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As I’ve been enjoying the recent steampunk literature, I realized that I’d never read many of what are now considered the Originals. I downloaded this audio version from the library website, and happily listened to it while washing dishes.

Around the World in 80 DaysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Narrated by Frederick Davidson.
For those who are unacquainted with the book, here’s a brief summary: The year is 1872. Phileas Fogg is a reasonably wealthy Englishman, with no known family or real friends. As many Englishmen of the era were wont to do, he spends most of his time at his club, playing whist. His most distinguishing characteristic seems to be his unfailing regularity. He has just fired a manservant for not keeping proper time. His new manservant, Passepartout, who took the job in search of a predictable life, is therefore shocked when Fogg announces that they are going on a trip around the world, as he has bet his club members 20,000 pounds that it is possible to make it around the world in 80 days. Things are pretty quiet for the first weeks, with the only interest being a detective who has followed them from London, convinced that Fogg must be the bank thief currently sought in London. Things pick up once they hit India, however, as Fogg detours to save the life of a beautiful young Indian widow, Aouda, and they must travel by elephant between stretches of railway. Even past India, travel remains challenging. Fogg’s detached attitude towards the whole affair contrasts with Passepartout’s French emotions as the scrapes get closer and closer. Even if Fogg loses his entire fortune – will he despair? And can the beautiful Aouda convince the confirmed bachelor to care about something? Neither outcome is ever seriously in question, but the book is an entertaining romp (while staying very proper, of course.) It’s fully conscious of its own humor and the ridiculousness of trying to live life as a machine, even as it celebrates the modern technology that allows the voyage. Davidson was, I thought, the perfect narrator for this. His accents were spot-on, but turned to eleven, as it were – Phineas Fogg’s English accent extra-crisp, Passepartout extra, um, however it is that you describe French accents. This is an excellent choice for kids and adults wanting to explore a classic.
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The Name of This Book Is SecretThe Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. Read by David Pittu.
This is first in a series of five books all named to discourage the reader from opening up the book. It’s a fun concept, and I’d been meaning to get around to them for a while. Pseudonymous Bosch is a very prominent narrator throughout the story, and he (or she!) spends a great deal of time at the beginning explaining that the setting of the book and the names of the characters are all meant to be non-specific, to protect the people involved, and most importantly, to protect us, the reader, from the horrors that might befall us if anyone found out that we know the secrets. Then we get on with the story, which is adventure, mystery and a little fantasy. Our heroes are Cass and Max-Ernest, both of whom have trouble fitting in at school. Cass lives with her overprotective mother and spends a lot of time with two older men she calls her grandfathers, who run an antique store in an old fire station. Max-Ernest lives with his parents, who are divorced but live in separate half of the same house, refusing to acknowledge each other’s existence. The adventure begins when a real estate agent brings a pile of boxes from an estate house in to the antique store. In one box, Cass finds a fascinating box called the Symphony of Smells, which contains hundreds of tiny bottles of different scents. She learns that a fire burned only the kitchen, and, it is presumed, the owner of the house, an old magician. Cass and Max-Ernest go to explore the house and find a secret room. They barely escape with the magician’s old journal just as a creepy-looking couple, including a woman whose beauty and stiffness are both unnatural. When the same couple – Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais - turns up at their school the next day and a boy with synesthesia from the school goes missing at the same time, Cass is highly suspicious. Unfortunately, she’s of such an openly suspicious nature that now, when it really matters, no one will believe her. She goes off, followed by Max-Ernest, to solve the mysteries: what happened to the old magician? Why have series of talented children with synesthesia gone missing over the years? Why does the spa known as the Midnight Sun keep itself so very secret? Doom is predicted at every turn, but with somewhat less depressing results than another popular series with a prominent narrator. As in The Calder Game, there are a number of puzzles for Cass and Max-Ernest to solve, which the interested reader can solve along with them. There’s just a hint of magic as Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais are (shh!) searching for the secret of immortality. There's even some character development, which one doesn't necessarily expect in an adventure/mystery type book. The boy and I listened to this, narrated by David Pittu. He quite enjoyed it; I liked it fine, if it didn’t particularly grab me. That may be me just being jaded about danger levels, finding the dangers in the book not nearly as dire as the narrator foretold. So maybe better for kids than adults, but still a lot of fun.

Cross-posted to and .
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The Wind in the WillowsThe Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Read by Jim Weiss.
I have fond memories of my father reading this aloud to my siblings and me when we were children, but this was the first time I’d listened to it as a CD book, and my son’s first time ever. Ah, going back to old favorites! I remembered it having the fun animal adventures, with those great, memorable characters, and I remembered it having a summery feeling. Listening again, the characters still stand out as memorable. The book is mostly episodic, with stories about Mr. Mole meeting Mr. Rat, Mole disobeying Rat and going into the Wild Woods by himself on a winter’s evening. There are my father’s favorites, “Dulce Domum” about the Mole’s return to his own home after living with the Rat for some months, and entertaining the little mouse carolers there, and “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, where the Mole and the Rat have a magical encounter with the god Pan. They are really lovely. That transcendence is combined with a more slapstick humor in the stories of Mr. Toad’s reckless misadventures, and the stories are bound together with lyrical descriptions of the scenery with the turning of the seasons. While I found these descriptions beautiful, I worried that my blood and action loving son would find them slow, but he gave the book a thumbs up. Like The Lord of the Rings, The Wind in the Willows takes place in a homosocial world: there are no female main characters, and the only two incidental female characters occur in the same story of Mr. Toad escaping from jail. This, I think, dates the book more than any other aspect of it. I am willing to forgive Mr. Graham because that really was the world he lived in, where men and women just lived in highly separated spheres (and I am glad it’s not like that anymore!). I had mixed feelings about the narrator. He did very well with the numerous and lengthy narrative portions of the book. I liked all of his character voices except for Mole and Ratty, which was a bit awkward as they are the two main characters. He made the Mole sound lower class and the Rat sound more educated, which was a bit odd, and somehow his reading of both of these characters annoyed me just a little bit every time. I see that my library has the book in a downloadable audio format with a different narrator, and I’d be curious to try that version to see if I like the narrator better. Still, we very much enjoyed listening to this book. It’s definitely still worthy of the “Classic” title. Just in case there was any doubt.
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Daughter of Smoke and BoneDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Read by Khristine Hvam.

