Wednesday, November 14, 2007

slow down in reviews

I see that I have been slacking on my book reviews lately. You can blame this on my video game habit. I apologize. Should I review my video games here as well?

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

By Anne Fadiman, published 1997

This is a non-fiction book about the conflict between the American medical institution and the recently-immigrated family of a young epileptic Hmong girl, Lia Lee. Fadiman does an excellent job telling each side of the story, so that the reader bounces from feeling that the whole messy situation is the Lee's fault for rejecting American medicine, to feeling it's the ignorant American doctors' faults for brushing off the wisdom of the family's culture. As the book progresses, the reader comes to realize it's much more complicated than assigning blame, and how the collision of two cultures can be so much more complex than anyone could guess. Along the way, the history of the Hmong is laid out, especially their role in the Vietnam War. The reader comes out of the story with a much deeper understanding of the Hmong people in particular and how America can do a better job in interacting with refugees in general.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Cold Mountain

A kind of modern Odyssey, we see one main character making his way home and experiencing or escaping all sorts of adventures. Another main character learns patience and how to live in her world. Time and place are evoked in a very compelling way. Set in the closing days of the civil war, so there is plenty of violence here as well, both from self defense and from senseless lashing out. I was especially moved by the descriptions of Ada developing from a helpless girl to a self-reliant woman, learning to take control of her life and shape it to meet her needs instead of pining away when she found herself on her own.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx. Scribner 2005, 55 pages

I'd already seen the movie when I read this short story last night. It's very rare when I can read the original text in less time than it takes to watch the movie made from it. I'm pretty amazed that such a short story could be turned into such a great movie, but it worked out just fine.

The story is written in dry, sparse prose. This could easily have been expanded into a much longer book, but the sparseness was appropriate for the subject matter. Men of few words, in a relationship they don't talk about. Details and color are saved for certain moments, leaving the rest of their lives in a kind of haze.

If you've seen the movie, you probably won't get much more out of reading it. The adaptation does the story justice. Most of the dialog (as far as I remember) is transcribed word for word, which gives a good sense of Proulx's language style. If you are a fan of the story, reading it in print does give it a slightly different take, and you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Top 5 books of all time

A discussion in the comments of the previous post brought up Oprah, and her "top 5 books everyone has to read at least once" list (Lolita, Things Fall Apart, Waiting for Godot, The Wisdom of the Desert, and Four Quartets). Her list is, in our view, flawed. So in this post I would like to propose a new list.

Or at least, one possible list. This would of course change, probably daily, depending on mood. Oh well.

1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
2. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
3. Brave New World, Aldus Huxley
4. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
5. The Odyssey, Homer

My thinking on this: five great books that have influenced our culture, representing a wide range of subjects, not all traditional "classics" but not all published recently either.

What's your list?

reading survey results

An article by the Associated Press published today says some interesting things about the way Americans read. Sadly, not many of the statements are surprising, and in fact many stereotypes are reinforced. Like:

Liberal democrats read more than conservative republicans.
Women read twice as much as men.
People with college degrees read more.
People who go to church read half as much as non-church goers.
Men prefer non-fiction.

Some interesting numbers:
Percentage of people who did not read a book last year: 27
Median number of books read: 4
Median number of books read by people who have read at least one book: 7 (9 for women, 5 for men)

One of the men quoted in the article says that if he wanted a story, he'd go to a movie. Personally, I read for the story most of the time. I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but I've enjoyed watching non-fiction television like nature, science, and history programs on public television. I find this interesting. Why would this be? Does the fact that I have ovaries mean that I am better equipped to endure hundreds of pages of story rather than watching a couple hours of action? And that I can't focus my pretty little head enough to read a book on airplanes? More likely this is a culturally influenced phenomenon along with the idea that girls don't like math and would prefer to write poetry and learn to play the piano.

