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Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist, Bookslut, Eclectica Magazine and the Voices of New Orleans.
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1. "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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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. Paramotoring over the Iditarod Trail

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

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8. "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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9. 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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10. 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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11. 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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12. "...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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13. 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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14. 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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15. Official Iditarod photographer has many memories of the trail

Soon after arriving in Alaska and meeting Joe Redington Sr., photographer Jeff Schultz first captured the Iditarod on film in 1981. He became the race's official photographer a year later and, from his home in Anchorage, has held the job ever since. His pictures have appeared in numerous books, magazines and newspapers and he has more than 50,000 shots in his archive, 15,000 of which are searchable online. As he follows the trail again this year and prepares for the May release of his first book, "Chasing Dogs," Schultz exchanged emails about aerial photos, sitting in wait for the perfect shot, and the plane crash that almost killed him.

For the past dozen years or so, Schultz has flown the race with Danny Davidson, an Iditarod Air Force veteran of more than 30 years who has modified his aircraft for the photographer so the window will easily open and close. Although he now flies mostly in a Cessna 180, for the first two decades Schultz flew in Piper PA-12s or Super Cubs.

"For doing aerial photos," he explained, "the Cub is much better because it can fly low and slow and pretty quiet. But with the right pilot, it can be done with the 180 as well ... just not so low or quiet." Now, "unless its unavoidable," he said, he shoots through an open window, usually in Davidson's C-180.

The photographer's favorite stretch of trail is in the early days of each year's race, from Finger Lake to Rohn. "I've snowmachined this portion of the trail many times," he wrote. "Big mountains, small dog teams." A dramatic background -- "something other than a flat trail" -- is a feature Schultz always looks for. He's also on the watch for the unexpected, like "a musher falling down, running behind the sled, unique facial feature or body language." These shots, which might appear lucky, are actually the result of hours of patience and preparation. A perfect example of which is one of his favorite trail moments:

After 33 years on the trail, yes there are many favorite memories... they are typically linked to a unique photo that I was able to capture. Like the time my pilot, Sam Maxwell, and I landed on a small swamp in his cub in the Farewell Burn and I hiked a mile or two to an open stream and waited for teams to cross. Unique photos and a unique way to get there.

It's surprising to hear Schultz talk so comfortably about flying the race, in light of the serious crash he was involved in more than 20 years ago. In 1992, Schultz was with pilot Chris McDonnell in a Super Cub near Golovin when something went horribly wrong. This story is one of the longer chapters in his book, which includes several pictures of the crash. He is still hazy on some of the facts: "...we were following the shoreline -- fish shacks and willows. Suddenly we were in a milk-bottle and could not see. The pilot turned to go back and never recovered from that turn. Vertigo. We hit the ice. Neither of us remember the crash nor getting out of the plane. Very dazed and confused. 4-5 hours later we were rescued by people from Golovin and medevaced to Anchorage."

The National Transportation Safety Board later determined that McDonnell had inadvertently flown under Visual Flight Rules into Instrument Meteorological Conditions. The accident's probable cause was determined to be failure to maintain proper altitude; additional factors included fog, snow and night.

Jeff Schultz's long relationship with the Iditarod is a perfect example of how Alaska's past and present have come together. Early on, aviation and dog mushing were competitors, and in the end, aircraft spelled the end for the mushing way of life. But now, with sled dog racing firmly established as a popular sport in the state, aviation has become a way to appreciate it from a whole new perspective, as well as providing crucial support during major races. In his decades with the race, Schultz has flown every step of its more than 1,000 miles and pilots have enabled him to capture the people, places and dogs that make this event such an important part of the Last Frontier way of life. Clearly, in his case, "Chasing Dogs" is something best done from the passenger seat of an airplane.

"Chasing Dogs" includes over 300 full color pictures and will be published in May; autographed copies of the book may be purchased through Jeff Schultz's Iditarod website. Wholesale orders should be placed through Taku Graphics: Alaska Art and Books in Juneau.

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16. What George Eliot said...

