Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson

I can't say I enjoyed this book, it is much too painful to read about the so-called "reasonable" men, doing their research in what we know now to be a completely unreasonable manner - ostensibly trying to determine if black people are as intelligent as white people - but, in the name of objectivity, completely handicapping the experiment. But it certainly does make me think. How strong our prejudices are that we cannot even recognize them when we are explicitly looking at them. These men performed experiments on and with a young black boy and ostensibly had no idea how their own prejudices came into play. And then I remind myself that it is a work of fiction, after all. Perhaps, Anderson is exaggerating. But, no, people of that day actually believed the things that these "learned gentlemen" researched and asserted.

I must admit, I skimmed parts of this book. They were simply too uncomfortable for me to want to read. And parts of the book were simply boring. I think it could have been edited down to a more effective book about 2/3 of the current length. But, I also have to admit to a great deal of respect for M. T. Anderson. This is an extremely difficult subject to tackle and it is done from a rather unique perspective.

But, just as reasonable men didn't see their own prejudice against blacks, I wonder what current social obsession we manage to completely misview, because of our own prejudices. The prejudice against gays and lesbians doesn't qualify, because we are now aware of it. Prejudice against the intelligence of other animal species - especially apes and dolphins and their relatives - might qualify. The arrogance of our species in thinking we are the top and end point of the evolutionary chain might also. But it is likely something quite different - something only hindsight will make us aware of. Sigh. We are such limited beings.

Even us white ones. (*intended sarcastic irony*)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Raven's Gate by Anthony Horowitz

This is definitely a boy's book - mostly action, little and relatively standardardized character development, not many personal relationships. But it is a good boy's book, I guess. The plotting seems plausible. Each situation seems realistic, until they all add up to a fantastic whole. And it IS exciting.

Problem is - I am female and, while I appreciate it for its strengths, it isn't my type of book.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Passion of the Keef by Keith Knight

There is one advantage to being sick - you get more books read. I am not sure that I enjoy them as well as I would have if I had been well, but ...

I like some of the points that Keith Knight makes in his cartoons, many of which focus on racial interactions. And I especially enjoyed, in this book, his series on Life's Little Victories.

But, I am not especially fond of the art work. It is a bit too cluttered and sometimes just reading the strip is more effort than it should be. I also subscribe to a service that sends me certain political cartoons, one of which is drawn by Ted Rall. My reaction to both of them is the same. I find the ideas interesting, but the artwork is too intimidating - visually too much.

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

This book, loosely based on the story of Snow White, is just a bit too convoluted for my tastes. In trying to make the plot of Snow White into a full length, though derivative tale, there are just a few too many duplicities for my interest. It makes the plot of the book more realistic, I will concede, but it makes it harder to believe some of the actions of the main characters.

I felt betrayed that the Prince, who was shown as doubting the queen and her rule, so readily accepted the queen's accusations against Aza, supposedly the girl that he was falling in love with. He just didn't seem to be THAT shallow and lacking in understanding. In fact, in another scene, he shows incredible finesse in the situation, which potentially saved the life of the cook and one of the court ladies.

One of the issues brought up by a reviewer on Amazon was why was it necessary for Aza to feel loved by the prince, before she was able to stand up for herself. It is clearly shown before then that she knew she was completely and well loved by her family and appreciated by some guests at her parents' inn. Why was her self esteem so low? I think the answer to that comes out of the situation. Although she knew her parents and family loved her and appreciated her voice, that wasn't enough to shield her from the dislike of strangers at the inn. And, they do, after all, allow her to shield herself from many guests. She was taken to the coronation only as a substitute - not for herself, only for her availability. That does nothing to up her self esteem. She was taken as the lady-in-waiting to the queen under circumstances that were dishonest and threatening. That further lowers her opinion of herself. She can't even enjoy the one thing about her that is acknowledge to be beautiful - her voice, because it is the instrument of her bondage. It takes someone for whom she has respect in order to break the cycle. The king is unavailable for that role, as is the queen. The head musician is the one who later exposes her, so he can't be the person who boosts her self esteem. And, this is a tale for teenage, or pre-teenage girls, so the availability of the prince is convenient - and needed later on for the completion of the Snow White-ness of the story. It would be a bit unrealistic if, all of a sudden, she developed self-confidence without some outside intervention. I suppose she could have conveniently found a female friend in the castle, but that would have made the story even more convoluted.

All in all, it is a decent story. I would rate Ella Enchanted (by the same author) higher, though.

Sold by Patricia McCormick

This book is not for the faint-hearted, nor probably for kids who aren't old enough to understand about prostitution and life in a brothel. That statement, in itself, is rather sadly ironic, since the girl profiled in the book was also not old enough to understand what was happening, and only understood much too late, after there was nothing she could do to change the situation.

The book doesn't spare the readers' sensitivities. The sex slave trade is there in painful detail. But, surprisingly, there are also glimmers of humanity, kindness, loyalty, and helpfulness. Even in the most desperate circumstances, some people come through. It is this modicum of hope that makes the book not completely depressing. But, I wonder - is this modicum of hope only there to placate the reader? Is there any hope in the situation in real life?

Friday, December 8, 2006

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

I suppose I should really let this one percolate a bit in my mind before writing about it, but I'm not doing so. I just finished the book a few minutes ago and I enjoyed it. It is a quirky book - and you really have to enjoy supreme nerdiness, but it's got humor and a good heart, too.

The plot: Colin Singleton, a super smart "child prodigy" has dated 19 Katherines, all of whom have dumped him. To recover from his most recent dumping, he and his friend, Hassan, go on a road trip. They end up in a tiny dead-end town called Gutshot, Tennessee, where they get hired to do a town history. They live with the town matriarch, the town's only factory owner, and her daughter. The daughter, Lindsey, has a boyfriend. Colin spends a lot of his time trying to come up with a mathematical equation for a romantic relationship. Colin is truly a nerd, but eventually, even he learns to relax and live with an unpredictable future.

I guess I am just nerdy enough to find the footnoted tidbits laugh-out-loud funny. This kid remembers the first 99 digits of pi by making up a sentence with the first letter of each work coded to the numbers of pi. And he anagrams everything. It is close enough to what I have done for me to feel the gently mocking humor, yet far enough off the deep end that I don't feel threatened by it.

The very end of the book seems to get a bit preachy and didactic, but the idea is good and I guess the preachiness is in character.

A word of caution: yes, there is teen sex in the book. I usually don't like that much - and I don't like it in this case either, but I think it was probably called for, plotwise. That isn't always the case, but, in this book I think it was necessary in order for the characters to make some radical and anticipated changes in their lives.

Worth reading.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Don't Pat the Wombat by Elizabeth Honey

This is a book about a group of 6th grade Australian kids who go on a school camping trip. It centers on a group of boys that call themselves the Coconuts - or at camp, the Convicts. It is narrated by Mark, but the real focus of the book is the new kid Jonah - who arrived from the back country and who, for some reason, aroused the wrath of the meanest teacher in the school, the Bomb. The core of the book is a logging of the typical camp adventures; the soul of the book, though, is the conflict between Jonah and the Bomb.

The interesting thing to me about the structure of the book is that nothing is fleshed out, but still the book works. The kids in the gang are described, are meant to be unique, but somehow seem interchangeable. The teachers, the parents, the other kids - all seem sketched in broad strokes. Even the Bomb is more of a caricature than a real character.

And then there's Jonah. All you ever get of Jonah is little glimpses. But you end up having to be satisfied with that - and with never really knowing the whole story. The narrator isn't omniscient - only a witness to a later retelling of the key event. Such tantalizing glimpses. But the author seems to be saying - this is all you get. This is as close as you may look at him.

Still, the story works also from the sheer fun level. There are enough zany things going on that the crowd stays amused. The camp scenes are wonderful and typical. It makes me remember fondly various other camping outings, both as the kid and as the parent or teacher or counselor.

But, if you have never seen a picture of a wombat, you should look it up before you read the book.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Running with Scissors: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

Oh, dear, another failure. I just cannot finish this one either. I find nothing funny about it in the first 3 chapters - it is just disgusting to me. And I did so want to be part of a book group that talks about grown up books.

Back to kids' books, AGAIN.

Terrier - Beka Cooper by Tamora Pierce

OK, I resisted for a while. I walked by the new book in the bookstore several times, on different days, even. They aren't worth that kind of money - buying the hardback. Sigh. But then I succumbed. And then came a disastrous bout of stomach upset. One whole day of throwing up repeatedly every 3 hours whether I needed to or not. After that, and while trying to recouperate and get my stomach back on a even keel, who could blame me a bit of self-indulgence. Sigh, again.

I finished the book in one day - and it isn't a short book. I like this one, too. I was prepared to NOT like it as much, since the idea of going back in time didn't especially appeal to me. I like looking to the future more than I do looking to the past. But this is such an interesting world. Unlike the other books of Tortall, this one takes place in the realm of the poor, the leftovers, the rejects of human society. Beka Cooper (presumably the early ancestor of George Cooper, Alanna's husband) is a new "Puppy" (recruit), working for the "Dogs" (police) in the lower city. This is her home district and she feels that she belongs there. She soon latches on to a double mystery - why 9 people have gone missing and the pigeons who carry the spirits of the dead keep bothering her to find them and also why children are being abducted, ransomed, and either returned or killed, depending on whether the ranson was paid. Beka is tough and resourceful, but also painfully shy - an interesting combination.

