Saturday, April 23, 2011

the Love-Child of Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes: meet Flavia!

When seventy-something new author Alan Bradley sat down to write a mystery, he never expected eleven year old Flavia de Luce to become the main character. Bradley confessed that he was writing a wholly different novel, but when his detective character came to the family manor of Colonel de Luce, Flavia “hijacked” the story, entering into the plotline fully formed with her bold voice, her curiosity, her intelligence, her love for chemistry, her stubborn determination to solve a puzzle – or a murder – herself. If Flavia were none other than herself, one might feel sorry for her. She lives with her two older sisters, who torment her and with whom she shares nothing in common except their distracted, aloof father and a mother who died when Flavia was only a toddler. Critics call Flavia a combination of Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes. As she and her bicycle “Gladys” journey back and forth between her family’s great house of Buckshaw and the local village of Bishop’s Lacey, Flavia digs around the dusty library archives, sneaks into the bell tower at her father’s former private school, learns more about the heretofore boring history of her father’s beloved stamp collecting, trespasses at a local inn, and delves into the secrets in her father’s background in order to absolve him of the murder of the man Flavia finds gasping his last breath in their cucumber patch at pre-dawn one early summer morning in 1950.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was not intended to be a “young adult” novel, nor is it specifically marketed as one, but as more than one reviewer noted, this is a mystery novel without grisly descriptions of death, explicit sexual situations, or involved political plots. This book presents, at first, as a fairly simple mystery, but it has more than enough satisfying plot turns and eccentric characters to keep the pace lively and the story unique. More Agatha Christie or Nero Wolfe than Nancy Drew, this book would still be an excellent choice for younger readers with higher reading levels, so take note, parents and teachers who worry about finding books that will engage the minds of your advanced readers while not exposing your kids to ‘inappropriate’ content.

As author Alan Bradley reveals in several interviews about the Flavia books – since he has already been awarded a contract for at least four more in this series – what makes the character of Flavia work so well as a sleuth is the way that children’s curiosity is often ignored. Bradley says children are forgiven for asking hundreds of questions, for flitting about the house or the village doing whatever, and people don’t question them or fear them the way that they would if an adult were doing the same things. Therefore, adults don’t always pay attention to what they may let slip in front of children, or what a child might do with information he has seen or she has gathered. In this way, Flavia became the perfect sleuth: even when she was caught nosing around where she shouldn’t have been, most of the adults in her village underestimated her plans and her determination.

At her “tween” age and with her precociousness, Flavia makes a fascinating narrator, as she tries to gather information – like any good scientist – and make linear, logical order of the events she witnesses. It’s fun for the reader to both admire her intelligence and forgive her the mistakes she makes, balanced as she is between the magical thinking of childhood and the rational mind of the adult she is becoming.

In this first story about Flavia, Bradley weaves together several mysteries, ably brings to life period details and the verisimilitude of rural England, and resolves the central murder of Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. He also teases the reader, leaving the door open for further adventures with the de Luce family, dropping hints about the circumstances of Harriet de Luce’s death nearly ten years prior, and the history that Colonel de Luce shares with his groundskeeper, “Dogger”, with whom he served during the war. Follow the intrepid Flavia and this quirky cast of characters into the next story, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, as well as the third, newly-released, A Red Herring without Mustard.

Red herring or fishy alibi? Email Hobo your thoughts at Miss a clue? Check out the archives at Hobo’s blog, There’s no mystery as to why Hobo left the farm: he wanted to become a bookstore cat!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

5 Very Good Reasons To Punch A Dolphin In The Mouth*

Kevin Coolidge

Intelligent, playful, aggressive and a very real threat—the dolphin, an apex predator, that would like you to think it is harmless. Armed with natural SONAR and trained to kill by the military, these natural born killers roam the seven seas having unprotected sex, and just waiting for humanity’s impending destruction…

Yes, there are many reasons to punch a dolphin in the mouth, at least five very good reasons, according to Matthew Inman, creator of the website The Oatmeal is a popular entertainment site full of quizzes, comics and stories, and now comes in a soft cover collection of classic favorites as well as never-before-seen comics—such as 8 Reasons to Keep a Canadian as a Pet, and 5 Reasons to Have Rabies Instead of Babies. Each copy of 5 Very Good Reasons To Punch A Dolphin In The Mouth also comes with a pull-out poster of why Matthew believes that printers were sent from Hell to make us miserable.

Have you ever worried how long you could survive chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor or worried how long it would take you to become infected if bitten by a zombie? Of course you have, and now you can have the scientifically-proven answers to know whether you should save that mercy bullet for yourself or your loved one, or whether you should let your dinosaur take the top or bottom bunk.

Matt Inman used to create websites for a living and his knowledge of tech is shown in his comic essay, “Why it’s better to pretend you don’t know anything about computers.” If you know anything about computers, and have helped a family member fix an issue, then you know you’re going to be getting the call instead of tech support, and please don’t let them talk you into building them a webpage. When Matt had enough and quit his soul-sucking job and started drawing comics, the Oatmeal was born.