That is National Geographic photo archivist Bill Bronner in a lovely super short film from the magazine about his job. In an accompanying article, Kathryn Carlson writes about meeting him and the impact one of his photos had on her:

The first time I went downstairs to film Bill for this video, he was busy searching for old photos about South Africa, at the request of a magazine editor. One of the unpublished images he pulled has stuck with me. It was taken during the apartheid era at Christmas time, and it showed dozens of white men standing along a pool's edge, tossing money into the water where black mine workers were fighting for their Christmas bonuses. It was a simple photograph, but it thrust me into the small, yet appalling moments of racism. There were no broken bones, no starving children, no corrupt cops. But there was degradation. There was merciless humor. There was struggle, strength, pride, hope, pain, entitlement, hate. That photo showed me apartheid. And Bill remembers that image, and those people, and the photographer every single day. He pays homage to their lives by keeping these moments safe in his memory, and sharing them with anyone who wants to learn.

In another life, I'm sure I was an archivist. So much of what I love is connected to the past and the truths I pursue, both in what I write and in how I live, are connected to the past. Right now I have hundreds of photographs spread out in my office tracing my Irish American family back over 100 years, my French Canadian one back to my father's childhood.

Last week, I was working (finally) on my own photo albums.

For my next book (still horribly untitled - nothing fits!), I have been looking both at the reports of a long dead scientist/mountain climber and the work of a pilot who filled the map through a critical mountain pass and then later disappeared on a final flight. (The irony that he filled in the map for everyone else only to lose himself less than a year later boggles my mind if I dwell on it.)

In his "cartographic" memoir, In the Memory of the Map, Christopher Norment writes of his lifelong love of maps. It was here that I found the wonderful quote from George Eliot about "the unmapped country within us." (I have not read much Eliot at all and must rectify that.)

Norment also quotes Michael Ondaatje: "All that I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps." Norment himself is fascinated with unmapped terrain, "a vanished world". He writes, "Mapping the last of the lost and lonely places would be more than a simple act of filling in a blank space; it would be a potent symbol, an admission that there are personal and collective limits on our options."

It's a very interesting book and I enjoyed reading it. But at the end of the day, with a life that has been so dominated by road maps and aircraft sectionals (aviation maps), I have come to treasure a solid, accurate map. I don't see romance in unmapped places but rather a world to get lost in - a place to disappear without a trace.

I don't like disappearing.

On my office wall is a family tree, the country of where I come from going back to 1860. I have names, places, photographs. I have a record of loves and lives and hopes and dreams that crossed an ocean.

So many things make a map, so many people. I never made it as a professional archivist but in my own world, it is what I am on every level. It is, my truest self.

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17. "Zina would go out on an adventure every day...."

Outside ran an amazing piece last week by Grayson Schaffer on the life and tragic early death (from a hiking accident) of the amazing artist/creator Zina Lahr. I don't know how you can watch this and not fall in love with this girl--she was really something special and the world is a sadder place without her in it.

I've been thinking about the struggle to embrace a creative life for the past few days. I made hotel reservations for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Seattle and it's been hard not to feel selfish about that. This is a total indulgence; it's meeting up with friends, attending panels on subjects that interest me and talking about writing for hours and hours. I'm not getting paid for this and it has been hammered into my life forever that writing is a hobby unless you are paid for it.

I started hearing that when I was 12 and it hasn't left my brain since. (My husband does not feel this way at all and totally supports my trip.)

The funny thing is, I likely will make contacts at AWP, it's the nature of these conferences after all. And I am attending specific panels that I think will help me with my writing. So technically, this actually is work-related. But still, I can't silence those powerfully critical that echo in my head; the ones from so long ago and the ones that still occasionally are uttered around me. I just need to watch this video enough times I think, chant "Zina Lahr" over and over again, reflect on all that she accomplished and attempted, and perhaps finally the guilt will evaporate.

She was really someone special, wasn't she?

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18. On the eve of my final column...

Just a note to let you know that my final column at the literary site Bookslut will go live in March. The column is being discontinued, not changing hands, and after 103 consecutive months (whew!), I'll be letting it go. I've really loved writing that column and shining a light on books for children and teens that might otherwise be a bit overlooked. Sometimes I have written about the big releases, (Libba Bray and Holly Black come to mind), but by and large the column has been about offbeat choices as much as possible. I hope that many of you found some wonderful books through my reviews and that all the authors whose books I wrote about know how very much I enjoyed reading their words.

It was a good run, wasn't it? And a whole lot of good reading was had along the way....

