Steampunk Favorites

In no way am I an expert on “Steampunk.”   When I looked at a comprehensive list on Wikipedia of books that fall into this category, I had hardly read any of them.  Yet there are a few that I find myself recommending repeatedly, especially to middle-school boy readers.

What is steampunk, you might ask?  Imagine if Jules Verne or H. G. Wells were writing for a young audience today and ignoring computers, electronics and other post-Victorian developments.  In a vaguely Dicksensian setting, there is scope for science fiction of a swashbuckling rather than dystopian nature.  By mixing in elements from the somewhat idealized past we avoid the necessity of contemplating a bleak future.

There are two series I’d like to highlight:

First, try the Larklight series by Philip Reeve, which has a decidedly 19th Century British feel to each volume.  The full title of the first book is Larklight 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.  Art and his very proper sister Myrtle face numerous dangers as they try to save our universe from dastardly giant spiders that have captured their father.   Larklight is their home, a rambling Victorian mansion drifting through space with the help of gravitational devices.  The narration is witty and the action is virtually nonstop. Others in the series: Starcross and Mothstorm

Second, consider the Airborn trilogy by Kenneth Oppel: AirbornStarclimber and Skybreaker.  In a world where airplanes were never invented, dirigibles rule the skies.  Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on a luxury airship who discovers mysterious creatures in the clouds with the help of feisty Kate, an aristocratic and inquisitive passenger. They also deal with vicious sky pirates.  Young teen readers seem to respond to the mix of action, science fiction and romance in these tales.

I think Jules Verne would have approved.


Charles and Emma

When people think of Charles Darwin they usually think of natural selection, or the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Deborah Heiligman’s biography Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, deals with a side of Darwin that most people do not know, his relationship with his wife.

The book, which is aimed at high school students, begins with Darwin making a list of pros and cons about marriage. Should he or shouldn’t he? That is the tough question Charles Darwin must answer. Marriage would provide a stable house and his wife could cook and clean for him while he focuses on his scientific research, but the obligations that come with having a wife could severely impact his ability to conduct his scientific research.

When he meets his first-cousin, Emma, he decides he should. With Emma he gained a wife who would bear him ten (wow!) children and a debate partner. Darwin was making huge discoveries in the field of evolution at a time when most of the population was extremely religious, including Darwin’s wife.

With the publication of his work, The Origin of Species, Darwin started a debate that continues on to this day. Evolution vs Creationism. What should be taught in our schools? Is Evolution real? These are questions that are still fought over more than 150 years after the book was published.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, explores this debate in the Darwin household. Charles was discovering things that challenged Emma’s beliefs; his evolution theory went against the creation story in the bible. Emma’s beliefs had a significant impact on Charles’ work, and this book shows the reader how much her thoughts and opinions mattered.

This thought provoking book deals not only with the struggle over evolution vs religious beliefs, but marriage struggles and how even if you have conflicting viewpoints you can still have a happy marriage if you have respect for each other’s ideas.


"What do you seek in these shelves?"

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan has been mentioned here before, but I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to give it another spotlight.

When I first placed a hold on it, I had a vague notion of what it would be, somehow thinking it would be along the lines of the charming Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Instead, I found it to be more like Shadow of the Wind meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a generous sprinkling of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Kind of a younger, hipper Da Vinci Code. And I mean that in a good way!
Clay is an out of work sort-of web designer in San Francisco when he happens upon a help wanted sign on a 24-hour bookstore tucked in next to a not-so-savory bar called Booty’s. Other than a few dusty shelves of books for sale, however, this is like no other bookstore Clay has ever seen. It is tall and narrow, filled with mysteriously coded tomes that are not available for sale, only to borrow by an eccentric and select few. As Clay spends more time at the bookstore, and with Mr. Penumbra himself, his curiosity grows, and he applies his tech skills to tackling the ancient secret of the store.
Clay draws on the strengths of his friends, including childhood pal Neel, now the head of a software company specializing in digitally rendering female anatomy, new girlfriend Kat, a genius from nearby Google, and his artist roommate Mat, to bring Mr. Penumbra and his associates into the 21st century. Ultimately, it's not the answer to the puzzle that is most important, but the journey, of course. 

It’s got a dash of romance, a lot of good old fashioned friendship, almost too-good-to-be-true technology, and a quest; it doffs its cap to fantasy adventure without giving up its hold on reality. There's plenty to discuss in a book group (you can find a reading guide here), and it would be fun to read with friends and family from high school up - the intergenerational friendships here could spark a good conversation. Delightful is really the word for it!


Learning Lessons in French

"Secrets travel fast in Paris." – Napoleon Bonaparte

Imagine this:  You’re a young artist who just graduated from Yale and who’s managed to
snag a dream job as an assistant to a brilliant American photographer in Paris.  But then imagine this:  Your boss and her family (with whom you will live and work) turn out to be a little bit crazy, a little bit self-absorbed and intent on dragging you into their chaos.  And each one is very manipulative in his or her own way.