Again, this isn't a profound book, but I did enjoy it. I like the toughness - it seems so real. There were only a couple of minor things that didn't work for me. The solution to the child stealing crimes didn't seem to show the motivation behind them strongly enough. The crimes seemed out of proportion to the provocation/incentive. The other set of crimes seemed more plausible. Beka's attraction to What's-His-Name is another thing that didn't work for me. Fortunately, it wasn't a major part of this book - although my guess is that it will almost certainly figure in the sequel(s).

An interesting point to think about: one of the other "Puppies" goes over to the criminal side after his lover/co-Puppy is killed through stupidity/irresponsibility on the part of her "Dogs". Beka acknowledges that the line between the criminal and the law-enforcer is a fine one. This is a bit disturbing to me - maybe because I have ?falsely? ?wishfully? held to the belief that law enforcers have a commitment to the law. Is it really that easy to switch sides?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Joust by Mercedes Lackey

This is an enjoyable book, if not a profound one. Vetch, the main character, is a serf, which, in his world, is worse than being a slave. Slaves can be sold, but serfs are bound to the land. A jouster - a fighting dragon rider - saves him from his world of starvation and constant work to take him as a dragon boy. Vetch learns to care for dragons, both in the sense of serving their needs and also in the sense of loving and appreciating them. When a dragon female is accidentally allowed to mate, he steals her first egg and tends it, bonding to and caring for the dragonet that is eventually hatched. Vetch's master, Ari also raised his dragon, Hashet, from an egg and it is apparent how much they care for each other.

Spoiler: in the end Vetch escapes on Avatre and Ari helps him. This is not a real surprise - the story had been pointing that way from the beginning.

Simple, straightforward, but still interesting, especially for those who love reading about dragons and training them.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

I purchased all 6 of these books from and the last 3 arrived months before the first ones. I finally cancelled the order for books 1, 2, and 3 and ordered them from They arrived from there promptly. I do not understand why couldn't get the books from their sister company and mail them to me, but evidently that is beyond their capabilities. I waited for MONTHS to get the books through the original order. Since I had read books 4 - 6 already, I was quite interested in getting the first three. This isn't the first time this has happened. I really don't understand Amazon's methods.

But, to the books: I just finished book 1 (First Term at Malory Towers) and I enjoyed it. As I have mentioned before, it is very interesting to me to read about some of the basic assumptions of the schooling "in those days". First of all, the girls readily accept that they are at school, not only to learn, but also to become better people. The overall emphasis on building good character, along with gaining academic knowledge is accepted by the GIRLS as important - not just the adults. The basic struggles that the girls go through in the books are those of mastering their characters. The books are a bit preachy in this respect - as are many older books - but I wonder if that isn't a good thing rather than a bad one. Kids nowadays would find it too old fashioned - but I think a good dose of character building would help a lot of kids. Rather than blaming all of their problems on the system, the girls take responsibility for them themselves. OK - one of the girls doesn't. She blames everyone else for all of her difficulties, but that stands out so much that it is a big point of the story.

Darrell, the main character, is intelligent, although certainly not the top student in the form. In order for her to get the grades and the standing she wants, she has to work a bit - not excessively, but she can't be a slacker like the brightest girl. She starts out trying to be like the very smart, but also somewhat sassy Alicia - but she gradually learns that she has to be herself - and to work to better herself as she is.

Another point of interest is the differences in the girls' characters. Ms. Blyton seems especially adept at making each girl seem unique: from Darrell's temper to Gwendoline's petty nastiness to the cool-headed Katherine. The girls seem to be so accepting of the differences. They are even accepting of the academic differences. The girls are constantly informed about not only their current grades, but also about their standings in the class. It is common knowledge who is top in what class - and who is at the bottom. This kind of openness would be anathema nowadays - it would damage too many kids' self esteem. But, for all that, the kids nowadays DO know. They probably couldn't tell the exact rankings of kids, but they know who are the best students, who are the worst, who are the best/worst artists, who are the best/worst at sports. We may be protecting some egos by hiding the exact numbers and rankings, but we are also giving up the motivation that comes from trying to do a bit better. And I sometimes wonder if that system didn't work better. It would be interesting to try it out in a modern school. I wonder if it would be considered ethical to experiment with it.

edited 11/11/2006 for spelling of Malory

A Quiet Time for Molly by Norah T. Pulling

This book is old enough that it doesn't even have a publishing date in it, so don't expect to find it in your local book store - or even the library. But it isn't worth fretting about. The story is not bad, but it is a bit dated. I bought this book, thinking it was another British boarding school book. It isn't. Instead, it is a story about a girl who goes for a holiday at the house of one of her mother's friends. The friend and her husband have two children, both boys - one older and the other younger than Molly. The house is an older one, and is amazingly large and complicated. It also has two secret hiding places that the two boys steadfastly refuse to tell Molly how to find. She is determined to find them, however. After a few mishaps, which cause her to fall out of favor with the boys, she not only finds the first of the two, but finds a second, even better one. This turns out to actually be a different one from the one the boys knew about. While showing it to the boys, they accidently are trapped in it, during the birthday party for the younger boy. The cleverness of their eventual rescue is interesting.

One aspect of this book strikes me as particularly difficult for a current audience: the complexity and size of the house itself. I have been in some big houses in the United States, but none of them even come close to this one in size - it is 4 stories tall, not including the basement and just the picture gallery room is 60 paces long. Assuming that, for a child, a pace is about 2 feet long, that would make a single room in the house 120 feet long. Even if a pace is only a foot long (and the girl does take pains to say that she took LONG strides), that would still make the room 60 feet long. That is one big room - and it is only one of many. There are three main staircases and corridors and halls that merit mentioning for their turns. The grounds around the house are equally spacious - including a lake and massive gardens. In fact the description of the picture gallery and the gardens reminds me a lot of Versailles. The house strains credulity a bit - at least for this American.

Well, at least Molly's quiet time was anything but quiet.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty

This is the third Moriarty book I have read (Feeling Sorry for Celia, and The Year of Secret Assignments - the American title - are the others) and the one that is the most puzzling to me. I can't figure out if I like it or not.

The Story: Bindy (short for Belinda) is a genius and wants everyone to know it. She makes a hobby of listening to people and their conversations and typing them up on her laptop. She has managed to alienate everyone who knows her by her air of superiority and her inability to relate to them. Then, during her year 11 year, her world starts to fall apart. Her parents are away for their jobs and she is staying with her uncle and aunt. And Bindy herself has increasing bouts of headaches, stomach aches, and general illness. Her grades start to slip. But the key problem is her FAD class - Friendship and Development class - a sort of encounter group. Intended to help students with personal issues, it instead intensifies Bindy's problems. And her life seems to go consistently down hill.

There is no need to give away the ending, so I won't discuss it. But the whole thing just seems a bit too unlikely to be believable. The other two books by Moriarty seemed much more real. This one, well, just seems a bit surreal. And that makes the characters almost like caricatures, rather than real people with real lives. I would like to like Bindy. I am very interesting in extremely intelligent kids, but it is hard to like Bindy as she appears in the story. There is just something lacking about the way her situation is developed. I wish I could put my finger on it better, but, for now, I can't.

The Report Card by Andrew Clements

I had read this book before and didn't care for it. I didn't like the way it dealt with a genius girl. I had previously read Frindle by the same author and disliked it, too, so I just put that author in my "don't like" category and dismissed it. But then, I read another of his books, The Landry News, almost by accident. I was subbing and the kids had a silent reading time. I like to model reading at the same time, so I picked out a title from the teacher's book selection and that was it. It was OK. Better than Frindle and The Report Card. But then, one of my newsgroups, GT-Families, I think, was discussing this book and I decided to look again.

The story is about a girl who is a genius. She became aware of her unusual abilities at a very early age, seemingly at birth or even before. When very young, she was able to almost instantly put together complicated puzzles that were difficult for her much older sister. She decided then that she needed to hide her abilities, because they made her sister mad and caused her parents to demand performances from her. When she goes off to school, she decides again that she will not show her abilities, choosing instead to model herself after each of the other students in the classroom in turn. She finally settles on modeling what her friend Steven does. He is an average student - a good kid, who works hard to accomplish what he does and she decides to emulate him.

She does not completely neglect her own interests and abilities - she just pursues them where no one else can detect what she is up to. She tries very hard to be just average - until the school starts giving standardized tests that indicate how well or poorly a student is doing in relation to the rest of the class/world. She decides that the tests and grades in general are too demoralizing to many kids and she sets out to defy their importance, which she does by purposely getting all D's on her report card. She makes one mistake, though, she gets a C in spelling. Her biggest mistake, though, is that she wasn't consistently getting D's, but rather purposely let her grades drop just after the cut off when parents would be notified that their daughter wasn't doing well.

The parents get upset and confront the teachers, the teachers justify themselves. Everyone decides that she needs to be tested to determine what, exactly, her abilities are. Only, they give her a test with which she is unfamiliar and hasn't had a chance to research - the WISC III. She decides that she will pass the test at about an average level, figuring that 7 out of 10 in about average. Interestingly, this turns out to be the continuation criterion of many intelligence tests - you keep on going to the next highest level, as long as you get approximately 7 out of 10 answers correct. I am not familiar enough with the WISC III to know if this is the continuation criterion for it, but I have given other IQ tests with that criterion. At any rate, she keeps on going until the test is done.

