Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Island of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones

The Island of Chaldea 
by Diana Wynne Jones (and Ursula Jones)

Publisher:  Greenwillow

Format: Hardback 
Copyright: 2014
Pages: 356

Genre: Children's fantasy
Source: own book

From the cover:

How are you supposed to turn into a Wise Woman if your powers don't show up ? 

Aileen comes from a long line of magicworkers. And her own gifts should have been even greater. But she failed her initiation so completely that she had doubts she'll ever become as magical as her aunt Beck, the most powerful magicworker in Skarr.

So when the High King sends Aileen and Aunt Beck on a secret — and suspicious — quest across all the Islands of Chaldea, Aileen worries she'll only be in the way. 

Hmmm, as Aunt Beck would say. What blather. 

The quest is not at all what it seems, and Aileen must puzzle out her own way after ... [too many spoilers! I'm not gonna finish typing this all in!] Don't read the description in the front cover!  Just read the book.

I spotted this book when I was at the bookstore picking up some end of year gifts for my daughter's teacher (I got some books for her classroom). When I saw Diana Wynne Jones' name I made a squeee noise. Howl's Moving Castle is one of my favorite books ever. (I like Hayao Miyazaki's film to but I have to leave a good time gap between engaging each of them - Miyazaki took the book's title, some characters, and few ideas and then went rocketing off in his own unique direction so comparing the book to the movie is like comparing apple pie with roast turkey - just not possible, so having them in the same brain space makes me unhappy). I also love the Derkholm books - so lots of happys seeing a new book since Diana Wynne Jones passed away in 2011. This book was from an incomplete manuscript that she stopped working on when she got too sick to continue. Her sister, Ursula, finished the book. 

I did reign in my expectations - I knew that she was ill when she was writing, so I wasn't expecting Howl or the like. Even "bad" DWJ is better than most of the stuff out there, so I was willing to buy the book in hardback. Now that I have completed the book I can say, well, I enjoyed it but it really needed some better editing. 

There are some serious issues with the timeline - when the barrier went up, people's memories of events, Ogo's life - things are a bit of a hash. According to the story, the barrier went up 10 years ago (this is said explicitly), when Ogo was 5 (? so he is just 15-16 now???), and the Prince was kidnapped a year later - nine years ago. So, things have been this way for a decade, but the way the story presents this is very confused - sometimes sounding like it has only been a couple of years, like those ships left in the harbor should have been in much worse shape after a decade - other times sounding like it has been ages. It pulled me out of the story several times as I sat there thinking, "That doesn't make any sense." Once they  reach Logra I had to go back to the beginning and re-read so of it because I got so confused and found out, no it wasn't me, this really didn't make sense. Also, the story is pretty slow moving for the first section and then the ending flies past so fast it is hard to follow what is happening - the uneven pacing got quite distracting.

Now I have been a real downer so far, but to be clear -  there were things I liked. The world building was interesting - the differences in the islands for example - I would like to have learned more there actually - and the characterization is good - the leads all have distinct personalities. Aileen makes a very sympathetic protagonist and, while we did start creeping too close to generic YA snowflake girl, I absolutely loved it when Ogo basically told Aileen to get over herself. That was awesome.

I was not as enamored with the villains - cardboard city. I could even see Keanu Reeves' Don John from Much Ado about Nothing "it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain" - I am going to be a cackling maniac now just because I can - Bwah ha Ha !!  - reasons ?? I don't need no stinking reasons! 

Oops, sorry. Ah, humm. At points it really did seem like the book version of a B-movie chewing up the scenery, which was off-putting. There should have been a better reason for all of this - it was hinted at in the beginning of the book when they discuss how the different islands have different resources. That really should have been expanded on.

Honestly, this book reads like a mid-generation draft where ideas are still being thrashed out and the author is still trying to figure out how exactly she wants to tie up the loose ends - the bones are there but the muscles are not all connected (what a yucky metaphor!) You can see a better book hiding in there. I am making this sound worse then it really was though - as I said, I did like the book.

Well this is a rambling blather I have generated. To sum up ... if you are a fan, this is definitely a better book to say goodbye to Diana Wynne Jones with than Earwig and the Witch. Read it, but you might want to wait for the paperback if you are not a diehard fan. If you have not read DWJ's yet start with something else - Dark Lord of Derkholm, Howl's Moving Castle, or Archer's Goon.

Um - I am still lousy at turning this into a rating - three and a half to four stars?  I can't honestly say that I am seeing much re-reading potential here - Liked, not loved. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

The Secret of Platform 13
by Eva Ibbotson

Copyright: 1994 
Print Length: 243 pages

Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books (September 4, 2008)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

From Amazon:

Under Platform13 at Kings Cross Station there is a secret door that leads to a magical island..... It appears only once every nine years. And when it opens, four mysterious figures step into the streets of London. A wizard, an ogre, a fey and a young hag have come to find the prince of their kingdom, stolen as a baby nine years before. But the prince has become a horrible rich boy called Raymond Trottle who doesn't understand magic and is determined not to be rescued.

So, obligatory statement - Eva Ibbotson was a published author before Harry Potter existed, and this book in particular was published three years before the first Harry Potter book.  Kings Cross is just apparently that kind of a place. 

In the past I have really enjoyed Which Witch? and Island of the Aunt (originally/UK Monster Mission) - four claw books each - so recently one night, during a bout of insomnia, I got The Secret of Platform 13 on my Kindle. I am having a hard time trying to rate it though - especially without spoilers to explain why I was rather unhappy this time out.

