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August 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




Dandelion: 08/31/13

cover artDandelion by Don Freeman is the story of a lion who wants to look his best of a party being held at Giraffe's house. He primps and preens and gets a new suit and hat.

Poor Dandelion, though, isn't recognized by his friend and isn't let into the party! Before he can do anything his new look is ruined by the weather. Worse yet, he's scolded for being late (when he arrives wet, but in his normal clothing).

The illustrations are done in the colors of spring — goldenrod, pink, orange and black and white. Although Dandelion's checkered sports jacket and cravat looks dated, the pictures are still visually appealing.

My only complaint — and something my daughter picked up on too — is the strange behavior of the Giraffe. To make the "be yourself" moral work, she has to not recognize him. But what sort of friend is she that she doesn't know her own friend when he dresses differently. More importantly, why is she so rude? Perhaps Dandelion needs better friends.

Four stars

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Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your... Brains: 08/30/13

Book CoverZombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your... Brains by Ryan Mecum is a small collection of haiku that tells of a man in the early days of a zombie apocalypse.

The author presents the book as a reproduction of a journal found in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. It is lovingly reproduced with the mud, grime, blood and guts that were presumably splattered as the man first ran for his life and later succumbed to becoming a zombie.

Although mixing a Japanese poetry form with an American B movie horror story seems like an unlikely pairing, it works remarkably well. These snatches of verse give a sense of character and as well as a rough timeline for the unnatural disaster. At the same time, the book isn't bogged down with either unnecessary amounts of gore or the character building of multiple characters who will invariably succumb to the zombies.

Four stars

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Man in the Empty Suit: 08/29/13

cover artTime travel stories fall somewhere between two extremes: the NEVER let the traveler cross his time stream and being able to cross repeatedly without consequences. Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell falls near to the no consequences side.

The un-named protagonist has been visiting the same hotel on his 100th birthday for a number of years. The event has become a convention for all his previous and future versions. But this time, one version of himself has been found murdered.

When there are potentially infinite versions of a character, it's very easy to end up in a world populated by nothing but that character. See for example, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold or Meanwhile by Jason Shiga. All of those versions end up cluttering the scenery.

So the murder mystery is Ferrell's out. When the a version of the MC is found dead and that for the sake of the timeline and our MC's memories, possibly be, then there's a reason to explore beyond the bounds of the hotel and beyond the bounds of this repetitive timeline.

I'm taking one star off because I though the repetitive timeline aspect (the first half) of the book took too long. That concept has been done so many times before. It's not until after the murder that Man in the Empty Suit differentiates itself.

Four stars

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Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen: 08/28/13

Book CoverRevenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin is a novel comprised of nearly four dozen interconnected pieces — essays, short stories, erotica, retellings of Buddhist tales. Somewhere in this rat's nest of stories is supposed to be the story of sisters living with their strict grandmother, being forced to deliver Chinese food ordered from the family restaurant — and the revenge they take on their worst customers.

Maybe it was the era (the 1980s) or maybe it was the location (Southern California), but the raunchiness (excuse me, erotica) was a hinderance to the plot, instead of something poetic or thought provoking.

I ended up skimming the book, skipping to the next chapter when things got too disgusting or too unbelievable. Except for the story of the grandmother terrorizing the neighborhood, the rest of the book has slipped my mind.

Your reading experience though may vary.

Two stars

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Lizard: 08/27/13

cover artBanana Yoshimoto is one of those authors who has snuck up on me. Long before I was book blogging for fun, I came across Amrita at the local library. I think it was the same trip that I came home with a little book called Stardust by Neil Gaiman. In both cases, it took another five or so years for it to click that Yoshimoto and Gaiman were authors worth reading.

Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto is a collection of six short stories, all with a magical realism bent. For readers looking for a way into Japanese literary fiction who are perhaps struggling with the longer works of Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto's short story collections are perfect.

Four stars

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Catch That Cat: 08/26/13

cover artCatch That Cat by Monika Beisner is a beginner's riddle book. Built around the theme of cats and beautifully illustrated, this book is a collection of optical illusions, simple ciphers, and hidden picture puzzles.

For emergent readers Catch the Cat is a good read-together book. That's what Harriet and I did the first time through the book. I thought I would need to help her with the riddles but she was able to get most of them on her own.

