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24th-May-2011 09:30 pm - No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman
No More Dead Dogs Gordon Korman always does an excellent job of writing books at an easy reading level that will appeal to older kids. I love this because I'm often working with middle school kids who are reading at a 2nd grade level. When you're twelve and starting to call yourself a tween, Runaway Ralph isn't going to cut it.

In No More Dead Dogs, football *star* Wallace Wallace gets terminal detention for telling the truth, the book that the school play is based on sux. Thing is, detention means watching the play... and Wallace can't help but make suggestions. In the meantime, someone seems to be trying to frame him and he finds out who his real friends are. Very funny, very readable. Somewhere around 4 to 5 stars.
I'm soooo happy Lyda Morehouse has returned to this particular world: post major world war that has been blamed on people's lack of religious morals, so now it is mandatory that one be officially registered in a religion. & what's more, the archangels are on earth, doing His/Her bidding, and in this case, He/She has ordered them them to martyr a rather nice transgender prophet. Even Satan doesn't feel good about killing this particular prophet. I prefer the other books in the series, but this one was very good and politically more daring than the others. However, it was much shorter so the world and characters didn't feel as rich as the early ones. (& the copyediting was rather poor, but oh well.) Despite my minor quibbles with it, it totally deserves to be on the short list, or even the winner, of the next Tiptree award. Read the whole series if you can get your hands on it!
I'm a little conflicted about writing a review of Marian Anderson's My Lord, What a Morning. I feel like I should give it five stars just because it contains words written by a beautiful person who did much for others, and by being her humble self opened doors for many others. It is an amazing book just because it preserves the words of an amazing person. That said though, the written word wasn't the way Marian Anderson communicated best with the world. She communicated best with her voice, and not even her recorded voice. She communicated best to a live audience. Her time has past, and we will never be able to see her at her best again.

That said, don't read My Lord, What a Morning because you want to know important facts about Marian Anderson. Portions of this book were written for a women's magazine. It was intended for an audience that didn't want to know what it was like to run into barriers because of race. They wanted to know how she grew up, what she liked to eat and where she met her husband. Dates, like her date of birth, are left out of her autobiography. We have a few historic markers such as references to soldiers, but not many. When she writes about Europe, it is hard to know if she is talking about pre-World War II or post-World War II. In other words, the telling of her life is light on context because her contemporaries would have known all those details. The book wasn't written with the next generation in mind, let alone the next several generations. Marian Anderson, as a historical figure, is surely more clear in other books.

As a memoir, this isn't a page turner. She clearly didn't make up events as in the infamous memoir A Million Little Pieces. She was a humble, private person. Yes, she overcame many obstacles to become a great singer. Obstacles is what creates tension in a memoir. Tension is what makes books exciting. However, humble Marian was too polite to dramatize her life. She didn't like to dwell on bad things. She mentions a woman who was horribly rude to her when she went to apply at a white-only music school, but she only spends a few paragraphs on it. If I remember right, she even let the woman off the hook slightly by saying she was doing her job. She doesn't name the school. She doesn't hold a grudge. As a reader, we want enemies. As someone with diplomacy, Marion didn't want enemies. Anderson clearly loved her mother very much, and when these things happened, she talked to her mother until she could find a way to cope with racism, self-doubt, or whatever obstacle you could name. What I really would have loved to read were those conversations with her mother. Clearly though, only those closest to Anderson ever saw her as anything other than her best.

So, as a biography and as a memoir, this book isn't great. Maybe it even fails. It did, however, have it's own charm. I read it a few chapters a day, and it was soothing. She has a sharp wit, and an eye for people. She describes segregation on the trains, and then describes a day when one train was carrying the passengers meant for two. There were too many passengers to enforce the usual segregation. She describes whites and blacks having everyday conversations, whites and blacks sharing food, women helping other women with children with no regard to race, and she ends with the simple words "The world did not crumble." This is how she faced racism, as though it was beneath her dignity to get upset over it. Her way to fight was by being the most giving, most polite person she could be. She was always conscious of others. As I read these personal stories, I began feeling as though I was talking to a good friend before bedtime.