“Once upon a time, an angel fell in love with a demon. It did not end well.”
So begins this story, which has at its heart two relationships: one, between the angel and the demon, but more importantly, between a demon and his human-looking daughter. We first meet Karou, an art student in Prague, dealing with a broken heart and longing for revenge from the boy she’s recently and very deservedly dumped. Her classmates, including her best friend Susanna (I’m assuming it’s spelled that way, though pronounced “Zuzanna”), know to ask after her sketchbook each Monday. It’s filled with pictures of unbelievable creatures – beautiful Issa, with the head and upper torso of a woman and the lower half of a giant snake, tiny humming birds with moth wings, and great Brimstone, bigger than a man, with a man’s torso and the head and lower half of a great goat with curling horns. There are always stories to go along with the pictures – how a trader haggled too much over the teeth he was trying to sell Brimstone and nearly got himself strangled by the snake all visitor’s to Brimstone’s shop must wear around their necks, for example. Karou says that her stories are true, that her hair naturally grows out blue, with a quirk of expression that makes people believe that she isn’t telling the truth. Except she is. The creatures are Chimerae, and the only family Karou has ever known. She’s grown up in Brimstone’s shop, watching him make necklaces of teeth, being given wishes in various denominations, from the tiny scuppies that look like trading beads and grant correspondingly tiny wishes, to the larger lucknows that made her hair grow permanently blue and let her speak any number of languages fluently, to the great gavriels she’s never been trusted with which could give her the power of flight. Mostly now she lives in the human world, coming back to Brimstone’s shop – which has a magic door that can appear all over the world – only when he needs her to run errands for him, mostly buying teeth. Though Brimstone and Karou clearly love each other, it’s a very authoritarian relationship. Brimstone won’t answer any of Karou’s multitude of questions about where she came from and what his shop of teeth is for, but is openly critical of the casual things she spends her wishes on, and her relationship with her body, including the tattoos (but why then, she wonders, did he give her the giant eye tattoos on the palms of her hands?) and allowing “unnecessary penises” access. Still, all is hunky dory until one day in Morocco, when Karou is chased down and nearly killed by an angel with flaming eyes and sword, who’s also burned a black handprint on the door back to Brimstone’s shop. Soon Brimstone throws Karou out of his shop, but when she goes back, the door is completely burned. And meeting with the angel again, she finds that they are drawn to each other despite the bad start. Flashbacks tell us of the long-ago romance between the angel Akiva and his lover, the chimera Madrigal, whose unhappy fate has scarred him but which we learn of in detail only late in the story. The basic crime is clear: angels and chimerae have been at war for milennia, and woe to anyone who dares to fall in love with the enemy. Calling them angels and demons is deceptive, because the lines of actual good and evil aren’t clearly drawn and both sides are fighting for survival, justifiably convinced the other side would wipe them out if it could.

The big war would seem to be the major plot focus of the book, but it seemed to me tertiary in the book, behind Karou’s relationship with Brimstone, the developing romance, and the exploration of the worlds and magic/wish system. Karou’s art, her personality and friends, the scenes of Prague and Marakkesh are all vividly painted and real, while the war seemed meant to be a backdrop, and an unwelcome intrusion when it came to the surface of the story. I felt like this was essentially a character and relationship study, to which Taylor felt she needed to add an exciting plot. That being said, the overall storyline seemed Shakespearean in nature, with misunderstandings and secrets leading to tragedy. I was also frustrated by finding out at the end of the book that it’s the first book in the series, with major plot points from this book left unresolved. It’s also a fine audio production, with periodic theme music around major book sections adding to Hvam’s excellent reading.
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The Unseen GuestThe Unseen Guest. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 3. by Maryrose Wood. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