Suffice it to say, it was painfully obvious what happened. I think even an unsubtle kid would figure it out pretty quickly, so it was not necessary to beat the reader over the head with clues. The tension, I know, was in waiting for the characters in the book to figure it out, and to make sure that it happened in both a timely fashion and without the, um, kidnapper interfering. And that probably would have been fine, except that the wrap-up at the end was deeply and painfully unsatisfying! The way the book concluded was as if figuring out the truth was the main point, but the reader knew the truth almost from the get go!  Therefore we (being presumptuous and speaking for other readers - especially those like my kids who want the 'bad guys to get theirs') wanted a resolution that involved some kind of comeuppance for the nasty characters we had to cope with for the course of the book - at it all either happened off stage or not at all!   ARGH!!!!!!   Very, very unhappy!!!!!

So - like I said - a struggle to rate.  It wasn't bad, but it was also unsatisfying.  I guess that plops it into three claw territory.  I won't be re-reading it like I have the others, but I also didn't want to hurl my Kindle across the room.  It hasn't even put me off Ibbotson and I will be reading more of her books. I just really wanted more out of this one.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game
by Ellen Raskin

Publisher:  Avon Books (1984 edition)

Format: Paperback - I have the version with the worst cover I think! 
Copyright: 1978
Pages: 184

Genre: Children's classic
Source: own book

From the back cover of my copy:
"I, Samuel W. Westing, declare this to be my last will and testament and do hereby swear that I did not die of natural causes. My life was taken from my — by one of you!" 

Who Dares Play The Westing Game?
Sixteen players are possible heirs to Sam Westing's fortune. And all of them are suspects in the case of his curious demise. The one who discovers the villain's identity wins $200 million ... and the losers loose all!

Can You Solve The Mystery Before They Do ?   
Only you have all the clues. But you're competing against come very clever players — including Doug Hoo, the high-school track star...Angela Wexler, a beautiful bride-to-be...Turtle Wexler, her thirteen-year-old shin-kicking sister...Chris, fifteen, who sees everything from his window, a stuck-up doctor's wife, and the grumbling Chinese restaurant owner. They all have a hidden motive. But remember — nothing is what it seems to be.

Well, I will start by saying that adore Ellen Raskin and always have since I first read a book by her. I don't even remember which book it was because at this point I have randomly re-read all of her novels several times over the years. I believe my favorite book is The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues but that is subject to change. Thus I can't give her books a sensible rating - they been five claw books for me for years, since I first checked them out of the library in elementary school. Actually that isn't quite true - I have always struggled with The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) for reasons that I can't explain without dumping some serious spoilers. I still like and appreciate it, but have to read another one of her books right away to sooth my nerves. Also - just *years* NO!  (I want to get my hands on her picture books now too. Nothing Ever Happens on My Block is a hoot and I just realized that I need to get Spectacles for my daughter!) 

So, I just finished re-reading The Westing Game last night for the Midnight Garden's Classic YA Readalong. Their Readalong Discussion is on Friday, June 27th, 2014 but I wanted to get a jump on my post.

Happily, I still love it. Since I can't do a real 'review' I will just concentrate on some of the things that I really appreciate. The ensemble cast is handled really, really well - yes, you really are following the 16 players plus at least five other characters. For such a tiny book, almost all of the characters are really well fleshed out, with motivations, personalities and individuality. (Compare that to some of the multi-volume tomes published more recently where it is hard to describe the personality of the central character, much less anyone else in the story).

There isn't really a central protagonist that you are stuck rooting for - instead different readers generally relate to one or more of the characters and cheer them on (in my experience girls tend to pick Turtle and/or Angela, boys pick Theo, Chris and/or Doug, while for adults it gets more complicated). Even the 'bad guys' have understandable motivations and become more sympathetic as you learn about them. No one is a throwaway or one-note stereotype. Most of them experience revelations of some kind and change/grow as people.

The clues dropped in the text are not just to the 'mystery' but also clues to people - why they act the way they do, how they got to this point, what their motivations are. The reader is assembling the clues to each of the players, as well as the missing central character Sam Westing, who is a mass of contradictions. In fact, pretty much everyone is contradictory at different times, i.e. behaving like a human in ways subtle, crude or profound - making you what to shout at them, hug them or give them a good, swift kick to the shin.   

It is also nice to re-visit a book where people actually act nervous and get  jumpy because they think a murderer is on the loose and strange things are happening.  In so many books the characters just keep going on like nothing is happening. Stress makes people change their behavior and act out. 

The way the book ends is also highly satisfactory and gives you a sense of both closure and continuation. Pretty amazing for a little 184 page paperback. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet

The Cabinet of Earths
by Anne Nesbet

Publisher:  Harper Collins
Format: Paperback
Published/Copyright: 2011
Pages: 266

Genre: Children's fantasy
Source: own book

From the author's website (

On their first day in Paris, Maya and her little brother, James, find themselves caught up in some very old magic.  Houses with bronze salamanders for door handles, statues that look too much like Maya’s own worried face, a man wearing sunglasses to hide his radiant purple eyes–nothing is what it seems.  And what does all that magic want from Maya? With the help of a friendly boy named Valko, Maya discovers surprises hidden in her family tree–grandmothers who walked in magic, a cousin so unremarkable she’s actually hard to see, and a terrible family habit of betraying one’s brother.  To save her own brother, Maya must take on the magical underworld of Paris . . . before it is too late.

