Book Review – The Boy Detective Fails

Boy Detective Fails
Boy Detective Fails
Yeah, this book comes with a decoder ring on the back flap. You don’t discover this until a chapter or two into the book when you have to decode a secret message, but I’m telling you right up front because, well, that’s so frackin’ cool.

Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails is a loving homage and send up of classic kid detective stories like Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys, but the mysteries it explores in this funny, scary, sweet, and surreal book are the grown-up mysteries of life. Billy Argo is the famous boy detective, who with his handy Junior Detective Kit and his sister Caroline and stalwart friend Fenton, rids the town of crooks and bad guys, hitting the front pages of the papers regularly. But growing up is a mystery all three children have trouble with, and ultimately, Billy must solve the mysterious death of his sister to save his own life.

The Boy Detective Fails
by Joe Meno

I highly recommend reading this book.

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Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants
Water for Elephants
21-year-old Jacob Jankowski is studying veterinary medicine in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, when his parents are killed in an auto accident. Jacob discovers they had mortgaged their lives to fund his schooling, and he is now penniless. Reeling from grief, he walks away from his final exams and drops out of school. While casting about for a job, he stumbles into a position as a vet for a third-rate traveling circus, and the wild adventure of his life begins. He soon falls in love with Marlena, the beautiful animal stunt rider, and at the same time must protect the animals in his care from the sadistic cruelty of Marlena’s circus boss husband.

My mom gave Water For Elephants to me for Christmas, so it was one of the first things I wanted to read this year. I loved it – Gruen’s writing is smooth and fluid, and her detailed research on circus life during the Depression immerses you in the scene, and Jacob’s fascinating life carries you along.

It’s on the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s not surprising why; it’s a great read.

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

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Book Review – Rough Magicke

Rough Magicke
Rough Magicke
Author John Houghton sets his novel Rough Magicke in northwest Indiana, in the fictional county of Annandale originally created by classic Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson in the novel The House of a Thousand Candles – the locale corresponds pretty closely to the city of Culver, Indiana, a town nestled in around Lake Maxinkuckee, south of Valparaiso and South Bend.

Our protagonist is Father Jonathan Mears — the chaplain of the fictional Annandale Military Academy (modeled after real-life Culver Academy), an establishment he graduated from himself years before, along with his brother Dan. The Mears family are generations-old residents of Annandale, though their old family homestead burned down a few decades ago.

When Father Mears stumbles across a witches’ coven conducted by some of the students of his academy, his own family’s long dormant history of witchcraft and his own supernatural talents come to the surface. Because he’s a devout Anglican, he devotes his use of these magic talents to his religion, essentially acting as a “good witch” and servant of God. Joining forces with his brother, neice and a distant cousin who also have supernatural talents, Father Mears combats sinister magical forces at work against his family, his beloved Academy and against the community. He also faces some who have difficulty understanding his unique fusion of witchcraft and Christianity.

Father Mears is a funny, cheerful and self-confident guy who carries the story along with some twists and surprises, and Annadale Military Academy and it’s denizens have quite a life of their own as well, although the young male students seem to have a few more snappy comebacks and witty remarks than I’ve ever seen in real-life teenagers. One character that’s left too much in the shadows is the brother Daniel Mears, who seems only roughly sketched out considering his role in some of the plot.

Houghton makes great use of the Indiana landscape through the story; natives of northwest Indiana will feel at home driving around the countryside, and alumni of Culver Academy probably get quite a kick out of the large role their alma mater plays in the book.

In all Rough Magicke is a pleasant, nicely-spun set of tales – the novel has three well-rounded parts which could stand on their own, although to his credit Houghton didn’t follow the lead of other fantasy authors in creating a drawn-out trilogy when he could pack all the surprises into one book. On the other hand – be aware it is quite a long book, at that.

