Ramona Forever (Ramona-Henry #13)
Ramona Forever picks up pretty much right after Age 8 leaves off, taking us through the latter half of Ramona’s third grade year of school. As before, this is a period of change for the Quimby family: her father is finishing school and looking for a teaching job, her mother is pregnant (which really makes me wonder about the Quimby parents somehow), her cat is in questionable health, and her aunt may be marrying a man Ramona dislikes. Another Ramona book in much the same vein as the others, this one has an interesting ending where the Quimby parents must make some tough choices as they deal with their sort of irresponsible decision to have a third child while their finances are so sketchy.

Ramona’s World (Ramona-Henry #14)
Henry Huggins, the first book in this series, was first published in 1950. Ramona’s World, currently the final volume in the series, was first published in 1999. The fifty years in between made a huge number of changes in the world (though perhaps not quite as many which would impact a 9 year old as the decade that followed), but they press lightly on the world of Ramona. Ramona enters fourth grade here and we start to see her make more connections with the girls in her class, something she had not done before. The volume doesn’t attempt to wrap everything up in the manner of a final book, but it does give Ramona some emotional growth by the end. The same can’t be said for poor Henry Huggins, who, aside from a brief mention three or four books ago is completely absent from the latter part of the series he started.

Wow, I suddenly got very behind in my book posts. And, well, all posts. I’m definitely not going to make my goal for # of posts this year, not by a long shot. But I did at least do considerably better than I had been.

Part of my procrastinating on the part of the book posts is due to the fact that I finished a book for TT which requires a long review — but I’m finding it difficult to write, because there was nothing to latch onto in the book that made me feel super inspired to comment on it. I’ll get through it eventually.

The other part is because I had a bit of a break from reading earlier in December — I picked up Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light for the DS and was playing that instead. I’m still in the middle of it (one of my chars just got turned into a cat) but I’m taking more time to read. I took out a bunch of library books back in uh, October probably, and I’ve been renewing them ever since. But that’s not fair so I’m determined to get them back into circulation soon.

Overdrive also released an update to their Android app, which meant I could now check out ebooks on my phone. I was skeptical to say the least that I would be able to read books on a phone, especially since I’m not enamored of the eInk readers (more on that in another post), but actually it has turned out to be amazingly convenient to read in bed. However, that does nothing for my stack of paper books waiting to be read.

Not to leave this post without a review, here’s a review of another game which interrupted my reading:

The ABC Murders (Nintendo DS)
As one would expect, this game is based upon the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. It stars Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings on the track of what appears to be a homicidal maniac. Unlike other Christie games, this is neither a point and click adventure nor a hidden-object game; instead the idea here is copied from Professor Layton, and characters are constantly attempting to ‘test’ Poirot by telling him puzzles that he has to solve. The conceit actually works very well and meshes into the story. Unfortunately, the game mechanics are just horrific — I can’t tell if the programmers were just lazy or completely incompetent. You can very easily accidentally end up having to replay entire sections of the game simply because you select the wrong choice from the menu; the game doesn’t seem to remember that you’d already been there and allow you to only repeat the part you wanted to see. The programmers also fail to provide the same basic functionality as the Layton games — you can’t use the bottom screen as a scratch pad until you’re ready to enter the answer, meaning that you WILL need a piece of paper at points. The game also slavishly follows the plot of the original novel; if you’re expecting some kind of twist, you won’t find it here. This wouldn’t matter much as the puzzles are clearly the point of the game, if the mechanics hadn’t sucked so very much. As it is the game is so aggravating I wouldn’t recommend anyone play it, and I’ll be very cautious about buying anything from this studio again.