Young governess Penelope and her charges, the three Incorrigible Children, have only recently returned to Ashton place after the visit to London chronicled in the second book of the series. Penelope still spends a great deal of time thinking about what happened there – the questions that Miss Mortimer, her former guardian, left unanswered, the real location and condition of her parents, and the budding relations with Simon Harley-Dickinson. Meanwhile, the children must be educated. As they are daring to look for bird species to add to the field guide they are making, they see an ostrich. The mystery is soon solved as Lord Ashton’s long-absent mother shows up with a prospective fiancé, Admiral Faucet. Admiral Faucet clearly wishes to marry Lady Ashton for her fortune, which he is planning to use as start-up capital for an ostrich racing business. Lord Ashton, on the other hand, thinks that an ostrich hunt in his very own forest would be simply capital. Rather more observant than the resident Ashtons, Admiral Faucet recruits the children to track down Bertha the ostrich, still lost in the forest, and bring her back to her POE or Permanent Ostrich Enclosure before Lord Ashton’s hunt can kill her. As the children are studying the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, the POE leads to frequent confusion. The idea of an overnight trip to the forest is somewhat traumatic for Penelope, who must be talked out of packing the entire nursery. But in the forest, the children are in their element, easily able to track down Bertha and unmoved by little things like rain. Penelope even gets to visit the cave where they lived before they came to Ashton place – complete with trunks of blankets and pillows, art supplies, and sandwiches delivered every morning. The mystery deepens even as the caring if wild nature of the children is contrasted with the bloodthirsty and avaricious nature of the adults, who are all too willing to kill the innocent Bertha and to consider that the children might make better tracking animals than children. In an effort to stop the older Lady Ashton from marrying Admiral Faucet, Penelope comes up with the idea of a séance – but will the séance reveal even more than Penelope had bargained for? As the series goes on, some questions have been answered, some had answers alluded to, but as even more questions have come up, the mystery is far from solved. Meanwhile, the story continues to have captivating characters (even if many of them are perfectly, deliberately stock characters), an exciting storyline, and a great sense of humor. Also, new sayings from Agatha Swanburne, the founder of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. This series continues to delight. Katherine Kellgren could make a shopping list fascinating, and with material like this to work with, the results are top notch. Even if Penelope is arguably the lead character, the wild children and the adventure are more than enough to keep my boy enthralled.
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I first read this book over a decade ago, years before I started this blog. It’s been on my shelf ever since then, a gift from charles_midair and elaine_alina. I loved it then, and was just listened to it on an old iPod borrowed from fritz_et_al (it also seems to be one of the popular choices for fantasy collections on Overdrive, the largest library ebook platform). I was rather astonished at how vague my memories of the story were, the story just as good if not better the second time around.

The Curse of ChalionThe Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. Read by Lloyd James. Lord Cazaril was once a castle-warder and a military captain. Now he is homeless and broken from brutal treatment on a Roknarri slave ship. He’s walked across Chalion on foot to get to the Provincara of the country estate where he was a page in his youth. He’s hoping for a place in the kitchens; instead, he is assigned to tutor the Royina Iselle, sister to the heir of Chalion, and her companion Betriz. Iselle is full of sixteen years of innocent passion and belief in justice, of the type that causes her to publicly expose a judge for suspected fraud. After a few months of trying to teach the girls diplomacy and caution along with the languages and geography of the surrounding countries, Iselle and her brother Tadez are both summoned to court. The king, their older half brother, is weak and ill and wants them to become familiar with courtly living. Unfortunately, returning to court for Cazaril also means facing the very men that Cazaril knows deliberately sentenced him to the galleys, now the king’s trusted advisers and the most powerful men in Chalion. Cazaril’s loyalty is tested to the utmost, as he becomes literally bound up with the curse that he learns is on all of the royal family of Chalion. He asks for the help of the Gods, and the Gods make it clear that they wish to work their will through him – if only he can figure out what their will is in time to save Iselle and Tadez. It was impossible not to hope for Cazaril not only that he would find his way through his dilemmas, but also that he could find a way to hope for a future for himself beyond his duty.

Despite being a book filled with bad things happening to good people, the story isn’t depressing. There’s love and beauty and plenty of humor. Politics are part of the driving force of the plot, but there are only a handful of major players to consider, so it doesn’t get confusing. The book is filled with interesting characters, including Royina Ista, Iselle and Tadez’s mother, and the Roknarri divine of the Bastard (see below) who works, oddly, as the head groom in Roya Orico’s private menagerie. Actually, the gods are major players as well, allowing the plot some literal Deus Ex Machina moments. I suppose I can think of a handful of other fantasy novels where religion and theology play such a major role, but I really enjoy Chalion’s unique religion, somewhat similar to and yet different from earthly paganism. Chalion and a few of the neighboring countries are Quintarian. The five gods are the Mother, the Father, the Son and Daughter (each assigned to a season of the year, sexes, and stages of life), and the Bastard, who watches over bastards, people of non-mainstream sexuality and events out of season. The Daughter of spring, Iselle’s patron, and the Bastard are the most featured in this book. Several other neighboring countries are Quadrenes, who do not hold the Bastard to be a god. Naturally, both sides hold the other to be heretics, and it echoes into politics as people who are natural followers of the Bastard flee from Quadrene countries to Quintarian. Though I’m condensing it here, the theology comes up naturally through the story as it is lived. Really the whole world is set up just as well, without long expository sections. This is top-notch fantasy, with something for everyone. Lloyd James has just the right voice to pull off the battle-weary Lord Cazaril, if the voices of the two girls sound just a little young for young women who are definitely taking charge of their own destinies. My love and I both separately listened to and very much enjoyed this.

P.S. What does this cover depict? Can anyone figure out if it is related to anything that happens in the story? It looks to me like a generic fantasy painting put on the book without any regard to the actual content. The cover shown for the ebook version was even worse, featuring, of all things, a large dragon.
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The boy and I had just finished listening to the harrowing tale told in Gregor and the Marks of Secret, so harrowing that I wasn’t up to listening to the next one right away. Meanwhile, the third Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place had just come into the library, and we were first in line for it. We certainly didn’t want to start a new longer work with that coming any day, so I checked out a couple of these short Rabbit Ears CDs.