Rough Magicke
by John William Houghton

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Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
This is my favorite of the year, and will probably make the list of of my favorite books ever. I’m not sure I can do it justice in reviewing it, but I hope I can do a bit better than Publishers Weekly, whom I’m going to quote entirely just to get the plot synopsis out of the way:

Pessl’s stunning debut is an elaborate construction modeled after the syllabus of a college literature course — 36 chapters are named after everything from Othello to Paradise Lost to The Big Sleep — that culminates with a final exam. It comes as no surprise, then, that teen narrator Blue Van Meer, the daughter of an itinerant academic, has an impressive vocabulary and a knack for esoteric citation that makes Salinger’s Seymour Glass look like a dunce. Following the mysterious death of her butterfly-obsessed mother, Blue and her father, Gareth, embark, in another nod to Nabokov, on a tour of picturesque college towns, never staying anyplace longer than a semester. This doesn’t bode well for Blue’s social life, but when the Van Meers settle in Stockton, N.C., for the entirety of Blue’s senior year, she befriends—sort of—a group of eccentric geniuses (referred to by their classmates as the Bluebloods) and their ringleader, film studies teacher Hannah Schneider. As Blue becomes enmeshed with Hannah and the Bluebloods, the novel becomes a murder mystery so intricately plotted that, after absorbing the late-chapter revelations, readers will be tempted to start again at the beginning in order to watch the tiny clues fall into place. Like its intriguing main characters, this novel is many things at once—it’s a campy, knowing take on the themes that made The Secret History and Prep such massive bestsellers, a wry sendup of most of the Western canon and, most importantly, a sincere and uniquely twisted look at love, coming of age and identity.

I’m surprised that PW could write such a lengthy paragraph about the novel that didn’t do more than show glimpses of the main character, Blue Van Meer, who is the heart and soul of the book. It is tempting to focus on Pessl’s structure and literary allusions — but the cleverness of those devices is secondary to her skill at constructing the character of Blue, who is almost prescient in her intelligence and at the same time as naive as any teenager, without a trace of contradiction between the two. In fact, the “knack for esoteric citation” is Blue’s wry comic punctation throughout the narrative, and does as much for character development as it does for illuminating the plot.
And then there’s Blue’s father, Gareth, who plays almost as large a role in the book as Blue. We see him completely through his daughter’s eyes, and this is clearly a girl who loves and is completely influenced by her father, although she’s not blind to his foibles and follies, and not shy about asserting her own agenda, even though he’s used to getting his way. Gareth Van Meer is a scholar and an intellectual elitist, and though he’s obviously highly intelligent, he’s not quite as smart as he thinks he is, which is charming with a bit of schadenfreudey-whimsy thrown in.
The murder mystery itself is neatly wrapped up at the end of the novel — but there are enough threads to weave a sequel into the story, and I certainly hope that happens; I hope we haven’t heard the last of Blue Van Meer.

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The Book of Fate

The Book of Fate
by Brad Meltzer

23 year-old Presidential Aide Wes Holloway gets shot in the face during an attempted presidental assasination, and President Manning’s best friend Ron Boyle gets killed. Eight years later — after the President has left office and is touring the speaking circuit with Wes still in tow — Wes spots Ron Boyle, very much alive, backstage in the president’s green room at a Malaysian engagement. And suddenly Wes has a chance to find out what really happened on the day that bullets destroyed his face and wrecked his nerve. Delving deep in the records from the Presidential Library, Wes finds a mystery to unravel involving the intelligence community that protects them and a 200-year-old plot involving the Freemasons, and discovers his lost backbone at the same time.
The Book of Fate is a thick tome that shows off a knowledge of inside-the-beltway and behind-the-scenes politics, but the pacing is rather slow, and there are times when I didn’t have a clear picture of some of the characters. The main character Wes is a bit of a wilting lily, which can be frustrating at times. And the deference and subservience that’s directed at the office of the president — I’m sorry, but I never bought into that on the West Wing, either. Here it rings really false, considering that the President doesn’t appear to be a man of character from the start. The Masonic connection is a not-very-convincing red herring and a bit of an annoyance; it seems like a desperate attempt to cash in on the Da Vinci Code zeitgeist.
Despite all my criticism above, I didn’t feel like the book offended or bored me and I certainly breezed through it pretty quickly. The book is recently published and is making it’s way up the bestseller charts, with good reviews. There are waiting lists at the local library here, so I hurried through it so I could return it in a decent amount of time. But it isn’t a book I’d make part of my permanent collection.
On the other hand, I read some raving reviews of:
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl
So I checked this out from the library, and I’m two chapters in. Let me add to the exclamations: Wow. Unless the book complete screws itself in the remainder, this book will definitely get purchased for my permanent collection. I’m looking forward to writing a real review of this.

