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Viewing Blog: Chasing Ray, Most Recent at Top
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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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26. On the upcoming Sally Ride biography - it's excellent

My [starred] review of the upcoming Sally Ride biography by Lynn Sherr has gone up at Booklist. This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it for anyone who came of age during the shuttle years. It's a great read for book clubs and also a solid title to recommend to teens looking for book reports. (Ride was only 27 when she became an astronaut!)

As much as I knew how impressive it was for Ride to become an astronaut, you don't realize how much of a struggle it was to go against NASA culture until you read her story. There is also how society viewed women for the entire history of the space program. Consider this quote from the book:

A 1958 editorial in the Los Angeles Times had welcomed women on interplanetary flights as mere "feminine companionship" for the "red-blooded space cadet," to "break up the boredom" and produce a "new generation of 'space children'." But, asked the writer, what if the "feminine passenger" (the concept of coworker was not yet on the radar) was incompatible? "Imagine hurtling tens of millions of miles accompanied by a nagging back-seat rocket pilot." Look magazine, Life's popular, photocentric competitor, framed the debate more soberly in 1962 with a cover story entitled, "Should a Girl Be First in Space?" Answer: "[W]omen will follow men into space."

And then there's this one:

In 1965, newspaper columnist Dorothy Roe declared, "Girls who are clamoring for equal rights as astronettes [I swear, she wrote "astronettes"] should consider all the problems of space travel. How, for instance, would they like to wear the same space suit without a bath or change of clothes for six weeks?....How will a girl keep her hair curled in outer space?"


Sally Ride was one in a million; I wish she had more years with us; I'm sure she would have changed the world even more if given the time.

[Photo courtesy of NASA]

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27. Sally Ride by Lynn Sherr

When her unexpected death from cancer was announced in 2012, the national outpouring of grief over the loss of Sally Ride was swift and genuine. The subsequent obituary revelation that Ride was a lesbian in a committed relationship for more than a quarter-century was proof of how successfully the icon had guarded her personal life. With the full cooperation of Ride's family and friends, both inside and outside of NASA (including ex-husband and fellow astronaut Steve Hawley), author Sherr pores over Ride's life, from her tennis-star childhood to her college years in the male-dominated field of physics and meteoric rise as America's first woman in space. As familiar as readers believe themselves to be with Ride's story, Sherr has done an impressive job of uncovering the pressures (and sometimes comical missteps) of NASA's macho culture and its approach to the first class of women astronauts, the unparalleled commitment Ride brought to her job, and the zeal with which she embraced her later challenge to broaden science opportunities for girls. This is an intimate and enormously appealing biography of a fascinating woman, a triumph of research and sensitivity that lives up to its subject and will likely move readers to tears in its final, poignant pages.

YA/General Interest: Ride will always be first, famous, and fascinating. With much of the book dwelling on her youth (she was an astronaut at 27), this is an excellent choice for teens.

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28. On words at a young age and John Muir

In nineteenth-century America and Europe, a time before television, telephones and the Internet, people read real books. They drank literature like water. The literacy rate was not high in some places, but in southern Scotland, along the Firth of Forth, from Dunbar to Edinburgh, where Muir spent his first eleven years, it was higher than 80 percent.

Among those who could read, books were prized possessions. Words on paper were powerful magic, seductive as music, sharp as a knife at times, or gentle as a kiss. Friendships and love affairs blossomed as men and women read to each other in summer meadows and winter kitchens. Pages were ambrosia in their hands. A new novel or collection of poems was something everybody talked about. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen, Dickens, Keats, Emerson, Cooper, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Twain. To read these authors was to go on a grand adventure and see things as you never had before, see yourself as you never had before.

From John Muir and the Ice that Started the Fire by Kim Heacox. See my full review over at Alaska Dispatch.

[Photo from Nat Park Service of Glacier Nat Park.]

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29. At the park, 1922

My grandmother, age 3, and her older brother Robie, age 6. I have a series of photos taken this day, with their two older brothers, parents and some sadly unidentified friends or family members.

From the way they are dressed it seems it must have been a special day and with no snow on the ground I'm inclined to think it is Easter. We always received new clothes for Easter and I'm sure the tradition was true for them as it was for us. (Even when Catholic families have little money, at the very least a new bow or gloves turn up in Easter photos.)

These two ended up bickering as the years went by - too close in age probably. Robie went on a motorcycle trip across country to California as a young man - pictures from that period will make you positively swoon.

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30. Wherein I am utterly beguiled by "The People in the Photo"

Hélène Gerstern's upcoming novel, The People in the Photo, is absolutely sublime. Translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz, this epistolary tale is a family mystery, a sweet romance and a serious page-turner. It snuck up on me, plain and simple and I couldn't put it down.

The story is, on the surface, pretty simple. The main character (also named Hélène) lives in Paris where she works as an archivist. Her mother died when she was 4 and her father has also recently passed away. Her stepmother has Alzheimer's and is in longterm care. While going through her parents' apartment, she finds a picture of her mother with two men she does not recognize. She runs the photo in some French and Swiss newspapers as an advertisement asking if anyone recognizes the men or the sporting event (tennis) they participated in. Stéphane Crüsten responds that one of the men is his deceased father and the other his best friend.

In the letters that follow Hélène and Stéphane try to uncover how their parents came to know each other. More pictures are found and Stéphane visits the family friend in search of more clues. Bit by bit the two learn how their families were connected and the numerous secrets that are buried in the past. Also, bit by bit, they surprise themselves by falling in love thus providing a light romantic tension to the mystery.

Everything about The People in the Photo works. The pacing is fantastic - the buildup of the romance is subtle and true to the characters' restrained emotions. But even without that element (which I enjoyed very much), it is the slow unfolding of the past that keeps the pages turning. Finding out who these people in the photo were and what their level of involvement was and why on earth it has all been kept quiet (Hélène's mother died in a very prosaic way after all - a car crash), are questions that I really wanted answered. I also liked very much that Gerstern doesn't back away from ugly moments and gives readers the kind of emotional payoff that the story promises from the very beginning. The ending is powerful stuff and serves all the characters (past and present) well. There's just not a single disappointment to this novel; it's really a wonderful book.

