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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.

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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.

Dreamwood by Heather Mackey

Lucy Darrington, age twelve, runs away from her school in San Francisco and rides a train to the Pacific Northwest where her father, a scientist and expert ghost clearer, has been searching for a job. Mr. Darrington promised Lucy that he would send for her as soon as he got settled, but Lucy hates her prim and proper nineteenth century school so much that she just can’t wait.

When Lucy arrives in Saarthe, the place where her father is supposed to be living, she finds that he has gone missing. Lucy’s father is probably lost on a peninsula called The Devil’s Thumb, where a rare and magical tree called the Dreamwood may hold the key to curing the Rust, a blight that is killing all of the trees. If Lucy goes in search of her father, will she get lost in the Dreamwood, too?

The unusual setting for this middle grade fantasy deserves a bit of analysis and meditation all on its own. The scene is recognizable as the Pacific Northwest: north of San Francisco, trees and lumberjacks, totems and native peoples, Pacific Ocean to the west. The time period is “forty years after the bloody North-South War,” so perhaps around the turn of the century? However, instead of the United States, we read about “the American States” juxtaposed against “the First People’s Federation territory.” The author says she chose to “imagine an America where—in some places, perhaps—there was a different outcome to the wars and policies that have shaped the history of indigenous peoples on this continent.” Part of that different outcome involves an imagined group called the Lupine Nation, whose princess, Niwa, becomes Lucy’s friend and encourager.

So, we could add this fantasy to a “diversity in middle grade speculative fiction” list, even though Niwa is not the leading character in the novel. Not many middle grade fantasies involve Native American peoples at all, real or imaginary ones. The villain of the piece is the typical Big Businessman. (Why are all fantasy villains either fat greedy businessmen or skinny witches?) The children who go on the quest to find Mr. Darrington and the Dreamwood, Lucy and her friend Pete, are typically intrepid and tenacious, but they do have faults which are teased out in the narrative as their journey uncovers their weaknesses and causes growth in character and in wisdom for the children.

As I began reading about ghost clearing and magical trees, I wasn’t sure I’d like this one, but I did. The ending is as unusual as the rest of the novel, and I”m still not sure what to think about the sacrifice that is required of Lucy in the end. But it did make me think, which is always a good thing. The Dreamwood forest reminded me of Tolkien’s forests and Old Man Willow, dark and dangerous. The exorcism-as-a-business-opportunity reminded of Jonathan Stroud’s recent Lockwood & Co. series. And the atmosphere and setting as a whole were unique and enthralling.

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 Winter Horses by Philip Kerr

Historical fiction set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. Or is it magical realism? The horses featured in the story are very, very intelligent, crafty, and communicative. Then, there’s the question of whether this book is middle grade fiction or young adult. The main character, a Jewish girl named Kalinka, is young, maybe twelve or thirteen? But a lot of what happens in this World War II-setting novel is very, very dark. I don’t exactly know how to classify this book, and that ambiguity in being able to pigeon-hole the book into “YA Holocaust novel” or “middle grade horse book” or “magical horse story” or something else makes it that much more intriguing to me.

Kalinka’s entire family has been annihilated by the Nazis. Max, the wildlife manager at Aksaniya-Nova wildlife preserve, is pretending to cooperate with the Germans so that he can protect the animals he loves, especially the rare and wild Przewalski’s horses. As Kalinka forms a bond with the horses out on the snowy plains where they live, Max forms a plan to save both Kalinka and the horses from the German soldiers who have been ordered to wipe out both the Jews and the ancient breed of Przewalski’s.

The style of writing in this novel comes across as very Russian (Ukrainian?) to me. The writing is rather simple and unadorned, and Max’s philosophy of “live and let live” and “persevere to fight another day” strikes me as typical of a Ukrainian peasant, at least the Ukrainian peasants I’ve read about in Russian novels. Something about the way the book is written, the characters, and the descriptions made me eel as if I were in Ukraine in the winter of 1941, watching the events unfold. Even when the events that unfold are borderline unbelievable (a horse that counts and strategizes?), I wanted to believe. And when the plot turned to harsh, violent, and tragic, I wanted to close my eyes and disbelieve that things like genocide, animal cruelty, bombings, and attempted cannibalism really could happen. But those latter things, the ones I wished weren’t at all possible, were the ones that did happen, and probably still are happening.

I would recommend this book for older teens who can handle the horrors and can yet still suspend disbelief long enough to believe in a semi-happy ending.

Kalinka’s (nick)name comes from an old Russian song by composer and folklorist Ivan Petrovich Larionov:

And here’s a short video about Przewalski’s horses:

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.

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

I really enjoyed certain aspects of this murder mystery set in 1932 among the rich, royal, famous, and impecunious of England. It had the flavor of I Capture the Castle mixed with Downton Abbey mixed with a little P.G. Wodehouse. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of Glen Garry and Ranoch, aka Georgie, finds herself unmarried, without funds, and without a real goal in life. She decides to leave the drafty castle in Scotland that belongs to her older brother the duke, aka Binky, and try her luck in London, unchaperoned and completely unsure about her future plans.