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Books I’ve Read Recently

Company: A Novel
by Max Barry
Amazon Description: “With broad strokes, Barry once again satirizes corporate America in his third caustic novel (after Jennifer Government). This time, he takes aim at the perennial corporate crime of turning people into cogs in a machine. Recent b-school grad Stephen Jones, a fresh-faced new hire at a Seattle-based holding company called Zephyr, jumps on the fast track to success when he’s immediately promoted from sales assistant to sales rep in Zephyr’s training sales department. “Don’t try to understand the company. Just go with it,” a colleague advises when Jones is flummoxed to learn his team sells training packages to other internal Zephyr departments. But unlike his co-workers, he won’t accept ignorance of his employer’s business, and his unusual display of initiative catapults him into the ranks of senior management, where he discovers the “customer-free” company’s true, sinister raison d’être.”
We read this for book club, and although it was a quick read and funny, we ultimately didn’t have a huge amount of discussion about it. I’m not sure if that’s because we all work for a big corporation and the subject is a bit too familiar, or if we really don’t think working for big companies as as bad as portrayed in this novel. Although the book was funny, I had to admit that it was pretty depressing. Logically, though, the company portrayed here couldn’t function in real life, and part of the conceit of the novel — removing the customers from the equation — is both the reason why it wouldn’t, and what keeps companies from spiraling out of control in this fashion.
Adventures from the Technology Underground: Catapults, Pulsejets, Rail Guns, Flamethrowers, Tesla Coils, Air Cannons, and the Garage Warriors Who Love Them
by William Gurstelle
Amazon Description: “What is the technology underground? According to engineer and technology consultant Gurstelle, it’s a community of like-minded amateurs–inventors, mostly, although some of them might more accurately be characterized as daredevils. Men and women who have devoted their lives to the things that conventional science has dismissed as unworkable, impractical, or just plain pointless. Flying cars, for example, or newfangled catapults, air guns, and flamethrowers. Or fighting robots and, of course, LDRS (large and dangerous rocket ships).”
This is Gurstelle’s second book – his other — Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices — is an older favorite of mine. Both are an entertaining read about technology and the people who, in the spirit of at least one of our founding fathers (Benjamin Franklin), enjoy experimenting with science for the sheer love of learning. These are folks who take science out of the realm of the academic and bring it to the masses, where it becomes a hands-on experience and a subject that everyone can learn and respect.
Hornswoggled (An Alafair Tucker Mystery)
by Donis Casey
Amazon Description: “Set in the prairie town of Boynton, Okla., in the spring of 1913, Casey’s nostalgic, folksy second novel to feature Alafair Tucker finds the full-time mother of 11 and part-time sleuth worried about one of her grown daughters, Alice. Alice is sweet on barber Walter Kelley, an attractive widower whom the determined and discerning Alafair mistrusts; Walter is just too popular with the ladies. Since Alice is set on having Walter, Alafair seeks distraction by investigating the unsolved murder of Louise Kelley, Walter’s late wife, whose stabbed body surfaced in a creek bordering the Tucker farm eight months earlier.”
This was really light reading, but fun, and it held together pretty well — no huge plot holes that make you put the book down in disgust. The author spent a lot of time on the pioneer homelife of the main character, which was a bit overkill for me, and the mystery sort of solves itself towards the end, but it was a nice relaxing book.
And then there’s the book that I picked up several times, but just couldn’t read at all:
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time
by Liz Jensen
I love the book title, I love the cover (I even took a picture of it when I spotted it in the bookstore in Chicago) and I loved the book’s premise, but I just couldn’t get further than a few chapters into it. For some reason, I just couldn’t identify with the main character. Here’s the description, if you want to give it a shot, though:
“When 25-year-old Charlotte Schleswig begins telling her madcap tale in 1897, she’s a successful prostitute roaming the suburban streets near Denmark’s capital. A random meeting in a bakery leads her to begin working as a domestic for Fru Krak, an anxious woman whose husband has recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances and who may now be haunting the very streets Charlotte walks. Charlotte soon sets out to find the missing Professor Krak, and in the course of her investigations discovers 21st-century London, a whole new world of mobile phones, microwaves, flavored condoms, suicide machines and a handsome archeologist named Fergus.”

