Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine


Title: Mockingbird
Author: Kathryn Erskine
Publisher: Philomel, 2010. 224 pages
Source: Library

For Caitlin, an 11-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), the world is a confusing place. Her tendency to see everything in black and white, to take everything said literally, and an inability to read peoples' faces, make it hard for her to understand the world. And now her brother Devon, the only one who could explain things to her, is dead in a school shooting, and she and her father need to find a way to heal.

This was a moving book. I was drawn to it in part because there's a fair amount of Asperger's in my family, and it's interesting to see how it is depicted, though of course you can't take a story like this as a guide. But the first-person narration is wonderfully done, and Caitlin's difficulty in understanding the world feels very real (and the trouble idioms give her is a good reminder for anyone who deals with non-native English speakers, too).

I think in some ways what I appreciated most about the story was the way in which it showed us both that Caitlin was actually trying very hard to learn what she needs to know ("Your Manners," "Look the Person in the Eyes," etc.), often without fully understanding what it is she's being asked to do. And despite her efforts, we see equally clearly (even through her often bewildered reports) that she constantly frustrates the adults in her life. Though some of those adults do better than others at understanding her needs, I was glad that none were painted as dreadful people, just people with greater and lesser understandings of the narrator and her issues.

In the end, Caitlin does manage to find her way to "closure" for herself and her father, which is meant a good start on healing. And they bring their shattered community along with them when they find it.

Another good book for helping us understand the different people around us, as well as just a compelling story for it's own sake. I'd recommend it for children and adults alike, especially those who interact with people on the Spectrum.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Mockingbird  from my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, August 4, 2014

Mystery Monday: Restless in the Grave by Dana Stabenow


Title: Restless in the Grave
Author: Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Minotaur Books, 2012.  373 pages.
Source: Purchased ebook 

Stabenow has yielded to temptation at last and brought her two Alaska detectives together in one story. Liam Campbell has finally met a crime, or a possible crime, he can't handle himself. His own wife is a key suspect, and what he most wants is for Kate Shugak to prove it wasn't Wy who messed with a fellow-pilot's plane. What Kate encounters, of course, is way bigger than either of them imagined.

This book has everything I've come to expect of a Dana Stabenow mystery: a complex plot, a modest amount of violence, sex, and a touch of humor that holds it all together. In addition, it has both of her star detectives, whom I like very much: PI Kate Shugak (and her sidekick Mutt, who is "only" half wolf), and Liam Campbell, sole representative of the Alaska State Troopers in Newenham on Bristol Bay.

I found the mystery compelling (and far beyond my ability to predict, though I picked up on a couple of connections that I knew had to go somewhere), and the violence is kept to a level I can live with. Since Kate and Jim Chopin, her Significant Other, spend the story on opposite sides of the state, the sex is also kept at a more tolerable level. [This may or may not be an issue for some readers, but I'm beginning to find Stabenow's sex scenes a bit over the top.]  I do get a little tired of male characters who have a magical sex appeal that makes even sensible and otherwisely committed women lose their heads. Of course, Kate and some others have the same effect on a lot of the male characters, so maybe this is a comment on Alaska?

In any case, as a long-time fan of Kate Shugak and Mutt, I greatly enjoyed their latest adventure, and have no complaints about the plot and story development.

If you've read other Stabenow mysteries, read this. If you haven't, I recommend starting with Kate from the beginning. Each novel does stand alone, but there is a lot of backstory that has built up over 19 novels, and the read will be richer if you know the history. Besides, it's fun to watch Stabenow's style change and develop over the years. I do wholeheartedly recommend the series to anyone who likes mysteries with a bit of an edge (definitely not "cozies") but also just a touch of humor, in a great setting.

Full Disclosure: I purchased Restless in the Grave with my own money and of my own volition, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: The Wind is Not A River


Title: The Wind is Not a River
Author: Brian Payton
Publisher: Harper Colllins, 2014, 305 pages
Source: I won and uncorrected proof of this book in a giveaway
My apologies to Mr. Payton and his publisher for taking so long to get to this review!  I know that there is no requirement to review (let alone in a timely fashion) when one wins a giveaway, but I prefer to be a bit more on top of things.  As an author myself, I know how much these reviews can mean.

John Easley is a journalist.  In 1943, after the death of his younger brother over Normandy, he follows a nearly obsessive desire to learn what is happening in the Aleutian Islands and leaves his wife in Seattle.  He fakes his way onto a flight over Attu--and is shot down.  What he endures to get home, and what his wife does to try to find him, make up the story, but it is also the story of the natives and the soldiers in that forgotten part of the war.  In a way, this book is the story John Easley was hoping to tell.

In general, I was very favorably impressed by this book.  I'm a fan of WWII literature, fiction and fact, and that was why I entered the Giveaway.  The book wasn't quite what I expected, but it did not disappoint.  The story was gripping, and once I got started I sped through the book, unwilling to put it down.  This is not a shiny-eyed tale of heroics and super-human feats.  Easley is a civilian, unprepared physically or mentally for what happens to him, and if he is not always heroic, he nonetheless holds on for an amazingly long time, even as he starves, freezes, and hallucinates his way through some six or eight weeks of hiding from the Japanese.

His wife, Helen, also finds she can do more than she imagines.  I liked her depiction as both sheltered and amazingly strong, pulling herself far beyond her comfort zone to try to find the husband who walked out after a fight and didn't return. That hiccup in their happy marriage becomes huge in light of what follows, and Payton uses it in a way that felt very real to me.  She is both smart and naive, and the combination takes her a long way.

