Monday, November 23, 2020

The Illness Lesson - Clare Beams


Summary: 
A mysterious flock of red birds has descended over Birch Hill. Recently reinvented, it is now home to an elite and progressive school designed to shape the minds of young women. But Eliza Bell – the most inscrutable and defiant of the students – has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.

One by one, the other girls begin to experience the same peculiar symptoms: rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. Soon Caroline – the only woman teaching – begins to suffer too. She tries desperately to hide her symptoms but, with the birds behaving strangely and the girls’ condition worsening, the powers-that-be turn to a sinister physician with grave and dubious methods.

Caroline alone can speak on behalf of the students, but only if she summons the confidence to question everything she’s ever learnt. Does she have the strength to confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities of her world and protect the young women in her care?

Distinctive, haunting, irresistible, The Illness Lesson is an intensely vivid debut about women's minds and bodies, and the time-honoured tradition of doubting both.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: This was an interesting little book, and one that I think might be off of your immediate radar. First off, the cover is gorgeous and super interesting. I love cool cover art. Also, the story itself actually fits in really well with the cover art, which is cool. You know how when you look at it and read the description it’s a little bit creepy? A tad mysterious? And maybe just slightly off? Well, my friends, you’ll be happy to know that the book is like this, too!

The writing in this book is so interesting. It’s really well-written. Beams is a master at her craft. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the writing is sparse, but am instead settling on “measured.” The writing is very measured. The writing itself—the way it is spaced on the page, the words that are chosen, the cadence of the dialogue—all sets an interesting tone. It is somewhat creepy (and I like creepy!) and feels really mysterious, like there is something going on that we aren’t privy to; that these characters are maybe hiding something that we should know about but don’t. I liked it. It set a really great atmosphere and was, in fact, very apropos to the story.

The time period of the story also lends itself to creepiness. It’s after the Civil War, in the 1870’s, and the protagonists set up a school in which they can teach their progressive ways to women. (I appreciated this, by the way). What follows can only be described as a foreboding set of events from many angles, and these events turn into an “illness” that is never really determined, and this all leads to what I feel is an extremely disturbing resolution. What is even more disturbing about this resolution is I know that this kind of thing actually happened (I’m trying to be vague here), and sometimes that is even creepier. The whole book itself was super interesting and really moody but also really weird in a lot of ways. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I look back at a book and reflect on reading it, I have feelings and senses of what I thought. Even if I don’t recollect exactly what was going on or the minute details, I can remember how it made me feel or the general gist. Looking back at this book, I feel strangeness and mystery and a very strong sense of time and place. This doesn’t always happen. It’s a credit to the author that I feel this way. It stands out to me as a book that was different from anything else I’ve ever read.

If you like atmospheric stories, and ones that are really interesting and different, I think you should check this out.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some light language and some incidents of sexual abuse by a trusted individual that I found to be disturbing. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Freeform Friday: The 'Ember in the Ashes' series (Including An Ember in the Ashes, A Torch Against the Night, and A Reaper at the Gates) - Sabaa Tahir

Today we're talking about the first three books from the Ember in the Ashes Series (An Ember in the Ashes #1, A Torch Against the Night #2, and A Reaper at the Gates #3).  Feel free to scroll your way to the review that most interests you, but beware of spoilers in the later reviews.

Summary: Laia is a slave.  Elias is a solider.  Neither is free.  Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death.  Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destructuion of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother.  The family ekes out an existence in the Empire's impoverished backstreets.  They do not challenge the Empire.  They've seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia's brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire's greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school's finest soldier -- and secretly, it's most unwilling.  Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he's been trained to enforce.  He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined -- and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I picked up An Ember in the Ashes back in June, desperate to wash away the nightmare that is juggling three months of 'distance learning' for four kids and hoping for a little light summer, escapist reading.  Thankfully, that is what I got.  By page 100, I was already looking up quarantine- friendly ways to acquire the next book.  The plot was well-paced, intriguing, and totally hit the spot while at the same time leaving room for growth in subsequent books.  I was pretty absorbed in the story and didn't take many notes while reading so you'll have to excuse me while I stumble through (the rest of) this review.

Seventeen-year-old Laia is a wonderful heroine who learns to face her own fears and gains strength over the course of the story. I loved that the Pakistani-American author created a heroine who is not only principled, determined, and loyal, but also a woman of color.  It was nice to see that representation in the fantasy genre, particularly in a central character. Although there was a definite chemistry between Laia and another character (ZING!), they each had their own pressing problems to worry about and other options to consider in the relationship department, which I felt added an extra layer of action and suspense to the story.  Occasionally, the characters were forced to make impossible decisions, which kept things interesting, and I couldn't always divine everyone's allegiances or motivations, which gave the characters room to develop.

Structurally, the author alternates perspectives between the two main characters which kept the story moving at a fast clip.  She routinely 'switched' perspectives at pivotal moments in the story, so that I simply had to keep reading to find out what would happen next.  It was like a series of mini-cliffhangers and deliciously thrilling.  Overall, An Ember in the Ashes was an entertaining summer read about loyalty, courage, strength, and drawing a line in the sand.  Thankfully, it is only the beginning of a much larger story that I plan to continue reading in the sequel, A Torch Against the Night.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some innuendo and sensual language (making out with bodies pressed closely together, and all that), no sex, minimal swearing (less than a handful), some violence, threats of rape, and an attempted rape.
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Summary:  Elias and Laia are running for their lives.  After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.

Laia is determined to break into Kauf -- the Empire's most secure and dangerous prison -- to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholar's survival.  And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.

But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias.  The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene -- Elias's former friend and the Empire's newest Blood Shrike.

Bound to Marcus's will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own -- on that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape...and kill them both.  (Summary from book - Image from barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  A Torch in the Night is the second book in the Ember in the Ashes series and it picks up in the catacombs, as Blackcliff burns.  Laia and Elias are determined to rescue Darin, Laia's brother, from a hellish prison, but first they must escape the city.  While they manage to evade immediate capture, it comes with unforeseen consequences.  What follows is a harrowing adventure across the Empire, into the Tribal lands, and other unexpected realms.  As the duo gather allies, they are also being hunted...by the one person Elias cannot bear to kill.

Laia and Elias have both come a long way since the beginning of the series and I loved seeing them both in a different light.  While the first book alternates between Laia and Elias points-of-view, the second book offers a third perspective -- Helene's.  I liked the development of her character and am thrilled she took on a more central role, which allowed me to get inside her head, understand her background, and offered the opportunity to see her familial interactions.  I was glad for the addition of her perspective and felt it enriched the story.