Later as her reading improved she continued to re-read Catch that Cat. I think we kept it out of the library for the full nine weeks we were allowed. It received many re-reads in that time.

Five Stars

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The Tenth Good Thing About Barney: 08/25/13

cover artIn The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst a boy grieves for his beloved cat. They had grown up together and now the boy doesn't know how to move on.

His parents plan a burial for Barney and they give their son a task: write down all the good things he remembers about the cat. Most of the book are the boy's list and how he's trying to cope.

It's a sad but necessary book. I'm sure I'll end up turning to The Tenth Good Thing About Barney when Caligula cat's life ends. My daughter is so close to both our cats, she will need this extra help.

Four stars

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Pocketful of Posies: 08/24/13

cover artPocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Salley Mavor won the Horn picture book award in 2011. It's well deserving of the award, being the mostly uniquely styled nursery rhyme collection I've ever seen.

Salley Mavor sews miniature dolls, animals and other items to build the scenes for these nursery rhymes. The items used include naturally died wool, buttons, lace, beads, and sequence. The collection itself has poems and rhymes the author / illustrator remembers from her own childhood.

The rhymes are a good mixture of classics and lesser known ones. There's an index that is searchable by first lines. The wide range of selected poems combined with the outstanding and unique illustrative style make this book stand out.

Five stars

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Stitch Head: 08/23/13

cover artStitch Head by Guy Bass is an illustrated novel about Professor Erasmus's first creation. Stitch Head, created before Erasmus was a mad scientist, has been doing his best for decades to keep his creator's creations under control.

Now, though, Stitch Head is being wooed by a shady ringmaster looking for a new headliner for his traveling circus. He does his best to ignore these offers, while being followed around the castle by the latest creation — something resembling Frankenstein's monster.

Besides the ring master and the usual chaos within the castle, the villagers are growing restless. Years and years of living in the shadow of Castle Grotteskew have made them wary — if not down right paranoid.

In the background is Stitch Head's origin story and his desire to be loved again by his creator. The newest creation through question and answers helps Stitch Head rethink his unquestioning loyalty to Erasmus.

It's an odd but memorable coming of age story. In terms of basic plot, and in the black and white illustrations, Stitch Head looks like something out of a Tim Burton film (Edward Scissorhands coming first to mind).

Three stars

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The Boggart: 08/22/13

cover artThe Boggart by Susan Cooper is about a mischievous magical creature who suddenly finds itself in Canada. After the death of the old Laird and his dog, the Volnik family — distant relatives — inherit the old Castle Keep.

The Boggart's main problem is ending up with a family who doesn't believe in magic. As the castle didn't come with instructions re magical beings, his pranks both at the castle and later in in the Volnik's home go unnoticed at first. Rather than stop (as that's not in its nature) he resorts to bigger and bigger pranks until they become dangerous!

Although the book is dated (especially in terms of the computer hardware that's central to the plot) it's still an enjoyable read. I listened to it on audio and found myself sucked right in.

There's a sequel called The Boggart and the Monster (1997).

Five stars

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The Last Camel Died at Noon: 08/21/13

Cover artThe Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters is the sixth book in the Amelia Peabody mystery series. It (for better or worse) marks a turning point in the series through the introduction of a new regular character — Nefret. If you find Ramses's personal life uninteresting or you have a problem believing in lost civilizations living under the radara, this book marks the end of the line for you!

These Amelia Peabody books have always been a serious nod to H. Rider Haggard's romantic adventures. In this book, Peabody, Emerson and Ramses get to live on Haggard's books. They are lured to Sudan by return of British control over certain areas, thus freeing up entire dig sites. Once there, they are lured further by the appearance of Mr. Forthright who has a fantastic tale of his missing family, and an old map on papyrus that is too good to be true.

The first half of the book is the standard, comfortable and formulaic mystery set up. But, where the dead body should be, instead, there's a mysterious secret civilization. There's a modern rendition of the ancient Egyptian language that (of course!) Ramses has a natural ear for. There is a power vacuum in the society's leadership and the whole thing is verged on civil war.

The first time I read this book, it took me a long long long very long time to want to read any more of Amelia Peabody's adventures. The whole thing was just too ridiculous for me.