And what's all this about the level of education and the church-going and the politics? You don't have to be smart to read, unless you can't read at all, of course. There are plenty of easy to read books out there. Maybe those with less education are having to work harder and don't have time to read at all. Although certain people (hi guys!) might talk about how much smarter liberals are, for example, I really don't want that to be the reason why conservatives read less. These numbers depress me. I mean, come on, I'd be happy if some statistic, somewhere, would contradict our assumptions about these things.

Or, maybe I've got it wrong all along. Maybe reading a lot isn't good. Maybe all this work we do to encourage lifelong literacy and book reading is a waste and we should just embrace other forms of entertainment and education. Maybe I'm just a tool for the book industry and its liberal atheistic immoral agenda.

Monday, August 13, 2007

War of the Flowers

Just finished War of the Flowers by Tad Williams. I'm kind of a sucker for him, so I was excited to see some books by him I hadn't read yet when I was at the bookstore the other day. This one is just one book; he tends to write multi-part epics, each volume being over 500 pages. Wordy. But, if you like sci-fi and fiction, he's quite fun to read, so I like the length.

This one is about a 30-year-old guy whose life is going horribly and then he's suddenly whisked off to an alternate world that's all fantastic and stuff. He gets all wrapped up in that world and its various societal changes and impending war, and it turns out that his help is needed to save the world! (surprise!) The whole time he's being pursued by evil forces, including an unstoppable "Terminator"-like creature.

Williams introduces many characters and plot thickeners, and deftly ties them all together. I felt like he did that perhaps too well in this book. As I approached the climax of the story, I realized there were still a couple plot thickeners he hadn't resolved yet... and lo! here they come to help resolve the story. So, I wasn't very surprised by the resolution. It was still satisfying though.

Pretty fun stuff, a long but swift read.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

so far behind

Sheesh, I have 19 books I still want to review that I've read this year. Here are some of them:

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis (time travel, historical fiction dark ages, depressing, highly recommended)
Bellwether - Connie Willis (scientist studying fads, light-hearted, recommended)
My Mother the Cheerleader - Robert Sharenow (young adult fiction, historical 50's segregated Alabama, recommended)
Mercy - Lara Santoro (American journalist in Africa, AIDS epidemic, fiction, eh, it was ok)
Wicked Lovely - Melissa Marr (dark "faery" story, kind of annoying but fun if you like vampire-type stories)
Napoleon's Pyramids - William Dietrich (action/thriller historical mystery. Macho protagonist, pointless use of math. Annoying. Not recommended unless you really like Indiana Jones and that hit novel about Jesus marrying Mary and having a kid.)
Rise of the Golden Cobra - Henry T. Aubin (young adult historical fiction about the ascendancy of Pharaoh Pianky. Not recommended unless you really really like Egypt, or are 12-year-old boy.)
Accordion Crimes - E. Annie Proulx (novel of short stories based on the lives of various immigrant families, loosely connected by possessing a certain accordion. Dense and at times tedious but extremely well written, recommended.)
Body of Lies - David Ignatius (novel by Washington Post columnist. How to fool a terrorist and advance the war on terror. Annoying if you are against the war since the author is able to instill fear in you and make you temporarily think the war is a good idea. Spies and CIA and men going around killing each other. Recommended if you liked "Syriana" the movie.)
Baboon - David Jones (boy turns into baboon after a plane crash. Excellent portrayal of the life of a baboon. recommended if you're into nature shows)
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini (this book is now famous. Book group read it. Afghanistan, childhood memories, taking responsibility. Very good, recommended.)
Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand - Fred Vargas (French detective novel. Quite good actually. Interesting to see how the French and Canadians see each other)
Love, Meg - C. Leigh Purtill (young adult fiction, girl unhappy with her life writes letters to Jennifer Anniston. Hilarity ensues. Not really recommended unless you are a 15-year-old girl.)
Coal Black Horse - Robert Olmstead (young adult historical fiction about civil war. Boy searches for his father who is in the army and sees all sorts of horror. Recommended if you can stomach the gore.)
The One Where the Kid Nearly Jumps to His Death and Lands in California - Mary Hershey (young adult, boy with disability learns to stop being a jerk and feeling sorry for himself, recommended if you like coming of age novels)
The Plain Janes - Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg (young adult graphic novel, three girls named Jane deal with tragedy by doing renegade art, recommended)

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Passage, by Connie Willis
780 pages
Published April 2001

This was my fourth Connie Willis book. (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, Bellwether.) I really enjoy her writing. I'm starting to see some patterns that she uses, such as: annoying bureaucracies impeding progress, a certain annoying character that the protagonist has to avoid, scientific experiments, well-researched history, and a sense of urgency.