Like its predecessor, A Torch Against the Night has a light magical element that weaves its way through the story in the form of wraiths, jinn, efrit, ghuls, a living ghost, and a strange, hooded figure with blazing eyes.  While I could have lived without the some of the darker aspects of the story, I did like Laia and Helene emerging powers.  I was intrigued by their unexplained abilities, delighted when they had the opportunity to use them, and look forward to hearing more about the whole concept in future books. 

Have you ever been reading a book and you get the sense that something is definitely up plot-wise, but you can't quite put your finger on it and it sort of drives you crazy in all the good ways?  That's how I felt while reading this book.  A Torch Against the Night is not without a series of enigmatic secondary characters *ahemKeenanHarperShaevaCook*.  Even the antagonists, namely Marcus, Keris, and the icky icky Warden each have their own set of secrets.  While there was obviously more to their stories than the author was ready to reveal up front, the suspense kept things lively and maddeningly mysterious. I may have had an inkling or two about what might happen but was not expecting the Big Reveal, In fact, there are a few Big Reveals, and I was not expecting any of them.  After each one, the story ramped up the intensity so that by the end, I was straight up invested.

I enjoyed my time with this book and only wish I had been able to read it all in one sitting.    Thankfully, the book ends with enough closure that I didn't keel over and die, but it left enough threads untied and questions left unanswered that I'll definitely be reading the next book, A Reaper at the Gates, which *oh, look* I happen to have sitting right next to me.  If you'll excuse me...

On an unrelated note:  I should have known that Sabaa Tahir and Reneé Ahdieh (author of The Wrath & the Dawn duology and The Beautiful) were friends.  It makes sense and in hindsight, I don't know how I missed it.  I love both of their writing styles.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some violence (executions/torture) and biblical swearing (H & D variety) is sprinkled throughout with the most popular being variations of the exclamation "ten h*lls!".  Around three uses of the B word.  Some making out (and unbuttoning) that fades to black (implied sex).
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Summary: Helene Aquilla, the Blood Shrike, is desperate to protect her sister's life and the lives of everyone in the Empire.  Yet danger lurks on all sides.  Emperor Marcus, haunted by his past, grows increasingly unstable and violent, while Keris Veturia, the ruthless Commandant, capitalizes on the Emperor's volatility to grow her own power -- regardless of the carnage she leaves in her path.

Far to the east, Laia of Serra knows that the fate of the world lies not in the machinations of the Martial court, but in stopping the Nightbringer.  During the hunt to bring him down, Laia faces unexpected threats from those she hoped would help her, and is drawn into a battle she never thought she'd have to fight.  

And in the land between the living and the dead, Elias Veturius has given up his freedom to serve as Soul Catcher.  However, in doing so, he has vowed himself to an ancient power that demands his complete surrender -- even if that means abandoning the woman he loves.  (Summary from book cover - Image from www.barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  A Reaper at the Gates begins two months after the events of its predecessor, The Torch Against the Night.  As the story opens, the main characters are separated, forced apart by the different roles they have to play in fighting the Nightbringer and those who work for him.  The story is told from four perspectives, most often alternating between Elias, Laia, and the Blood Shrike (Helene) with occasional appearances of the Nightbringer.  Although his perspective is given infrequently, I appreciated the layers it lent his character and the insight into his motivations.

A Reaper at the Gates brims with heart-pounding action, gut-wrenching twists, and some much anticipated answers to some of the questions readers have been dying to know.  Things don't always go well for any of the characters.  In fact, in the third installment, things go terribly terribly wrong more often than not. I loved Tahir's ability to continually surprise me.  Although I may have had the sneaking suspicious that there is more to so-and-so's story, I was never able to pin down specifics until WHAM she hit me in the face with them.  Tahir also doesn't shy away from letting her protagonists fail (and fail hard), which is both a sickening gut-punch and a refreshing change from the all-I-do-is-win-win-win characters that often plague YA fiction.

One of the overarching themes of this book is sacrifice, specifically what people are willing to sacrifice for something or someone that they love.  This theme appears throughout the book, emerging in protagonists and antagonists alike, in often heartbreaking ways.  I loved that most of Tahir's characters were multidimensional -- neither patently good or definitively evil -- and that even those most loathable characters could become strangely sympathetic in a matter of minutes.  I also loved everything about Helene's character arc, her increased use of magic, and her evolving motivations; the simmering romantic tension between her and a certain soldier didn't hurt either. 

While I did enjoy the book as a whole, I struggled with a few minor details.  In this book, Helene's perspective is labeled 'The Blood Shrike'.  Even in Elias' perspective, he frequently refers to his old friend using the same terminology.  While I understand Helene's desire to distance herself from the the person she was before, it makes no sense for Elias to have adopted this kind of distancing language, especially in his own head.  In fact, it would make more sense that he would insist on referring to her as Helene instead of the Blood Shrike.  That having been said, Elias also has plenty of his own issues to deal with in this book, so perhaps his mind was just elsewhere.  I didn't particularly care for his arc this time around (as it firmly headed down a frustrating path), nor did I like where things were left at the end of this book, but that is pretty common for the book preceding the finale.  I have my fingers and toes crossed that things will veer dramatically in the next book. 

The scope of A Reaper at the Gates encompasses a larger geographic area, with more characters, a more plot complications than previous books.  I read the first half of this book in spurts (because KIDS), barely managing more than a few pages or a short chapter at a time, which made it hard to keep track of certain details. HOWEVER, right around the halfway mark my beloved husband took my four girls backpacking for a week and you can bet your pretty little book binding I sat myself down and finished this book in one shot.  My ability to read without interruption helped me finally connect to the story and holy cannoli it was INTENSE!  My chest hurt and my stomach was in knots for most of the rest of the book, leading up to a cliffhanger that had me reaching for A Sky Beyond the Storm, the final bo....WHAT DO YOU MEAN, IT's NOT OUT YET?  Well, crap. 

(Psssttt.. I wrote this review in August.  The book comes out next week)

My Rating: 4 Stars.

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some fairly minimal swearing (a few instances of the B and H words).  Some sensual dialogue, making out, and some almost-but-not-quite sex.
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The final installment of this series is coming....

December 1, 2020

Ugh.  I hate waiting.


Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Puukko: Finnish Knives from Antiquity to Today - Anssi Ruusuvuori

Summary:  For a Finn, the puukko is the most important tool and at the same time the most feared weapon.  You could almost say the puukko has the same importance for a Finn as the samurai sword has for the Japanese.  It is a 2,000-year-old mystical weapon that has been used for centuries with the same conviction and dexterity during times of peace and war.  This comprehensive resource on the Finnish puukko is the only one available and covers the history and the various types by using extensive photos of examples.  Anssi Ruusuvuori has reprocessed the history of this remarkable knife type in a form unique up to now.  He deals with technical and design aspects of the puukko and guides the reader through the history of this legendry tool and weapon from the Viking era up to the present.  He reports about the great master smiths of industrialization in the late 19th century and about rediscovering the puukko in the recent past.  This book's initial focus is on the puukko's technology and history.  In the second section, the author introduces the different puukko types according to their materials and construction.  Thereafter are presented the multiples regional types and special puukkos, which are essential to know about as a collector and knife enthusiast.  This book provides a comprehensive overview with respect to the topic "puukko" and transfers a rich treasure of knowledge.  During its long history, the puukko was used for a great diversity of tasks, such as the production of ladles and other household tools; the carving of ornaments: scratching ice off cart wheels; cutting food; gutting and skinning of game, fish, or livestock; climbing out of an ice hole back to firm ground; and magic rituals (to protect children from evil spirits, to pray for a good harvest, and so on).  It was used for self-defense and for duels.  The main source of material for this book is the puukko collections of Finnish museums and private collectors.  The greater part of researched knives is from the National Museum of Finland.  Additional material was gathered from the Kauhava Puukko Museum, the Peura Museum, the Turku Regional Museum, the Aboa Vetus et Ars Nova Museum, the Ostrobothnian Museum, the Museum of Crime, and various private collections.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  When I married my husband, I also married into his Finnish heritage and his love of Finnish knives.  So, when I saw The Puukko: Finnish Knives from Antiquity to Today while flipping through the Schiffer book catalog, I knew he would kill mame knock over the elderly love to get his hands on it.  When he finally did, he parked himself on the couch and poured over it, mesmerized for a solid hour before coming up for air, eating some dinner, and diving back in.  Honestly, I can't say that I blame him.  The Puukko is a hefty volume, full of a wealth of historical information and a vast collection of puukko photographs.  All that having been said, I'm really not the best person to review any book on the subject -- so I'll just let him tell you:

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, immigrants from Finland settled in the small communities near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington. The Finn's were drawn to the logging and fishing industries; and the similarities to the homes they left behind. At that time, several of my ancestors emigrated from western Finland. They brought with them their language and heritage, which has been passed down and celebrated. I remember many trips out to the old family homestead to visit my great Aunt Alice. It was always fascinating to look at all of the old family heirlooms that decorated her walls and shelves.  Among the items were two very old Finnish puukko, or knives, in worn leather sheaths, that had belonged to my great-great grandfather, Able.  My great-aunt still lives on that homestead and the knives are still displayed on one of her shelves.  

My family has always celebrated our heritage throughout the year, but never quite as much as during the third weekend in June when local Scandinavians in Astoria, Oregon host an annual Scandinavian Midsummer Festival, a three-day event is filled with crafts and food, music and dancing.  I remember with fondness wandering through all the different booths, but my favorite by far was the booth with the large display cases of  Finnish knives.  Year after year, I would return to admire the ornate knives.  There were all manner of knives with carved brass pommels, birch bark handles and brightly polished carbon steel blades.  There were larger hunting-style leuku, the smaller puukko, and other combinations with a large knife and small knife sharing the same sheath.  There were the more practical knives, similar those of my great-great grandfather and even fancy, ornate knives for special occasions.  I longed for one of these knives.

I finally got my first Finnish puukko in early adolescence, when my parents bought me a knife to go with my Finnish dance costume.  It was a special edition Iisakki Jarvenpaa puuko with brass horsehead pommel and a black handle (seen above) and was worn clipped to a leather belt, adorned with dangling brass hearts. I wore the knife for many years, dancing at the festival.  On more than one occasion, the knife would work its way out of the sheath during one of the dance numbers, much to the chagrin of the dance instructor, but I always felt that a Finnish puukko stuck point-down into the stage made the dancing a little more exciting.  Not only was my puukko a thing of beauty, it was sharp as hell (Finns are quite finicky about the sharpness of their blades).  Although my dancing days are behind me, my fascination with Finnish knives has remained and in recent years I have started experimenting with making my own puukkos. 
My wife surprised me with The Puukko: Finnish Knives from Antiquity to Today when I got home from work and I was immediately engrossed in what I can only describe as the foremost authoritative compilation of the puukko I have ever seen.  It became quickly evident that I barely understood the historical and cultural significance of the puukko.  The author begins by laying out the history of the knife, identifying some of the earliest puukko that have been discovered, detailing the knife style in the time of the Viking and early European eras and on to the development of the knife in modern day. 

It was actually rather difficult to read the first part of this book, because it is chock-full of full-color photographs of fascinating knives (see examples below).  After covering the history of the puukko, the book becomes more showcasing and describing the individual knives.  Each page thereafter displays a few examples of similar puukko, with additional photos and descriptions that are significant to the knives shown.   The pages identify the maker of the knife, size, materials and other interesting facts.   The writing pulls you in as it describes the unique features of the different kinds of knives, sheaths or knife makers.  

The Puukko: Finnish Knives from Antiquity to Today would be a great coffee table book. These knives are more than just practical tools; they are pieces of art.  Even someone who has never heard of the puukko, will get pulled into this book by the beauty and intricacy of the various knives and sheaths.  Any serious puukko enthusiast or collector will appreciate the beautiful photographs, historical background, and references.  By the end of the book, both the casual observer and the avid collector will be able to say that the Finns really know how to make knives!

Okay, back to me now.   As you can see, my husband straight-up loved this book and I scored some major brownie points by giving it to him (with the caveat that he review it here...I am not above bribery).  In case his review didn't make it incredibly clear,  The Puukko: Finnish Knives from Antiquity to Today would be a great gift for any collector, knife maker, or knife enthusiast in your life, especially if they happen to be Finnish.  

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear

Monday, November 16, 2020

Sharks in the Time of Saviors - Kawai Strong Washburn


 Summary: "Sharks in the Time of Saviors is the story of a family, a people, and a legend, all wrapped in one. Faith and grief, rage and love, this book pulses with all of it. Kawai Strong Washburn makes his debut with a wealth of talent and a true artist's eye." --Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling

In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on a rare family vacation, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard a cruise ship into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears for the worst. But instead, Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story as the stuff of legends.

Nainoa's family, struggling amidst the collapse of the sugarcane industry, hails his rescue as a sign of favor from ancient Hawaiian gods--a belief that appears validated after he exhibits puzzling new abilities. But as time passes, this supposed divine favor begins to drive the family apart: Nainoa, working now as a paramedic on the streets of Portland, struggles to fathom the full measure of his expanding abilities; further north in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics, obsessed with wealth and fame; while in California, risk-obsessed younger sister Kaui navigates an unforgiving academic workload in an attempt to forge her independence from the family's legacy.

