Archive for November, 2009

Cannonball 3: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma (Audio CD) The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the third book in the Mysterious Benedict Society series.

For those not in the know, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a children’s series by Trenton Lee Stewart. It follows the escapades of four specially gifted children as they work with their mentor, the wise and benevolent Nicholas Benedict, to thwart the plans of his evil twin brother, Ledroptha Curtain.

I think it’s easily the best new series to hit children’s lit since the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary (that’s right, J.K. Rowling. I’m dismissing Harry Potter into the annals of crappy children’s lit – where it belongs) and the best mystery for kids since Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which, in my mind, is the best children’s mystery novel of all time.

The kids are usually somehow separated from all of their adult friends and must band together to figure out what Mr. Curtain is up to and stop it. Usually, the reader can play along by trying to decipher the clues that the MBS get.

But my favorite thing about this series is not the mystery. No, that’s just the meat sauce covering up all the carrots and spinach that Mom snuck into the spaghetti. My favorite thing about Stewart’s series is that the kids are refreshingly good.

I don’t know when it became okay and even respected for kids to sass their parents and treat one another like crap. Characters in books don’t say things anymore. They scream them. It’s like they’re constantly yelling at one another because of the terrible burden of whatever mission it is they’re trying to accomplish.

But the kids in MBS only shout when they have to in order to be heard. They do get annoyed with each other, but they *gasp!* do their best not to show their annoyance. That’s, like… mature behavior! I hope to God that some of the celebutards out there will someday read these books and think to themselves, “Hmm, I should exercise some self-control every now and again.”

And the kids don’t just refrain from treating one another badly. When one of them makes a mistake, instead of sniping at one another and pointing fingers, the others leap at the opportunity to encourage their teammate. Each of them has a different skill: Reynie is a critical thinker, Sticky has a photographic memory, Kate can climb anything and outrun most adults, and Constance has the gift of extraordinary stubbornness. Oh, and ESP.

Each of them may have a special talent, but they all know that they need to work as a team in order to succeed. There’s no “lone wolf” mentality in these books. They encourage community and teamwork and friendship.

In this specific installment of the series, the evil Mr. Curtain is after Constance for her ability to read and control minds. The plot involves a power outage, a showdown, and some fun clues to figure out (they’re doable if you’re well-versed in riddling).

This installment was just okay, but the series as a whole still gets a solid rating from me.

I’d highly recommend this series to anyone with kids ages nine or ten and up. Screw the wizards. I want to be a secret agent.

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Olive Yu: Chapter Ten

I’m halfway through!!

Chapter Ten is neato-completo.

Cannonball 2: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, #1) Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Confession: I often borrow books from kids.

Hey, in my own defense, I read plenty of heavier books. But I like the occasional hit of children’s lit for three reasons:

1. It’s clean and it’s innocent. The lack of disturbing themes is refreshing from time to time.
2. It gives me something to talk about with the kids in my life. I love kids but don’t have any of my own, so I enjoy being able to talk books with my youngest friends. Plus, I find that it encourages reading.
3. It’s unabashedly fun. Admit it.

But even then, I still had my doubts about Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Since it’s illustrated, even I thought that it was kind of a cop-out. But eleven-year-old JN (names concealed to protect the innocent) gave it to me with such excited anticipation that I just had to pick it up. I knew he’d want to discuss it with me when I gave it back (I try to keep kids’ books for no more than a week).

I was surprised to find that it’s a great book that deals with important themes such as friendship and family in the craptastic time of life that they call “middle school.”

The main character is a boy named Greg who has just started a journal (not a diary – Greg is very clear about that from the get-go). He uses his journal to record the events of his life and he provides some hilarious illustrations along the way.

Greg writes like a real middle-schooler, and he speaks as honestly as a middle-schooler can about the good, the bad, and the ugly moments of middle school life.

