Saturday Review of Books: November 1, 2014


“All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” ~John Ruskin

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

Blue Sea Burning by Geoff Rodkey

This final book in the Chronicles of Egg trilogy begins as Egg has just been saved from death by hanging by his uncle, the pirate Burn Healy. The first chapter begins with three problems: the ship is sinking, other pirates are out to kill them, and the ship’s crew is giving Egg and his friends murderous looks and muttered threats as they look for a way to get rid of him.

The book just gets better and better from that fine start. There’s a sea battle, so well described that I read every word, instead of skimming the fighting part, as I usually do, to get to the end and find out who won and who lost. Mr. Rodkey writes his characters, especially Egg, and his action scenes with a deft hand, including humor, emotion, and vivid description incorporated into the fast-moving story.

You certainly can’t fault the book for a lack of action or for starting out slowly. The action is relentless and absorbing, and it doesn’t come at the expense of character development. Egg began the series in the book Deadweather and Sunrise as a naive and victimized boy, and in this third book his philosophy of life and his rationale for decision-making are both much more sophisticated. And yet he still has a lot to learn.

The setting is South Pacific islands-ish, perhaps Caribbean, but with mythical islands in an imaginary world. The volcano, the pirates roaming the seas, tropical fruits, religious details, and some of the names (Mata Kalun, Moku, Okalu, etc.) made me think more of the South Pacific. The religion that’s incorporated into the story is particularly interesting to me. Egg’s native friend, Kira, prays to and worships the sun god, Ka. The “settlers” with more British names use the word “Savior” as a sort of swear word or curse (“Oh, Savior’s sake!” and “the Savior as my witness . . .”), but it’s never clear in this book what “savior” they’re talking about. Burn Healy lives by the Pirate Code, a set of rules for an honor culture, that Burn made up himself and had all of his crew sign. He does, that is, until he doesn’t, more on that later.

Egg doesn’t pray to Ka, although he’s glad that Kira does. He hasn’t signed the Code. And he doesn’t seem to have any other religious background or belief. So, Egg is the proverbial seeker, open to truth wherever he can find it, somewhat disillusioned by his recent experiences, but wanting to do what is right and good. So, the search starts with Egg’s Uncle Burn, who has already violated his own Pirate Code by saving Egg’s life, telling him that the world can’t be divided into good and evil, that everyone and everything is “grey”, mostly evil. Egg later decides that the only men on the Blue Sea are “bad and worse.”

But Egg keeps trying to figure out and do what’s right. The Pirate’s Code is not sufficient to inform his actions, but he still wants to be “honorable”. He becomes involved in a project to free the slaves in the silver mines, because slavery is wrong. His uncle tells him, “So are a million other things in this world. You can’t right them all.” Egg persists because he wants to prove himself worthy of the sacrifices others have made in his behalf.

Then, about halfway through the book, Egg and his friends are translating a treasure map with an inscription that comes to the crux of the matter. In part it says: “This we swear as truth: the man who seeks rescue from the gods will die in bitterness. Neither Ka, nor Ma, will save him. The only savior of man is man.”

So, Egg knows he’s on his own, with only his friends to help him, maybe, and yet he carries on. Egg becomes his own savior. He and his friends save the slaves from the silver mine, and they save the people that the the pirates have captured and planned to kill, and he destroys the evil, nefarious villain of the story with a lot of fortitude and a handy trick. Seemingly, the only savior of Egg is Egg himself.

And yet . . . on page 332 Egg is “praying” for his brother Adonis. A figure of speech? Perhaps. But then, as the action winds down, and Egg is almost safe and victorious, but not quite, this interesting thought comes to him:

“I’d seen more than my share of trouble, and when the eruption blotted out the sun, my body finally decided enough was enough, and that it was time to check out for a while and not come back until somebody else had fixed things, or at least swept up some of that ash.”

Finally, at the end of the book, Egg says, “The future felt like a math problem I couldn’t solve.” Maybe, even though this series is over, Egg has even more to learn about Somebody Else who saves and who solves when human efforts are not sufficient.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith

Aidan and his best friend, Louis, live in Florida near Cape Canaveral. Aidan’s parents own The Mercury Inn, a seaside hotel, and they are known for their launch parties, where residents of the inn can watch a NASA spacecraft launch from the swimming pool area or even the beach nearby. However, when a possible UFO disrupts the launch, Aidan and Louis discover that space aliens may be actually living at the Mercury Inn!