Mose the Fireman and StormalongRabbit Ears: American Tall Tales Volume 3: “Mose the Fireman” and “Stormalong.”
Rabbit Ears: World Tales Volume 4: “The White Cat” and “The Fool and the Flying Ship”

The Rabbit Ears stories are all CDs with two stories of about a half hour each, narrated by famous actors. In this case, Michael Keaton reads “Mose the Fireman”, John Candy “Stormalong”, Emma Thompson “The White Cat” and Robin Williams “The Fool and the Flying Ship”. All of the actors seemed to really enjoy the idea of narrating a children’s story, letting loose with a wide variety of characters and appropriate expression. “The White Cat” and “The Fool and the Flying Ship” are very contrasting stories. Thompson’s aristocratic tones tell the story of a younger prince whose friendship with a white cat ripens into love over the course of three years and how they save each other from their differing dilemmas. This is accompanied by beautiful original flute music. “The Fool and the Flying Ship” is narrated with a Yiddish accent and told as slap-stick comedy, with exaggerated expressions. Here, the fool wins the princess without ever really getting to know her, but the antics of the fool and his motley band of lower-class super-powered sidekicks are highly entertaining. The klezmer music backs up the story perfectly. The White Cat and the Fool and the Flying Ship Mose the Fireman and Stormalong are two American folk heroes with whom I was previously unacquainted, despite having read compulsively in the 398s in childhood. Mose’s tale seems to be set in the Roaring 20s, to judge by the music, while Stormalong’s tale takes place a few decades earlier, as sail was making way for steam. Both are entertaining tales of the unbelievable exploits of a fireman and a sailor. Each of these four tales was just about the perfect length to take us one way of the commute to and from school. The seven-year-old was excited by the stories, and the two-year-old loved the music, which meant that for once, everyone was happy. The length means finding a new audio book every day for us, but could be perfect if you have shorter commutes or just want a story to listen to at home. In any case, the stories are fun and the production values high.

Cross-posted to and .
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Young FredleYoung Fredle by Cynthia Voigt. Read by Wendy Carter. Fredle is a young mouse who lives behind the walls of the kitchen of a farm house, also inhabited by Mr. and Mrs., Baby, two dogs and a cat. He and his more adventurous girl cousin, Axel, enjoy pushing the boundaries of the strict mouse rules, talking while foraging and even foraging outside of the normal times. And then they find something new and delicious – a peppermint patty. They both eat themselves sick. Axel is able to run away to wait to get better, but Fredle is pushed out of the nest onto the pantry floor. From there, Mrs. takes him outside, presumed by all the mice to be a death sentence. Getting to this point of the story took long enough that I was surprised at how many discs were left of the audiobook – but this is really just the beginning. Fredle gets better, has an outside mouse bring him food, and discovers the stars and what he thinks are multiple moons. He must learn very quickly how to find food outside and how to stay safe from the outdoor cats as well as raptors, owls, snakes and racoons. Somehow, he makes friends with Sadie, the flightier of the two dogs, and develops an exploratory friendship with a young woodshed mouse who defies her colony’s rules against talking with house mice. He spends what seems like forever searching the perimeter of the house for a way back in, only to be kidnapped by a band of raccoons, the Rowdy Brothers. And when Fredle finally makes his way back home, he finds that he can no longer just go along with the rules that have always been followed, when he can see that doing things differently could save lives.

Many of the Amazon reviews talked about how the message was the importance of Freedom. Which is a nice all-American message, but not really the message that I got out of the book. It is some about freedom, of course – but when Fredle was first dumped on the grass outside, he was perfectly free and absolutely in danger of his life, both from the illness and from not knowing his way around. I think the more important lesson that Fredle learned was about flexibility and adaptation. Rules are fine if they’re really helping to keep you alive and safe, but they need to be re-evaluated regularly to make sure they really are still the best way to do things. Unmentioned in those reviews, but going along with it, is Fredle’s learning to appreciate beauty, not just going through the day trying to find enough to eat and then sleeping the rest of the day away. Many Amazon reviewers also found it slow, and aside from the slowish though not uninteresting beginning that I mentioned earlier, we did not find this to be the case. I listen to audio books in the car with my son daily, and rarely does he complain about the suspense of just having to stop wherever we land when we get to school. This time, he was waiting anxiously to find out what would happen to Fredle, especially as we had to turn it off just as Fredle had been spotted by a snake.

This was a runner-up for the annual ALA Odyssey awards for best audio for youth and teens. It was indeed very pleasant listening, though there are also illustrations in the print version that we didn’t see. This is a good choice for elementary-age kids and would make a good fine family read-aloud.

Cross-posted to and .
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Dear readers,
I very much apologize for my spotty posting as of late. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but these three factors are probably influencing things:

1. My deep dark secret (but totally legal according to work) is that I write these posts in slow moments between patrons on the reference (or youth or reader’s advisory) desks at work. Slow moments seem to have been few and far between of late.
2. Various health concerns (but! Minor and ordinary!) have kept little L. up at night recently. Somehow, my brain seems to have a lot more difficulty putting a coherent post together on less than six hours of sleep a night.
3. Lightning Bolt has now officially been diagnosed with dyslexia, which means that my to-read shelf is now crowded with titles like The Secret Life of the Dyslexic Child and The Twice Exceptional Child, as well as needing to re-read The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. I dunno – are any of you, dear readers, interested in reviews of dyslexia books? I was thinking not, but let me know.
4. Tiredness and reading more professional book blogs leading to inferiority complexes regarding my little hobby blog. I have more followers that I know about on my little new Pinterest account than on the blog I've been posting mostly faithfully to for the last eight years. Hard to even put that in print, but there it is.

Anyway, I have been reading some more fun stuff, so here’s a bit.

