Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading

A Plethora of Summer Reading

This past week, my wife and I spent time relaxing on the beach, and I read about a book a day while we were there.  Instead of my usual entry for each review, I thought I would give a thumbnail review of each of the books.


Shadow ThievesPeter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

For all that I gripe and moan about there being nothing original in fiction any more, I sure did enjoy Peter and the Starcatchers, the prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  The sequel was very much in the same vein as the first novel, and managed to maintain the same charm and character of Barrie’s story and Disney’s adaptation of the story, but it wasn’t quite as magical as Starcatchers.  It was still an entertaining read, and I would recommend it for kids and adults alike.


Fourth BearThe Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

I much prefer the Thursday Next series by Fforde, but until he gets back to that one (and there’s one in the works, according to a blurb in the book!), I’ll settle for the Nursery Crimes series.  In this one, Jack Spratt investigates the murder of Goldilocks, who was reported missing after being found in the house of the three bears.  The story is as clever as most anything by Fforde, so if you enjoy his stuff, you’ll find plenty to like here.  The author continues to break the fourth wall in his fiction, and it’s excellent.

And if you haven’t read anything by Fforde, start with The Eyre Affair and go from there.  You won’t regret it.


PeepsPeeps by Scott Westerfeld

I’m sold on Westerfeld, thanks to the Uglies trilogy, and this one came recommended to me from fellow librarians.  It has a slow start, but once it gets going, it’s a great take on the vampire theme.  It has the same depth as the Uglies series, and takes on some adult themes (horniness is a pervasive theme, and the language is a bit stronger than I would have expected from a YA novel, even though it didn’t bother me), so I would recommend it to anyone who like the author’s work.  The story looks at vampirism as a parasite that lives inside humans, and between chapters, the author tells us of other, real parasites and how they interact with nature.  It’s a fascinating education on parasites, but if you’re a germaphobe, you might want to skip those chapters.


Half-MoonHalf-Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer

I think Colfer is growing tired of Artemis Fowl and his adventures.  I like them, myself, even if they’re not quite as original and characteristic as the first novel in the series, but the author is trying his hand at some other books and characters, Fletcher Moon being one of them.  Fletcher is another precocious pre-teen, but instead of being a rich, semi-evil genius, he’s the first 12 year-old to complete a private investigator training course online, making him a full-fledged PI.  Still, working for chocolate isn’t quite what he had in mind, so when a schoolmate offers him 30 Euro to find out who’s stealing things from her, he takes the case.  It gets more complicated (and, unfortunately, convoluted) than that, but there are red herrings and multiple suspects, like any good PI novel.  This is a decent start to a new series, but it’s not a must-read, by any means.


Digital FortressDigital Fortress by Dan Brown

No trip to the beach is complete without a typical “beach read,” and I figured a techno-thriller by the author of The Da Vinci Code would work.  It’s an exciting intrigue novel, even if it does have a few flaws, but it’ll keep you turning the pages while you bake in the sun.  In this book, the NSA is trying to solve the mystery of an unbreakable encryption program.  Of course, there’s more going on than the principle characters first realize, but that’s what makes the story fun.  I was a bit frustrated that the full-time decoders couldn’t figure out the biggest clue, that I discovered about 1/10th of the way into the book, or the time-sensitive clue that was plainly obvious at the end, but other than that, I enjoyed the journey.  It’s just fun, mindless reading, and so long as you go into it not expecting anything more, you should enjoy it.


DollhouseThe Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright

I read a lot of juvenile and YA books, but I always justify reading them because they have a bit more depth and story than the labels would indicate.  The Dollhouse Murders, though, is plainly a juvenile novel.  It has a young girl on the cover, and it’s published by Apple Yearling (which brought back enough nostalgia on its own), so don’t expect anything huge out of the book.  It’s a decent story, though, and what drew me to the book in the first place was the premise.  The main character discovers a dollhouse in the attic of her aunt’s house that’s an exact replica of the house where her aunt’s grandparents were murdered.  When the dolls start to act out the murder on their own, though, things get interesting.  Along with all this, the main character is dealing with the responsibility and burden of having a mentally challenged sister, and it all comes together in a touching story about family.