As was discussed in the news group, the actual scoring of her test was probably written about incorrectly in the book. She would not have been given a mental age score, I don't believe, as the scoring for this test is not designed to do that. Nevertheless, it is clear that she is extremely intelligent. If she had been average, she would not have been able to continue to answer 7 out of 10 correct consistently as the test got harder and harder, which it IS designed to do. So she was "discovered". And then the adults decided that they needed to do something about it - put her in a special school, have her attend the gifted program in her school.

In the end, she convinces Stephen to join her in a protest and many of the kids purposely get 0's on the next test. When she realizes what this means - disrespect for learning, etc., she convinces the kids to stop the protest and get back to work. She refuses the special school and the gifted program and goes back to educating herself on the sly while the others do the regular work.

There are many problems with this book, in addition to the scoring of the exam discussed above. Firstly, I am not sure if I believe the infancy stories. Not so much the puzzle story - it seems unlikely, but it is hard for me to completely discount it, because I am obviously not as smart as Nora. But what seems even more unlikely is the early decision to hide her abilities and her complete ability to fool her parents into thinking that she was average or even slightly below. I just don't see how an infant could hide her interests and abilities from parents who are involved with and interested in their children. It is true that she is a third child, but so am I - and my parents weren't completely clueless about me. Her reasoning just doesn't ring true to me.

One thing that does seem completely plausible is her decision to act like the other children in her class. I have heard that story many times from parents of gifted children.

But there are other things that bother me: why does she so completely buy into the idea that she has to hide her abilities. Yes, our society doesn't particularly like people of exceptionally high ability, and it is probably entirely too correct that denying her ability is much easier on everyone than using it. But the author seems to condone the idea when, in the end, he shows her going back to the regular classroom - with nothing exceptional being done to acknowledge or deal with her abilities. The message seems to be "act normal - that is the best way for everyone". It isn't good to be obviously too different.

All in all, this is a very problematic book, especially for young and brilliant girls.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I was trying to read this book in preparation for a book group. I knew before I bought it, that it wasn't really my type of book, but I was trying to broaden my vistas a bit. For me, the venture wasn't a success. The book may be well written - I don't seem to be an especially good judge of that - but the topics just don't appeal to me. I should actually qualify that. The topic of getting ready for the Chicago World's Fair might have, by itself, appealed to me. The power struggles between all of the major personalities, the architects, the engineers, the workers, are interesting to me. But the tale of the murderer is abhorrent. It is supposed to be abhorrent. It is supposed to be the horror that draws you into the unfolding story. But I just can't stomach it. It is just too disgusting, too nervewracking.

I wonder sometimes what the appeal of horror stories are for people. I hate them. I suppose it is a bit like the voyeuristic inclination we all seem to have when we come upon a car accident. We know that it isn't a good thing, but we eagerly look for the cars involved and assess in our own minds what the damage must have been (or is). But reading about a real life serial killer seems to be far beyond the curiosity evoked by a car crash. It feels sick to me to even be interested in such awful things. I am glad that other people seem to feel it necessary to do research on the motives and operations of a serial killer, but I want to have nothing to do with it. If that means I am avoiding reality and leaving an important historical event out of my knowledge, well, so be it. I, at least, plan to leave this book to others.

Back to teen lit for me. I sometimes wonder if I will ever have mature tastes.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tamora Pierce Again

Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen

I liked both of these books, but I must admit that, like most of her books I have read, I get bogged down in the battle and armament details and get much more caught up in the personal battles and character descriptions. I get so impatient with reading about just how the battles go. I suppose this must be appealing to a lot of her readers, as it seems to be a formula present in just about all of the Tortall books, but I find myself trying to skim over parts of the book just to find out how it all turns out.

That said, I did find Aly appealing. She always seems to be about three steps ahead of where I am thinking as I read the books. It is obvious that she is a very clever thinker, as far as strategy and planning goes - or at least she is more clever than I am so it appears to me that she is very clever. I like that. I also like that each of the major characters at the heart of Pierce's stories has slightly different strengths. Their general appeal is similar, but each one has something unique. Aly's is her talent for spying and intrigue.

The conflict between the raka - the darker skinned natives of the Copper Isles - and the luarin - the white nobles who invaded and conquered long ago - is also an interesting one. It parallels in some generic ways the conflicts between other historical light skinned invaders and their darker skinned subjects. The names and the dress style - moderately Asian sounding names and sarongs - are reminiscent of Hawaii, but the conflict itself appears so often in history that it is hard to tell if the author used Hawaii as a model or took a bit from many and various similar conflicts - white/Maori, white/Indian, white/African, white/Native American, etc. I suppose it is a tad politically correct that the emphasis is on getting both groups to accept each other, but, then again, it is probably the only realistic solution.

Side Note: I read a review somewhere that seemed to think that these would be the only books in this series, because Aly ends up safely back in Tortall. That isn't how the book ends. It ends with her staying in the Copper Isles, from what I can tell. That doesn't necessarily mean that there will be further books in the series, nor does it mean that there won't be. The door is still open for further books, but who knows.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mind Candy

I have a large collection of cartoons, both regular and political. The collection ranges from Best Editorial Cartoons of 1974 to Peanuts and Asterix, and includes some cartoon books picked up in travels both in the US and abroad. I like to compare humor styles and I am especially excited when I find examples of humor that are localized - unique to a particular geographic region or cultural group (e.g., Footrot, a New Zealand cartoon strip). Also, for example, Tundra cartoons are interesting to me, because a good bit of their humor comes from people, animals, and situations that are especially applicable to Alaska. I have the complete collection of Gary Larson cartoons, which are absolutely great for a unit I do with upper elementary through middle school kids on making inferences. It is such a thrill for me when kids use the method (An Inference Is a Guess You Make - the early graphic organizer) to analyze Gary Larson cartoons and the meaning of the cartoon gradually becomes clear to them.

I am also especially fond of my complete Calvin and Hobbes collection, my nearly complete Zits collection, and my nearly complete For Better or For Worse collection. It would be wonderful if my salary kept up with my collecting interests.

Two of my more recent cartoon interests are Frazz and Get Fuzzy. New books from these strips will be discussed here.

99% Perspiration by Jef Mallett

The main character in this cartoon strip is Frazz, who is the custodian for a small elementary school, when he isn't out riding his bike or composing music. His main sidekick is an extremely smart young African American kid named Caulfield. Since this strip combines my interests in education and in gifted kids, it can't help but appeal to me - and it does. Just one of my favorite examples (though it might be from his other book): Caulfield says that a guy in his dad's class called him a person of color, but he wasn't sure what color he was, so he went to the paint store and got all these cards with colors on them and decided that he was "Serengeti Sunrise". The next panel shows many differently hued kids checking out their colors, too, including one young person who declares, "Woo! Hoo! I'm buff!" They also classify Frazz, the principal, and then Caulfield jokingly calls his teacher's color "Old Foghorn", but gets caught at it by Frazz. The humor is mostly gentle and childlike, with occasional jabs at the educational establishment.

I don't have a direct use for these books in the classroom, but I do find them very appealing.

Scrum Bums by Darby Conley

The main characters in this strip are Robert Wilco, who is, I think, an advertising copy writer, his dog Satchel, and his cat Bucky. Satchel is this sweet innocent character with an absolutely adorable look of befuddlement, whenever the conversation goes beyond his very literal comprehension abilities. Bucky is his sarcastic, self-centered, scheming feline counterpart. I am not a dog lover, but who wouldn't fall in love with naive, innocent Satchel. And what cat lover doesn't recognize the evil tendencies of their feline companions in the schemes that Bucky thinks up. I have two cats - the large Maine coon reminds me a lot of Satchel - with his bumbling naiveté; the small black and white devil kitty is obviously Bucky, though she isn't quite as clever - and is only about half as evil.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Secret Life of a Boarding School Brat by Amy Gordon

This is a more up-to-date account of a girl at a boarding school. This one, unlike the spate of books I read during the summer, has a publishing date in this century. For an up-to-date book, it has a different focus from most. Sure, there are dead mothers and fathers, divorced parents, deaths of relatives, but, while they are important to the story, they are not the focus of the story. The partial exceptions to this are 1) the death of Lydia's grandmother, which, while it is still a raw wound to her soul, has happened off-stage, so to speak, and 2) the divorce of her parents and the re-marriage of her father. They are important, but largely background to the real story, which revolves around Lydia's adjustment to being in the boarding school where her grandmother went to school many years ago. Both those events set up the reason for Lydia's feeling of estrangement from her compatriots. She is still adjusting to a different family organization and then she gets shipped off to boarding school. She begins wandering through the school at night and soon makes friends with the school's handyman cum night watchman. He sees that she is interested in an old, prominently displayed painting and sets her the challenge of finding out who the people depicted in the painting are. The rest of the story is a kind of mild mystery, with elements of learning to accept people for who they are.

Unfortunately for my interests, there is very little information about how the school is set up and how it functions, as far as academics and extracurriculars go. We find out a little about the way dinners are run - kids are assigned to tables for a certain period of time. The only times I have been in a situation like that as a child - at summer camp - I disliked it. The only time as an adult was at a private school. I really liked it there. I liked how it felt more like a family atmosphere - and how the kids actually ate the food. (This is completely unlike the public schools where I substitute teach. In these schools, well over half of the food served in the school lunches goes untouched into the trash - it is appalling to see the waste.)

