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26 August 2011

Book Review Whales on Stilts

Whales on Stilts (M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales)Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up for my kid at the library, flipped through it real quick to scan for possible emotional potholes and decided that it was so ironic and tongue-in-cheek that it would be fine.

And it was.  My son laughed and laughed and laughed.  Then I read it and laughed and laughed and laughed.  MT Anderson is funny.  And funny in a way that appeals to a seven year old and his jaded mother.  Both.

This is not one of those books that tries too hard to be clever.  This is one of those books that just simply IS clever.  The very embodiment of it.  Ostensibly a spoof of the children's literature of the 50s and 60s it is also an homage;  an homage to Nancy Drew and Tom Swift and the pulp, series children's books of that era.  There is the promotion of Gargletine, Jasper Dash's drink of choice and fake ads for books starring Jasper Dash (the Tom Swift character who says things like "Great Scott!  Will these cads never ceases mocking my jumpsuit?") and Katie Mulligan (kind of cross between Nancy Drew and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).   One of the fake ads features an asterisk next to the declaration "AVAILABLE AT FINE STORES NEAR YOU!"  The accompanying footnote, which occupies the bottom of seven pages, starts thusly;  "No longer available on the shelves at fine stores near you.  Available now exclusively and by special arrangement on the shelves of old vacation rental cottages, where you can often find Jasper Dash books in the living room, as well as old National Geographics, Chinese checkers, half colored-in Herbie the Love Bug activity books from 1978, used up Mad Libs, and dog-eared, boring novels for adults by Leon Uris, Colleen McCullough, and James Michener, I mean big, thick books with names like Space and Novel, you know what I mean ... all the books are dry and yellow from the sun, and all of them have wrinkly pages from the salt water, and when you flip through them, sand falls out as if it was index cards marking the place of former summers..."

The dialogue runs from clever to even more clever and nothing is sacred.

"The whale fired his laser-beam eyes.  The girls felt the jolt as the laser beam bounced off the mirror.  Of course the girls didn't feel the jolt as the laser bounced off the mirror, because lasers are just light.  This story is highly scientific, and I would never mislead you.  I want to depict whale eye-laser technology as accurately as possible.  Instantaneously the laser doubled back on itself, a continuous stream of light-using all the standard oculo-incendiary prohulsifiers and megegolisms that you'd expect ..."

And the "Guide for Reading and Thinking" was a nice touch.

Anderson continued Whales on Stilts into a series called Pals in Peril.  I've not yet read the follow-up books but if they are only 50 percent as clever and enjoyable as this one, they will be worth your time.

Highly recommend.

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Book Review The Sign of the Beaver

The Sign of the BeaverThe Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Speare was the it-thing in children's literature in the late 50s; between 1957 and 1961 she published three books, two of which won the Newbery.  Then she took 20 years off.

The Sign of the Beaver was her return, in 1983, and it, too, won awards (a Newbery Honor citation, the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and the Christopher Award).  But I didn't want to read it because I never liked her other books when I was a kid.

This one I liked, though, which makes me wonder if I would, now, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond  Guess there's only one way to find out.

A well-told story with economical prose and likable characters; a boy left alone in the barely settled wilderness in the 1760s while the father goes back east to retrieve the rest of the family.  The boy's gun is stolen by an itinerant traveler but he survives with the help of a boy from a local tribe, who grudgingly teaches him the ways of the natives while the boy tries to teach him to read.  One of those stories that, as a mother, makes me shiver and shake my head but, as a child-at-heart makes me want to develop the same pluck and bravery I see in the characters.

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Book Review The Accidental Hero

The Accidental HeroThe Accidental Hero by Matt Myklusch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this for my kid while we were on a road trip;  we stopped in Oxford, MS and while my husband tromped in the footsteps of Faulkner, my kid and I spent a couple of hours at Square Books.  This book was recommended by the staff there as something a kid who loves Harry Potter and Percy Jackson would enjoy.

So I bought it and handed it to Cameron; one of the first books I've given him without a pre-read.  I guess I was tired.

He read it before we pulled into Nashville that afternoon and pronounced it excellent.  When I finally read it, I agreed with his assessment but with caveats.  The story and ideas are, indeed, excellent; clever turns on phrases and ideas about alternate realities that made my adult brain nod with recognition.  The writing is more sketchy than I had hoped;  and not sketchy in a "questionable" context but sketchy in a "outline and not much detail" context.  I have had these problems with other children's books;  I often decide that kids fill in left-out details better than I do.  In this one, though, I wished Myklusch had fleshed out his fantastic ideas a great deal more.  What is a good book could have been a great book.

Regardless, my kid thinks it's brilliant.  And that's what really matters, right?

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Book Review Vicksburg 1863

Vicksburg, 1863Vicksburg, 1863 by Winston Groom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My family and I took a road trip that included many of the battlefields of Grant's move south in 1862 and 1863, culminating in the siege of Vicksburg;  the south finally capitulated on July 4, 1863.

My husband was reading Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton.  I read this, which may be titled inaccurately because it covered the same ground as Catton's book, though perhaps with different levels of detail.

I've read other reviews trashing Groom for his academic scholarship and, being a Western Theater neophyte, I cannot say how accurate or inaccurate Groom's reporting may be.  But I will assume basic accuracy and recommend this account as utterly readable and filled with interesting tidbits about the people, the places and the oddities (did you know that when Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War he charged Admiral David Porter to go to the middle east and bring back camels to serve as beasts of burden in the newly acquired American southwest territories?  The Civil War and the railroads served to disband the Camel Corps and many of the animals were set free to go feral;  the last descendant was sighted in the 1930s)

A good overview of the succession of victories that should have ended the war.  A good taste of what life was like and why they fought.  A fair tracing of how the reasons for fighting morphed as the war went on.  Many instances of southern gentleman voting against secession and then taking up arms anyway, bound by duty and loyalty to state.  Hints at what the outside world was thinking about what they saw as the incendiary end of the democratic experiment.  The idea that the siege of Vicksburg and its aftermath (a defeated enemy who stubbornly continued to fight even when prospects were more than bleak) foreshadowed the trench warfare and needless battles and deaths prevalent in WWI.  The navy on the rivers with their ironclads, the reason the Union could defeat the south at Vicksburg.   And good trivial tidbits;  LSU used to be a military school run by Sherman, who left when the Louisiana governor sacked a fort and sent him stolen arms for safe-keeping.

And a thoughtful quote or two;  "Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad."  Euripides

And a closing great anecdote;

"A friend liked to tell the story of the time years ago when as a small boy he was walking over the battlefield with his great-aunts and his grandmother, whose father had fought at Vicksburg during the war.  Standing at the edge of the magnificent cemetery with its white marble tombstones stretching far as the eye could see, he asked one of the women, 'But why did they do it, Bamaw?  Why did they die?'  to which the old lady replied wearily, 'Oh, I don't know, son.  I suppose they'd all be dead by now anyhow.'"

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