This book in particular is exceptionally good at creating a sense of urgency. In fact, it was so strong a sense that I couldn't resist reading at any possible moment. I read on the bus, during short little breaks at work, I even read while walking home from work one day. (Now that's challenging. Not sure I'll do that on a regular basis. It's especially challenging cause I wear distance glasses when I walk but I can't wear them when I read, so I was constantly having to remove my glasses to read and then put them on to see if any traffic was coming and what block I was on.)

Dr. Joanna Lauder is studying near-death experience phenomena. She interviews hospital patients who have clinically died and were revived. These patients frequently report having visions of tunnels, dead relatives, and a light. Although some are sure that this is a religious experience of the soul, Joanna wants to find the true reason behind it. She partners with another doctor, Richard Wright, to perform observed near-death experiences in the lab. Unlike the movie Flatliners (which they do refer to and scoff at in the book), the doctors do not induce death; rather they use certain hormones that are observed in the brain during near-death times to explore the effect of the hormones. As soon as the first volunteer reports on his induced experience, a race begins to find to the solution of the puzzling images he saw. Is it possible that they could find something that would help revive patients who have died? If so, can they find the solution in time to help a critically ill child that Joanna has befriended?

This book zooms between humor and pathos, it's fast-paced yet takes the time to explore minuscule details, uses modern medicine and technology yet has accurate depictions of historical events. At times I might almost call this a horror novel, other times it's an episode of your favorite medical drama, other times historical fiction. Very hard to pin down.

I recommend this book because even though I was a little disappointed by how it ended, I had such a blast while I was reading it that it was worth it. Would appeal to the scientifically-minded, problem solvers, or those who like medical mysteries.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Specimen Days

I did a lot of reading on Friday and Saturday. I finished Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days, which was really quite good. It's a novel in three parts, all set in NYC; the first part is historical fiction set in the late 1800's, the second part is modern, and the third part is set in the future. All are loosely tied to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in some way. He also seems to recycle characters throughout the three eras. They aren't the same people, but their names are the same and the general feel of the character remains the same. Very well done.

I especially liked the way he tied in some of Whitman's philosophies, and had the characters illustrate his ideas. One of the main ideas was that one returns to nature when one dies and experiences the joy of being one with the world, which is a relief from the pain of living. The epiphanies the characters have are very beautiful and touching. Each of the characters also has to make a difficult decision at some point, which has both good and bad consequences, very bittersweet decisions. Lots of emotion in this book.

It was recommended to me by a friend; I don't remember all he told me about it at the time, but I can see now why he was so enthusiastic about it. I wish I could remember now what he said. I will definitely have to have a conversation about it with him soon.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter 7 (no spoilers)

I did read and finish the last Harry Potter book. It took me about 9 hours to read, it's a fat book but also a real page-turner, like the earlier books in the series.

I really like reading serialized novels since I like to get lost in the world that is invented. Harry Potter of course exemplifies this ideal, (which is also partly why they were such a hit, I think) and I am sad to know that the world, and Harry's story, ends here. That is always the case with me. Narnia, Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass trilogy, the Death Gate Cycle, and the Otherland books have all done this to me to varying degrees. Luckily I enjoy re-reading books, so I can go ahead and revisit these lands whenever I want; but it is never quite the same.

