Review of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke


An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England

by Brock Clarke

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007.  303 pages.

Sam Pulsifer is a bumbler.  He’s a lovable bumbler, but he’s undeniably a bumbler.

Sam spent ten years of his life in prison because when he was eighteen, he accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House and killed two people.

While he was in prison, people wrote to him, asking him to burn down other writers’ houses for them.  His father saved the letters in a shoebox.

When he gets out, he’s on his way to a happy life, with a career, a beautiful wife and two children.  But circumstances come against him, and Sam inevitably bumbles his reactions.

This book is humorous, but in a deeply sad way.  This is not the typical feel-good novel I read, and I almost didn’t finish it.  Readers with a cynical bent will find the book quite hilarious.  I found it terribly sad.  If I had known one of the issues it deals with is marital happiness and unfaithfulness, I probably never would have picked it up.  Overall, it has an exceedingly pessimistic outlook on life, and love, and literature.

In the end, I finished the book because I cared about Sam Pulsifer.  Yes, he’s a bumbler, but he has a good, noble heart.  I still find myself hoping that, after the book finishes, perhaps events in his life will, somehow, take a turn for the better.

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Review of Mozart’s Ghost, by Julia Cameron


Mozart’s Ghost

by Julia Cameron

Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2008.  278 pages.

Starred Review.

When a writer has written fabulous books about writing (The Right to Write is one of Julia Cameron’s that I’ve read.), one always hopes that their own fiction is something you’d want to emulate.  Can they practice what they preach?

Julia Cameron can.  Mozart’s Ghost is a light and delightful love story, with quirky characters you enjoy spending your time with.

All her life, Anna has seen and talked to ghosts.  Now, as a single adult, she lives in New York City and makes her living — well, supplements her substitute teaching income — as a medium.  She lets people know what their loved ones who have gone before want to say to them.

But now a classical pianist named Edward has moved into Anna’s building.  In the first place, his constant practicing is tremendously distracting.  She can’t properly hear the ghosts.  In the second place, there’s a ghost hanging around him, trying to reach the musician through Anna.  This ghost thinks himself tremendously important and wants to help Edward so that his own music will be properly appreciated.  Anna is not impressed.

But Edward finds a place in her heart despite all her resistance.  However, she has no intention of telling him her real job, since she finds most men can’t handle dating a medium.

The course of their romance is comically beset with obstacles, like Anna’s complete lack of appreciation for Edward’s playing, her twin brother’s interference, and even the ghost’s interference.  We feel for Anna and her desire to live a normal life, which simply doesn’t seem to be in the cards for her.

This novel is tremendous fun, and peopled with quirky characters who seem like people you might just meet if you happened to knock on an apartment door in New York City.

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Review of Millie Waits for the Mail, by Alexander Steffensmeier


Millie Waits for the Mail

by Alexander Steffensmeier

Walker & Company, New York, 2007. 

First published in Germany in 2006.

Starred Review.

This book was originally written in German, under the title, Liselotte Lauert.  I want a copy!  This udderly (sorry) silly book was my absolute favorite of the Picture Books chosen for the Summer Reading Program.

Millie the cow waits every morning for her favorite time of day.

Because there was something Millie loved more than anything else —

Scaring the mail carrier. . .  and chasing him off the farm.

Millie spends each morning looking for a new hiding place.  The poor mail carrier has nightmares every night.  The poor farmer has all her packages arrive broken.

Millie must be stopped.

The wonderful silliness of this book (How on earth did Alexander Steffensmeier think of writing a book about a cow scaring the mail carrier?) is especially evident in the illustrations.  The look in Millie’s eye as she scours the farmyard for hiding places is priceless.  The page where Millie first jumps out and scares the mail carrier got a big reaction from the kids every time I showed it to them.  A big reaction from the adults in the room, too.

What can I say?  This book makes me laugh every time I look at it.  It doesn’t promote good, noble purposes.  But it is absolutely, delightfully, wonderfully Silly.

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Review of Ask Me No Questions, by Marina Budhos


Ask Me No Questions,

by Marina Budhos

Simon Pulse, 2007.  First published in 2006.  162 pages.

Fourteen-year-old Nadira is from Bangladesh, but she has grown up in America.  Her father’s visa has expired, and they tried to get legal residency, but their money was taken by a lawyer running scams.  It didn’t seem to matter — everyone else seemed to be in the same situation.

Then September 11th happened.  The INS was cracking down.  Rumors were flying. 

Nadira’s older sister, Aisha, is a senior in high school and the star of the debate team and every teacher’s favorite student.  She has applications in to prestigious schools, but she can’t apply for financial aid unless their legal status changes. 

They hear a reliable (they think) rumor that they should go to Canada and apply for asylum.  The result is disaster.  The Canadians do not let them cross the border, and they are promptly detained.  Nadira’s father, Abba, is arrested and held in a detention center.  They have no idea how long he will be held or if the whole family will be deported.