And for me, of course, The People in the Photo brought to mind all the secrets hidden in my own family photos; all of the faces I look at now that hide so much from decades ago. I know many of these secrets, others I am still hoping to uncover. I identified a great deal with Hélène and Stéphane and their search for the truth and I can tell you, all of it rings powerfully true.

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31. Not knowing "where I was from"

I have just reread Joan Didion's Where I Was From - giving it a "deep" read this time. It is a collection of related essays about Didion's personal history and the history of California, where she grew up. Reading it has made me realize how confusing my own answer would be to the question, if asked, of "Where are you from?"

I grew up, from age 3, in Florida.

We lived in Jacksonville (in a haunted house) and then Orlando and then, from my 5th birthday, in Melbourne. Very nearly all my childhood memories are of the beach and palm trees and flat roads and hot sun and ceiling fans and sweet ice tea and hush puppies and rocket ships. (They call it the Space Coast for a reason.)

Yet this is not really, truly, where I am from.

My father was born and raised in a solidly Catholic and most assuredly French Canadian town in Rhode Island and although he left at 17 he was so much a part of his home that he received the local newspaper for the rest of his life. When we go back to Woonsocket it is to hear his voice in the speech of everyone around us, to be surrounded by my father's people. To be surrounded by our people.

I have a maple leaf tattooed on my right wrist for my French Canadian heart which still, even with him 15 years gone, beats for my father.

My mother was raised in an air force family and she would tell you she was from everywhere and nowhere as most military families would say. But both of her parents were from the Bronx and their roots go back years there in Irish American households and families, in song and dance and laughter and a thousand kitchen conversations.

The shamrock on my left wrist is for my Irish soul; it's something you are born with and stays with you no matter where you live.

I have never been to the Bronx and only once to New York City. But most of my grandmother's family is still in New York State (all over including the city), and all of my genealogy research has involved NYC. My future may not be there but a large swath of my past most certainly is and it continues to be the center of learning who we are as a family and how we came to be Americans.

So you can see how this whole "where are you from" question is sort of confusing.

I do not have five generations in any one place; I have Florida and Rhode Island and Quebec or Florida and the Bronx and Ireland. My parents, remarkably, met and married in Madrid, Spain (my father was in the air force, my mother was there with her family as that was their latest station). The deep roots that Didion writes of are totally foreign to me and yet so much of her emotion for California, for exploring how the land formed who she became, resonated with me.

After the death of her mother (In California) she writes of going through her things:

I had my grandmother's watercolor framed and sent it to the next oldest of her three granddaughters, my cousin Brenda, in Sacramento.

I closed the box and put it in a closet.

There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.

And that was it. My grandparents gave up the Bronx when they committed to a military life and my father left Woonsocket behind partly out of desperation to see some other part of the world. And I left Florida for Alaska because as much as I love the beach, I wanted to go away. (It's funny - I still don't know why I wanted to go away.) But when I consider who we are - who I am - the answers are all found in Rhode Island and New York. I am surrounded by pictures of those places, by accents, by the memories of food and traditions, by the locations of so many weddings and funerals, all in Woonsocket and the Bronx.

Everything about the family I have known and loved is in those two places. Dealing with what we left, with what we lost by leaving, means immersing myself in places where I actually never lived. Florida gives me no answers on that score and so I have to wonder, is that the place where I am from or somehow, some way, am I more from places where I never lived?

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32. Enduring Courage by

* Once upon a time, aviator Eddie Rickenbacker was the most famous man in America, the kind of hero that songs were written about and schoolchildren dreamed of emulating. In this entertaining biography, historian Ross (War on the Run, 2009) returns to the dawn of the twentieth century, when cars and aircraft burst onto the scene. Aviation aficionados and war buffs will expect Ross to focus on Rickenbacker's WWI flying-ace achievements; instead, he takes a long look at the aviator's early success in the automotive field as both a brilliant mechanic ("Put simply, engines have always talked to me," Rickenbacker explained) and a daring race-car driver. Drawing heavily on his subject's interviews and writings, while also noting areas of his personal life that Rickenbacker publicly fabricated (most notably his father's life and death), Ross peppers the text with quotes that place readers right alongside the ace through nearly every moment of his life. Obviously this is exciting material to work with--after all, Rickenbacker was a man who drove in the first Indy 500 and dueled with the Red Baron's flying circus--but Ross is never fawning in this thoroughly enjoyable and downright rollicking read.

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33. "He wanted her not to be known as 'the Mary Anning of legend, something of a village blue-stocking,'..."'

I just finished reading Judith Pascoe's The Hummingbird Cabinet
which is about several romantic collectors and the sorts of things they collected (like hummingbirds). Lord Byron is a big player here and lots of other people I had not heard of but found quite interesting. Pascoe does a good job of taking readers through the lives of people who lived a long time ago and explaining what motivated them and their compatriots.

I was most struck by the chapter on Mary Anning however. Anning, (1799-1847), was not a romantic collector as you think of one - she collected fossils for money to support herself and her mother (and younger brother). Anning is, in fact, one of the most famous fossil collectors in history. A lot of very powerful museum men (and collectors) bought fossils from her. What they did not do is invite her into the scientific field that depended upon her fossils. She was always the collector - someone who got her hands dirty and had an uncanny ability to find fossils but not an archaeologist. Not a scientist. Not a peer.

No chance of that.

Pascoe attended a symposium on Anning in 1999 where a lot of very learned people talked about her and a lot of Anning fans (authors, artists, amateur collectors) listened. Pascoe was struck by the different ways in which the Anning "people" mixed...or didn't. And she writes about the discussion of the diaries of Anna Marie Pinney who met Anning in 1831. Anna Marie Pinney was younger and though she became a good friend of Anning's over the years, she was certainly struck by Anning; deeply impressed by her. She was a fan and wrote about her sometimes in a fannish sort of way.

