Monday, November 29, 2010

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

This is my first audio book in quite some time. I listened to most of Mr. Hillerman's old books this way, so since I wanted to try out an audio book again, he immediately came to mind. Those used to my longer reviews for books should note that it's hard not to spoil a mystery if I delve too deeply, so I've tried to keep this brief.

By this time, Joe Leaphorn, my favorite of his two detectives, has retired, and Jim Chee has settled into marriage. We meet them as Leaphorn has a story to tell--one that might be better off left unsaid to people still in the employ of the government.

In looking up an old friend, Leaphorn tumbles on to a complex story of theft, deception, and murder within the framework of the Native American culture he's defended over the years. When curiosity and the desire to see wrongs righted--not to mention a little threat to his own life--pull him further into a complex puzzle, it seems that this time Leaphorn may be in over his head. With joints aching and the former power of a policeman behind him, he can only work within the sidelines--and sometimes, he'll have to jump off his traditional lines instead.

Can he figure out who is who with enough time to prevent more murders? Can a white man with the apparent power of a shape-changing skinwalker (in the most modern form, of course) stop him? And if they knew the truth, just what would Chee and his wife do?

Though it's somewhat disappointing to learn that Leaphorn is no longer on active duty, the rest of this was vintage Hillerman. If you've read him and liked his stuff before, you're going to enjoy this. If you find his wandering yet precisely plotted prose rather dull, then this is not going to appeal to you at all. Leaphorn's stories are always puzzles, and getting the pieces together can sometimes be maddening to the reader. This one was no exception. But when they're fitted together, Hillerman puts together some of the best climaxes in the genre. Combine that with his ability to create colorful and human characters for his detectives to interact with, and you have a solid mystery.

This particular edition also places a strong emphasis on identity, because of the nature of the plot. Leaphorn reflects on what he is now, as a retired cop. He also connects with another character stripped of his cultural heritage, as Leaphorn was. For the most part, these are weaved into the narrative, though at one point towards the end where the origin stories are rehashed again, it feel like a bit of "look how much I know of Navajo culture" thrown in for good measure. Because of the internal emphasis, there's a bit less on the lay of the land. Those looking for the descriptions of mesas and ruins may find this one a bit lacking in what they look for in a Leahphorn/Chee story. This will also be true for those who really like Chee. He's almost complete comic relief here, and has only a small role.

My only qualm is with Leaphorn's actions towards the end of the book. Perhaps this is part of his evolution as a character, but I remember him as being a very strict law and order type. He bends the law early and often in this one, which, while perfectly natural within the story, does feel a bit stretched here and there. Chee would have been a more likely candidate for associating with a former felon who wants revenge, for instance.

Still, not every write can say they're putting out quality mysteries this far into a series book. Hillerman can, and I look forward to more.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spooky Virginia retold by S.E. Schlosser

Having been horribly disappointed by the two ghost story books I chose to read around Halloween (the one about Alaska that I reviews and a "classic" book from M.R. James that I found so boring I couldn't even bring myself to review it), I eagerly grabbed this one from the library shelf in the hopes of trying to find something better.

This was definitely something better. Let's start with the decision to use "retold" instead of claiming authorship over the stories. Almost any book of collected tales and legends is going to be an adaptation of oral tradition. If you are going to use the "by" label, then you need to have written them yourself. Better even than "edited by", I think retold is the way to go. After all, what Schlosser is doing carries on the grand tradition of those who came before her. This is just designed to reach a broader audience by writing them down.

The stories themselves felt warm and familiar to me. I don't know if I'd read or heard some of them before (that's quite possible, as I've been in love with ghost stories almost since I could read) or if we have a situation of similar stories playing out in different parts of the country. Either way, every page in this book was a welcome return to the kind of ghost story I like best--
haunting tales of things gone wrong, cruelty repaid, and horrors revisited again and again.

While the language is soft (there are no oaths or swear words in here), the tone can be quite brutal. People are skinned alive, bloodied before recognition, and dismembered, depending on the story. There are a few that are just sad, such as when a distressed lover dies and remains at his or her designated spot, and a few that are just tragic (the wreck of the old 96 is included). Overall, however, the tone is dark without being gory. It's just the right pitch, in my opinion, for these kinds of tales. The classic story was often the best--make it scary, but don't cause anyone to lose their dinner over the campfire or wood stove.