Having just spent some hours at work this week trying to clear masses of backlogged journals and magazines off my desk, I’ve been inspired to try and write some of these short reviews Library Journal style.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Bennet family is long on daughters and short on dowries. Even more unfortunately, most of the Bennets are short on decorum, too. These last two factors come into play when the wealthy young Charles Bingley moves to the area and becomes interested in Jane. When it becomes clear that Bingley’s sisters and his friend, the even more wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy, have attempted to keep him and Jane apart, Jane’s sister Elizabeth is displeased to say the least. VERDICT: This is the book that spawned a thousand sequels and a million re-tellings. But nothing beats the original — a classic in every sense of the word, this story of two clever people finding each other in spite of themselves is a book everyone -should- read, and one most people will enjoy anyway.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy and somewhat tyrannical man, is found stabbed in his study just days after the suicide of the widow everyone assumed he would soon marry. His debt-ridden stepson, known to have been in town the night of the murder, is suspiciously nowhere to be found. To the village and the police it looks like it may well be an open and shut case. But then, the village didn’t realize that the mysterious new gentlemen who moved in recently is the great detective Hercule Poirot. And Poirot is not so sure that Roger Paton is actually the culprit. VERDICT: Controversial among mystery fans when it was originally published, Christie pushed the boundaries of the genre in this book, which ranks among her best. An essential part of any mystery collection.

And one not so old not so favorite.

Sterling’s Gold by Roger Sterling
During season 4 of Mad Men, viewers watched the character Roger Sterling embark upon his memoirs. In the end, he changed course several times and eventually decided to focus on the wisdom he acquired in his years as an advertising account executive. In the show, I was under the impression that the book was made up of short anecdotes, but this book is made of brief snippets of conversations and statements from the show. VERDICT: In the tradition of The Bro Code by Barney Stinson, and The Rules of Acquisition by Quark, we have here a quicky tie-in book to the series Mad Men. Amusing, but unlikely to be of any lasting interest.

The Plot
Dan and Ursula are two British teenagers on a school field trip. A strange fog envelops them and the two find themselves transported to a strange new world where there are still Romans and Celtic tribesmen. Once there, they’re thrown into a deadly conflict for which neither is prepared, but with which they must deal if they’re ever to have a chance of finding a way home.

My Thoughts
Somehow, even though I’m the one in charge of creating the “Upcoming” page on Tripletake, I had not actually read the blurb I pasted in for this book. The result being that my impressions of the book, formed from only its title, were completely wrong. It was nothing like what I expected (which was, of course, relatively high fantasy centering around a land called Alavna).

We begin instead in Hastings (as in Battle of) where Ursula and Dan, unwilling partners on a school field trip, have found themselves in the middle of a clinging yellow mist. Dan is a smart, athletic, popular kid while Ursula is apparently an outcast who has low self-esteem due to her height (tall) and build (heavy). These facts turn out to be rather less important than one might expect in a young adult novel. The point of view shifts between Ursula and Dan throughout the whole book, but it’s most noticeable here at the beginning, where we’re most in their heads. Dan’s point of view is presented in short, nearly clauseless sentences, while Ursula’s sentence structure is more complex. It was an interesting contrast but for me, it made reading Dan’s sections difficult. It felt like the equivalent of being in heavy traffic — you’d move for a couple seconds and then jerk to a stop again. Repeat.

Ursula and Dan emerge from the mist into somewhere different — a land which might be Britain of the distant past or might not. In any case, the situation there is much the same as the situation in Britain during the middle of the Roman occupation. The Celtic tribes are finding their way of life threatened, their lands taken, their authority usurped; in desperation, they’ve been trying to use magic to lift the Veil and summon help from elsewhere. What they got was Ursula and Dan, who don’t feel especially useful.

Of course, the reader knows this will turn out not to be the case: they will obviously hold the key to solving the tribes’ problems, at least in the short term. It wouldn’t be much of a story, otherwise. Dan’s ‘talent’ is revealed fairly early on in the story: he’s what the tribes call a ‘bear sark’, aka a berserker in the grandest tradition of the word. He can turn into an unstoppable killing machine in a disturbingly easy way (disturbing to himself perhaps more than the reader) and go Hitokiri Battousai on all the bad-guys.

Ursula’s purpose is developed more slowly, and it’s she more than Dan who ends up as the central figure of the book. The Celts who summon her and Dan mistake her initially for a boy and this ruse is continued for a very large part of the book. Though it strains credulity for portions of the beginning, it’s a necessary ploy to keep her involved with the male warriors who making the decisions for the tribes. While there’s some lip service paid to the idea that the Celts were a relatively equal society whose womenfolk are known to fight alongside the men, we never see this in practice and the men all seem content enough with the patriarchy, new or not.

The plotting is well-paced; there are no sections of the book where there are too many incidents and others where there are too few. The final battle in particular was impressive, conveying as it did the hectic confusion of what an actual battle of the sort might have been like.