We got this book up at the Scholastic Books' bookfair at my daughter's school.  They were having a buy one get one free sale and we ended up going a little nuts. I picked this book up on a whim because I liked the cover and the description on the back.

Maya's family has been invited to Paris via a fellowship offered to her father by the Society of Philosophical Chemistry. Though Maya is depressed and missing her friends and dog at home, she doesn't put up a fuss, since her mother - still suffering the aftereffects of a battle with cancer -  has always dreamed of living in Paris. However, things get weird the very first day - starting with a bronze salamander doorknob that turns to look at Maya.  

The book is a little sparse on details - we are never quite sure what Maya's father does (on the other hand, how many kids pay that much attention to what their parents do at work? ) and our peak of Paris is restricted to a small area so you don't that much of a feel for the city - but in some ways this is rather a relief because the story flows organically from the point of view of a child worried about her mother and a little overwhelmed by events. The story is unusual - there are no typical fantasy elements - elves, dragons or such - just a thread of magic.

Overall it flows nicely making for a quick, pleasant read.  I quite enjoyed it and am looking forward to grabbing a copy of the second book - A Box of Gargoyles.  Four to four and a half claws. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Death by Inferior Design (Domestic Bliss Mysteries Book 1) by Leslie Caine

Death by Inferior Design
(Domestic Bliss Mysteries Book 1)
by Leslie Caine

Publisher:  Dell
Format: Paperback and ebook 
Published/Copyright: 2004
Pages: 400

Genre: Mystery - cozy?
Source: paperback swap and personal copy

From Amazon - actually altered some since it isn't correct - Never mind I have re-written the whole thing so this is my blurb :

Interior decorator Erin Gilbert recently relocated to picturesque Crestview, Colorado and opened an interior design business. Now, after a few months in business, she has a bitter rival named Steven Sullivan - since apparently the people who live in Crestview are literate enough to know about Gilbert and Sullivan operas but not smart enough to remember which interior designer they were hiring. 

One morning finds herself conned into a 'friendly' competition with Steve - who is, of course, extremely attractive. They will each decorate one room in neighboring houses over the course of one weekend. The prize is a feature spread showcasing their design business in Denver Magazine.

It is soon clear that the neighbors are actually anything but friendly and the job much more than it first appeared. 

So - I read this book when it first came out - I got a copy in a paperback swap with some friends and apparently liked it enough that I purchased the second book when it came out. I haven't paid much attention to it since, but while I was sick I saw that Amazon had his book on sale for $0.99 so I got a copy to read whilst grumpy. 

Turns out that on the second reading - I was much more meh.  I didn't actually like any of the characters - they all annoyed me.  Erin - for example - is a special example of too stupid to live - in this case too stubborn/obsessive to live? Not quite sure how to put it, but any reasonable person would have run away screaming.

This might get a bit spoilery I suppose but no more than most of the stupid book blurbs are ... 

As a single child myself I have never understood why people - generally those who have both parents and grandparents too - seem obsessed with the idea that orphans or single children need to know who their birth parents are. For most of us (yes I am generalizing, I admit) - we know perfectly well that whatever happened in the past it has nothing to do with us and we understand that finding a birth parent can turn out really, really badly - however much we might have pretended that we were actually royalty in hiding as children. Yes, for some people this becomes a quest - but for most of us that I have every talked with about this - we simply don't care. 

I mention this because Erin suddenly becomes obsessed with her birth parents - despite both a deathbed promise to her mother, and the growing evidence that being related to any of the awful people in the story would stink - and this is ostensibly the reason that she hung around to finish the decorating job. 

I was on-board at first but as the story went on it became harder and harder to suspend disbelief.  Besides - these were generally pretty awful people - it made no sense for her to keep acting like this was a normal decorating job.  Especially the bit about just having to fix the outlet covers so that they matched the wallpaper pattern - while under threat, after murder and around people who are violent. Nope - not buying it.  Too stupid - too unrealistic and the author clearly has something against the police - her detectives/cops were right out of central casting for a bad movie. 

Plus the characters - including the lead and her love interest - were petty, self-obsessed and often too jerky to care about.

Not my thing - and I think I must have been pretty starved for reading material to decide that I liked it the first time.   Three claws - just okay.

The Seventh Sinner by Elizabeth Peters

The Seventh Sinner
by Elizabeth Peters

Publisher: Mysterious Press / HarperCollins Publishers ebook
Format: Paperback (well loved) and ebook   
Published: March 1st 1989
Copyright: 1972
Pages: 256
Genre: Mystery - cozy?
Source: personal copy
Well, usually I would include the blurb from Amazon or the back of the book, but in this case I think it is much better to just read the story rather than build up expectations - the blurb gives away too much so my advice is to skip it and plunge right in. In very short summary, Jean is an art historian and student fellow at the Institute for Art and Archaeology in Rome. The titular Seven Sinners are all student fellows at the Institute and as the book begins they are in the throws of working on their applications for retaining their fellowships for the next year. Needless to say, there is a murder but the stupid blurb tells you who right away. It is better to just read and figure it out for yourself.

Here is the first bit (I did this for Book Beginnings/Friday 56 last week too):

Jean would never forget her first encounter with Jacqueline Kirby. It was years before she was could think about it without blushing all over. An acquaintance which begins with assault and battery, however inadvertent, can hardly be termed auspicious. 