The author, Jeff Kinney, gives Greg a surprisingly authentic voice. Many of the things that Greg does in the book sparked memories of my own craptastic middle school existence: he’s not popular, but he wants to be; he’s willing to sacrifice his friendships with nerds in order to be more cool; he’s selfish and this sometimes hurts his friends; things never seem to go his way.

I really enjoyed the book – partially because it was a good one, and partially because it reminded me of how glad I am that I am no longer in middle school.
I am so glad that those days are behind me.

Jeff Kinney, if you had gone to Hughes Middle School in Long Beach, CA, I’m sure that we would have been friends.

But I probably would still have ditched you in a second if I thought that it would make Jesse Wilder notice me.

Just keepin’ it real.

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Hey, Nicole, if this would actually count as a graphic novel, please let me know and I’ll remove it from my Cannonball count. But either way, I’m glad I read it.

Cannonball 1: War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace (Wordsworth Classics) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I was thirteen, my family took a cross-country road trip across the United States.

Anyone who’s ever driven for more than a few hours knows how tedious it can be to drive so far.

Anyone who’s ever done it for more than three weeks straight is probably curling up into the fetal position as I speak.

And anyone who’s made the trip with children is probably having an acid flashback and will be unable to read the rest of my review.

Well, in order to make the journey bearable, my dad bought a big van conversion that had a TV in it (this was before the days of flat screens and even DVD players). We hooked up a VCR to that baby and my parents relished the peace and quiet they’d get when they let us pop in a vid.

But we didn’t have many videos, and they knew it would take more than Mary Poppins and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II (that’s right, II. Back off) to keep us off their backs. So my dad went to Costco and came home with a new video for us kids.

He came home with War and Peace, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter Fonda.

“What the heck??” was my first reaction. Then, I watched the film.

“What the heck??” was my second reaction.

Why would Pierre marry Helene? Why would Natasha try to leave Andrei for Anatole? And, most of all, how do you explain Pierre and Natasha hookin’ up at the end?? What? I thought she was like a kid sister to him! They hardly interacted in the movie and, suddenly, at the end, they’re together?? WHAT??

Granted, I was only a kid, but I re-watched it in college and still didn’t think it was very good.

After my first experience with War and Peace, I was understandably reticent about diving into the nearly one-thousand-page book that inspired this nearly four-hour-long crapfest. But when I ran out of reading material and spied a copy of the book on my sister’s bookshelf (it’s one of her life’s ambitions to finish it, and there’s still a bookmark stuck in Chapter One somewhere), I decided that I’d give it a shot.

Boy, am I glad I did.

The novel centers around a group of acquaintances who are living in St. Petersburg at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Their lives are turned upside down, but the war is more a backdrop to the events in their lives than it is the central event of the novel.

Tolstoy’s characters are easy to relate to, even if they are Russian nobility. Andrei is a disaffected prince struggling with guilt over his marriage to a beautiful woman he doesn’t love. Pierre struggles to conform to society’s norms and doesn’t find freedom or happiness until he begins to think for himself. Natásha has girlish ideals and forced to learn the cruel ways of the world she lives in through experience.

In short, they are human>, in the fullest sense of the word. Like us, they are flawed. They experience guilt, joy, anger, joy, sadness – the whole gamut of human experience! And all in the span of under a thousand pages!

War and Peace is considered Tolstoy’s masterpiece, and with good reason. It’s not a book about war. It’s a book about life that just happens to be set during a war that would define a generation of people in a land far, far away from my suburban life in Southern California.

But I’ve lived life, so I get it.

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Olive Yu: Chapter Nine

Sorry about the delay — this one turned out to be a long chapter.

Chapter 9. What happens in Chapter 9 stays in Chapter 9.

I’m Just Here for the Food: Del Taco

Disclaimer: Of all the reviews I’ve ever done, this HAS to be one of the most random.

On to the review!

For my birthday last month, Del Taco e-mailed me a coupon good for one free milkshake.