ETA: I just looked back over the site and my first piece ran there in May 2004 on the works of Antoine de Saint Exupery. (My first column in September 2005). So very nearly ten years of writing for the site. Wow.

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19. Southeast Aviation Artist Captures the Light

When artist John Fehringer first arrived in Juneau in 1980 he was quickly captivated, like so many others, by the romance of Alaska.

"I was 25 years old," Fehringer said, "and this was the adventure of my life." What Fehringer didn't realize in those early days was just how much aviation would come to be part of his new home and the art he would make there.

VIDEO: Alaska artist Joel Isaak, fish skin designer

Fehringer is most widely known for the eye-catching labels of the Alaskan Brewing Company that carry his images on their bottles. Capturing many aspects of Alaska life from eagles and bears to boats and outdoor sports -- even surfing -- the labels stand out due to Fehringer's distinctive use of light. His favorite time of day is the hour before sunset when the light is "low and sharp."

"In the middle of the day," he explained in a recent phone conversation, "there is no drama, no contrast." Perfect light is what Fehringer seeks and it was light that brought him to his first aviation painting, "Descent:"

I was not an aviation person but I saw planes all over Juneau. They are everywhere -- part of the uniqueness of living in Alaska. In Southeast there are all these planes on pontoons that I couldn't help but notice. I had taken some photos of a plane coming in one day and when I got them back I knew I had something. "Descent" became my first aviation piece and it sold out in a couple of months. So from then on, I started painting more aircraft.

What Fehringer did not expect was the positive reception his new subject received from pilots who began attending his shows and seeking him out to discuss his technique. All too often, though, he found he could not answer their more technical questions. Determined to be as accurate as possible, and able to engage with his new customers, he took an unusual step and enrolled in ground school in Juneau. He followed that up by later obtaining a private pilot's license in Arizona. "Now," he said, "I could talk about flying and understand better what the pilots were saying to me."

"Descent" has been followed by many other aviation paintings including "Early Arrival," "Deliverance" and "Play Misty." His most recent aircraft painting is "Many Happy Returns," which includes his first wheeled aircraft. "It felt empty at first," he says, "without the pontoons. I was not sure if the light and the drama would come through with all that space." He wanted the challenge though, and possibilities of a different type of aircraft.

Fehringer is quick to make clear he is an artist first and foremost, and has very low flight time. And though he works hard to be accurate about the mechanics of flying, his paintings are, more than anything, just another step in his continued effort to capture the spirit of adventure that impressed him so long ago when he arrived in Alaska.

"There was no adventure where I came from," he explains. "I paint these aircraft because of the beauty and romance I see behind them. They have become characters to me in the story I am trying to tell of Alaska."

Many artists have come to Alaska and contributed to the always-evolving vision of the state and its singular place in American mythology. What John Fehringer continues to see is that first moment when he walked off the ferry in Juneau and found something his life had been missing. That moment of awe is what he hopes to share in every painting, he said. Fortunately for pilots, his landscape includes the sight of aircraft winging their way through some of the best flying in the world and always with spectacular light on their side.

John Fehringer works with an airbrush and opaque watercolor (gouache) to create his original paintings. You can find more of his work at his website where prints, art cards, etc. are for sale. His work can also be found for sale in Annie Kaill's gallery and Taku Graphics, both in Juneau.

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20. YA Column: How To....

The biggest literary surprise for me last year was what I found between the covers of Kate Lebo's A Commonplace Book of Pie. I expected a small but quirky cookbook, which makes sense because Lebo is a pie maker. And while there are certainly several delicious sounding recipes (starting with basic pie crust and then including everything from Mumbleberry to Peach Ginger Pie), Lebo has a lot more to share here about pie than how one puts it together. Accompanied by Jessica Bonin's evocative paintings, Lebo writes about the essence of what makes each flavor of pie so memorable. I can't do justice to her prose; just read her description of Key Lime Pie:

When Annie Dillard writes, "Any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger," she means key lime pie. Which is dust, which is bone, which (according to Dillard) smells like pie. With which finger does the sacred wipe? Don't ask the key lime pie-lover. He works fast so he might deserve rest, reads hard so he might invent stories, beats his own time in one-man pie eating contests so citrus will make the gutters of his mouth sing. The finger that wipes his lips is his.