My main issue with the book was stylistic (and thus totally a matter of personal taste): the author chose to write in the present tense, which never feels quite natural to me.  On the other hand, it gave the narrative both a sort of immediacy and an almost dream-like quality at times.  The ending was more realistic than completely satisfying, but again, I don't fault the book or the author for this.  Some part of me wants a fairy-tale ending, but it wouldn't be right for this book.

I was given an unedited proof copy, so I will assume that the few typos and errors I spotted will have been corrected before publication.  In most respects, the editing and quality were excellent.

For those who like realistic historical fiction and fans of WWII literature.  Not so much for those looking for romance in either sense of the word, though this is definitely a love story as well as an adventure. It just isn't a starry-eyed version of either.

Full Disclosure: I won The Wind is Not a River in a Goodreads giveaway, with no expectations on the part of the Author or publisher other than a hope for my honest review, which I have given.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Non-fiction review: 12 Years a Slave


Title: 12 Years a Slave
Author: Solomon Northrup 
Publisher: Penguin, 2013.  Originally published in 1853.
Source: Library 

Given the publicity the movie got, I doubt I need to say much here.  Solomon Northrup was born a free man in New York State, and lived there until I think his late 20s, when he was lured to Washington by a promise of work, drugged, kidnapped, and sold to a planter in Louisiana.  Twelve years later he managed to get word out to the right people, and was rescued. He wrote this narrative shortly after regaining his freedom.

Being somewhat familiar with the narrative styles of some of Northrup's contemporaries, I expected to find this difficult to read.  It wasn't, except in the emotional sense.  Northrup has a very direct way with the narrative, and tells his story simply, allowing it to grip the reader by its own power.  He makes every effort to be fair in his narrative (he gives the men who lured him from home much more benefit of the doubt than I do--I have no doubt they were part of the plot), but he also pulls no punches.  Slavery was a huge evil, slaves were not happy being slaves, and he insists that his readers understand that.  It's hard to imagine anyone reading this and not getting it, and in fact his narrative and others like it contributed to the anti-slavery movement that led to the Civil War.

Seeing this unflinching depiction of what slavery did to both slaves and masters gave me a much better understanding of the difficulty the country, and especially the South, has had in overcoming that legacy.  Men and women denied all chance at education, told constantly they are less than human, and worked like beasts, all too often unsurprisingly seemed capable of little thought or reason.  But Northrup makes it clear that the men and women who believed their slaves were less than human not only were at fault for what they did to those slaves, physically and psychically, but that they themselves were rendered less human by their beliefs.  Slavery was an institution that destroyed both slaves and slave-holders, and Northrup show that it doesn't take a college education and a century of perspective to see it.

I'd recommend this to anyone over the age of about 14.  There are hard truths in this book, and truths every American, at least, should look in the face.  Plus, it's very well written and communicates those truths elegantly.

Full Disclosure: I checked 12 Years a Slave out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mystery Review: Ash Child, by Peter Bowen

For today's review, I bring you a very fast-moving mystery from an author I really enjoy (even though hints of his politics make me suspect that if we were locked in a room together I'd be tearing his hair out and kicking him in the shins).  So. . .

Title: Ash Child
Author: Peter Bowen
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2002.  256 pages.
Source: Library

It's fire season in the Wolf Mountains of Montana, and Gabriel Du Pre is worried.  As if the high fire danger weren't enough, some people start turning up dead.  And then the mountains catch on fire.  Du Pre and the rest of the cast of colorful and unique characters have their work cut out for them.

Peter Bowen's Gabriel Du Pre mysteries are fast-moving, with a touch of humor that keeps the grimness from ever getting out of hand.  Bowen paints a vivid picture of Metis culture (I'm not competent to judge how accurate that picture is), and the linguistic quirks permeate the story.  The patios that Du Pre speaks is almost telegraphic, and that brevity and understatement carries over even into the narration.  It's contagious, too--I find myself imitating the style after I've been reading for a while.

The writing style makes this a much shorter book and faster read than the 256 pages would suggest, and the plot moves along and a brisk pace from crisis to crisis.  The insights and revelations about who did what and why are never overly explained, and there is a certain air of mysticism emanating from the shaman Benetsee and spreading to the whole narrative.

Bowen's work isn't to everyone's taste, I know.  But if you like mysteries that strongly evoke a western setting and have fully realized characters with unique lives, a touch of humor, and well-plotted puzzles, you may well enjoy Gabriel Du Pre.

Full Disclosure: I checked  Ash Child  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, May 26, 2014

Book Review: Minding the Manor


Title: Minding the Manor: the Memoir of a 1930s English Kitchen Maid (published in the UK as Aprons and Silver Spoons).
Author: Mollie Moran
Publisher: in UK, Penguin Books, 2013.  In US, Lyons Press, 2014.  348 pages.
Source: The library (where else, right?)

The subtitle really says it all.  This is the memoir of a woman who worked in the kitchens of the British Aristocracy in the time between the wars, the last years of the real servant system.  She started as a scullery maid at age 14, and by just past 20 got work as a cook.  Though she includes a bit of her childhood to provide context, and a quick summary of her life after she got married and left service, the book is about being part of the "downstairs" society.
Mollie Moran has retained a writing voice that reflects her upbringing.  The book reads very much like she's talking to you about her life then, including some odd grammatical quirks and a tendency to directly address the reader.  It's a style that makes the book feel less professional, but at the same time more real.  Dialogue is used freely, though obviously it must be reconstructed, a permissible stretching for a memoir, I believe.  The book was a quick, easy read and definitely interesting to those who like the history of that period (like me), despite an unpolished feeling.