The Ruins of Gorlan

Ranger’s Apprentice. Book 1: The Ruins of Gorlan. By John Flanagan. Narrated by John Keating. Will has grown up an orphan, raised in a group of foundlings sponsored by the Baron at Castle Redmont. Now all five of them are 15, and it is Choosing Day, time for them to be chosen as apprentices. Will is small and mischievous, but, believing that his father was a hero knight who died in the battle against the evil Morgarath, his dearest wish is to go to Battleschool and train to be a knight himself. All the other four foundlings are given their wishes, but Will is apprenticed to the Ranger Halt. Rangers are mysterious and much distrusted, even suspected of using black magic. Will is less than thrilled about this assignment, but as the alternative is field labor, he takes it. Of course the apprenticeship itself is lots of hard work, taking care of the menial tasks around the Ranger’s cabin as well as learning volumes of new things. He is learning things like tracking, how to stay hidden moving or holding still, how to use range weapons and to stay out of the line of battle if possible. The Rangers, it turns out, are spies of sort, spending their time in the wilds and small villages in and around the kingdom, keeping track both of political tides and the lay of the physical land. They are, in short, very cool, in a subtle way completely opposed to the flashy, bashy knights. Early on, Will’s story alternates with that of his rival from the castle, the big boy who made it to Battleschool. This boy is bullied very badly, and then takes it out on Will whenever they meet. In a plot turn that seemed inevitable from the beginning, events conspire to make these two the best of friends. Eventually he will proceed to help Halt and a former apprentice defeat some new monsters that Morgarath has sent forth in his latest bid for power.

I listened to this book on my own to see if it would be appropriate to share with my son, now seven, who loves all kinds of epic fantasy and battle-type things. And I came to the conclusion: he would love it. I am not comfortable sharing it for another couple of years at least, solely due to the strong and bullying subplot. That bullying was described in great and painful detail over multiple episodes. It was eventually resolved by Halt allowing Will to beat up on the bullies. While this is probably a very satisfying resolution for kids who have been bullied, it doesn’t seem a good solution to me. I don’t want to go on with the series myself without knowing that those types of unpleasant events wouldn’t continue. I felt with the five friends that Flanagan was assembling a crack gaming party, with a varied assortment of characters, each exceptionally good in a different area. None of these have yet been tapped in this first book, but there are ten books in the series, and I’m sure there are seeds for future plot points that I missed.

Despite my gut negative reaction to the bullying, it isn’t really any more violent than many other teen books, and there are a lot of good points to this book. It’s got constant action paired with a strong and likeable main character. Even though Will and his friends are all Above Average and it’s a fantasy, the skills are all ones that exist and could be useful in our world – no simple wand-waving. This series is aimed squarely at teen and perhaps pre-teen boys. Although most of the characters are boys, two of the five foundlings are girls, and they are given real, important careers as well, making it less gender-imbalanced than, say, LOTR. So far, there’s only the smallest hint of romance. All in all, not quite a series for me, but definitely one I’ll keep in mind for teen patrons and maybe even my son down the road a bit.

Cross-posted to and .
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book coverGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins. Read by Paul Boehmer This was the first big book by Collins, much more famous now for The Hunger Games, which I haven’t yet read. The boy and I listened to this together. Gregor, aged 11 or 12, lives in New York City with his mother, grandmother, little sister, and baby sister, Boots, aged 2. His father disappeared a couple of years ago, leaving Gregor in charge of the family while his mother is at work. He’s serious about his responsibility, but an unbidden counter inside him keeps track of each day that his father has been gone. One day, he takes Boots down to the laundry room of their apartment building with him. While he’s busy with the washer, she explores the room. A large air vent has a loose cover – and soon Gregor is following Boots as a very strong draft pulls them down. There, two giant talking roaches take them to the humans of the Underland. This is a world of very pale-skinned, purple-eyed humans, who have been making a life in the Underland for the past 500 years, since their kingdom was founded by the Earl of Sandwich. Also in the Underland are the giant rideable bats, who form life partnerships with the humans similar to Pernese dragons, though later in life. Bats and humans together navigate their way among sometimes neutral, sometimes hostile giant cockroaches, spiders, and most dangerously, rats. All of these are human-sized or larger and can talk with humans. Gregor soon learns that he can’t just go back home, and that even if he could, his father is being held captive by the rats. One of the senior royalty of the Underland is convinced that Gregor is the Warrior foretold in a prophecy by the Earl of Sandwich. The prophecy foretells dangerous times for the Underworld, and says that a Warrior will come and ask for help with a Quest. It specifies the make-up of the party that should go on the quest and even how many of them will survive it. Although he himself doesn’t believe that he could be a Warrior, Gregor is persuaded to try to convince the Council to support him, if only because he knows he needs the help to find his father. Approval is given in large part because the rats are marching on the city in force. But the Quest will not be easy. The party includes Princess Luxa and Henry, both Underworld royalty a few years older than Gregor who look down on him; Gregor and Boots (mostly carried in a baby backpack on Gregor’s back) and Luxa and Henry’s bats. For the Quest to succeed, they must also find two Crawlers, two Spinners and one rat to join the party. Meanwhile, the rats are attacking the Underworld’s main human city. Everyone on the quest has to hope both that the quest will be successful and that the prophecy is right that completing Gregor’s quest will save the Underworld as well. Gregor especially grows as a character over the course of the story. He starts out a sympathetic character, caring so sweetly for his little sister, but must learn diplomacy and leadership along the way. It’s not exactly clear from Collins’s description, but it sounds like Gregor and his family might be African-American, which would make him a rare minority fantasy hero. Paul Boehmer’s narration, while perfectly expressive, is oddly precise – not quite British, but more carefully enunciated than standard American English and certainly nothing hinting at a regional or ethnic American accent. This is an exciting story with strong characters and a well-drawn setting. I should perhaps note that there isn’t any magic; the fantasy part seems to end with the existence of the Underworld and its giant inhabitants. I’m not sure it’s one of my forever-favorites, but I’d certainly recommend it to kids looking for an exciting series where it’s up to the kids to save the world.