This time, in my attempt to re-read the entire thing on audio, I was still feeling nervous. Although the story is still preposterous, Barbara Rosenblat throws herself into the reading and somehow makes it work. She puts such a tone of contempt in Amelia's voice that it appears she is perpetually annoyed at her situation.

Four stars

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Sticks & Scones: 08/20/13

cover artSticks & Scones by Diane Mott Davidson is the tenth of the Goldy Bear culinary mystery series. Goldy's catering business is still on hold because of the drains. Her PBS show has ended and now she's working as a live in caterer in an authentic castle brought to Colorado brick by brick some decades earlier.

As most of this story is set within the old castle, there's a bit of a ghost story tossed in. As Goldy learns the history of the castle and its move to Colorado, she also hears of a ghost story of a child who died of pneumonia.

It seems that every book Tom Schulz has some sort of reason to be out of the picture in terms of being able to help with the investigation, even though he works for the county sheriff's department. This time it's because he's been shot in the line of duty.

But it was the castle and it's history — ancient and recent — that kept me listening to the audio. There are a lot of fascinating details both how old castles functioned and the work needed to modernize them.

Five stars

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Storm Front: 08/19/13

cover artStorm Front is by Jim Butcher is the first of the Dresden Files books. Harry Dresden is a (and perhaps the only) professional wizard working in the Chicago area. He also sometimes tags along as a consultant on police cases.

As the bills are piling up, Dresden takes a less than promising case. A woman wants help finding her husband except she won't give up his name or their address. This smacks of the Maltese Falcon, but with magic involved.

Then to complicate matters, Dresden is pulled onto a grisly murder investigation. Clearly from the destruction to these bodies, magic has been used. Anyone who knows their mystery genre (and that's really what this is, despite the urban fantasy elements) will know these two cases have to be linked.

The figuring out how, as well as the magical danger that the investigations entail, is what makes Storm Front a fun read. I happened to listen to the audio, read by James Marsters. He gives Dresden the right level of disinterest, making the magic he lives and works with, an ordinary and oft-times boring part of the landscape.

Four stars

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Winter Study: 08/18/13

Cover artWinter Study by Nevada Barr is the fourteenth Anna Pigeon mystery and the first one I've listened to as read by Barbara Rosenblat. Anna has returned to Lake Superior (see also A Superior Death, this time in winter time, to help with the tracking of the wolves. The program is under scrutiny and it might be the last winter season to run the program.

Barr's descriptions of the brutality of winter on Lake Superior are chilling (excuse the pun). Here the weather forces the usual recalcitrant Anna to work with her cohorts, and worse, follow their lead. Unfortunately for her, the close knit family dynamic has been upset by the inclusion of both Anna and a pair of scientists from Homeland Security.

Almost immediately it's obvious that things on Isle Royale are out of kilter. The wolves are acting strange and winter starvation is taking its toll on the moose population. Anna begins to imagine the island being haunted by the windigo and evidence of larger than normal wolf prints give credence to her daydreams. Within these scenes, though, there are hints to what is actually going on. An observant reader will figure out the pieces. The danger created by the weather as well as close confinement, will compel the reader to continue, though.

Winter Study was one of the most difficult audios I've listened to for its graphic depiction of violence. There are some gory descriptions of the blood against the snow that are both poetic and stomach churning — especially when listened to.
But it's tactfully done and an essential part of the story. It needs to be there to understand the actions Anna and the others take at the end of their time on Isle Royale.

Four stars

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The Summoning: 08/17/13

Cover artThe Summoning is by Kelley Armstrong is the first of the Darkest Powers trilogy. I listened to the entire series on audio, but in retrospect, I think I should have just read the books in print.

Chloe Saunders lives with her father. After moving around for most of her childhood — after the death of her mother — it looks like they will be settling down in New York City. She's eager to make new friends, have a normal routine of homework, and eventually go to film school.

Chloe, though nearly sixteen, is small for her age and somewhat under developed. One of the BIG events that sets this whole trilogy off is her getting her first period. That was one detail that made me roll my eyes numerous times early on.

Along with her new found womanhood is the ability to see and talk to ghosts. Except she doesn't want to believe that and the ghosts scare the dickens out of her. Her hysteria gets her put into Lyle House for troubled teens.