Some of Matt’s comics are educational – for example, his series on grammar. You can learn the right way to use an apostrophe, the three most common uses of irony, and when to use i.e. in a sentence while being entertained by images of Bigfoot and unicorns being blasted by a claymore, i.e., a directional mine which explodes shrapnel into a designated kill zone. There are also 14 Things Worth Knowing about Cheese, Twenty Things Worth Knowing About Beer, and how Nikola Tesla was an insanely brilliant geek who would have provided free energy for the entire world if that bastard J.P. Morgan hadn’t shut him down.

Matt has a sense of humor that is also bound to offend some with more delicate sensibilities. Your conservative uncle might not appreciate 6 Ways to Fight a Crack Whore, though I can’t see where anyone would find fault with Why I’d Rather be Punched in the Testicles than Call Customer Service. Certainly, the purpose of the Oatmeal is to entertain, inform and offend. It manages to do this by making insanity a beautiful thing…

*No Dolphins were harmed in the writing of this column; well, not yet.

Dolphins…the mammal? Or the fish? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column? Cast your line at and catch up. Looking for a children’s book? Catch “Hobo Finds A Home” a children’s book about a cat who ate dolphin-free tuna…

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Choose Your Own Review

Kevin Coolidge

Before the internet, before video game consoles, before even computer games, there were Choose Your Own Adventure books inspired by a bedtime store. While Edward Packard was telling his daughters stories, he would ask them what would come next. Each daughter gave a different answer, and he turned this branching path story into what would one day become the Choose Your Adventure Book, Sugarcane Island.

Choose Your Own Adventure became one of the most popular children's series during the 1980s and 1990s, selling over 250 million copies between 1979 and 1998. Each story was written from a second-person point of view, with the reader taking the role of protagonist. The reader made choices that determined the outcome of the plot.

The books became explosively popular, and this “interactive entertainment” inspired the creation of other series—such as TSR’s Endless Quest. Kids loved the pull between narrative and interaction, but it was the same tension that was found in the emerging genre of video games, and their popularity waned.

I loved these books as a kid, and recently came across Zombie Penpal by R.A. Montgomery, the former partner of Edward Packard. I snatched it up and thoroughly enjoyed it, even though it’s for reading levels appropriate for 9 to 12 years. I thought to myself that someone should write an interactive zombie novel for adults…

Oh no! Kevin is reviewing yet another zombie book. Turn to part 1

Yeah! Kevin is reviewing yet another zombie book. Turn to part 2

Part 1: You think to yourself, “Why do I even buy this paper? There’s nothing in it. I read the letters to the editor, see who died this week, and read that taxes are going up again. I’ve had enough for one day. I’m going to bed.” Suddenly, you hear a loud knock at the front door. Who could it be? Girl Scouts? Your neighbor?

It’s late. You don’t care who is knocking. It’s bedtime. You go upstairs to retire for the night. Turn to part 3.

It’s late. No one would be knocking on your door this time of night if it wasn’t an emergency. You decide to open the door. Turn to part 4.

Part 2: I love reading about zombies. In fact, I am so prepared for the zombie apocalypse that if it doesn’t happen, I am going to be terribly disappointed. That’s why I love Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse by Max Brallier. Sure, I’ve read my share of zombie stories, but this time it’s different. This time I’m not sitting idle as a bunch of fools make all the wrong moves. This time I have a say in humanity’s survival…

Part 3: You climb the steps to bed. It’s been a long day, and tomorrow comes too soon. You awake in the morning feeling alert and refreshed. It’s going to be a great day!

Part 4: It’s late, and you really just want to go to bed, but you reluctantly get out of your recliner to answer the door. Perhaps someone has broken down and needs to use the phone, or your next door neighbor’s cat has gone missing again. You approach the door and smell the sickly sweet smell of decay. You hope the neighbor’s cat hasn’t crawled under your porch to die. You swing open the door to see a Jehovah’s Witness. It could have been worse. It could have been a zombie…

Part 1? Or Part 2? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column? All past columns archived at

Monday, April 11, 2011

Take a Flying Leap

This past week, Wellsboro’s World Heritage exchange student, Eileen Mueller, returned home to Germany. I, as her “area representative,” called my supervisor to finish up the paperwork that completes the official part of a wonderful experience which has changed the lives of all the friends Eileen made, not the least of which were the members of her host family. In talking to my World Heritage supervisor, Georgene, I mentioned in passing this column that I write. When Georgene visited us in Wellsboro this past October, she purchased Scaredy Squirrel, the stuffed animal and his first book. In the conversation this past week, Georgene wanted to know if I had reviewed Scaredy Squirrel yet for the paper.

My first encounter with “Scaredy Squirrel” was actually in his plush puppet form, representing the character from the popular children’s book by Melanie Watt. When I first saw Scaredy Squirrel’s toothsome smile, I thought he was a little … well, in a word, scary … especially for a children’s toy. With his big, strange grin, I thought he had the look of one of those Jack-in-the-Box clowns, which made me distrust him a little. Any misgivings I felt melted away in relief and laughter with just one reading of this deceptively simple picture book.