If you’re a UFO conspiracy theorist, and if the names “Roswell” and “Project Blue Book” and “SETI” mean something to you, then you might enjoy this light story of UFO-mania and space alien visitation. Then again, if you’re a real UFOlogist, you might think this book treats the subject with insufficient gravitas.

At any rate, it’s an easy read, with a couple of twists at the end. Everyone should have a little UFO in their life.

Warning: Rabbit Trail or Side Note

In the meantime, while looking for UFO and space alien pictures, I found various and sundry speculations on what is called the Fermi Paradox (after a discussion that physicist Enrico Fermi had with other scientists back in 1950 at Los Alamos):

-The Sun is a typical star, and relatively young. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older.
-Almost surely, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets. Assuming the Earth is typical, some of these planets may develop intelligent life.
-Some of these civilizations may develop interstellar travel, a technology Earth is investigating even now (such as the 100 Year Starship).
-Even at the slow pace of currently envisioned interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years.
According to this line of thinking, the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But no convincing evidence of this exists. Furthermore, no confirmed signs of intelligence have yet been spotted in our galaxy or (to the extent it would be detectable) elsewhere in the observable universe. Hence Fermi’s question, “Where is everybody?” ~Wikipedia, Fermi paradox

It’s an interesting question—if one believes in the Darwinian evolution of human beings. I don’t really. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to find that God created other life forms on other planets, but there’s not an evolutionary necessity for that to be the case. There’s just God expressing His own creative nature.

Here’s an interesting article (with an unfortunate and misleading title) on the whole subject of Christian thought and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott

Chip (aka Brenda Anderson) isn’t sure how she can possibly stand living with her mean old grandmother in Mount Airy, North Carolina, especially since her daddy, the one who really understood her tomboy ways, has just died. But mom says they can’t afford the house anymore, and she and the three girls have to move in with Grandma.

Just when Chip is hoping for some magic to help her understand her grandma and fit in with her family, she discovers a charm school hidden back in the woods. Miss Vernie, the teacher and proprietor, has two other students, Dana and Karen, and Miss Vernie tells them that they are there to learn whatever it is that they need to learn. She gives each of the girls a charm bracelet and says, “You have to wear the bracelet at all times. That’s how you know when you’ve completed a lesson–when you lose a charm. School ends when you’ve lost all your charms.”

Chip’s older and younger sisters are both excited about entering the Miss Dogwood pageant. But Chip just doesn’t fit in with her beauty pageant-loving family. This theme of “not fitting in” is hammered over and over again throughout the book until I wanted to shake some of the adults, especial Chip’s mom and grandma, into paying attention and affirming Chip for who she was. Chip’s mom is distracted by her grief over the loss of her husband, and Grandma is just spiteful. The combination makes for a long, cruel, dry summer, both weather-wise and emotionally for Chip, who’s trying so hard to fit into her family and get some attention. Chip is finally rewarded for her persistence, but it takes a while.

I did like the idea that the story takes place in Mount Airy, the prototype for Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith Show TV series. But we don’t get to see much of Mount Airy. And the “southernness” of the setting is more stereotypical than enlightening. The story takes place in 1977, and several events tie the plot to that time period. But the 1977 incidents are minor, also not very deeply evocative of the time.

Still, School of Charm is a nice little story with a “hint of magic”, even if the magic is mostly in the eye of the beholder.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosin

This story takes place before, during, and after the Pinochet reign of terror in Chile in the 1970’s. Although the dictator’s name is never mentioned and the author takes some liberties with the timeline and with the historical facts, Ms. Agosin, who herself lived in Chile during the Pinochet years, brings to life the anxiety and the courage that emerged in many of those who experienced the “desaparedcidos” and the government repression that took place during Pinochet’s presidency.

Celeste is an eleven year old only child who lives with her parents, her grandmother, and their live-in cook and nanny, Delfina, in Valparaiso, Chile. The book begins by painting a carefree, somewhat sheltered childhood for Celeste, but her pre ants, both doctors, are just beginning to show Celeste the poverty and need that lies below the surface in Chile’s slums where the two physicians practice medicine in a number of free clinics. Then, Celeste begins to notice that things are changing at school and at home as many of her classmates begin to drop to of school and “disappear”. Either their parents have been arrested, or the families are in hiding. No one really knows, and no one wants to be caught talking about the possibilities.

