"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Friday, July 29, 2011

Film Friday: Sin City

Miller, Frank. Sin City. Vol. 1: The Hard Goodbye. Milwauke, OR: Dark Horse, 2005.

A Woman named Goldie takes pity on an unattractive and unstable man named Marv, and when she's murdered in bed with him, he sets out to not only discover who framed him, but to get revenge for one of the few women to ever show him kindness.  His quest for answers leads him to a tangle of political deceit centered around a man with somewhat...unusual appetites. But all of this is just business as usual in the crime-riddled Basin City.

Book Rating: **** (out of five)
Movie Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Drawings. Frank Miller's drawing style is dark and evocative.  In this particular story, there's no color, just pure black and white.  Miller switches between detailed images and outlines and shadows, which creates a feeling very much like film noir.
  • Plot. The story is dark and disturbing (not kidding, corruption and cannibalism, for beginners) but it sucks you in.  Marv exemplifies the "anti" in anti-hero, and in spite of his issues,  he is a sympathetic character.
  • Sex and Violence. This book is a graphic novel, in more ways than one.  Murder, hookers, and did I mention cannibalism earlier? Yeah...  Razor wire, and sawing off limbs, and, oh yeah, corrupt clergy who are covering up the murder of prostitutes.  Stay away if such things offend you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Children's/YA: The Witches

Dahl, Roald. The Witches. New York: Puffin, 1983. 208 pages.

"'A REAL WITCH is easily the most terrifying thing on earth.' That's a pretty thought. More horrifying still is that real witches don't even look like witches. They don't ride around on broomsticks. They don't even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, despicable, scheming harridans who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you're face to face with one? Read this story and you'll find out all you need to know. You'll meet a real hero, a wise old grandmother and the most gruesome, grotesque gang of witches imaginable!"

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Trustworthy Adult. The grandmother in this story is every child's dream authority figure.  She tells you all those deliciously scary stories that parents don't want children to hear.  She takes you on fun vacations.  And when your confrontations with witches go sour, she loves you anyway.  Who wouldn't want that?
  • Exciting Story. Let's face it, this book is a wonderful adventure story for children. It has a wonderful everyman hero and a whole cast of dastardly villains. If the boy was Harrison Ford and the witches were secretly Nazis, it could be an Indiana Jones movie. Well, almost. But it's that kind of black and white, unapologetic adventure tale, but for kids.
  • The Witches. The witches as described in the book, are fairly terrifying. Any child taking it seriously would be looking sideways at all women forever, looking for enlarged nostrils or toeless feet, or signs of a wig, or blue spit. While this doesn't seem to be a problem with most children, it is worth keeping in mind.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Christie, Agatha. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 304 pages.

"Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the women he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with a drug overdose. But the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information. Unfortunately, before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: *** (out of five)

  • Mystery. Christie's classic locker room mystery is well-constructed, not surprisingly.  The story provides all the clues to solving it, but the conclusion can still come as a surprise.  While people familiar with Christie's writing might know enough to assume that the obvious suspect may not be the right one, there are loose threads galore that complicate the solving of the mystery.
  • Plot.  Though the mystery is good, the surrounding plot is less than stellar.  It seems as though all of the actual story happens in the brief period before the murder and Poirot's arrival.  This sort of mystery that is focused more on clues than characters works better as a short story than requiring the development of a novel.  The mystery is compelling enough to over come this, however.
  • Characterization. The sub-par plot is compounded by the one-dimensionality of the characters.  Their tendency toward being one-note stereotypes rather than fully realized people can make the reader wonder why they should care about them. The mystery is compelling enough to over come this, however.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Children's/YA: The Phantom Tollbooth

Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Bullseye Books, 1989. 256 pages.

"For Milo, everything's a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he's got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the island of conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and , even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it's exciting beyond his wildest dreams!" (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: ***** (out of five)

  • Story. The idea of a mysterious package showing up in a boy's room to try and drag him into an appreciation for life is just fun.  I can think of times when life has gotten into a rut of repetition that a surprise trip to a magic land would have been in order.
  • Wordplay.  In terms of clever character names and witty references, Norton Juster is Jasper Fforde for kids (without all the literary allusions). With characters like Short Shrift, Faintly Macabre, and Kakofonous A. Dischord.
  • Heavyhandedness.  The allegorical nature of the story can some times lead to a lack of subtlety in the message of the story. After all, Milo is on a hunt for Rhyme and Reason.  I think it comes off as clever, but it might annoy some people.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Dick, Philip K. Ubik. In Four Novels of the 1960s. New York: Library of America, 1997. 189 pages (for Ubik, which is pages 609-798)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

