Sunday, April 26, 2015

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail 
by Ursula Vernon

Published by: Dial Books for Young Reader, Penguin
Copyright: 2015 (April 21)
Format: hardback
Pages: 384

Genre: Children's Fantasy
Age Level: 8 - 12 | Grade Level: 3 - 7
Source: own book

From the cover 
When Molly shows up at Castle Hangnail's doorstep to fill the vacancy for a wicked witch, the castle's minions are suspicious. After all, she is twelve years old, barely five feet tall, and quite ... polite. It's not exactly what they had in mind for wicked. But the castle desperately needs a Master or else the Board of Magic will decommission it, leaving all the minions without the home they love.

Molly may not be as spectacularly cruel and devilishly demanding as the castle's previous Masters, but when she produces some rather impressive magic, the minions feel hopeful she'll be approved by the Board of Magic. They even start to like her. It turns out though, that Molly is hiding quite a few secrets, including one that could mean the end of Castle Hangnail.

This is actually the first time that I have even read the books description.  Ursula Vernon is one of the few (very few at this point) authors whose books I will simply buy as soon as I see her name. In this case, the book showed up in the mail (a pleasant surprise for a lousy week) - I had forgotten I had a standing order in for the next couple books that were coming out. 

So - Molly turns up at Castle Hangnail in answer to this advertisement (on the back cover of the book) ...

Dear Sir or Madam, 

   The minions of Castle Hangnail seek a new master to overtake all dark and evil duties and responsibilities. Magical abilities are absolutely required,* as is a knack for smiting, blighting, and general malevolent behavior. An intimidating appearance is a plus! 
   If interested, please send word via raven to the guardian of Castle Hangnail. 
      *except in the case of Mad Scientists 

    the Minions of Castle Hangnail 

Once she convinces the guardian of the castle that she is, indeed, a Wicked Witch, she is given a list of Tasks she must complete in order to be accepted as the Master of the Castle. 

This is a lovely little story about a young girl seeking a place to belong and be herself. She struggles with taking responsibility for adult sized tasks. There are echoes of Eva Ibbotson (whom the author thanks in the Acknowledgements) with the added benefit that appearance does not equal worth. (Sorry, that was one of the recurring patterns that I realized that I really disliked about Ibbotson's books - the bad people were ugly and the good people were pretty - you didn't even need to read the story to sort out who the bad guys were once you read their descriptions). 

Molly is "a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair." Totally unprepossessing for a Wicked Witch. However, she is a witch and while she might only be a bit wicked, she had a kind streak a mile wide and falls in love with the castle and all the minions. 

The Castle has been laboring along without a Master for so long, things are literally falling apart in places. It is going to take a concerted effort and lots of work to pull everything together.  Plus, there are those pesky secrets of Molly's. 

Simply sweet!  I really liked it.  It is not my favorite Vernon and doesn't have the sarcastic humor that makes the Dragonbreath books such fun to read and re-read. But that said, I can totally see myself as a young girl simply loving this book. I plan to start reading it at bedtime to my daughter to see what she thinks.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

A peak into Castle Hangnail and Circling the Midnight Sun

Sigh. Still drowning in work. I haven't been able to much fun reading at all in the past couple of weeks. It has all been nonfiction on global climate change and water issues.

BUT - two days ago something cool showed up in my mailbox. Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon (creator extraordinaire of Digger and the excellent Dragonbreath series). Squeeeee!

So, for Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader, here is the beginning ...

It was a marvelously dark and dour twilight at the castle. Clouds the color of bruises lay across the hills. Rooks and ravens flapped into the battlements and were met by bats leaving for the evening. True, there were only three ravens, but there were plenty of bats, so the overall impression was of a small cloud of winged smoke hanging over the highest tower. The castle guardian was pleased. 

For non-fiction, I just got a copy of Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic by James Raffan. It starts like this ... 

It was not the Arctic you might expect. It was lush and warm and greener than Greenland. There were blue poppies here the size of dinner plates. And the last polar bear to arrive here was shot dead as an undesirable. It was sad, really. There was a time when sea ice would last thorough the summer months in the Denmark Strait. Bears would use these rafts for loafing between spring and fall. But with global warming, that option was gone. 

Blue Poppies at a Botanical Gardens in Iceland! 

For The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice here is a bit from page 56 of Castle Hangnail  ...

Just as writing an easy-to-follow recipe requires an orderly sort of mind, so too does writing a good spell. Unfortunately, many Wizards and Witches and Sorcerers and so forth do not have orderly minds. Reading their spellbooks is rather like reading the recipe cards for a gifted but erratic cook – lots of scribbled notes to themselves and not much use to other people. 
Invisbul Spell
      sprinkle fern seed – try speenwort,
                        A. platyneurion?

