Monthly Archives: September 2012

Rainy Morning – Daniel Pinkwater

Rainy Morning, written by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Jill Pinkwater, is wonderful. It’s hilarious, wacky, welcoming, improbable and stuffed with stuff to give a parent reading it a grin or two. The art is very Matisse-like–swatches of bright colors, patterns and swirly designs, windows with vistas, checkerboards, stripes.  It’s fun to look at and even more fun to read. The text is repetitious in exactly the right sing-songy way for chiming in on the punchlines.

Mr. and Mrs. Submarine are sitting at breakfast–the third breakfast of the morning–on a very rainy day when Mrs. Submarine sees the poor half-drowned cat sitting soggily in the window. So she opens the door and in he walks, dripping. Already we have an outrageous amount of breakfast being consumed and water all over the floor–not allowed in real life. But it’s just the beginning. Mrs. Submarine gives the cat, who is drying out by the stove, a corn muffin. Doubtless it is one of the few Mr. Submarine hasn’t eaten yet. And then Mr. Submarine hears the dog scratching at the door. The dog is followed by a horse, a murder of crows, a wild coyote and the chickens from across the street. Mrs. Submarine is very busy making corn muffins. Still raining. Mr. Submarine decides to bring in the car.

Soon enough there is a wildebeest and then Ludwig van Beethoven (Mrs. Submarine’s favorite composer–speaks German, likes corn muffins), the United States Marine Band, a small European circus–and some serious dripping. You should end up reading this book with a sharp little kid with absolute glee. It’s raining here today and I wish I had some corn muffins. But even having to make do with homemade cranberry scones, Rainy Morning cheered me up. Why aren’t books for grown-ups this much fun?

Rainy Morning   Daniel Pinkwater | Atheneum   1998

Min Yo and the Moon Dragon – Elizabeth Hillman

Elizabeth Hillman has written a magical story and John Wallner’s illustrations are gorgeous. Min Yo and the Moon Dragon is charming and mesmerizing. When the moon slips closer and closer to the earth, the emperor’s realm is threatened with disaster. In China, in the time before there were stars, when only the moon, the earth and the sun spun and circled in the dark sky, no one could think of a way to reverse the falling moon. The call went out all over the land but no wise men had the answer. One day a sage from the wild mountain came into the city to buy a hen and he heard the buzz in the marketplace. In his mountains there was a cobwebby, ancient staircase to the moon, sagging and in disrepair. But it once was a busy bridge for people to visit the dragon who lives on the moon and the sage thought the dragon might have an idea.

Only a featherweight with great courage could attempt to climb the tattered ladder of moon webs–and there were few takers for the offer of great heroism and rewards.  One very small girl, weaving a fine silk rope for her family’s faltering business, seemed like the perfect candidate and as she was game and gutsy, she was prepared for the journey. She practiced climbing her silk rope to approximate scrambling up the fragile moonbeams. What happened to Min Yo and what she found in the dragon’s cave on the moon is a tale sprinkled with fairy dust. She’s a very cool kid and her conversations with the dragon are funny and smart. The two of them cook up an experiment, after she shares her veggie snack with him and tastes some of his boiled moonflowers–mouthful of cotton.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the lovely magic with too much revelation. Suffice to say it is never a good idea to allow a dragon to go unvisited for over 100 years. And, if you should plan a drop-by, it would be very thoughtful to bring some fresh vegetables, the brighter the better.  Also, if you thought you knew something mathematical and stuffy about the formation of the universe, think again. Where do you suppose stars came from? Min Yo could tell you–she helped to put them there.

Min Yo and the Moon Dragon is richly imaginative and full of eye-catching art and a gentle but unmistakable story of female empowerment. This tiny girl knows what has to be done and just does it. And she is phenomenally successful. Plus, she now personally knows a fan-boy dragon. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Min-Yo and the Moon Dragon   Elizabeth Hillman | Harcourt Brace Jovanovich   1992

The Twelfth Enchantment – David Liss

Very odd mystery story, this. The Twelfth Enchantment is a conflict of magic and machinery in England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. David Liss has created a very vivid heroine, Lucy Derrick, impoverished after the death of her father, living at the mercy of a distant relation who despises her, promised to a mill owner she doesn’t want to marry but out of options. At sixteen Lucy ran away with a man much older than she was and her father came after her and brought her home. In the four days she was away, her father’s favorite, her sister Emily, died. Lucy has struggled with a damaged reputation and horrible guilt ever since.

