Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind by Phillip Done ****

Try to read this fast: Bone, Cone, Clone, Done, Gone, Hone, Lone, None, One, Phone, Shone, Tone, Zone. Now you are ready for Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind, a charming book that explores the mysteries of teaching elementary school. The author, Phillip Done (rhymes with phone), teaches in Palo Alto, California. In the tradition of Kids Say the Darndest and Chicken Soup, this book mixes gems of wisdom with anecdotes of innocence.
"Who knows that this bone is called?"
"Wait, I know ... the hilarious."
"Almost. It's the humerus. Does anyone remember what these two bones are called?"
"Good. Now, who remembers the name of the second bone?"
The book is unevenly written with some of the short chapters touching and enlightening, while others are merely self-indulgent and self-obsessed. Not surprisingly, when the author remember that elementary school is about the children he excels, but when he think its about the teachers, he fails. On balance, it is an enjoyable book and a quick read.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child ***

What is the difference between Science Fiction and Thrillers? Is it just Doubleday vs Tor? Consider Terminal Freeze and book that wants to have it both ways. The author has published with both houses, and this book's jacket boasts of "science fiction tropes."

The story opens; scientists are researching glaciers and global warming in Alaska, when a rapidly melting glacier reveals a frozen, preserved animal from thousands of years ago. Sounds like SF to me.

I suggest the difference is that science fiction readers expect the science to be accurate.

In this book, a contemporary film crew carried a Moviola, the gold standard for film post-production, to Alaska, while shooting with digital cameras. The problem may have been that they were using 50-year-old military computers for rendering. After entering a sphere "covered in a dark colored knobby padding,"(obviously an anechoic chamber) one of our scientists proclaims," My goodness. It is an echo chamber." I won't discuss the resolution to what is essentially a silly BEM story.

Another example: "potentiometers and oscillator pots." What could the pots be if not potentiometers? ROFL.

My answer is that a thriller is all about pacing, while science fiction additionally requires real science, not just tropes.

That said, if you can park your brain someplace, the pace is fast and the pages almost turn themselves. Unfortunately for me, I couldn't do it and had to stop several times to let the foolishness dissipate.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner *****

I cry at movies and books. Mostly happy stories, some might call them predictable, tear jerkers, but I like them and wish I could write them. Certain Girls is a middle-school coming-of-age story, a bat mitzvah story. Joy Krushelevansky, almost thirteen, struggles with pre-adolescent identity, an overweight, unfashionable mother, lesbian grandmother, estranged grandfather, step-father, and hearing aids. If that isn't enough, her classmates have discovered a novel written by her mother about a girl who promiscuously, and more embarrassing to a middle-schooler, in great detail, has sex throughout high school and college.

With a pink cover, I expected another book of the feelings, food, and fashions genre, but instead I was pleased to discover engaging characters and a plot closer to a thriller than the typical banter and boutique book. A contemporary novel for either the YA or light-reading crowd. Also, a wonderful book about contemporary Jewish culture.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy Hoobler ***

In 1911, The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. The Crimes of Paris opens and closes with this infamous crime, but really the book is about the evolution of crime, culture and forensics in the 19th century with extensive excursions into the life of Picasso, precursors to fingerprints, getaway cars, and fictional and real-life detectives.

If you're interested in cultural or criminal history, you'll find this an enjoyable romp through 19th century France.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Extreme Measures by Vince Flynn ***

Two terrorist cells intercepted, but one remains, targeted at Washington. DC. Extreme Measures is the race against time to stop the third cell. But this is not your ordinary post 9/11 thriller. The spy vs terrorist plots fade behind the liberals vs CIA conflict, and author Vince Flynn comes down hard on the side of liberal are short-sighted, political, naive, dangerous fools and we all owe our safety to a few violent, clandestine operators.

If you love this message presented in a melodramatic, un-nuanced polemic, then this is the book for you. Otherwise, it's a bit tedious, predictable, and repetitive.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrison *

Sometimes the most useful review is a BAD review. My library cataloged Every Which Way But Dead as Science Fiction and the author Kim Harrison is billed as a NYT bestselling author (Yes, bestselling is now a word.). So what's not to like?

To begin, and maybe to end, this is not SF. It is a feelings and fashions vampire novel. After a bit of outsmarting-the-devil (think of Daniel Webster here), the story move into a dull, repetitive groove of fashion, odors, and angst about who our protagonist wants to bite her on the neck and who she doesn't. Unfortunately, she is all angst and no action. I personally died of boredom so many times, I just gave up.

The book does include some cute pixies and interesting witches, but that does not make a novel.

BTW, if you happen to be a Kim Harrison fan, and the NYT assures all that they are out there, please let me know what you see in this stuff.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie *****

One form of writing magic transforms human pain and suffering into joy and beauty. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie is an excellent example of this transformation. Dai Sijie sets his novel during the Chinese cultural revolution.
The universities were closed and all the "young intellectuals," meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the poor peasants."
The two young teenage boys in this story, pulled out of middle school, had little hope of returning home from the remote mountain village they were exiled to.
But for sons and daughters of families classed as enemies of the people, the chances of returning home were infinitesimal: three in a thousand.
This charming story combines a coming of age plot with the power of fiction to affect people's lives. Anyone who enjoys reading or has been in love will find this a enjoyable, though way too short, read.