"Ubik (1969), with its future world of psychic espionage agents and cryonically frozen patients inhabiting an illusory 'half-life,' pursues Dick's theme of simulated realities and false perceptions to ever more disturbing conclusions, as time collapses on itself and characters stranded in past eras search desperately for the elusive, constantly shape-shifting panacea Ubik." (description from book jacket)

  • Premise. The idea of putting people who are dead, but not entirely dead (insert Princess Bride joke about being mostly dead here) being put in stasis where they live in an alternate world, but can be communicated with once and awhile is interesting. Particularly once the worlds start bleeding into each other.
  • Writing Style. Dick's style is descriptive and simple, which suits the complexity of the plot well.
  • Complexity of Plot.  Dick's plot can be convoluted, and the futuristic world of 1992 that he created can be a little hard to follow. At times it has a hallucinogenic quality that might not be to everybody's taste.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Film Friday: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1997. 309 pages.

"Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley--a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry's room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn't had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry--and anyone who reads about him--will find unforgettable. For it's there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great discovery that's been waiting for him...if Harry can survive the encounter." (description from book jacket)

Book Review: **** (out of five)
Movie Review: ** (out of five)

  • Engaging Characters. The main characters in this book offer something for everybody.  None of them are even close to being perfect, but that makes them more relateable for children.  It is encouraging for children to see misfits making friends and succeeding, while struggling with all of the normal trials of adolescence, such as school work and teachers who play favorites.
  • Well-Realized World. One of the things that makes the book interesting is the idea of a world of magic hiding just around the corner of the world we know and sometimes love.
  • Minor Characters. Some of the ancillary characters are somewhat one-dimensional, which is not as much of a problem in children's books, since kids tend to see the world in black and white. I could envision this annoying some of the adults (but stick with the series. it gets better).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Children's/YA: The Secret Garden

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005. 272 pages.

"When Mary Lennox is sent home an orphan from India to live with her hunchbacked uncle at Mistlethwait Manor, she can have little idea of the new life that awaits her there. She arrives a sour-faced, sickly little madam with a furious temper, but through her friendship with local Yorkshire lad, Dickon, and their discovery of a secret garden, soon becomes a happy and healthy girl. She shares her new-found love of life with her sickly cousin, Colin, and together the three children restore the garden to its former glory. Between them they work their magic on the garden, and in turn the garden works its magic on the children and everyone around them. Enchanting and illuminating, The Secret Garden is a richly imaginative story about the potential for transformation." (description from book jacket)

Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Description. Burnett's descriptions, whether of Mary in India, or the moor and the people on it, are rich and evocative.  I think that this especially important for young readers, as they get used to reading books without pictures, providing an excellent springboard for their imaginations.
  • Symbolism. The characters and landscapes in this book are highly symbolic, reflecting various changes in the characters and their relationships. This adds an added layer of meaning that children can appreciate as they get older.
  • Time and Setting. A book set in Victorian England might seem odd and difficult to relate to for children, with them wondering about all sorts of things that are different now.  But the characters are so engaging that I hardly think it matters. Also, it could give children an opportunity to ask questions and learn some new things.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Midwife's Tale

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Vintage, 1990. 444 pages.

"Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine.  On the basis of that diary, Laural Thatcher Ulrich give us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society -- a portrait that sheds light on its medical practices, religious squabbles and sexual mores. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife's Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale." (description from book cover)

 Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Fascinating Story. Few works about early America focus on women, particularly non-famous women.  Ulrich's work focuses on one woman, a midwife, and what her diary says not only about her daily life, but also about her family and the culture of her town.  And Martha Ballard's story is interesting, because it shows how wide the involvement of a woman could be in the community.
  • Narrative Style. Ulrich begins each chapter with the relevant entries from Ballard's diary, followed by Ulrich's interpretation and  analysis.  Not only does this introduce the reader to her most important primary source, but it also gives transparency to her discussions of her process of research.
  • Style.  Ulrich's storytelling style could also detract from ease in following the narrative. Going back and forth between excerpts from the diary and Ulrich's writing could make it more difficult to follow the story.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Film Friday: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers/The Sound of Music

Trapp, Maria Augusta. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. New York: Image Books, 1957. 312 pages.

