.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher, #1)
 Cocaine Blues is the first of the Phryne Fisher mysteries.


Time for another shout-out for the Princelings giveaway from Jemima Pett.  Click the Rafflecopter to enter to win a variety of books--including The Ninja Librarian!

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