Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer

I was pleased to see this as a new acquisition on our school library shelves.  I hadn't heard of it, but the blurb sounded promising.

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte and her fellow refugees have scraped out an existence on the edge of Britain’s industrial empire. Though they live by the skin of their teeth they have their health (at least when they can find enough food and avoid the Imperial Labor Gatherers) and each other. When a new exile with no memory of his escape from the coastal cities or even his own name seeks shelter in their camp he brings new dangers with him and secrets about the terrible future that awaits all those who have struggled has to live free of the bonds of the empire’s Machineworks.

The Inventor’s Secret is the first book of a YA steampunk series set in an alternate nineteenth-century North America where the Revolutionary War never took place and the British Empire has expanded into a global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery.

And it was steampunk!  Obviously, I had to read it.
So I did.  Until 2:00 AM.
My conclusion?  Meh.

The book's greatest strength is the steampunk.  Seriously, this Cremer person DOES steampunk setting right!  We have a whole cave town under what appears to be Niagra Falls, invention rooms, an electro-magnetic gun that kills huge rats, the coolest submarine ever, airships, a floating city (NYC, re-imagined), a tinker town, a Wizard-of-Oz-type gypsy/palmreader, a metal forest, a hive of slightly-bonkers inventors, rebellion against the Empire, air-pressure-powered elevators, a gigantic Ferris wheel (before Ferris wheels were invented, but oh well), and more.  This is steampunk to the Nth degree!
So why did I not fall in love with the book?
Well, Cremer's greatest weakness is inconsistency.  Frankly, a lot of things did not make sense, even within the world of the book.  Let's take this cave community where about 2 dozen teens and children live, hiding from the evil Empire while their parents are off fighting -- and apparently never check in.  The cave itself has plumbing -- with sewage drains and hot water -- supposedly added by earlier groups of kids.  Okaaaayyyy.  Also, there are no adults to teach the kids how to run their own mini-society so they don't go all Lord of the Flies, but the kids just "naturally" follow whoever decides to be the leader.  Riiiiiggght.  (Note: has Cremer ever dealt with groups of kids before???)  There's no in-fighting.  And no jealousy.  Suuurre. *rolls eyes*  Plus, Cremer never explains where they get their food.  She has them raid dumps for scrap metal to make the spiffy submarine and such, but they eat cheese and bread.  Where does it come from?  Are they making their own?  If so, where do they get the flour and the milk?  Or are they stealing the food?  If so, how is it that no one has ever caught or noticed kids repeatedly stealing food for at least a decade?  And why has the constantly-watching Empire never noticed the smoke from cooking fires and laboratories?  Why are these kids not living off forest animals and foraged berries or the fungus Cremer mentions grows in the cave?
Then there's Charlotte, the protagonist.  Where do all of her spiffy corsets and leather dresses come from?  Who's making those?  If it's one of the kids, how did a child learn to sew such difficult stuff?
And when Charlotte has to fake being a fine lady in NYC, she seems to learn all about society in a day or two.  No other girl considers her a rival (not even the girl who obviously should).  No one notices her social faux pas.  No comment is made when she shows up to make her debut in high society in a dress that is at least 25 years out of style.  (Granted, Charlotte would not know it was out of style, and perhaps the military leader who hustles her into that dress to scoot her to the event in a hurry before his brother finds out doesn't know much about ladies' dresses.  But no girls or their mamas at the ball laugh or gossip or notice her.  Look, this is the social equivalent of Kate Middleton's showing up at a Royal event with an 80s mullet.  People WOULD NOTICE.  But no one does.  What the heck?  Cremer sets this in 1816.  Has she never read Pride and Prejudice??!!)
Now, Charlotte's incredibly bad taste in guys can be set down to hormones, so that's believable (although I wanted to slap her a couple of times), but she has a major, unexplained reaction when she meets a woman who, grieving over the death of her son, left her husband to join a religious commune.  Charlotte freaks out in a rant about how horrible the woman is.  Yet Charlotte sees absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that she knows a couple of dozen children abandoned by their parents who are fighting for the rebellion.  So, she finds it socially acceptable for parents to leave children unattended for a decade but socially unacceptable for a woman to leave her healthy and employed husband for a different kind of life.  Her reaction is completely unexplained in the book.