At any rate, the book is a comforting read. The mystery isn't earthshattering and should be solvable by kids who are paying attention and the emotional content of the book is satisfying.

More SF and Fantasy

Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn

I just finished Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn and I enjoyed it. It isn't profound, but it does have an interesting alien and a decent plot. To whit: Jack Morgan is on the run on a remote planet when he witnesses a space battle that results in one of the ships plummeting down onto the planet. Since he keeps himself going in part by scavenging, he decides to investigate. He is set upon by the only survivor, a K'da poet-warrior, who is an obligatory symbiont - unable to survive for more than a few hours without contact with a host. Jack becomes, rather unwillingly, his host. Together they escape the beings who attacked the ships and go in search of a way to clear Jack's name and save Dracos' species. This is the first of a series that is currently at 4 books. Others in the series: Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, and Dragon and Herdsman. When I get through some of the other books I have stacked up, I may get back to this. I don't feel a tremendous amount of urgency, but I like SF and it is kind of rare to find SF that upper elementary or middle school kids could read with no untoward adult-like themes.

The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

I know this is one of the most popular of the Tortall books and one of the earliest - I haven't seen an exact chronology, but I actually liked the Protector of the Small Series a bit better. I just can't get all that interested in the evil protagonist in these books, Duke Roger. I like Alanna well enough, but her men troubles and her battles with various evil, powerful others aren't quite as compelling as I would like. Still, I enjoyed the books and will continue reading books about the Tortall Kingdom - and hope that I actually LIKE the heroines a little better than I like Alanna.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Truesight by David Stahler Jr.

I guess I am on a minor science fiction kick right now.

Truesight is the story of a separatist movement by blind people. They have set up several colonies where only blind people live. Children are genetically engineered to be blind and the few infants who are mistakenly born with sight are deprived of the use of their eyes and become effectively blind. As with many separatist movements, it develops a rather cultist sense of its own value and rightness - becoming effectively a religion.

In this setting we encounter Jacob, who is turning 13 - the end to formal schooling and the time, soon after which he will be assigned to a job (echos of The Giver). But Jacob starts having vicious, though short lasting headaches and gradually develops the ability to see, which changes his entire perception of his world. The physical ability to see changes also the metaphorical ability to see, as he discovers people cheating on the system, cheating on each other, and breaking the rules of the society that they have so carefully constructed and so faithfully, at least in words, support.

Books that involve layers of ethical dilemmas appeal to me and this one did. It is true, that parts of this book are really clunky - Jacob's school report on the history of the colony is clearly an attempt to justify the reasoning behind the movement to the reader. It is, in certain respects, not even necessary. The reader has already been informed through other means (reciting group mantras) about the basics. There are other problems with the novel, as other reviewers have pointed out on Amazon.

The most serious awkwardness in my mind is the instant identification of colors and the rapid recognition of facial expressions once Jacob becomes sighted. He should not even have had names for colors. There should have been some other way of identifying the new sights, other than by color. Since he is a musician, perhaps a musical analogy would have been more fitting; or by identification with texture or common objects, e.g., "the tomato appeared to grab his eyes like the sound of the locator when it beeped" or "marimba-like pricks of light came from all over the tomato plant". He should also have learned about facial expressions by accidentally seeing his own face in something reflective and trying out the various expressions. How else could he recognize so quickly the meaning of a curled lip or a frown? Whereas the first part of the novel, giving background and setting things up, moved pretty slowly, the middle section of it seemed to go too fast for me.

Nevertheless, the last third of the novel was very interesting, posing many questions ripe for discussion. Is this just a coming of age story - with sight being the Biblical-analogy-like metaphor for knowledge of the real world or is it exploring deeper questions? Do all separatist societies need the religion-like devotion to societal norms? And even further afield: is there a sense that humans are lacking that, if we had it would illuminate our society as the addition of sight illuminates Jacob's?

Is this a book kids might like? I think so. There is enough action that the philosophical questions don't really bog it down. I will be interested in the sequels. Evidently this is planned to be the first of a trilogy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubenstein

While I was reading this book, I kept thinking to myself, "This is one weird book!" Now that I am finished with it, I am not so sure. First of all, it is science fiction. It takes place in the future, but not the extremely distant future. The technology necessary to support the plot line wouldn't have to be that much in advance of what is currently available. The weirdness stems in part from the very premise of the book: children who are talented in gymnastics or dance are "recruited" (i.e. kidnapped) and sent to a distant planet to be performing captives for the aliens who live there. The children who aren't good enough to be top quality performers are sometimes placed in cages and given to aliens who care for them as pets. The story revolves around the Lord of the Flies type atmosphere of the group of children who perform, and the main character, who becomes a pet.

Rather than give away the ending, I will simply say that there are many issues that are exposed as you read the book. Obviously there is the pet theme. We keep pets and they are essentially our prisoners. We care for them, keep them healthy, show appreciation for them. But is this ethical?

This book also touches on many other aspects of ethics: is it ethical to kidnap children who are starving on the streets of decaying cities and force them to perform, even if, in doing so, they receive better food, better shelter, better clothing, and more care than they might get on the streets. What if the children become used to it? What if they never protest? What if they do? What if it results, for some, in their deaths?

Then, there are all of the issues surrounding the reason for the captivity and the performances. Why must the children perform daring and dangerous tricks? Is it ethical to feed off of others' emotions? There are many more similar questions that I am not going to discuss explicitly because I can't do so without spoilers.

And a warning: there are deaths in the story - two children fall to their deaths doing dangerous gymnastics or dance stunts and the children all end up killing the man who kidnapped them and held them captive, even though he cared for them. These are not just "in the background" deaths either. They are pretty graphic and scary and should probably be accompanied by a thorough discussion.

In fact, this book is teeming with questions about society and possible future societies. It would make a very interesting book for discussion for groups of (probably gifted) students who enjoy science fiction. One problem, though, would be trying to make sure that, if students are like me and want to read ahead, that they don't allow that to influence the discussion. In fact, this is one of the few books that I would be tempted to tear apart and only hand out to the students one chapter at a time.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the patois that the children speak. There is a glossary in the front of the book, rather than at the end - and it is needed. This is probably one major reason why I would NOT recommend this book for most kids - it is simply too intimidating to read. It is also probably a major reason why I have never heard anyone talk about the book. It is challenging - in many ways.

I suppose, in the end, it is not really a great book - it isn't lyrical prose, the characters don't pull at your heartstrings across the ages. But it sure is an interesting one and one I am glad I have read. I would be very curious to know what a group of middle school or older gifted kids would make of it.

Friday, September 8, 2006

Gloria Whelan

I have been more interested in Africa lately, since my younger daughter spent 7+ weeks in Uganda on a student traineeship. Years ago, I had collected stamps from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Botswana, but that interest had kind of gone by the wayside. Still, for a long time, I have wanted to learn to speak an African language [I know several European languages - at least modestly - and I have wanted to see if knowing an unrelated African language would bring me new insights into how people in that part of the world think.]. And I have read children's books from Africa off and on for many years. But A.'s trip to Uganda and the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency books have led to a revived interest in Africa.

So, when I was looking through my Amazon recommendations, I saw Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan. I have been trying to wean myself off of buying books that could possibly be at our library, but in this case our library didn't have it yet. It is "in the process of being acquired". But, while I was at the library, I decided to check out two other books by Gloria Whelan. I had read Angel on the Square a couple of years ago and, though I enjoyed it, it wasn't a particular favorite of mine. But two other books of hers caught my eye. These books I will review today.

Goodbye, Vietnam

This is the older book, written in 1990, according to the copyright date - and it is showing its age a bit. The story is still fine, but the epilogue is out of date - with many changes in that country since 1990. Nevertheless, this is a pretty faithful accounting of the hazards faced by the boat people who fled Vietnam during that era - and, even though it is probably toned down a bit for children, it is still a pretty grim tale. It is well crafted in that it really makes the reader feel with and understand the people. I like it when books give you a real sense of a culture's traditions, without necessarily lecturing to you and this book does that.

Chu Ju's House

I enjoyed this book, too. It is the story of the oldest girl in a rural Chinese family. Chinese people who farm were allowed to have two children and every family hoped that at least one of the children would be a boy, since boys were responsible for caring for the parents when they were older. But since the child that was born second was another girl, the family made arrangements to sell the infant, so that they might try one more time for a boy. To spare her young sister the ordeal of an orphanage, Chu Ju runs away and tries to make her own way in the world. It isn't an easy life - she lives for a while with a boat family, then in a silk-making factory with some orphans, and finally makes her way to a poor farming community and a very small two-person farm. There she is befriended and gradually finds comfort, both physically and emotionally. She finally goes back to visit her family (and now there is a third girl), but in the meantime, she is satisfied with the life she has made and returns to her farm.

This book is all about choices - how they are made and what their consequences are and that is something I am always quite interested in. The choices aren't easy. I do appreciate the fact that the author shows different people making entirely different choices and shows understanding of each of those choices. It is still a children's book, but some of the complexities of life are at least gently explored.

Another thing that is of interest is the method of educating the peasants - through pamphlets and local agricultural workers. Books are still suspicious - they contain dangerous ideas, but the pamphlets that help people learn better farming methods are gradually making learning new things more acceptable. Of the things that were taught in the local school, we hear only briefly about reading and writing. I guess literacy is important worldwide - even (or especially) under repressive regimes.