Now take a sigh and let all of those lovely words about pie float into your heart. What Lebo does is not only write about the virtues of using cold butter (repeated more than once); she also elevates her subject to the stuff of poetry. She gives us words that fit the wonderfulness we feel when the perfect piece of pumpkin or apple or raspberry pie graces our palates. And even more surprising, you will find not only Annie Dillard but also William Burroughs, Emerson, Muhammad Ali, and Isadora Duncan in the pages of this book about pie. It's a wonderful trick that Lebo has accomplished, creating a valuable cookbook that is a marvel to read. I don't care how old (or young) you are, lines like this cannot be resisted: "If you love peanut butter pie, you are either Dolly Parton or someone who loves her." Home economics would still be in every high school in America if the reading list included titles like A Commonplace Book of Pie, and we would all be much better for it.

Jeff VanderMeer takes the traditional writing guide and turns it on its head with Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. This full-color, slightly oversized title takes readers through topics of inspiration and creativity into more toolbox-oriented discussions of character development, plotting, and world-building. He also uses the development of his own work to explicitly show how stories change from draft to final copy while also looking at the structure of other stories, such as Ian Banks's "Use of Weapons" and Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders."

Wonderbook really sings when it comes to the design. The information is solid and engaging but the many, many illustrations, which include everything from original artwork (courtesy of artist Jeremy Zerfoss) to maps to photographs are stunning. The book is a feast for the eyes and with its glossy paper and variety of fonts, sidebars, and informative graphics, it draws readers in with every turn of the page.

The author wisely includes the thoughts of other writers here, from Neil Gaiman's essay on "The Beginning of American Gods" to personal pieces from Nnedi Okorafor, Catherynne Valente, Karen Joy Fowler, Charles Yu, Joe Abercrombie, and more. The variety of his contributors, both in their works, gender and ethnicities, is refreshing. There is something here for everyone, and many young writers will likely find authors to emulate and read up on within the book's pages. (George R. R. Martin fans should take note of an exceptionally long and interesting interview between him and VanderMeer on the "craft of writing.")

VanderMeer, Zerfoss, and designer John Coulthart have created something very appealing with this presentation and because of that Wonderbook should have high teen appeal, and be a go-to title for both high school and college classrooms; homeschoolers also need to take note.

Artist and visual essayist Debbie Millman plays a lot with words and design in her oversized collection Self-Portrait as Your Traitor. This book brought to mind the journalistic compulsions of my youth, when I felt like I had to get down on paper -- in one way or another -- all the feelings that threatened to otherwise overwhelm me. Millman is much more sophisticated than I was at sixteen, but the raw emotion is the same; these are the poems, stories, and thoughts she must share with the world. For readers, it's a chance to peek into a unique mind, and be alternately amused and shocked by what we find there.

So what do you read about in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor? How about a young girl's appreciation for a trinket as she battles a monster; a recollection of a first job out of college that encapsulates everything from the first brush of professional giddiness to an almost inevitable soul-destroying lack of self-confidence. There's even a peek at the lives of adults from the perspective of the child who hears everything and remembers it well into her own adulthood. (Is it a cautionary tale to know that we all end up sounding like our mothers at some point?)

Self-Portrait as Your Traitor is for older teens, for those with a jaundiced eye fixed on the world around them, for those who are sometimes angry and don't know why but feel that way just the same. Millman uses large fonts, varied backgrounds, and a lot of other techniques to make the book as intriguing to gaze at as to read. It won't fit in a backpack but will demand attention on the shelf and likely prompt a few journal entries in response to the author's passionate prose.

While reading all of these books, the appeal of good graphic design will become obvious and that is when teens will want to take a look at Chip Kidd's Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design. Kidd, whose book covers are instantly recognizable (see his Book One: Work: 1986-2006), has put together a basic study of the subject and provides readers with not only examples of how design can be improved (covers with more or less color, etc.) but also a series of "assignments" to spur creativity. There are chapters on typography, content and form, considerations of pattern, light, and image cropping, and a nice introduction to concept. Essentially, Kidd is inviting kids to think beyond design as something to look at and instead think about how it comes to exist in the first place.