But to say she is just a friend is to underestimate her. She lived through a time when racism was raw and accepted. It still exists. I've seen it of course. We all have. But not in the way she saw it. As simple and quiet as the book seems, she finishes it off with these deceptively simple words: There are many persons ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move--and he, in turn, waits for you. The minute a person whose word means a great deal dares to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. Not everyone can be turned aside from meanness and hatred, but the great majority of Americans is heading in that direction. I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country.
I always find it difficult to review an anthology because I tend to see them as collections of individual stories rather than collections of individual stories. I never like all the stories in an anthology, and to be honest, would it be a good thing if I did? Would that mean all the stories are fantastic? Or would it mean that the anthology lacked a certain scope and never ventured beyond my taste or comfort zone.

That said, I didn't hate any of these stories, and found myself engaged by them more often than not. I read them in the Spanish, while occasionally checking my understanding or finding new vocabulary in the translations. This anthology suited that purpose fairly well. There is no glossary, and the stories have not been simplified for a beginner/intermediate reader. I'm grateful that they haven't been simplified! The layout of the book was carefully planned so cross-checking the languages against each other was easy, although the translation was by no means slavish to the original. As a matter of fact, Appelbaum added some delightful humor to the cancion in Portillo's "Unclaimed Watch." The stories date back to the 1800s and the first three or even four stories were definitely outside of my comfort zone! The vocabulary, and I suspect even sentence structure, of the modern Mexican short story has changed since then. Once I got to the latter stories, the language switched to a style I was better able to manage.

The first two stories, despite the language difficulty, were okay. Jose Maria Boa Barcena's "Lanchitas" is a well-told version of a ghost story I've heard a few too many times. Perhaps this story is the origin. Once I got to Altamirano's "Antonia" though, I read these stories voraciously. "Antonia" convincingly describes the ridiculous emotional turmoil of first love, and also describes a tumultuous time in Mexican history. Portillo's "Unclaimed Watch" is brilliant, and the final work, de Compo's "El fusilado" is as chilling as anything Shirley Jackson ever wrote. Skip Gutierrez Najera's "Juan el Organista" though, unless you are into Gothic with a capital G. It's beautifully written, but the plot is a bit heavy handed for my tastes.

On the whole, quite a good read for anyone interested in Mexican literature. The translations too are well enough done to satisfy if you aren't able to navigate the Spanish.
20th-Jan-2011 10:07 pm - Review of Wireless by Charles Stross
Stross always creates dense political worlds complete with all their economic ugliness. This is his strength, and also his curse. His readers have to be able adapt to his world quickly. He doesn't waste time with infodumps. Yeah! He doesn't waste time with infodumps. Oh no! This means your in for a fast paced story where you better catch on quickly, or in the case of a short story, it will pass you by before you do. His stories are always witty, intelligent and full of allusions that will make the reader in the know chuckle with glee. The reader sort of in the know might wonder if he chose a name like "Manson" to refer to Charles Manson, the murderer? (Hint: I'm sure that was deliberate!)

Some of the stories passed me by before I got my "sea legs" in his world. Some of them, I knew I was working hard to understand them. Some of them were absolutely brilliant though. "Rogue Farm" delighted me with it's novelty, but for some reason the Saturday Night Live phrase "Land Shark" kept running through my head. That only made it quirkier and funnier. "Trunk and Disorderly" was a twisty little romance, a Jeeves and Wooster go partying on Mars... only in this case it isn't Bertie who has to be saved from a bad marriage proposal. Palimpsest was a nice anti-Tuesday Next, that was both enjoyable and thought provoking. Stross's comments at the ends of the stories were enjoyable too. Even though I've never met Stross, I've always been aware of him as a person with a distinct personality when I read his fiction. Other authors are invisible behind their words, or long dead and perhaps never really lived. They just existed in photographs and quotations. His commentaries are part of why I feel this way about him.

And, of course, Stross is known for his biting humor, so it only seems right to end with a couple quotes.