“I reminded myself that it is the 1930’s. Young ladies were allowed to do more than embroider, play piano, and paint watercolors. And London was a big city, teeming with opportunities for a bright young person like myself.”

Georgie, in addition to being of the aristocracy, is also a (very)minor royal, thirty-fourth in line to the throne. The title and the relations don’t get her much in the way of money, but she does get a summons from the queen (Queen Mary, wife of George V) and a commission to do a little bit of harmless spying on Prince Edward and the American woman he seems to have become involved with. However, Georgie finds that surviving on one’s own is more difficult than she had imagined, and spying on a prince comes with its own hazards.

Georgie is a wonderful character, intelligent but innocent. I liked her, and I liked seeing her navigate her way through the perils and amusements of a certain segment of London society. However, the minor characters are not so delightful. Georgie takes up with an old school friend whose constant advice is that Georgie must lose the dreadful “burden” of her virginity as soon as possible. Georgie doesn’t take her friend’s advice, but she is sorely tempted. And she never really mounts any kind of a moral or philosophical defense against this promiscuous and shallow idea of what life is all about.

So, I liked the setting, the plot was OK, and the main character is fun to watch, even if she is a little too easily influenced by foolish and unsavory characters. But the constant drumbeat of propaganda in favor of promiscuous, unattached sexual encounters spoiled the rest of the story for me, even though the actual sexual escapades in the book are limited in number and off-stage. I probably won’t read the rest of the series.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages

I didn’t know until the very end of this book what the title “the green glass sea” meant, but it turned out to be an appropriate name for a particularly enjoyable book. The Green Glass Sea was the winner of the 2007 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, an award presented to a children’s or young adult book published in English by a U.S. publisher and set in the Americas. I certainly concur with the award committee and with several reviewers who liked the book a lot, including Kelly at Big A Little a, Bookshelves of Doom, and Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 (that last review is where I think I heard about this book and put it on my TBR list several years ago.)

Published in 2006, the book’s setting is World War II, 1943-1945, in Los Alamos, NM. I learned a lot, painlessly, about the Manhattan Project and the background to the development of the atomic bomb just from reading this book. I didn’t know that Los Alamos didn’t even appear on the map during the mid-1940’s, and that the project was such a secret that the scientists who were working on it had to live in a place called the Hill (Los Alamos). In the book kids and adults were told, “Off the Hill, you can’t tell anyone where you live, or who you live with, or what you see or hear.”

The setting and the characters drive the plot in this rather quiet story about an eleven year old girl, Dewe Kerrigan, who comes to I’ve with her scientist father on the Hill. Dewey is delighted to live in this math and science town as she gets to question famous scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Dick Feynman and scour the town dump for cast-offs for her mechanical projects built out of spare parts and ingenuity. However, Dewey’s scientific and mechanical interests make her something of a misfit with the other children in Los Alamos who call her “Screwy Dewy,” and when tragedy strikes, Dewey is not sure where she can turn for help.

The author makes some odd choices about verb tenses. The book starts out in third person, but told from Dewey’s point of view, in present tense, and continues that way for the first 37 pages. Then, it switches to third person, another girl named Suze’s point of view, past tense. The story alternates between Suze’s thoughts and feelings and Dewey’s, staying in past tense. Then later in the book, the author throws in a couple of pages here and there where we’re watching Dewey again, and her story is told in present tense again. I’m not sure what the point was. Maybe someone else can explain?

Such a great story, though. Dewey, and later the other main character, Suze, are very real characters with quirks and changes in attitude and demeanor throughout the book. There is some cursing in the dialogue in the book, which may bother some young readers, but it wasn’t overdone, just enough to be true to the times and the atmosphere. Suze’s mother smokes like a fiend, and the adults all indulge in the occasional beer or other alcoholic beverage of choice, again very true to life. I enjoyed getting to know all of the characters in this book, and I didn’t want it to end. So I’m glad to find out that there’s a sequel called White Sands, Red Menace. Dewey is a young lady I really want to know more.

Oh, and by the way, I loved the ending—very realistic in the characters’ obliviousness to the import of the news they hear on the radio about some place in Japan called Hiroshima.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky

Leni Riefenstahl, in case you’ve never heard of her was Hitler’s pet film maker. She became famous with her 193 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Then, Hitler asked her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl became the toast of the film world as she went on a publicity tour for her Olympics movie in the United States in 1938. She told a reporter while on tour: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

In 1940 Riefenstahl began to make a pet project called Tiefland (Lowland), set in Spain, filmed in Spain and in Germany, and financed by the German government. As extras for the film Riefenstahl used gypsies (Sinti and Roma), unpaid and imported from the concentration camps. The Extra by Kathryn Lasky tells the fictional story of one Sinti girl, Lilo, based on the true history of Anna Blach, a Sinti girl who served as Riefenstahl’s stunt double in the movie. Although Riefenstahl never admitted to mistreating or enslaving the Roma and Sinti extras who worked on Tiefland, it is known that she chose the extras for their “Spanish looks” from the camps and that many, if not all, of them were sent to Auschwitz to die after the filming was complete.