FrozenFrozen by Jay Bonansinga

This author is one that always gets my attention, because he got his start with a horror novel about a man cursed to drive his rig across country without stopping, because the faster he goes, the less likely he is to burn alive.  It’s a weird, supernatural version of Speed, but in the author’s defense, I think the novel came first.  It was entertaining, and since I’m always on the lookout for a good horror novel, I thought this would be another good beach read.  Boy, was I wrong.

This book starts out as a typical forensics novel, but it starts to take a weird turn when the main character visits the 6000 year-old corpse of a shaman who was dug out of a glacier in Alsaka.  He finds similarities between that corpse and the corpses of the victims of a serial killer he’s investigating, and there are some supernatural elements touched on here and there during the investigation.  The author manages to push those aside for a more realistic explanation through most of the novel, but by the end … well, it turns out that it is something mystical and strange.  It was a bit of a letdown.

If you can find The Black Mariah, by the same author, read it, but I’d avoid this one.


August 21, 2006 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Juvenile Fiction, Reviews, YA Fiction | 1 Comment

A Room with a Zoo

ZooA Room with a Zoo by Jules Feiffer


Aside from illustrating The Phantom Tollbooth (which is the best book ever written), Jules Feiffer has written a few children’s books, too.  Man in the Ceiling and A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears are both good books in their own right, so when I saw that he had a new book out for kids, I had to read it.

A Room with a Zoo is a biographical novel, with a main character named Julie, whose father is a famous cartoonist, and who wants nothing more than a chihuahua for a pet.  She’s only nine, though, and her parents feel like she’s too young for a dog yet, so they try her out with other animals first.  First, there’s the cat named Timmy, who is followed by a hamster named Hammy, a fish named Osca, a turtle named Turtleini, and a kitten, named Jimmie.  Throughout the whole story, though, she’s concerned that she’s asked for too many pets, and used up all of her asks in getting these pets, that she won’t have any left over for the dog.

This is an endearing, cute story.  Julie is a spunky character, and she’s portrayed with love by her father.  It’s also a “warts and all” story, since Feiffer doesn’t shy away from the bad side of owning pets, but all the characters persevere in an effort to make Julie happy.  Near the beginning of the story, I became a little bored, since it was more autobiography than story, and it seemed to ramble without a clear focus.  The second half of the story became more focused, though, and more what I expected from a story.

Feiffer really captures what it means to own pets, and to care for them.  I think anyone who owns and loves pets will identify with Julie, and remember their own trials at having their own pets when they were children.  A Room with a Zoo is a sweet book, and should be a fun read for children and adults.

July 21, 2006 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Second Mrs. Giaconda

GiacondaThe Second Mrs. Giaconda by E.L. Konigsburg


The heart of this story is asked in the very beginning of this short novel: Why did Leonardo da Vinci choose to paint a portrait of the second wife of a little-known merchant of Venice (the Mona Lisa), when dukes, duchesses, and other high ranking officials across Europe wanted him to do theirs? It’s a good question, and a valid one, but no one really knows the answer. Luckily, there are authors like E.L. Konigsburg who tackle the question in a fictional way.

The people, places, and pieces of art in this book are real, but the central characters — da Vinci, one of his apprentices named Salai, and the Duchess of Milan, Beatrice — are just that — characters. The premise of the novel is interesting, and Konigsburg presents the friendship of the three in a convincing and subtle way. In fact, the subtle manner which Konigsburg uses when writing is even mentioned on a back-cover blurb which sums it up perfectly: “[Konigsburg’s] gift in the understatement, the vitality she extracts from the most common place.” I don’t know if this quote (from Horn Book) is for this book, or just sums up her writing style, but it’s on the mark.

