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May 2013

Rating System

5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish

Reading Challenges

My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2017 February - January 2017-8



Stitches in Time: 05/31/13

cover artStitches in Time by Barbara Michaels is the final book in the Georgetown trilogy. Rachel Grant, a graduate student who is studying quilting traditions has taken a job in a vintage clothing shop. While she's there, three exquisite quilts are left there. They were stolen and one of them appears to be cursed.

Most of the events take place during the holiday season at the home attached to the clothing boutique. Rachel, left to watch the house and the quilts, also falls prey to the worst of the curse. On top of that, she has a jealous, abusive boyfriend to contend with.

While I enjoyed the descriptions of the quilt as well as the methods for creating them, I found the paranormal aspects of the plot mired in rather hackneyed gender stereotypes. I think even for the mid 1990s when this book was first published, I would have found them tiresome.

Three stars

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Mouse Bird Snake Wolf: 05/30/13

cover artMouse Bird Snake Wolf brings together David Almond and Dave McKean again. While The Savage explored the untapped anger of a boy over his father's death, this one looks at the power of human imagination.

This is the story of three children: Harry, Sue and little Ben who live on an unfinished world. The Gods, grown weary from work and smug from their successes, have left gaps in their work — unfinished bits. The children can sense these gaps and begin to imagine things to fill them — starting small with a mouse.

Creativity with uncensored power can lead to danger. I don't know if the gods had created predators yet (beyond mankind, of course). The wolf — the last animal in the title — is more than the children can handle.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The positives are certainly McKean's illustrations. I like his raw, untamed wildness — here though, molded into something magical and mythical.

I also love the idea of thoughts being able to transform everyday objects and give life to new ones. It reminds me of the thoughts bandied back and forth between Joshua and Lobsang in The Long Earth (review coming) about human imagination having an influence on the details of the various earths.

But the wolf is just sitting in my craw. I blame, I suppose, my recent reading of Winter Study (review coming) has tainted my ability to blindly accept the wolf as such a dangerous creation. Of course — that leads to the question — what should have been the last creation of the golem animals?

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cover artIn Too Deep: 05/29/13

In Too Deep by Jude Watson is the sixth of the original 39 Clues series. Tracking down a family memory, Dan and Amy go to Australia, hoping to learn more about their parents. On their trip, they are helped by a long lost relative — and Nellie reveals skills above and beyond the average teenage au pair.

The second half, though, cranks things up — putting Dan and Amy in the first real danger they've been in since The Maze of Bones. They must face another fire, a volcano, the death of one of their rivals, and the police.

Five stars

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Hattie Ever After: 05/28/13

cover artHattie Ever After by Kirby Larson is the sequel to Hattie Big Sky. When I first heard there was a sequel, I felt a charge of excitement. I read the book with huge expectations; Hattie Ever After not only met them, it surpassed them.

It's 1919 and Hattie is working and living at a boarding house. She is trying to pick up the pieces from losing her uncle's homestead. When a theater troupe offer her the opportunity to travel to San Francisco, she jumps at the chance.

San Francisco is an overwhelming city full of opportunities. The first few chapters in the City follow Hattie as she plays tourist and learns to navigate. Then she finds her niche and thrives. It was such a wonderful thing to see Hattie succeed (although she does have a few problems, too) after her struggles in the first book.

Included in these early chapters are reproductions of actual postcards that would have been on sale in 1919. In fact, it was the attention to detail that continues to make Hattie a relatable character, and her surroundings and adventures, believable.

Five stars

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Skeleton Man: 05/27/13

cover artSkeleton Man by Tony Hillerman and performed by George Guidall is the penultimate book in the Navajo Mysteries series. Retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn is put on the scent of a missing cache of diamonds after a diamond is stolen from the local trading post. A Hopi man is accused of the theft when he tries to pawn a similar diamond for $20.

While the Hopi sits in jail, stories surface about a lost briefcase of diamonds, as well as a denied inheritance. Those who want the diamonds, as well the woman who wants her rightful piece of her father's estate both go in search for these diamonds. They relate to a 1956 plane crash over the Grand Canyon. A diamond courier was on board. When his body was recovered, it was missing an arm and the attached briefcase. That case was reported spotted later in the Colorado river, tied up on some debris. But it was gone by the time the authorities were there to recover it.

