Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Emperor of Ocean Park

by Stephen L Carter

Thumbs Up.

Mr. Carter is, from Wikipedia, "an American law professor, legal- and social-policy writer, columnist, and best-selling novelist." I became interested in him after stumbling upon a list of his non-fiction writings which have drawn a following from various political points of view. Since I knew I'd never be able to concentrate on a meaty non-fiction tome at this point, I chose to read his first novel.

The Emperor of Ocean Park is a narrative related by Judge Oliver Garland, an African American law professor at a fictional private East Coast university law school. The plot involves university politics and personality clashes, a federal court nomination, judicial rulings, family relationships, and mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Judge Garland's father. But the chief conflict is Judge Garland unraveling a posthumous mystery left by his father.

Although not a fast paced novel, Mr. Carter leaves just enough intrigue to pull the reader through the book. I enjoyed reading about and pondering the sociological struggles the African American characters deal with. Each in their own way.

Although I have had many non-Caucasian friends throughout my life, I am pretty much from a single-cultural upbringing. I was however, taught to look at a person's heart not his skin; and that we are all children of God, made in His image. Is there anyone who wants to think of themselves as racist? But the book made me aware of how even someone who does not think of himself as racist probably carries unconscious racist attitudes and actions. And is that wrong, or merely unfortunate? And is it preferable to pretend we don't carry a certain bias or to put it all right out there? These are the kinds of ideas that Mr. Carter seems to address via his characters and their reactions to each other in a variety of social situations.

So no, the novel is not a quick read. But the plot is compelling, the characters are well sketched and consistent to the personalities Mr. Carter gave them, the personalities are colorful. And the writing itself is rich with both subtle and obvious metaphor and irony and historical allusion. The entire plot revolves around chess related symbolism.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin

Thumbs way up to the ceiling!

This is one of my favorite books.  I read this for school in 6th grade and then spent a year searching every Goodwill in the Twin Cities area for it.  I hadn't had a chance to reread it since my children were born, but recently took the time to revisit it in preparation of sharing it with my oldest, who is 9 (who loved it too).

The book starts with a group of strangers moving into a new apartment complex- some of which have children.  A famous businessman, Sam Westing, is found dead.  Soon after, they are all summoned to the reading of his will, which says that one of them murdered him.  The will outlines an elaborate "game" which the "players" need to follow to discover the identity of the murderer and get the proceeds of the will.  The book primarily follows the attempts of the kids to solve the crime, and a girl named Turtle in particular.

Paging through this mystery, even as an adult, is a treat.  It's one of those rare books that you reach the end of, then immediately want to reread it to see how everything unfolded in light of the information gained in the last chapter.  This smartly written book is like a logic puzzle in prose and an excellent choice for readers- young and old alike.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Something Missing

By Matthew Dicks

Thumbs Up!

A few weeks ago, I found myself with over an hour to kill, in the library, by myself. It felt positively decadent. I was scanning the new books, and came across this one. The back cover stated, "A career criminal with OCD tendencies and a savant-like genius for bringing order to his crime scenes." Hmmm - Bizarro Monk!

I found this a fun read. The main character, Martin, has a regular job at Starbucks. But, he also has a number of 'clients' - his word for the people whose homes he burglarizes. He has strict rules for who might be his clients, such as they must be married, two incomes, and they won't miss the items he takes. Usually, he takes routine things, such as salad dressing or a few rolls of toilet paper, depending on his current requirements. Occasionally, he'll take higher end items. But he's extremely careful to make sure the clients won't notice what's missing.

I'm certainly not advocating this, but this book would make an excellent "How-To" manual for thieves.

Martin's character may be off-putting to some because, well, he's a crook. Nevertheless, I found him endearing. As the novel progresses, there is definite growth in his character as he drops some of his meticulous habits to come to the aid of his clients.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and the Sea Monsters

by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

Thumbs down.

Mr. Winters melds the original Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility with a fanciful world in which all sea creatures desire the demise of humanity. And yet, instead of living further from the sea, they all seem to be drawn to it. Barton Cottage is set on a windy crag overlooking a gloomy, foggy stretch of sea. Colonel Brandon has some sort of strange ailment in which he has grown tentacles on his face similar to those of Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Sir John is married to a tribal princess whom he kidnapped in a burlap bag when fleeing the tropics after searching for the origins of the sea creature "plagues." Lizzie sings sailor shanties instead of arias and reads diaries of shipwrecked sailors instead of Shakespeare's sonnets.

The satire is overdone in many places and the book drags much of the time. It lacks the same witty cheesiness of Quirks first regency horror mix, Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies. Perhaps the venue of sea legends does not lend itself as well to mockery. I'm not sure. I'm sorry to say it, but it is true.

On the plus side, the illustrations at least had the correct clothing styles.


by Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrated by Jim LaMarche

Thumbs up.

In this quirky picture book, the main character, Albert is not quite normal. Albert appears to be a young man, but he looks very child like. I'm not sure whether Ms. Napoli was trying to portray a man with OCD or on the autism spectrum.

At any rate, regardless of his unusual personality, Albert is very lovable. He decides each day whether or not to go out based on the weather. But alas, his judgment of the weather is based upon what kind of noises are emanating from the streets below his apartment.

When an act of kindness toward a pair of cardinals traps him at the window for an extended time, he learns that not everything that at first sounds ugly truly is.

The illustrations are fabulous and really help to define Albert. An altogether beautiful celebration of the unusual.

Swing: A Scanimation Picture Book

by Rufus Butler Seder

Thumbs Up.

This is an awesome book. Each page spread revolves around a certain sports action, such as kicking a soccer ball or shooting a basket. The pages are animated with a part of the page the slides behind the opposite page with the page turning motion. (I am sure there is some name for this, but I can't figure out the correct google search to figure it out.)

The text asks a question about the featured activity and includes onomatopoeic words to add to the experience.

But the highlight is really the animation. These are just really cool. The batter on the cover cut out really swings. And the ball comes directly toward the reader. Duck!

My kids of all ages have been very intrigues by this book and it has entertained all of us repetitively.


by Eric Rohmann

Thumbs, uh, thumbs don't even come into this one.

This is the most bizarre picture book I've ever read. From inside the back cover, "Eric Rohmann is a painter, printmaker, and fine bookmaker whose work both explores and generates the excitement of an imagination unleashed." Yes. Well. This pretty much sums up the book.

The story follows Otho, a boy with a pumpkin for a head, who is none-the-less loved by his parents. He loses is head in a traumatic fashion and the rest of the plot is what is happening to his head while it is separated from his body. And how they come to be rejoined.

And the Oh, so stunning moral, "You must be careful, Otho. You know the world will always be difficult for a boy with a pumpkin for a head."

The book as a whole is visually appealing. It has a nice thick cover with a cut out window featuring Otho. The illustration prints are interesting and add to the whimsy of the story. But I just can't get past the somewhat nightmarish quality of the plot.

My kids all love it. Frightening.