I think my favorite thing about this book is that it’s all a prelude to the painting of the Mona Lisa. She doesn’t cover the process, or delve into a lot of detail about the person who became the most famous woman in art; instead, she answers the question of “Why?”, and leaves the subject shrouded in her mystery. It’s a bold move, and one that works well in context to the story, and in deference to the portrait.

The story is good, but I recommend it more because of its author. I’ve taken a shine to Ms. Konigsburg, and expect to read many more of her books.

July 15, 2006 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | 20 Comments

Bridge to Terabithia

TerabithiaBridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson


Someone suggested that I read this book in my Recommendations thread, so I decided to bump it up in my list. I suppose it should receive some distinction for being the first recommended book I’ve read through this blog (though not the first attempt; I had to abort reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicle because I ran out of time, and there was a long holds list behind me).

Bridge to Terabithia is a heart-breaking book. It’s about a young boy who makes friends with a new girl at the school, and how they grow together during a single school year. The boy likes to draw, and the girl has a tremendous imagination, so the two of them make a great pair when it comes to Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom for which they are the king and queen. The real story, though, is about the two children and their friendship.

The author captures all of the intricacies of childhood, from the difficulties of school bullies and the importance of image at school, to the jealousies and pettiness that can sometimes arise from a close friendship. She captures it so well that it will take anyone back to when they were nine, and in that respect, I think the book succeeds. It also discusses some heavy issues, and even then, the author manages to make the characters’ reactions honest (sometimes painfully so) and realistic.

I had some trouble with the structure, though. There’s a key element of the book where the main character isn’t there for his friend, and the setup for his absence was a little contrived. And when I say that this is a key element, I mean his absence is the pivotal point of the book, where the plot really develops the conflict. I wish that the device had been a little less intrusive, story-wise, but other than that one aspect, I think that the book is powerful, and deserving of the Newbery award.

I would almost want to classify this as a YA novel, since its theme is so heavy, and might require a more mature mind to process it, but I think that Bridge to Terabithia should be required reading for school-age kids.

July 12, 2006 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | 2 Comments

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

FilesFrom the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg


After reading and enjoying The View from Saturday, I decided to try out some more books by Ms. Konigsburg, so imagine my surprise when I realized that this book was also by her. I remember seeing this movie when I was a kid, and I remember hearing about the book, but for some reason, I missed reading it. I don't know why; the story of two siblings running away to live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would have been right up my alley.

Compared to The View from Saturday, From the Mixed-up Files is a bit choppy. Maybe it's because it was the author's first book, or maybe it's because I've read the two books that sandwich the author's career, but there was a big difference in reading Saturday and reading Files. They were both excellent books, and both deserving of the Newbery award, but I find that Saturday is a more refined story, with more refined characters. There was something about the way the author captured the group of children on the trivia team that rang true with me, and while Jamie and Claudia also seem very real, there was something about them that didn't ring as clearly. It could also be due to the age of the book (it was published in 1967), but there was something lacking there.

The book is "written" by the eponymous character, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, to her lawyer in order to explain why she is requesting some changes to her will. The story begins far before she enters the story, and the story is peppered with her comments regarding the museum and the two children. It's a cute story of self-discovery, family relationships, and secrets, and I found myself hooked from the start. I was able to finish it in two days, which, lately, has been quite an achievement for me, but I think the author has more to do with that than anything else; I think I finished Saturday in the same amount of time.

The book, unfortunately, is very dated: Jamie and Claudia are able to eat their breakfasts and lunches for 75 cents; admission to the MMOA is free; bus and train fares are so inexpensive that even I, who have never ridden trains on a regular basis, know they're unusual. The story brushes too far away from reality in those moments, breaking the illusion, but the rest of the story is so gripping that it's hard to complain too much about it. What matters is the journey toward self-discovery, and it's there that the author shines.

I don't know if this book still has the same kind of audience as it used to, but the afterword by the author indicates that it is. The museum still receives questions about the book, and it even published a newsletter devoted to answering many of those questions. I enjoyed the book, and it was a nice way to revisit the author's world after finishing Saturday.