Chloe continues to be visited by ghosts. And she begins to suspect that the other teens have powers. Not only that but Chloe and the others are in serious danger.

Although I enjoyed the mystery of Lyle House and following Chloe as she came into her powers, I do have some trouble with the audio. The first is in how Chloe, the protagonist and narrator, is voiced. She's given a high pitched, breathy voice, that makes her sound like she's twelve. I know she's small and mistaken for younger than she is, but a slightly older, less chipper voice would have been more believable.

The other problem is how many times Chloe is brought out of her internal monolog (mostly movie related) by the sound of her own name. It's always said in a very menacing, drawn out way — CLOE-ee. Mind you, much of the time, she is in danger, but not all the characters are out to get her. A little variation in tone would have been nice especially as she does make friends with the other teens.

Four stars

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Sorcerers & Secretaries, Volume 1: 08/16/13

cover artSorcerers & Secretaries, Volume 1 by Amy Kim Ganter is a two part graphic novel series, done in a manga style. Volume 1 introduces Nicole Hayes, an artist who is stuck studying for a career her mother wants her to have, and a terrible job as a receptionist to pay her bills. When she has free time, she draws in a journal.

Nicole's journal drawings form the basis for the second plot in this series. There is a powerful wizard who has powers stripped for his arrogance. As a wanderer he goes in search for something that will restore himself to his former glory.

In the middle of the blending of Nicole's real-world story and her fantasy, is a romance (sort of). There's a former neighbor who has a complete crush on her. Except he's a bit of a player so there's no reason for Nicole to take his interest in her seriously.

It's a good start to a manga-esque series. I'm curious to see how it wraps up.

Five stars

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The Three Pigs: 08/15/13

cover artThe Three Pigs by David Wiesner takes the classic fairytale and spins it into a metafiction exploration of children's books.

The book starts ordinarily with the big bad wolf going after the first pig. He blows the house of straw down and the force of his breath pushes the pig right out of the panel!

One by one the pigs escape. They go between the book and into other books, some of which are classic nursery rhymes and some are Wiesner's books. As the pigs run between books how they are drawn changes to fit the new book.

The pig's quick feet, their self-awareness and genre savvy gives them the advantage. They are able to make friends, get back home and vanquish the wolf.

Fans of Weisner's books will like The Three Pigs. People expecting a straight up retelling of the story probably won't.

Five Stars

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Drama: 08/14/13

Cover artDrama is is Raina Telgemeir's most recent graphic novel and was short listed for a 2012 CYBILs. Callie is in the drama club at school and wants to help put on the best production of Moon Over Mississippi (her all time favorite play) on her school's extremely limited budget. Along the way she's distracted by a cute boy, his gay twin brother and her best friend (also a boy).

Although Drama didn't suck me into its pages as quickly as Smile (her memoir about lengthy orthodontia), I was taken with the intricacies of staging a production. By watching Callie and her friends work, I was given time get to know and like them.

Along with the drama of putting on a stage play (and getting the special effects to work), there's the drama of cute boys and upset best friends. It's the basic high school stuff that older readers will either relate to or younger readers will be in the middle of. Telgemeier keeps the teenage angst to a believable but relatable level and the focus of the plot primarily on Moon over Mississippi.

Five stars

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The Emperor's Code: 08/13/13

Cover artThe Emperor's Code by Gordon Korman is the eighth of the original 39 Clues series. The clues take Cahill siblings to Beijing and later to Mt. Everest. It is the first time that Dan and Amy are separated, while searching through the Forbidden City.

For most of this series, Dan and Amy haven't known their family branch. They are Cahills but not associated with a house like all their other relatives are. Now they know and it scares the bejeebers out of them. Now comes the age old question of nature versus nurture. Their performance so far on the clue hunt makes them re-evaluate their upbringing.

Along the way, Dan and Jonah Wizard form an unlikely alliance, while Amy begins to have her doubts about Nelly. Through their own methods, Dan and Amy work their way across China — through important historical locals — and to the base of Mt. Everest.

I enjoyed the adventures through China. Part of that stems from my children's study of China (the culture and the language). The adventures though around Mt. Everest went from dramatic to absurd very quickly — and then hovered there (literally) for far too long.