Chee, researching the Hopi's claims that he was given the diamond, crosses paths with Leaphorn's investigation into the Trading Post robbery. Both cases rely on stories passed down through the generations, there is a lot of repetition of the events of the crash, as well as the report of the old man with the diamonds. For readers who don't like this level of repetition, I suggest either skimming these sections or skipping the book all together. Personally, I think the repetition worked well here, both thematically and for dispersing clues.

Five stars

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The Farming of Bones: 05/26/13

cover artThe Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat chronicles the slaughter of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic in the 1930s. The story is told through the eyes of Amabelle Desir, a Haitian orphan who has lived most of her life as a servant to a well to do family on the border between the countries.

Amabelle has already been through so much by the time the book opens. Her past is buried in her nightmares and soon she will be facing new dangers. Despite all the heartbreak, violence and death, Amabelle remains a survivor both in body and spirit.

The book reminds me most of Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. Both have humanity in flight, violence brought on by state sponsored bigotry and a stubborn will to survive. The language is beautiful and heartbreaking.

I learned of the book through Elise Blackwell's guest post. It was the first book on her list of recommended reads of historical fiction. She describes the genre as "lying to tell the truth." I plan to read through the remaining books that I haven't already read.

Recommended by Elise Blackwell

Four stars

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Exploding the Phone: 05/25/13

cover artI'm a little too young to have grown up in the phone phreak heyday, but as a toddler, I had neighbor who caught the tail end of it. Whenever there was a block party, he would round up us kids, take us to his room and show us a trick with the phone.

I can remember his tricks seeming like magic. To my toddler understanding of the world, the phone was a simple device — a box with either numbers for pushing (for fancy phones), or circle with finger holes that had the numbers 0 to 9 and letters above some of the holes for old fashioned numbers. It also had a hidden bell that would ring if a call came through. Making calls took picking up the phone, asking the operator or if you knew the number, dialing it.

What I didn't understand back then, was that between the two simple devices was a complex (and somewhat bodged together) system. The flaws and short cuts in the system were what made my neighbor's tricks possible.

Exploding the Phone by Philip Lapsley, then, is the history of the phone system in the early days, through the Ma Bell days, and the breakup of the company — and how users have explored and hacked the system in these different eras.

I really can't imagine a more perfect book for my personal library. I wish I also had a copy of The Phone Book by Ammon Shea as a companion piece. This book worked for me on so many levels: the early history, the lengthy but engaging description of the technology (both of the phone exchanges and that the phreaks used), and it's legacy effects on the infrastructure of the internet.

Although I originally read an egalley from NetGalley, I have since purchased a copy for my home library. I have lost track of how many people I have recommended the book to in the last couple of months.

Five stars

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The Perils of Peppermints: 05/24/13

cover artAt the close of Peppermints in the Parlor by Barbara Brooks Wallace, it appears that everything is lost. In The Perils of Peppermints, Emily's aunt and uncle are off to India and she is stuck in New York, being sent to a boarding school. She's cast aside after the birth of her cousin.

Although the setting is completely different, Emily recognizes the dreaded bowl of peppermints. She begins to suspect that the school's harsh rules and uneven treatment of its students is part of the same plot that left her family in ruin. With cunning and the help of her friend's cousin, she decides to get to the bottom.

As last time I had trouble with the written dialect of the previous book, I chose to listen to this book on audio. The dialect problems are still there, although being now set in New York, I found them less of a distraction since I'm less familiar with the dialects of the Five Burroughs.

Four stars

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Killer Pancake: 05/23/13

cover artKiller Pancake by Diane Mott Davidson is the fifth of the Goldy Bear mysteries. This is also the first one where she is married to Tom Schulz.

Independence Day is around the corner and Goldy is busy with a variety of patriotic events. Her big client, though, is Mignon Cosmetics — a local affair with BIG plans. The only problem — local animal rights protestors have gotten wind that they test on rabbits. Worse yet, Julian's new girl friend and employee of of Mignon, has been struck down in the mall parking lot and Julian is the prime suspect.

I found investigation between Mignon and a rival cosmetic company a lot more interesting and credible than the kidnapping plot of The Last Suppers. Although Goldie isn't a makeup wearer, she was still able to go undercover as a potential client. It's something a newlywed might do.