As I am a fan of Mary Anning's, I can totally appreciate that!

But the scientists at the symposium were not so impressed by Anna Marie's recollections; a "hysterical teenager" is how one refers to her. Anning is supposed to be dedicated, "plain, practical, honest, humble" and not a literary figure, not someone brave and exciting, not (to choose a 20th century comparison), a female Indiana Jones uncovering mysteries by the sea.

Anna Marie's stories about her are just too dang exciting.

No one denigrates Anning's finds or belittles her, they just want her to be a certain kind of fossil collector, the kind that doesn't fill the head of teenage girls with big excitement. And honestly, Mary Anning wasn't a wild and crazy woman - she seems to have been a pretty serious individual carving out a living the way she knew best. But what struck me after reading The Hummingbird Cabinet is that even with all her seriousness, she still wasn't serious enough for some people. More than a 100 years after she died, there are still those that wanted to keep the lid on Mary's [mildly] wild ways.

I like Anna Marie's vision a lot more than theirs though. Mary Anning was brave and tough - she was a little bit Indiana Jones out there, fighting the wind and the sea for her fossils. She deserves to be remembered the way the people who knew her best really knew her. Points to Judith Pascoe for making sure we all know this side of Mary now as well.

[Post pic via..]

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34. The story of pizza - really!

I have a deep appreciation for family food traditions. From my mother's side (Irish American) we don't have many. (The most enduring is easting Entenmann's Coffee Cake which I don't think really counts but we love it.) On my father's side (French Canadian) there are many because he was a great cook and my memere was as well (especially baking). But in terms of ethnic food, I don't know that anyone really sees something and yells "Oh, look! French Canadian food!" (If you can name any French Canadian food other than syrup right now, you deserve an award.)

About now you probably understand that I spent a large part of my childhood wishing I was Chinese, Mexican or Italian solely for the food.

All of this explains why when I received a copy of the picture book Pizza in Pienza by Susan Fillion, I was delighted by each and every page. It's a very simple story about a girl in Pienza, Italy, who takes readers through her day and across her town. Along the way she shares her love of pizza, ("Even while I'm eating spaghetti, I'm dreaming about the next pizza pie."), and her research into the history of pizza which, as we know it, comes from Naples, Italy. The story comes around to America, where the first pizzeria opened in NYC in 1905 and the final spreads show people enjoying pizza both in the U.S. and Italy which is all kinds of wonderful.

Everyone would like to be a member of the ethnic group that invented pizza, don't you think?

Fillion both wrote and illustrated Pizza in Pienza and the illustrations are large and colorful, with a folk art feel. The story reads as a picture book travel essay and the dual text, with a single line on each page in both English and Italian, fits well in this narrative design. In the final pages the author includes a pronunciation page, a history of pizza and a recipe for Pizza Margherita (including the dough).

This is a decidedly quiet book but it provides a nice lesson about a well known topic while introducing a foreign country in a very accessible way. (That's the part that will appeal to folks looking for educational reads.) For me, it was quite reminiscent of all those delightful Italian memoirs for adults (paging Frances Mayes). It's one of the better ways to bring Italy home to kids and it will likely also spur them to appreciate their pizza even more which is always a good thing. Call this one a nice delightful and tasty trip for younger readers. :)

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35. Circa 1915

tina& Carol.jpg

My great grandmother Julia's two sisters, Ernestine (Tina) on left and Carolina (Carol) on right. This was taken about 1915 when Carol was 15 and Tina 20.

The two girls (and a third sister, Marie) shared a mother with my great grandmother but she had a different (and unknown) father. By all accounts Julia was fairly close with her younger half siblings however, and my mother can recall visiting her great aunts in the 1950s.

I am still working on the lives of these women. I know that they married and had children but I believe Tina's daughter (and grandson) died of diphtheria in the early 1930s and I have seen allusions to Carol losing a child (a son) as well. There are still, so many things I do not know about my family.

But still - look at them here. This picture was made into a postcard and taken, from the stamp on the back, at Schaffers Studio on the Boardwalk in Midland Beach, Staten Island. These historic postcards from the beach really make it look quite charming; I'm glad the girls had such a good time.

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36. "I still see her standing by the water"

From Billboard magazine, yesterday:

Glen Campbell has been moved into a care facility three years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, People.com reports.

"He was moved to an Alzheimer's facility last week," a family friend told the title. "I'm not sure what the permanent plan is for him yet. We'll know more next week."

The singer, whose "Rhinestone Cowboy" topped the charts in 1975, had been suffering from short-term memory loss in recent years. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in early 2011.

His voice, and the songs he made famous, are as much a part of America to me as the documents we hold so dear and the land we love so much. I never get tired of hearing him sing. I hope he has peace in his life in times ahead.

[Video from 2001 - it provides not only Glen singing "Galveston" but the brief story of the song, which was significantly linked to the Vietnam War. "Galveston" was written by Jimmy Webb.]

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37. "In other words, Marie was not lauded. "

I read Soundings by Hali Felt and learned that Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen (scientist and co-worker and partner in every sense of the word with Marie) literally mapped the ocean floor. I had never heard of either one of them before this. Had no idea that Maria took the soundings gathered by Heezen and others at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and drew the map - drew the map!!! - of the ocean floor.

She was a cartographer of the ocean floor.

There is so much about Marie's career that blows my mind (here's a good overview in her obituary from Columbia University), but a couple of things stand out. First, is that she took data that had been sitting around for years and said "why don't we actually create a map from it?" (Basically.) And second that she looked at those maps and realized they were proving continental drift with the maps. Now, it seems obvious but then - the 1950s - it was heresy. (Even Heezen fought her initially.) But Marie hung in there and let the maps speak for themselves. Her work was irrefutable and could not be denied (though plenty of folks denied it for way too long.) She proved what poor Alfred Wegener had asserted in 1912 and she changed the field of oceanography.

I bet you have never heard of Marie Tharp though.

Hali Felt has a great blog post about Marie and what she would have thought about her work largely being undiscovered during her lifetime (and the struggle of her professional life).