When supernatural events revisit the Flores family in Hawai'i--with tragic consequences--they are all forced to reckon with the bonds of family, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book. First of all, I loved the immersion in Hawaiian culture. I just reviewed Fire and Vengeance, and that also took place in Hawaii, and I find that sometimes my reading goes in spurts like that and it’s really enjoyable. I’m all about a deep dive into different cultures or people. I think it’s fascinating, especially if it’s a topic I don’t know a lot about. Although I have been to Hawaii exactly once, and that was 30 years ago (I was a child, and yet it seems strange to be able to say 30 years ago and not be exaggerating), I’ve always felt a pull by it. I’ve been to many tropical locations since (well , not many, but some) and they are beautiful and paradise, but Hawaii remains the mysterious, volcanic, lush, laid back and yet tempestuous exotic place. It’s part of the United States and yet it’s completely different—geographically and culturally, in a lot of ways. I loved the way Kawai Strong Washburn fostered this in this book. The culture is familiar and yet foreign, and it is so rich and varied because of the cultural backgrounds of the people. I appreciated Washburn addressing the different races of the people in Hawaii, and it was interesting to see how those cultural interactions have come to a cohesive whole over the years.

I really enjoyed the magical realism in this book. It was the best kind of magical realism, I think, wherein it is almost excusable as just a person with extraordinary talents and abilities, and barely crosses the line where actual magic is performed. I like books about real magic, too, but it is fun to think that there are some things in the world that really are magical; that there are enough unexplained things that the world still holds some mystery and discovery yet to be had.

Washburn was not afraid to take on some difficult family relationships and issues. Even the most functional family still has issues to work through, right? Everyone has experienced some sort of trauma or difficulties, and this family certainly had its fair share. Washburn is able to help us understand each person’s troubles with the rotating narrator viewpoint, which I usually really enjoy. This was no exception. I like seeing what different characters are thinking and feeling, and this works especially well when the characters are in different geographical places.

This book had an interesting and powerful ending. I liked that it came full circle and resolved all the loose ends. Although it didn’t necessarily have the perfect happy ending, it definitely felt satisfying. This book was well-written. Washburn takes on a lot and delivers in the end.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and some discussion of sex, including same-sex relationships.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Freeform Friday: Another Bill Peet Trio (Including Bill Peet: An Autobiography, Kermit the Hermit, and Hubert's Hair Raising Adventure)

I am ashamed to say I didn't discover the complete and utter awesomeness that is Bill Peet, until just this year.  It may very well be the only good thing that I get out of 2020.  I've already reviewed three of this books, but here are three more...

  • Bill Peet: An Autobiography
  • Kermit the Hermit
  • Hubert's Hair Raising Adventure

...because, clearly, I can't get enough of them.  

Summary: Bill Peet tells his life story, including his years with Disney, with illustrations on every page.  (Summary from goodreads.com - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I wish I could own the entire Bill Peet collection, but as the collection is quite large and I am not independently wealthy, I am resigned to reading as many as I can and hoping to own my favorites.  In my quest for the best, I was surprised to find this autobiography mixed in with all the children's fiction on some of the internet's "Best of Bill Peet" lists.  When I found out it was both a Caldecott Honor Book and an ALA Notable book, I knew I had to read it and I am so glad I did.

Bill Peet: An Autobiography is an absolutely charming memoir that tells the author's life story with a beautiful balance of text and illustrations.  I followed the ups and downs of Peet's life with rapt attention and reveled in its nostalgic feel.  His somewhat idyllic childhood spent on the farm, gamboling about the countryside, dreaming of African safaris, and sketching his heart out, was tempered by Peet's rocky relationship with his father, the death of his grandmother, the Great Depression, and his struggles with school and employment. Eventually landing a job at Disney, Peet worked on animated classics like Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Peter Pan, Song of the South, Cinderella, numerous short films, and even helped produce wartime propaganda.  It was fascinating to read about Peet's projects, the early animation processes, and the idiosyncrasies of Disney's oh-so-famous founder.  Armed with this history, it was to see how Peet's interests and experiences -- his love of trains, animals, cars, dragons, the circus, the farm, and even some of life's harder knocks -- informed and influenced his artwork throughout his career.  


I would recommend this book to anyone who loves Bill Peet or simply loves children's literature.  Although Peet's story is quite engaging, with cross-generational appeal, the undeniable star of the book is -- surprise, surprise -- his illustrations, which both enhance the story and showcase Peet's unique abilities, iconic style, and delightful characters.  Those illustrations made me want to look up every book he'd ever written and watch every short film he'd ever animated.  My only complaint is that the book ended rather abruptly.  One minute he was talking about his projects post-Disney and then BAM. End of book.  I suppose the mark of a good book is that you don't want it to finish, and I definitely closed the book wanting more. 

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: One of the sketches has the vaguest suggestion of a bare bum jumping into a swimming hole.  Super shaded.  Not detailed.  

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Summary:  A little boy saves Kermit from disaster, and the once cranky crab works hard to repay him. 

In Monterey Bay there's a jumble of rock
Stacked up like a castle across from the dock.
The king of his castle, an old crab called Kermit,
Lived all by himself in his cave like a hermit.
There was never a crab who was one half as selfish
Or one tenth as mean as this crusty old shellfish....

(Summary from goodreads.com and billpeet.net  - Image from barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  I'm not one of those people that judges a book by its cover (#YesIAm) but just look at that cantankerous crustacean!  Isn't he adorable?!  His crabby little face really appealed to my inner hermit and I knew I had to give this book a chance.  I am so glad I did!

Kermit the hermit crab lives in a cave down by the docks where he has to fight seagulls and other crabs for every scrap of food.  Kermit soon becomes greedy for other things and starts hoarding all sorts of junk he doesn't even need, crowding it all in to his home in the rocks.  There Kermit lived, alone with his stuff, until one day he spotted something shiny on the beach and left his lair to investigate.  The shiny something turns out to be nothing more than an old can, but Kermit runs afoul of an old dog who tries to bury him in the sand.  A raggedy young boy saves the cranky old crab from the dog and sends him back into the ocean.  Kermit is overcome with gratitude wants to find a way to reward the youth for his good deed.  In one such attempt, Kermit is whisked out to sea and into the middle of a fabulous adventure, where he finds a very special way to show his gratitude. I won't spoil it for you, but it involves a pelican and a flying crab, so you definitely won't want to miss it.  

As previously stated, Kermit is stinking cute.  Even cranky, it's impossible not to love his moody mug.  Children will thoroughly enjoy reading about Kermit's adventures on both land, sea, and in the air, accompanied by classic Peet illustrations.  Personally, I loved the eloquent and clever rhyming verse -- kids books always seem so much more fun to read when they rhyme -- and how the story shows that people can change, the importance of gratitude, and that small actions can have enormous, transformative consequences.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has kids, or reads to kids, or knows kids, or just likes Bill Peet books in general.  Kermit the Hermit is one of my favorites.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All good.  