Also, the book is clearly part of a series.  The ending of the book is really just the ending of a chapter, and there are a couple of nasty cliffhangers just dangling there.

So, overall, my recommendation would be don't read it yet.  Wait until the whole series is out, then read it as one reads a cozy mystery or a beach novel: don't expect too much.  This is not a tightly-written book, but rather an exhibition of steampunk ideas in a sloppy plot.

Friday, November 28, 2014


Personally, I think the word "funicular" sounds like 80s surfer slang.  It should be right up there with "gnarly" and "tubular."
I didn't even know what a funicular was until a few years ago when I read the second book in the Fever Crumb series!  And it was after that that I found out they were real and not just something steampunk!

It was only recently that I learned we had a funicular in Utah.  There's one in Deer Valley, an Aspen-wannabe ski resort for the ├╝ber-rich.  (Let me assure you that one does not live there on a school teacher's salary.)
Anyway, this year some extended family finally convinced my mom that she didn't have to cook Thanksgiving dinner (she still won't let me cook; that would make her feel too guilty or out of control), and we all went out to (an expensive) dinner at St. Regis Hotel, home of the funicular.

Basically, this funicular works like an elevator (you push a button and wait for it to arrive), functions like a tram on a track, and feels like a very, very slow-moving rollercoaster.
Still, it was a first for me!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My New Favorite Christmas Carol

"Shovel more coal into the boiler; Set the airship for the North Pole.
As we float through the sky, keep a watchful eye
For reindeer out the porthole.
Strap your goggles on against the blizzard.
Hang a wreath on each hatchway.
As we all sail up, raise the wassail cup
To the steampunk holiday."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What It's REALLY Like During A School Lockdown

Our school made the news today for a soft lockdown.

School lockdowns often make the news -- because news media folks love to get into the danger zone, and the public freaks out if they think there's a chance of a shooting.
But the truth is that most lockdowns are mostly just annoying.  Our school has been through a LOT of lockdowns in the many years I've taught there, and not a single one of them proved to be anything more than precautionary.  Once we had to go into soft lockdown for 30 minutes or so because a student from a nearby grade school had been injured in an auto-pedestrian accident (broken leg or so, not life-threatening).  The EMTs decided he needed LifeFlight for some reason, and the helicopter had nowhere to land except on our school's softball field.  All our kids had to be contained while this happened.  Another time we went into soft lockdown because one of our own students had been injured (again, nothing life-threatening) in the gym, and EMTs do NOT like having crowds of kids huddling while they work.  It was near class change time, so we went into lockdown to keep kids away from the EMTs while they got the injured girl out of the building.
See?  Most lockdowns are pretty mundane.
Have we ever had one because of a gun?  Sure.  But it was still not that big of a deal.  YEARS ago, I recall that one of my students, S., apparently wanted to sell a sawed-off shotgun to another one of my students, C. This was to take place during lunch.  Another student saw the weapon (hidden in a trench coat pocket) and reported it.  S. took off running, but no one was sure as to whether or not he'd taken the gun.  So, while the police searched for S., kids were put into lockdown, and all available adults searched lockers.  No weapons were found, S was caught, no one was ever in danger.