Nadira and Aisha have no choice but to go back home to New York and go back to school.  They will stay with their cousin.  Aisha doesn’t have a license, but she drives them back.  Ma must stay at the border to try to get Abba’s case heard.

So begins Ask Me No Questions.  Can Nadira and Aisha help in any way to get their father’s case heard?  How can they go on with ordinary high school life?  How can Aisha focus on tests and college interviews?

Nadira says:

Tuesday morning Aisha and I are back at Flushing High as if nothing happened.

We’re not the only illegals at our school.  We’re everywhere.  You just have to look.  A lot of the kids here were born elsewhere — Korea, China, India, the Dominican Republic.  You can’t tell which ones aren’t legal.  We try to get lost in the landscape of backpacks and book reports.  To find us you have to pick up the signals.  It might be in class when a teacher asks a personal question, and a kid gets this funny, pinched look in his eyes.  Or some girl doesn’t want to give her address to the counselor.  We all agree not to notice.

I remember when I was little, crouching in a corner of the playground and hearing a group of girls chant:  Ask me no questions.  Tell me no lies.  That’s the policy of at school.  Ask me no questions, we say silently.  And the teachers don’t.  “We’re not the INS,” I once heard one of them say.  “We’re here to teach.”  But sometimes I feel like shaking their sleeves and blurting out, Ask me.  Please.

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Review of Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama


Dreams from My Father:  A Story of Race and Inheritance,

by Barack Obama

Crown Publishers, New York, 2004.  First published in 1995.  442 pages.

My Auntie Sue wanted me to read this book so much, she sent me a copy.  Thank you, Auntie Sue!

And I admit, it was down low in my pile of books to read for quite awhile.  Once I did finally open it up and look inside, I was quickly hooked.  Whatever else you might say about Barack Obama, he does have a way with words.

This book was written before Senator Obama started his political career, so it’s not a story about politics.  Instead, it’s a story of growing up as someone who felt like an outsider.  He was naturally forced to think deeply about questions of race and questions of belonging.

Barack Obama was brought up by his white mother and her parents, in Hawaii.  His father was an international student from Kenya.  The father went to study at Harvard, but didn’t have the money to bring his family with him, and ended up going back to Kenya on his own.

Later, Barack’s mother married an Indonesian, so he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, and went to college in California.

This book covers those growing up years, his years working as a community organizer in Chicago, and then a trip to Kenya where he met family members on his father’s side and learned about the father he only met when he was ten years old.

As a child growing up in a white family with brothers and sisters from Africa, as an American who spent several formative years living in Indonesia, Barack Obama is in a unique position to reflect on race in America, on community and belonging, as well as on attitudes about poverty that have similarities worldwide.

This is fascinating and thought-provoking reading.  Now I will try to get my hands on his later book, The Audacity of Hope.

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Review of The Complete Peanuts, 1967 to 1968


The Complete Peanuts:  1967 to 1968:  Dailies and Sundays:  The Definitive Collection of Charles M. Schulz’s Comic Strip Masterpiece

by Charles M. Schulz

introduction by John Waters

Fantagraphics Books, 2008.  325 pages.

Hooray for Fantagraphics Books!  This is now the ninth volume of The Complete Peanuts series, publishing every single comic strip from Peanuts, from the day it began in 1950.

In the 1967 to 1968 volume, we’re getting into the classic Peanuts that I knew and loved as a little girl.

There’s a strip that I think epitomizes this golden age of Peanuts:  Franklin comes into the neighborhood, looking for Charlie Brown.  He meets Lucy in her psychiatrist booth and Snoopy wearing his Red Baron goggles.  When Linus tries to tell him about the Great Pumpkin, that’s the last straw.  Franklin can’t handle it.  As Franklin tells this to Charlie Brown, Schroeder comes up and says, “Hi!  Did you guys know there are only sixty more days until Beethoven’s birthday?”  Franklin’s comment is “Like, wow!”  (Remember, this is the Sixties.)

Yes, in this period, each character was fully into his own neuroses.

I was also surprised to discover, in this volume, a strip about military musicians.  Naturally, it’s between Lucy and Schroeder:

Lucy says, “In a way, you’re quite lucky Schroeder..  If you ever go into the army, they won’t put you in the front lines…  You could play the piano for the officers while they eat!”

Schroeder’s reaction?  AAUGH!

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Review of Ever, by Gail Carson Levine



by Gail Carson Levine

HarperCollins, 2008.  244 pages.

Starred Review.

Hooray!  A new book by Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted and Fairest.  In Ever, the author takes us to a different sort of world.  Instead of magic and fairies, this world is inhabited by gods and goddesses.

