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.