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Summary: Hubert the Lion was haughty and vain and especially proud of his elegant mane. Then one day, a terrible accident occurred and his mane was burned, leaving him with a "head full of stubble." So begins Hubert's story... (Summary from billpeet.net - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure was the first picture book ever published by Bill Peet.  Since then, he has written more than 30 beloved children's books as well as an award-winning illustrated autobiography (reviewed above).  While I haven't been able to read all of his books yet (#goals), this one is high up my list of "favorites".

In Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventures a young prideful lion loses his mane in a dreadful fire.  Ashamed and embarrassed, he hides from the other animals, until one nosy bird discovers his secret and shares it with the other animals.  Soon a veritable menagerie gathers to gawk at the lion's misfortune and brainstorm of a solution.  Many of the animals offer ideas, but only Elephant is willing to venture into the swamp to collect the necessary ingredients to help Hubert's hairlessness -- crocodile tears.  When Elephant returns, the animals gather to see if the tear tonic will work and, boy, does it ever!  Hairy hijinks ensue, a Baboon with scissors takes center-stage, and Hubert's ends up with thoroughly unique coiffure that will leave young ones giggling.

As with Kermit the Hermit (see above), Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure is written in rhyming verse. Not all of Peet's books rhyme, and they are great either way, but I find that I prefer it when his words have the gentle lilt that comes with certain kinds of poetry.  I also loved the book's subtle messages regarding friendship, self-acceptance, helping others, and embracing one's individuality.  Sadly, this is probably the last Bill Peet book I will review because at this point I feel like I am repeating myself in these reviews (a la  Peet's books are charming, clever, and well-illustrated with a subtle moral message). Simply put, they are all the things that I think a good children's book should be.  If you haven't read Bill Peet, your life is not complete (see what I did there?), so get to it!

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Baldness is presented as something undesirable and embarrassing, which could be problematic for a portion of the population.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Among the Ten Thousand Things - Julia Pierpont

Summary: Jack Shanley is a well-known New York artist, charming and vain, who doesn't mean to plunge his family into crisis.  His wife, Deb, gladly left behind a difficult career as a dancer to raise the two children she adores.  In the ensuing years, she has mostly avoided coming face-to-face with the weaknesses of the man she married.  But then an anonymously sent package arrives in the mail: a cardboard box containing sheaves of printed emails chronicling Jack's secret life.  The package is addressed to Deb, but it's delivered into the wrong hands: her children's.  

(Summary from back of book - Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Among the Ten Thousand Things has been described as "a luscious, smart summer novel," "obsessively compelling," and "emotionally sophisticated."  Clearly, there are people in the world who read this book, finished, and loved it.   Alas, I am not one of them.

Initially, this story is about a mysterious box left for a woman that gives evidence of her husband's secret life.  I was hopeful it would contain all the details of his secret spy life, but it did not.  Instead it held printed copies of all the text messages between said man and his mistress, some of which were very explicit.  I hoped the book would focus more on the repercussions of the box than its contents and continued to read, but as the text messages made their way onto the page, I decided to call it quits.  I just couldn't stomach the profanity and sexually graphic text.  It's entirely possible that the novel improves after a few chapters and never touches on the subject again, but ultimately, I decided it wasn't for me. 

My Rating: 1 Star.  Did not finish.

For the sensitive reader:  This book is not for those sensitive to profanity or sexually explicit text.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Fire and Vengeance - Robert B. McCaw

Summary: Having killed his father’s nemesis and gotten away with it, Hilo, Hawai`i Chief Detective Koa Kane, is not your ordinary cop. Estranged from his younger brother who has been convicted of multiple crimes, he is not from a typical law enforcement family. Yet, Koa’s secret demons fuel his unwavering drive to pursue justice. Never has Koa’s motivation been greater than when he learns that an elementary school was placed atop a volcanic vent, which has now exploded. The subsequent murders of the school’s contractor and architect only add urgency to his search for the truth. As Koa’s investigation heats up, his brother collapses in jail from a previously undiagnosed brain tumor. Using his connections, Koa devises a risky plan to win his brother’s freedom. As Koa gradually unravels the obscure connections between multiple suspects, he uncovers a 40 year-old conspiracy. When he is about to apprehend the perpetrators, his investigation suddenly becomes entwined with his brother’s future, forcing Koa to choose between justice for the victims and his brother’s freedom. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I really like crime novels. They’re a lot of fun. I’m not sure what the psychology is behind all of this love of murder and crime and such, but I can tell from the long list of crime authors let alone the offerings on all streaming services that I’m not the only one. It’s comforting to be a disturbed individual when you’re not the only disturbed individual, right?

This book had an interesting premise. I always enjoy reading about different places, and I consider Hawaii to be an interesting and culturally different place from many other places I’ve read about. Coincidentally enough, I just read Sharks in the Times of Saviors that takes place in Hawaii and has lots of interesting discussion of Hawaiian culture and such, and I'll be reviewing that soon!

To be honest, I would have liked more cultural immersion in this book. I appreciate that the author is not Hawaiian and has talked to other sources in order to get more cultural information, and I would have liked more of that. I know that it is a careful balance between accurately representing a culture from secondhand information and actually being a part of that culture. I think that McCaws’ interest in being authentic and representing Hawaiian culture accurately showed through here, and I appreciated that because it is pretty lame when a culture is represented inaccurately by an outsider, but I would have liked even more cultural information to better add to the feeling of the Hawaiianness of the book and the story, especially as to how it related to the story and the story’s resolution.

I had a somewhat difficult time buying the premise of this story. Maybe I’m just a person who thinks too highly of people in general, which is entirely possible, but I would like to think that a whole bunch of people would not collude together to let an elementary school be built on top of a volcano mouth. I mean, that is pretty stupid and dangerous and seems like a complete recipe for disaster. I also had a similar difficulty in buying the way everything was tied up at the end. I don’t want to give anything away, but I do feel like some pretty drastic things had to line up in order to have the ending it did. I like it when endings feel more organic, even if it makes them messier than I would have liked.

I did like the characters. There were a lot to choose from that had some interesting back stories and a wide cast of interesting peripheral characters gave the book lots of flavor and interest. There were some connections between some of the characters I would have liked to have explored more, and there were a few times I was somewhat confused, but all in all I thought that the story moved along quickly and had strong characterization.