Now as I first started reading this series out of order (starting with Fatally Flaky), there are some characters introduced here who are expanded upon later. I found that tidbit a bit distracting, especially as I expected certain characters to resort to violence. Except that they didn't. Here they were minor parts in the ensemble.

This is also the novel where Goldy's coffee addiction gets out of hand. She pulls some long nights but also uses coffee as a coping mechanism. I don't think I could ever drink as much espresso as she manages without becoming violently ill.

Anyway, it was a fun book to listen to.

Five stars

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Life As We Knew It: 05/22/13

cover artLife As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is the first of The Last Survivors series in which the moon is knocked closer to Earth, forever changing the environment of the planet through higher, more erratic tides, volcanoes and intense storms.

The first book is told in first person journal entries over the course of a year by a sophomore named Miranda. She lives in semi-rural Pennsylvania, sheltered from the rising seas and raging volcanoes. She does, though, have to contend with a harsh winter, made worse by ash blocking the sun, no electricity, no heating oil and dwindling food supplies.

Miranda's very personal story — that of her family and the growing isolation from the rest of the world, then the country, the state, and finally the town until it seems its just Miranda, her mother and brothers, feels real. There's true human drama here. It does, though, take a sizable suspension of disbelief to accept the reason behind the sudden change in things.

My other small complaint is in the narration. The actress reading the book for the audio puts everything — every event good, bad or indifferent in the same perky voice. It's Miranda's birthday and she's happy! Miranda's life is on the line and by gum she still sounds happy! Miranda is bored out of her mind and yup, she still sounds happy!

Four stars

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Listening Woman: 05/21/13

cover artListening Woman by Tony Hillerman and performed by George Guidall is the third of the Navajo Mysteries series. Jim Chee still hasn't made an appearance, so it's all left to Joe Leaphorn to do the investigating.

As many of the other reviews note, there's a certain formula to Hillerman's mysteries. First, there's a horrific crime that could have extra significance in the context of Navajo culture — something that would be missed by anyone unfamiliar with the Diné. Then there's the investigation in which Joe (and later Jim) try to find the balancing point between the Navajo spiritual solution and a more mundane one.

In the case of Listening Woman, the book opens with a gruesome murder of an elderly man and a teenage girl. The Diné elder, a blind woman known as Listening Woman, hears the crime and describes the crime in terms of witches and other evil spirits.

Joe's investigation brings together events at a trading post that are a hundred years old, a pair of brothers — one now a priest — and the other a traditional Navajo. There is also a lot of talk of history at a local trading post — and I recommend you read Kurt W.G. Matthies's review as he goes into the historical significance of these passages in fascinating detail.

For me, though, the mystery is always of secondary concern for me in Hillerman's books. I get so caught up in Leaphorn (and Chee's) observations and the nuances of Diné culture and language that I often lose track of the plot. That is especially true when I'm listening to the audio books. For instance, in the case of the trading post, I mostly remember Leaphorn's thoughts on a man's hat and missing hatband. The significance of the missing hat and the man's physical features that mark him as a Diné from a different region, has stuck with me more so than how those observations were clues in solving the crime.

Four stars

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The Burning Wire: 05/20/13

cover artThe Burning Wire by Jeffery Deaver is the 9th of the Lincoln Rhyme mysteries and the first one I've attempted to read. Rather, let me say, listen to. I borrowed the audio book from a friend. His tastes and mine usual match up but couldn't be farther from the case here.

The book opens in a control room where the power grid in and out New York City is being monitored. One after another substations begin to fail, leaving the last one up and running and threatening to overheat. The man in charge there has the option to go for a rolling blackout and chickens out. Instead he calls the CEO who for reasons that only serve the plot but don't otherwise make sense (unless he was paying of the bad guy under the table) orders the power be kept on. Then there's an arc flash and a man getting onto a bus is killed.

But mixed in with that plot, there's a whole bunch of repeated details. Just imagine a 1950s film strip announcer proclaiming: BEHOLD THE POWER OF ELECTRICITY. Then imagine Sergeant Friday pontificating about the ways of forensics, and you'll get a feel for the investigative side of the book.

Either or both of those problems, I might have been able to deal with. The final detail, though, that made me give up after four discs of a twelve disc book was the narrator. There are actual audible YAWNS at the start of sentences. If the person PAID to read the book is bored, what does that say about the book?