Then a bizarre encounter with Lord Byron sets tongues wagging again and starts a series of inexplicable coincidences and encounters that change Lucy’s life–and put her and her remaining sister in grave danger. It’s complicated. You have to hang on in the beginning for a good long while because no one in this story is what they seem. Even Lucy isn’t who she always thought she was. But she is enormously clever and sharp with a retort and seems to be the one everyone wants. Not everyone who wants her is on her side. In fact, it gets harder and harder for her to find anyone on her side.

The alchemical magic and ancient enchantments are thick on the page. Liss has woven the dark and darker threads of magic into his world-building so well that it feels entirely believable.  There’s a touch of Philip Pullman in this twisted English countryside and smoky, grimy London. Demons (not daemons) abound. Evil lives. Books hold powerful magic. The Twelfth Enchantment is a romance but just barely. It’s much more a mystery and adventure tale with shapeshifters, hordes of undead who are not zombies or vampires, a changeling and some political intrigue for good measure. In the end, the people are stronger than the magic–but the magic is powerful enough to spark mayhem and madness and keep you turning pages.

The Twelfth Enchantment: A Novel   David Liss | Random House   2011

Whispers in the Dark – Maya Banks

Maya Banks writes romances that people apparently scoop up like candy. Whispers in the Dark is sexy but not quite erotica. It also features nearly constant special ops–if you like pages and pages of torture, heavily-armed military rescues, stealth choppers, guarded compounds, a mushrooming number of bad guys, a blond target on the lam and the whole instant soul-mate thing, this is your book.

Shea is a telepath who can take on others’ pain and calm them in dire circumstances. Her sister Grace goes one better, she can actually heal people. The two have split up after their home was invaded, their parents murdered and unknown assailants hunted them, trying to use their paranormal capabilities for unexplained purposes. Very very evil but no clear motives. One day Shea hears and feels the agony of an American soldier captured in Afghanistan, held in a cave in the mountains and tortured with the rest of his unit. A few chapters of unusual connections and perilous “saves” go by and then the soldier is rescued, barely, due to Shea’s intervention. So is his wounded buddy Swanny. Nathan, the soldier, goes home to his family’s compound but he keeps to himself, desolate at the loss of connection to his “angel” and half-certain he hallucinated the whole thing. One day, months later, he hears Shea’s voice again in his head. She is in trouble, extreme pain and fear, and she is reaching out to him for help.

It’s a really fast-paced action adventure and Nathan and Shea waste no time sharing the deepest yearnings of their hearts and other body parts and declaring undying fealty to each other.  So perfect. They both have scars but they are gorgeous anyway. They adore each other and take every opportunity to repeat and repeat how much, and how safe they are now, and how they complete each other. And here’s the tricky part. The extensive Kelly clan, Nathan’s family, are all ex-military who run a paramilitary for-hire organization with the latest weapons, private planes,  sophisticated surveillance and computer systems,  “teams” (as in special forces), guarded compound on which the whole family lives, trains and houses their SUVs, gun  range, training grounds, helipad and vehicles. The family is everything–most brothers are married to women who seem to hang out cooking and such. The place is in flyover country and if that exposes a coastal prejudice in me, so be it. Some books scream: This is my demographic! and this book is one of them.

It was a fast read, pretty fluent but formulaic. The whole telepathy thing was weird, and convenient. All the Kellys loved Shea and Shea loved all the Kellys. Good for them. The compound, the family, the outside enemies, the God-and-family, the obsession with all things military–cult. Supposed to be a kind of safe nirvana but really a classic cult. It almost delivered what it promised–I wanted to find out what happened but not all the pieces were in the puzzle by the end. There are prequels and sequels to Whispers in the Dark. I’m 100 percent certain they are crammed with military operations and earnestly blissful life in the family compound. This cynical peace-loving hippie will probably skip the ongoing saga in favor of watching bootleg Downton Abbey episodes and reading Jane Austen.

