Usborne puzzle books – “Land of Lost Teddies”

My 7 year old and 4 year old love to read this together before bed with us. They take turns spotting all the different clues, and enjoy the charming characters. We do the voices for all the bears, and just enjoy the drama of a kid finding their lost teddy bear.  Every prompt is thoughtful, and the kids enjoy the side quests that we give them (such as finding the set of pajamas that you would like”). The illustrations and text are beautifully composed. Definitely fun for the whole family.

Land of Lost Teddies on Amazon

March of the Empire Penguins

H says he brought  Eve of the Emperor Penguin from the library. After weeks of searching, we still can’t find it in the house.  Maybe they’ve marched away???

Instead, we have been reading Robo-Sauce,

the novel transforming book that really “changes” its content.  The dialogue is delightful– banter by an “all-knowing” narrator, and the beeping noises of robots.  W loves the repetition of “B” words that she can say out loud, H loves the transformation.  All of us enjoy the chaos, too– we love the graphic effects and we throw up our hands and shout, trying out different explosion euphemisms together.  We can’t wait for the future to bring on the robots!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Dao

I happened to pick up the audio book from the library. I truly enjoyed the narration– it was so personable and soothing. The story was pretty interesting– revealing the voodoo superstitions in Dominican culture and talking about the political climate in the 50s. I learned a lot about how the three different generations dealt with issues of love, life, and identity under Trujillo’s dictatorship in the DR. I gained an insight into the terror and confusion that must have existed under dictatorship, where there is no democracy or human rights. There were some sad stories overall but some happy bits. Even through pain and suffering, people can find happiness somewhere– maybe that’s just life. I liked the unusual narrative style, and the metalepsis because some of it is told through flashback. Sometimes I spaced out due to the lulling voice. My favorite was the surprise ending and the personal change in all the characters. I thought Oscar, Lola and Junior were very well fleshed out characters, and I cared for their happiness. The relationships between the protagonists were very real, and I could understand the family problems that they were having and sympathize with each perspective. In particular, I resonated with the conflict of how a parent cannot bear to let their child (at whatever age) expose themselves to harm (either willingly or naively)? A good story, lots to think about in terms of personal freedom and the choices we make for love. This is a story of true bravery in heroes/heroines of all shapes and sizes. Also, thinking about how much our fates conspire against us, and what a person has to give up to do what is right for humanity. Warning that some of the parts were a bit violent… A very good thoughtful audiobook. I don’t think I could re-read it, though. It was pretty intense.

The Hornblower Companion, or Forester’s unique process of creative development

After reading the whole Hornblower series, I had to read the  The Hornblower Companion“>Hornblower Companion.  It is inspirational, specially for aspiring creative minds. The first half of the book described the specific research done for the different books in the series. Basically, this half contained a bunch of maps and annotations about the battles in detail.

The second half was the more interesting half, and it helped me understand the author, CS Forester’s writing method. One of the most interesting revelations was how he thought about Hornblower as a real person, and how the different novels were written out of chronological order because each book answers a question about how Hornblower’s character was shaped.  After reading this book, I learned that every person has a unique creative process, and that we shouldn’t question it or try to conform to other people’s ideas of how to do things. As long as you have a process, and it works for you, keep at it and hone it.  Forester had a method of reading passionately and fact-finding about naval history, and he ended up connecting all the bits and pieces throughout his life to create the narrative.  . Apparently, Forester never took notes, but had an internal process for crafting his stories. If you read the Hornblower books, you’ll appreciate how detailed his notes were and how empathetic he was to Hornblower.  I think the candidness of his approach is useful to me, as a creative artist. I have a process that is inspired by the people I meet, and I attempt to meet many different types of people and keep connected with them. Eventually,  I get to collaborate with that person, and the work is much stronger for that ethnological study. I don’t know other people with this method, but it works for me.

The movies are highly enjoyable as well.
This is the only set of DVDs that I return to. The details of life in the 1700s, the details on the naval battles, and the quirky social relationships are entertaining to anyone who likes historical fiction. Every adventure is delightful– from the grains of rice, the chides between Bush and Hornblower, the longing for his love, the beauty of the ships, to the naval battles– everything is just perfectly enjoyable. The hairstyles, the uniforms, the grungy bits– Even the way a boot lands on the step of a handsome carriage… ah, I must go watch it some more now.