May 31, 2006 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | 1 Comment

The Water Mirror


The Water Mirror by Kai Meyer


With Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord, the US was introduced to a world of fantastic juvenile fiction from Germany. Maybe it was to fill the gap that J.K. Rowling was leaving between her Harry Potter books; maybe it was just to make some extra money off of the fans wanting to read more Harry Potter (and being put off by the Charlie Bone series); maybe it was because the fiction was just so good that the publishers felt we needed to read it.Cornelia Funke has been hit-or-miss with me, but Kai Meyer has won me over with the first book of his I've read.

The Water Mirror is a wonderful blend of history, fantasy, and horror, combined with a beautiful narrative and some of the most vivid settings I've read in a while, for adults or children. The story is set in Venice, and surrounds two orphans who have been adopted by a famous maker of mirrors as apprentices. In this Venice, though, the city has been threatened by the Egyptian armies of mummies for over 40 years, the guards patrol the city from the backs of stone lions, and the canals are populated by mermaids with ghastly, tooth-filled smiles. Merle, the cental character, owns a hand mirror whose surface is made of water, but which never spills, and leaves her dry, even after she puts her whole arm through the mirror. What neither she nor Junipa know is that they are key players in an elaborate plot to free Venice from its imprisonment.

This is a fabulous book filled with imagery and emotion, and some of the passages will leave you in awe at the author's craft. Small passages are elevated with some carefully placed words, and the settings are heightened by his ability to create a vivid picture from the smallest number of words possible. In cases like this, where a book has been translated from another language, it's hard to know whether to credit the original author, or the translator, but the end result is wonderful. It reads quickly and easily, and since this is the first in a trilogy, it ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, with only a few issues resolved. In a way, it's frustrating, if only because you're going to want to know what happens next; in another way, it's reassuring, because Meyer has started an addictive story of intrigue and subterfuge which you will eagerly await reading.

Though this is cataloged as a juvenile book, I would hesitate giving it to young readers. Some of the imagery is a bit disturbing, and some of the thematic elements of the story could cause consternation with parents. I can't say what that would be, without giving away a key element of the story, but I will say to parents: Read this before giving it to your kids. I have no doubt they would enjoy it, but it's worth your time to review it beforehand.

For adults, I recommend this without hesitation. It's a wonderful book.

May 12, 2006 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

The View from Saturday


The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg


Thanks to a comment from some friends of mine, I picked up The View from Saturday at the library a couple of weeks ago. The book came up during a discussion of Sharon Creech, and I have to say, I'm very glad that they recommended the book to me. It does have the same sort of warmth, simplistic style, and depth that I find in Sharon Creech's works.

The View from Saturday (a Newbery Award winner, and deservedly so) is about a group of four sixth-graders who form a trivia bowl team and take the victory for the entire school. They beat the seventh- and eighth-graders before moving on to the regional championship, and that championship takes place on a Saturday. During that day, we learn more about the four sixth-graders, their homeroom teacher and coach, and what it means to grow up. It's a touching, beautiful story, and one that will raise a smile on the faces of the most hardened cynic.

One of the hard things about writing a review of a good book is that I don't always know what to say. When I read a bad book, I know why it was bad: poor characterization; bad narrative; awkward pacing; or an unengaging plot. In a good book, much of the style and craft of writing is hidden beneath the surface, and the reader is never realy aware of reading a book; in fact, the book is carrying him along like driftwood in the tide.

What I do know about The View from Saturday is that the characters feel real. I cared about them, what happened to them, and what happened to their loved ones. I rooted for them, laughed with them, applauded their victories, and wanted to know more about them. They were the underdogs, but what they had learned about themselves and about each other allowed them to triumph.

The View from Saturday is a wonderful book. If you have kids, encourage them to read it, and read it along with them. If you don't have kids, read it for yourself. In a world of fiction full of despair and nihilism, it's refreshing to find a book so innocent and honest, and so real and effective all at once.

May 12, 2006 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | 1 Comment