Celeste’s parents also go into hiding, and Celeste herself is sent to Maine to live with her Tia Graciela. The second part of the book, about a year or a year and a half, takes place in Maine as Celeste learns what it means to be a refugee in a foreign land with the help of a loving, but somewhat unusual, aunt who reads tarot cards for a living and lives mostly in seclusion, still getting over an unhappy love affair. Celeste goes to school, learns English, and makes friends.

Then, the government changes again, and Celeste can return to her beloved Chile.However, Celeste’s parents are not able to return home without Celeste’s help. In fact, they seem to have suffered so much that they have become indecisive and unable to function as adults. This part of the novel felt real, but the fact that Celeste takes this kind of abdication in stride was a bit surprising. The story ends with Celeste beginning her own project to help her country heal from the years of oppression and dictatorship.

This book is long, 453 pages, rather fanciful, poetic and even superstitious at times, and it moves slowly. Many readers won’t have the patience for this one, but those who do will be rewarded with a story that introduces children and adult readers to the zeitgeist of a Chile molded by years of government oppression and poverty and repression of free speech and other freedoms that we in the U.S. take for granted.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Platypus Police Squad: The Ostrich Conspiracy by Jarrett Krosoczka

Two platypuses walk into a bar . . . A couple of platypi . . . Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner . . . Platypus Number One, Detective Corey O’Malley and his partner, Rookie Detective Rick Zengo . . . Platypus Police Squad Headquarters, 7:40 A.M.

Obviously, I’m not sure how to start this post about the second book in the series, The Platypus Police Squad. First of all, I’m not sure why the detectives are platypuses, except that platypuses–and ostriches and mongooses, by the way–are sort of funny. Supposed to be sort of funny. Detective Corey O’Malley, the older, more experienced, somewhat jaded and cynical of this detective pair is supposed to be humorous, too. And his freshman, newbie partner Detective Rick Zengo has a funny name.

However, the platypuses could just as well have been flamingos or alpacas or armadillos or even humans as far as the story goes. Well, “platypus” and “police” do both start with “p”, so the title has alliteration going for it. The book reads like an episode of the old TV series Dragnet, stretched to a couple hundred pages, with O’Malley as Sergeant Joe Friday and Zengo as his sidekick, Bill Gannon. And the only funny parts are the illustrations of . . . hard-boiled platypus detectives.

I really don’t think even kids who have never encountered Dragnet or its successors, police procedural dramas, are going to be riveted by this pedestrian and predictable story. I wanted to like it, but nothing drew me in and nothing made me want to stay once I got there. It wasn’t bad, just, dare I say, boring. Now, if I mosey over to Amazon and find out that this series is a bestseller with thousands of positive reviews and kid fans, just call me jaded. And cynical.

All we want are the facts, m’am. Just the facts.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

October 25th

1154: Henry II becomes King of England. Henry was married to the much older (nine to eleven years older) Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had been previously married to the King of France, Louis VII, until she managed to get her marriage annulled. Henry himself was nineteen years when he married Eleanor and only twenty-one when he became King of England. Henry and Eleanor had eight children, thereby creating much opportunity for future confusion and conflict regarding the throne of England. (I also have eight children, but no throne for them to fight over; therefore, I hope to see no internecine conflict among my progeny.)

Movies/drama featuring Henry II: Becket, The Lion in Winter, Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.

Historical fiction:
When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman
Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman
Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman
A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg

1400: Geoffrey Chaucer (birthday unknown) died on October 25, 1400. His Canterbury Tales begins with the words:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So Priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages …

1415: The Battle of Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day.

1764: John Adams (28) weds Abigail Smith (19) in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Their marriage lasted 54 years.

You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first. John Adams in a letter to Abigail Adams, April 28, 1776.

John Adams’ Advice to His Children.
On the Character of John Adams.

1854: The Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Tennyson wrote his famous poem about the charge after reading a newspaper report.

1881: Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain.

1952: Engineer Husband was born in Buda, Texas. Happy Birthday, my love.