Cross-posted to and .
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Actually I started listening to it, and realized that there was no way I could finish it before the audio book was due back at the library. So I ripped the part I hadn’t yet listened to (to make sure I wouldn’t just keep it forever) and put it on my mp3 player to finish. And when I was finished the exciting book that I’d checked out to listen to next didn’t seem nearly so exciting, so I started listening one-third of the way through the book again. Maybe I’ll get over it enough to start listening to something else. Maybe I’ll have to buy the audio book for myself so I can listen to the whole thing legally, over and over again.

book coverReady Player One by Ernest Cline. Read by Wil Wheaton. It’s a dark, dystopian future. The Recession never ended, and the ongoing energy crisis has ended the era of easy travel. Most people are unemployed, living in large stacks of trailers just outside the city. Life in the real world is so grim that the vast majority of people spend all their time logged into the Oasis, an immersive on-line alternate reality. Getting on to the Oasis and its main planet are free; it sustains itself and a large portion of the overall economy by charging for on-line goods and travel to its millions of other planets. The Oasis was imagined and designed by a hard-core socially impaired geek by the name of James Halliday. When he dies without heirs, he sends out to all the millions of Oasis users an invitation to participate in a treasure hunt for three keys leading to the location of an Easter egg hidden in the game. Our hero is one Wade Watts, an orphan living in the trailer stacks who is attending his senior year of high school in the Oasis. He’s named his avatar Parzival after the Arthurian grail-seeker and is determined to find the egg himself. In addition to all the time he spends in the Oasis, he’s devoted himself to mastering the 1980s arcade, computer and role-playing games, movies and movies that were formative during Halliday’s teen years. Geek children of the 1980s, this book is for you. There are multiple clues and puzzles which you might be able to figure out before Wade if you are familiar with the right movie or game, and even if you don’t, the trivia lessons are fun.

Even if the 80s weren’t your era, the plot of the book keeps on moving. Wade may be just one of millions of gunters (as the egg hunters come to be known), but we know from the beginning that he’s the first one to find the first key. His rivals include his best friend H and the zaftig and beautiful (at least on-line)if reclusive Art3mis, but the real enemy is the giant corporation IOI. They have an army of corporate warriors bent on finding the egg to give ownership of the Oasis to IOI, so that they can then start charging monthly fees and adding more advertising to the Oasis. Can our poor, self-educated hero find the egg or help his friends get there before the evil corporation takes over the current refuge of the poor? Wil Wheaton, geek extraordinaire, gives a pitch-perfect narration here. Though this features a teen narrator, it is aimed at adults. There’s a little sexual reference (no actual sex) and some violence, mostly in the game. The language is foul throughout. This is one of my very favorite books this year, and I urge my fellow geeks to seek it out right now.

Cross-posted to and .
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book coverThe Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall. Read by Susan Denaker. The Penderwicks appears now on just about every middle grade summer reading list I see, and no wonder. Birdsall has mastered the quiet family adventure novel. There might not be spies or time travel or indeed anything that might not actually happen, yet it never seems slow or boring. This is the third entry in the series, after a second novel that looked rather sadly like it might be tying up the whole series. In this novel, newly married Daddy is off on a honeymoon with his bride and her two-year-old (too small to be left behind, honeymoon or not). Rosalind, the eldest, is going on a vacation of her own with friends in New Jersey, leaving a very nervous Skye as the Oldest Available Penderwick, in charge of eleven-year-old Jane, five-year-old Batty, and Hound, for their two-week vacation in an ocean-side cottage at Point Mouette in Maine. If the evil Mrs. T-D allows it, their friend Jeffrey from the first novel will also be joining them. Will Skye be able to handle the responsibility of being OAP? Will Jane get past her writer’s block? Will Batty blow up, and what might cause it? Who does the nice musician who lives next door remind them of? Although accompanied by Aunt Claire, the girls are largely running things themselves as Aunt Claire sprains her ankle early on. Each character is lovingly depicted, each so different that you can tell which character is talking just by the word choice. Susan Denaker’s slightly old-fashioned narration is just right. This was a book that I longed to have more time to listen to and yet was disappointed when it ended. I might expect more people to enjoy children’s literature than actually do, but this feels like a book that everyone from kindergarten-age on up would enjoy reading together.

Alvin Ho

Oct. 31st, 2011 01:29 pm
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Here’s a series that was mentioned in a recent Books for Boys webinar from Booklist.

book coverAlvin Ho Collection Books 1 & 2: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things. Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters. by Lenore Look. Read by Everette Plen. These are fairly short early chapter books of the funny but realistic kids type. Alvin Ho is a second-grade Chinese-American boy, interested in many things (like superheroes and baseball) and afraid of many more, like girls and school. On weekends, Alvin is a gentleman-in-training and Firecracker Man, a fearless superhero, while during the week, he’s too scared even to talk at school. The books are two-disc affairs (two books to a set), mostly episodic adventures around things like Alvin trying to make friends at school, going camping, and what happens when he lets loose on his psychotherapist the Shakespearean cursing that his father loves to use when upset. Alvin is sometimes joined in his adventures by his older brother Calvin, and more often by his five-year-old sister Anibelly. There is a lot to like about these books. There are not so many books with Chinese-American protagonists, and Alvin definitely doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Asian teacher’s pet. Alvin believes that crying makes you feel better, and bursts into tears at times of real or potential stress. And Alvin’s family relationships are loving and believable. I might have enjoyed the books more if they had been read by someone else. Everette Plen (and Mr. & Mrs. Plen, what’s with spelling your son’s name with the feminine ending?) is a child actor who read with decent expression but uniform full-speed-ahead pacing. I wanted to love them more than I did, but they are fine examples of realistic early fiction to appeal to both boys and girls, and the boy and I enjoyed them.