It makes me both sad and happy that the record has finally be set straight. Marie is not here to enjoy Soundings; she doesn't know she has been discovered. There are likely so many other stories like hers out there, lost and waiting to be found by a curious reader. We fill our heads with so much that doesn't matter; and we forget people like Marie who really did change the world.

[Post pic of Marie Tharp - the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory]

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38. The writer is bereft

This is my dog Hondo who died on Friday.

If you have ever been through it then you know what it's like to sit in the vet's office as your pet is diagnosed with an incurable disease. You start with the pain medication and you watch him limp and first he is just the same except for the limp but then he is slower to stand, slower to sit. He eats a little less and then sometimes, doesn't want to eat at all. He used to follow you everywhere you go and now he only does part of the time. He sleeps more but does not sleep well; he is restless. And you increase the pain medication and you entice with food that he loves and you lavish all the love in the world upon him and then you realize it's over; it's time.

He's telling you it is time.

And so you make the appointment and you go to the vet and they are all so sad because they love him too and you sit and you hold his head and he looks at you and he trusts you and he knows you will never ever do him wrong and you tell the vet to do it and just like that, in a moment, he is gone.

And eight years was really far too short.

Hondo had bone cancer. There was little we could do although we did as much as we could. I have been to the vet for a visit like this before, for Jake, (my Florida-born husky/shepherd/doberman mix who went north with me), who died in 2003 and for Tucker, (my Fairbanks-born Black Lab who came south with me), who died in 2007. Hondo was from an animal shelter in Washington State, a mix of German Shepherd, Black Lab and Rottweiler (we think) who was found on the side of the road with his mother and litter mates. He was the kindest dog I have ever known, a good dog in the purest sense of the world.

Of course, like every dog I have ever loved, he was special.

What I realized last night though, is that more than anything Hondo is the dog that I have written with. Late at night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Hondo sat with me while I put The Map of My Dead Pilots together. He was at my feet (always at my feet), with his paws wrapped around the chair legs, as I worked the rewrites my agent requested, then worked the rewrites my editor requested and then, finally, finished my book.

At the dining room table, writing essays and articles, Hondo was at my feet. If I got up and moved, downstairs to get a book I needed, into my office in search of a stray paper, he came with me. All the words that I produced that matter in the past 7+ years were with Hondo and now his loss to every aspect of my life is nearly overwhelming.

Writers always have rituals: you have the cup of tea in that mug, the plate of snacks arranged just so, the special writing desk or chair or notebook. You write in your office or the corner of your bedroom or out on the deck or in a backyard writing hut. You listen to certain music; you have an old movie that plays in the background. There are things that you do every time you write, habits that are part and parcel of the process. For me, Hondo was my writing companion, the one who heard the words before they were smooth, the one who stood up to urge a break, the one who patiently listened as I whined and complained my way through a stubborn paragraph. The words came with Hondo, they made sense with Hondo, they worked with Hondo and now I have no one to hear my words.

He was my dog, and I loved him. He was my friend and I mourn him. He was my heart and I can not imagine a world, or a word, without him.

My dog Hondo died on Friday, and I miss him very much.

SCAN0341.JPGHondo at about 3 months old, the day we brought him home, July 2006.

bereft: adj. sad because a family member or friend has died

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39. Meeting Darwin's Ghosts

I believe the first time I learned about Charles Darwin was in the 7th grade, during Earth Science class. (A very dismal course with a teacher who was annoyed from the first day of school until the last.) What I never could figure out, even after reading about the finches and barnacles, was how he put together the Theory of Evolution. It was always presented as a bit of a thunderbolt - he sat back, he watched, he studied and he figured it out. What I wanted to know was why no one else had.

Flash forward many years and I came across an article about Alfred Russell Wallace and learned that someone else did figure out evolution - at the same time as Darwin. But still, why them and why then? Was no one else curious before these two men? Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott is the answer to my questions, by an author who wondered the same thing.

What I liked most about this forthright, very accessible collection of mini biographies, is that Stott is so straightforward about what she wanted to know. She looked into the men (and yes, they are all men) that Darwin acknowledged as treading a bit on evolutionary ground and fleshed out their stories, looking for clues into their natural history passions. She gives us men from all over the world who indulged in their curiosity to varying degrees and became famous or forgotten. She answered all of my questions about evolution and how it came to be a theory that explains....everything. And, she made Darwin more of a man I could understand. He wasn't the first, he was just the most patient and was also lucky enough to be born at a time where he had a chance to indulge his ideas with less fear (though he still took chances).

I still have a soft spot for Wallace, with his wild adventures and crazy dreams, but Darwin is becoming someone I can understand as are all the men who came before him.

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40. Baseball season...finally

My favorite time of year, when all the wins are still possible, when all the games hold promise. My heart is always with the Red Sox but I have a serious soft spot for the Cubs and especially for Wrigley Field. Eddie Vedder wrote "All the Way" at the request of Cubs great Ernie Banks which is just...so perfect. I hope it gets you ready for the Boys of Summer...

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41. Flicks that caught my eye....

I caught these two [very different] film trailers the other day and both appealed to me for different reasons. First, Redwood Highway starring Shirley Knight and Tom Skerritt is about retaking control of your life after everyone else has, apparently, decided you should be put out to pasture. Take a look:

I have been a fan of Knight & Skerritt's forever so the chance to see them together makes this one I will seek out. (Likely not in the theater around here, but I'll get it one way or another.) (Remember Pickett Fences? Skerritt was sublime in that series!)

And then we have one of those always fun "return to summer camp" films: Camp Takota. I don't know why I find these so appealing; my only summer camp experience was a very dismal Christian day camp when I was around 9 or 10 years old where the crafts were dull, the lifeguards criminally negligent (how dozens of us didn't drown I'll never know) and the bathrooms...well, you can guess. Maybe it's wish fulfillment, but this just looks like right sort of sarcastic rip on young adulthood that will ring as extremely familiar to many of us. Take a peek:

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42. Never be ordinary....