In the end, I’m left wondering why I don’t find myself more enthusiastic about the book or more interested in reading the rest of the trilogy. The lack of good female characters may be one reason; there are only two in the book of any note: one a bitchy screwup and one, Ursula, who spends her time disguised as a boy. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really start to feel a connection to the characters until the very end, right when it was clear that everything was about to change again — the next book may be a continuation, but it probably won’t be a continuation of this particular set of circumstances. I don’t know. All I can say is that it didn’t excite me, but I don’t entirely rule out finishing the series.

In Short
In the end, I have mixed feelings about this book. Browne is a good writer, and yet there are other good writers whose stuff I just don’t enjoy. The story itself was pretty solid, but at the end of it I felt like I still had a pretty shallow feel for the two main characters, Ursula and Dan. I was told that they had changed and grown, but since the book started and stopped without any real look at them in the ‘real world’ I have no particular evidence of them either before or after these incidents. There was a distinct lack of female characters, and our one lead female spends almost the entire book pretending to be a boy; the only other prominent female is jealous, impulsive and behaves like a fool. For that alone I should dislike it, but knowing it’s part of a trilogy leaves me with the hope that like many series, it’s much better when taken as a whole.

Look for more reviews of The Warriors of Alavna over at Tripletake

I was fortunate enough to be provided an eARC for book #4 in the Theodosia series, Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh. I wrote a review for it which has been posted over on Tripletake.

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh is due out in April 2011, and the eARC was provided by netGalley.

The Plot
Roberta, Peter and Phyllis are suburban children in Edwardian London. Their life is not unusual, but quite happy until the day their father mysteriously goes away. After their mother moves them out to the countryside, they find themselves free to explore the surrounding areas and make friends with all sorts of people they’d never have associated with before.

My Thoughts
I first read this book twenty or twenty-five years ago, when I was the age of the children who’re the main characters. I found it immensely enjoyable then and I still do now; this is a book I have on my regular rereading list, along with Pride and Prejudice, Maison Ikkoku, and a handful of others.

The setting for all but the very first part of this book is a small farm near a village with a small railway station and a canal within walking distance. It’s not too far distant from London, but in those days one didn’t really have to get very far from London to feel one was in the country. Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis (Phil) have moved there abruptly with their mother after their father is called away for reasons which are not explained to them. The children adapt to their new circumstances much as children do, without really questioning them too deeply, since their new poverty (at least relative to their old upper middle class life) doesn’t affect them in the most fundamental ways — they still have enough to eat, their clothes are adequate, and their house is comfortable. Added to that is (from their perspective) a plus: they’re allowed to run freely about the countryside, as there’s no money for school or a governess and their mother is too busy trying to earn money (via writing, perhaps the only outlet possible for a married woman of her class) to provide them with lessons.

Their newfound freedom provides most of the adventure in the book, as they explore their new home and meet the people living nearby. The structure of the book gives it an almost episodic feel, in spite of the fact that many narrative threads continue through the whole story: most chapters open with the children preparing to do something, an adventure building to a climax, and then a resolution. This structure is fairly typical of Nesbit’s writing and more generally, I think, of other similar books published around the same time.

The book is somewhat atypical to my mind in that it features two girls and a boy as its protaganists. And considering the time period, it treats them all with great equality. Bobbie and Phil participate equally in adventures, they are allowed to come up with ideas both good and bad, and no one child comes to dominate or be ‘in charge’ of the group. Contrast this with The Secret Garden written around the same time, which begins as a book about Mary Lennox and ends with the character of Colin starting to crowd her right out of her own story.

Nesbit wrote multiple sequels to two of her works, and I wish she’d gotten around to writing one for this book too. Though the tale has a satisfying ending, I’m always up for more time spent with characters I like.

In Short
This stand-alone novel from the imagination of E. Nesbit is my absolute favorite of her works. It never fails to make me want to visit the English countryside, walk around outside and look at things, and ride about in a train. Added to the enticing setting, there are three protaganists whose interaction with one another rings true and who are neither too quarrelsome to find sympathetic nor too good to find unrealistic. The book stands up very well to repeated rereads and is clever enough for any age reader.