Anyway, HP7 was well done. To keep this area relatively spoiler free, I will resist saying more. I'll just say it was just as satisfying and exciting as the others, and followed much the same formula. I think I could have done without the epilogue though.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

My avatar

Your humble reviewer:

Yahoo! Avatars

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Worst Hard Time

I'm not sure if I've mentioned before that a friend and I started a book group where we work. Our book for July was The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. I think I've mentioned before that I have a hard time read non-fiction; well, in this case I had no problem at all. In fact, I read this quite fast. Egan took the time to introduce many characters and set up a situation in a well-described setting, all components of my favorite kinds of fiction. He really built up a sense of dread and foreboding, as the time of the great dust storms of the 1930's arrived. It's really a disaster story. I think those who enjoyed reading about the Titanic or Into Thin Air (about a horrible Mount Everest expedition) would appreciate this as well. We watch as the characters we got to know so well, and who seemed to be thriving in the American mid-west, lose everything, and still struggle to hang on and resist leaving their adopted land. Before reading this I really had no idea of the struggle these people endured. In fact, I hadn't even heard of these great dust storms either. It's really quite amazing. Crops were buried under dust, farm animals died from lungs and stomachs getting filled with dust, families huddled in their homes, hanging wet sheets around all the doors and windows to try to keep the dust out... for nearly ten years. Incredible.

Timothy Egan bases his narrative on interviews he had with survivors from the storms or from the writings of those who lived in it. Filled with historical details, yet it retains the feel of a story rather than a history book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Golden Compass, review and preview

The Golden Compass, the first of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman, is the first young adult novel I read since I thought I outgrew the genre. Turns out that I loved it, and it opened my mind up to reading more young adult fiction, which I've realized is a genre that I really enjoy. I love coming of age stories, and quest stories, so it's a good fit for me. The Golden Compass is set in an alternate but similar universe to ours (and in fact the second book of the series visits our own universe briefly). Lyra, a young girl, uncovers a mystery that she determines to solve. With the help of her daemon (all humans of her world have them, a kind of spirit animal that reflects who you are deep down), she travels her world and gets deeper involved in a plot that could affect the world. It is said that Philip Pullman was inspired by "Paradise Lost" by Milton for this story, which I haven't read yet. Suffice to say there is a lot of mythology, philosophy and religious discussion in these books that some people might find offensive.

Pullman does an excellent job with the characters and descriptions of the daemons. I was actually drawn to tears a few times throughout the trilogy, which is extremely rare for me. He really gets you to feel for these people who seem so real. It's the kind of book where I missed the characters when I finished reading. I've re-read the entire trilogy three times.

Well, looks like there's a movie coming out this winter! I'm always a little nervous when a book I love turns into a movie. It worked out well for Lord of the Rings, so hopefully this will be good too. One of the promotions for the movie is a website that tells you who your daemon would be. The animal form your daemon takes represents you in some way, so you can tell a lot by what kind of animal it is. I took the little quiz, and I got:

I guess that seems right. I was slightly disappointed it wasn't a cat. What can you do.
My daemon web page

Monday, June 4, 2007

not a book

This is a review not of a book, but of my mom's new blog,Scarlet Jinn, "Songwriting, Singing, and Views from the Hologram". Now I might be biased, since she is my mom after all, but she is an excellent singer and has always had neat, weird, totally trippy ideas. I think it's great that she's started writing them down, there are some really creative trains of thought that she gets into. She then puts these ideas to music and the result is unique rock with lyrics that go beyond the usual boy-meets-girl or whatever. Worth checking out, and if you get a chance to see her perform live, you won't be disappointed.

Oh, and she also does web design for creative types and has a online store that sells feng shui items, crystals, and other mystical gear.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Heartsick by Chelsea Cain
Sept 2007, 278 pages

Portland detective Archie Sheridan was captured by serial killer Gretchen Lowell and tortured for ten days. During that time, Archie was somehow changed, and a twisted relationship grew between them. Finally, Gretchen let him go rather than kill him, as she usually would do to her victims. Two years later, Archie is slowly recovering and is called back to work to find a new serial killer. Although he still has many issues relating to his capture (drug abuse, horrible flashbacks, residual feelings for Gretchen, etc), he works on the new case, tailed by journalist Susan Ward who is assigned to write about the human interest aspects of the case, given Archie's history.