The cover says that if you are a fan of Downton Abbey you'll like this, and it's probably true.  I'd recommend it for those interested in the period, for whatever reason, and perhaps especially for us Yankees who may not have a very good grip on the class system (I spent a winter taking a dive into that system in a way, working as an au pair for a rather wealthy family in Monaco.  I didn't take very kindly to being treated as a servant.  Maybe you have to be brought up to it!).


Full Disclosure: I checked Minding the Manor out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Today is Memorial Day here in the US, so I want to just take a moment to say "thank you" to all those who have served and died for our country.  So many of my parents' generation were lost to WWII, and so many have been lost since in all that "non-wars" we've fought.  We honor their sacrifice, and would like to see an end to any need for more.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Writing Book Review: Spilling Ink


Title: Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook
Authors: Anne Mazer & Ellen Potter; illustrated by Matt Phelan
Publisher: Roaring Book Press, 2010
Source: Library

Just as it sounds, this is a book of advice and almost instruction for grade-school aged kids who want to write, with illustrations that will make you smile.

So why am I reviewing a book of writing advice for kids on one of my usually adult-book days?  You guessed it--because the advice in this book works for writers of any age, and it's written in a fun way to boot.  There is the standard advice about giving yourself permission to write messy first drafts--and then putting in the effort to revise them.  But there are also less conventional ways of thinking about things, and examples for a kid's life.

One of my favorite bits is the chapter on characters.  The authors suggest having a sleep-over with your character, so you can learn all his or her deep dark secrets.  Since the instructions for doing this begin with "grab some cookies from the kitchen," they got my attention right away.  I am a firm believer in cookies (alas).  All kidding aside, however, the questions they suggest asking your character are spot on, including things like "what are you afraid of?" (a sure trigger for something you'll do to the poor soul) and of course including what is their heart's desire.  When you know what your character most wants and most fears, you have a story.

Mixed in among the discussion are "dares"--assignments, we might call them, if that weren't a dirty word.  These dares are great prompts or exercises, and I'll be trying some (use a boring everyday thing as the subject of a suspenseful story?  I'm on it!).

In short, this is a fun, light-hearted, but useful book on many aspects of writing, from getting ideas to honing your prose and revising your MS.  

Add it to your collection of books on writing, whether you are 8 or 80.   We can all learn something here, and have a few chuckles in the process (and you know I'm a fan of humor in all places, appropriate or not). 

Full Disclosure: I checked  Spilling Ink  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Doig


Title: Sweet Thunder
Author:  Ivan Doig
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 2013.   305 pages.
Source: Library

Doig has continued the saga of Morrie Morgan begun in The Whistling Season and Work Song, bringing us up to date on the exploits of the ever-inventive and often-in-hot-water Morrie.  Married now, he's been living high all over the globe, but is about to come crashing down when an offer they can't refuse bring them back to Butte, Montana and a job with the union-sympathizing and fair-wage-advocating newspaper, the Thunder.  

Nothing ever runs in a straight line for Morrie Morgan, and Doig spins his stories with both creative turns of plot and brilliantly constructed wordcraft.  Just at first I wasn't sure this would rise to the level of some of Doig's other work in terms of grabbing my interest--maybe because it opened in San Francisco rather than Montana.  But within a chapter or so, I was fully caught in the story and the prose, and raced on to the end with that painful mixture of desire to linger and inability to stop reading that marks my reaction to really good books.  I think The Whistling Season remains my favorite of Doig's novels, but this is an excellent addition to the collection.

Frankly, I'll recommend Ivan Doig to anyone who will stand still long enough to hear me.  But this is perhaps of extra interest (along with Work Song) to anyone who has an interest not only in Montana but also in the history of unions in the United States.  It's clear where Doig's sympathies lie, but he gets in a few digs at both sides, and some at Prohibition while he's at it.

Full Disclosure: I checked  Sweet Thunder out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z: Zilpha Keatly Snyder's Gib Rides Home

Title: Gib Rides Home
Author: Zilpha Keatly Snyder
Publisher: Delacourt Books for Young Readers, 1998, 256 pages
Source: Library

Gib Whittaker has been an orphan since he was small, living at an orphanage where the boys are given a minimal education and lots of hard work. No wonder Gib thinks being adopted would be better, even after he learns that many boys are taken to be farm hands, not really adopted.  And all he really wants is to know who he is and where he came from.  When Gib is finally adopted, he finds it's both more and less than he'd hoped, and when things go very bad, it looks like it's all over.

The book was a quick and easy read, but I can't say there was a lot of substance.  I felt that the situation, though sadly not outside the realm of how orphans were treated in the early 1900s, was a bit cartoonish, as were many of the characters.  That we know Gib will find a family isn't a bad thing (since the genre pretty much demands it, I don't consider this a spoiler), and the route to get there is convoluted enough to be interesting, but the book doesn't measure up to some I've read on similar themes.  In many ways, I think the book ended just when the story might have gotten really interesting.  It's an okay read, and has the added bonus of being a horse book for those of us who like that.

For fans of the author and die-hard horse-story fans. Kids will probably have no problem with the issue that bugged me!

Full Disclosure: I checked  Gib Rides Home  out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."
 Well, that's it--A to Z winds to an end!  I'll be back tomorrow or Friday with my reflections on the trip.  Meanwhile, have some ice cream!

Monday, April 7, 2014

F is for Firestorm, by Nevada Barr

 For the letter F, some wild fire in the wilderness, with a murder shown in to remind us that people are wild animals too.