There was some slight excuse for Jean's behavior. All morning she had been working, or trying to work, in the Institute library. There were distractions. First and omnipresent was the siren call of the city outside the dusty library stacks. ...

As much as I enjoy the rest of the books with Jacqueline Kirby (there are three more), this first book holds a special place in my heart. The book is unusual because it is told from Jean's point of view rather than that of the protagonist that becomes the lead for the remaining books - so in essence we are experiencing the story from the point of view of one of the potential victims (and pseudo Watson) while Jacqueline is the detective. It makes for an interesting reading experience.

The sinners, for the most part, all have very distinctive personalities and voices.  They all have lives outside the main storyline, which is wonderful - too many books I have read of late are so protagonist centered that it feels like all of the other characters switch off when they are not in direct contact.  It is weird.  Here there is a developed three-dimensional world - so much so that it seems to carry on after the story ends. I have always wondered what became of Jean and the other sinners.  It is too bad that Barbara Mertz (the author's real name) passed away last year and will never be able to tell us that story.

Another thing that make the book such a pleasurable read for me is that Barbara Mertz was an archeologist (her non-fiction books on Egypt - Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt and Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt are very good and the scholarship still stands up for the most part) so the book is filled with interesting tidbits about the history and archeology of Rome.  It never feels like an info dump though - it is all naturally laced in as the characters talk about their work and share their expertise with each other. I would love to have had the chance to be a student like Jean - heck I would still love to do something like that.

It certainly isn't a perfect book, the ending - well it isn't disappointing, but it might not be as realistically convincing as you might like - but I have never found anything else quite like it and I re-read it when I am sick or feeling depressed.  I find the story very vivid.  So for me it is a five claw book.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Athabasca tar sands and the Keystone Pipeline - part 1

This is a bit of a leftover discussion from class last semester - please note that the Keystone XL Pipeline Extension and the Athabasca Tar Sands are two separate but related issues. Based on the papers submitted and answers on the final, there were still some serious holes in many peoples' understanding of the current state of affairs and the possible impacts.

The first thing that you need to understand is that the Keystone Pipeline that they keep talking about in the news is actually just an extension for TransCanada’s already existing pipeline. The Phase 1 section of the pipeline (shown in brown on the map), which runs from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada - where the green tank markers are on the map - to Patoka, Illinois, became operational in June 2010. Phase 2 (shown in green) runs from Steele City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma and was completed in February 2011. Phase 3 (shown in orange) continues on from Cushing, Oklahoma to a point near terminals in Nederland, Texas. Oil started moving through that section on January 21, 2014. Note that Cushing has storage facilities for American-produced oil, which can be added to the pipeline at this point.

The only things that haven't been build yet are the shortcut XL Extention - also know as Phase 4 -  that would run from Hardisty through Baker, Montana to Steel City (shown on the map in dashed blue), and a short 47 mile leg that runs from from Liberty County, Texas to Houston, Texas - for better access to more export terminals. The latter is already under construction and should be completed later this year. The former (the blue dashed bit) is the only thing that has been held up. You will note that even without Phase 4 the pipeline makes a continuous path from Canada to Texas. 

There are several issues with the Phase 4 proposal, the most prominant of which is probably the fact that it would run right over the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. The Ogallala lies relatively close to the surface, is already under massive stress due to overuse, and is the water source for roughly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States. Needless to say, the last thing we should do is leak a bunch of heavy, acidic bitumen into it.

However, stopping the construction of the extension would not stop Athabasca oil from reaching market. It would just slow it down. It would also slow down the shipment of oil from the Bakken in the US (noted in the map by those tanks at Baker). So one of the real issues that you need to wrestle with is whether it would be safer to ship the oil via pipeline (though getting it further away from the Ogallala should be a priority) or to ship it in a bunch of rail-cars or trucks. It would be nice to just stop use of heavy oil entirely, but we don't have anything to replace it with at the moment. So - no easy answers here. And no, it doesn't matter that you personally don't own a car - think about how food, clothing and all the other products you use get here.

I also want to point out that those job numbers that keep getting thrown around are nonsense. As I pointed out - most of the pipeline is already in place and the pipe for the remaining legs has already been manufactured and imported. The majority of the remaining jobs would be short term construction jobs that would disappear once the pipeline has been installed. And if past practice is any indication, most of those workers would not be local to the installation area, so most of the money flows out of the local economies, not in. There would be no massive economic boost from building Phase 4.    

Now that you should be more clear on what exactly the Keystone pipeline is, I will continue this in part 2 with a discussion of the Athabasca tar sands.

The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

The Song of the Quarkbeast 
by Jasper Fforde

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Format: Hardback  
Published: September 3, 2013 (US edition)
Pages: 304
Genre: I have no idea anymore - YA fiction ?
Source: personal copy


Electro-magical devices were once everywhere. They ran the Mobile Phone Network, the radar for air traffic control and even medical scanners and microwaves. When the power of magic faded, they were switched off one by one. The only long-term electromagical devices still functioning as our story begins are yo-yos, the extremely useful compass-pointing-to-North idea and the spell that keep bicycles from falling over.