Four stars

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Doll Bones: 08/12/13

Cover artDoll Bones is by Holly Black is a standalone Gothic adventure for tweens. Long time friends, Zach, Poppy and Alice go on a quest to put the Great Queen to rest.

Zach, Poppy and Alice have been playing a complicated adventure story using their collected dolls, action figures and other toys, for years. Ruling over all of them is the Great Queen, an antique doll kept in a class display case in Poppy's home. Their adventure is put on hold when Zach's father throws out all his toys in the hope of helping him grow up. Poppy, trying to keep Zach as part of the game, brings out the Great Queen. And that's when the ghost appears.

The doll is made from bone china — and the bones used were those of a little girl who died tragically. Her hair was used for the doll's hair and her ashes serve as stuffing. And she wants to be put to rest.

It's not so much that the other two children believe Poppy but it's a chance for one last adventure. There are enough clues pointing to a near by town — one accessible by over night bus. What should be an easy (but tiring) trip, soon goes awry. The closer they get, the more the ghost seems to be calling the shots.

From the very first chapter, I adored Doll Bones. Zach, Poppy and Alice are credible (though not always likable) characters. The trip to East Liverpool, Ohio while altered for dramatic effect is still bound enough in real life geography and history to make their trip seem all the more real. Finally, the adults in the story aren't just villains — they are real people too who do have the children's best interests at heart even when they don't have the full picture.

My all time favorite part of the book comes near the end of the second third. The kids find shelter in a library and their misadventures there had me roaring with laughter. Holly Black knows how libraries work even behind the scenes and at times when they're not open to the library.

Five stars

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Cat Comes Too: 08/11/13

cover artCat Comes Too by Hazel Hutchin is a new picture book about a little cat who follows its owner up to the attic. The owner is looking for something and through the cat's natural curiosity, the owner manages to find the missing thing.

It's a cute book with bold pictures that are eye catching and large enough to be seen during a a group story time. As the text is quite sparse and the vocabulary rather basic, it's best either for a very young audience or a beginning reader.

My daughter who has moved onto longer books enjoyed the book while reading it over my shoulder. She, though, wished the book could have been longer. She, did, though, appreciate the moral that everyone, no matter how small or how young, can help.

Four stars

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Jenny and the Cat Club: 08/10/13

cover artJenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill is the story of how Jenny came to join the cat club. The stories were originally published together in 1973 and reissued in 2011.

I think if I ever adopt a female black cat, I'll have to name her Jenny Linksy. She is my favorite cat character from esther Averill's series of books about a Cat Club in Greenwich Village. I first met her and her friends through Hotel Cat — the book that also has the honor of being my first checked out library book after moving to our new home in the Hayward Hills.

Back then, Hotel Cat was the only book available because the others had fallen out of print and the library only had the last copy in the series. Since then, the New York Review has reissued most of the series (except for the prequel picture book, The Fire Cat). The entire collection is well worth purchasing for any cat loving child — or any child who suffers from shyness but craves adventures.

Nearly every page has one of Averill's delightful illustrations — black and white, save for a splash of red. The red is usually saved for the thing that delights the cat the most. So for Jenny, it's her scarf. For her brother, it's a red ball. And so forth.

Jenny and the Cat Club includes short tales about Jenny Linksy. She is adopted by Captain Tinker who makes her a red scarf to boost her self confidence. She encounters the Cat Club and desperately wants to learn a talent so she can join them. Later, Jenny becomes a sister to a pair of homeless cats and goes through some understandable moments of jealousy.

Five stars

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In Lucia's Neighborhood: 08/09/13

cover artWhy Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears is a retelling of a West African folk tale by Verna Aardema. It won the Caledecott Medal in 1976 and was part of the materials for children ages 5 to 8 class that I took.

Mosquito likes to tell tall tales. One day he annoyed Iguana so much that he stuck sticks in his ears to avoid having to listen to pesky Mosquito any longer. Iguana's self imposed deafness sets off a series of bad events resulting in the death of one of Owl's children.

Owl then is too sad to wake the sun. King Lion must call all the animals together to learn the truth behind Owlet's death. When the evidence leads back to Mosquito he is forever punished to whisper in people's ears.

Leo and Diane Dillon's use of gradients and well defined shapes to make their animals brings energy to the story, drawing the eyes right into the action.