Tuesday night
      use thread from black scarf Mom sent me?
      Build wall of Octroi in hexagon
recite words from William's Spell of Unseeing,
        FIRST syllable, not second !!!
send Igor to store for green chalk

(Okay - I have to confess, I have people ask me for recipes all the time and I have to duck and dodge. This is actually in better shape then the notes I have. Half the time, I pull out a particular recipe in a cookbook so that I can specifically ignore it in order to remember how I cooked something once. If I am lucky there is something scribbled in the margin that says "large egg, milk, and oil to make two cups total" next to a recipe for something else entirely. So I found this bit hysterical.)

And from page 57 of Circling the Midnight Sun (page 56 is the end of the last chapter) ...

After the initial excitement of stumbling across the flotsam of the Terra Madre event, we met quite a number of Swedes and Sami in the shops and museums who were only too happy to confirm peaceful coexistence among the peoples of Laponia – but less so between traffic and the free-roaming reindeer. The main roads were fenced to some extent, but on the secondary and lesser road, extreme caution was advised. Where there was one reindeer, there were always several or several dozens, and not one of them the slightest bit cowed by traffic.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wondrous Words Wednesday 41

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!"

OMG - I can't believe that I missed over a month!  I knew that I had been busy, but wow - that really stinks.  WWW is one of my favorite things to do. Bummer.

And of course tonight I am sitting in a basement, away from the huge long list of new words that I have been jotting down, trying to work up at least a small post. Let's see ... 

From The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett ... 

A note was clipped to the next page. He read: "The Fifth Elephant as a metaphor also appears [... I am skipping out a bit here to shorten up this quote...] it can mean 'a thing which does not exist' (as we would say 'Klatchian mist') 'a thing which is other than it seems' and 'a thing which, while unseen, controls events' (in the same way that we would use the term eminence gris)."

I wouldn't, thought Vimes. I don't use words like that. 

So - long quote for the term eminence gris, which I wouldn't use either.

éminence grise /ˌemənəns ˈɡrēz/
A person who exercises power or influence in a certain sphere without holding an official position.
Origin: 1930s: French, literally 'gray eminence'. The term was originally applied to Cardinal Richelieu's gray-cloaked private secretary, Père Joseph (1577–1638).

Cool ! 

Next we have, from the same source, ...

 "There's my point," said Colon triumphantly. "One bad apple ruins the whole barrel!" 

 "I think now there's only a basket now," said the Patrician. "A punnet, possibly."

punnet /ˈpənət/ 
noun British
A small light basket or other container for fruit or vegetables
For example: a punnet of strawberries
Origin Early 19th century: perhaps a diminutive of dialect pun 'a pound'.

And a couple of short ones from Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

vertiginous /vərˈtijənəs/
1. Causing vertigo, especially by being extremely high or steep:vertiginous drops to the valleys below
1.1Relating to or affected by vertigo.

Origin: Early 17th century: from Latin vertiginosus, from vertigo 'whirling around' (see vertigo).

He heard something pass overhead with a plangent sound. 

plangent /ˈplanjənt/


chiefly literary
(Of a sound) loud, reverberating, and often melancholy.

Origin: Early 19th century: from Latin plangent- 'lamenting', from the verb plangere.

I have to confess, I have no idea quite what that would sound like. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

I was on Radiolab!

I forgot to post about this!  I was interviewed last month for a Radiolab segment on Fu-Go, the WWII Japanese balloon bombs. A combination of amazing innovation and shear desperation, the balloon bombs were an attempt to cause panic in the States in retaliation for the 1942 Doolittle Raid.

Accidental triggering of a grounded balloon in Bly, Oregon caused the only known causalities of enemy action in the continental United States.

You can listen to the whole segment here

This is how RadioLab advertised the segment ...
During World War II, something happened that nobody ever talks about. This is a tale of mysterious balloons, cowboy sheriffs, and young children caught up in the winds of war. And silence, the terror of silence.
Reporters Peter Lang-Stanton and Nick Farago tell us the story of a seemingly ridiculous, almost whimsical series of attacks on the US between November of 1944 and May of 1945. With the help of writer Ross Coen, geologist Elisa Bergslien, and professor Mike Sweeney, we uncover a national secret that led to tragedy in a sleepy logging town in south central Oregon.
Not how I would have put it, at all really. Forensic geologists talk about this case all the time. It's a classic. And the "silence" was pretty much self-imposed and temporary - it was not a national secret. The US government requested a news blackout on stories so that information about the landings didn't get back to 'the enemy.' (Though it turns out that several did get published - I was surprised by the number I found when I researched this story.) 

The press blackout was officially ended with a single press release on May 22, 1945, when the Army and Navy disclosed information about the attacks “so that the public may be aware of the possible danger and to reassure the nation that these attacks are so scattered and aimless that they constitute no military threat” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 1945). The press release was widely reported in papers across the nation. 

The news blackout turned out to be very important. If verification of any clear successes had reached Japan, there would have been motivation to continue the program - they reportedly had thousands more balloons ready for launch. As it was there were several important near misses. 