Go is an obvious choice for classrooms involved in yearbook or campus newspaper and website design, but it will be of great use to anyone over twelve interested in a creative field. Kudos to the author (and publisher) for bringing this adult subject to a younger audience that will find much to learn from the bright and inviting layout.

Finally, photo collector Josh Sapan shares some very cool, and often unexpected, oversized panoramic group photographs in The Big Picture. This black-and-white collection has a bit for everyone: the Army-Navy game from 1916, the Miss America Pageant in 1926, and a beautiful double-page spread of the Yale crew team from 1910. The National American Women Suffrage Association in St. Louis is suitably serious in 1919 and the crowd welcoming Henry Flagler on the first train to Key West in 1912 is appropriately huge. But what really stays with you as you browse the pages (and read very brief essays by the likes of Anna Quindlen, Mark Halperin, and Yogi Berra) is how much of our country's history is captured in these group shots. Far less stiff than posed studio portraits, these are Americans at work and play, dressed in the clothes they were most themselves in, engaged in the activities that dominated their waking hours. Here is our American history, endlessly fascinating and so worthy of our attention.

COOL READ: Enchanted Lion Books has published another charmer from French illustrator Blexbolex that carries a deep and unexpected story. Ballad is designed as one of those short, "chunky" hardcover books (not unlike a board book in size) that initially tells a short story about walking home from school. In spare words on each page, the reader makes the journey from school to home, but with each succeeding chapter (only a few pages long), the journey becomes more perilous and intense. Bandits, magic spells, a witch, a curse, soldiers, war! Your standard walk home becomes a trip that sees the whole nation in peril and if the stranger does not save the day (a cavern! a dragon! a duel!), then all will be lost.

Ballad is exactly what the title suggests -- a classic storytelling saga that builds on simple components to construct a stirring tale. The artwork is colorful and expressive, the lettering precise and elegant and the entire adventure both a witty delight for children and teens. Would-be graphic designers will also find something to enjoy here, as Ballad's design is truly exceptional.

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21. Indexing

Jenny D. posted several entries on her blog a couple of weeks about about the indexing of of her upcoming book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. (I'm quite excited about this one; always intrigued to delve into the writing subject especially from a writer whose work I enjoy.) Here's a bit of what she has to say on the subject:

Indexing has an incredible allure for me. I have been marking up references on post-its and sticking them in the margins of the proofs; this morning I consolidated the individual entries into alphabetical stacks, then began typing in one letter at a time (Word will alphabetize once I type in entries, but I need to do it letter by letter so that I can keep track of which individual entries to consolidate - if you typed them all in higgledy-piggledy, you would end up with a good deal of subsequent reformatting still needed).

Probably nobody but myself and perhaps a copy editor or two will ever look closely through the index, but I like the way it presents an alternate route through the book, with each letter of the alphabet - in this case of this sort-of-memoir - representing a kind of self-portrait in miniature.

Via a link from Jenny, there is more on indexing from David Lull for his upcoming book on Robert Frost. He has many links in his delightful entry, all again on the allure of indexing.

We had to redo the index for The Flying North before Shorefast Editions reissued it and it was both a frustrating and interesting process. The page numbers had obviously all changed with the new design and we added some footnotes that caused further adjustments plus the original index was a bit crazy. For example, it seemed odd for a book on Alaskan aviation to have an entry for "Alaska". (Needless to say there were dozens of page numbers listed for it.) Plus some of the people in the index were exceedingly insignificant and appeared only in passing mention. Anyway, it was redone and I must say one does put their own perspective into a chore like this; it truly becomes how you see the book in a way, and a personal vision does take hold.

I do find it interesting that you can hire someone to do your book index for you. I can understand wanting to save time this way but can't imagine contracting out for such a personal aspect of your work. And I don't see how a computer could do it either. Often a word would appear on a page in passing - or a name that could be both a person and place. And there are some aspects of the book you don't think of as entries unless you are immersed in the work itself and know the context. For me, the index was one of the more intimate aspects of writing and editing; it's sort of the heart of what has been put on paper.

(We were convinced in the end that Jean Potter, who wrote The Flying North, could not have done the book's index. It did not read like her at all and likely was done by the publisher.)