You have to have a love of folklore and oral tradition to get this book. The stories are all extremely short, and their endings are as predictable as a Pittsburgh Pirate losing season. You'll often know the clincher before it happens, but that's okay. The fun is not so much in the reveal as in the getting there. You either appreciate this or you don't, and which camp you fall into will determine how much you like (or don't like) the book.

The oddest thing about this collection is that, since these are older tales from the south, we have slaves mentioned here and there. I give a lot of credit to Schlosser for not sanitizing the stories that include, for better or worse, things we'd rather not think about as being established history.

Personal favorites for me was a Jack O' Lantern story that was one I hadn't heard before, a story of vampirism set in the backwoods, and one about a sticky finger bone. Each were well plotted and creepy in their own way. I'm sure you'll find your own favorites if you read this book.

I liked Spooky Virginia a lot, and am looking forward to seeking out more books in this series. If you're a fan of the classic campfire ghost story, you should look for this one and its companion volumes, too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Clutter Busting by Brooks Palmer

[Google's having some issues, no no cover image to go along with this one. Sorry guys.]

I'm going to start this review off by admitting that I have a problem with letting clutter accumulate. I'm not going to be on Hoarders anytime soon, never fear. I don't have pizza boxes on my sofa, a copy of every single newspaper over the past decade, or food that's literally exploding out of its boxes. You can easily walk in my house, sit on the furniture (most days), and find clean glasses to drink from.

I do, however, have some unhealthy habits in relation to stuff that I'm trying to shake, and when I want to learn more about something, I tend to turn to a book. So this is my first attempt at seeing what's out there in written form to help me. Consider this half essay, half review then, I guess. You've been warned.

To give you some background: My mother always worried about clutter, but seemed to go from one extreme to the other when she tried to get better. My father's never met something he didn't want to keep. I grew up in this environment, and as time went on (and I got my own, bigger places), stuff literally started to creep up on me, especially when I got an attic AND a basement.

Flash forward to moving, in 2010. I had a depressing revelation that I had a lot of stuff I didn't need. I cleaned and tossed, and still had too much, necessitating a lot of expensive and mentally painful moving. I vowed to get a better handle on things, and to cut my stuff by at least 1/3 before I needed to move again. As Palmer will tell you, why pay for storing things you don't need? I've certainly been guilty of that, and I'm glad to see that pointed out as a problem.

The process is not easy, let me tell you. Palmer does a good job of explaining why. We're encouraged to have a lot of stuff, as it shows how successful we are. ("He who dies with the most toys wins" and all that.) Our stuff can bury our problems, mask our fears, and prevent us from doing what we really want. Getting the stuff is easy; letting go is worse than having a tooth pulled. In various ways, we allow things to dominate our lives if we aren't careful, and it's usually in places we look at every day but don't want to face. What's worse is that sometimes we keep the stuff around just to feel guilty about buying it! Yikes!

This much is all true, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I can especially relate to that last point. I've had things I kept because "I paid for it, now I need to keep it around until I use it." That day, as Palmer correctly notes, rarely comes along, and the stuff pile gets bigger and makes you feel worse about yourself. Noting that it's better to just get rid of things and move on than torture yourself was probably the best thing I read in the whole book. I've been told this enough times; maybe it will finally sink in.

Using a variety of examples, Palmer shows how different people he's encountered over the years have faced their problems with clutter. It's everything from tens of boxes under the bed to garages full of unread magazines. I can't imagine hoarding clothing, but there are folks who do it. Reminders from past relationships, items kept only out of guilt or fear, and some things that are out there to help us get noticed that only end up losing us in the process. All of these people have one thing in common--they're using their things as a wall, and having trouble letting go.

It's a problem I share, even if I'm not raiding the neighbor's garbage or holding on to every picture of my past relationship. Part of reading the book was a refreshing "my problems aren't that severe, especially now that I've de-cluttered significantly" and part of it was "I can totally understand that problem"--with just a bit of "I'm still doing that" mixed in for good measure.

The book has several strengths, starting with an affirmation that you are not alone in having a clutter issue. It's a soothing, gentle tone that Palmer adopts in terms of the condition. He's not blaming you for how you've acted, only if you refuse to change. I think there's a lot of merit in that approach. Why make it worse when the person already knows they have a problem? I also like the idea of looking at what you have, finding problem areas, and bringing them into the light of day. That's something I did when I was moving, and it helped me a lot.

Palmer also notes that sometimes friends can be clutter, if they are only negative and don't value you as a person. That's sound advice--look at the whole picture of your life, not just your things. As with the physical clutter, this is not a condemnation, but a request that you open your eyes.