Title:  Firestorm
Author: Nevada Barr
Publisher: Orig. published Putnam Adult, 307 pages, 1996.
Source:  Public library (ebook)

Ranger Anna Pigeon is on loan from Mesa Verde to fight wildfire near Mt. Lassen in California.  But as the fire camp is closing down, a carry-out operation for an injured firefighter is brought to a shocking end.  The fire suddenly blows up and the group is forced to deploy their last-ditch fire shelters.  When the flames pass, one shelter contains a dead man--with the knife still in his ribs.  Before they can be evacuated, snow closes the approaches to the camp.  It's up to Anna, with some long-distance help from her sort of love interest, Frederick Stanton of the FBI, to find out who killed the man, and why.

The Anna Pigeon novels are one part police procedural (Anna is in law enforcement, for the Park Service), one part exercise for the little grey cells, and one part wild adventure.  In Firestorm, Anna struggles to keep the grey cells working without food or sleep as she is faced with a classic locked-door mystery.  She's locked in the room with the suspects and the corpse, and survival involves food and fire as well as not tipping off the unknown killer.

Barr builds the tension well, and refuses to give us the obvious criminals just as she refuses to give us (or Anna and Frederick) an easy love story.  Anna peels away layer after layer of the dead man's life, until most readers would be happy to join in sticking the knife in the man's ribs.  But only one person has done it, and though in retrospect there are clues, the answer still comes as a shock--just the way it should.  And while we are sure Anna will be glad to see Stanton, we can be pretty sure that they won't ride off into the sunset together.  She has a lot of baggage, and ends this book with still more.

Barr's mysteries are a bit too gritty to be cozy, but they share some important features with cozies.  Notably, the characters are easy to identify with, and the settings are vital.  In fact, this was the first Anna Pigeon novel I read (when it first came out), because it was set in my husband's local park.  The threats to the Parks that Pigeon uncovers lend a special importance to the investigations she undertakes for us.

If you like the National Parks and you like mysteries, and aren't afraid of a bit of gore and some mildly foul language, Nevada Barr and Anna Pigeon are for you.  And this book, though not the first in the series, is as good a place as any to start, and better than some.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed  Firestorm  from my public (digital) library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Progressive Book Club: Writing Short

 Time once again for the Progressive Book Club!  I thought I was going to have to punt on my writing-related posts, but thanks to a lot of time sitting in airports, I not only finished reading


 but I even got a response written and--this is important, as you'll see in a moment--edited.

Title: How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times
Author: Roy Peter Clark
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2013.  272 pages.
Source: Library (ebook)

This thought-provoking little book should be discussed in tweets and haikus.  If I had more time,I would.  Being short of time, I shall pick out a few key ideas and riff on them.  Clark has made this easy by dividing his book into very short chapters, each followed by a set of assignments for the writer to practice brevity.

Clark first really got my attention with Chapter 8, "No Dumping." (Given the brevity of the chapters, this was only minutes into the book.)  The chapter appeals to my possibly somewhat anal conviction that no piece of writing should go out into the world without edits (no, I don't edit my diary.  I don't share it, either).  The rule applies all the more, Clark makes clear, to short writing.  If a piece of writing is both short and unedited, odds are it doesn't make much sense. The goal is to use the fewest possible words to do the job.

Assignment #1 from Clark to me and my readers: "Make a list of the informal texts you would be least likely to revise: emails, tweets, status updates, website feedback, instant messages.  Resolve that for one week you will refrain from dumping these on your readers and will take a few seconds to correct and improve."  Take the vow along with me.

In Chapter 18 Clark discussed the 6-word memoir project*. The obvious assignment #2: write your own.  One of my efforts: "Always wanted to write.  I do."

In Chapter 19, Clark asks us to consider if we are putter-innerspring or a taker-outers.  Do you put in everything including the kitchen sink and then edit out the unnecessary bits, or frame the bare bones and expand?  I vote for both: my stories often draft as bare bones, my sentences have the kitchen sink.  When I rewrite, I often shrink the sentences and expand the stories.  Which are you (or what combo)?

A final assignment: write aphorisms, adages, and epigrams.  Those are among the classic very short forms of writing.  They also strike me as a great use of twitter for an author.  Have fun with it: "I fought the slaw, and the slaw won.  #needcleanshirt"

Oh, yeah: write t-shirt mottos, too.  I almost bought one this weekend at the Book Festival: "Oops.  I accidentally bought another pile of books."

Shakespeare said it best: brevity is the soul of wit. I believe that's wit as in intelligence, as well as humor. Funny that I think of Shakespeare as using a lot of words because really, writing in iambic pentameter constrained him far more than I constrain myself!  And every word he used had to be chosen for meaning and meter.

So there are your PBC assignments.  Feel free to share the results in the comments!

Oh, and since I ended up with some spare time, the haiku review:

Fewer words may serve
Vital communications
Better than you think.

*If you haven't heard of this, Google it.  Check out the NPR Race Card project while you're at it.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Writing Short: Word Craft for Fast Times  from my (digital) library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


In related news: only six days left to enter to win a paperback copy of Death By Ice Cream.

Click the link above or in the side-bar!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Kid Lit Blog Hop! Ghosts of Tupelo Landing


Title: The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, 352 pp.
Author: Sheila Turnage
Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books (Penguin), 2014

Mo LoBeau and her partner Dale are back and their Desperado Detective Agency is taking on their toughest challenge yet: they need to interview a ghost and save the worn-out old Tupelo Inn for Miss Lana and Grandmother Miss Lacy.  They have a lot of motivation: not only will the whole town suffer if someone nasty ends up with the Inn, Mo and Dale need that interview to pass their 6th grade History class.  All our old friends from Three Times Lucky are back, and a few new ones.

