Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009)

11-year old Flavia de Luce is bright, clever, brave, and is like no other 11-year-old I have ever met. Alan Bradley's book had me smiling the whole time I was reading it and I even laughed out loud a few times by Falvia's antics. She lives with her father and two older (and not nearly so clever) sisters in England in 1950. A man shows up at her house one day, argues with her father and then dies in their garden, apparently of poison. By an odd coincidence, Flavia has a fascination with poisons since teaching herself organic chemistry and goes on to investigate this murder.

Having pointed out the body, I watched in fascination as Sergeant Woolmer unpacked and mounted his camera on a wooden tripod, his fingers, fat as sausages, making surprisingly gentle microscopic adjustments to the little silver controls. As he took several covering exposures of the garden, lavishing particular attention on the cucumber patch, Sergeant Graves was opening a worn leather case in which were bottles ranged neatly row on row, and in which I glimpsed a packet of glassine envelopes.
I stepped forward eagerly, almost salivating, for a closer look.
"I wonder, Flavia," Inspector Hewitt said, stepping gingerly into the cucumbers, "if you might ask someone to organize some tea?"
He must have seen the look on my face.
"We've had rather an early start this morning. Do you think you could manage to rustle something up?"
So that was it. As at a birth, so at a death. Without so much as a kiss-me-quick-and-mind-the-marmalade, the only female in sight is enlisted to trot off and see that the water is boiled. Rustle something up, indeed! What did he take me for, some kind of cowboy?

Her investigation leads her to information about the first U.K. stamp known as the Black Penny. Being a stamp collector I found this aspect of the book interesting. Flavia reminds me of Eloise from the series of books by Kay Thompson. She had no fear of grownups and no compunction of sticking her nose in grownup business.

I highly recommend this book to mystery lovers.

My rating for this book: ++++

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This is the first 3-D IMAX movie I have seen and, boy, does it set the bar high for any other movie. Jake Scully (Sam Worthington takes) his recently deceased brother's place to go to a planet called Pandora. His brother was part of a mission where his thoughts could transfer to a genetically engineered native body so he could learn to speak to the native species and learn about them. There, of course, is an ulterior motive for this expensive effort. A very rare and precious material called Unobtainium has been discovered underneath the huge tree which was the Home Tree of a tribe of the natives.

Of course, Jake meets and becomes attached to the tribe's chief's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). He learns that the natives are not only spiritually, but also physically attached to the trees and other lifeforms on the island and he had to convince the evil corporation to stop the destruction of the land.

This story has been told many times and is a great vehicle for the amazing art in this movie. You would be soon tired of all the superlatives I could use so I will only say to go and see it. Now. Yes, now. Well, what are you waiting for?

My rating for this movie: +++++

My Sister, My Love (2008)

I only read reviews about this book by Joyce Carol Oates after I had read it and then found out it was meant to be a satire about middle class America. Not being a good literature student I missed all of the clues. One of which was the names of the characters and their neighbors which were all mean and violent (Rampike, O'Styker). Another was the over-the-top psychiatric diagnoses of the children and the unbelievable number of drugs prescribed.

"Bix! Darling! God help us - Bliss is missing."

Loosely based on the murder of child beauty pageant princess, JonBenet Ramsey, six-year-old Bliss was found murdered in the basement of her family's house. Even though a neighboring sex offender admitted to the murder and subsequently hung himself in his jail cell, suspicion never completely came off of her nine-year-old brother, Skyler, who writes this memoir in the hopes that a memory would return to tell him who the real murderer was.

Skyler went from psychiatric facility to one boarding school to another, anywhere but home with his parents fueling the guilt that he must have somehow been responsible for Bliss' death. At the age of nineteen Skyler writes this book and shares with us every agonizing memory of his youth.

"...an adolescent Skyler the reader would be startled to behold: not a runt any longer, nor was Skyler's soul a runt-soul, for Skyler had learned at last the advantages of being a professionally afflicted kid of affluent background; amid the walking wounded of the Academy at Basking Ridge..."

It was very hard for me to finish this book. If I had know or realized it was a satire, it might have been less painful but I was determined to stick with this story to the end to see if there was any hope of Skyler finding any normalcy for himself. I'll let you read the book to learn if he was successful.

I think the only readers who would appreciate this book are Oates fans.

My rating for this book: +++

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Carol (1843)

Charles Dickens' classic story about Ebenezer Scrooge has always been a favorite of mine in movie form but until now I had never read it. DailyLit offered it in installments through email so I could not resist reading it. What a treat!
I doubt there is anyone who is not familiar with the story of the stingy man who was visited by ghosts and shown how Christmas was more than just an excuse for people to pick his pocket but to share what he had and enjoy the feeling of making others' lives better. What I missed by not reading the book was the amazing language used. The first phrase that stopped me was:

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.

Not having studied literature to any length, I don't know if this phrase is common to the era or the creativity of the author, but I loved it. Many of the words I was familiar with since they were used in my favorite version of the movie with Alistair Sim, like the following:

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

While it was fun to get the story in installments, I recommend that the reader gain access to a book with the original illustrations or access them through The Gutenberg Project: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm.

I recommend this book to anyone who has never read it or hasn't read it in a while.