Whispers in the Dark   Maya Banks – Berkley Sensations   2012

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge – Hildegarde H. Swift & Lynd Ward

Ninety-one years ago a small cast iron and steel lighthouse sent its beams of light and tolling bell into the fog and dark on the Hudson River. The lighthouse was painted red and sat on a rocky projection on the edge of the treacherous river currents. By the time The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge was published in 1942, the lighthouse had been decommissioned for a decade, made redundant by the completion of the George Washington Bridge. But the children’s classic is a romantic tale of a plucky little lighthouse that owns the river and beams out confidently, saving steamers, tugs and all the river traffic from a disastrous end on the rocks.

And then, one day, a bridge begins to rise on the banks of the river, a monstrous gray edifice that dwarfs the small lighthouse. What happens next is delightful fantasy and very satisfying for small children who love to root for the underdog. There is just enough threat, loss, peril and redemption to be exciting without being too scary. And the book has a few facts about rivers and what they carry–added to the history, you could call it educational. In fact, should you really want to cement the lessons, and should you live or visit anywhere near the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you could stop by the side of the road and walk down to check out the real Little Red Lighthouse. The city restored it on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the massive bridge that spans the Hudson and dwarfs the tiny structure. If you contact the park rangers, you could arrange for a tour, climb the winding stairs and look over the river from the catwalk.

The lens no longer beams out its warning on the night river and the lighthouse is almost hidden by the gray bridge towers. But it’s charming, a reminder of simpler times when ferries, not spans clogged with cars and trucks, transported travelers from New York to New Jersey, and something as small as a red lighthouse on a rocky promontory could play a big role in river traffic.

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge: Restored Edition   Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward

Angels Dining at the Ritz – John Gardner

Once you get in the rhythm of the 1940s British vernacular–and it takes some serious getting used to–John Gardner’s Angels Dining at the Ritz is a ripping good tale of deceit, perversion, B-17 bombing raids, wartime romance and , of course, murder. Vile. violent, cold-blooded, twisted, self-serving murder. Ancient grudges, obsessive love, hidden-away children, serious gore. Quite a lot happens.

When three members of the same family–mother, father and eight-year-old son–have their faces blasted off by a twelve-bore, double-barrelled shotgun in their country home, Detective Chief Superintendent the Honorable Tommy Livermore and his subordinate Suzie Mountford get the case. Not only do they work together, they sleep together but that’s their little secret. The few cops who know about them pretend they don’t. The murdered family is prominent, a respected barrister from an ice cream and confections empire–Italians many generations in England who immediately close ranks and leave out some key details of their genetics and relations.

Meanwhile, adjacent to the murder scene, an air base for Flying Fortresses regularly rips open the silent peace of the rural village. The local girls don’t mind a bit and the dashing American pilots and crews spend time off-base when they aren’t making runs over occupied France. That’s how one of them stumbles across a murder scene that he is desperate not to disclose. There is excellent description of the flights and the horrors that happen when the planes are hit. And throughout the book, there is a clear picture of the nasty food available, for the Brits but not so much the Yanks, during wartime–very graphic.

Good read. I waded through the slang and shorthand as best I could. (“Ropey do”–what is that supposed to mean?)  Wasn’t always successful but caught most of it. Figured out what might have been up before the puzzle pieces were dropped in but didn’t quite connect the two murder plots in the story. They did make for some nail-biting reading though. A lot of gruesome dying happens and we are spared none of the details. The sleuthing was pretty engaging and I’d have to rate this one both jaunty and grim but a decent historical crime novel.

Angels Dining at the Ritz   John Gardner | Severn House   2004

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Twenty Stories

Arthur Rackham’s marvelous illustrations are both black and white line drawings and full color plates in this collection. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Twenty Stories is packed with great vignettes, most of them lesser known gems from the 215 or so tales in existence. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is charming but riven with deception, betrayal and beheadings. “The Goose Girl” features magic, perfidy, talking heads, wicked waiting-women (well, just one), a rather passive princess and a truly horrible retribution. Happily Ever After. “Jorinda and Joringel” presents a wicked witch with a twist. She traps maidens and transforms them into birds which she keeps in cages in her castle. As witches are not expected to explain themselves, we never find out why. “The Queen Bee” is a story with a moral: Be kind to animals–insects and birds actually. The classic arrogant elder brothers and youngest blockhead brother set out on an adventure and end up in a quest to break a spell and win a princess and a kingdom. Guess who wins?