If you’re into crime mysteries, especially those that take place in exotic locations with interesting characters and interesting back stories, you should check this out.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and also a gang rape scene that is not too explicit but definitely discussed.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Freeform Friday: One Crazy Summer - Rita Williams-Garcia

Summary: Set during one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history Onw Crazy Summer is the heartbreaking, funny tale of three girls who travel to Oakland, California, in 1968 in search of the mother who abandoned them.  It's an unforgettable story told by a distinguised author of books for children and teens, Rita Williams-Garcia.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review: I am going to be painfully honest right now.  In the past, I haven't been in the habit of searching out books that tell stories from a black perspective.  It's not that I have anything against the BIPOC genre, I just haven't put a lot of thought into my selections or tried to push myself to expand my reading repertoire.  However, I am trying to be more intentional in my choice of reading material. One Crazy Summer is one of the first books that I chose to start this journey.  And, yes, it's a children's historical fiction book and not an epic manifesto.  Baby steps, okay?  It's award-winning*.  See all those shiny circles on the cover!

One Crazy Summer is the bittersweet tale of three young black sisters who are sent across the country to visit their estranged mother during the summer of 1968.  Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern don't have much say in the matter when they are shipped off to see Cecile, the woman who abandoned them when Fern was just a baby.  They aren't sure what to expect, but what they get is a woman who is far more interested in her own poetry than she is in their existence.  As the eldest, Delphine takes it upon herself to care for her sisters while they navigate the murky waters that surround their mother and her indifference. During their stay in Oakland, the sisters have their own adventures, discovering a life quite different from the one they had in Brooklyn, rubbing elbows with Black Panthers, participating in a movement, making new friends, and seeing the sights.

I loved the personality differences between each sister -- the responsible and pragmatic Delphine, outgoing and attention-seeking Vonetta, and determined little Fern.  As the mother of four young girls, I can attest that their different personalities and sisterly interaction (re: mostly bickering) felt incredibly genuine.  Delphine is an emotionally complex narrator; she has all the feelings you would expect her to feel about her mother.  She's angry, hurt, and (though she tries to hide it) hungry for acknowledgment, or, at the very least, an explanation for her abandonment.  At times, her perspective laid bare certain racist attitudes and inequalities of the 1960s that made me incredibly uncomfortable, primarily because it has become increasingly clear that they still exist today.  It's not a criticism of the text. However discomfiting, I think that those moments have value and pave the way for important conversations.

Overall, I appreciated the opportunity to read One Crazy SummerEnjoyable and entertaining, don't seem to be quite the right descriptors, but I do feel edified by the experience.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some topics regarding racism and maternal abandonment might be difficult to read.

*One Crazy Summer has received numerous accolades.  It earned the Coretta Scott King Award and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, is a 2011 Newbery Honor Book, a National Book Award finalist, and was named Book of the Year by no less than seven major publications.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Max's Box - Brian Wray (Illus. Shiloh Penfield)

Max's Box: Letting Go of Negative Feelings: Wray, Brian, Penfield ...
Summary: Max's parents give him a very special gift; a tiny box that will hold everything.  After putting in his beloved firetruck and fluffy stuffed dog, Max discovers that the Box grows after each item is added.  But that's not all -- Max's box also holds his feelings.  When Max is angry, the anger goes straight into the box.  With each feeling it stores, the larger it grows, and the larger the Box grows, the harder it is for Max to do anything.  Before long, Max's Box is so big, it holds him back from enjoying regular kid activities, like riding his bike or climbing trees.  Eventually, with some very special help and a lot of imagination, Max is able to turn the Box into something beautiful and let it go.

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  Max has a box.  In it, he puts his favorite ball, his pirate ship, his stuffed dog, and his lucky red truck and with each toy his box grows in size.  However, the box doesn't only hold toys; it holds his emotions too.  Max's anger, hurt, frustration, embarrassment, sadness and worry all go inside and the box continues to expand.  When the Box too big, Max insists he can still carry it on his own, but eventually it becomes harder and harder to enjoy everyday activities.  After all, you can't climb a tree or go swimming with a giant box tied to your back.  One day a beautiful red ladybug lands on his box and it gives Max hope -- and an idea.  He draws a balloon on his box and invites others to do the same.  With each balloon, the box feels a little bit lighter until it begins to float.  Eventually Max is able to acknowledge his negative emotions and let them go.

I loved the visual image of a box getting bigger and heavier as we pack stuff in it, and it would certainly help a child imagine how we might feel inside when we hold on to negative emotions.  That part of the book is exceptional.  I am slightly less clear on how Max went from ooh-a-ladybug, to let-me-draw-a-balloon, to the concept of releasing negative emotions.  As an adult, I can see the connection if I mentally squint a bit, but I wonder if a kid will make the mental leap.  However, I do love one line in particular that really sums up the whole book: "It's ok to have all kinds of feelings," Father whispered. "But once you feel them, their job is done."  That's a message worth hearing.

Ultimately, Max's Box is a useful tool for the parental toolbox, especially for parents who want to talk to their child about what to do with BIG feelings.  The final pages of the book are informational and designed to help parents react to a child's emotion in healthy and helpful ways.  Most of Penfield's illustrations are black and white with small pops of blue (like the cover above); however, as Max learns to let go of his feelings the illustrations become more vividly hued, culminating in several full-color pages, which I thought was a nice touch.  I'd recommend this book to a parent whose child often feels overwhelmed by BIG feelings, especially negative ones.  It might not alleviate their burden entirely, but it might help shrink their box a bit.

My Rating:  3.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Nothing to worry about

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Vanishing Deep - Astrid Scholte

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Tempe was born into a world of water. When the Great Waves destroyed her planet, its people had to learn to survive living on the water, but the ruins of the cities below still called. Tempe dives daily, scavenging the ruins of a bygone era, searching for anything of value to trade for Notes. It isn't food or clothing that she wants to buy, but her dead sister's life. For a price, the research facility on the island of Palindromena will revive the dearly departed for twenty-four hours before returning them to death. It isn't a heartfelt reunion that Tempe is after; she wants answers. Elysea died keeping a terrible secret, one that has ignited an unquenchable fury in Tempe: Her beloved sister was responsible for the death of their parents. Tempe wants to know why.

But once revived, Elysea has other plans. She doesn't want to spend her last day in a cold room accounting for a crime she insists she didn't commit. Elysea wants her freedom and one final glimpse at the life that was stolen from her. She persuades Tempe to break her out of the facility, and they embark on a dangerous journey to discover the truth about their parents' death and mend their broken bond. But they're pursued every step of the way by two Palindromena employees desperate to find them before Elysea's time is up--and before the secret behind the revival process and the true cost of restored life is revealed.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Sometimes when I’m going along and living in a pandemic and my kids have school online and that sucks and ya know, the normal 2020 stuff, I just decide that I want to check out and read some good ole dystopian YA fic. I don’t know about you, but I feel like if the book is decently written and the premise is somewhat interesting and fun, I can tear through that book like it’s no big thang and be grateful for the distraction. Because I read several books at a time, sometimes I like to have a little dystopian YA fic to give me a break from more serious reading. It’s also a good stop gap when I’m feeling a reading struggle—like the book I’m reading isn’t really grasping my attention and I’m having to force myself to read. A dystopian fic can snap me out of that.