The trouble is that Palmer is too new age for my taste, referring to positive and negative energy and people feeling better just by willing themselves to feel better. The idea that an ill person can get well just by chucking their medical books means they either have a mental illness that needs to be treated, or they're going to have a horrible crash when the de-cluttering doesn't prevent a relapse. They might even start to clutter again as a panic reaction.

Ironically, Palmer's book has too much clutter inside it (by my admittedly biased definition) to really be a book I'd recommend. If you were looking for specific advice that is practical, not couched in words like "Have a conversation with your pile of papers," then you're going to be severely disappointed. I kept reading to see if there were little tidbits I could pick up (or affirm I was on the right path), but as the book progressed and the ratio of hard advice to "pretend your bedroom is art gallery" statements went south on me, I found this was not the book to help me finish my quest to have less stuff.

My biggest problem with Palmer, however, was that his advice seemed to be to just chuck things and get rid of 75% of what you own. Palmer might be happy only owning 25 CDs, but I play parts of 25 CDs in a weekend if I'm working on a writing project! Similarly, he discussed getting rid of 95% of a person's books as though having 80 books was a crime. Palmer regards pictures in a way that sounds downright superstitious and advices getting rid of them all. There has to be a better way to advise people on reducing what they have without giving up the things that make you happy.

Palmer wants all of his readers to live in the now, and that's fine--if that's what you want. I like having a past, present, and future. It's a philosophical difference that ultimately made the book mostly unusable for me. I can glean certain tips--make sure you don't own two of anything, keep an eye on clothes and other items you never use, and so on--but the overall message rubbed me the wrong way. It undermined some of the good things that I liked about the book and made it less effective for me personally.

I'm sure if you asked him, Palmer would say I'm not ready to let go of my old ways. Maybe that's true. Ultimately, however, Palmer himself said we have to do what makes us happy. I'm happy owning and keeping certain things. Where I need more focused help is on deciding what those certain things should be. Palmer's gentle but ruthless method that talks about spacial energy and doesn't allow for keeping much of anything just isn't for me. I need a more neutral path. If you feel you need a radical change and want to de-clutter your life in a new age manner, see if this is maybe the place for you to start. I'll still be searching for awhile longer, and letting you know what I find.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

At the Edge of the Precipice by Robert V. Remini

[This book is part of phase one of my extended Civil War 150th Anniversary Challenge.]

It's rare that I get to read a book that came out the same year that I'm reading it, but this one jumped out on the shelf for me, in light of my plans to read books about the time before the Civil War for the rest of this year.

Remni's book features Henry Clay, a man who probably should have been a United States President, but never quite made it. He certainly tried enough times, but due to being the go-to man for compromise he always had just enough enemies that finding an electoral majority eluded him.

In this book, Remini acts almost as an apologist for Clay's role in making Faustian bargain after Faustian bargain regarding the worst sin this country is responsible for--the legalization and continuation of slavery. His main argument is that had the country split in 1820 (or later, and of the biggest focus in this book, 1850), there is no way that the forces of the North could have kept the South in the country, and further evils may have come about as a result.

What those evils are get left to the reader's speculation. Presumably it's that slavery would have continued for decades longer. That's certainly the implication when your book claims early on that the North needed another 10 years to prepare itself for war. I'd buy that argument except for one thing--it's not like the North was stockpiling weapons in safe territory or building up the size of its army. Hindsight might show that the North was better ready to fight for Union by 1860, but I don't think that was on Clay's mind. To imply that he was keeping the union together in order to wait for the right time to shut down the South's ambitions doesn't make any logical sense to me, hence why I feel that Remini is acting as an apologist.

The fact of the matter is that this book, in sticking only to the political wrangling and power games in Congress (logical, given Remini's role as a historian of the US House of Representatives), evades the central problem of looking at this period of history. While Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and others strove for oratory points, real Americans were being subjected to cruelty day after day. They were beaten, taken from their families, and assaulted, and America allowed it to happen for almost the first 100 years of its existence. (America then allowed it to happen again in a different form for the next 100 after that, and let's be honest, there's still issues here in the first 30 years or so of this third American century.)

Because the book is so heavily focused on Clay's desire to save the union at all costs, we don't get a look at those costs. It's interesting to read about how Clay, Webster, and others who might not have liked each other, worked in the end to delay what was certainly inevitable, if they really stopped to think about it. When Franklin, Jefferson, and others tell you that slavery is going to be a problem, no amount of redrawing borders or parliamentary wrangling is going keep things neat and tidy.