I have to get something off my chest right from the start: I read (and reviewed a couple of weeks ago) another book with a ghost, and I dinged it pretty hard for having a ghost, taken at face value (i.e., presented as a real ghost, seen and believed in by a number of people and no other explanation available).  Well, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing has just that sort of ghost, and it didn't bother me (very much--I'm a little too rationalistic to be completely happy with it).  This has led me to think a lot about ghosts and how they can or can't fit into stories.  Two things about this book make the ghost work for me: for one, it's set in the South.  That's a place for ghosts, almost as good as ancient castles and baronial piles on the other side of the Atlantic.  And, maybe more important, the whole book is just a shade (uh, no pun intended!) removed from realism in any case--there's a certain over-the-top fun attitude that allows me to accept the unbelievable.

So, the ghost dealt with, did I like the story?  You bet I did!  Almost as much as I liked Three Times Lucky.  The story is fun, the narrator (Mo herself) is witty and as insightful as a 6th grader should be, and the plot is (once ghosts are accepted) logical enough to be convincing.  It zipped along, a fast read that pulled me in and kept me turning pages.  It also had a line that for some reason just doubled me up with giggles, when Miss Lana advises, with regard to ghosts, that Mo and Dale just "live and let. . . whatever."

As with Three Times Lucky, themes of family and familial love run strong in the book, and Mo is gradually settling into an acceptance of the family she has, which really works pretty well, as families go.

Highly recommended, but read the books in order, or you'll spoil the surprises in the first book.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing  from my  library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Middle Grade: The Orphan and the Thief Blog Tour!

orphan tour

The Orphan and the Thief.  An adventure that will keep you and your kids spellbound.
orphan thiefToad thought it’d be easy to steal from Mr. Edward P. Owl. Unfortunately for Toad, he isn’t the best of thieves. Caught in the act, he’s in more trouble than ever before. Now to save his hide, Toad must track down five rare potion ingredients for Mr. Owl. Or else. All Melena Snead wants is her family back, but after the Miggens Street Fire, that isn’t very likely. Orphaned and miserable, forced to work in an apothecary, she’s determined to find Milo, her missing brother. No matter what. When Melena finds Toad ransacking her apothecary, Toad gets a nasty shock: apothecaries don’t carry Mr. Owl’s ingredients. Luckily, Melena’s willing to help, for a price. With Melena’s pet Spit-Fire dragon and Toad’s enchanted talking beer mug, they embark on a fantastical journey, traveling the country in search of the potion ingredients. But can they gather all of them in time, what with monsters, pirates, and axe-wielding thieves? And if they do, is there an even greater danger waiting for them at the end?

This is a fast-paced, well-written adventure that I had trouble engaging with (until the last few chapters, when things began moving very fast).  I enjoyed it; I just found it too easy to put down.  As I can't find any good reason I wasn't caught in the book, I am going to put that down to personal taste and let it go.  By the second half the story had largely picked up and I did better, but I was not grabbed from the beginning and that is a count against it.

Toad and Melena are well-drawn characters, though they could, perhaps, have a little more depth to them.  But despite their limitations, they have a good story to tell, even though I wasn't drawn to race through the book with them.  Each has a mission that matters the world to them, and when they band together they leap from adventure to adventure.  In fact, I would say that one criticism I had while reading the book was that too many of their adventures went by too fast--and with too little development (not to say real sense of peril).  They did tend to escape things too easily, even the final tight spot which ties everything up.  But in the end, The Orphan and the Thief is a rollicking adventure with a touch of magic and a nice twist to the end (one I probably should have seen coming, but I'm not very good at seeing those things).

Recommended for kids who like fantasy and adventure (this is are sort of 18th-century setting for fantasy and adventure with a touch of magic).

Full Disclosure: I received an ebook of The Orphan and the Thief  from the author in exchange for not a positive review but  my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAM.L LeGette: Melissa Lee LeGette has been writing seriously since she was a teen. She loves an old world vibe with a magical twist, and she puts her full focus on creating believable characters--even if they happen to be a talking beer mug. Her books are targeted for children and teens, but have been enjoyed by adults of all ages. She lives in Georgia where she helps run a family farm, so her nails are a fright.
Praise: [LeGette is] able to twist her unique fairy-tales to fit the imagination of children and the attention of adults. Five stars ... The Orphan and the Thief is definitely worth reading! -- Abigail / Goodreads Review M.L. Legette conjures up a captivating magical tale in The Orphan and the Thief. I loved this story and I could not put my Kindle down until I finished the last page. This charming story is so good that it may very well become a classic. -- Karen Dowdall, Author of Delphi Altair: Strange Beginnings

Blast Giveaway $50 Amazon Gift Card or Paypal Cash Ends 3/23/14 Open only to those who can legally enter, receive and use an Gift Code or Paypal Cash. Winning Entry will be verified prior to prize being awarded. No purchase necessary. You must be 18 or older to enter or have your parent enter for you. The winner will be chosen by rafflecopter and announced here as well as emailed and will have 48 hours to respond or a new winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way associated with Facebook, Twitter, Rafflecopter or any other entity unless otherwise specified. The number of eligible entries received determines the odds of winning. Giveaway was organized by Kathy from I Am A Reader, Not A Writer and sponsored by the author. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks


Title: Caleb's Crossing
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Viking, 2011.  I listened to the Blackstone Audio version, narrated by Jennifer Ehle.