Scaredy Squirrel has an exact routine, with his days scheduled down to the minute, to keep everything in his life under control, so that he never has to deal with the unknown. He lives in the same tree, eats the same nuts, and naps at the same time every day. Occasionally, Scaredy Squirrel weighs the pros and cons of trying something new and exploring outside of his tree, but decides that he has a nice view, good food, a pleasant home right where he is. Although sometimes he is a little bored …. but, no! His routine keeps him calm, and safe from all the dangers that might be out there, like sharks or germs or green Martians or poison ivy. Just in case, he asks readers to wash their hands with antiseptic soap before touching his book, and he has an emergency kit all prepared.

It is ultimately his attachment to this emergency kit which accidentally frees him, forcing him into the unknown: one day, a “killer bee” buzzes too close to the tree, and Scaredy flinches, knocking the emergency kit off the limb. He leaps for it, and makes a startling and wonderful discovery about himself as he glides through the air. Melanie Watt, both gently humorous writer and clever graphic artist, uses a long pull-out page to show readers what Scaredy is pleased to learn – that he is, in fact, a flying squirrel. Though his first glide out of the tree ends with his crashing into a bush, he learns that it didn’t kill him, that it was actually kind of fun, and that there didn’t seem to be any aliens or tarantulas lurking about.

Scaredy Squirrel does, in fact, go back to his routine, but he adds to it from the joy of his new discoveries. It is no longer the same old tree, same old view, and he is not the same old squirrel. He still naps, looks at his view, searches for and eats nuts, but he no longer seems to care if he falls in the occasional bush or if we have clean hands.

I hope it’s obvious why a woman who works with exchange students and host families immediately loved this book. A leap into the unknown, no matter how confident a person we are, no matter how much we crave or detest adventure and change, is still a scary thing. Fear of the unknown, fear of change – these are natural feelings, and indeed, often keep us safe, and certainly have kept us alive as a species. Nevertheless, we dare, we try and we learn and grow from these new experiences. Melanie Watt is a prolific children’s writer and illustrator, but with Scaredy Squirrel, she has outdone herself.

Leap into the unknown or safe at home? When have you soared magnificiently or crashed into the bushes? Or both? Email us your stories, your fears, your dreams at Check out Hobo’s past adventures at his blog: or read his children’s book about a little barn cat who took a chance by leaving the farm.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


by Kevin Coolidge

What are you reading? Is it something new? Something borrowed? Something tried and true? I get asked what I am reading a lot, partially because I work in a bookstore, and probably because I’m always reading something. Working in a bookstore for an avid reader is a lot like a diabetic working in a candy store. There’s always more than I can possibly have time to read, and I’m still adding books to my “to read” pile, but any book that falls into my favorite category is a book that is worth being reread. Here are some of the books that made that list.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss: I originally read this in the summer of 2008, and devoured this 700 page book in the course of two evenings, staying up late into the night. Name of the Wind is everything a fantasy reader wants to read---rich, complex characters, believable action, poetic writing, and great storytelling. The second book in the trilogy was just released in the beginning of March, and I put aside the book I was reading and dived into Wise Man’s Fear. If the third had been finished, I would have started it right then, but I settled for rereading The Name of the Wind

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi: I recently read that this book would be made into a movie and that reminded me of how much I loved the book. “John Perry did two things on his seventy-fifth birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.” It’s the best new science fiction I’ve read in the last five years: it has the feel of a classic, but a modern perspective and some imaginative new ideas. I grew up reading and rereading science fiction by Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman and it’s obvious that John Scalzi did too. He shows us that the universe isn’t near as big as what we’d like to think, and not nearly as friendly either…

American Gods by Neil Gaiman: It’s the tenth year anniversary of this American, road trip fantasy, and it was well worth hitching another ride. America is a land of immigrants, and they all brought their own gods, demons, and beliefs, and yet America is a bad place for gods. Americans love progress and are too willing to give away their power. Meet Shadow, a man with a past just released from prison. All he wants to do is live a quiet life, but opportunities come hard for an ex con. He is soon pulled into a battle between the gods of old, and the new gods of America. He’s hired by a mysterious man named Wednesday, who knows more about him than any stranger should. Things are about to get very wyrd…

Rereading can give you that opportunity to notice the small details you may have missed during your first read, especially if you were rushing to the end. These are just some of my many favorites that I’ve enjoyed more than once. I’m looking forward to some of my new favorites that I haven’t had time to reread … yet, but look forward to visiting again and again…

Read once? Or Read it again? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column, or would just like to read your favorite again? Visit the blog at A cat has nine lives, and has lots of time to reread, so Hobo the cat chooses to reread “Hobo Finds A Home” as good the ninth time as the first. Can’t get enough Hobo? Look for Hobo, the greeting card coming soon from Stonehenge Cards.