"Brains, fresh brains for baby Jesus," crooned the farm in a warm contralto, startling Joe half out of his skin. "Buy my brains!" Half a dozen disturbing cauliflower shapes poked suggestively out of the farm's back, then retracted, coyly. from Rogue Farm

Uncontrolled civilization is a terminal consumptive state, as the victims of the first extinction discovered the hard way. from Palimpsest
21st-Dec-2010 10:41 pm - Review of The Devotion of Suspect X
Keigo Higashino's mystery The Devotion of Suspect X starts so simply, the reader tends to think it's no mystery at all. Yasuko's abusive ex-husband finds her, follows her home, shakes her down for money and then begins beating up her daughter. To save her daughter, she kills him. Simple enough? But the neighbor is a genius mathematician, and just the person you want on your side... maybe.

Higashino's interesting characters will keep you reading. You'll think you know what is going on, but do you? Really?
19th-Dec-2010 11:32 am - Review of Laura McNeal's Dark Water
I picked up this book because I work in a school that is extremely diverse. The kids are hungry for stories about Latinos. Laura McNeal's Dark Water is told from a Gringa point of view, but it will still appeal to Latina readers. It's a romance, so you might have trouble getting the boys to read it, but the danger level is high enough to interest them.

Pearl and her mother are struggling to make ends meet and to rebuild their lives since their father has left them, and left them deeply in debt. They are living on Pearl's uncle's avocado ranch in California. Pearl convinces her uncle to hire Amiel, a mute migrant worker form Mexico. And so the romance begins, but from the very beginning of the book, the reader knows it is going to end in flames, one of those uncontrollable wild fires California is known for.

The book is an appealing romance, but for the more careful reader, it is also a social exploration that works using contrasts: a romance with a French woman, adultery, romance with older women, romance with younger women, poverty gringo-style, poverty migrant-style. The more I think about the book, the more I appreciate it. Definitely a worthwhile book.
Target audience: 10-14

I read this because it is assigned to a 6th grade class I work with. The kids aren't very far into the book, but they are already reading ahead (and we're scolding them) and asking us for more books like this.

I wish there were more books like this! It is both a high-interest adventure and a good non-judgmental look at the problems of illegal immigration. 15-year-old Rico is put in the awkward position of telling his friend's parents that his friend has left to cross the border to the United States. Rico thinks his friend is a crazy risk-taker, until he realizes that his families corn crop will not earn enough money to feed them. He decides he must go as well.

Hobbs has written a well-researched page turner. It covers many of the realities around immigration without dumbing it down too much or making it too brutal for his young adult audience. Bravo, and thank you Mr. Hobbs.
The reviewer on Library Thing before me called this a "modern twist on The Yellow Wallpaper." I see where that came from, but that doesn't describe the book I read. Yes, our dear Eliza has hallucinations, but she isn't trapped anymore than she chooses to be. Perhaps she's mad, but perhaps as one of her neighbors suggest, she has the most annoying type of madness, deliberately chosen madness.

Although I would never want to be Eliza's neighbor, friend, and definitely not her charge, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the world criticized through her "naive" eyes. She's only as naive as one of Shakespeare's fools. Eliza has traveled the world as a Foreign Service Officer's wife, she's seen political upheaval and poverty, she's done her round of ladies clubs and ladies charities, yet she's living in an upscale suburb of England where the world's problems, in theory, don't exist.

Eliza knows better. Her madness tears a little hole in her sheltered road that she lives on, her community called "The Road," so gentrified that it deserves capital letters. As for the people around her? Maybe they need a bit of her madness.
Through her many professions, Alex Flinn has worked with violent teens and teens in violent situations. She understands abuse in a way I hope never to. "Nothing to Lose" is one of her many books that helps the understand these kinds of situations.

As "Nothing to Lose" opens, Michael Daye's mother is on trial for her husband's murder and Michael is in hiding as a carny. The book unfolds with two timelines. In the past, Michael tries persuasion to get his mother to leave her abusive husband. He feels he needs to protect her, but nothing works. The violence is escalating into the danger zone but his mother won't help herself. In the present, Michael is on the run, caught off from the people of his past, and unsure of what to do next. The two timelines are skillfully woven together to form an interesting, if not terrible surprising, story.
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