Both of these books were enjoyable they still lack that something that makes me love them. Maybe I am just getting jaded. They were both good, but they won't be carried with me to mull over many years later.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones; The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies by Sonya Sones

Much of this book is predictable - Mom dies, daughter gets sent to live with Dad, whom she doesn't remember. Daughter is angry at first and gradually finds her way. The big lure for kids is all of the name-dropping. Dad, a famous movie star, lives next to famous movie star. Dad hosts party for more famous movie stars. Kids at school are all related to famous movie stars. You get the idea. It isn't a bad book - just somewhat predictable.

The Revealers by Doug Wilhelm

The main premise of this book is that three kids who have been victims of bullying band together to try to get it to stop. They do so by using the in-house school computer network to tell their stories to all of the other kids in the school, and soon other kids are telling their stories, too. Talking about it seems to help and gradually the school seems to be getting less threatening, but the principal and one of the bullies tries to put a stop to it.

I have been in middle schools quite a bit and have been on the other side of the story - the teachers' side. While the teachers are portrayed as relatively uninvolved with the bullying, it is much more difficult than the book seems to portray it. I see too clearly exactly what frustrates the kids about the teachers - telling students that they can't do anything about the bullying unless they actually see examples of it. But, positive action to combat the bullying is much more difficult. Teachers cannot follow each middle schooler home. Teachers cannot see every note that is passed or hear every snide comment. Bullies are exceedingly clever at attacking when their behaviors will be least likely to be detected. I am not trying to excuse the principal in this story, who seems to be in denial and is too heavily influenced by the people in power in the community (the bully girl's lawyer father). But most teachers seem to be more like the English teacher - well meaning, but essentially clueless; or the computer teacher - hopeful and willing to help, but not sure whether it will, in fact, be more helpful or worse.

Bullying is a complex problem - more complex than this book seems to see it as. I think this book offers an interesting idea - that bringing all of the incidents of bullying to light will make people more understanding of the problems. I wish that that were all that was needed. But I am a bit pessimistic about it. Like a lot of other current day problems, though: I see the problem, but I just don't see a solution. Even the youngest school children start bullying - usually with name-calling and simple shoving other kids around. Teachers try to stop it; parents try to stop it. But somehow, our culture seems to glorify domination - clever putdowns are the stock in trade of many television programs. Physical aggression, bordering on harrassment, seems to be part and parcel of male behavior - and some would argue, is necessary for healthy growth into manhood. Verbal harrassment and shunning seem to be the preferred weapons of girls. Where does something essentially "harmless" and normal shade into something that is more sinister? When adults step in, what is the best way to do so?

I have participated in and have taught several character education programs and quite a few anti-bullying lessons, but they seem to me to be little more than mouthing platitudes. I have yet to see something that I think seems authentic and that works. I will give credit to the idea behind this book, though. It is worth trying - maybe it is one key element in turning the corner of a bad situation.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Miscellaneous YA Books

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

I picked this book up because I like science fiction and it was in the Alaska Battle of the Books section for high school. While there is way too much technical stuff for my interest, the actual story line completely drew me in. I like how Honor Harrington seems like a real person - a woman and a commander. The only complaint is the perennial one - a woman has to be absolutely outstanding to even be grudgingly accepted.

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce

This book took me a while to actually begin understanding. The beginning seemed rather garbled. But it turned out to be an OK read. It was enjoyable, but it is another one of those books that will be rather quickly forgotten. The only thing that is memorable for me is that it does have a rather unique plot - about an art "theft".

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman

While this isn't Cushman's best book, it still is interesting enough for a good read. It is also the first book for YAs that I have read that deals with the McCarthy era and the blacklisting of actors thought to be communist sympathizers. It is also interesting for the main character and her best friend. The MC reminds me a lot of myself at that age - easily persuaded to do the conventional thing and slow to stand up for what I really believed in. The main character's friend is what I would have liked to have been like - smart, well-informed and able to stand up for what I believed in, even if it got me in trouble. In the end, the quieter MC does gain a little bit of voice, but it almost comes too late in the book to make much of an impact.

I Am David by Anne Holm

I can't remember if I wrote about this one already. This is a moving story about a boy's escape from a concentration camp (not Nazi holocaust, but rather significantly later). While the chance meeting of someone who is able to point him to exactly where he needs to go is a weak part of the book, the rest of the story is plausible and gripping.

Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman

This was another Alaskan Battle of the Books book. I generally do not like Gordon Korman's books - although I will readily concede that kids do. They are too superficial for me. This one is no exception. I suppose it is funny to treat the MC's family's involvement with the Mafia as humorous - and the book works at doing that, but I can't help thinking that it is just a bit too facile, a bit too frivolous for a relatively serious problem.

Kat's Promise by Bonnie Shimko

This is a complicated book about family troubles - including several different kinds of abuse. One of the best features of it is that it doesn't end up with the "wicked step mother" reforming and turning into a really decent person once you get to know her side of the story.

And, an oldie:
The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

This book reads very much like a romance novel, which I suppose it is. It is basically fluff and will not be close to me like Anne of Green Gables, but it was a good summer read.

More School Stories and Others

Enid Blyton's Malory Towers Books

Although I have only gotten the last 3 of a 6 book set, I read them anyway. The first ones, although on order, weren't available yet. I enjoyed them. The main character is a girl named Darrell (which is a surprising - to me - girl's name; I have only known boys to be named Darell). I am quite intrigued by the emphasis on learning about character. I had encountered the same type of thing in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, but I hadn't realized how widespread it was. There is a definite subtext in the books about learning to be a good person - acknowledging that it is as important as learning the subject matter. The most interesting thing about it is that the goal is voiced by the students. Sure, the head of the school gives them an occasional lecture, but the key thing is that the students subscribe to the idea. Nowadays that seems completely old-fashioned.

Example: Darrell evidently had quite a temper when she first came to the school and even in the upper forms, she still has to strive to control her temper. She lets it get out of control once when she was head of her form, and she was demoted for a while - a punishment she actually agrees with.

It is also interesting when the students are given the complete management of the end of term festival/play. They are told they can ask for adult help, but they proudly do nearly all of the work without help. I can't imagine such a thing nowadays. A caveat: I don't usually teach at the high school level, and the students who put this performance together are high school students. But my daughters went to high school not too long ago and, even though it was an unusually progressive high school, there was still a faculty member who was the official sponsor of every student performance and the major performances were organized and supervised by adults.

Another interesting thing is the term in which a major exam is taken. One girl, who is normally at the top of the class is, unbeknownst to herself, actually sick during the test and therefore fails the test. Two other girls who are poor students also do poorly on the test. But the test isn't the only deciding factor in whether the student goes to the next form. The top student is promoted and will study for and take the exam again in the next term that it is given. The student who failed is held back and the other, who barely passed, is allowed to go on. Promotion is not only not automatic, but it is also not seen as unusual for someone to be held back. The next year, there are two more girls in the class who have been in the form already a year. In fact, these two girls are given positions of authority, precisely because they already know the ropes, so to speak - an interesting concept. I can't imagine kids who failed a year in the United States being given positions of authority the following year.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

I have to admit I just skimmed most of these books. I read the first part of each one and found them too depressing to read in their enterity. I guess I have a weak stomach.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

While I am confessing to a weak stomach, I will also confess that I have not yet finished either one of the above books either. I plan to, but I have gotten to a place in each one where I know something bad is about to happen and I can't quite force myself to keep going through the bad part. What a chicken I am! I am actually listening to The Secret Life of Bees as an audiobook. I love the girl/woman who is reading it - Jenna Lamia.

The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer

This is another story in the British boarding school tradition, even though it is set in Austria. It is doubly interesting to me, because I spent a summer in Mayrhofen, Austria, at a Foreign Language League program, and the setting is nearby to there. The setting does effect the plot to some extent, as there is a much more international mix of students attending. Not only do we get the typical English girls, but we also get Austrians, French, and others. One of the main characters, though British, was actually raised in India. This is a likable book, very much akin to other girls books in this tradition.

Tamora Pierce

I have read some of Tamora Pierces' books before and enjoyed them. I have even met the author and was fascinated with the swarm of adolescent, gifted girls who clustered around her, effectively shielding her from adult contacts. At the time, I wasn't a huge fan, so had no real need to talk to her personally, but I did enjoy observing the kids surrounding her. Now, fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I decided to try reading the Protector of the Small series, because I had heard that my nieces were so fascinated by all of her books. I have been really trying to be more balanced in my reading - including books that I think would appeal to boys, to kids of various backgrounds, etc. So I had been kind of thinking that this series was too girl-focused and that I should spend more time reading books that would appeal to a wider range of readers. But then I just decided to read these totally for enjoyment - without my critical mind attacking them for having such narrow appeal. And, lo and behold, I find myself rather hooked on them. I am going back and trying to get all of the Song of the Lioness series and the Immortals series, too. For now, I am sticking to the books about the Tortall kingdom, but who knows, maybe I will branch out later. The problem with that is that Tamora Pierce is very prolific and I like hard cover books. Even though I get used books, this really mounts up.

The two series I am reading now (Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small) follow girls who want to become knights through their training. This is a time, in the kingdom, when girls aren't seen as potential knights, so they have to work through all of the prejudice against girls - both their own inner worries and the prejudices of the world. Now, personally, I find the battle scenes rather boring, but I find it absolutely fascinating how the characters manage to deal with various human conflicts.