Though I was not happy with the tone of the book in terms of its dismissal of keeping African Americans in bondage for years, I do think it does a good job of showing that Congress really never has been good at fixing problems in this country. I think we have a myth that American government was better in "the old days" and a book like this shatters that to pieces. Look at how stubborn actors used their grudges to keep legislation at bay. See how Presidents fight members of their own party for control of the agenda. Note how legal tricks can doom a bill without getting off a single solid vote. Watch as crass men like Stephen Douglas rise to power by letting dreams die. Say what you really mean, as William Seward did, and watch as your political career dies.

It's sad when you think about it, but extremely instructive. Why think that today's politicians can make anything work when it didn't work before? Reading a book like this is almost enough to make you turn in your voting card.

In the end, At the Edge of the Precipice doesn't work well as a justification of Clay's actions in Congress as the slavery issue simmered. Since that's what the book was written to do, I don't think it serves its subject well. In order to make the claim, Remini would have needed to do more than just record the facts and give a few pieces of commentary. He'd need to dive deeper into the wider world of America at that time, something that doesn't happen in a book that's less than 200 pages.

As a book that shows how America's governmental system may be better than the rest, but still can't solve major problems, this book is a history lesson that doesn't give a lot of hope for the future as issues such as immigration, the environment, education, and job creation loom ever larger in the public's mind. That's the true story this book tells, and rather than a dream of possibility, it looks more like a nightmare. I don't think that was Remini's intention, but it certainly played out that way for me. Perhaps you'll have a different take.

Civil War Score: I don't see this as being a necessary read for anyone, unless you are very much into the history of Congress, Henry Clay, or early 19th Century American History. It's very much a niche book.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Way off the Road by Bill Geist

[If you care, I "read" this one as an audio book.]

I grew up on the idea of the Sunday drive, back when a lot of folks still had Sundays off, cars were big enough to be comfortable without being gas guzzlers, and gas itself was priced more cheaply than milk.

Because of this habit of piling in the car and finding places to go that were an hour or three away, I had the opportunity to see things that just aren't on your major vacation hot-spots. In addition, when we were on vacation as a family, we often picked a place at random and went where life took us.

Thus, I am fascinated with the odder parts of American life, like stopping by the Zane Gray Museum or seeing a Jimmy Stewart film in his hometown or going some place that has a metric ton of ceramic dinosaurs. Which means that someday, Mr. Geist and I really need to have a drink together--as long as he promises not to call me an idiot like he did to a conspiracy nut who later puts a gun to his head.

I don't often think about dream jobs, but I'm pretty sure Geist has one of mine. He gets to travel across the country, looking at the odder, smaller side of life. You'll find him at a watermelon festival perhaps, or watching school buses go to town on a demolition derby track. He'll talk to a person who runs a hamburger stand in a town of two as earnestly as another reporter might talk to Prime Minister Putin, and that's what makes this work so well.

You see, no matter how ridiculous things may get, like trying to determine who actually has the largest ball of twine or where in Minnesota is colder, Geist always treats his subjects with respect. That doesn't mean he's not critical of some of the things he observes (painting cows to make them look better comes to mind) or provide a wry spin (discussing raises taxes in a town with a population of one last person). Part of the charm of this book is that Geist never takes what he does all that seriously. However, even with taking jabs at the people around him, some of them even a little mean at times, you never get the feeling that Geist feels he is better than the people he interviews.

That's key, because if he was acting superior to people who are trying to make their claim to fame any way they can, it would come off as really mean. We can't all be on CBS, so some of us have to find a way to make our mark, even if it's just holding a unique parade in your two-block town. We all like being known for something, and in America, there's plenty of room for people to do everything from a headless chicken festival to celebrating the tow truck. Who is Geist to judge? He recognizes this, and acts accordingly. The result is a delightful set of stories, with just the right balance of irreverence and wonder.

The book shines best when Geist interviews people who are just trying to do what comes naturally. The 90+ year old man who writes a newspaper and delivers it by plane is a little scary, but shows that you never know what will keep you going over the decades. A postal worker shows that that mail must go through, even to a small town in the Grand Canyon. A lady finds her faith in serving the best barbecue chicken in Texas. None of these folks are people you're likely to live next to, but all of them find these unusual aspects of their lives are just normal for them. It's endearing, even as Geist makes light about how out of the mainstream they are.