Leaving a note to myself to watch these related DVDs sometime:

In Every War But One

Not the usual kind of book to read, drawn from interviews and testimony of soldiers from the Korean War.  How did communist indoctrination work? How did not even one GI manage to escape a war camp?  In every war but one was quite interesting, and I learned a lot about how the government analyzes a large group of people that shared insights on their experiences using qualitative research. The scale of implementation of this study was quite interesting, as was the scope of the subject- returning POWs. I had the feeling the whole time that this was propaganda, but it was still a fascinating study on post-war briefings. They methodically examined things at all angles, and it was cool to see the breadth of scope  and the details they examined.

How do the top people make crucial decisions based on data that affect the lives (and deaths) of millions?  If you’re interested in this topic too, I also recommend reading more about these decision makers in The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara or getting the movie from the local library.

End of the Brotherband Chronicles

The final book of this Flanagan series was great. It was enjoyable and the kinship shared by the kids in the book was so unique and moving. Zavac finally gets his.The brotherband has redeemed themselves and become expert at their skills in seamanship and warfare.  Its a coming-of-age story and is beautifully written. The story was very neat and there was only one loose end at the end– I think the ending where the girl decides to wait to choose was great cliffhanger, perhaps foreshadowing a series with a female heroine? If so, I look forward to it.

Green Mars was Rad!

This second book in the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars series was very uplifting. There were a few sections that were overly technical and long, so I skimmed them, but in general, I had a terrific experience imagining this post-Revolutionary Mars. The terraforming effort is underway in this sequel, and the fascinating effects of combining underground groups was fascinating. I loved the clash of cultures between the new natives and the old, and the way the revolution is accomplished in this book. This was a book of redemption for a lot of the old guard, and I enjoyed their path to amending past wrongs.  My favorite take away is that there is strength in working together collaborative, and figuring out what values/views people have in common as a way to move forward. Where there is discord, it matters that there is a starting point to compromise and acknowledge a shared interest in moving forward. There was more empathy in this book than in the previous book, and I thought the growth of each character, particularly Saxe Russells and Art, were fascinating.  Definitely will read Blue Mars next, but its a looong book so I’m going to wait until I’m on a holiday.

Flanagan’s the Invaders, Book 2 of the Brotherband Chronicles

This gripping novel continues the journey of the outcast youths aboard the Heron!  The fighting tactics from the boat were great– I learned a lot about navigation and the ability of ships to steer in different conditions.  There was so much detail in contrasting the fighting between the wolfships and the pirate tactics, I was amazed at the efficacy of both. For example, Flanagan does a great job of highlighting what an invader is tricking the defender to think. The narrative insight into the reasons why different people act the way they do in emergencies was fantastic. At each fight  and chase, I was breathless with suspense. I was rewarded with very detailed examination and celebration of each character’s mindset, and the perceptions of being there were stark and enchanting.

I’m pleased that Flanagan added a strong female lead, Lydia, who is an ace with the atlatl. She contributes her amazing marksmanship and fearlessness to the battles, and is the lynchpin in the works. I couldn’t believe all the great adventures they have in just this one book and I tore through it, enjoying every page turn.  In the end, I learned a lot about how ships were made and how naval weapons were used. The siege strategies were fascinating, and so was the seafaring details of how to man a ship during a battle.  The book is a celebration, as additional characters join in the fun (as the prospect of the small brotherband running around seemed a little lonely). Against the backdrop of camaraderie already existing among the brotherband, the additional dialogues were terrifically fun and sprightly.  Love those Skandians and their humor.  One of the best parts was the nail-biting ending where you know the journey is not yet going to end. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it was both horrific in destruction, yet cathartic in helping the characters bond together for the next book. Suffice it to say, I am enthusiastically waiting book 3. This one gets FIVE STARS because it was just so full of good action, characters, and narration.