Some people find the way that Tamora Pierce deals with sex to be too promiscuous for their tastes. I have typically reacted rather negatively to books set in "modern" times where the MC seems to have sex in order to resolve the books main conflict. But I find the sex in these books to be rather lower key. It is there and it is not really hidden, but it is not the major focus of what is going on at any time. The focus remains on the personal goals and trials of the main characters. This is in itself rather refreshing. I remember hearing of a student who said that, although hormonal urges were important in adolescence, they still did think of other things, too.

Of the two series, I seem to like Protector of the Small better - probably because the focus is less on magic and more on strength and courage and making good decisions.

A Few Adult Books to Add

I am not sure if I will annotate all of the books I have read since the last post. This first post is a brief listing of some of the adult ones I have read recently.

Alexander McCall Smith's Books
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, and The Full Cupboard of Life

These books have been billed as mysteries, which I suppose, vaguely, they are. But they are much less mystery and much more looking into human nature - and that is probably why I have enjoyed them so much. I am not really interested in hair-raising thrillers, or murder intrigues, but I do find these books completely fascinating for the glimpses of culture in Africa, as well as the completely universal problems of human living. They aren't especially demanding books - I read two of them in one day - but they are enjoyable and feel worth the time. I have ordered the next two already.

My Best Friend's Girl by Dorothy Koomson

This book is another reason why I just can't seem to get into adult books. It isn't that it isn't a good book, but the problems that it explores just aren't ones that particularly interest me. I actually think it is MY problem, not the book's, so, if anyone is reading this, don't discount the book because of this review. Parts of the book I did enjoy - especially the parts where the little girl, Tegan, is the major focus.

Meg by Maurice Gee

I bought this book when I was looking for books about British boarding schools, so I kept waiting for it to relate to that interest. But, I think it was probably recommended by mistake. Perhaps the author wrote other school stories, but this one is NOT one. It is a family history saga - interesting, actually, in its own way, but again, an adult book with a focus different from my major interests. The one thing I do find curious about it is its voice. It is interesting to me how an author achieves that almost disinterested voice when relating a story that is obviously of core interest to the main character - as though it hurts too much to show how much the main character really feels - or how far beyond caring the MC has gotten in order to make it through the rest of her life.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Children Above 180 IQ by Leta S. Hollingworth

The first thing that I have to remember about this book is that it is very old, with a copyright listed as 1942 and much of the data coming from at least 10 years earlier. So, in relation to the numbers that are currently used, this has to be re-interpreted. With the new WISC IV and the Stanford-Binet 5, the IQ scores are coming in much lower, from what I have heard. On the newer scales, I haven't read of any children scoring above 150, let alone 180. So perhaps a qualitative definition of profoundly gifted is a better one.

Optimal Intelligence

I have heard before the concept of optimal intelligence and I am wondering if this is the book / author where the idea was first proposed. The idea is that children there is an optimal range of IQ, between the old scales of 125 and 155 (or what would today be considerd moderately gifted and highly gifted), where children can develop into healthy leaders. To quote Hollingworth (p. 264): "Children and adolescents in this area are enough more intelligent than the average to win the confidence of large numbers of their fellows, which brings about leadership, and to manage their own lives with superior efficiency. Moreover, there are enough of them to afford mutual esteem and understanding. But those of 170 IQ and beyond are too intelligent to be understood by the general run of persons with whom they make contact. They have to contend with loneliness and with personal isolation from their contemporaries throughout the period of immaturity."

To tie this in with another of my "love's", I see this at work in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow. All of the children in battle school are gifted - so their IQs are probably in the range of 125 to 155. On Earth, they would be (and later are) leaders. In battle school the ultimate leader is Ender. He is probably in the exceptionally gifted range. Since he is probably just above the upper end of the range of the majority of the other children, he can be an effective leader for them, albeit suffering from some of the isolation effects of being a rarity. Bean, on the other hand, is so intelligent that he doesn't and can't understand the other children. He can be a friend to Ender, and can even lead him, but he will never have intellectual peers. Interestingly, I read one review of Ender's Shadow that said that they didn't think that the character of Bean was realistic - no one could be that intelligent. While in certain respects, I think that may be true (hiding in and escaping from a toilet while still an infant), I think it is wrong to discount the possibility of intelligence as high as Bean's. Reading biographies and studies of children with IQs over 180, as in this book and in Miraca Gross' book, Exceptionally Gifted Children, makes children like Bean more plausible.


In the latter part of the book, there is a discussion about the curriculum they are developing at the Speyer School for rapid learners. In many ways, the bare outline of what is proposed here appeals to me. Over the course of the 5 years that they keep the students (ages 7 through 13th birthday), they propose to have the child study a series of units loosely included under the title of "The Evolution of Common Things". This appeals to me, because it seems to follow how I get interested in things - I see something that is NOW and begin to wonder why it is like that. As I look into the background of how it got that what, it leads me back further and further along the path. I know this violates completely the present accepted methods of teaching history and science, chronologically, but it is actually more child-centered to begin with now and look back, rather than to begin at the beginning and work forward. I may even have been more interested in history if it had been taught this way. I don't know if this curriculum was ever published. I will have to look that up.

One thing about the Speyer School that I am still thinking about is the use of 7 years old as the age of entry. The problem with that is that I have seen with my own children that 7 years old may in fact be too late. Kids of this highly exceptional IQ range can already be having relatively serious problems with conventional schooling by 7 years old. Their reasoning is that children this young would have difficulty getting to and from school. That much is probably true, as the school was located in New York City. But nowadays, it is not uncommon for even Kindergarteners to take school busses or for parents to deliver their children in cars right to the schools' doorsteps, so I don't think it should be the effective criterion. I think, rather, the school needs to look at what the children need. There are certainly some 5 and 6 year olds that really NEED a more advanced curriculum. Kids who have been reading since 3 years old can be devastated by a school program where they have to spend hours, days, weeks, and months learning the alphabet.

This will probably be one of the last posts for a while. I have out of town guests coming and then I am traveling myself, so it may be a while before I write again. Meanwhile, I just finished "I Am David" by Anne Holm - a very worthwhile read, fascinating and gripping. Caveat here, though - the dog, once again, dies. Nevertheless, it is an important book.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Decidedly Mixed Bag

A few more books to comment on, in rather different genres:

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta read by Marcella Russo

I had enjoyed listening to Saving Francesca by the same author so much, I decided I just had to get this audio version, even though I had already read the book. And it was worth it. First of all, as an American, it is fun to hear the Australian accents, but that probably isn't a really great reason to spend lots of money on the audiobook. But the key thing is that Marcella Russo does a fantastic job of reading a really good book. Josie is totally believable, human and flawed, but good enough that you are rooting for her.

I must admit, also, that one of the appeals to me of these two books is that sex is discussed directly with mothers, grandmothers, and even boyfriends. It isn't hidden, neglected, or misused. Josie decides not to have sex with the boy she has fallen in love with, because she isn't ready for that kind of commitment just yet. In far too many teen books, sex is almost an obligatory plot device - a sort of rite of passage. Here it is part of the plot, but the girl is finally strong enough to insist that if she isn't ready, it isn't done. And even though some of her friends are sexually active, Josie has the strength to decide that she won't be just yet. The rite of passage is the realization that sex is a personal decision.

The New Mutants Classic by Chris Claremont, Bill McLeod, and various artists

In keeping with my theme this summer of exploring all sorts of books about schools and teaching/learning, here is a book in a rather different genre from my normal reading - a graphic novel. I must admit that I really do NOT like this type of book. There is far too much fighting and suspicion and various kinds of violence. I suppose that is the point, but I do not like the endless pictures of fierceness, grimacing, anger, pain, threat, etc. That said, there is a story here, albeit a rather violent one. Charles Xavier, the man who evidently taught and sponsored the X-Men, has taken on a new group of 5 students, each with differing special powers. But, of course, before he can do any actual teaching, they are threatened in various ways, they fight, and eventually they win and start again, only to be foiled in some other way. We never really see him teaching them how to direct their powers. But, we do see some interesting dilemmas: in a world of duplicity, how can you tell who your friends are? how can you be true to your background and yet develop yourself to tackle new things? who deserves trust?

From the point of view of education, there are several things that interest me. First of all, it is explicitly stated that these are gifted students. Giftedness in this context means special powers, such as super-human strength or the ability to take over another human's body, or to read thoughts. Nevertheless, giftedness is not talked of as a negative. Secondly, the class size is extraordinarily small and, had they ever managed to actually do some teaching/learning, the classwork would have been almost completely individualized. The furthest they go in this direction is when Charles Xavier shows them the instruction room - which is a simulator. Each student's job is simply to cross the room and get to the exit. But the room changes for each one to challenge his/her specific powers. While each student attempts to cross the room, the others watch, but it doesn't seem to help them much, since their own scenarios turn out to be completely different. With kids as different from each other as these students are, the curriculum has to be adapted for each one.

A final concern: with the level of fighting and violence in these books, I am not sure about the ethics of recommending them to students. It makes me uncomfortable to think of doing so. The world needs less violence, not more. Yes, we need to learn to deal realistically with the fact that violence is present, but this seems to glorify it, rather than seeking to control it.