Olus is a youthful god, the god of the winds.  He is curious about mortals, and so travels far from his own country and disguises himself as a mortal, a herder of goats.  He finds himself fascinated by the family of his landlord, especially Kezi, who makes beautiful weavings and beautiful dances.

Then, because of an unfortunate vow, Kezi’s life is to be sacrificed.  Can Olus find a way to save her?  Perhaps he can make her immortal like himself.  Only this will mean both of them undergoing a terrible ordeal.

Here is an enchanting story about love and fate, about uncertainty and awareness.

As with her other books, Gail Carson Levine again achieves a mythic quality to her story that I love so much.  We have a simple story with undercurrents of Truth.  Delightful!

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Review of Peeled, by Joan Bauer



by Joan Bauer

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.  248 pages.

Hildy Biddle is a girl with an obsession.  Hildy’s obsession is to report the news, to let people know the truth, to make their high school newspaper shine.

But when a scare starts at the old Ludlow house, with a death and rumors of haunting, the town newspaper only seems to want to fan people’s fears.

Can Hildy and her high school friends stand up for what’s right against the interests of powerful adults?

In many ways, this feels like the same story Joan Bauer has told in her other wonderful books, like Hope Was Here and Rules of the Road.  A teenaged girl with an obsession stands up for what’s right against powerful interests.  However, I can’t complain — This story Joan Bauer is telling is a good one, makes fun reading, and does stick with you.

I do think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t had the vague feeling I’d read this before.  However, I will still highly recommend it to young teen readers.  Joan Bauer tells a good story, and Hildy Biddle joins her cast of strong young women who stand up for what’s right and entertain the reader while doing it.

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Review of Why War Is Never a Good Idea, by Alice Walker


Why War Is Never a Good Idea

by Alice Walker, illustrations by Stefano Vitale

HarperCollins, 2007.  32 pages.

Starred Review

Though War has eyes

Of its own

& can see oil



& mahogany trees

& every shining thing


The earth

When it comes

To nursing


It is blind;

Milk, especially


It cannot


Though War is Old

It has not

Become wise

It will not hesitate

To destroy

Things that

Do not

Belong to it

Things very

Much older

Than itself.

Here is a haunting and poetic, artistic and beautiful book. 

The language is simple.  The author talks of things that War cannot understand, but that it can destroy.

The artwork is haunting, memorable and symbolic.  On one page, the words are: Picture frogs beside a pond holding their annual pre-rainy-season convention.  They do not see War. Huge tires of a camouflaged vehicle about to squash them flat.  The illustrations show a close-up painting of frogs on the left, with a photo of a rusty wheel on the right side, wadding up pages of peaceful villagers falling underneath it.

The portrayal is not graphic, but symbolic, making it all the more striking.

Don’t read this book to your child if you want to make apologies for War, if you want to explain about necessary evils. 

However, if you think you can use some convincing, or want to express an unambiguous idea to a child, this book makes a powerful and persuasive case for why War is never a good idea.  The language is simple enough for a child, yet something that will linger in the mind of an adult.

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Review of Larklight, by Philip Reeve



Or:  The Revenge of the White Spiders!

Or:  To Saturn’s Rings and Back!  A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space!

by Philip Reeve

Performed by Greg Steinbruner

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2006. 400 pages.

Audiobook:  Recorded Books, 2007. 8 CDs, 8.75 hours.

Starred Review.

Imagine for a moment that outer space is not a black emptiness, but really the “aether,” and full of living things.  Imagine that there’s life on Mars, life on Venus, life on Saturn, and even “ichthyomorphs” floating in the middle of space.

Now imagine that instead of just discovering gravity, Isaac Newton used alchemy to figure out how to make spaceships.  Imagine that in the 1800s, the British Empire wasn’t just an earthly empire ruling the seas, but ruled the solar system.

Art and Myrtle Mumby grew up on Larklight, a large old house that orbited the moon.

At the start of the book, their house is attacked by space spiders the size of elephants.  Their father is captured by the spiders, but they manage to escape and land on the moon.  On the moon, their life is in danger from giant moths, but they are rescued by space pirates.  The captain of the pirates is a teenage boy, but the crew are all aliens.

The pirates don’t want to obey Myrtle’s demands and take them to a British Embassy, and the children’s adventures are only beginning.  The book presents narrow escape after narrow escape as Art and Myrtle travel the solar system and end up saving the world.

This story is indeed a “rousing tale of dauntless pluck.”  I was put off at the beginning because I hate the thought of giant spiders, but before long I was lingering in my car to listen.  Even though I knew Art would surely escape, several times I found myself wondering how on earth he would get out of the latest tight spot.

Once again, I was enchanted by the delightful accents of the British narrator.  This audiobook would be a fabulous adventure to listen to for a family traveling on summer vacation.  Although there are some fearsome situations, Art and Myrtle emerge unscathed from them all.  Great fun!

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