One star

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The Mummy Case: 05/19/13

cover artThe Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters is the third of the Amelia Peabody series. It's the 1894-5 season in Egypt and she, her husband and their young son, "Ramses" are back. They had wanted the pyramids at Dashoor but poor planning on Radcliffe Emerson's part and his lack of social tact has relegated the Emerson crew to Mazghunah.

It also happens to be my third time reading the book. The first and second times I read the book, I did so in print form. In both cases, while I loved the location (even if Peabody didn't), I absolutely wanted to strangle her overly precious and lisping son. This third time, I am listening to the books in order on audio, as performed by Barbara Rosenblat. I'm listening to them specifically for her performances.

So, that brings me back to Ramses. Except for Goldie's teenage son, Arch, I haven't heard Rosenblat do a child's vice. I certainly haven't heard her do one as young as Ramses is these earliest books. As The Mummy Case is the first one where the Emerson spawn has a major part to play. Well, she pulls it off — well enough to make Ramses an almost plausible and almost likable character.

Back to Mazhunah — the Emersons are working out of the ruins of an old Coptic monastery. It's also a reminder of the religious turf wars going on in the nearby village between the Copts, the Muslims and now Fundamentalist missionaries from the United States (shudder). In all this back and forth between the religious leaders is a shell game involving mummy cases and bits of Coptic papyri.

There's a bunch of other stuff too — a lion cub, fires and the first appearance of the "Master Criminal" who is the second most annoying character in the series. Yet — it's all good in audio. It makes for an entertaining and somewhat cornball radio play.

Four stars

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People of Darkness: 05/18/13

cover artPeople of Darkness by Tony Hillerman is the fourth of the Navajo mysteries and the introduction of Jim Chee. Chee is hired as a private consultant to figure out who stole the apparently worthless rocks left in a wealthy man's box. Meanwhile, Leaphorn is curious about an old mining disaster that now seems to be connected with a spate of cancer deaths. In the middle of all of this, there's a man driven mad by his desire for revenge.

Hillerman's mysteries seem to bring together the old and the new, especially after the introduction of Jim Chee. As the younger of the two he gets the active cases — though usually as an officer of the Navajo Police. Joe Leaphorn, gets the gossip and cold cases and through patience, and the willingness to sit through many a long story, is able to see how the gossip fits together and (often) relates to the modern day case at hand.

People of Darkness was one of those rare Hillerman books where I was on the same page with Leaphorn. Usually I'm more of a Jim Chee person and I fail to see the big picture as it is unfolding before me. This time, though, I began to see how everything fit together in one of Leaphorn's earliest meetings to hear about the mining disaster and the belief that witchcraft was behind the cancer taking the survivors one by one.

Even though I saw how it fit all together, I still enjoyed the mystery. I listened to it on audio, performed by George Guidall. He has the perfect voice for these books.

Five stars

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Beyond the Grave (39 Clues, #4): 05/17/13

cover artBeyond the Grave by Jude Watson is the 4th of the original 39 Clues series. It takes the Cahill siblings to Egypt — first to Cairo and then along the Nile to historical points of interest.

Book four breaks with the format of having two countries to visit, to focus more generally on both the history of ancient Egypt as well as the development of Egyptology starting with Napoleon's explorations into Egypt.

As Amy and Dan learn about Egypt, they get a glimpse into the life and times of their grandmother. Although most of the other families aren't in this book, there are still some hair-raising scenes, including one in a submarine.

Four stars

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The Curse of the Pharaohs: 05/16/13

cover artThe Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters was published six years after The Crocodile on the Sandbank and takes place five years after the events described therein.

In those five years, Amelia and Radcliffe have gotten married and had their one child — a precocious (and sometimes strangle worthy) son, Walter Peabody "Ramses" Emerson. In this book, thankfully, he's still in his infancy and toddlerdom, and unable to travel with his folks when they are called back to Egypt to finish the work of the late Lord Baskerville.

After a lengthy introduction, highlighting the Emersons trying to live a domestic life in Kent, the book moves to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Along with the tomb with its unusual construction and long sprung booby-traps, the Emersons take on an odd cast of characters — a morbidly obese psychic who claims to be Emerson's lover from a previous lifetime (think a plot borrowed from The Mummy), a reporter who has invented a curse, a photographer with a big secret, a wealthy American, the psychic's meek daughter and an Egyptian mau, who is probably the most sensible character in the lot.