While googling "indexes" I came across this interesting analysis of a Willie Mays biography and its problematic index. Much of what is mentioned here is what we found initially in The Flying North. This of course brings me back to Jenny D.'s blog and this look at "The Letter S" from her index. Of course that raises the real point of this blog entry which is that Jenny's book sounds great and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

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22. Once more into the fray with Claire DeWitt

One of the Christmas gifts I was most pleased to unwrap was Sara Gran's recent book, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. A sequel to the fabulous Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, this one picks up with our heroine (described as "a cool blend of Nancy Drew and Sid Vicious" by Alafair Burke) back home in San Francisco and facing a personal meltdown as an old flame is found murdered in his home. She has to solve this case - she has to - but none of the clues are coming easy and the emotional impact of this death is enough to kill her.

Welcome to the world of a seriously drug addicted detective who is still wrapped up in the disappearance of a childhood friend, the death of her mentor, and the crushing concern that maybe she won't save the world even though it is pretty much her calling. (This is especially hard for her as she is a world class cynic.) Welcome to Claire DeWitt whom I unabashedly adore.

How do I explain the depth of this character and the stories Gran creates around her? There is not only the active murder investigation of her friend, but also a mystery surrounding some dead miniature ponies, a collection of girl detective comic books from the past that have an enduring connection to Claire's life and the long unsolved disappearance of that childhood friend that continues to haunt her and provides a powerful subplot that returns in this title. Basically, you never know what each page will present, not because the mysteries themselves are outlandish (they could be found in any Spenser for Hire mystery), but because they all come at once and Claire approaches and solves them in such an unorthodox way and because Gran manages to walk the finest of lines between straight-up hardboiled detecting and something more surreal. It's not paranormal, but it's definitely different; and it keeps readers on their toes.

As a lifelong mystery lover (got my start with Trixie Belden!), I can't get enough of Claire DeWitt. Gran makes me think about a lot of different things; she has something very good going on here and if you don't mind your characters flirting with some serious self-destructive tendencies, (Liz Hand mystery fans will love these books), then Claire's world is one you. I'm waiting now on book #3 and looking forward to wherever this author takes me next.

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23. Utterly charmed by "The President's Hat"

I lucked into a copy of The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain, (translated by Gallic Books, who published it in English), and found it to be one of the more charming and quietly funny books I have come across in ages.

It's such a simple premise: French President Francois Mitterrand forgets his hat in a restaurant where it is taken as a souvenir by a nearby diner and then, in succeeding sections, passes in ways accidental and purposeful from one person to the next and all of them enjoy some rather amazing experiences while possessing it.

Is the hat magical? Not in the modern paranormal fantasy sense. It just seems to carry a whiff of good luck that turns each life into an engaging (and not utterly unexpected) direction. One man gets back on track, a woman finds an idea that leads to professional success, another man finds his voice, and on and on. Nothing spectacular here - no monsters slayed or mountains climbed. And yet all of these changes result (as the final pages reveal) in wholly new and exciting lives. Essentially, good things happen to some find decent people and in one way or another, the hat is key.

A lot of reviewers have praised The President's Hat, as they should, but one thing I don't think has been stressed is how adult the novel of connected lives is. Every character is facing a questioning moment in their life about job or calling or romantic relationship, and actions taken with the hat propel them into one choice or another.

There was one section in particular, about husband and father Bernard, that especially resonated with me. Sitting through another endless dinner with some insufferable acquaintances, Bernard voices his honest opinion on a political subject. In the withering silence that follows and the subsequent shock of his wife on the drive home, Bernard starts to reconsider what kind of person he is. There is nothing in his home that is unexpected, nothing she says or does that isn't mindful of what others think. He has become someone he never wanted to be and resolutely sets forth to change that in ways big and small. (The furniture has to go!)

While everyone goes through moments like this, I think you really have to be on the far side of 40 to grasp that if you want your life to be different then you have to start living it differently now. In several different ways, The President's Hat is about the little leaps of faith needed to make change happen. That Laurain puts so much sly humor into his novel and makes it a delight to read is an extra treat on top of the rather thoughtful narrative.

A metaphorical turn in Mitterrand's hat would be good for all of us I think. I know I've been thinking about how I would fit into this title since I finished it a couple of weeks ago. What would I change, what I would try, what would i make happen in my life? Just think about that for a minute - imagine the possibilities. Dream a little and if you need a push, read this lovely book.