Where the book suffers a bit is when Geist tries to be too clever. There are humorous lists that just aren't all that funny, for example, because I've heard the same comments before. A few of the jokes within the pages are canned, and there are places where you can tell that Geist is writing for an audience that's sometimes the lowest common denominator. Though I don't think he looks down on anyone, as I mentioned, Geist's sarcastic comments can come off a little bit mean as well from time to time, so just be aware there are going to be some places where you want to tell him he's being unfair.

Overall, however, I enjoyed this book a lot. Though I'd never visited any of the places that Geist mentions, primarily because a of lot of them are in the West or Midwest, I could make connections to trips I've made since I was barely old enough to walk. Heck, I'm still making those kind of trips today. Way Off the Road shows that there's more to America than the flashy parts, and does it in an irreverent way. It may not be a travel guide--or even a true travelogue--but it sure was a fun book to read.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Midnight's Children Read-Along Post 1

Jo of Bibliojunkie threw out the idea of a read-along for Midnight's Children, a book that was and is celebrated as an amazing piece of literature, winning not only the 1981 Booker Prize, but also the Best of the Booker (which really should be called the Booker of Bookers) in 1993 and 2008. Clearly, there are quite a few people who have some good things to say about this title from the author of the Satanic Verses.

I'd first read this book back in 1999, if memory serves, and thought it was superior to Rushdie's better known (and more controversial) novel that put him into hiding for some time. Jo's read-along gave me a good excuse to revisit it.

Before diving back into the book, I thought I'd post some impressions that I had about the novel in the first place, to see if my memory would hold up under one of my rare re-reads.

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is the comparison to Satanic Verses. Both have elements that I (perhaps incorrectly) think of as magical realism, where the narrative stays grounded in reality but has some things about it that just can't be explained by ordinary rules. They also both show the tension within India of its major religious populations. I'm still not sure why one book caused a stir and the other did not, but perhaps it's just because I grew up during the Verses flap that I know more about the reception Rushdie received. Checking around, however, and recalling my discussions of the novel in college, I don't remember seeing much about Midnight's Children being offensive. What a difference a decade makes, I guess. One of the things I'll be reading for is to see if there is as much religious commentary in the book as I seem to think there is, based on my hazy memory.

The second thing that I remember is that the book takes a lot of twists and turns in getting to its point. I read a fair amount of experimental fiction in college, but not so much now. I'll be curious to see if I still find an appeal in the confused structure of the narrative. I do remember this book having a very satisfying payoff at the end, and that Satanic Verses did not. If memory serves that's why I tend to think of this one as the better book.

Beyond that, I don't recall much of the book. It's in my memory with pleasant thoughts, despite being part of a class that I ended up hating with an instructor who did not like me one bit. But memory is a tricky thing, as Rushdie himself will tell you in his books. I don't often do a re-read, but Midnight's Children seems like it's worth the effort and the use of my time. I'll be curious to see if I still feel the same way after starting on the book this week.

It's also notable that I only read one Rushdie book after this, and did not think it was all that good. I don't even remember which one, which is sad (and part of why I now have a book blog). One of my goals is to use this re-reading as a gauge to see if it's time to revisit Mr. Rushdie's work, or to move on to other authors. Lord knows there's plenty to go around.

Want to join in the read-along? Find the opening post here, on Jo's blog.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bambi Versus Godzilla by David Mamet

First of all, props to the book cover designer on this one. I don't think I'd have grabbed it from the shelf if it had not been for that absolutely eye-catching cover. Definitely a solid job on a book that probably could use a little help getting attention, since the subject is a bit off to the side in terms of popularity.

The book itself is a series of essays by Mamet ranging mostly on the movie business but also into other areas, primarily politics. When he stays on task, these are brilliant (if bitter) insights by a man who makes his money in an industry he despises for its business practices. When he's rambling on in an ultra-leftist bias, which sadly happens most often at the beginning of the book, it's a boring diatribe. Whether or not you agree with Mamet's politics, his sour grapes on the state of the political world just don't make for good reading.

The good outweighs the bad, though, and Mamet's style is very crisp, which is what he argues for in screen writing--don't keep anything that's not essential. Because of this, Mamet gets right to the point--there are too many producers, there's little respect for writers because everyone wants to be a writer so they're practically disposable, and the number of movies actually made today is small and keeps getting smaller. That's something I don't think we really look at these days, because with all the advertising, it feels like we have a never-ending supply of films to dislike or enjoy. On the other hand, a lot of the movies made when they were churned out by studio houses were complete crap, so I'm not sure the current system is actually worse.