For anyone who as read The Laughter of Dead Kings, the last of the Vicky Bliss novels, will recognize the setting. In that novel, Vicky, unknowingly, retraces Amelia's footsteps. For me, this connection between the two series was the most fun part of the mystery.

As this was also a re-read via Barbara Rosenblat's audio performance, I already knew who had done it and why. It didn't matter. It was a fun re-read.

Four stars

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Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains: 05/15/13

cover artUp and Down the Scratchy Mountains by Laurel Snyder is is the tale of an unlikely friendship between a farmer's daughter, Lucy, and a prince, Wynston. When King Desmond insists his son spend his time learning how to be a proper prince, Lucy decides it's high time to find her missing mother.

It takes a while for the adventure part of the book to get underway. The initial set up of the kingdom and the characters has a similar feel to A Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

The trips up and down the mountain (one each for Lucy and Wyston) are the best parts of the book. Lucy's traveling companions are unusual and utterly charming. The mountain itself has some remarkable features and memorable inhabitants.

But the book just doesn't gel as well as Penny Dreadful. I would however love to re-visit the characters, especially with the unique compromise the king and Lucy's father make to accommodate their children's wishes.

Three stars

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Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure: 05/14/13

cover artGentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure by Michael Chabon is self described in the Afterword as "Jews with swords!" It's set in the 10 century and if you care to slog through the H. Rider Haggard inspired prose, has lots of derring do.

Frankly, beyond the concept of "Jews with swords" and the lovely line drawings that paper the book, I found the book an absolute boring chore to read. It was among the longest 200 pages I've slogged through in a good long while.

The thing is, I didn't buy the friendship between these travelers. The motivation for their travels is obfuscated in excessive wordage that basically comes down to "because I said so."

Two stars

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My Friend Is Sad: 05/13/13

cover artMy Friend Is Sad by Mo Willems is the second of the Elephant and Piggie series for early readers. Gerald is sad and Piggie does everything she can to cheer him up.

This is the book that establishes how strong their friendship is. Piggie dresses up as all number of characters to cheer up Gerald. He does briefly but every time he does, he realizes he wants to share the experience with Piggie. He doesn't, though, realize that it's Piggie doing all these impersonations.

That's another big theme with their friendship — good natured misunderstandings. Piggie and Gerald aren't always on the same page but they often think they are. But they always mean well.

Five stars

Five stars

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Fangbone! Third-Grade Barbarian: 05/12/13

cover artFangbone! Third-Grade Barbarian by Michael Rex is the start of a graphic novel series about a young barbarian sent to Earth to find an army and to keep a magical toe bone safe.

The primitive in the future type story is nothing new. Think of Fangbone as Encino Man or Hercules in New York for the elementary set. Fangbone, though young, is a competent warrior and, oddly, a people person.

Fangbone ends up in modern day, at an elementary school. Since's he's not prepared — doesn't know the culture, can't read, is dressed in fur underwear — he's sent to the special class. Remarkably, he fits right in.

It's a cute book and was nominated for a CYBILS. The artwork is silly — similar to the Lunch Lady or Captain Underpants books. It's also a quick read. There are two more books in the series and I plan to read them.

Four stars

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Boy + Bot: 05/11/13

cover artBoy + Bot by Ame Dyckman, with illustrations by Dan Yaccarino, is another unusual friendship book. A pinecone collecting boy finds a robot in the forest. Though they are very different, they are instant friends.

The robot runs low on charge, so the boy tries to fix it. He tries every home remedy that his mother uses. Then, of course, just as the bot comes to, the boy falls asleep and we get to see the robot home remedies.

It's a cute book and up for a number of awards. But it didn't WOW me like it has other reviewers. It comes down the line after many "something and something" type or "something vs something" books. My favorite of this recent crop is still Shark vs. Train. I didn't think Boy + Bot pushed the envelope as much as it could have.

Four stars

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Bake Sale: 05/10/13

cover artBake Sale by Sara Varon is the story of a pair of friends trying to save up enough money to go to Turkey. Cupcake runs a bakery. Eggplant likes to play in a band. Eggplant has relatives in Turkey, one of whom knows the world famous Turkish Delight — a baking guru that Cupcake would love to meet.