Cross-posted to and .
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This one was part of my on-going listening adventures with my son. As my dear readers no doubt remember, he’s about to start first grade, but is listening on more of a fifth- or sixth-grade level, so we’re always looking for books that will be enjoyable without getting too advanced subject-wise. I’d never actually read this classic, but remember Mrs. Austin reading it to the family in Meet the Austins by Madeline L’Engle. LB is often of the opinion that if children have been enjoying a book for a long time, there’s probably a reason. He chose to listen to this over the modern fantasy I checked out at the same time.

book cover Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney. Read by Bernadette Dunne This book, published in 1881, is a Victorian Sweet Family Struggles through Hard Times novel. (Little Women, featuring a family with older children, was published in 1868.) The Peppers are a family of six. Mrs. Pepper, or Mamsie, is a widow struggling to support her five children with her needlework. As hard as she works, it’s only ever enough to put bread in their mouths, never enough to send them to school. Ben, the oldest at twelve, also works outside the home to bring in some extra cash, while Polly, probably eleven, manages the house, doing the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the three younger children, Davie, Joel and little Phronsie, the baby at three years old. Despite their poverty, the little brown house in which they live is filled with love and laughter. They have little adventures around things like trying to bake a birthday cake for Mamsie, though they can’t afford white flour, getting measles, and trying to celebrate Christmas with gifts. One or the other of the girls getting lost is a recurring theme, resolved by the little girl being found by a rich man of some variety. In the first incident, little Phronsie is kidnapped by an itinerant organ grinder, left behind in the country, and rescued by thirteen-year-old Jasper King and his dog Prince. This develops into a family friendship that leads to first Polly and then the whole Pepper family moving into the King family mansion. I counted this plot device happening three times over the course of the book, and it’s not really a life message I want my children to absorb – just get lost and find a rich stranger who will rescue you and improve your lot in life. I also found the relentless sentimentality of the writing style to be a bit much. Never a child is mentioned to be doing something but the hand doing it is described as being a chubby little hand, even when the owner of the hand is eleven or twelve. I found that the narrator’s style exaggerated this with her reading style, so that it might not be so cloying if someone else were reading it. However, I was still able to enjoy it, even as the plot got increasingly improbable. When LB gets old enough not to want to hold hands in public, he might not enjoy this series so much. For right now, I’ll enjoy both holding hands and his excitement at finding out that we can get sequels from Project Gutenberg for free.

Originally posted at .
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book coverOdd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. Read by the author. Let us now praise Neil Gaiman, for not only can he write well for adults and for children, for the page and for the screen, but he is also an excellent book narrator. In this short tale, only two discs long, we meet our hero, young Odd. He’s a young Viking lad, lame in one leg, with a dead father, a Scottish mother, and an overbearing, somewhat abusive stepfather. When, one year, winter doesn’t end and tempers in his little house begin to fray, he runs away to the woods. There he meets a sly fox, a slow but friendly bear, and a somewhat fierce eagle. During the night with them in his father’s old woodcutting hut, he hears them talk and learns that they are gods, trapped in animal form and exiled by the Frost Giants to Midgard. Odd decides that it’s up to him to get the gods back to Asgard and the Frost Giants out, which will both save the gods and stop the endless winter. The Norse mythology is solid, Odd an engaging and scrappy hero, and the interactions between the gods priceless. The print version, which I haven’t looked at, is illustrated by Brett Helquist, so there are delights to be had in either version.

Originally posted at .
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book coverThe Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling. Book 1 narrated by Flo Gibson. Book 2 narrated by Patrick Tull. It turns out that in a childhood spent reading, somehow I’d only read a couple of stories from the Jungle Book. The only one I remember clearly is Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Somehow, despite living without a TV and rarely seeing movies as a child, I have a few images from the animated Disney movie stuck in my head, too. The original, as you might guess, is a whole lot less cute and funny than in Disney. Mowgli is still a child raised in the jungle by wolves. There are lots of short stories of his adventures, from his efforts to kill the tiger who was responsible for him coming to the jungle to his being cast out by the wolves, trying to live with humans, and coming back with the jungle to renew the Pack. In between Mowgli stories are others, most also set in India, but some set in the Arctic and other similarly remote places. Each story has an accompanying poem, which these days seems delightfully old-fashioned.

The whole thing is quite violent, mostly of course against animals, but still often horrific, as in the story where a young seal witnesses a group of others his age being clubbed to death, or the unforgettable battle between the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the cobras Nag and Nagina. There is no sex, of course, and hardly any women. The only one I can remember who isn’t a mother is a beautiful girl in white whom Mowgli sees walk by at one point, and that isn’t even a speaking role. Though in many ways I think that Kipling was trying to make his jungle function like a real one, his sexism extends to having the animals most respected in the jungle be the male elephant and his sons. I don’t know whether the matriarchal nature of elephant society was unknown at that point, or whether Kipling was too bound up in his worldview to see it. The supremacy of man to beast and white man to native Indian is of course even worse, both clearly there and balanced against Man being clearly crueler than Beast. But we found, the Boy and I, that these parts were infrequent enough that they didn’t interfere with the stories, which were with just one exception cracking good. We talked over the issues, agreed that the attitudes were outdated, and moved on. Underneath those outdated ideas are some deep truths, and great adventures in the meantime. The Boy very much wishes that there were more Jungle Books, especially more Mowgli stories.

We listened to both volumes of the Jungle Books. The first of these was narrated by Flo Gibson, whom Wikipedia says was a pioneer in recording classics for children, and whose voice is low and cracked enough that I heard age before I heard gender. The second was narrated by Patrick Tull, also possessed of a gravelly British voice, and who is best known for recording the vast majority of Patrick O’Brian’s Maturin-Aubrey series. Both narrators sounded more like a grandparent reading a story aloud than like some of the modern narrators who do convincing, distinct voices for each character. There are several other recordings out there, and I would be curious to know if any of my readers have listened to them. But in general: heartily recommended, within your and your child’s tolerance especially for violence.