Ramona and her Father (Henry-Ramona #10)
Ramona and her family face uncertainty and tough times after her father loses his job. Her mother is forced to find full-time work and money is extremely tight. This is one part I’ve always liked about the Ramona series: the Quimby family is not well off. Neither parent at this point in the series has managed to find a job with prospects, and money is a stressor. And the fact is, kids are not stupid; even if they don’t quite understand about taxes and utilities and that sort of thing, they understand when things are stressful and they react to it. Now, I don’t think I’ll be spoiling too much when I note that Mr. Quimby gets a job at the end of the book, but what’s interesting is the clear effort it takes to get the job (which is certainly no fairy tale ending); Cleary isn’t trying to make things overly rosy, but realistic in an age appropriate way.

Ramona and her Mother (Henry-Ramona #11)
This book picks up directly after the last ended, as Mr. Quimby is about to begin his new job. Throughout the book we follow the thread of how the family is continuing to recover from the stress of his unemployment and the new pressure of now having two parents working full time in jobs they don’t necessarily find particularly fulfilling. In parallel to this we also have Ramona who is in the midst of a crisis of sorts, feeling disconnected from her mother — they don’t seem to share as many interests or personality traits as she’d like, especially when compared to her mom and Beezus who are very close.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (Henry-Ramona #12)
The start of third grade brings a number of changes to the Quimby household — Ramona is now off to a new school after a district reorganization, Mr. Quimby is heading back to college, and Beezus is off to junior high. Money is as tight as it’s ever been now that they’re down to fewer than two paychecks again, and the whole family is inclined to snipe at one another. I do like the realism and there’s a good sense that underneath it all the Quimby family cares very much about one another. I like that the family grows and develops, especially this new plan of Ramona’s dad going back to school. But all the same, somehow Ramona was more fun when she was younger.

Ribsy (Henry-Ramona #8)
Ribsy is the final book in the Henry Huggins/Ramona Quimbyverse to focus on the Huggins family. But rather than turn the spotlight on Henry, as the title implies, this book is all about his dog, Ribsy. As the story opens, the Huggins family are setting off on a trip to a large shopping center in their new car. Mrs. Huggins is reluctant to allow Ribsy the opportunity to mess up the new car, but the family eventually ends up bringing him along. While they’re shopping, Ribsy escapes the car and eventually ends up quite some distance away from home. His efforts to get back to Henry fill the rest of the book. I think Cleary here shows she has as deft a hand with animals as she has with small children. Just like she was able to bring Ramona to life as a believable and interesting five year old, she’s able to convey Ribsy’s confusion and desires without anthropomorphizing him to the point where he’s no longer behaving like a dog. On the other hand, this was rather an odd departure for a series that otherwise focuses entirely on the lives and adventures of children.

Ramona the Brave (Henry-Ramona #9)
We delve more deeply into the life of the Quimby family as we return to them in Ramona the Brave. The action of this book takes place over the end of summer vacation and the first couple of months of Ramona’s first grade year. She deals with a less than ideal teacher, the turmoil of home renovations, her mother returning to work, getting her own bedroom, and clashes with her classmates. Ramona remains an interesting and engaging character even as she starts to mature a bit and become more aware of her own less than admirable impulses. As I reread these books, it’s interesting to me which scenes have stayed with me, which ones I hadn’t realized I’d forgotten, and which ones I have no memory of. There’s an incident in this book where Ramona makes a slipper out of brown paper towels and a stapler which I had completely forgotten until I began reading it again, at which point it came rushing back. And yet the part about them remodeling the house — it was as new.

Ramona the Pest (Henry-Ramona #6)
The day has finally come — Ramona has a book from her own point of view! Oh, and she’s also about to start Kindergarten. She’s extremely excited about beginning real school and finally starting on her path to being one of the big kids. In particular she’s sure that she’ll soon be able to read and write and thus be at much less of a disadvantage with her sister (and to a lesser extent, her parents). Cleary is at her best in this book, presenting Ramona and her concerns in a way that would interest the group of children likely to read this book (ages 7-10) without ever once forgetting that she is still five. It’s interesting to see Ramona finally from her own point of view, as until now we’ve never seen what’s going on in her head, just the result as observed by children twice her age. It’s fascinating how you can still see how she’s incomprehensible to her elders, yet to her (and her peers) it all makes perfect sense. Ramona is also a bit ‘the character who got away’ — it’s obvious enough that Cleary just threw her in as an interesting cameo and she slowly came to take over. This is particularly clear in the case of this book, which overlaps with the book Henry and the Clubhouse chronologically. (NOTE: While this book comes #6 chronologically, by publication order it’s actually #8.)