Mamet also talks about what, to him, makes for a perfect movie--Galaxy Quest is one of them, believe it or not--and how so many fall short. In almost every case, Mamet has a movie example, all of which are given brief summaries in the appendix and allow you to explore his themes further. That was a nice touch, I thought.

I simply must mention his rants about auditions and preview audiences. Mamet believes that some people get parts because they can audition well, not because they can act. I'd never really considered that before. In the latter case, Mamet argues that instead of being natural, people in a test audience try too hard to think of what "they represent" and thus give a biased picture of what really works and what doesn't.

For me, the best part of this book came from reading his thoughts on writing, even though I do a different kind. It's not intended to be a how-to book, but those interested in writing fiction of any kind can learn something.

Overall, however, I worry, as did Steve Martin for the blurb, if after all this is now in the public records, that Mamet will ever work again. If not, maybe he can write more books like this one. I'd certainly read it, and you should, too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Civil War Book Challenge

All kinds of folks do all kinds of book challenges, so I am officially throwing down mine.

The 150th anniversary of the Civil starts next year. It's a monumental anniversary for a conflict that still reaches out to us today and impacts on the lives of Americans, north and south. The Civil War was a defining moment in American History, and I've had a thing for studying it since I was in grade school.

So here's the challenge I'm throwing out there, and it's a doozy. It also covers the next several years. Hey, I'm nothing if not bold when I decide to do something!

For the rest of this year, read 5 books dealing with pre-Civil War issues.

For 2011 (1861), read 10 books dealing with the Civil War in 1861.

For 2012 (1862), read 20 books dealing with the Civil War in 1862.

For 2013 (1863), read 25 books dealing with the Civil War in 1863, including a mini-challenge of 10 books dealing with Gettysburg.

For 2014 (1864), read 20 books dealing with the Civil War in 1864.

For 2015 (1865), read 10 books dealing with the Civil War in 1865.

For 2016, read 10 books dealing with the era of Reconstruction.

Rules: No books I've previously read. No books dealing with biographies of particular generals unless it is about their actions in a particular year. No books about Lincoln, unless they deal solely with his re-election campaign in 1864 or his actions in a particular year. No books dealing with the Civil War in general or that cover more than one year.

Is this challenge insane? Probably. But it should be fun to watch. I'm starting with well-known Civil War writer Bruce Catton's book, "Two Roads to Sumpter."

Progress will be updated here periodically as well as on a special link at the top of the blog.

Anyone else want to give this a try? It would be more fun if I had a partner or two to keep pace with, but I'm willing to go it alone if I have to!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon by Ed Ferell

I'm sure you're shocked to learn that I have a thing for odd little books on odd little subjects, especially if they have some ties to the supernatural. So when I saw this book, I grabbed it for reading at a later date.

That later date finally came as I looked for something to start reading around Halloween, though I finished it a bit after the spooky season wrapped up. Strange Stories is a collection of newspaper and other articles found by Mr. Ferrell when doing research on pioneers of Alaska. He didn't write this book so much as compiled them and edited the tales for a modern audience. Ferrell is pretty credulous when it comes to the stories within. I have my doubts, particularly when a tropical oasis and a frozen city are among the topics described within the pages.

Most of these stories are extremely short, almost of a length appropriate for a children's book. That's true of the content, as well. Nothing in here is so graphic I'd be afraid to have a middle school (or even a mature grade school) student read it. They're grouped into sections, such as "Unknown Creatures", "Places of Mystery", and "Lost Mines". Each section features tales relating to the theme, with the largest being the one on ghosts.

I have to admit to two very big disappointments in this collection. The first is that "strange stories" means more tall tales than scary stuff. That one's on me. The second, however, is that too many of these accounts feel generic. I often felt as though I could have been reading about any late 19th Century part of the United States, not Alaska and the Yukon. Because of the nature of the stories, specific placement was lacking (of course), and thus I never became wrapped up in the world of these tales. That was a big problem for me.

Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon was good enough as a casual read, but I had hoped for more. I like my legends to have a strong sense of location, and that just didn't happen here. Like the old mines and giants and ghosts, it was all very much a mystery. Unfortunately, it wasn't a mystery that appealed to me. Those who like folklore and ghost stories can do better elsewhere, I think.