At first it looks like Cupcake, with Eggplant's help, can earn enough extra money in his store to travel with Eggplant to Turkey. But things happen, as they often do, and Cupcake has to work overtime. Responsibilities at the bakery get in the way of playing in the band. Without that time together in band practice, the two friends drift apart.

It's a sweet little story about the sort of bumps friendship go through when responsibilities and commitments get in the way.

The artwork is colorful and engaging. Though designed on real world foods — they are still cute and full of personality. The friendship as unlikely as it seems for an eggplant and a cupcake, it's pulled off here.

Four stars

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Little Blog on the Prairie: 05/09/13

cover artLittle Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell is about Gen Welsh and her family spending a grueling and frustrating summer living in the "frontier" for their summer vacation. They are forced to compete against other families and are graded on their progress. Meanwhile Gen uses her smuggled in cell phone to micro blog about the experience in texts she sends to a friend.

Gen and her family are a typical tween/YA dysfunctional family thrown into an unusual situation. Their part of the story, while by the books, is rather well told. The few blog posts we get to read from Gen are actually hilarious. Had the entire book been written as a series of texts — such as the internet girls series by Lauren Myracle, or the diary posts from the Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennisen, I would have given this book five stars.

Although the book is still told from Gen's first person point of view, it's told not through her writing, but more from an internal dialog. This gives Bell more time to show off how Camp Frontier works and it's in these details that the book falls apart.

The camp is set in rural Wyoming. No problem. Wyoming is still the least densely populated state with 5.1 people per mile (compared to a national average of 79.7) (2010 U.S. Census data). The owners claim that their camp is reproducing life as it was in 1890. It is here — this date — that things fall apart. 1890 is the year that the U.S. census reported the need to draw a frontier line (defined as having a population density of less than 2.2 people per square mile on average) on its maps. Thus the frontier was proclaimed "closed."

Bell in the Afterword credits inspiration for her novel on two things: The Little House on the Prairie television series and PBS's Frontier House. While the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were semi-autobiographic (with details simplified and infant deaths removed), the television series is a far cry from anything close to actual rural life on the American prairie in the 1870s-1880s. Frontier House, while also contrived, was based in an earlier, but legitimately late frontier year — 1883.

One of things the camp owners try to drill into their campers' minds is the importance of self reliance, yet they offer no training (beyond what their daughter offers in an off handed way). The families are told that these were life skills that anyone in 1890 would have. Not necessarily. Those with the means (meaning money) would have hired help in the form of maids or farmhands. Those who didn't want to bother at all with rural life (which were at least two of the families described in the book) would have lived in town.

1890 had a lot more technology than Camp Frontier was either willing to admit or provide: photography, motion pictures, telegraphs, telegrams (Western Union was already 44 years old), telephones (party lines were making it out to rural areas), washing machines (not electric yet), a well established train system (better so than today in some regards) and mail order catalogs. Trains and catalogs made it much easier to import the finer things of city life.

To sum up, then, my biggest complaint with the book is that enough wasn't done to highlight how contrived Camp Frontier was as described. Choosing whether by accident or on purpose the closure of the American frontier as the date to recreate and completely ignoring this piece of history is a HUGE MISSED opportunity.

Three stars

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Let's Go for a Drive: 05/08/13

cover artLet's Go for a Drive by Mo Willems is the eighteenth Elephant and Piggie book. It's also one of my favorites. I know it seems like I say that about each and every one, but this time I really mean it.

Gerald and Piggie decide it's time to go for a drive. They're very thorough and go through all the items on their list for a successful drive.

But — the kicker is of course the most obvious thing — the car. Do they have one? Do they know how to drive? Maybe they should hire Cat the Cat as their chauffeur because the answer to the previous questions is no.

My son, age 2 prentending to drive my car.

Five stars

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Crocodile on the Sandbank: 05/07/13

cover artCrocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters begins the 18 volume long Amelia Peabody series. It was first published in 1975 but I didn't "discover" the series until 1989. I was sixteen and teaching myself how to speed read. I think in my enthusiasm, I missed a bunch of details and I've been misremembering things ever since. The biggest memory gaff was my belief that Amelia Peabody was American (although I knew the Emersons were British).