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Books I’ve read Recently

Garden Accents: Simple-To-Build Projects to Enhance Your Yard or Garden (How-to Gardening)
Quite a few interesting building projects for hardscaping your garden. I read this over while drawing up plans for our flowerbeds.
Pit of Vipers (Nancy Drew (All New) Girl Detective) #18
by Carolyn Keene
There are 21 books out now in this all new series of Nancy Drew stories. These are brand-new tales, not revisions or updates of the originals, and they set Nancy squarely in the present, complete with cell phones, hybrid cars (Nancy’s, of course) and high-tech surveillance equipment. And another change that’s somewhat jarring — they’re told from Nancy’s first-person point of view.
Indianapolis Hoosiers’ circle city
by Geib, George W.
Indianapolis Through Our Eyes: The Indianapolis Star 1903-2003
by Indianapolis Star
Indianapolis: a circle city history
by Tenuth, Jeffrey
Greater Indianapolis: the history, the industries, the institutions, and the people of a city of homes
by Dunn, Jacob Piatt, 1855-1924

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Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things

Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things: How to Turn a Penny into a Radio, Make a Flood Alarm with an Aspirin, Change
by Cy Tymony
ISBN: 0740738593
NON-FICTION – A small guide to how to MacGyvver yourself out of situations using objects you may have with you. I checked the book out from the library, so no time to tinker around making anything. Some of the descriptions are pretty loosy-goosy, so you’d want to build some of these gadgets at home and see them working before you tried to build one in a tight spot. I get the impression that the author compiled the book from a gathered list of ideas, rather than building them all at home in his own basement.
A parent would probably have fun guiding their kids through some of these amateur science experiments to show kids how to build their own radio or make a working compass. But they might want to skip the chapter on how to make your own weapons. Leave that to the adults.
I’m guessing the target market for this book is “teenage boy.” Hmmm. Probably why I read it. There are follow-up books, too: “Sneakier Uses for Everyday Things: How to Turn a Calculator into a Metal Detector, Carry a Survival Kit in a Shoestring, Make a Gas Mask with a Balloon…”.

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Short Book Reviews

How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson
and Other Tales of Rebellious Girls and Daring Young Women

by Mark Twain and John R. Cooley

Library Journal: “A dozen minor Twain pieces to show how Twain used some of his slight fictions to idealize his daughters Clara and Suzy Clemens as romantic, rebellious, and daring adolescents in the decades that glorified the sassy Gibson Girl. Twain probably considered his stories of transvestites, lesbian relationships, and sexual oddities almost scandalous, and he must have viewed “Little Bessie,” in which a child questions her mother about God, as dangerously blasphemous.”

A not terribly captivating book, in all, probably of more interest to Twain scholars than to women interested in tales of daring and rebellious women. The best story in it is Little Bessie about a girl who vigorously tears apart her mother’s Christian mythology — a story that wasn’t ever published, probably because it’s the most true thing Twain wrote.

Geography Club
by Brent Hartinger
Geography Club is a gay teen novel about 16-year-old Russel Middlebrook who comes out to himself befriends other gay teens at his high school, while battling bullying and homophobia from other classmates. It’s number 2 Book Sense’s list of favorite banned books. It’s been challenged at some school libraries due to homophobia, although it’s quite chaste in subject matter.

It was a quick and pleasant read and is a nice counterpoint to popular teen lesbian novels like Annie on My Mind. It’s nice that books like this exist nowadays. When I was a teenager, I was stuck with reading all the cross-dressing plays of Shakespeare, and checking out Collette novels.

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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
I first read this book when I was still a kid — either in junior high or high school, and I don’t remember caring too much for it, and feeling impatient to ge to the end. We read it again for our book club, and I’m very glad we did, because although I remembered the basics of the story, I didn’t remember how beautifully written it was. I’d say now it makes my list of favorite books. I don’t think it’s a book that young people can relate to easily, so I didn’t really understand it the first time. It’s only after you experience intimate personal relationships — love, betrayal, disappointment, and the indifference of someone you thought cared for you — that you recognize what the characters are saying and feeling, and that’s when the story comes alive. Like youth, Gatsby is wasted on the young.

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