I liked this book for a few reasons. Most immediately is the setting in Portland, Oregon, a town I love. Archie and Susan visit areas such as Sauvie Island, Cleveland High School, and spots downtown. It's a fun way to have connection to a book, but is also a bit distracting. (I found myself in the middle of some suspenseful section suddenly thinking excitedly, "Hey, I've been there!")

More generally, I liked this book for the in-depth look at the twisted relationship between Archie and Gretchen. One would expect Archie to have only negative feelings for his captor, but instead there is a much more complicated situation there. The author takes the time to really look closely at that, despite how uncomfortable it may be.

Also, as might be expected in a detective novel, the plot zooms along as we eagerly follow the developments of the investigation and make guesses as to who might be the killer. We also get flashbacks to the investigation of Gretchen two years before that led to Archie's capture. All of these story lines are captivating.

How I Came West, and Why I Stayed

How I Came West, and Why I Stayed
Stories by Alison Baker
1993, 182 pages

My friend Kathleen gave me this book for my birthday this year. It's even autographed, which is always fun. It's a collection of short stories, all very quirky. They usually focus on female protagonists who are in some kind of unusual situation, often exploring or researching.

The first story is about a woman traveling the country looking for the lost cheerleaders. She heard there was a flock of them in the mountains outside of a small town. She visits the small town, and gets to know the citizens. They have rumors of the cheerleaders but no one has ever seen them. Sometimes you can find their tracks in the snow or hear their cheers when the wind blows right.

Another story tells of a kindergartener's experience of when a pair of Siamese twins join her class mid-year. She ends up going out with one of them, and another girl goes out with the other. Eventually, the twins leave when their family moves to Chicago, where there are more "of their own kind", which the kindergarteners interpret as meaning that Chicago is filled with Siamese twins, but in fact they are referring to black people.

Another story is narrated by a girl born to explorer parents in the arctic circle. Eventually the parents die and the girl grows up alone, wandering the ice.

These stories explore many themes and emotions, and most are quite powerful. I can usually just read one short story at a time, and then leave the book alone for a week or two. They are kind of like a rich dessert.

There were a couple I think weren't as strong, but all were interesting in some way. They would appeal more to fans of fantastic fiction, rather than literal fiction. Many of the stories are set in worlds slightly different from ours, or situations that wouldn't quite happen in real life, which I know some readers don't enjoy as much. I like reading about strange worlds though.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Loving Frank

I finished this novel on Saturday night. When I first started reading this book, it really pulled me in, and I couldn't stop for about 200 pages. Then, suddenly, I tired of it. I got bored, and set it down for about two weeks. The problem, I think, is that it's historical fiction, and when historical fiction ventures a little too far into the non-fiction side, my I-can't-finish-non-fiction affliction flares up.

So, basically, it's the story of a love affair between the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, both of whom are married with children when they meet. Leaving their families for each other would be hard to do in modern times. Back then, it was incredibly scandalous and completely immoral. Added to the fact that women were not able to support themselves very well and needed men, this was a very hard period for Mamah in particular. She was not only leaving her family, but discovering herself and her needs and strengths, something that women of that era didn't frequently have the freedom to do. There is a lot of discussion of the morals of the time, and the beginnings of the feminist movement, and not a whole lot about Frank Lloyd Wright. He happens to design a few buildings during his relationship with Mamah, but this book is not about his work.

Saturday night, I picked up the book again finally, for a little bedtime reading. Since I had gotten bored with it by then, it seemed like a good choice to help me drift off. But, no. About 3 pages past the point where I had set it down for two weeks, something incredibly dramatic happens and I couldn't help but finish the book that night. Luckily I didn't have too much left to read or I might have been up late.