Today was a bit like that last one, but things were easier because of the internet.
I have 9th grade regular English for period 4B, which begins at 12:30 PM.  Today, three kids were absent, so I only had 35 in the room. (Note: in Utah, 35 is an average-sized class.)  I have a no hall pass policy; only kids with real emergencies involving vomit, a bloody nose, or a contact lens get hall passes, so most days, no one gets a hall pass.  Today was one of those normal days.
Period 4B ends at 1:55, but we went into soft lockdown at about 1:40.  I locked the relocatable door, reassured the kids that soft lockdown meant there was no real danger, and we kept working.
The bells were turned off, so we did not go to advisory class.  By 2:15, I was really regretting drinking a coke before 4B and was wondering when I'd get to use the restroom.  Also by 2:15, the kids had had enough of English work, and I told them to stop working on their group research projects and just chill for awhile.
But school privacy rules mean that very little info was available, and the kids grew uptight wondering what was happening.
Thank heaven for Twitter!  I pulled up the twitter feeds for  the Salt Lake Tribune, KSL TV, KUTV, and KTVX.  The first two were useless, but the latter two began to give us far more info than the school could release.
I read off to the kids that a boy from our school had had a gun and had fled, that he was somewhere east of the school, and that we were in no danger.  This helped calm the kids.
The end of school came, but we were not released.
Now, kids are not supposed to use their phones during an emergency so that satellite communications don't get overloaded, but I made a small exception.  I divided the kids into 3 groups and allowed each group 3 minutes to text their parents and such.  Nearly all the kids obeyed and shut off their phones when I promised I'd let them do it again if we were still stuck there in 15 minutes.
We were.
And 15 minutes beyond that.
By then it was 3:30, and they'd been in my room for three solid hours.  They were still behaving, but they'd been reduced to throwing paper at each other, and the room was getting pretty messy.  (Oh well. I'll have period 1A do a quick pick up tomorrow morning.)  I'd passed out all my bagged candy (teachers must buy their own candy; we may not be reimbursed for any candy), which helped cheer up the kids.
Finally, I saw one of the paraprofessionals at the door of the main building.  Literally pushing a couple of kids back into my room -- and knowing the kid gunman was nowhere near the school -- I stepped outside my relo (with my keys in hand) and begged her to call the office on her walkie to ask if I could escort my kids inside the building to use the bathroom!  (As it was a soft lockdown, kids everywhere except the two relos had been allowed controlled access to the restrooms.)  She assented, and five minutes later, the head custodian, the intern vice-principal, the school cop, and the paraprofessional lined up to herd my kids from my door into the auditorium.  From there I was able to take small groups to the restrooms.  (Thank heaven!)
At just before 4:00 PM, we received word to begin releasing the kids.  This was done classroom by classroom, and it took nearly 30 minutes to get them all herded out the front doors, with no kids being allowed to stop at lockers.
Outside were about 150 or so parents.  Most were behaving, but some got pretty nasty, trying to force their way in to get kids' cell phones.  While I was on door duty, not a single parent thanked the numerous police officers or any school employees for keeping their kids safe and under control for an extra hour and a half after school.   Not one.
When all the kids were out, we left the police in charge of dealing with the crowd and the media, and we were called in to a faculty meeting.  There we learned as much of the rest of the story as we were allowed to know (everything but the name of the kid -- but that's OK; all students will know it by tomorrow morning due to social media, so all we have to do is ask one of them).  The police found the boy, and he surrendered.  The gun was a toy.  No one was ever in danger.  But we did everything right.

So, what's it REALLY like during a major lockdown?
Mostly it's tiring.
Try to imagine being in a classroom with 35 9th graders for 3 1/2 hours without a single break.  That's what it's like.  :)
And I was lucky; I had 9th graders, not 7th graders.  And it was a reasonably good class.  They behaved pretty well, considering.  They followed my directions.  They did not go nuts on me.

All the same, I'm going to take a bucket to school -- just in case we're ever in a hard lockdown and we are forced to spend longer than 3 hours without bathroom access!  (No, I'm not kidding.  I've got a bucket ready to go for tomorrow.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

All In A Day's Randomness

We teachers like to help each other out, sharing lesson plans, books, whatever.  And because we constantly juggle with way too many balls in the air at any given time, sometimes we send out e-mails for help.  I have, for example, been able to fill an art teacher's need for a couple of dozen empty, clean yogurt and/or cottage cheese containers by the next day -- since my father is an artist and since I do a lot of crafts and it is just our habit to clean and save all such containers.
Today, however, all of us on the listserv got two e-mails requesting items that were even more random than usual.
From the counseling office:

(Yes, some teachers do own their old caps and gowns, but not too many teachers happen to keep theirs at school.)

And from a math teacher:

(Femurs.  Okey-dokey.  I'll see what I can do.  Hmmm..... maybe the neighbors' dogs.... *grins evilly*)
(PS.  Yes, at least two of us English teachers are geeky enough to know that he misquoted Hamlet in his first sentence.)

Yup.  I bet all you folks who work in offices never get e-mails like these. :D

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jeepers, Creepers! Where'd Ya Get Those Peepers?!

For your weekend amusement:
Horses wearing eye-fly protection "sunglasses" approach our car as we stop on Spanish Valley Road in Moab, Utah, October, 2014.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Usually I'm Apathetic About Team Sports....

.... but when a former student of mine becomes chaser for the Utah State University quidditch team, I do feel a bit proud.  :)
(Yes, he's holding a broomstick between his legs.)