Although I re-read it for college, my son first introduced the book to me a couple years ago. He is very fond of African folk tales. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears is one of his favorites.

Three stars

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Flight Behavior: 08/08/13

Cover artI listened to Flight Behavior written and performed by Barbara Kingsolver during the annual monarch over-wintering in California. Kinsolver's book, though, is set in rural Tennessee, an area that isn't on the monarch's flight path. East coast monarchs overwinter in Mexico. But what if global warming changes that? Will they adapt? Will they survive? Are they the canaries in the environmental coal mine?

Dellarobia Turnbow discovers the monarchs, hanging in flaming swatches of orange from the trees of her in-laws' hillside. She has gone up there to contemplate an affair or possibly suicide. She's unhappy with her life — that much she knows. She feels stuck by her marriage, her lack of education and her in-laws who are hers only because she had gotten pregnant in high school (and then lost the baby).

And then, there are these butterflies. Thousands of them. She doesn't even know at first what kind they are. Why should she? They've never been here before and she's never been anywhere else.

The arrival of the monarchs brings the rest of the world to Dellarobia, opening new opportunities for her. A scientist and his team from New Mexico bring her a chance to learn about the monarchs, and a job — albeit a temporary one — which gives her freedom and money of her own. All of these things give her a chance to re-examine her life and her marriage.

It's a beautiful story, though a little slow to start. The set up of the monarchs on the hill took longer than I would have liked. But by the third chapter, I was lost in Kingsolver's words and in her performance.

Monarchs over wintering at Ardenwood Farm in Fremont, California

Five stars

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Beekeeping for Beginners: 08/07/13

cover artBeekeeping for Beginners by Laurie R. King was originally published as an online novella and ebook for fans of her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Recorded books then released an audio version, read by Robert Ian MacKenzie.

Although in publication order this book is the eleventh, chronologically it's a retelling of the early events in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. In the originally, everything is told from Mary's point of view. As this novella reveals, she isn't a very reliable narrator as she glosses over the details of her meeting with Sherlock and the events immediately following.

This time we are given two points of view: that of Sherlock and of his housekeeper who has followed him to the countryside in his retirement. Having Sherlock's version helps to explain some of his enigmatic behavior early on. Sure, he's canonically off-putting but he seems even off for himself. Now we get the other side of the conversation and it's heartbreaking.

Five stars

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Twenties Girl: 08/06/13

Cover artTwenties Girl is by Sophie Kinsella is the story of a ghost, Sadie, trying to get her stolen pendant back. She only has the help of her great niece, Lara.

Lara Lington is also the niece of a coffee baron — a self made millionaire who is now traveling the British isles (and quite possibly the world) hocking his "two coins" approach to success. Lara's side of the family, though, is rather average and Lara is sick to death of always being asked if she's one of THE LINGTONs.

Lara is also struggling to keep her newly started agency afloat. She's left in a lurch with her cofounder missing and no good leads coming in. So the last thing she wants to have is the now flapper fashioned twenty-something ghost of her recently buried (at age 105) great aunt yelling at her day in and day out to find her pendant.

It takes a while for the book to settle into itself as Lara and Sadie come to an understanding. Lara learns about her great aunt's extraordinary life, uncovers the truth behind a well known (but little understood) painting, and ultimately finds the pendant. There are other surprises along the way, making the initial slow start well worth the effort of listening to.

Five stars

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Black Wind: 08/05/13

Black Windis by Clive Cussler is the eighteenth Dirk Pitt novel and the second one co-authored by son Dirk Cussler. Dirk Pitt Jr. is called into rescue some researchers mysteriously ill on a remote Aleutian island. It appears their illness (and the deaths of some others nearby) is related to the recent discovery of a WWII era submarine.

Two things in thrillers make me cringe: dirty bombs and airborne WMD. This one relies on a the latter — a WWII era chimera which combines a variety of airborne diseases into one super weapon. Except it's been sitting at the bottom of the ocean in a submarine for five decades.

Sure it's related to a Japanese plot, but if I were North Korean agent posing as a South Korean businessman and arms dealer, I'd stick to sarin gas. It's just as deadly and doesn't require tracking down old sunk submarines (and thus drawing unnecessary attention to one's self).