Overall feeling about the book: worth reading, lots of interesting snapshots of Europe and America and Feminism in the early 1900's. The story line drags a bit in the middle but picks up again at the end. If you like setting and period pieces, that should hold you over through the slower plot times.

A Brief History of the Dead

I spent the better part of Sunday devouring "A Brief History of the Dead" by Kevin Brockmeier. It's a sci-fi book based on the idea that when we die, we go to an in-between place for as long as people still live who remember us. When the last person who remembers us dies, we finally go to the final place. It's also about a future society that is hit by a huge deadly virus.

I found myself fascinated, and at turns sad and hopeful as I read it. It's beautifully written too, I got a very strong sense of setting and poetic language. At only 272 fairly small pages, it's a pretty quick read. I think I want to read it again though, just cause it was so evocative. Sometimes being too eager for plot developments, I find myself impatiently skimming the slower, descriptive parts, which is kind of a shame. It's like chugging an exquisite wine just to get drunk.

Added: Oh, and I also meant to mention that for a couple days after finishing this book, I kept thinking about all the people I know that I would be sustaining in the afterlife. I couldn't help but keep thinking of more people to add to my list. Like, that girl from kindergarten whose birthday party I went to. Or, the person I saw get injured in the tilt-a-whirl at the fair when I was 8. Or, the cashier I kind of got to know at the local market around the corner from my house in 2000. How many people do I know? Does it count if I can't think of them right now, but if the right set of circumstances came up I could remember them? Do they have to know me too?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

entries to do

I'm reading books faster than I'm reviewing them. Here's a list of some books I want to write reviews of:

The Romance Reader
Bound Feet and Western Dress
Wicked Lovely
that weird "eat right for your type" book
Coal Black Horse
Love, Meg
That one where the boy nearly jumps to his death and lands in california (actual title)
...the other 10 books on my "read" pile that I can't remember

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


I just finished Waves, by Sharon Dogar. This is a heartbreaking, sensuous novel. Set on a beach in England during the summer, we follow Hal, a 15 year old boy, as he slowly joins the group of youth who endlessly hang out on the beach, meets a beautiful charming girl named Jackie, gets annoyed by his little sister Sarz, and all the other things a teen at the beach for the summer might do. On the other hand, his home life is dark and lonely; his older sister Charley, who he used to be so close to, isn't here this year. Instead, she is left behind at the hospital, still in a coma from a mysterious accident that occurred while they were all at the beach last summer. Her presence is everywhere; he thinks he hears her voice, and he is starting to remember things about what happened last summer. He remembers a shadowy presence and wonders who it was. He finds he is driven to find out what happened to Charley.

This novel starts out strong, and ends with a grand finale, but somewhere in the middle it seems to circle around itself, almost relentlessly. This could be interpreted as another manifestation of the ocean metaphor that is used throughout the book, but it did get to be a little much for me. It was intense, and and found myself wanting to get on with the plot a bit faster. However, it was an effective device. I found the descriptions of first love to be accurate and touching. This book would be suitable for young adults of either gender aged 13 and up.

One other interesting tidbit: this book is "endorsed" by Philip Pullman, a successful author whose works I completely love. I'm not really sure what the "endorsed" term means in this context. He says it's good? The Pullman Seal of Approval? I mean, I'm glad Pullman liked the book, and I admit that seeing a quote from him on the cover made me more interested in the book, but I'm a little annoyed by the whole idea of endorsement. Does he read and endorse lots of books? Are they neighbors and somehow she got him to read her book? Are they secret lovers? Who knows!

Sharon Dogar
Published by Chicken House, April 2007
ISBN13: 978-0-439-87180-8
344 pages
Ages 13+
Young Adult, Family relationships, sexuality, mystery

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I can't finish non-fiction/Origin

Apparently I'm incapable of finishing non-fiction books. I was reading Kitchen Confidential, which I mentioned a few days ago, and then I suddenly lost interest. I have like 50 pages to go, and I just ... don't care. I've read 1.5 other novels since I put it down.