This is where Kate finds herself in Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French.  She’s in Paris to boost her resume before applying to art school, but she also wants desperately to fit in with the Schell family:  Lydia, the gifted photographer, who is working on a project about the Berlin Wall (the story takes place in 1989); Clarence, Lydia’s writer husband; Portia, their spoiled and confused daughter; and Joshua, their rebellious and also confused son.  

Kate is fluent in French, having been sent to France for a couple years when she was a child and her father was dying of cancer in the U.S.  However, at the beginning of the novel, she is more concerned with impressing the Schells than connecting with her own relatives.  As time goes on, she realizes what is really important, but it is fun watching her figure things out.  She cavorts with another former Yale student and her band of rich French boys; she is tricked into being the go-between for Clarence and his girlfriend, while hiding the affair from Lydia; and finally she connects with her cousin, √Čtienne, and realizes that she can always count on her own family, even when the Schells are at their worst. 

If you’re dreaming of France, but won’t travel farther than Los Angeles this summer, Lessons in French will not disappoint. 


"I HAVE A DREAM" 50 Years Later

August 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, a key turning point in the growing struggle of civil rights in our country.  More than 250,000 people gathered in our nation’s capital for a day of speeches, songs and prayers, culminating in Martin Luther King’s soaring “I Have a Dream” address. 

If you have only seen clips or snippets of “I Have a Dream,” you’re missing out.  The entire speech is included in the DVD Martin Luther King: I Have a Dream.  The inspiring words, the powerful message, the remarkable delivery, Martin Luther King’s oratorical skills are a marvel to behold.  A multitude of feelings washed over me as I watched: joy, anger, sorrow, hope.  This DVD also includes newsreel footage which provides context and insight.

Nobody Turn Me Around:A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington by Charles Euchner is a compelling behind-the-scenes look at “the apex of the civil rights movement.” The history, politics and logistics behind the march are explored, and many interesting facts are revealed.  The $16,000 state-of-the-art sound system was sabotaged a few days early, and technicians had to work feverishly around-the-clock for a fix.  There was much political infighting to get woman speakers on the platform, an effort that failed, resulting in only men giving speeches.  JFK called civil rights organizers beforehand and asked that the march be called off.  Malcolm X publicly called it the “The Farce on Washington,” but discretely attended and offered his help.  The inclusion of interviews of ordinary people who attended the march adds a humanistic perspective.

Leonard Freed, a pioneer of socially conscious photojournalism, documents the March for Jobs and Freedom in the book This is the Day: The March on Washington.  His black and white photographs are wonderfully expressive, and capture the hope and yearning on the faces of the attendees. The wide-angle shots of masses of people overflowing the National Mall are impressive. Eloquent text by Michael Dyson accompanies the photos.  

There are many fine biographies on Martin Luther King Jr., but for an intriguing work of literary fiction, read Dreamer by National Book Award-winning author Charles Johnson.  Set in the 1966 summer riots in Chicago, a devoted King follower (Matthew Bishop) hires a man with a startling resemblance to King (Chaym Smith) to be his stand-in.  Smith has a shady past, yet is surprisingly well-versed in eastern philosophies.  It is not entirely clear what his intentions are.  Martin Luther King isn't the central character, but his presence looms over the story, and his personal ruminations reveal a tormented and conflicted man. Numerous references to Biblical passages and philosophic movements make this a challenging read at times, but I was captivated by the story and the imaginative way it melds historical fact with speculation.


I Love a Series

I love the anticipation of waiting for the next book in a series that I love. One book is fun, but to follow a strong-willed hero or heroine (or dog?) through adventure, murder or mayhem is pure pleasure. There are three series that I love to wait for and they are all mysteries.
The first is the Chet and Bernie Mystery series by Spencer Quinn, set in atmospheric Arizona. Bernie is the soft-hearted, down-on-his-luck private detective and Chet, a dog, who actually tells the tale, is his brilliant side-kick. There have been five books in the series beginning with Dog on It and the sixth coming soon The Sound and the Furry. The books have been reviewed as “pure comic genius” and of course Chet always saves the day.

The second series I look forward to is by English author Elly Griffiths. Her five books in the series are set on the Northern English coast with forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway who’s independent, but vulnerable. As a professor at the University of North Norfolk she is always involved in excavating historical digs, but sometimes she finds something more sinister and it leads to murder.

The third series is set in Amish Ohio country. The ex-Amish Chief of Police, Kate Burkholder, has to straddle the two worlds of her old Amish background with that of her current “Englisher” one, solving the horrendous murders that keep happening in the Amish community. Linda Castillo has written five books in the series, the first Sworn to Silence which was described by reviewers as “gripping.”