Red Mars, pretty good

Red Mars was a decent scifi novel about how we get to Mars. It starts with choosing who goes, and of course, they choose a bunch of scientists and engineers because they have to figure out a lot of stuff when they get there. No space tourists- so if you want to be one of the first to get to Mars, you gotta be able to contribute something to helping make Mars habitable. 

Lesson 1: Society is important. The main thing that surprised me was how crazy some of the scientists were. The characters were well written and true to many scientists that I’ve met. John Boone, is the lead guy. He’s the most solid, easygoing, and charming. Actually, on reflection, this mirrors what I experienced at school. All the lesser scientists were ambitious and petty, and it totally causes havoc on the resulting civilization. The guys at the top of the chain, the smartest kids, were the most well adjusted, nice and helpful people I ever met. The ones that weren’t at the top would talk smack be super competitive, try to get an edge on their competition in any way they could… but they just didn’t understand that the other guys were just being themselves. The guys at the top weren’t competing, they were just gifted and they worked hard, and that was it. They didn’t worry about competing so much as just doing the best they could. So the exploration’s social structure is mirrored in this book, which is surprising. So this relationship, society stuff was the biggest takeaway for me. The smart people that sent these guys up there, they didn’t realize that they had to re-engineer society and make it so that people were collaborative.  They weren’t so smart after all, because they couldn’t figure out how to make everyone get along for the greater good of the colony.  The rise of police states and disordered labor camps is the culmination of their myopically fractured society. The telling line for me is when things are hitting the roof due to miscalculation of the weather and the terraformer Sax tells the geologist Ann about her analysis “WHY didn’t you tell me? I wouldn’t have done it this way!” 

Going to Mars really represents the holy grail of humanity but the civilization has to be managed.Once people are out there, they are stuck and its just like prison if the conditions aren’t right. For the first explorers, that’s not the case, but for the later people who are sent to work, mine and terraform– they didn’t realize that life on the frontier isn’t easy and that there’s probably no going back to Earth once you get here. So for people who idealize going to Mars, this book tells you that getting there isn’t going to be glamorous and life won’t be easy, so you probably will be there until the end. That being said, the technical aspects and how things work on Mars was completely awesome and insane. I was entranced by the way they engineered the space elevator, new cities, and terraform methods.  As an engineer, I think going to Mars would be totally awesome, and the challenge would be life-consuming but worth. What better test of your engineering merit? What better way to do science than to live it on another planet?

The outcasts, the first book of the Brotherband Chronicles by John Flanagan

One word for this book, and the beginning of the series: AWESOME.

Its been a while since I read it over the summer, but thought I’d log it in since I plan on reading the other books in the Brotherband Chronicles Series. The characters are very well fleshed out in this novel, starting with the main character, Hal. (The name has special meaning for me, as an AI scientist and technology person.  Its also the name of a few of may favorite people!) So, first off, great setup. Hal is an orphan who is half Araluen and half Skandian, and has been an outcast all his life. His mentor and best friend, Thorn, was at the top of his game before misfortune set in, and is now also an outcast. Hal’s peer and best friend, Stig, has an uncontrollable temper. The three of them, along with a few other outcast kids, are left to fend for themselves when their society turns them out. There are a few other kids who were thrown into Hal’s crew,each with a quirk that makes them an outcast: Edvin is just average, Ingvar is big but optically short-sighted, Jesper is a thief, Stefan is a joker, and the arguing/annoying twins Ulf and Wulf. This unlikely crew ends up becoming the underdogs in a training competition with all the other kids in their age group. During the competition, the kids learn that they’ll never fit in because they are just too different from the norm.  In the course of building a ship, and living on the seas however, the small band of brothers ends up developing camaraderie and trust among each other.  The best parts are watching Hal grow into a natural leader, and all the others learning how to use their unique gifts to become the best at the competition.  My favorite lines are when Ulf and Wulf trade quips, as when they try to frame each other just to mess around. 

I also found the adults in the story refreshingly distinct– they weren’t all just saying “No don’t do X” but they each had interesting insights and surprising motives in how they prodded the kids along. So some of you might say, “but that relationship building and dialogue stuff is BORING” but the highlight of this book is that the character building provides the icing for the technical adventures the heroes embark upon. The book was a rush and I give it 5 smiles, and plan to read the next book soon.