Things are about to change. As the background Wizidrical Power slowly builds after the Big Magic, King Snodd IV of the Kingdom of Hereford realises that the power of magic has untold financial possibilities, and the man that controls Magic controls almost anything. To this end he has appointed as 'Official Court Sorcerer' the odious Blix at iMagic, one of only two Houses of Enchantment left in the world. With Blix's willing assistance, only one person stands between King Snodd and his plans for power and riches beyond the wildest dreams of avarice.

Meet Jennifer Strange, sixteen-year-old acting manager of Kazam, the only other House of Enchantment. She doesn't care for King Snodd or his plans for magic. Ancient decree dictates that Kazam can refuse Snodd's demands, but Blix challenges Kazam to a contest: The first team to rebuild their half of Hereford's collapsed 12th century bridge gains control of the other's House of Enchantment.

[redacted] Jennifer must use ever[y] ounce of ingenuity to vanquish Blix and derail King Snodd's plans. [also redacted - good grief!  Too much information!]

But one thing is certain: Jennifer Strange will not relinquish the noble powers of magic to big business and commerce without a fight.

This is the second book in Fforde's Last Dragonslayer series - you should read The Last Dragonslayer first - while this book does stand on it's own as a story, it pretty much spoils the ending of the first one. The narrative picks up shortly after the ending of the first book and Kazam's sorcerers are back to odd jobs to keep cash flowing. Jennifer is still acting manager and is training Tiger to take her place someday. It is still a struggle to make everything work since the real manager of Kazam continues to be MIA. The exciting news is that Perkins is about to apply for his license to be a practicing sorcerer. But Blix, suddenly giving himself the honorific All-Powerful, puts a spoke into the works.

These books are light, fun reads. The characters are quirky and interesting, and the world building is -  well still uneven and somewhat illogical  - but definitely inventive and unique. Jennifer is a very sympathetic protagonist and a pleasure to read about. I really enjoyed this entry into the series and, as long as you don't think too deeply about the plot, it is quite a satisfying treat. The ending does snap into place too smoothly - honestly I think there could have been more done with the plot threads and everything could have used a bit more depth. On the other hand, it is sort of like arguing that cookies are not a nice treat because they aren't crème brûlée. 

One odd thing that confused me is that book ended in a somewhat 'this is it' fashion - but online I see that there is already another book out in the UK and Canada The Eye of Zoltar, which will be published in the US on October 7, 2014 - and a fourth book, with a working title of Strange and the Wizard in the works. 

One good thing this time around, I finally realized who the Quarkbeast reminded me of - Gleep from the MythAdventures series by Robert Lynn Asprin.  

Anywoo - four claws - I liked it and might read it again one day.  


Friday, June 13, 2014

A peak into The Seventh Sinner and A Perfect Red

Sigh. Still not back up to speed, but I am working on it. I finally have a few things working at work, so perhaps that will cheer me up. 

For Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader I have the first Jacqueline Kirby book The Seventh Sinner by Elizabeth Peters. I love these books - they are a comfort re-read for me when I am sick or feeling down.

Jean would never forget her first encounter with Jacqueline Kirby. It was years before she was could think about it without blushing all over. An acquaintance which begins with assault and battery, however inadvertent, can hardly be termed auspicious. 

As much as I enjoy the rest of the books with Jacqueline, this first book holds a special place in my heart. I have always wanted another book to find out what happens to Jean, and Michael, and the other 'sinners' - even Dana. Oh well.

For non-fiction, here is a bit from page 1 of A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield.

Humans see the world in a cascade of color, with eyes that can distinguish any single shade from more than a million others. As a species, we prize color and attach great significance to it. Yet few colors mean as much to us as red. Proof of our attachment lies in many of the world's languages, English among them. We roll out the red carpet, catch crooks red-handed, and dread getting caught in red tape. We stop at red lights, ignore red herrings and celebrate red-letter days.

Getting deeper into the books, for The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice page 56 of The Seventh Sinner gives us ...

"I don't want you butting in," Andy said. "You can't keep quiet when somebody else talks about archaeology."

"Not when they make mistakes I can't keep quiet."

"I," said Andy, "never make mistakes. Tell you what. If you keep your mouth shut you can come along when we go to San Sebastiano. I made an appointment for the twenty-ninth."

"That's a deal."

"That gives you time to read up on the subject," Andy said, grinning.

 This means that we have to have a picture of San Sebastiano and the catacombs! San Sebastiano ad Catacumbas (Saint Sebastian at the Catacombs), also known as San Sebastiano fuori le mura (Saint Sebastian outside the walls), is a basilica in Rome and one of the seven pilgrimage churches (at least up until 2000 when Pope John Paul II swapped in Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore for Saint Sebastian's for some reason). It is located along the Via Appia Antica and according to tradition, the catacombs were temporarily used as the burial place of Saints Peter and Paul. More about the church is at

Saint Sebastian

But, the reason our titular 'Sinners' were visiting was not to see the church, but to see the catacombs beneath, which might actually be the original catacombs - where the name comes from - as that area in ancient times was originally called catacumbas, from Greek  'katà kymbas', meaning 'near the hollow' referring to a stone quarry located there.

They visited by candlelight, which would have been a much different experience.

 From page 56 of A Perfect Red ...

Some Aztec tribute items, such as quetzal feathers, were of little value in the post-Conquest world. Others, however, were the sorts of goods that Spaniards could readily appreciate, such as gold, slaves, pearls, honey, and eggs.