I finished "An Abundance of Katherines" and now I'm halfway through "Origin", one of my free books from the ALA midwinter conference that I got. Man, those free books are some excellent books, I have to say. I think the publishers picked the cream of the crop to give away; as a marketing move it's pretty brilliant. This one is a mystery, written in the first person by a woman who is a fingerprint specialist at the police, but she's not all quite stable mentally...
some of her observations in the book are very intense. She focuses on odd details, smells, the move of a person's finger, the direction of the wind. It's very unusual and quite captivating. I'm almost unconcerned about the mystery of the plot because the character solving it is so ... mysterious. I'm sure it's done on purpose. Very well done so far.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines
By John Green
Published by Dutton Juvenile, September 21, 2006
Reality Fiction, Mathematics, Relationships
215 pages plus appendix
ISBN13: 978-0525476887
Grades 9 and up

Freshly heartbroken from getting dumped by the nineteenth Katherine in a row, former child-prodigy Colin (“not a prodigy, not yet a genius”) Singleton and his best friend Hassan decide to take a road trip. Without a clear destination in mind, they drive off in Colin’s hearse in hopes of finding something, anything, to distract themselves. Colin compulsively makes anagrams of words and finds connections between seemingly random things, and Hassan makes jokes out of everything. The two boys -- Colin a fresh high school graduate and Hassan a little more than a year into his “taking a year off before college” phase -- find themselves in Gutshot, Tennessee, the final resting place of Franz Ferdinand, the former Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Also in this town lives an intriguing girl who is not, for once, named Katherine. Through a series of incidents, Colin is inspired to derive a mathematical formula that can model and predict all romantic relationships, which, if successful, can finally mark Colin’s passage from prodigy to genius.

John Green has created an assembly of characters likeable, believable, and identifiable. Their interactions with each other feel real, with creative, funny, and sometimes completely unexpected dialog. Although Colin is filled with facts, languages, and anagram talents, he can’t quite seem to figure out human relationships or himself. Hassan, filled with humor and likeability, can’t seem to motivate himself to get on with his life or take anything seriously. The road trip and the town they land in serve to knock some sense into both of them, and hopefully bring some to the reader as well. With its humor and clever feel, this book would appeal to teens and adults, but some swearing and sexual scenes might keep this from being ideal for younger teens.

Finally, it should be noted that the math used throughout the book does not have to be understood to enjoy the story, but it is real math and those with some math skills should enjoy the way it augments the plot. (For those who need some math touch up, there is an appendix at the end which further explains the math used in the book.)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Kitchen Confidential

I'm reading Kitchen Confidential right now; it's a memoir that serves simultaneously as a kind of expose on the restaurant industry. It's pretty funny and quite explicit. All sorts of sex, drugs, and
violence that one might expect from a hip-hop crew rather than from a bunch of cooks at a three star restaurant.

I've started feeling a little suspicious about my restaurant food since I've been reading this. The author says to never eat fish on Mondays, due to the fish being a little old by then, and the cook is doing his darnedist to just get it out of the kitchen ... so when I suddenly realized I was eating the all-you-can-eat fish and chips special at the local bar and grill on Monday night, I was almost put out of my appetite. But then, I realized, fish and chips are pretty disgusting to begin with, and I love them. So who cares if its a little old or whatever. I eat it for the grease! The ketchup! Then I thought of something else the author said, don't be afraid of your food. Just eat what you want. Cheers!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Kampung Boy

Kampung Boy by Lat
First Second Publishing
144 pages
Graphic novel, family life, childhood
Price: $16.95
ISBN13: 9781596431218
Ages: 10 and up

This graphic novel follows the birth and childhood of the narrator, a Muslim boy in a tiny village in Malaysia in the 1950’s. The narrator begins school, spends time with his family, learns to fish, attends a wedding, and undergoes the traditional circumcision ceremony (“Adat cukur kepala”). He even gets into a little trouble with his parents. Finally, he passes his qualifying exams and leaves the village to attend private school. Although excited to go away to school, as he leaves he realizes he will miss the village and hopes that it will never change. This is a melancholy moment for the reader, as we realize his village and way of life most likely have not remained the same.