Summary (From Goodreads--I found this one too complex to neatly summarize.  I would have to say that the publisher did, too): 
The narrator of Caleb's Crossing is Bethia Mayfield, growing up in the tiny settlement of Great Harbor amid a small band of pioneers and Puritans. Restless and curious, she yearns after an education that is closed to her by her sex. As often as she can, she slips away to explore the island's glistening beaches and observe its native Wampanoag inhabitants. At twelve, she encounters Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a tentative secret friendship that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia's minister father tries to convert the Wampanoag, awakening the wrath of the tribe's shaman, against whose magic he must test his own beliefs. One of his projects becomes the education of Caleb, and a year later, Caleb is in Cambridge, studying Latin and Greek among the colonial elite. There, Bethia finds herself reluctantly indentured as a housekeeper and can closely observe Caleb's crossing of cultures.

As is often the case with audio books, I was somewhat slow to warm to this.  I don't think that reflects on the books, as it happens almost every time (it's probably because the narration is perforce slower than reading, so it take longer to develop a sense of the book).  But this is a fascinating and complex story, and I was soon fully engaged with it.  For me, although the title suggests that the story is about the Wampanoag boy Caleb making the crossing between cultures, it was really about Bethia struggling with issues of faith and the ways faith was presented in her society.

That did set up a conflict for me, as I was continually put off by the restrictions of her society and of her religion, and wanted Bethia to rebel more completely.  Yet I think part of the brilliance of the story is that she does not act as we 21st-Century women want her to, but in keeping with her own time and self.  She can't quite make herself conform, but neither can she reject her God and run off to join the Wampanoag.

An additional narrative device that gave me pause, but in the end worked well (and I think might have been less confusing on paper than in the audio book) was the way in which the narrative is constructed as an account written out by Bethia at various stages of her life, so that her understanding of herself, Caleb, and their world changes through the story--that is, the narrator's understanding, not just that of the girl being narrated.  So the childhood parts are told from the view of the young teen, and later parts are narrated from greater and greater distances and more maturity.  I found myself set up time and again for the story to take a direction that it turned away from when the story was resumed often years later.

Caleb's Crossing is an impressive work of fiction which richly rewards the time spent immersing oneself in it.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Caleb's Crossing  from my  library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Progressive Book Club! Analysis: Fire and Ice by Dana Stabenow


This week, instead of reading a mystery just for review, I read with the intention of studying how the story was laid out and developed.  I'll admit that, since I kept getting caught up in the story, it only partly worked.  Dana Stabenow is a good writer; it's hard to ignore the story and study the structure even in a book I've already read (I chose a re-read so I could pay more attention.  Maybe I should have done one I read last week, not a few years ago!).

Here's the scoop on the book I read, since this does amount to a review of sorts:
Title: Fire and Ice, by Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Signet, 1999, 286 pages (paperback).
Source: Library

The Plan:
My plan was to read the book and note plot and character development, creation and destruction of red herrings, means of inserting back story, etc.  I was doing this in the interests of improving my own craft as I'm nearing completion of my first mystery and starting to rewrite my second (yes, I am aware that this would have been a good thing to do before I started writing either book.  Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing?).  As noted, the plan suffered a bit because the book was too good to read purely as an exercise in the construction of a mystery novel.  Maybe I should have dissected a bad mystery.

The Lessons:
1.  We start with a bang, almost.  In fact, the first 3.5 pages are scene-setting, establishing the nature of the main character, Alaska State Trooper Liam Campbell, through his assessments of his fellow-passengers on the flight to his new posting (most of whom turn out, of course, to be his new neighbors).  We also get the geography by watching the flight with Liam.  Then we are let a little into his history, so that we know right off that there's a problem with his personal life and maybe in his professional life.  Then, on page 5, we get a corpse.
My assessment: it's a bit chancy, even 3.5 pages of scene-setting.  Stabenow can do it, because she's a known writer and her readers know she'll make use of this.  But the beginning is actually kind of passive, and there's quite of bit of exposition.   I'd love to be able to offer exposition like that, that makes you wonder only how it's going to play out in the story, not if.  But that might be something you need to be trusted to get away with.

2. Keep things moving.  Campbell is hustled from crisis to crisis, and neither his investigation nor his personal life is allowed to do anything the easy way, though once or twice it looks like it might.
This is where Stabenow brings in the humor that is her hallmark; the things that complicate Liam Campbell's life are almost absurd, yet still real.  The murder investigation is never funny.

3.  Everyone is lying.  I've seen this noted before in discussions of writing mysteries, and it seems to be true here.  Everyone is lying, hiding something, or just unwilling to talk to a Trooper.  That makes nearly everyone a suspect at least until their lies have been sorted out, and maybe after, too.
Don't be nice to your characters.  Campbell has to deal with the fact that the one person he most trusts and most wants to be innocent is lying to him right and left.

4.  Keep the pressure on.  Campbell can remove a few suspects from the list, but he can't remove the ones that most matter.  And at the same time he can see a growing threat to other people.

5.  Killing off the bad guys is tidy, but not always totally satisfying.  Stabenow deals with the perps in this one by having them end up dead, and that leaves some questions hanging.  Maybe okay.  I'd use it with caution.  It also makes for a pretty high body count, which is okay for her, but not so good in a cozy (what I write).  The mystery is wrapped up just enough, and in this case there is a nice circularity to the deaths.  Campbell's personal life shows modest forward movement but is still a mess--we are clearly left expecting more about him.  This is in keeping with generic conventions.