So let’s get to Vanishing Deep, shall we? The premise of this book was spooky—a world covered in water because of the Great Waves, and in some ways I liked this. While of course the oceans really are rising due to global warming, and there is a very real possibility that some land will no longer exist because of it, the idea of Great Waves coming to take over almost all land on earth is not as possible as other things and therefore not as scary. As it’s 2020 and we’ve already lived/are living through some pretty scary things, I’m okay with something that isn’t completely imminent feeling. Dystopia with just enough reality to be interesting and applicable, but not enough reality to be actually frighteningly scary. That’s my kind of dystopia at this point.

I liked the story and the characters in the book. The characters weren’t as fleshed out as some I’ve read, but they were real enough that I felt like I could relate to them. They had some really interesting back stories, which I think were addressed well enough that I felt like we cared about what happened to them. There was also room for adjacent or companion books, which is always nice. I feel like characters should be interesting enough that they could have their own book in the world as well. The story was a fun adventure as well, and tragic in its own right. It had enough pirates, peril, and adventure to keep me reading right to the end! I read this book quickly—in just a few days, and enjoyed it.

I don’t know how much reality and feasibility you expect, but I just read Shadow Divers and these girls are divers as well (which makes sense since they live in a world of water), but obviously Scholte hadn’t taken any deep dives (har har) into diving because there was barely surface level (har har) knowledge of it and what it would take to actually dive like they were doing, some of which was impossible anyway. That’s okay, though. I wasn’t reading it for the reality of the diving.

If you’re into dystopian fiction and looking for a fun quick read and a good diversion from All Things 2020, you should check this out.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are a few swear words, mostly for shock value, and really no discussion of sex. There is some light teen romance and kissing. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Freeform Friday: Ghost Boys - Jewell Parker Rhodes

Summary: Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing.

Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey towards recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father’s actions. (synopsis and image from goodreads.com)

My ReviewI knew this book was going to be hard.

Not in terms of reading, as it was a very quick, easy read.

But not easy to digest.

The strongest theme in this story is that the living must make changes.  The dead cannot do anything but inspire from beyond the grave.  It is up to those of us still here to do what is right.

Jerome's voice is so strong.  The clipped way he narrates, and the short chapters, carry the story along in a fast-paced way through both his life and his death (and I like how the story switches back and forth between the two in a non-linear fashion).  The confused, disillusioned way he drifts from scenario to scenario gave me the feeling of being dead, being a ghost and being helpless and watching everything go on around you.  It was unnerving and sad.

He is able to see life carrying on.  Able to see all sides of the story.  Able to meet a living white girl who can see him, and who is struggling with her father's actions, trying to find her voice to make change so that it doesn't happen again.  Jerome gets to see his friend Carlos taking care of his family in the aftermath, the caring, compassionate deeds he does that weaves him in as a member to help them heal.  Jerome meets Emmett Till, the black boy brutally murdered in the 50s, who walks Jerome through his purpose of being a ghost boy, of being that emblem of remembrance for those of us still living.  There are so many ghost boys and girls.  

Only the living can make a difference.

It doesn't matter how you make that difference.  It just matters that you are working to make one.  

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Deals with the death of the main character, and how he was shot by a policeman.  Talks about the horrible death of Emmett Till.  Prior to his death, Jerome was badly bullied, sees drug dealers on his way to school, and at night worries when he hears gunshots outside.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Familius Trio (Including The Runaway Shirt, Florence and Her Fantastic Family Tree, and No Matter What: A Foster Care Tale)

I was recently introduced to Familius Publishing -- a company whose mission is to "help families be happy by creating beautiful books that teach, inspire, and bring families together."  I mean, how can you not fall in love with that mission, am I right?  They sent me a few books to get a feel for their company, and I thought I'd review a few of them here, including The Runaway Shirt, Florence and Her Fantastic Family Tree, and No Matter What: A Foster Care Tale.   All books were given to me for free in exchange for an honest review and none of our links are affiliate links.

The Runaway Shirt - Kathy MacMillan & Julia Castaño (Illus.)

Summary: Laundry is a chore, but when a child climbs in the basket, everything becomes a game.  Follow along as this mother takes a break from folding clothes ot join her child in the delightful laghter of imagination.  In The Runaway Shirt housework and pretend play come together to transport readers to a kid's world of wonder and excitement.  Each page of charming illustration is a work in joy nd mirth.  Who knew folding laundry could be so fun?

My Review:  The Runaway Shirt tells the story of a young boy and his mother who engage in imaginative play while she is folding the laundry.  Setting aside her task, the mother playfully pretends to "fold" the shirt her son  has pilfered from the laundry and is currently wearing.  He is thrilled and giggles ensue, with the "shirt" resisting all attempts to be folded. 

The first thing I noticed about The Runaway Shirt was its beautiful cover art and crisp, colorful illustrations, that really draw the eye.  The story itself is charming, whimsical, and just a little bit silly, which is sure to delight younger readers.  I also loved the gentle reminder that sometimes chore time can be set aside for quality time.  I would recommend The Runaway Shirt to anyone with preschool age kiddos in search of a good bedtime or anytime story.   

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: All clear.

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Florence and Her Fantastic Family Tree - Judy Gilliam & Laura Addari (Illus)

Summary:  Florence and Her Fantastic Family Tree explores the idea of what it means to have a big, messy, complicated, and remarkable family.  As a young girl tries to complete her family tree assignment for school, she comes to appreciate her family and all its branches.  With adorable drawings and the succinct words of a child, you cna't help but love your own family tree, no matter how large or small, simple or chaotic.

My Review: When Florence's teacher asks her to create a family tree to display in the classroom she's not quite sure what to do.  You see, Florence's family tree has a lot of extra branches and she is more than a little worried.  What her teacher gets confused?  Or it won't fit on the wall.  What if she has to explain it or people don't believe her?  

In Florence and Her Fantastic Family Tree, Florence explains how her family tree might not look like everyone else.  She has a mom and a dad like most of her classmates, and a little brother, Fred, but she also has a several step-parents, step-siblings, adopted siblings, and half-siblings to boot.  Florence decides to complete the assignment and display her entire family tree for the whole class to see.  In her words, "with all the parts -- stems, branches, leaves, trunk, berries, and nuts. It might not be simple and might not be easy to describe, but these are my people...but you know what the best part is? That's me, right in the middle of this great, big, loud, colorful, fun, crazy, family that I call mine."  