About a year ago, a book club friend turned me onto audio books. They're great for my commute or for when I'm cooking or folding laundry. The book that got me hooked was Fatally Flaky by Diane Mott Davidsonn. It was performed by Barbara Rosenblat. She happens to also do Elizabeth Peters two series: Amelia Peabody and Vicky Bliss. I decided for giggles to re-read the Amelia Peabody series on audio and do the series in order.

The book opens with thirty-something Amelia Peabody inheriting money from her late father. She decides to travel to Europe to enjoy the freedom afforded a spinster with funds. Her original traveling companion falls ill while in Italy. While on her own, Amelia encounters a young British woman who has been living in Italy in deplorable conditions. To save the young woman and to continue with her plans of visiting Egypt, Amelia takes the young waif on as her new traveling companion.

Although later books focus on Amelia (or Peabody as she's mostly called later on) and her work as an Egyptologist, Crocodile on the Sandbank is her first trip to Egypt and her only trip as a single woman. This book, then is our introduction to the country, its history under British occupation, and to the early days of Egyptology. It's written in the form of a fictional travelogue and while Amelia promises her "dear reader" that she will avoid such a book. Later volumes are more character oriented (almost annoyingly so, sometimes).

The mystery, part, then, doesn't come until well after Amelia Peabody and companion Evelyn are arrived in Armana and introduced to the brothers Emerson: Walter and Radcliffe (just about the only time he's known by his first name). It's also one of those rare, mundane mysteries — no master criminal (a character who first surfaces in The Mummy Case).

In listening to the book after more than a decade of first reading it, I only had a few concrete memories of details. I remembered Amelia and Evelyn's meeting (though not the location). I remembered Evelyn paining a copy of the floor everyone was working so carefully to preserve. I remember the floor being destroyed. I also remembered who the murderer was but not who he was collaborating with.

All in all I enjoyed listening to the book. I have a few quibbles with Rosenblat's voice for Amelia. Her British accent is a little too put on — reminding me of the haughty overtones used by the mayor's wife in The Music Man. As it's an early audio for Rosenblat and the first in the series, I'll let it slide. I've heard later ones in the series and Amelia's voice and accent are tempered

Four stars

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Vacationers From Outer Space: 05/06/13

cover artVacationers From Outer Space by Edward Valfre is about an intergalactic road trip. It starts innocently enough with a regular family getting ready for a long and potentially boring road trip. The kids in the back decide to imagine that the earth is about to be invaded and only they know.

The book is illustrated with retro style photographs of kitchy diners and other 1950s Americana. This gives a sense of nostalgia that parents might pick up on as they read it to kids.

It would be a good book to read just before summer vacation starts or maybe on the first day of school to start up the traditional "what I did on summer vacation" discussion going.

Three stars

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Ramblings of a Wild for Words Woman

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The Snowman: 05/05/13

cover artThe Snowman by Raymond Briggs is in the style of Frosty the Snowman but told only in pictures. A boy spends the day building a man sized snowman and that night the snowman comes alive.

First the snowman explores the world inside the boy's house. He learns about dinner, TV, the fire place and all sorts of other domestic things. To him the house is an exotic, curious, sometimes magical and sometimes dangerous place.

In return for the boy's kindness, the snowman takes him on a nighttime journey. They fly to Russia and take in the sites. To the boy it's a far away, icy, curious place. To the snowman, perhaps it feels more like home.

The book has an open-ended conclusion. For children learning story structure, The Snowman could be used to open the discussion on how stories are told and how they can be interpreted. It could also be used to get children to provide their own version of the story to accompany the panels.

The book won the Horn Book Award for picture books in 1979 as well as the Zilvren Griffel award the same year. In other words, I was five when the book was first published. I could have read it when it was newly in print, but I don't don't think I did.

Five stars

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Babymouse: Beach Babe: 05/04/13

cover artSo far Babymouse has been a graphic novel series I've only read in the context of being a Cybils judge. Coming in to the series so late and not being a fan of the color pink has made me a reluctant reader. I have decided to give the series a go while not acting as a judge to see if I can come to appreciate it on my own terms.

Babymouse: Beach Babe by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm is the second book in the series. In it Babymouse is waiting for the start of summer while day dreaming of surfing waves the size you only see at places like Mavericks.

After cleaning out her locker (in which she uncovers all sorts of odd things including some mythical creatures), Babymouse gets the great news that her family will be spending the summer at the beach. It does mean a long car ride with baby brother Squeak who gets car sick but it's worth it.