The story is laid out in a straight-forward manner, with black and white pen drawings. The author’s affection for his characters is clear in every line. The adults are huge, hulking people compared to the tiny children, who are drawn as mostly a head with a little body. Babies’ bare bottoms moon the reader, and the actions of the mischievous children provoke smiles. Some readers may take issue in the way certain locations or traditions are mentioned without maps or long explanations; however, this does not detract from the enjoyment of the graphic novel.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow CIty

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller
ISBN13: 9781582349602
ISBN10: 1582349606
Publisher: Bloomberg Publishing PLC
Subject: Action & Adventure, Identity, Crime
Publication Date: May 2006
Pages: 387
Ages: 11 and up

Kiki Strike is a mysterious new seventh grader at the Atalaya School for Girls. Ananka, the book’s narrator and classmate of Kiki, decides to find out more about her. At the same time, Ananka also wants to find out more about the giant sinkhole in the park across the street from her apartment in New York City, and why it leads to a hidden underground city. In fact, Ananka’s curiosity leads her to these discoveries and also to membership in a group of talented misfit girls called “The Irregulars”, led by Kiki Strike. Together, they work to explore the underground city and realize their adventures may lead them to more trouble and danger than they ever anticipated. Closing each chapter is a list of handy real-world survival tips, including “How to be a master of disguise”, “How to detect a lie”, and “How to take advantage of being a girl”.

Kirsten Miller’s debut novel is a rollicking adventure. The plot and intrigue keep the pages flowing at a brisk pace. Although some of the adventures are quite fantastic, this book is not a fantasy novel. The reader is convinced that, although unlikely, these adventures could actually happen. Reading this book can bring a sense of wonder, excitement, and intrigue to one’s everyday life. This book would appeal mainly to 11-14 year old girls, as the narrative shows how normal girls can find their own individual talents and have adventures. Boys might have a harder time finding an appeal in this book as there are no strong male characters. One other thing to note: although aimed at female readers, this book does not deal with romance or other traditionally “girly” topics, so it would appeal most to girls who desire something a little different from everything normally aimed at them.

Kiki Strike’s Web site:

“Unshelved” comic strip about Kiki Strike: (originally run 2/4/07)

Sunday, January 28, 2007


by Melanie Gideon
• Reading level: Ages 12 and up
• Hardcover: 273 pages
• Publisher: Razorbill (May 18, 2006)
• ISBN: 1595140557
• Genre: Fantasy, coming of age

Thomas Quicksilver, a 17-year old with disfiguring burn scars on his face from a childhood accident, lives with his mother who earns money by telling people their futures. Thomas and his mother escaped from Isaura, a parallel world where seeing the future is an everyday occurance, after a terrifying attack that killed his father and wounded his mother, and caused the fire that burned Thomas’ face. Now, his mother is slowly dying as a result of the attack and only one thing can save her. However, this thing remains back on the world from which they ran. Now Thomas must return and seek out a way to save his mother’s life.

Thomas’ life since the accident that burned his face has been difficult; few people seem to be able to see past the burn marks that disfigure him. An outcast at school and in the world at large, he has grown accustomed to not being seen. All that changes when he returns to Isaura. His face is magically healed and he must become accustomed to attention and the effects of attention on him. As he struggles to remain faithful to the reason he came back to Isaura, he learns things that finally help him understand himself and his past.

Told in first person in the voice of Thomas, this book is extremely engaging. The reader connects immediately to the pain of this disfigured teenager and struggles with him in his search for meaning. When Thomas discovers the attention of girls, it almost overwhelms him. This book would appeal to both girls and boys by exploring coming of age issues such as emerging sexuality, self-knowledge, and getting to know your parents as people. Although told in a boy’s voice, girls will identify with any of the many female characters. Some profanity, mild sexuality described but nothing explicit.