Etiquette and Espionage

Finishing school. 01 : Etiquette & espionage

Etiquette and Espionage is Gail Garriger’s first young adult book, and the first in a new series. The story takes place in the same world, and acts as a prequel to the author’s Parasol Protectorate series written for adults. The story takes the reader for a wild ride from the very first pages. Sophronia Temminnick, the Victorian teenage heroine has a curious, questioning mind, an affinity for books, and of all things, a love of mathematics and engineering, traits that make her the very antithesis of the young ladies of her time. But she also a girl who likes to climb, deconstruct things to see how they work, and is never above a little eavesdropping, all habits that get her into constant trouble, but make her funny, and very, very likable.

The adventure begins when Sophronia is recruited to attend Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Her mother eagerly agrees in hopes of turning her unruly daughter into a proper lady. What neither knows is that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s is a finishing school for spies and assassins. Sophronia learns the quadrille, how to curtsy properly, set a table, flutter her eyelashes, and faint without wrinkling her dress. But she also learns intelligence gathering, lying and deniability, and how to kill by garotte, poison, or knife, along with other unusual modes of finishing, not usually taught in school.

Carriger develops her characters gradually, giving them an interesting mix of layered personalities, which makes them believable. Sophronia’s friends Dimity, Agatha, and Lady Sidheag, the Scottish girl raised by werewolves, along with young Vieve, who although a girl, just wants to be one of the boys. Even Monique, Sophronia's evil, manipulative nemesis, and all-around the bad girl, is a great supporting chiaroscuro character.

The world-building aspect of steampunk, complete with mechanical maids, butlers, and even a mechanical dog named Bumbersnoot, who becomes Sophronia’s boon companion, are all presented as matter-of-fact elements. There are also flyway men, dirigibles, and a bumbling, clueless head mistress. Another bonus is the setting. Mademoiselle Geraldine's is unusual in another way. It floats above ground and travels around the area, and has as a companion, an adjoining boys’ school for evil geniuses. The plot also includes paranormal elements. There is a werewolf and a vampire, among Sophronia’s teachers.

And although it does not actually develop in this book, there is a hint of forthcoming romance, between Sophronia and a boy she meets at the school. All in all, a great first book in a promising series, that is a very enjoyable stand alone read.


This Policeman is Definitely Not Last in My Book

The main reason that a few friends and I started a book club was to expose ourselves to works that we each wouldn’t have chosen on our own, due to our personal – and always baseless -- biases against certain genres, subject matter, etc.  For example, left to my own devices I never would have chosen to read any book with any form of the word “police” in the title.  Now, after reading Ben H. Winters’ highly original and readable The Last Policeman for a club discussion, I’m wondering why not. 

Imagine that Earth is going to be hit in six months by an asteroid which will cause mass death and destruction.  What would you do with what could be your remaining time?  Travel?  Spend time with loved ones?  Give in to your most selfish desires?  Detective Henry (Hank) Palace of Concord, New Hampshire has chosen to keep working. He is called to the scene of a supposed suicide, a “hanger” in the grim slang of the time.  Only it doesn’t seem like a suicide to Palace.  He takes it upon himself to investigate every aspect of the dead man’s life in order to find out how and why it seems to have ended in a fast food restaurant bathroom stall.  There are also a couple other strands in the novel.  In the course of his investigation Palace meets a woman who quite intrigues him personally.  He is also conscripted by his sister to help her husband extricate himself from his apocalypse-related adventures.

If you like mysteries, this novel is for you. If you like a dystopian setting, this novel is for you.  If you like police procedurals – trust me, now you do – this novel is for you.  Detective Palace’s first-person narration of this story creates an intimacy which draws the reader in and makes one feel like his partner, feeling our way through possible clues right alongside him.  Palace’s position as a rookie detective learning the ropes mirrors the reader’s own as a new arrival to the strange pre-apocalyptic atmosphere in which this novel takes place.  The narrative is an intriguing combination of no-nonsense analysis of the facts and keen observation of human behavior.  Several principal characters are clearly drawn, revealing numerous different and yet understandable responses to the impending natural disaster.

It is very clear to me why this thoroughly unique and highly enjoyable novel won the 2013 Edgar Award (mystery) for Best Paperback Original.  I am happy to report that OC Public Libraries has just ordered copies of The Last Policeman, along with the second installment in Winters’ planned trilogy, Countdown City, which I eagerly await reading!