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24. The search for French Canada's greatest hero

The intrepid folks in this picture are engaging in the annual Winter Carnival canoe races in Quebec City. That fact that people will be get into canoes for any reason - race or not - when the river is full of ice both inspires me and makes me cringe. Are they brave or crazy? Go Canada!

I did something a couple of weeks ago that I rarely do - went into a couple of bookstores and bought some books. So many books come my way for review that I rarely buy titles. If there is something I really want to read that I won't be reviewing then I hit the library and I'm good. But there were some books I wanted to read and was fairly certain I wanted to own (so I could reread). They are the leftovers from my Christmas list (where everyone always says "Why should we buy you books?) and I didn't want to wait for the next holiday to get them.

So we went book shopping and I LOVED IT.

Bury Your Dead
by Louise Penny is from the Chief Inspector Gamache series. I have never read any of the Gamache mysteries before but the premise of this one (and its starred Booklist review) really caught my attention. Set in modern day Quebec City, the main plot concerns the murder of a Frenchman in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society. The dead man was a historian (and a bit of a crackpot) on Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec whose gravesite is still unknown. The Society is dedicated to English Canada and in Quebec, the French and the English are two very different things.

You can see how this particular body in this particular place might raise a few eyebrows.

Our hero is struggling with the after affects of the previous novel and a case that might have been decided the wrong way as well as the deaths of some people who mattered to him. Lots of wounded folks here and the search for Champlain is a good excuse to muck about in history without dwelling on recent events.

Even thought I haven't read the last book, I've been fine with following Bury Your Dead and actually, really really loving it. I am equal parts French Canadian and Irish American and both of those ancestries came to me with a lot of history and tradition. I have heard about Quebec all of my life and used to teach about Champlain (who figures into American history as well). What I love about this novel though is the way history plays such a big part of the story and how beautifully Penny immerses readers into the workings of the Society and the many scholars who have long been intrigued by Champlain. You really feel like you are walking the streets with Gamache (and his dog Henri) and hunting for clues into Champlain's location.

This is the best sort of light reading for me: smart, interesting and full of historical research. I'm adoring every bit of it and can't wait to find out who did it. (Halfway through and still not idea who the murderer is!)

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25. Rounding up, catalogging & Yes, Virginia - writing is a real job

The last few weeks have been fraught with deadlines, several of which I am still pursuing. But in the midst of all these jobs, I find myself carefully considering the work I now do. I have been going through a consideration of my professional goals lately - writing another book is good but a freelance museum job, a small offer from NPR, editing some titles for Shorefast Editions, aviation articles for Alaska Dispatch - these are all real writing jobs too. I am finding myself suddenly, unexpectedly, a professional writer. It takes a very long time to finally refute all those naysayers from 20-30 years ago; yes, being a writer is a REAL job.

You learn something new everyday, even about yourself!

Now onto a few odds & ends:

1. From the Spring/Summer catalog for Coffee House Press includes The Devil's Snake Curve by Josh Ostergaard described as "The baseball book Howard Zinn would have written-if he had hated the Yankees" and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, a new story collection from Kate Bernheimer. Both of these sound especially interesting to me (for reasons obvious to readers of this blog).

2. From the First Second 2014 catalog (the best graphic novel publisher around in my book) I was delighted to see Shackleton from Nick Bertozzi (all about Antarctica), In Real Life by Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang (a girl, some gaming, a global spanning crusade to stop exploitation online - typical Doctorow of course!), Andre the Giant by Box Brown (fans of The Princess Bride rejoice over this bio!), The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff (they had me with the author) and Above the Dreamless Dead - an anthology of adaptions from WWI poetry from the trenches.

3. I have started a new class at the gym. I'm kinda dying right now.

4. My new column is up with lots of fab graphic novels - check it out. :)

5. In case you missed this: Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for free.

6. Courtesy Sarah at Bookworm Blues - some speculative fiction she is watching for this year and you should likely check out as well.

7. I fall more in love with the simple organization offered by Field Notes everyday and now their books have made it to the South Pole! Huzzah!

8. Today I have 2 reviews for Booklist, an article (or 3) for Dispatch and some editing. But a big project was turned in over the weekend for which I am very relieved. I also need to get my husband a Valentine's Day card because, well, he really is a good guy and cards are a very civilized thing to give someone you love. :)

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