My rating for this book: +++++

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hush (2007)

Donna Jo Napoli writes stories based on fairy tales and this book is based on a story from an Icelandic saga about a girl named Melkorka who was bought by an Icelandic man named Hoskuld and takes her back to his home. In our book, Melkorka is an Irish princess who was kidnapped when trying to escape her town before the Vikings invaded. She is advised by another slave to pretend to be mute so that her pride and arrogance wouldn't end up getting her beaten or worse.

In the night someone rolls agains me as we lie sleeping. I open my eyes to see Maeve's eyes shining at me in the moonlight. "He's convinced you are an aist - a stork," she whispers. "A stork who has the power to chage form into a woman. He thinks you may be a charodeitsa - an enchantress, but unlike our Irish piseogai, he fears you could be evil. It's only how clean and pretty you are that keeps him from quaking."

Melkorka was sold by the Russian kidnappers to an Icelandic sailor named Hoskuld. She continues to learn about these hard, rough, people from the north and about herself in the process. Her intelligence serves her well by quickly picking up languages and knowledge about healing from another slave.

Life in these northern places was cold, dark, and cruel. By following Melkorka on her voyage we learn about these early civilizations. She was a remarkable girl who wisely used her wits to stay alive. I recommend this book to historical fiction fans.

My rating for this book: ++++

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Lost Symbol (2009)

The reviews for this latest Robert Langdon adventure said it was rushed to publication. This might be the reason I felt rushed through this book (up to the last three chapters which felt interminable). This time the ancient mysterious group known as the Masons have hidden information in a monument in Washington, D.C. and Langdon is called in when his friend, Peter Solomon, is kidnapped and his hand is found in the Capitol building.

There is a definite rhythm to this book: conversation, lecture, action, conversation, lecture, action, ... The chapters are very short as the action bounces like a superball between Langdon and a strange man covered in tattoos, the CIA director, the FBI, and Peter's sister, Katherine.

In Brown's previous books, The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, we are taken into places most people never see in Paris and the Vatican respectively. This time we go through Washington, D.C. from deep basements to the top of the Washington Monument but instead of feeling like I am enjoying a private tour, I somehow feel excluded from being able to visit the same places as the characters and it's not a good feeling.

My advise to fans of action books is to try and buy this at a used book store so you won't feel ripped off and abused.

My rating for this book: ++

A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995)

Laurie R. King's series of detective stories feature a young woman, Mary Russell who develops a deep relationship with Sherlock Holmes. She is very bright and uses her tomboyish looks to dress as a man and get into places women cannot.

In this story, she is intrigued by a group of women who meet for spiritual and inspirational meetings. Danger lurks, however, and several members of the church mysteriously meet fatal ends after changing their wills, leaving everything to this church.

Holmes helps her discover the truth and their relationship reaches a new height.

These books are fun diversion and I will continue to slowly make my way through them as I find old copies in used book stores.

I recommend this book to mystery lovers who have a special attraction to Sherlock Holmes stories.

My rating for this book: +++

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (2009)

It may surprise many people (including history-impaired ones like me) that Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse giving up her seat on a bus in racially segregated Montgomery, Alabama. Phillip Hoose has earned the 2010 National Book Award for this book which chronicles the life of a teenaged girl (much in her own words) who felt embarassed and outraged at the treatment black people received from whites as well as other blacks.

All of a sudden it seemed such a waste of time to heat up a comb and straighten your hair before you went to school. So I just quit doing it. I felt very emotional about segregation, about the way we were treated, and about the way we treated each other. I told everybody, "I won't straighten my hair until they straighten out this mess."

It was the law in Montgomery that black people had to give not just their seat, but a whole row occupied by black people, to a white person.

Rebellion was on my mind that day. All during February we'd been talking about people who had taken stands. We had been studying the Constitution in Miss Nesbitt's class. I knew I had rights. I had paid my fare the same as white passengers. I knew the rule - that you didn't have to get up for a white person if there were no empty seats left on the bus - and there weren't. But it wasn't about that. I was thinking, Why should I have to get up just because a driver tells me to, or just because I'm black? Right then, I decided I wasn't gonna take it anymore. I hadn't planned it out but my decision was built on a lifetime of nasty experiences.

The rest of Claudette's story, along with pictures and sidebars telling about others involved in the struggle, give a vivid picture of what it was like at that time and how segregation was overturned. The strength and solidarity of the black community during the bus boycotts was amazing. Of particular interest is how Claudette felt her credibility was hurt by her pregnancy.

I highly recommend this book to history buffs and wannabe rebels.

My rating for this book: +++++

Manga Claus: The Blade of Kringle (2006)

A student returned this graphic novel and I just had to read it. Nathaniel Marunas has written a humorous combination of traditional and martial arts themes. The artwork by Erik Craddock matches perfectly with the story of how a disgruntled elf magically turns an innocent nutcracker into a terrorizing ninja on Christmas Eve with the idea that he could reverse the spell and be a hero. As we all know, this kind of plan never works.

[Elf] I just wanted the nutcracker to mess things up a little so I could come to the rescue, but there are so many of these ninjas and they're out of control and-
[Santa] Enough! Go to my office as fast as you can, fetch my katana and wakizashi from behind my desk, and meet me at the power plant.

Things get out of hand, the elf has to admit what he did, and Santa is turns into an avenging, muscle-bound swordsman.

Not your typical Christmas story but it made me smile. Santa makes the elf a special effects coordinator and what he does to the reindeer is totally outrageous.

My rating for this book: +++