I love fairy tales–they are so dark. When I finish this mad reading marathon, I’m going to re-read my entire collection of Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books. And Game of Thrones. I can’t get through George R. R. Martin’s doorstops in one day but I’m dying to spend a whole weekend with one of them.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Twenty Stories   | Viking   1973

Grey Matters – Clea Simon

An academic mystery about a dissertation in danger, the ghost of a psychic cat, a professor on the edge of dementia, rare books and forgeries and a very dead graduate student on the front walk should be interesting. I thought it was, for a while. But all the dialog sounds like the same person, even the feline ghost’s. And the protagonist is an amateur sleuth for no especially compelling reason. Everyone is endlessly solicitous as she was the one to find the corpse outside her faculty adviser’s home. And a BIG mystery about her too-busy-to-see-her boyfriend is so transparent that it is annoying to keep being hammered over the head with hints about it.

Grey Matters is a sequel to another Harvard murder mystery written by Clea Simon–same Dulcie Schwartz, doctoral candidate; same dangers lurking in the stacks, same boyfriend. The Cassandra-like grey cat was alive in the earlier book. It’s replacement in this book is a cute but annoying kitten which does not deliver pronouncements in stentorian tones to warn our heroine of extreme peril. I stayed in it for the biblio mystery–who wrote the anonymous Gothic fragment? Forgery or the kind of gold that makes an academic reputation?  I never got invested in any of the characters, even the murder victim. They seemed like stereotypes. The wicked kitten was pretty good, though.

Grey Matters (Dulcie Schwartz Mystery)   Clea Simon | Severn House    2009

Practical Science for Gardeners – Mary Pratt

What a Galapagos Island finch has to do with a dandelion may not be immediately apparent. But, in Mary Pratt’s excellent gardening/science book, they are both examples that validate the importance of the Linnean binomial system.  Practical Science for Gardeners is a marvel of scholarship and science trivia that treats the war between the Ladybirds and the aphids as a perfect example of the balance of nature. Parasites and predators–create lacewing hotels for your wintering insect police. Order nematodes from the organic gardening catalog to take care of the slugs. Tomato fertilizer will cause plants to flower. Too much self-pollination will cause a plant to develop “inbreeding depression.”

It’s autumn, the season when we lament the lack of a garden that means we have to buy a pumpkin at the grocer’s, not wait for the perfect moment to pick it from our homegrown patch.  And if we had a sunflower house, we would soon need to shake the dried seeds from the pod into a paper bag, lay them out between layers of paper to dream away the winter, and prepare to plant the whole seedful paper in some nicely composted soil in spring. Perhaps during the waxing or full moon. Although the moon thing is scientifically unproven. Pratt does offer some practical reasons for the folklore that have to do with tides and soaking the soil for newly germinating seeds. But, as she astutely observes, “the life sciences are a bit fuzzy round the edges.”

At this point you are saying, “Ha! Another one of those mad English gardeners!” And I reply, “Yes! Thank heavens for them.” The English know how to really get inside a garden. Pratt isn’t some dotty dowager puttering around a National Trust estate, though. She is an Oxford-trained zoologist with a master’s degree in biology who worked for the Wildlife Trusts. And now she gardens in Devon. Lucky her. She recommends small bibles for frustrated pest-killers like The Little Slug Book and, thankfully, isn’t as hard as she might have been on rabbits.   There are sections on choosing trees, composting, mixing green and flowering plants, biodiversity, soil maintenance and more. Really, mindful gardening is science and the more science you know the better prepared you are to keep those nasty slugs out of your pepper plants. Or whatever they love to eat best.

Practical Science for Gardeners is a book to tuck next to the seed catalogs to peruse on long, dark winter nights.  And then you should ask for a pair of genuine Wellies for Christmas. Order some ladybugs. Check the lacewing hotel for December guests. And know how to mix your own compost tea in the spring so you can let it sit and weaken before it’s needed. Watch where you use it, though. Natural or premixed chemicals, nitrogen fertilizer will kill a wildflower meadow.

Practical Science for Gardeners   Mary Pratt | Timber Press   2005