Lasky portrays Riefenstahl in the worst possible light. In The Extra, Leni Riefenstahl is a wolf, self-obsessed, cruel, and opportunistic. Her victims/slaves are the Romani who work and receive somewhat better treatment than they would have received in the camps, but who are subject to the director’s whims and casual acts of callous barbarity. In one scene, that may or may not be true, an extra is killed while the director is filming a scene with a wolf in which she asks the extra to bait the hungry creature with raw meat in order to get a good shot.

I found some of the most interesting material in the book in the author’s note at the end. Although Riefenstah was tried four times for her part in the perpetration of Nazi war crimes, she was never convicted of anything more than being a “follower” or “fellow traveler” of Hitler and the Nazis. She never apologized to the Roma and Sinti for her part in their enslavement and deaths during the filming of Tiefland. She insisted to the end that she was “not political” and that she didn’t know anything about the death camps, although she did grudgingly say in 2002, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps.” Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years old, and she is lauded to this day for her outstanding skill as a director and filmmaker and for her second career after the war as an excellent still photographer and underwater photographer.

Can you separate the person from his or her work? If Hitler had been a talented artist instead of a second rate one, could we look at his artwork and not see his atrocities? I find it difficult, and yet I read–and enjoy– lots authors who led less than exemplary lives. Somewhere there is a line between bad behavior that doesn’t spoil the art and egregiously bad behavior that spoils everything it touches. I would find it difficult to watch Tiefland, even though the film itself is supposed to be apolitical, with any kind of objectivity or appreciation.

Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks

One of my favorite YA novels is The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. So, when I found another YA novel by Mr. Brooks at the used bookstore the other day, I snapped it up immediately.

Midnight Hour Encores is about a cellist, Sibilance T. Spooner, not a basketball player. And it takes place in the mid 1980’s (published in 1986) as the aforementioned Sibilance asks her leftover hippie father Taxi to take her to San Francisco to meet her mother. Taxi, despite his love for 60’s music and culture, has been the responsible parent in Sib’s life, the one who took her to cello lessons, gave her a home, and gave her plenty of space to grow up into one of the world’s most promising cellists and a very confident and prepossessing sixteen year old woman.

However, as Taxi and Sib travel across the country in an old VW bus, they find that each of them has been harboring a few secrets. And when Sib finally meets the mom who left them when Sib was a baby, things become very complicated.

This book was not as good as The Moves Make the Man, at least not as good as I remember that book to be. (I haven’t read it in twenty years, but I liked it a lot.) Midnight Hour Encores did have its moments, and the emphasis on the idea that people grow and change and that people are complicated and hard to pigeonhole—that was good. The casual acceptance of kids and adults having casual sex was a minor aspect of the book, but I could have done without the assumptions. The ending surprised me, in a good way.

If you’re interested in the 1960’s or in the world of top-flight teen musicians or in complicated family relationships, you might enjoy Midnight Hour Encores. If you haven’t read The Moves Make the Man, I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in basketball whatsoever.

The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier

Wow! This one ranks right up there with Rebecca as one of Du Maurier’s best novels of intrigue and suspense, with plenty of twists, turns and unexpected revelations to keep the pages turning.

“Two men—one English, the other French—meet by chance in a province railway station and are astounded that they are so much alike that they could easily pas for each other. Over the course of a long evening, they talk and drink. It is not until he awakes the next day that John, the Englishman, realizes that he may have spoken too much. His French companion is gone, having stolen his identity. For his part, John has no choice but to take the Frenchman’s place—as master of a chateau, director of a failing business, head of a large and embittered family, and keeper of too many secrets.” ~From the blurb on the back of the book.

The initial premise is a little shaky: can two people who are not twins really look so much alike that a switch will fool even their closest friends and kin? However, given that postulation, the story is incredibly insightful as John realizes that he is bound to the past decisions and mistakes of the man he is impersonating in such a way as to make him almost unable to act in any way except the way that the Comte Jean de Gue would have acted in the same situation. John struggles to become Jean—and to keep from becoming Jean. Then, John must decide whether to let himself care about Jean’s family and Jean’s community, thereby running the risk of hurting them and they him, or whether he wants to withdraw and run away from the responsibilities and possibilities that his new life has thrust upon him.

Several questions infuse the plot with significance:
To what extent am I compelled to be the person that others expect me to be?
Can people change?
Is anyone wholly evil or wholly good, or are we all some admixture of both?
To what extent does a person become what he pretends to be?
Do good intentions redeem mistaken actions that hurt others?
Does the past pre-determine the future?

I just found this review by Helen at She Reads Novels in which she says that “[t]here is also another way to interpret the story, one which goes deeper into the psychology of identity.” I must say that I think I know what she is hinting at, but I hadn’t thought of this alternate theory of what happens in the novel until I read Helen’s review. It’s an interesting thought, and it makes me want to go back and re-read the entire novel to see if it really can be read the way I’m thinking. Enigmatic enough for you?

If you like psychological suspense and the philosophical exploration of sin, history, and identity in your novels, you won’t want to to miss The Scapegoat.