The other night I watched the first season of The Bletchley Circle from PBS which I received on dvd last Christmas. Set in 1952, on one level it is a murder mystery where a group of four intrepid women set out to catch a serial killer of young women in London. But the bigger story is about the four main characters all of whom were code-breakers in Bletchley Park during WWII.

Required by the Official Secrets Act to never tell anyone what they really did during the war - even spouses - thousands of women all claimed to have performed "clerical duties" when really they were much much more. Now, married or working mundane jobs, they are quietly losing their minds. The chance to stop a killer brings these four old friends together again and their dormant code-breaking skills come to the forefront of their everyday lives causing unintended problems. They also have to deal with the police who don't think they know what they're talking about and the killer who is way smarter than they initially realize.

So what did I think? LOVED IT. Smart women, wicked cool largely unknown history, very evocative setting and a solidly suspenseful mystery. I can not recommend this wonderful miniseries enough and keep an eye out for Season 2 that will be broadcast in a couple of weeks.

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43. Paramotoring over the Iditarod Trail

This is made of awesome from start to finish (and even wing walking!!!)

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44. Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley

Shamus Award-winning author John Straley returns with another mystery set in the Southeast Alaska region he calls home with the delightful and witty "Cold Storage, Alaska." Straley, an investigator for the public defender's office who lives in Sitka, is widely known for his Cecil Younger series which includes "The Woman Who Married the Bear" and "The Curious Eat Themselves." His new novel is funnier but no less spot-on with its depictions of the colorful characters who populate the small, isolated town of Cold Storage.

(Did I just write "colorful"? Please forgive me. I need to turn in my proof of Alaska residency right now before a reality TV producer calls and asks if I can recommend anyone for a new show.)

The plot is straightforward: Former bad boy Clive McCahon is on his way home to Cold Storage after serving seven years in prison Outside for dealing cocaine. He smartly put some money away before his arrest and now recovers it, believing that by keeping his mouth shut and protecting his employers he has earned some goodwill. Along with newly acquired former guard dog "Little Brother," he sews his cash into his new parka and heads north.

Once Clive reaches Juneau, Straley starts to have a lot of fun with the Alaska way of life. Consider how he describes the flight out of Juneau in a de Havilland Beaver, which begins with the words no passenger ever wants to hear: "We're going to give a try!" After stopping in Pelican, where the pilot unwisely chooses to take on a salmon wrapped in a garbage bag and shoves it under his seat, things take a bit of a negative turn. It should be noted that Little Brother is not in an FAA-approved kennel, because, well, if you've flown in Alaska then you know why:

"Is there a problem?" Tommy yelled over his shoulder.

A rocky ridgeline lay a few hundred feet below them.

"Just a few more minutes and we'll be down," Tommy said. "Can you keep control of that dog?"

"We're doing fine," Clive called. "We're having the time of our lives!"

He tried to wrap his new coat up around Little Brother's shoulders but the dog seemed to be growing. He would soon be the size of a buffalo, Clive thought.

Looking over his shoulder, all Tommy could see was a massive rump of brindled dog pushing against the seat. Above the roar of the engine, he could hear deep growling.

"Just a few more minutes," he said in a weak voice.

Clive pulled against Little Brother's collar, but the dog wasn't interested in calming down. He reached back and with his teeth he grabbed the coat from around his shoulders. He began to furiously tear at the parka; feathers and dog slobber flecked against the windscreen.

Tommy started pumping the flaps and leveling off for a landing but hundred dollar bills were floating up over his shoulder and landing in his lap. He pushed the plane down on the water. Feathers and paper money fluttered through the cabin. The dog snarled, Tommy shrieked and Clive closed his eyes.

That is, of course, what we call an uneventful landing in the Last Frontier.

After safely arriving, Clive sets out to reestablish himself with his war-hero brother Miles, now the town's physician's assistant and sole medical representative. In a fit of civic improvement, he also starts working on a new bar/church -- there must be an equal number of bars and churches in the community, per town ordinance. In the meantime, Straley makes his way around Cold Storage, introducing all the regular characters, from the bored -- and randy -- married school teacher to the completely devoid of humor -- and humanity -- Alaska State Trooper and most warmly, the much-beloved young resident whose religious conversion has led him to set off in a kayak for Seattle and a meeting with the visiting Dalai Lama. The fact that his salvation arrives via cruise ship is a stroke of literary genius.

Clive's money ends up causing some problems, and guns and violence arrive in Cold Storage, although even then the laughs keep coming. But what impressed me the most about what Straley has done here is that unlike so many of the ways that Alaskans are portrayed these days, he writes his characters as colorful and idiosyncratic but also kind, smart and deeply moving. Yes, they live in a place that breeds a bit of zaniness -- how could it not, when it rains all the damn time? -- but that doesn't make them something to be mocked. For all that, "Cold Storage, Alaska" is certainly a wild mystery in the vein of Elmore Leonard's "Get Shorty" years or all of Carl Hiaasen, it is just as much an homage to small towns and the people who fill them. What elevates Straley above so much of the competition is how very much he cares about the people and places he writes about. He gives us Alaska with heart, exposing his own deep love for the state in each and every hilarious word.

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45. YA Column: Tesla Rising

Winter is sucking the happy out of all us with either too much snow in the Midwest and New England, too little rain in California or too much heat in Alaska. Everything is crazy outside, so why not disappear awhile in a rip-roaring adventure? Sometimes, escapist reading truly is the best kind of reading there is.

George Mann's intrepid steampunk "supernatural specialists" Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes return in a quite diabolical serial killer investigation with The Executioner's Heart. The Newbury and Hobbes mysteries have always done a great job of showcasing both of its protagonists without leaving Hobbes in a subservient literary position, but this go-round is especially well done. Things get complicated quickly and all sorts of supporting characters step up to help unsort the web of clues and political intrigue the detectives uncover. At the center is still a killer who must be stopped and that, as usual, is where Newbury and Hobbes truly shine.