Now this is the Law of the Jungle - as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk the Law runneth forward and back -
For the strength of Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

"The Law of the Jungle" in The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling

Originally posted at .
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book coverPippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. Read by Esther Benson. I read Pippi multiple times as a child, of course, but hadn’t reread as an adult. And I tried Pippi on my son a couple of years ago – he would have been three or four – with high hopes that were soon dashed. It just didn’t work for him. Now, however, he is a big six-year-old, with kindergarten behind him and newly chafing at the rules that define childhood. In other words, ready for tales of a girl who defies the rules, who lives by herself and does what she wants. Even when the adults get upset with her, she ends up being loveable and saving the day her own way. I had remembered Pippi as a coherent story, and so was somewhat surprised to find that each chapter is a more or less independent story, with only the three main characters coming through from one story. Pippi rolls out cookies by the hundreds on her kitchen floor and gives Tommy and Annika lavish presents from her treasure stash. She rescues small children from bullies and fires, decides that school is much too restrictive for her, and puts on a better show than the circus. Though my LB is used to listening to books with longer plots, I’d imagine that these shorter stories would be ideal for introducing children to longer books, with continuing characters but shorter plot arcs. It’s a classic book, and Esther Benson reads it in classic style – which made me chuckle, too, as Pippi sounds much more refined than I imagined her being. We’ll be coming back for sequels.

Originally posted at .
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In which your faithful Library Mama learns, once again, that battle scenes are not quite her thing. This audio series is on loan from my dear brother-in-law. My love and he both listened happily to the whole series. But, since they don’t write book reviews, here are my thoughts on it.

book coverThe Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell. Narrated by Christian Rummel. The Lost Fleet is a science-fiction series based on two interesting ideas: What if a long-lost hero of legend, one whom people always said would come back at the hour of greatest need, really did come back? And what if what he came back to was not an immediate stunning victory, but just trying to rescue the shattered remains of a battle fleet from the middle of enemy territory? John Geary was in suspended animation in his escape pod for a hundred years before he was picked up by another Alliance vessel. While he slept, the war with the Syndics or Syndicate Worlds that was just beginning when he was last conscious built into a constant way of life. And, his final actions grew into the legend of Black Jack Geary, the best commander ever, whom the Living Stars would send back to help the Alliance some day. Soon after he awakened, the Alliance Fleet suffered a crushing defeat near the Syndicate home world. The Syndic CEO murdered the Alliance leaders in full view of their troops, unwittingly putting Captain Geary back in command of the fleet. He then vows, against all odds, to get the fleet back home again. The book has a lot going for it – an intruiging premise, interesting reflections on the cultural changes that might happen with a culture at war for a century and Captain Geary’s clashes with that culture. There are the politics of Captain Geary both not wanting to believe in himself as a legend and needing to use that reputation to lead the fleet, much of which is inclined to distrust him. Campbell has a good theory of space movement and, as a former Navy man himself, a good command of tactics which he is able to translate well into three-dimensional space. This is plot-driven fiction with a good setting and decent if not terribly nuanced characters. Christian Rummel’s narration sounds somewhat harsh to me, but suits the military nature of the book well. If closely-fought space battles with some politics float your boat, this series is for you.

Originally posted at .
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I finally got around to reading this book, with the reluctance that I seem to reserve for bestsellers, once two close friends recommended it. And I have to admit, it is a good book.

book coverThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Read by Cassandra Campbell with Bahni Turpin.

In case you’ve been hiding somewhere, and missed the buzz surrounding this book when it came out last year, here’s the basic premise: In the early 1940s, doctors at Johns Hopkins harvested some cervical cancer cells from a black patient named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks died, leaving behind a husband and five young children, none of whom knew anything about the cells. The cells lived and spread, forming the first easily replicable human cells in culture. They have become a mainstay of medical research, helping with discoveries from the polio vaccine to cancer and transplant medicines and whole hosts of other things. Meanwhile, the Lacks family lived on in poverty, unable to afford basic medical services. Skloot weaves together the story of what the cells have done with Henrietta’s story, her family’s story, and the ten year journey that Skloot and the Lacks family took to learn more about Henrietta and her cells. All of this also brings up big questions about ethics and power in science and medicine. I’d heard just about all of this from the interviews and reviews I read before touching the book; it was still a pleasure to listen to. It makes for a fascinating story with enough going on to appeal to just about anyone.

Crossposted to and .
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book coverUnseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett. Performed by Stephen Briggs. I view Terry Pratchett as a fantasy savings account. Not as in money, but as in “If I am ever in the bind for some light but good fantasy entertainment, there will always be a Terry Pratchett I haven’t yet read.” The books are enough part of the world to feel familiar, but free-standing enough that I don’t feel out of the loop for going years between Discworld visits. I had one of these moments recently, and was so happy to find an audio copy of this recent effort. In this book, the wizards of Unseen University discover to their horror that they will lose a good bit of funding if they don’t start playing the game of Foot the Ball. This is a raucous street game, with very loose rules and intensely loyal local teams throughout Ankh-Morphokh. Below stairs, we meet another cast of characters who get caught up in the ensuing madness: Nutt, a very well-educated goblin who is inexplicably working as a candle dribbler; Trev, the head candle dribbler, previously specializing in nothing much but being able to kick a tin can around wherever he goes; Glenda, the large and capable head of the night kitchen; and Juliet, her assistant, whose fairly empty but beautiful head attracts notice from every male who sees her. There’s some romance, a bit of dwarf fashion, a little reflection on racism, and a whole lot of silly fun, admirably read by the capable Briggs.

Cross-posted to and .


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