The write-up that I did for my book is available here

And Radiolab had also posted a nice gallery of images at

Just FYI here is the cover of my book.

Still alive !

I am teaching three upper division courses this semester and somehow 2/3rds of April disappeared entirely into the the black hole of creating assignments, grading, and trying to get students to take responsibility for their own research projects.

At least spring finally made an appearance, so that is good. 

Plus, the ice boom is coming out this week, so that is good news too. Last year we couldn't do the class boat ride due to the massive chunks of ice that were still floating down the river. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

March in Review

Since I have turned out to be a nonsense at doing weekly wrap-ups, and have been spacing out on linking my posts to anything, I thought I would give Kathryn at Book Date's brand-spanking new Month in Review meme a try. March is midterm season so I have been mostly writing tests and assignments, and then having to grade all of the tests and assignments. I have a stack of tests laughing at me right now. As for reading - I started working my way though Discworld again, in honor of Terry Pratchett's passing.

Total books read: I haven't the foggiest clue. More than six novels that I can remember off the top of my head, at least 14 manga, and scads of children's books. My daughter is going through another Elephant and Piggie phase and we are reading 2-3 of these at bedtime each night.

For book related posts I have ... 

A peak into Going Postal and Toms River

Musings on Best Feminist Books For Younger Readers

Twin Spica by Kou Yaginuma - mini gush

A peak into Guards! Guards! and Merchants of Doubt

Monday Manga Mailbox

The Great Discworld Re-Re-Read
The Great Discworld Re-Re-Read, update 1

For environmental posts I have ... 

Finally some randomness  ...

I hate daylight savings time!
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer...

My nonfiction reading for work pile just expanded by four books this week and I am still working on learning Japanese. Eek!

Happy Reading! 

A peak into This Changes Everything and The Fifth Elephant

Better - I only missed half a month this time. I am still alive. I have been totally buried in grading (actually I still am). I am still working my way though Discworld, so I am reading, I just haven't had time to do much blogging.

Anyhow -  for Book Beginnings on Friday - here are a couple of books that I have right now. In nonfiction I have just gotten my hands on a copy of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein.

A voice came over the intercom: would the passengers of Flight 3935, scheduled to depart Washington, D.C., for Charleston, South Carolina, kindly collect their carry-on luggage and get off the plane. 

They went down the stairs and gathered on the hot tarmac. There they saw something unusual: the wheels of the US Airways jet had sunk into the black pavement as if it were wet cement. The wheels were lodged so deep, in fact, that the truck that came to tow the plane away couldn't pry it loose. The airline had hoped that without the added weight of the flight's thirty-five passengers, the aircraft would be light enough to pull. It wasn't. Someone posted a picture: "Why is my flight cancelled? Because DC is so damn hot that our plane sank 4" into the pavement."

So, you need to see this, right ? I sure had to.

Holy cow!  That is amazing! (source of image)

And from Discworld, I am on The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett ...
They say the world is flat and supported on the back of four elephants who themselves stand on the back of a giant turtle. 

They say that the elephants, being such huge beasts, have bones of rock and iron, and nerves of gold for better conductivity over long distances. 

They say that the fifth elephant came screaming and trumpeting through the atmosphere of the young world all those years ago and landed hard enough to split the continents and raise the mountains. 

No one actually saw it land, which raised the interesting philosophical point: When millions of tons of angry elephant come spinning through the sky, but there is no one to hear it, does it  - philosophically speaking - make a noise ? 

For The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice here is a bit from around page 56 of This Changes Everything ...

Put a little more simply: for more than two decades, we kicked the can down the road. During that time, we also expanded the road from a two-lane carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway. That feat was accomplished in large part thanks to the radical and aggressive vision that called for the creation of a single global economy based on the rules of free market fundamentalism, the very rules incubated in the right-wing think tanks now at the forefront of climate change denial. There is a certain irony at work: it is the success of their own revolution that makes revolutionary levels of transformation to the market system now our best hope of avoiding climate chaos. 

Now - levity is definitely called for at this point, so from page 56 of The Fifth Elephant ...

"... I hate it when you get too many clues, it makes it so damn hard to solve anything." 

He threw the screwdriver down. By sheer luck, it hit the floorboards tip first and stood there shuddering. 

"I'm going home," he said. "We'll find out what this is all about when it starts to smell." 

Vimes spend the following morning trying to learn about two foreign countries. One of them turned out to be called Ankh-Morpork. 

Überwald was easy. It was five or six times bigger than the whole of the Sto Plains, and stretched all the way up to the Hub. It was mostly so thickly forested, so creased by little mountain ranges and beset by rivers, that it was largely unmapped. It was mostly unexplored, too.* The people who lived there had other things on their mind, and the people from outside who came to explore went into the forests and never came out again. 

*At least, by proper explorers. Just living there doesn't count.

Just for some context here, Vimes has lived in Ankh-Morpork his entire life.

Happy Friday!