A milkshake? From Del Taco? Seriously?

But who am I to refuse free food? I went to Del Taco and demanded my free strawberry milkshake.

“Would you like whipped cream?” asked the guy taking my order. One guess how I replied.

So there it was: my first-ever Del Taco milkshake. I shrugged and stuck in a straw.

Man alive, people, it was THICK!! I’m talking real hand-scooped ice-cream, In-N-Out-better-watch-out THICK!!

And it tasted great – like frozen strawberries and cream (and tons of sugar, I’m sure). Never thought I’d be giving a positive review to a milkshake, much less a milkshake from Del Taco, of all places.

And all that just to say: if you’ve gotta hankerin’ for a milkshake and there’s a Del Taco nearby, I highly recommend that you check it out.

Del Taco
2120 E. Carson Street
Long Beach, CA 90807
(562) 997-2978

Olive Yu: Chapter 8

Thank God for Google Maps. Looking at a map of the first leg of my trip changed my game plan and, hopefully, the added chapters in the new location will help to push me over 50,000 words!

Chapter 8 is all yours.

Olive Yu: Chapter 7

Whew, now that Chapter Six is over with, I’m ready to have some fun!

Chapter 7, at your service!

I’m Just Here for the Food: Hot Off The Grill



Just because you don't know who he is doesn't mean that he didn't do a great job.



I don’t think that Ratchet was anybody’s favorite Transformer.

When you talk about Transformers, you think about Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. But nobody really says much about Ratchet. While the other Autobots were out saving the world, Ratchet was back at the base, waiting to fix his injured friends. He wasn’t much to look at — just an ambulance; not a sports car or a big truck — but there was nobody who did what he did as well as he did it.

Well, Hot Off the Grill is a little like that. At first glance, it looks like a run-of-the-mill diner — the kind that sells burgers and sandwiches and dinner combos. It’s standard, everyday fare that you can find for cheap all over the United States. But I have to say that under the white-bread aesthetic of HOtG lies an undeniable and irresistible attraction factor: flavor.

hot off the grill

Doesn't look like much, but the food is more than meets the eye.

I had the BLT. The BLT was great — just enough mayo to keep the sandwich from being too dry, but not so much that you experience chest pains. They were way generous with the thick slices of perfectly crispy bacon, and they didn’t bulk up the sandwich with lettuce to make it look like you were getting more – gotta love that balance of flavor means more than perceived value to HOtG.

My friend had the Chicken Salad with Greek dressing. The dressing was good; standard Greek. The thing that really stood out about the salad was the sheer volume of chicken.

Most chicken salads give you a few sad strips of flavorless, dry chicken breast on top of a mountain of lettuce. HOtG’s offering gives you a veritable treasure trove of moist, perfectly-seasoned chicken breast on top of a manageable amount of salad. The salad-to-chicken ration was perfect – perhaps a little heavy on the chicken, even. Now, that’s what I call value.

We also shared a generous side of fries – hot & crispy, just like a diner fry should be.

Hot Off the Grill might not be accused of doing something new, but it does the same old routine much better than the average diner. Much like Ratchet, it ain’t much to look at. But when it comes to flavor, there’s definitely more than meets the eye.

Hot Off the Grill
12800 Seal Beach Blvd.
Seal Beach, CA 90740
(562) 493-2722

Olive Yu: Chapter 6

This one was hard to write — not because I didn’t know what to write, but because the inspiration for this chapter was a compilation of actual events and I didn’t know if I wanted to be quite this honest about some parts of my past. It was hard to write humorously about something that was so hard for me when I went through it. And there’s also this fear that you, as a writer, won’t be able to accurately convey what it was like for you, as a person, and that your writing will either trivialize or glorify the experience.

But, in the end, the chapter kind of wrote itself and there was just no way I was going to just ditch 4,000 words.

Chapter Six. Please be particularly gentle with your criticisms on this one.

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