Cochineal, by rights, should have been in this second, more valuable group. Like most military men of the era, the conquistadors treated red cloth as a symbol of courage under fire. Even in the frontier outposts of the New World they paid top dollar for fine fabrics colored with the best red dyes. 

This is cochineal -
yes - the bugs here - that is what we are talking about.

Mush them and you get this ...

carmine red!  (picture source)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wondrous Words Wednesday 16

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Kathy at the Bermuda Onion where you "can share new words that you’ve encountered or spotlight words you love. Feel free to get creative!

Wow, it has been ages since I have been able to do one of these. I have just started climbing out from the bus I got (metaphorically) thrown under and want to try to get back into the swing of things ...

This weeks words are going to be pretty random. I have been doing lots of re-reading comfort books.

From Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews ...

"I dropped by on the chance that either you or your mother would be here. She said you had found the jacquard and I should come by to pick it up. What is jacquard, and what am I supposed to do with it when I've got it ?"  

Jacquard (j k ärd , j -kärd , zhä-kär )
1 a :  the control mechanism of a Jacquard loom
b :  jacquard loom - a loom with an attachment for forming openings for the passage of the shuttle between the warp threads; used in weaving figured fabrics

2  a fabric of intricate variegated weave or pattern; a fabric in which the design is incorporated into the weave instead of being printed or dyed on

In the book you already know that they are talking about fabric, but I wasn't sure exactly what to picture, so here is an example of what Meg's mother was looking for. I would have probably called the fabric simply brocade.

"A what ?"

"E-p-e-r-g-n-e," Steven said.

"Oh, epergne," I said, correcting his pronunciation. "Eileen's aunt Louise sent it."

"Yes, I see, but what is it ?"

"What do you care ?" I said. "Just thank her for it."

Epergne pronounced ( iˈpərn, āˈpərn) [I would mess that up too]
  • An ornamental centerpiece for a dining table, typically used for holding fruit or flowers. 
  • An often ornate tiered centerpiece consisting typically of a frame of wrought metal (as silver or gold) bearing dishes, vases, or candle holders or a combination of these  
Origin: early 18th century, perhaps an altered form of French épargne 'saving, economy'. Supposedly the use of an epergne in the center of the table avoided waste because each guest could help him or herself from the main bowl, thus eliminating the disposal of expensive delicacies left on an individual's plate. Except the households that could afford these huge masses of silver also tended to have servants - so the guests didn't help themselves  - and also had massive tables which would make it awfully hard to actually reach anything in the bowls gracefully. It would have been horribly rude to reach over other people to get at an orange or something.  Maybe on a sideboard ? I don't know - I am tending towards urban myth with this origin story. 
Wikipedia's take is" Probably from the French "épargne" meaning "saving", the idea being that dinner guests were saved the trouble of passing dishes (although an epergne in French is called a surtout). In addition the word epergne in French can also mean "spare", another way of saying "to save", or a spare meaning "reserve or extra".


And two more quick ones:

Alfred Russel Wallace reportedly led a peripatetic life 

- Traveling from place to place, especially working or based in various places for relatively short periods. 
 - Aristotelian. [with reference to Aristotle's practice of walking to and fro while teaching]
Origin: late Middle English (denoting an Aristotelian philosopher): from Old French peripatetique, via Latin from Greek peripatētikos 'walking up and down', from the verb peripatein.

I also ran into the term tête-bêche in Wallace's notebook.

1. (Philately) philately (of an unseparated pair of stamps) printed so that one is inverted in relation to the other
[C19: from French, from tête head + bêche, from obsolete béchevet double-headed (originally of a bed)]
Except I don't remember Wallace talking about stamps, hummm.... 
I know that there are also tête-bêche books

... but that isn't helping me either. Now I have to find the bit in the book that uses the term to sort out what on Earth Wallace was talking about.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A peak into Rattle His Bones and Dinosaurs

I have been dormant for a while due to a combination of work and an attack of the creeping crud.  I went straight from giving and grading finals to running a HAZWOPER refresher course to being a parent helper at a Girl Scouts camp out. Immediately after that I caught an upper respiratory virus that knocked me out for over a week. I am just starting to get back up to speed now.

I spent that week re-reading comfort books, since that was about the limit of my energy. Mostly I ended up reading random books from Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple mystery series - whatever I could grab without moving too much. The books are set in England shortly after World War I, that unique period now called "between the wars."

For Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Rose City Reader I have book 8 in the series, Rattle his Bones by Carola Dunn.

He hurried up the stairs from the basement and unlocked the door which kept the public from wandering down into the private areas of the museum. Pushing it open a crack, he heard voices in the North Hall. He froze, still as a rabbit mesmerized by a stoat, nerves aquiver. 

The rabbit mesmerized by a stoat thing is very British - I had no idea. See if you are interested (warning - yes, the rabbit gets it!). Honestly it looks more to me like the rabbit is confused to death by the stoats unnerving break dancing exhibition.

Photo ©Tristan Bantock

I haven't had a chance to clean my desk up after the HAZWOPER class so I am surrounded by nonfiction books with titles like Hazardous Materials Compliance Handbook and Emergency Response Guidebook. Somehow I don't think that anyone would be terribly interested in the opening sentences of them ... How to use this Guidebook. RESIST RUSHING IN! Approach Incident from Upwind or Upstream.

Riveting stuff. 