Newbury has some Holmesian issues to deal with and struggles with addiction that might strike a Baker Street chord. However, he also wrestles with the supernatural and is risking his life battling a spiritual entity on behalf of Hobbes' sister. The paranormal is to be expected of course, as this is an England where Queen Victoria is kept alive through machinery of a most unnatural kind, and don't even get me started on what our heroes find on display at the Crystal Palace exhibition.

But around all the wonderful world building is still murder and greed and lies. Bloody death is popping up all over the drawing rooms of London and the victims appear to be connected in only the most tenuous of ways. As Newbury and Hobbes get on the case, they find themselves considering some most unexpected suspects, and while the killer must be stopped, soon enough the killer is the least terrifying part of the plot. Readers in search of a modern take on classic adventure and Holmesian hijinks that move at a rapid pace will find The Executioner's Heart to be right up their alley. I don't know which one of these characters I love more, only that I heartily look forward to what happens with them next.

For a somewhat creepier detective novel, look no further than The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock. Langdon St. Ives has anchored several Blaylock novellas, but this is his first full-length title. Now semi-retired and enjoying life in the country, in this go-round the intrepid detective is joined by his stalwart companions Tubby Frobisher and Jack Owlesby, a doctor from Edinburgh named Arthur Doyle, and a young former circus aerialist, Finn Conrad. The villain is, as usual, the nefarious Dr. Ignacio Narbondo although others scatter about. Most dangerously, there is the "Aylesford Skull," the ghost that comes with it and the paranormal nightmare that it is capable of unleashing.

I'd like to think that true Victorian England never looked so grim, except the grave robbing and serial murders that Blaylock describes are right out of late nineteenth-century London. Narbondo himself is so unsettling perhaps because his evil is so common and with his backstory fleshed out here (courtesy his mother), he becomes a villain that readers can understand although certainly never sympathize. (Which actually makes him a lot worse.)

In The Aylesford Skull, St. Ives faces down an attack on his family, the return of a "dead" friend, foes willing to shed the blood of anyone in order to increase their personal power and an increasingly insane Narbondo. There is also some fishing, bird watching, talk of elephants, a flying machine and pirates. Blaylock does his usual talented blend of fantastic and science-possible and the interplay between the supporting cast makes for a fast-paced plot. It's a dark tale that manages to be a fun read and happily, gives the author to space to indulge all of his literary whims with this always enjoyable character.

Charles de Lint's Jack in the Green, out this month from Subterranean Press, is a contemporary tale that transports Robin Hood and his Merry Men into the modern gang culture of the American southwest. Fans of de Lint will have some idea of what to expect here: teenagers trapped in grim circumstances who encounter elements of myth and folklore and embrace them to effect great personal change. This time the stakes are incredibly high but the legend is no slouch either and what happens to Maria when she spies old friend Luz breaking into a house with a new "gang" of her own is something magical.

Maria and Luz hoped to find some magic when they were young, and miraculously, it looks like it might have happened. Jack Green and his friends may not understand how things work in Santo del Vado Viejo, where the 66 Banda gang rules the streets and the cops are more concerned about protecting the gated communities, but standing up for the downtrodden is written into their DNA. Class consciousness is always part of de Lint's titles and it is front and center here as Green robs from the rich to help the poor. When Maria finds herself falling hard for the mysterious hero while getting caught in the middle of a turf war, de Lint raises the stakes and forces his characters into an impossible situation. Then he pulls it all out with the kind of ending readers have learned to expect. With such engaging young characters, a theme that will resonate with any teen reader and Robin Hood to boot, Jack in the Green (with illustrations by Charles Vess), is an excellent YA choice.

Unexpectedly, I found a thread of Nikola Tesla running through a couple of the books I read for this column. Tesla is enjoying a renaissance these days and finding him in books for middle-grade and teen readers is an excellent way to build curiosity about this brilliant inventor.

Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith is a throwback to classic 1950s style adventure stories (The Mad Scientists Club, anyone?). Siblings Nick and Tesla Holt have been sent for the summer to stay with their unorthodox Uncle Newt in Half Moon Bay while their scientist parents look into soybean growth in Uzbekistan. In short order they discover he is the very definition of eccentric, and while soaking in all the scientific awesomeness of his home lab (not to mention his home, period), the kids put together a fun rocket experiment and accidentally end up launching Tesla's necklace into the yard of the forbidding, sort-of-abandoned mansion down the street. The necklace must be retrieved, very big guard dogs thwarted, mysterious girl in the upstairs window rescued and lots of bad guys stopped. To accomplish all this, the brother and sister enlist the help of some bicycling neighborhood kids and more than a few things from Uncle Newt's basement. In the end a nefarious plot is stopped and the good guys win with lots of clues laid out for future adventures including figuring out just what Nick and Tesla's parents are really doing.

What elevates Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab above standard MG hijinks is the unique book design, which incorporates not only blueprints and schematics on every page but also illustrations throughout. On top of that, the authors include step-by-step instructions for every experiment that Nick and Tesla conduct so readers can give them a go as well. The directions are basic and easy to follow, the components accessible from your own home or local hardware store and the results a lot of fun -- rockets! "robo-cat dog distractor"! electromagnet! The narrative provides a standard page-turner but the experiments are an extra kick that shows the sort of fun that can be had when science leaves the lab. The second book in the series, Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage, is out now and a third, Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle, is due shortly.

Tesla's Attic by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elman is billed as a middle-grade title, but I think it actually works best for teens. The only thing it is missing from standard YA fare is romance and frankly, sometimes teen readers don't want romance in their mystery-adventures. For those interested in what strange things could be lurking in an inherited house and how they tie into a potential "Men In Black" conspiracy, then, Tesla's Attic fits the bill. Make the heroes a smart and fearless group of Super 8 level teens who are not superpowered, not magical and not on the cusp of finding some mystical object that will make them superpowered or magical, and you have a great start to what is billed as the Accelerati Trilogy.