6.  Still thinking about character development.  Stabenow is really good about dropping the little bits of both description and backstory in without being obvious, and she's in no hurry.  I can also see her using little things to tag a character: Liam Campbell is terrified of flying, we learn in the first pages.  Not only does that tell us something about him, but it adds some nice tension in his personal life, since he's in love with a bush pilot.  Most characters get physical description through his eyes, which works very nicely as he's a cop, but it's all done with one or two key points (except maybe a couple of the women, who get more attention, if you know what I mean).
I have concluded that character development and backstory are the hardest things to do smoothly.  I'll probably have to be content with doing okay at first and getting better with practice.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Fire and Ice  from my  library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Middle Grade Review: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Oops, late again!  I failed to notice this hadn't been quite finished and set to go live this morning!  Well, better late than never.


Title: Princess Academy
Author: Shannon Hale
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Children's Books.  314 pages

Miri lives on Mt. Eskel, in a tiny village whose life is the quarrying of linder stone.  But her father will not let her quarry stone, and she feels left out and useless because of it.  When an announcement comes from the king down below that the prince will choose his bride from among the girls of their village, and that all girls between 12 and 18 must attend an academy to be made ready in case they are chosen, Miri doesn't know if she wants to be the princess, but she does know she wants to be the best student.  In the end, what she learns in and out of class saves the day and changes everything.

I've seen this one on the shelves at the library for a long time, but I hadn't picked it up because of the princess thing.  You know: all that girly Disney-princess stuff that's eating so many girls alive.  I finally grabbed it in a hurry because I wanted to look at more middle grade fantasy.  Imagine my surprise when I found it was far from the sort of princess book I expected (it really has more in common with some of the Boarding School books I have always enjoyed).

We writhe with Miri under her shame and rage at the injustice handed out by the harsh teacher sent to prepare them for "society."  Yet we also see even more quickly than Miri that learning to read and write might have some benefits, and that there needs to be something more to life in the village than cutting stone, because not all people are meant for that.  Hale builds a nice tension between Miri's need to see the wider world and find a place for herself, and her love of her home and doubts about being a princess.

I do wonder a bit about ages of readers and protagonists.  This is a Middle Grade book, and there's nothing in it that's a problem for a 10-year-old.  And yet.  Miri is 14 at the start of the book, nearly 16 by the end, and the whole premise of preparing a girl to be the bride of the prince is not a childish thing.  There is love, passion, and adult issues to be faced.  This seems to be the way of kids' books, but I'm a little uneasy.  I was made the more so by the feeling through most of the book that Miri was younger--she read to me more like 12 or so, which fits better with the audience but worse with the whole love and marriage thing.  Do girls of ten really need to be thinking that true love will come to them at 16?

That may be a discussion for another day.  For now, I will say that this book won a Newbery Honor, and it probably deserves it.  I certainly didn't want to put it down, and the message about the value of education and seeing beyond one's narrow horizons was powerful and well-communicated without preaching.  And not a pink princess in sight.

Full Disclosure: I borrowed Princess Academy from my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: Carpe Jugulum


Yes, we're back on the Discworld!  I know I swore off of reviewing Terry Pratchett, because I just kept saying I loved his books, but this one seems to cry out for commentary.  First, the business:

Title:  Carpe Jugulum
Author:  Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Harper Voyager, 1999. I used the HarperCollins ebook edition, 339 pages.
Source: Library (digital version).

It seems both futile and arrogant to attempt to summarize one of Pratchett's Discworld novels.  The best I can offer is to say that we are back in Lancre, the land of the witches, and King Verence and Queen Magrat are celebrating the birth of their daughter.  They've invited all the neighbors to the naming ceremony, and that includes the Magpyrs of Uberwald, your friendly neighborhood vampires--or vampyres, as they prefer to spell it (Carpe Jugulum, of course, means "seize the jugular" which is a pretty good predictor for vampires).  Count Magpyr is so totally up-to-date, making sure he and his people can tolerate daylight, garlic, even holy water.  He and his family are also very good at many vampiric skills, including clouding people's minds, and sucking their blood.  They plan to move in and take over, and it's up to the witches, now including Agnes along with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, to stop them.

This is a tongue-in-cheek thriller, with all the suspense and twice the humor of any spy novel.  Twice the humor?  Probably way more than that.  But there was also complex character development, and a chance to see the witches each grow in new ways, making it seem more novelistic than some of Pratchett's work.  Granny Weatherwax proves she's even more powerful than we thought.  Nanny Ogg proves she can (sometimes) think of something besides sex.  Agnes finds out that having another self occupying her brain isn't all bad, and Magrat discovers she can be both mother, queen, and witch, and have a more interesting life that way.

I found myself trying to figure out how Pratchett was going to save Lancre from the Magpyrs, and I really couldn't see it.  I knew he would, of course.  I just had no idea how he would get there (except being pretty sure Granny Weatherwax would swoop in just in time.  But even she looked pretty seriously inadequate to the task at hand).

And all the time, Pratchett keeps up a running sub-theme satirizimng religion.  He raises points like the difficulty of keeping faith when one reads a lot, and the difference between praying about a problem and doing something about it.  (For those who are sensitive on such issues, Pratchett is an unashamed and vocal atheist.  I happen to enjoy that.  If you don't, you may not like his work, though in my opinion it's always worth seeing and understanding the criticisms of any belief system to which one subscribes).