So, since dinosaurs and reptiles figure into my fiction chose this week, how about Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages by Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. and Illustrated by Luis V. Ray. I use this book when I give talks for elementary school kids - they love it - the artwork is fantastic! Everything is so colorful. If you have a child into dinosaurs, this is a great choice - it goes into impressive detail about the science but is still quite approachable - even early readers who are not up to the text absolutely love the pictures. Plus, it is also great for adults who are interested and don't have a background in paleontology.

The world of dinosaurs is changing. How so? you ask. After all, the world of dinosaurs ended 65.5 million years ago! How could something that ended so long ago be changing ? What's done is done, right? 

Not necessarily. 

In truth, the world of dinosaurs itself isn't changing, but our understanding of it is. Facts and discoveries about dinosaurs and their world that we now take for granted would have astonished people at the beginning of the twentieth century! In fact, some of these facts were astonishing people just ten or fifteen years ago! For example, we now know that some dinosaurs (including the infamous Velociraptor) had long feathers on their arms, legs and tail. ...

And for  The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice by page 56 of Rattle his Bones we are well and truly into spoilers so I am going to apply a redaction or two ...

"What the bloody –'scuse me miss – flippin' blankety blank's going on here?"

"Redacted's dead," Daisy said tersely. 

"That's what the lady said, miss. Blimey, will you look at what Ol' Stony's done to that pariosaurus! Mr. Mummery's going to have forty fits."

"Never mind about the blasted Pareiasaurus! Redacted's been killed."

"Who by?" asked the commissionaire.

"I don't know. And goodness knows where he's got to by now. ..."

So, just in case you are interested, a Pareiasaurus is an anapsid reptile from the Permian period, which means that it is not actually a dinosaur. Anapsid means that there are no 'extra' holes in the temple region of the skull. Dinosaurs are diapsid reptiles, which means that they have two holes in the temple region of the skull. Dinosaurs evolved in the Triassic, around 235 million years ago. The Permian was an earlier period, an age of giant reptiles that ended with the worst mass extinction the Earth has experienced, with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species going extinct - much bigger than the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs.

I found this at
This picture was taken in 1933 at the Walker Museum in Chicago. As far as I can tell this skeleton is now in the Field Museum if you want to see him in person. This is the closest I can get at the moment to the reptile being described in the book.
From page 56 of Dinosaurs (which does not include the genus Pareiasaurus):

All life, including all vertebrates, first evolved in the sea and got oxygen from the water. Today we have a name for vertebrates that get their oxygen from water: we call them fish. But they don't represent a single, discrete branch of the Tree of Life. Instead, there are many different branches of "fish," some of which are more closely related to you and dinosaurs than they are to other fish.

This is page 57.
I am not sure if it helps but I though I would include it as opposed to lecturing on cladistics.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I promised that I would create a links list for the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) 8-hour refresher class ... so this is a start (and only a start, since the stupid computer decided to publish this prematurely)

I will add additional information to this page when I get a chance.  If you have a specific question about a resource we discussed, email me and let me know.  Also if you find a resource that you think is helpful - please comment or forward it so that I can post it for everyone.

Have a great summer!

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)

NYSDOT Dangerous Plants pages We have Giant Hogweed around here! That stuff is nasty - make sure you know what it looks like!

The United Nation's Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) 4th edition

U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) 

Chemical Safety Board

NIOSH Respirator Selection Logic 2004 document
NIOSH Poisonous Plants

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The wrong kitty litter ?

I am late to the party on this one, but really - how can I resist. I have been following the February 14, 2014, accident at the WIPP site for months so of course I have to report the punchline. The cause of the accident was use of the wrong kitty litter!

Photo taken on April 23, when a small discovery team entered Panel 7 and proceeded toward the columns of waste containers located in Room 7. The discovery team did not see any visible damage among the first few rows of containers as shown here. Looking along the ceiling, you can see that the salt rock, the roof bolts and the thin metal screening is all intact. The drums here seem intact but you can see that some MgO sacks that sit on top of the waste are slumped looking. Note: The bag labeled 4200 is an intact MgO container, while the bag labeled 3000 looks disturbed.
So, starting back in April, workers were finally able to re-enter the underground storage facility and figure out what went wrong. The leading theories at the time were that a section of the salt ceiling had somehow gotten loose, fallen and broken one or more containers or that something else - like a forklift - had somehow compromised a container. In the course of several reconnaissance trips they confirmed that the accident occurred in Panel 7 and saw compromised MgO containers (magnesium oxide reacts with any carbon dioxide produced by the decay of organic carbon in the waste and waste emplacement materials to reduce air pressure in the facility and limits the amount of radioactive elements dissolved in WIPP brine), but still were unclear on the cause - though some new ideas were on the table.

This photo is from May 10, 2014, when WIPP recovery teams again re-entered the mine and proceeded into Panel 7, Room 7 to gather additional data. In this photo you can see evidence of a heat-producing event. This is a view of the left side of the waste stacks. MgO bags are broken apart (remember bag 4200 from the first picture? - see how several of those bags are broken) and there is heat damage visible on a Standard Waste Box (the discoloration on the box in the center of the image).

This photo was taken during the May 22 entry. It is a closeup of an unsealed waste container where the upper portion of the drum shows heat damage (the brown and black coloration.) You can see more photographs and some video footage here

By May the DOE had sorted out a cause and by late May now had photos for comfirmation.  The official report is at

Quoting from the report (emphasis added) ...