Computer Programming Book Reviews

Title: Beginning HTML5 and CSS3: The Web Evolved
Author: Christopher Murphy, Richard Clark, et al.
Publisher: Apress
Pub. Year: 2012
Pages: 600
Call Number: 006.74 HTM

Review:  HTML5 is now the de facto standard for developing web pages and the book “Beginning HTML5 and CSS3: The Web Evolved” provides a good introduction to the subject.  This title wastes no time by starting off with the assertion that the time for HTML5 is now, and that we should not put off implementing the new standard.  The beginning sections of the book provide a brief history of the development of HTML5 and a comparison of it to the previous HTML standards: HTML 4 and XHTML.  Sample documents using the previous standards are also provided so the reader can obtain a sense for what has changed between HTML 4/XHTML and HTML5.

If the reader might think this book focuses too much on the development and technicalities of HTML5, there are many sample templates provided in the text that can be put to immediate use.  All that is needed to make maximum use of this book are a bit of determination and a computer that has an ASCII text editor like Windows Notepad.  A web server isn’t necessary because most web browsers have the capacity to load and display web pages that have been saved to a computer’s hard drive or to a portable storage device like a flash drive (USB drive) or SD card.

Beginning HTML5 and CSS3: The Web Evolved” contains 13 chapters that cover a fairly wide range of HTML5 related topics.  It describes the structural elements provided by the new standard, how HTML5 can enhance the use of rich media (i.e. video, audio, and the new canvas tag), how HTML5 can be used to create web applications, how to utilize the new CSS3 (Cascading Style Sheets) standards with HTML5, and how improve web page typography.

A good portion of the text discusses cascading style sheets – CSS version 3 in this case. Cascading style sheets consist of code that provides instructions on how web page content should be displayed, and these commands are as important as the HTML markup itself.   To emphasize this point, Chapter 9, “A Layout for Every Occasion,” provides discussion and examples of how CSS3 can be utilized to design web pages that render well on both desktop computers and smaller mobile devices.  In many cases this is not an easy task to accomplish, however the new CSS3 cascading style sheet standards provide additional resources to make the job easier.

Beginning HTML5 and CSS


Another Home Run by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Ever since a most excellent student assistant of mine at a Middle School mentioned that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor was her favorite author, I have always paid special attention to this talented and most prolific writer.  And she never fails to engage. Faith Hope and Ivy June is the latest that I read and it was no exception.

Two girls, one from the poorest section of the hills of Kentucky and one from the affluent city of Lexington, are chosen to be exchange visitors to each other's schools and families for two weeks each during the spring. The purpose is to examine preconceived ideas about communities with such differences and to promote understanding through spending time together and then reporting back. Could this be a borrowed idea from "Wife Swap"?

Although the notion might seem contrived and a set up for a rescue for the struggling coal mining community (Appalachian girl becomes a singing star or good folks of Lexington turn Thunder Creek into thriving craftsman village) the girls are real seventh graders with much in common and some real family and social life worries.  And Naylor carries the cliffhanging plot to the very last page along with some excellent insights into the struggles as well as the talents and strengths of a mountain community living in survival ways which few of our children might ever imagine.

So many times I have recommended Naylor to students.  There is is the Alice series which will keep the girls who like to follow a girl from grade school until high school.  There is The Fear Place for nail biting adventure.  There is the Newbery Award-winning Shiloh about a dog rescue and its two sequels. Naylor always offers a good story along with real young people solving real problems. Although published in 2009, Faith, Hope and Ivy June was a nominated book for the Middle School/Junior High California Young Reader Medal Award for 2013.  This book would be an excellent choice for family or classroom read-aloud or young people's book discussion group.  And of course it stands on its own with some old fashioned escape along with cultural understanding.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's website is accessed through her Alice blog here.


Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Bernadette Fox was once a visionary architect who was eco-friendly before eco-friendly was popular. She won awards and her work was studied and revered by architecture students. However, when we meet Bernadette in this novel she is a borderline reclusive mother whose days are spent battling the other mothers at her daughter’s private school and letting the weeds and wild blackberry bushes slowly engulf her giant crumbling home. Bernadette’s husband a Microsoft wizard who is best known for a particularly enlightening TED talk loves his eccentric wife and Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, loves her mother and loves the cozy private life her mother has created for her. But when Bernadette starts doing things that appear a little bit more than eccentric, perhaps even crazy, they start to worry. Are Bernadette’s actions crazy or is something more going on?

When Bernadette suddenly goes missing her daughter goes on a mission to find out what really happened to her mother. This book takes us from Seattle to Los Angeles to Antarctica and only at the end and through correspondence collected by Bee do we ultimately find out what happened. This satirical novel pokes fun at Seattle, petty people, and the mundane parts of life; but it is also is a touching mother-daughter story as well as a story about what happens when a creative person stops creating. I finished this book in just a couple evenings because it was so good I didn’t want to put it down.  The author, Maria Semple, gave us a great summer read and a perfect way to spend a weekend. Where'd You Go, Bernadette was so enjoyable I couldn’t wait to share it. Read it! Hopefully you will enjoy it as much as I did!