The Kidnapped Prince by Olaudah Equiano, adapted by Ann Cameron

This is a retelling of the autobiography written by Equiano, who, as a boy was captured and taken from his village in Benin and eventually traveled to the West Indies, the United States, and England. He worked hard as a slave and managed after many years to purchase his own freedom. The book is interesting and tells his tale well. It brings up a number of questions. Africans were used to slavery. They enslaved their neighbors, they were taken as slaves routinely it seems in their own regions. But the contrast between how Africans treated African slaves and how white people treated their slaves is stark. Since I am white, I had to continually ask myself, how does my race justify such cruelty? Why are we so grateful when a few decent people are written about?

And when talking about the West Indies, historically, we have to consider that, not only was this cruelty perpetrated upon the Africans, but it was also done on the Native Americans. Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans were killed by the white people in the Americas. And their stories rarely make it as autobiographies because few survived to tell the tales.

And, I must admit to one minor annoyance with the book. From what I can tell, calling himself a prince is a slight exaggeration, unless the youngest son of every village chief was considered to be a prince.

Protector of the Small - Page by Tamora Pierce

This is the second book in the series. I reviewed the first book several weeks ago. I enjoyed this one again. Tamora Pierce writes stories that pull you in and keep you going. In this book, we see Kel growing into a young woman and proving her abilities, both in class and out in the real world. It is a good read, especially for young girls, I would think. Boys would probably find it less appealing, as the main character is a girl.

Observations from an educational standpoint: curriculum during these years seems to be more adapted to the student. For example, the pages who are good at tilting get harder and harder objectives. Punishments are designed to work on individual weaknesses. The head instructor seems a little more human in this book. He seems to have been won over by Kel's determination and obvious abilities.

One thing that bothers me, though, is the instructors' seeming tolerance for, or obliviousness of, the bullying that is going on. The pages' code of honor dictates that they do not tell on each other, but this escalates to some fairly severe physical violence. I suppose this is included to show that girls (and boys) can be tough and that strong people fight their own battles, they don't get teachers to bail them out. But it would be nice to see some subtle teacher intervention that doesn't negate the positives of learning to stick up for yourself and your friends.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Picture Books

And now for a bit of a change:

Miss Alaineus by Debra Frasier

I bought this to use as an emergency read aloud book for when I am substitute teaching. The premise is that the main character gets sick and calls her friend to get the vocabulary words from her. The friend goes through the list in a hurry and the sick girl thinks the last word is "Miss Alaineus". She doesn't get well until the day of the vocabulary bee, where each child has to get up and define a word on the list. Of course, the main character gets "Miss Alaineus" and is mortified to find out that it is "miscellaneous" and not "Miss Alaineus". But she turns her mistake and mortification into triumph at with her mother's help, by dressing up as Miss Alaineus, Queen of all Miscellaneous Things for the vocabulary parade. The idea is good, but for some reason I am really annoyed about the book. Perhaps it is my own realization that, as a read-aloud it would fail. The kids will undoubtedly realize the mistake way too soon and that makes the girl seem stupid, and her mortification over her mistake seems out of hand. Oh! well! I guess I could always re-sell the book.

The Composition by Antonio Skarmeta

Some picture books just aren't designed for young children - and, for that I am actually glad. This book is set in an unspecified South American country that is being run by a military dictatorship. A young boy whose main interest is football (soccer) gradually becomes aware that his parents and other adults are worried about the way their country is being run. When the father of one of his football friends is arrested in full view of the community and taken away, the seriousness of the problem begins to be apparent to the boy. Then, in school, a man dressed in military uniform comes in to announce a contest in which the students will write a composition, the title of which is to be "What My Family Does at Night". It is at this point that, if I were reading this aloud, I would stop to discuss what has happened in the story, the reason for the setting of the composition exercise, and what the boy might do. We are left in suspense about what he actually did until the end. When the actual composition is read, it is revealed that the boy wrote that his parents play chess all evening. The father then says that perhaps they should go buy a chess set. This is a much better read-aloud book - at least for me. Substance and thoughtfulness.

Counting on Frank by Rod Clement

I have actually used this book as a read-aloud, with great effect. The idea is that this quite weird looking boy uses his dog Frank and other unlikely things to measure the dimensions of various commonplace objects. For example, it would take 24 Franks to fill up his bedroom. The illustrations are great and the kids really enjoyed the absurdities. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read-aloud and could even be extended into a great math lesson - How many of the class pet would it take to fill up the room? How many elephants could fit in the gym? If the all the kids rode on apatosauri, how long would the parade be? What fun! I will carry this book with me when I sub for middle through upper elementary kids, in case I should have a day when there aren't complete sub plans.

Friday, July 7, 2006

More British Boarding Schools

Another girls' school and a boys' school for slightly younger boys.

Monitress Merle by Angela Brazil

First, briefly, the plot: sisters Mavis and Merle attend a small boarding school that has both day students (like them) and boarders. The new headmistress decides to have the girls 2 elect monitresses and they vote for Mavis 2nd and Merle 3rd, but Merle really wants to be a monitress, so older Mavis gives up her position to Merle, who is actually a better candidate for the position. She is a good leader, organizer, and enjoys sports. The rest of the book is basically a series of episodes about the school throughout the year. There are also episodes of adventures with their friends. Merle ends up doing very well, showing not only straightforward leadership qualities, but also finesse, and eventually she is asked to be head girl for the following year.

This is an enjoyable book, if not profound. There is a good deal of description of the classwork, which is interesting to me. I think I might have actually enjoyed history if, as in the book, we had been required to act out sizable portions of it. There are quite a few "modern" ideas mentioned in connection with the classes. In a way, it is amusing to see them called modern. Some of those ideas would be considered "modern" today, too - more active, hands on projects, for example.

It is also interesting what the students do during their free time - hikes, nature collections, painting, plays, etc. What a contrast to how kids seem to spend their time nowadays. There seem to be more examples of initiative and self-directed adventures. It is a shame that considerations of safety have so altered the lives of young people.

And another thing I find interesting: cross dressing is always good for a laugh. Boys dressing up as girls seems to be particularly amusing - across times and cultures.

Jennings at School by Anthony Buckeridge

This book had me laughing out loud at the various predicaments. It isn't that they are so unusual - small boys misunderstanding fire drill instructions; the "dangerous" spider loose in the dormitory - but Buckeridge must have the key to my sense of humor. I can just SEE the boys, standing on their chairs in the middle of the room, hoping against hope that the dreaded poisonous spider won't get them before the teacher can get there to "save" them.

But, as funny as I found it, there was still a bit of something nagging at me - perhaps Jennings was a little TOO naive, a little too cutesy. I can't help but wish he had been a slight bit more clever at understanding things. Nonetheless, it is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Further Comments

In several of these old time books, now I have seen what appears to be a recurring theme. The main character will do something that breaks a rule or hurts someone else and he or she feels obligated to confess the crime. That is pretty much normal in a lot of books, even current ones. But in these books, the criminal often tries desperately to confess the crime and it somehow thwarted. In fact, there are times when the authorities actively try to prevent the student from owning up to his or her mistakes. The idea seems to be, it is good to try to be honest, but it isn't good to be too honest. If the attempt at honesty is made, then the crime is forgiven, even if complete justice, i.e. punishment, isn't served.

Academics again: at the end of Monitress Merle, they take final exams. Merle comes out on top with something like 91 marks out of 100. It is interesting to me that, not only is this made public, but the exact score is given out, as well as the difference between that score and the next closest students. I can almost feel my current-day sensibilities cringe at this, but everyone in the story takes it in stride.

It is also interesting that the highest score on the exams was 91 marks out of 100 and the next highest was somewhere in the low 80s or upper 70s. I think teachers nowadays would be aghast at how low the scores were. Good scores in my daughters' school were 120% or some such number. This is one thing I have ranted about elsewhere. I think tests should have some head room. There should be required (not extra credit) parts of tests that make the student extend their knowledge and understanding in some way. That is why I prefer grading on a curve rather than grading strictly by percentages. Merle clearly deserves an A and the next highest students at least a B. But in many schools, even Merle would get a B (and they pride themselves on the fact that you have to get 93% to get an A at that school), and the next students would get only Cs.

But Mavis, who struggled with coursework, ends her studying at the end of the school year. She is now 17 and decides to devote her time to music and painting. There is no formal graduation, nor any despair at her not continuing. It is just felt that studying was too strenuous for her and that her time could be better spent doing other things. Nowadays there would be a big push to keep her in school, and I am thinking over whether that is better or not.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Books about Schools Again

Grange Hill Stories by Phil Redmond

I know, I said I was going to read a book about a girls' school next. I actually started it (Sally at School by Ethel Talbot), but I was so irritated with the main character, Sally, that I had a hard time wanting to keep reading. And, when all of these other books arrived - voila', the perfect chance to sample a few of them instead.

But, alas, some of them are equally irritating. Up front admission: I have never liked short stories. I can count on one finger the number of short stories I really like (Harrison Bergeron). The problem with short stories is that, as soon as you get to know the characters or the situation, they are over. I suppose that is the point, but it is very unsatisfying to me.

Grange Hill Stories are evidently taken from or form the basis of a TV program by the same name and the stories suffer from TVitis. They have to have an easily understood problem, fairly straightforward characters, and a 30 minute solution. It isn't that these stories are bad, its just that they aren't unique. There isn't enough development, enough complexity, enough real life. I will leave short stories to others.

Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein

Another annoying main character - and WHY do even the adults call her "Yuk"? This book is too typical for my tastes - poor kid from big weird family is jealous of new girl with "perfect" life. Poor girl finds her talent; rich kid isn't as snobby as poor girl thought and her family life actually isn't all that great. It isn't bad, but I have a hard time with kids who lie all of the time. The one saving grace was the way the rich kid resolved the wild tendency of the poor girl to tell lies/fantasies - by asking for even more creative ones.

Sally at School by Ethel Talbot

I did finally manage to finish this one. These were my predictions:
"there will be less emphasis on sports, the pranks girls play will be less physical and more psychological, there will be one girl who is an outsider who somehow gains acceptance of the group. Academically, I am not sure. I don't know if girls are as motivated by competitions, nor as nonchalant about them if they aren't the caliber that has a chance to be a winner. But this is a different era and a different country."

There WAS less emphasis on sport, but there was still more than I expected. There were no long descriptions of cricket matches (and just as I was beginning to understand something about them-sigh), but there were descriptions of riding, tennis, cricket practice, and hikes. The pranks - there weren't as many out and out pranks. There was a lot of worry about rule breaking.

As for the "girl who is an outsider who somehow gains acceptance", that prediction was "bang on", as the British say. The annoying main character actually does become more tolerable - but also much less interesting. In The Impossible Prefect, the behaviorally unacceptable boy does become acceptable, but he remains interesting and strong as a character. Sally seems to become more and more bland. The last episode redeems her from blandness a little, but even though it is heroic, she has lost her sparkle.

And finally, academics. Academics seemed to take a back seat here. Following the rules, being a credit to the school, and doing your work were more emphasized. All in all, not as appealing as the boys' school books. But I have others to try, so maybe other girls' school books will appeal to me.

One thing I noticed: none of the school books show teachers doing much "differentiation". Darrell, in The Impossible Prefect, was skipped up a grade, but everyone in a class seems to get the same material. There seems to be some choice as far as courses of study: languages, type of sport, and perhaps others as well, but once a subject is chosen, all students at the same level seem to be offered the same learning experiences.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

The Impossible Prefect by Hubert Robinson

I found this book quite amusing. It had mostly the kind of
humor I prefer - humor that comes from the situation and
people's own foibles. Once again, though, I found large
portions of the book incomprehensible. Yes, cricket.
I suppose I can't escape it while I am reading books about
boys' schools in Merry Old England.

The most interesting thing for me in this book is the
original premise of it. The thing that sets up the
whole story is that the headmaster skips a boy who was
previously a great trouble-maker with pretty miserable
grades up a level from the 5th form to the 6th form and
at the same time makes him a prefect. It is unusual to
have that as a premise - that an educator would recognize
that such a boy had the potential, not only for better
scholarship if demanded of him, but also for leadership.
Young Darrell does actually make a go of the whole thing,
and in his own way. It is obvious that the trust in him was
not misplaced.

Congratulations to the headmaster, not only for this, but
also for the fortitude to expel on the spot, the boy who
confesses to stealing the money collected for cricket. I
suppose I feel a bit of sympathy for the boy who, when
caught, confesses all. But he had to be dealt with strongly
and I am glad the headmaster did. I think that is one
reason why I should never be a headmaster. I am not
sure I could have done it.

All in all, I found this book quite enjoyable and interesting.
Too bad I don't understand cricket better.

The White House Boys

I just finished reading the White House Boys by Robert Arthur Hanson Goodyear. It was first published 1957, at least that is the copyright date on the copy I have, so it is significantly out of date, but I think there are some interesting things to be observed about it.

First of all, there is the seemingly eternal class conflict - rich boys at a relatively elite boarding school; poor boys working in the coal pits. There are some quite outdated racial references, but essential conflict seems to pop up over and over again in human history. I don't think we will ever be free of it. And it is almost a cliche that there will be one disadvantaged boy who is really bright and helps the rich boys out and in turn the rich boys help him and both sides gain understanding. Too bad it generally has such a short term effect.

Then there is the emphasis on cricket. I don't think I will ever understand cricket and I must admit, I skimmed over a good deal of the description of the cricket matches. I suppose even long descriptions of cricket matches could be fascinating to someone who understands it, but, sigh, that does not include me.

Another aspect that I found interesting was the number of pranks the boys played on each other and the taunting and name calling that was expected and tolerated. It seems like, as a teacher, I am all too frequently called to referee incidents of teasing and name calling. I don't like them, but I also think that kids today are somewhat thin skinned. I don't mean we should tolerate actual bullying, physical or emotional, but I think there was a good deal of taunting and teasing that a) is normal and can't be eliminated anyway and b) serves a purpose in establishing group membership and solidifying friendships.

But, the most interesting part to me is the part that was actually not elucidated as much - the academic competitions. The boys could choose to try for a certain prize - the reward was a large number of books. To gain the reward, they had to write a paper on general knowledge, which was judged by an outside person. And then there were the normal academic awards. At each grade level, there were awards in each subject, taken by only a few of the boys. Nowadays, we seem to consider that completely anathema to the public school (USA) mentality. I can't imagine schools giving awards to the top reading students, the top math students, the top social studies students, the top science students, etc. Sure, we have geography bee winners, spelling bee winners, even math competition winners, but these are generally short term contests, like the paper the boys wrote. It is somewhat different to have their everyday school work ranked. And it is interesting to see what effect it has on the boys. Some work much harder to achieve their rank, others, who aren't really in the competition, don't seem bothered by it. But, I think in general, the perception in this book is that academic competition is expected and the way things should be.

The next book I am going to read is about a girls school of the same era. Before I get into it too far, this is what I expect: there will be less emphasis on sports, the pranks girls play will be less physical and more psychological, there will be one girl who is an outsider who somehow gains acceptance of the group. Academically, I am not sure. I don't know if girls are as motivated by competitions, nor as nonchalant about them if they aren't the caliber that has a chance to be a winner. But this is a different era and a different country.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Yet More Books

Sahara Special by Esmé Raji Codell

This book gets good reviews, but it just didn't seem to go anywhere for me. It is a typical school story - troubled kid gets turned around by a teacher with slightly unusual methods. It's nice, but I will forget it pretty quickly.

Tending to Grace by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Cornelia, who doesn't speak, gets left by her mother who goes off with a boyfriend. The person she is left with is her mother's aunt, a crotchety old country woman. It gradually becomes apparent that the reason Cornelia doesn't speak is because she stutters and has found it easier to keep all of her feelings suppressed and unexpressed, rather than talking them out. The aunt and Cornelia gradually come to terms with each other and Cornelia extends a few careful tendrils of herself into the community. Not great literature, but a worthwhile read anyway.

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

I don't know why I am so reluctant to read books that Curtis writes. I put off reading Bud, Not Buddy for a LONG time. It just sounded too much like a canned attempt at sympathy. It turns out I was wrong about that. It was a book that, to me, felt so REAL, I could hardly believe when I finished it that it just didn't go on, like real life. I didn't like the Watsons go to Birmingham as well, but still, it was good. But this book - WOW - another hit. Caveat: I listened to the audio version. I have had the book for a long time - and I just let it sit on the shelf - pulling others out ahead of it over and over again. So when I saw the audio version in the library, I thought that maybe that would help me get started on it. It sure did. I think the reader of the book, Michael Boatman, is perfect for the book. His voice is calm and even and sounds "philosophical" - just like the main character, Luther T. Farrell. His voice for Momma is smooth and cool. The whole reasonableness of the voices makes the critique of society even stronger and more devastating. Momma has really done a number on Flint, Michigan, and on Luther T. Farrell. The book is disturbing in many ways, but it will provide me with things to think about for a long time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

More Books

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman

(review also on Amazon) The basic story of Anthony "Antsy" Bonano and his friends is fairly straight forward - Anthony and his friends suddenly become aware of this kid who is pretty much an inconspicuous person in the world. I won't summarize the plot, as it is done pretty well in the reviews [see Amazon]. What surprised me, though, was the depth of the book. It could have been just a recounting of the basic events as detailed in the summary, but instead, you get tantalizing images of some really interesting characters: Anthony, and Calvin "The Schwa", of course, but also Mr. Crawley, Lexis, Anthony's family, and even Anthony's friends. This is a deeper and more complex world than the simple facade would have you believe. At the same time, it is not belabored. This is not a didactic book - it isn't trying to teach you something, but it is showing you a world that is complex and multi-faceted.

You can read the story as a straightforward accounting of events - and the plot is strong enough to make it a good read in that regard. Or you can see more - character study, exploration of values, decisions about what is important in life.

Better than I expected somehow.

Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett
A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (listened to on audio CD)

I somehow feel that I am SUPPOSED to like Terry Pratchett. A lot of the other people I know who like books similar to the ones I like think that his books are great reading. But I just don't. Sure, I laugh at them, but basically I really don't think they are a very good use of time. They just don't leave me with anything afterwards. Once I am finished reading them, they leave my mind and there is no lingering pondering of characters or events.

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison (listened to on audio CD)

I have read this one in book form. It is funny, but fairly vapid. My daughters loved it when they were teens, though, so I guess it is an age thing.

Shiva's Fire by Suzanne Fisher Staples (listened to on audio CD)

The audiobook is good, well read and moving, but I am not enjoying listening to the story as much as I enjoyed reading the book. I think it may just be that the second time through isn't adding that much. I wonder what Shabanu would be like on audio. I really enjoyed that book the first time.