Babymouse gets to try surfing, snorkeling, hunting for shells, sandcastle building and all sorts of other beach activities. Through out her imagination gets away with her. Brother Squeak gets underfoot but ultimately Babymouse learns that her brother is the perfect person to pal around with.

Babymouse: Beach Babe is so far one of my favorites from the series. It has a coherent story line and Babymouse is presented as a charming and sympathetic character instead of lazy and demanding as she sometimes is. I'm still not fond of the excess of pink but I'm willing to accept that it's part of the graphic design for the series.

Five stars

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Airborn: 05/03/13

cover artAirborn by Kenneth Oppel is the first of the Matt Cruse series. Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the luxury airship Aurora. He was born on an airship (a rare occurance) and his father died working on the Aurora. Matt, now, desperately wants to have the career taken from his father but a newly appointed Academy graduate has taken the job of assistant sail maker.

Now into the mix of this coming of age story of a cabin boy learning a hard lesson, add a heaping scoop of Robert Louis Stevenson pirates with a heathy dollop of the lost world exploration of a Jules Verne story. To top it off, frost it with a plucky young woman with a thirst for adventure.

All of this adventure is set in an alternate world. Oppel does a wonderful job of fleshing out this world, starting with the recognizable (the destination — Australia). Then he adds in the details, new names for oceans, a mango scented element needed for lighter than air travel. And finally he tosses in the unexplored — creatures even the people of the Pacificus don't know about.

As it happens, I listened to the audio — twice. It was produced by Fullcast Audio. While I appreciate their desire to turn a ripping yarn into a theatric production, I think they often go too far. Matt Cruse who serves both as narrator and protagonist, suffers from the usual problem of these Fullcast Audio performances: too much earnestness.

The written word has moments of rest, of the quietly mundane — passages that should be read quietly, and perhaps with some flatness of voice. NEVER can one of these performers do that. I suspect they are directed to act each and every word with complete heart and soul. It comes off as insincere, melodramatic and sometimes slap worthy.

Four stars

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Jane Goes Batty: 05/02/13

cover artJane Goes Batty by Michael Thomas Ford is the sequel to Jane Bites Back. In the last book, Jane had finally managed to get her final novel published, one she had started working on before her vampire days. Her book was well received in the current atmosphere of Jane Austen mania, and now it's time to write her second book as Jane Fairfax — can she find her voice?!

While Jane is trying to write and is getting more and more behind deadline to the point of getting threatening calls from her publisher, she has to contend with her book being turned into a movie, and with wedding planning. There's just one BIG problem — her future mother-in-law HATES her.

Meanwhile, Byron still can't keep it in his pants. Nor can he resist turning his current obsessions into vampires. Byron creates more problems than he solves for Jane and company.

Jane Goes Batty is a wonderful potpourri of social commentary, satire and campy vampirism. Ford manages to poke fun at the movie industry, publishing, American Judaism, and the Jane Austen fandom while still telling a coherent page-turner. There were many times when I had to stop reading so I could read aloud a passage to my husband or explain to him why I was laughing like a complete git.

The third in the series is Jane Vows Vengeance. I am looking forward to reading it.

Five stars

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The Fifteenth Pelican: 05/01/13

cover artA couple years ago our local independent television channel aired in order every episode of The Flying Nun. After seeing the "based on the novel by..." for the dozenth time or so, I decide to track down a copy of the novel and see how it compared to the series.

The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios is a slim and adorably illustrated novel. It essentially reads like first episode except that there's a bite to the humor absent in series.

While it may seem like an odd place to start, I recommend reading the Afterword first — even if you're familiar with the show. It's a reproduction of an article about the Sisters of Charity redesigning their habits along more conventional lines. The author offers the hypothesis that Sr. Bertrille's misadventures in windy San Juan, Puerto Rico might be the inspiration.

With that in mind, Sr. Bertrille is introduced as being about ninety pounds of enthusiastic youth. She arrives aboard ship with a fruit basket in hand. The basket and the fact that she's made friends with the sailors, puts her immediately at odds with with proper and strict Mother Superior.

Add to the fact that her light body and oversized and oddly aerodynamic habit gives her lift in the crosswinds that blow across the island — and Mother Superior doesn't know what to do with her newest nun.

Five stars

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