On May 1, 2014, NWP declared a potentially inadequate safety analysis (PISA) based on the possibility that a container of inadequately remediated nitrate salt bearing waste had caused the release of radioactivity in the WIPP underground. Recent entries into underground Panel 7 have confirmed that at least one container from a nitrate salt bearing waste stream from Los Alamos National Laboratory is breached and is the most likely source of the release. Further investigation is underway to determine if other containers contributed to the release. ...  Records for disposal in underground Panel 6 indicate that Rooms 1 and 2, which are the two rooms closest to the entry of the panel, also have containers of this waste. Panel 6 is full, but not closed and closure has been initiated. 

But what does inadequately remediated nitrate salt bearing waste mean ? Well, first let's break down what nitrate salt bearing waste is.

Nitrate anions (NO₃−) are composed of a central nitrogen atom surrounded by three oxygen atoms. These ions will readily bond with cations (positively charged atoms or functional groups) to form 'salts' or ionically bonded molecules. Almost all inorganic nitrate salts are soluble in water under normal conditions.The other key property of nitrate salts is that thermal decomposition of the nitrate yields molecular nitrogen gas plus large amounts of chemical energy, due to the high energy content bond of molecular nitrogen - or in English, they are likely to go boom. You are probably already familiar with nitrates hazardous properties in the forms of nitroglycerin, gunpowder and ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) explosions like the one at the West Fertilizer Company

Large quantities of nitrate salt waste are generated by nuclear fuel processing - presumably due to the use of nitric acid for cleaning and decontamination. So basically, the resultant liquid waste involved here contains nitrates that are inherently unstable, in addition to being radioactive. You can't just fill drums with contaminated liquid, which means that they need to be stabilized somehow. So the inadequately remediated bit basically means that whatever was done to stabilize the waste for shipment and long term storage was the wrong thing - and this is where the kitty litter comes into it.

On May 20th, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn released the following statement (emphasis added):

Based on the May 15th visual inspection, the Department of Energy (DOE) has indicated that the radiological release in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) underground did, in fact, originate from one of two transuranic (TRU) mixed waste containers. The containers in question contain nitrate salts, which DOE postulated may have been the source of the release. As soon as DOE suspected that a container with nitrate salt mixed with organic kitty litter may have been the source of the release, the Environment Department required DOE to take immediate action to isolate and secure all nitrate salt bearing waste containers at WIPP, LANL and WCS. Following the receipt of the most recent evidence from DOE, NMED issued an Administrative Order to DOE / Los Alamos National Security (LANS) yesterday to ensure implementation and documentation of all protective measures being taken to secure nitrate salt-bearing waste containers at LANL. NMED issued this second order today to WIPP to ensure that DOE / NWP submits an action plan to sufficiently secure nitrate saltbearing waste containers by expediting the closure of portions of the WIPP underground including Panel 6, which contains 313 nitrate salt-bearing waste containers and Panel 7, Room 7 which contains 55 nitrate salt-bearing waste containers.

Inorganic kitty litter is basically a mixture of geologic materials like clay minerals, diatomaceous earth, zeolites and/or bentonites and it has been used for decades, not only to stabilize radioactive liquids, but to clean up chemical spills and even to help remove oil stains from driveways. Urea and ammonia - prominent components in cat piddle - are chemical variants of the same kinds of nitrates that are being stabilized in the TRU waste barrels. Clay minerals have charged surfaces and 'all surface area' so that they can absorb and isolate ions.

The problem is that someone (who is probably gone into hiding at this point) decided to switch from traditional geological based inorganic kitty litter to organic “green” kitty litter, made from materials like wheat or corn. If you have ever used corn cob litter, you might have already noticed that it needs to be changed more often, doesn't seem to keep the smell down the same way and that there is often loose liquid in the litter box if you have fallen behind on cleaning the box. Organic litter simply doesn't isolate the waste products - either cat pee or TRU liquid containing nitrate salts  - the same way.

So, instead of being properly isolated, the nitrates in the containers 'stabilized' with organic kitty litter dried out instead. When nitrates dry out they can ignite and if you mix them with plant organics you have just added cellulose to the system (that makes it worse - cellulose burns so this was like adding fuel). So basically it appears that in a couple of the TRU waste drums, the mix eventually achieved the right conditions and concentrations to achieve combustion. Any of the containers packed this way could slowly heat up and eventually blow out. It would be a slow motion kind of thing rather than a big, Mythbusters style explosion.

Authorities concluded last month that at least 368 drums of waste at the WIPP site – 313 in panel 6, which has already been filled and sealed, and 55 in panel 7 –  could be susceptible to the chemical reaction suspected to have caused a drum to rupture in February.

Los Alamos National Laboratory apparently packed more than 500 barrels of nuclear waste with the wrong type of kitty litter and most of them  are known to be at WIPP - 57 more are still at Los Alamos and more than 100 are at the Waste Control Specialists site in Andrews, Texas. I am unclear if other TRU producers also used organic litter to pack waste - I heard of at least one other site doing so but I can't seem to confirm it at the moment.
 One thing that stands out to me right now is that the WIPP site performed the way it was supposed to, quickly isolating the release and protecting people, and the environment, from exposure. I don't see this accident as a reason to shut down the site - rather to the contrary it - performed well and demonstrated that it could function in an emergency. I am rather more worried about the other drums out there that were not placed in WIPP.  Heat would speed up the dehydration of nitrates, so if you have TRU drums sitting around out there in the summer heat waiting for final disposal  - well that worries me.