Fourteen-year-old Nick, his younger brother and father have moved into his great aunt's house large rambling Victorian house, which was left to them in her will. Still reeling from the recent death of his mother in a fire, Nick is struggling to hold his family together as they make their way in a new town, new school, and new family reality. Cleaning out the attic for a garage sale seems like a good idea, as Aunt Greta was knee-deep in a lot of who looks like junk. Unfortunately there are some bizarre side effects to the seemingly innocuous toasters, vacuums, tape recorders, and other items that make their way into the community at the surprisingly successful sale. After some strange occurrences at home, Nick realizes he has to get all the stuff back and enlists the help of some classmates who have been freaked out by their purchases. In the meantime, the group tries to figure out just how these things got to be so powerful and who might have built them.

Tesla fans will already know that there are plenty of connections between the inventor and Colorado, so the idea that he might have stashed a few things in an old friend's house for safekeeping is not beyond the realm of possibility. Just what the inventor was up to with all this stuff is another thing however, and when a group of deadly physicists appears who really wants the stuff, (and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it), then the stakes increase exponentially. It's one thing to save a neighbor from a wild toaster but quite another to face down folks who are as likely to kill you as negotiate. Nick has to get a grip on what he has unwittingly loosed on the town and also be mindful of his family, who don't know what's going on and are facing their own demons as well.

The chemistry between Nick and his friends, Mitch, Caitlin, and Vincent, is really fantastic. They are a complicated group, not all necessarily likable, and hiding their own secrets as most of us do. They come together first because of circumstance -- each has one of the attic objects -- but slowly, as they work on solving the mystery, they become friends. It's a lot of fun to see them form a team and the way Shusterman and Elfman have written them, as teenage "everymen," readers will easily be able to project themselves into the story. Tesla's Attic was a very fun read for me, one of the more engaging and surprising titles for teens I've come across in a while.

If these novels sound appealing then consider Elizabeth Rusch's picture book biography of Tesla, Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World. There is a wealth of information in here about Tesla's childhood, his emigration to the U.S. and his infamous problematic relationship with Thomas Edison. Rusch shows how he was thwarted more than once by people who doubted his ideas and eccentric thinking but never backed down. It's a very inspiring story, and Oliver Dominguez's full color illustrations bring to life the inventor and the times he lived in. While Electrical Wizard: How Nikola Tesla Lit Up the World was clearly published for elementary school-aged children, I would not hesitate to recommend it for older readers. This is a great literary dip into the waters of Tesla's life and not to be overlooked simply because it is a picture book. I relished every page.

COOL READ: While I have become quite accustomed to the Scientists in the Field series taking me to unexpected places in the company of interesting people, The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America's Largest Mammal by Sy Montgomery is a trip way off the tracks. Likely few readers will have ever come across a tapir, even in the local zoo, and books about them are few and far between. But Montgomery excels at trips into the unexpected corners of the wild and she succeeds brilliantly here, in the company of field scientist Pati Medici and her associates. Along with photographer Nic Bishop (familiar to readers of the series), Montgomery went into Brazil's wetland territory to find the tapir. In the midst of some serious insect attacks and heat that makes a Florida summer seem downright Arctic in comparison, Montgomery and Bishop were witness to the work of this dedicated group who are trying to save the tapirs and the forests that depend on them.

There are some fascinating facts here, such as that tapirs are most directly related to horses and rhinos and have changed little in the last 12 million years. The pictures are, as usual for the series, clear, compelling and dynamic. The Scientists in the Field books never get old and with its unique subject, The Tapir Scientist is one of my all-time favorite entries.

This is the final installment of the Bookslut in Training column. I hope you have enjoyed reading it every month as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I am still writing, still reviewing, and can be always found online at my website, chasingray.com, and via Twitter (@chasingray).

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46. "...a guttural scream..."

Several things of note in recent days as I process the AWP conference and absorb Iditarod madness over at Alaska Dispatch. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

1. Rebecca Hall is starring in the play Machinal which is loosely based on the life and death of murderess Ruth Snyder. I find it very interesting how journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote about Snyder in 1928: not in a biographical or chronological way but by breaking up her life into segments and looking into what would drive any woman of her times to murder her husband. Also crazy is that the newspapers ran pictures of Snyder as she died in the electric chair. I'm just not getting a warm fuzzy "good old days" feeling from that bit of information.

2. Quote from Hall: "It's primal," she says. "It was sort of a guttural scream (that) just tumbled out of the writer in response to anger and emotion to seeing that photo and following how this woman's mythology was built around this case."

3. The National Portrait Gallery has a new show: "American Cool" which includes portraits of Americans like Debbie Harry, Steve McQueen, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holliday, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck and I could go on and on. (Joan Didion! Jackson Pollock! Duke Ellington!) You can see some of the portraits here. I want a coffee table book of this exhibition in the most absurd way.

3. What it's like to take the train for 47 hours - you certainly meet a ton of interesting Americans. (via longreads)

4. And via Jenny D., Gary Panter on the NY Public Library: "But much more exciting to me is knowing that really deep scholarship is going on there, the real thing, human computers desiring to know, souls burning with curiosity in a place that they can't exhaust, that there is a deep life of the pursuit of knowledge happening on and on in that hive."

5. Finally, a movie report. I loved The Lego Movie ("Everything is Awesome!!!!") and Monuments Men (Bill Murray = amazing) and after watching Thor: The Dark World (on blu-ray) I am having a lot of feelings for Loki. I am still trying to process if I am under a spell or something....

[Post pic - I'm also addicted to a rewatch of WONDERFALLS. You should be too.]

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47. Because dreaming of Mars is the best kind of dream

It's an interesting literary convergence that I should have just read Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" the same week that I finish reading the upcoming Sally Ride biography.

(More on the Ride biography after it's published - I'm reviewing for Booklist.)

I never read "Wholesale" although I did, like everybody else, see the movie "Total Recall" which I totally loved. But like nearly everything else, the story (while way shorter) is even better. There is still a wish to create false memories of Mars and still a problem encountered in implanting those memories and then, while the movie veers off to a Martian adventure, the story gives readers a much quieter, and crazier, ending. It's very Philip K. Dick and perfect (although I still love the movie).