Henry and the Clubhouse (Henry-Ramona #7)
Cleary picks up Henry’s story just a few weeks after the end of Henry and the Paper Route. Now that he’s achieved his dream of having a paper route, Henry finds himself with a gnawing urge to build something. He settles on a clubhouse and eventually is able to acquire some free lumber from a neighbor who’s redoing his garage. Henry and his friends then begin construction — no girls allowed! Clubhouse was written directly after Paper Route and follows it closely. From textual references, it also overlaps considerably with the period of time described in Ramona the Pest, though this book was written about a decade earlier. Cleary didn’t make any obvious efforts to match the events of Pest to the ones in this book, so there are no mentions of several Henry-related incidents which figure prominently in the later Pest. On the other hand, nothing in here really contradicts the later book either. Deserving of particular mention is an early episode in the book where Henry’s mom ends up doing his paper deliveries — Louis Darling has his weaknesses as an illustrator, but the picture of Mrs. Huggins with her hair a mess, standing on a lawn in her heels and with a paper poised to throw was just perfection.

Beezus and Ramona (Henry-Ramona #4)
After a decidedly supporting role in the previous Henry-centric books, the Quimby girls get their own outing here, told from Beezus’s point of view. The Quimbys live in the same neighborhood as Henry Huggins, though on the next street over. Beezus, the same age as Henry, is in his class at school, though like the other books in the series, school is glossed over for the most part with the action taking place after school and on weekends while the kids are at home. Most of the adventures, as one would expect from Ramona’s earlier appearances, involve four year old Ramona causing problems for Beezus through her stubbornness and lack of experience. Cleary’s skill at characterization prevents either of the girls from becoming annoying and the situations are completely believable. There are at least two versions of the book — one with the original illustrations by Louis Darling and one with newer illustrations by Tracy Dockray. The version I had was illustrated by Dockray, whose skill is extremely uneven. Her talent at drawing pre-schoolers is amazing — Ramona and her friends practially lept off the page they were so perfect. But her efforts at Beezus and the adults in the story were pretty wooden.

Henry and the Paper Route (Henry-Ramona #5)
Cleary returns to her original protaganist in Henry and the Paper Route. Here we find Henry Huggins looking to improve his finances by getting a paper route like some of the other boys in the area. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of routes, and you also have to be eleven, which he isn’t quite yet. Henry’s antics in this book recall his earlier adventures in the original Henry Huggins which involved a large number of animals. There’s an extended episode with some kittens here which I found extremely entertaining. And though one would expect the emphasis on the paper route to date the book somewhat (though paper routes were still done by child employees when I was a kid, my feeling is that nowadays what few ‘routes’ remain are generally covered by adults in cars), there’s a surprisingly modern feel to some of the scenes. In particular, a new kid moves in to the street and promptly begins building a robot! (The book was originally published in 1957, remember!) That would still be impressive to any kid today. There’s also one illustration in the book which I loved: Ramona sitting on a street curb, biding her time until she can be evil again. The whole series continues to be of high quality.

Cross Game 1 (v1-3)
Cross Game is a relatively recent baseball manga from baseball manga legend Mitsuru Adachi. Far from being your typical sports manga, a battle manga in disguise, Adachi provides his characters with a more complex backstory and motivations for what they’re doing. The first three volumes serve to introduce the main characters, taking them through five years of their lives and establishing the particular sequence of events which has brought each of them to their current status. Volume three is where the present day actually starts, with most of our cast in their first year of high school — a high school which has just this year decided to bring in outside ringers to beef up its baseball program and make a run at Koshien. The old coach and the local players have been sidelined to make room for these (predictably) unsportsmanlike players and a new, ambitious, arrogant coach. The volume ends as the new varsity team is planning a scrimmage against what they view as the inferior leftover team (most often called ‘portable team’ by the translation, though many times we see the label ‘farm’ and the use of the word ‘varsity’ would also imply that perhaps they’re j.v.). Hopefully the next volume, which contains Japanese vol 4-5, will contain the whole of this game and not leave us hanging again!