The final putting of the vampyres in their place is a thing of beauty and a joy, and I for one will happily read about the witches any time.  Highly recommended for all fans of Pratchett, witches, the absurd, and any foolish teens with silly ideas about vampires (they'll hate it, but maybe learn some important lessons).
Full Disclosure: I borrowed Carpe Jugulum from my (online) library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Kid Lit Blog Hop: North of Nowhere, by Liz Kessler

Title: North of Nowhere, by Liz Kessler, 264 pages.
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2013
Source: Library

Mia and her mother rush to the tiny fishing village of Porthaven when word comes that her Grandad has disappeared.  Mia has double reason to be unhappy: not only is she worried about Grandad, but she's missing spring break with her friends back home.  And when she "meets" a girl her own age who seems so much like her, they can't seem to actually meet up.  But Mia's self-pity starts to fall away when things get really weird, and she has to risk everything to save everything.


It is a tiny bit of a spoiler to say what I'm about to say, so I'm putting the cover image here to keep you from looking if you don't want to.  But I can't review this without talking about it.


Okay, what I want to say is that this is one of the more interesting and twisted time-travel books I've read, and the author makes great use of the paradoxes of the genre.  The nature of the mystery is only slowly revealed, though this reader had no trouble seeing that time travel is involved, even from the blurb (which is why I'm not too concerned about this being a spoiler).  That's okay, because it's what is done with the time travel that is so gripping.  [Though I believe that the author makes one small anachronistic error, introducing a plastic bag in an era when they were not in common use (I know.  I was alive then.  I remember when plastic shopping bags became common, and I was old enough to make fun of the ridiculous things), the time differences are otherwise handled well and convincingly, and that was the only editorial lapse I noticed.]

The characters are well-drawn, and believable, with 13-year-old Mia displaying a convincing tendency to shift between her own selfish interests and disappointments and a mature desire to help her mother and grandmother however she can.  She mopes over the movies she misses, checks every few minutes to see if a miracle has occurred and she has cell reception after all--but manages to put all that aside when she really has to.  Other characters are less complete, but this is Mia's story, and they feel real enough to be her world.  The story is compelling, moves swiftly, and kept me reading right through to the end.

I was dubious at first (because weird time travel isn't wholly my thing), but Kessler won me over, and I give this one a strong recommendation to anyone who likes slightly off-beat novels with a touch of the fantastic.  Oh, and I love the cover.  Those blues and greens really are my favorites!

Full Disclosure: I checked North of Nowhere out of my library, and received nothing from the author or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed herein are my own and no one else's.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Classic Kids review: Kitty's Class Day by Louisa May Alcott


Title: Kitty's Class Day and Other Proverb Stories, by Louisa May Alcott, 189 pages
Publisher: Duke Classics, Open Library edition.  Orig. publication 1882.
Source: Library, on-line ebook collection

Note: The edition I read retained the original title, unlike the cover I'm showing here (i.e., included the "proverb stories" part).

Summary: Contains eight stories of various lengths, but most if not all with pretty transparent "lessons" for the young reader.  Stories are:
Kitty's Class Day
Aunt Kipp
Psyche's Art
A Country Christmas
On Picket Duty
The Baron's Gloves; or, Amy's Romance
My Red Cap
What the Bells Saw and Said

It is always challenging to review books from another age.  My reaction to the moralizing tone of these stories is not the same, I'm sure, as the reaction of the young reading of 1882.  But for my readers, who are more modern, be warned: these are, indeed, "proverb" stories, and the lessons range from well-mixed in the story to hit-you-over-the-head (see final story, "What the Bells Saw and Said," which is pretty much a critique of a self-centered and materialistic society.  If it hadn't been interesting from a "plus ca change" perspective, it would have been unreadable).

My favorite story was probably "Psyche's Art," wherein the girl learns that she is only able to be the artist she feels herself to be after taking care of home responsibilities (not a lesson I'm completely comfortable with as she set it, but the point is largely valid, I think).  Best, at the end, Alcott's own carefully hidden feminism comes to the fore, and she ends by leaving it to the reader to choose if she and the hero fell in love, married, and lived happily ever after or, if "those who can conceive of a world outside of a wedding-ring may believe that the friends remained faithful friends all their lives" and Psyche was quite happy with her art and her home, no man apparently necessary.

I don't think I would particularly recommend this book for children (I am frankly unsure if I recommend any of Alcott for young girls; there is an awfully strong sense that marriage and family are the highest goal for the female of the species, only occasionally challenged by a character who proves otherwise.  I think from Alcott's biography that she was a little afraid to be as feminist as she felt).  But like many books from the period, which was near the beginning of the creation of books purely for children, it is interesting and educational for the student of history and culture.

Disclaimer: I checked Kitty's Class Day out from my public (digital) library, and received nothing from the publisher or author in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed herein are my own and those of no one else. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Child's Christmas In Wales


Title:  A Child's Christmas in Wales, by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, 47 pages
Publisher: Holiday House, 1985.  Original publisher: New Directions, 1954
Source:  Library

This Christmas classic is worth a read, but a lot depends on the illustrator, as it really is a picture book.  Thomas's poetic prose is beautiful, and evokes a long-past childhood that seems just a little bit magical, with a touch of humor (Auntie Hannah!).  Somehow, over all these years, I'd never actually read this (despite the fact that it took about 20 minutes, tops!), and it's a shame.  I would have enjoyed sharing this with my boys when they were little.

I have to admit that I'm not crazy about the illustrations in the edition I read (the first on the left above).  The landscape and village structures--those are great.  The people are a little odd, though, and kind of scary. I'd like to see the original.  But this is what our library has, so it's what I read.

Wander down to your bookstore, check out the different editions, and pick one that you like to add to your collection of holiday traditional reads!

Disclaimer: I checked A Child's Christmas in Wales out from my local public library, and received nothing from the publisher or author in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed herein are my own and those of no one else. 


And so. . . A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!