Subterranean Press is reissuing all of the Dick's short stories in lovely collections -- I was reading the 5th volume which is due out in late August. "Wholesale" made me think about when Mars was an impossible dream and then Sally Ride made me think about when it was becoming attainable and then I follow the Mars rovers on twitter and they just make me think every dream could come true. Remember when Mars was beyond our reach?

Heck, remember when a female astronaut was the stuff of science fiction?

Mars. It's the planet I can imagine visiting one day, standing on, driving a rover around the surface, exploring its canyons, exploring the volcanoes, and then, most important, looking for evidence of past or current life. If there is life on a location other than Earth, Mars is a good candidate.

---[the wonderful amazing] Sally Ride, 2009

[Post pic is self portrait of Mars Rover Curiosity via NASA JPL.]

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48. Reimaging an airplane graveyard

From the current issue of Smithsonian, you can get a peek at Michael Christopher Brown's series on children using an aircraft graveyard in the Congo as a playground.

From the text:

In Congo, where nearly two decades of war has claimed millions of lives, a civilian airport in the eastern city of Goma that has housed Congolese military arms also serves as a final resting place for abandoned aircraft--hulks that kids gleefully occupied during a break in the fighting a year ago. "Something about the situation captured the imagination," says Michael Christopher Brown, a photographer based in Brooklyn who documented this unlikely outbreak of fun. "What young child would not want to walk on, in and around a big airplane? It was a giant playground." The photograph's poignance seems even more apt now, with the rebel militia M23 vowing in November to disband--a step toward ending the grisly conflict. "For now," Brown says, "there is a chance for peace."

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49. Pardon me while I tell you about some great mysteries

In recent weeks I have sought balance to some heavy nonfiction by indulging my deep need for well written mysteries. I've recently read four really great books: The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Home, Brooklyn Bones by Triss Stein, Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller.

Three are contemporaries and one a historical (Kitty Easton). Only one is set in the US (Brooklyn Bones, of course) while the others are in Scotland, Quebec and England. All involve tales from the past and, most enjoyable for me, the secrets held by people in small communities or close knit neighborhoods. None of them are obvious and none of them are thrillers. There is no running for you life in these books, although there is the discovery of bodies, the certainty of murder and the search for clues. All of them are great.

I was drawn to Louise Penny's series because of the French Canadian setting (my father would have loved these books so much). Bury Your Dead involves a contemporary murder but is mostly about Samuel de Champlain's missing grave. As he is basically the George Washington of French Canada, his loss matters a lot and I very much enjoyed reading about where he might be and why. (Plus the research library!!! The French phrases! THE FOOD!)

Triss Stein's main character does community history in Brooklyn and that was interesting in a whole other way. I liked the turning of scrapbook pages, the search in family photos, the diving into local museum records. This reminded me a bit of Nancy Drew if she went to work as a historian; I could see it all really happening which is a mystery trope I really enjoy. (Most of us are not cops or FBI agents but historians? That's something we could do!)

Elizabeth Speller writes about post-WWI England which is period of history that endlessly fascinates me. Some of my distant relatives served in this war and there were very interesting stories concerning religious visions that came back with them from the war. Plus, it really frustrates me still how little Americans know about the war - this was a big theme when I was teaching - and Speller does an excellent job at showing how it permeated every aspect of life in England in the 1920s. She also does tortured heroes very well. :) (This book 100% did not end the way I thought it would.)

Finally, Cal McGill and the intriguing career of a Scottish oceanographer (which often involves the tracking of bodies). If you grew up on the ocean as I did then you know that beach combing comes with the territory. The more I read about McGill's adventures, the more I wonder why I let myself get so intimidated by oceanography in college. I always loved studying the tides but for some reason I thought anything to do with the ocean meant I had to dissect sharks. (Sadly, I didn't spend a lot of time looking into careers in this field.)

With The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea, Cal is not in as much of the story as secondary characters are, especially the young woman looking for answers about her lost mother. I missed Cal a bit but I did like the mystery a lot (another grim small town, this one facing land sale issues) and I did like how Cal answered a key question about items that washed up on shore. I read these books partly as a "might have been" for myself and so far, Cal has not had to dissect a single thing.


For more: The Malice of the Waves, the third Sea Detective novel, is due in August; Brooklyn Graves, the second Erica Donato book is out in paperback; a ton of books in the Chief Inspector Gamache series are out and Elizabeth Speller is working on a new Laurence Bartram entry right now.

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50. "Gender specific books demean all children"

I could go on and on and on. While I understand what The Independent is trying to do by insisting that books should be gender-free, I also understand that sometimes boys like books about boys and sometimes girls like books about girls. And some girls really like books (and clothes and ribbons and socks and shoes) that are pink and sparkly. Publishers are just aiming to those markets, just like they aim to other markets with all those black and purple vampy covers for YA reading paranormal lovers.

Here's the thing - I have a niece who has been hardwired for pink and sparkly since she was born. You put this kid (now 8) in a department store and pink and sparkly is what she will find first. (She wears plenty of other colors too but she loves the pink and sparkle.) Maybe she will outgrow this (she seems to be moving in a zebra stripe direction recently) or maybe she won't but insisting that her love for a book with a pink cover is somehow damaging to her or to every other child is just....well it bothers me.

The Independent can review whatever they want but it raises my hackles a bit to insist that a book all about girls with girls on the cover is somehow wrong.

Plus, could we please stop the knee-jerk attacks on Disney? They are so ten years ago (or twenty or thirty) that I can't even stand it anymore. If you don't like their movies then don't buy a ticket but if my niece wants to go get her picture taken with Cinderella, then I'm all for it. I'm sure she will still manage to be just fine when she grows up. In fact, I think this kid might just end up ruling the world one day. (And whether or not she wears some pink along the way really shouldn't matter.)

(I bought my niece Saffy's Angel - and it's sequel Indigo's Star - for her birthday. The whole Casson Family series is wonderful and while I prefer a different cover, I can't see how ignoring this book does the world any good.)

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