Saturday Review of Books: October 25, 2014


“The books we read should be chosen with great care, that they may be, as an Egyptian king wrote over his library, ‘The medicines of the soul.'” ~Paxton Hood

SatReviewbuttonWelcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read. That’s how my own TBR list has become completely unmanageable and the reason I can’t join any reading challenges. I have my own personal challenge that never ends.

Grave Images by Jenny Goebel


Gold is for the mistress–silver for the maid–
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron–Cold Iron–is the master of them all.”
~”Cold Iron” by Rudyard Kipling

Grave Images is a nice, scary sort of story for reading in the crisp days (or evenings) of October as we approach Halloween. Twelve year old Bernie’s (short for Bernadette) family owns a grave monument company and they live, of course, next door to the cemetery. When a strange drifter, Mr. Abbott Stein, comes to town, and Bernie’s dad hires him to makes etchings for gravestones, Bernie is full of plans to use the new man’s artistic abilities to help her do something to pull her mother out of the depression that she’s been in ever since the death of Bernie’s baby brother, Thomas.

However, things don’t quite work out the way Bernie has imagined. There’s a touch of middle school romance, very chaste, and more than a bit of murder, mayhem, and horror, including a ghost. Grave Images is not a comedy, and it’s not for younger readers who might be frightened by death and general creepiness.

This was a short middle grade book, only 198 pages, and I would recommend it to readers who want something short but shivery to get them in the mood for Halloween. The book doesn’t glorify the occult, and it does have a good but understated message about the dangers of bitterness, jealousy, and covetousness. If you’re not opposed to ghost stories (think Edgar Allan Poe or Henry James, but for children), then Grave Images will be a spine-chilling treat.

Some of my favorite ghost stories, old and new:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
The Summer of Katya by Trevanian.
The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce.
The Saracen Lamp by Ruth M. Arthur.
Ghost in the Noonday Sun by Sid Fleischman.
The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co., #1) by Jonathan Stroud.
The Whispering Skull (Lockwood & Co., #2) by Jonathan Stroud.

And what are your favorite ghost stories?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani

A sequel to Chainani’s first novel, The School for Good and Evil: A World Without Princes takes Agatha and Sophie back to the fairy tale world that they worked so hard to escape in the first book. Only this time the questions and dichotomies are multiplying in a dizzying way:

Is Sophie reformed, or is she evil?
Is Agatha good, or is she betraying her friend?
Are princes the real heroes of all the fairy tales?
Are girls the true heroines?
Can a witch become a princess?
Can a prince become an evil slob?
Can Agatha trust Sophie?
Can Sophie trust Agatha?
Can Agatha trust her prince?
Should Agatha kiss Prince Tedros or slay him?
Can girls trust boys? Can girls defeat boys?
Can boys live without girls? Can girls live without boys?
Can boys become girls? Can girls become boys?
How are boys and girls different?
Can male friendships be as close as female friendships?
Is the truest love friendship or romance?
Does a girl have to choose between female friendship and the love of her prince?
If so, which should she choose?
Can there really be a “happily ever after” for everyone?
Is there an ending where no one gets hurt?
What is the right ending?
What is the the true ending?

I’m about three-fourths of the way through Chainani’s version of the fairyland War between the Sexes, and it’s giving me moral and emotional whiplash. I like books that make me think and keep me guessing, but I guess I also like resolution. I can’t see how this book can come to a satisfying resolution, no matter what the author and the characters do with it because the central goal of the author seems to to keep everything in balance, no advantage to either side in any conflict. I’ll return later to let you know how it all came out.

*****************

It ended with a sharp division between Good and Evil, but I don’t think this book is one that anyone is going to be very happy about. Mr. Chainani plunked his plot and characters right down in the middle of the culture wars and the gender wars and the battle between good and evil. And somehow the two, good and evil, male and female, are supposed to coexist in infinite tension, with neither good nor evil winning out and with neither male nor female taking the lead, and with neither same-sex friendship nor male/female romance becoming the primary relationship in any person’s life. Gender roles are bent in this book, but never broken, which won’t make either “side” cheer. True love’s kiss wins the day, but not really. It’s a very unsatisfying, post-modern, irresolute kind of ending—or perhaps a non-ending. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another book in the series to make a trilogy, but I also wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you like

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.