"...Abounding in humor, freshness and love, the book embodies a joie de vivre unequaled in most contemporary literature. The humorous situations in which the neophyte citizens find themselves because of the newness of mores and language provide a lighter side to the story. The freshness of the New England hills in the springtime is typified in the very lives of this unusual family. The love of God, of one another, and of their very fellowmen has proved a sustaining influence against 'the roar of the world.'" (description is a quote from America on the book cover)

Book Review: **** (out of five)
Movie Review: **** (out of five)

  • Writing Style.  The storytelling is not only simple, but it is told in as though Maria Trapp is sitting with you, telling the story to her friends.  This quickly draws the reader in, making a connection between the audience and the story.
  • Story. The story of the Trapp family is full of hope and the strength found in perseverance and family.  They are a wealthy family that not only has to learn how to be poor, but they also need to learn to fit in and survive in a new country during a war.  They are a model of how not to give up.
  • Slow Pace.  The story is not exactly exciting.  Even some of the greatest moments of upheaval in their lives are treated with the same calm acceptance and simplicity that characterizes the whole story.  This could make the book seem boring, depending on the readers' tastes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Children's/YA: Where the Sidewalk Ends

Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends: 30th Anniversary Special Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 

"Come in...for where the sidewalk ends, Shel Silverstein's world begins. You'll meet a boy who turns into a TV set, and a girl who eats a whale. The Unicorn and the Bloath live there, and so does Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout who will not take the garbage out. It is a place where you wash your shadow and plant diamond gardens, a place where shoes fly, sisters are auctioned off, and crocodiles go to the dentist. Shel Silverstein's masterful collection of poems and drawings is at once outrageously funny and profound."

Overall Rating: ***** (out of five)

  • Variety.  The collection offers a nicer variety of poem types.  There are particularly short ones and longer ones, as well as ones that are completely silly and ones that actually say something.  There's something in here for everyone.
  • Illustrations. Silverstein's drawings are a necessary and integrated component of the book.  In some cases, they form the punchline of the poem they accompany (such as with "The Loser" and "Jumping Rope"). They are simple and silly and whimsical, just like the poems.
  • Subject Matter. As I've increasingly discovered as I've gotten older, if you actually stop and look at what happens in children's books, it can be worrisome.  In Silverstein's book, people get eaten by animals, someone cooks himself into a stew, etc.  Yet children don't seem to ever take such things seriously, and frankly adults shouldn't either.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July!!!

I'm afraid there's no review today.  I spent a wonderful weekend with my mom and her family in Ohio, and I decided to take the day off before returning to work tomorrow.  I was going to review A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich today, but decided that I needed to skim through it again before writing my review to do it justice.  You can look for that next Monday.

But I'll be back on Wednesday with a review of Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein, and Friday with The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp.  Next week I'll be blogging from Madison, where I'll be visiting my sister, brother-in-law, and new niece.

I hope that everyone is having a wonderful Fourth!!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Film Friday: October Sky

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. October Sky. New York: Island Books, 1998. 428 pages.

"It was 1957, the year Sputnik raced across the Appalachian sky, and the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia, was slowly dying. Faced with an uncertain future, Homer Hickam nurtured a dream: to send rockets into outer space.  The introspective son of the mine's superintendent and a mother determined to get him out of Coalwood forever, Homer fell in with a group of misfits who learned not only how to turn scraps of metal into sophisticated rockets but how to sustain their hopes in a town that swallowed men alive. As the boys began to light up the tarry skies with their flaming projectiles and dreams of glory, Coalwood, and the Hickams, would never be the same." (description from book cover)

Note: The book was originally published under the title Rocket Boys, and some releases following the making of the movie were re-titled to match the movie.

Book Rating: **** (out of five)
Movie Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Readability. One might expect a memoir by an engineer to lack, how shall I say, interest to a general reading population.  Yet this book is well-written and accessible.  His prose is clear and elegant in its simplicity.  Sometimes, it is  easy to forget that you're reading non-fiction.
  • Story. Hickam's story of being a bright boy trying to escape a future of coal mining is beautiful and poignant. As a coming of age story, I think that most readers will find something to which they can relate.
  • History. not only does this book have a lot to say about life in a coal mining town, but it also illustrates cold war life and the changes caused by the beginning of the space race.
  • Slow Pace. The book is not an action filled adventure novel.  It is a fairly leisurely book, which sometimes includes small digressions that, though they add color to the story, don't necessarily drive the plot.