Black Wind would have been so much better had the submarine plot been a complete red herring. From reading other reviews, though, it appears the Cusslers were distracted with Hollywood's version of Sahara (and a failed law suit, therein).

Three stars

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The Frog Princess: 08/04/13

cover artThe Frog Princess by E.D Baker is a humorous reworking of Grimms' "The Frog Prince"; it is also the inspiration for The Princess and the Frog released by the Walt Disney Company.

Princess Emeralda (aka Emma) has no interest in marrying Prince Jorge in an arranged marriage. She would rather spend time mapping and exploring the swamp behind the castle. It's there that she meets a talking frog who listens to her problems. Eventually she gives in to his request to kiss him — knowing full well that some local witches use animal transformations as a means of removing annoying people from their lives. The usual solution is a kiss from a princess.

Now anyone who has watched The Princess and Frog knows that the kiss backfires. The reason given in the film is that the main character isn't a princess. The explanation in the book is fuzzier — whatever witch did the spell didn't follow the standard playbook.

Rather than have two competing sources of magic — Mama Otis for good magic and the Shadow Man for evil magic — there is instead, any number of witches working magic in and near the swamp. These witches don't align themselves as neatly as they do in Disney films, meaning that finding witch and the proper solution to her spell isn't as cut and dry.

Again, fans of the film will recognize a similar path of exploration through the castle swamp as through the bayou. The reasons, though, are completely different and there's no artificially imposed timeline. On the one hand, Emma and Eadric have more chances to make mistakes and take wrong turns. On the other hand, sometimes these scenes feel like padding.

That said, the complicated plot threads as well as a world of problems that extends beyond the initial trouble of an arranged marriage and being turned into a frog, gives Emma and Eadric more things to explore at the end of the book without the tidy Disney magical ending.

The second book in the series is Dragon's Breath and it is on my to be read list. There are eight books in total.

Four stars

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Ladybug Girl: 08/03/13

cover artLadybug Girl by David Soman is about a young girl who likes to dress up as a ladybug. She's part superhero and part magical princess and all ladybug. She and her trusty dog go on adventures fueled by the power of her imagination.

In this first installment, the parents are busy and big brother doesn't want to play with her. It's the classic absent parent, overworked older sibling set up for the youngest to venture out on her own.

Of course with a house full of interesting things has "nothing to do." Perhaps she has spent too much of her young life stuck inside? So Ladybug girl ventures outside to the yard and neighboring woods.

For each thing Ladybug Girl encounters, her imagination runs wild, creating for her untold terrors (sharks in the duck pond!) for her to conquer. Of course she conquers them all — she's Ladybug Girl.

I thought it was a cute book about solo play and outdoor exploration. My daughter (the intended audience) was less than impressed. She couldn't wrap her head around wearing a tutu (something reserved for dancing) to jump in puddles and climb trees and stuff. It was alien and irresponsible from her point of view.

Three stars

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Apt. 3: 08/02/13

cover artApt. 3 by Ezra Jack Keats is about a pair of brothers, Sam and Ben, who hear mysterious music coming into their apartment. They decide to follow the sound to figure out who is playing it.

The hunt through the apartment building gives Keats the opportunity to explore the community that is within the walls of an apartment building. It's comprised of different ages, different ethnicities and different talents.

The search for the music results in the boys coming to know their neighbors better. Children reading the book are introduced to a multicultural cast as well as a blind musician. They will see how he's perfectly capable of living on his own and of making beautiful music. The book could be used as a starting point to introduce real life blind musicians, like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, or Nobuyuki Tsujii.

Three stars

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In Lucia's Neighborhood: 08/01/13

cover artEvery neighborhood has rhythm and personality to it, born from the people who live there. In Lucia's Neighborhood by Pat Shewchuk celebrates that fact.

Lucia, a seven year old, takes us on a tour of her neighborhood through different times of the day. At each time of the day different people are up and different things are happening. Even at night, there's something going on — meals being served, celebrations, and music.

Lucia lives in a diverse, urban neighborhood, similar to the neighborhood down the hill from us. We're near the boarder between down town Hayward and the beginnings of more rural and unincorporated areas.

This book could easily be used in a classroom setting to encourage children to talk about what their own home streets or blocks are like. They could talk about the different times of day, traditions through out the year, and so forth.

I received a copy from NetGalley.

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