My one criticism is that the book begins rather abruptly, without really introducing the main character.  I actually flipped the pages a bit to make sure I hadn't missed one.   That aside, Florence and Her Fantastic Family Tree easy to read with an engaging font, and is another one of those books (like this one) that I am so glad exists. It addresses a specific need for young children from homes and families that feel less than "traditional" to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion.  I love that Florence doesn't "come to appreciate" her unique family; she already appreciates them. Now, she learns how to share their wild and crazy branchiness with the world. 

My Rating : 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Florence briefly mentions her parents breaking up, her parents' remarriages, and her father's later divorces.

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No Matter What: A Foster Care Tale - Josh Shipp with David Tieche & Yuliya Pankratova (Illus.)

Summary:  Josh was a squirrel without a family.  Between the pelicans, the leopards, the otters, the snakes, and many more, no one seemed to want a squirrel like him.  Josh didn't want a family, either.  He did everything he could to scare those families away first, but the elephants weren't like other families.  The elephants were very large and very patient, and they wanted Josh to be part of their family today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.  When Josh takes his plans a little too far and gets into a sticky situation, will Josh finally be convinced that his family is his?

From award-winning motivational speaker and bestselling author Josh Shipp comes a mostly autobiographical tale about finding home.  With hilarious illustrations anda heartwarming message, No Matter What: A Foster Care Tale is sure to have your own family in peals of laughter and holding each other tight.

My Review:  No Matter What: A Foster Care Tale follows Josh the Squirrel and Grace the Heron in their search for Josh's forever home. At first, Josh is placed with several families that aren't the right fit. The young squirrel is so convinced that no one will want him, he decides to push everyone away with his behavior and pushes back, hoping they will crack.  Josh's antics create quite an uproar in the animal kingdom until he finally lands with the Elephant family. He tries his darndest to get them to crack, but even when his plans go awry, the Elephant family reassure him with a hopeful, encouraging message: No matter what you do, we love you.  And we're not going anywhere.

Isn't that message just the best?! Now, I thought this book was pretty special, but I don't really have any experience with the foster care system or how a foster care family might receive this message, so I appealed to a good friend of mine who has adopted three children from the foster care system.  Her response to this book?  OMGosh this is fabulous!!!!!...This book forces the reader to see the pain of the child and their defense mechanisms/coping skills from abandonment, and not focus on the "bad behavior" which pain is spoken through.  For isn't to be welcomed and loved what we all want?  No matter what..."  There you have it folks.  Foster-parent approved.  It doesn't get much better than that.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Some discussion of foster care and the struggle to find a place to belong.

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To read more about Familius Publishing (or to see more books like these) visit www.familius.com
NOT an affiliate link.

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Shadow Divers - Robert Kurson

Summary: In the tradition of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm comes a true tale of riveting adventure in which two weekend scuba divers risk everything to solve a great historical mystery–and make history themselves.

For John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, deep wreck diving was more than a sport. Testing themselves against treacherous currents, braving depths that induced hallucinatory effects, navigating through wreckage as perilous as a minefield, they pushed themselves to their limits and beyond, brushing against death more than once in the rusting hulks of sunken ships.

But in the fall of 1991, not even these courageous divers were prepared for what they found 230 feet below the surface, in the frigid Atlantic waters sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey: a World War II German U-boat, its ruined interior a macabre wasteland of twisted metal, tangled wires, and human bones–all buried under decades of accumulated sediment.

No identifying marks were visible on the submarine or the few artifacts brought to the surface. No historian, expert, or government had a clue as to which U-boat the men had found. In fact, the official records all agreed that there simply could not be a sunken U-boat and crew at that location.

Over the next six years, an elite team of divers embarked on a quest to solve the mystery. Some of them would not live to see its end. Chatterton and Kohler, at first bitter rivals, would be drawn into a friendship that deepened to an almost mystical sense of brotherhood with each other and with the drowned U-boat sailors–former enemies of their country. As the men’s marriages frayed under the pressure of a shared obsession, their dives grew more daring, and each realized that he was hunting more than the identities of a lost U-boat and its nameless crew.

Author Robert Kurson’s account of this quest is at once thrilling and emotionally complex, and it is written with a vivid sense of what divers actually experience when they meet the dangers of the ocean’s underworld. The story of Shadow Divers often seems too amazing to be true, but it all happened, two hundred thirty feet down, in the deep blue sea.
  (Summary from goodreads.com - Image from amazon.com)

My Review: I am—straight up—a rabbit-hole type of person. I see something on TV or read a tidbit something interesting and all of a sudden I’m like a mad woman obsessed. In this case, my husband and I were binge-watching “The Curse of Oak Island” on Hulu and the History Channel, and the seekers employed some divers to dive down to see if they could see some treasure. Long story short, they went through lots of divers before they could find one who could actually A) agree to it and B) do it. That diver was John Chatterton, and I could tell he was seriously legit just by the way he talked and discussed the dive and all of a sudden I was like a woman obsessed. I listened to several podcasts where he was interviewed, read his blog, tried to find a place where I could watch his old History Channel show “Deep Sea Detectives” (I wasn’t successful), and finally read this book Shadow Divers. Friends, I wasn’t disappointed.

It is at this point that I have to say that I listened to the audiobook, which is not something I normally do. I am a devoted podcast listener, and I have tons of podcasts that I listen to, so I don’t always want to use my listening time for audiobooks. However, I put this book on hold at my library and it was taking forever (still haven’t gotten it) and I just couldn’t wait any longer. My obsession was gnawing at my soul. It was read by Michael Prichard, and his old timey radio-style voice really added to the ambience of this WWII U-boat mystery book. It was a long book, in my short experience of audiobooks (15 hours), and yet I finished it in less than a week. Like I said #womanobsessed.

There are so many things I loved about this book. First off, it is really well written. It is gripping, fast-paced, and super interesting. I knew nothing about diving, and I really don’t have any interest in learning to dive (not even in a beautiful tropical place, which is very different from what these divers do). However, learning about the technology and the bravery and intricacies of deep sea wreck diving was fascinating. It was a whole new world and I just can’t believe how exciting it was. Kurson also does a great job of introducing and connecting us with each of the divers. Their backgrounds were fascinating as well, and getting to know them and their experiences was a highlight of the book. Another thing I loved is that the U-boat mystery was fascinating. I guess I just had no idea how difficult it is to find shipwrecks and identify them, let alone search through them and find artifacts. Following along with Chatterton and Kohler as they dove and tried to find out about this ship was so exciting. It was treacherous and intense and there were many times when I could feel the intensity of the situation, even though I was just listening to it.

If you are in to true adventure stories, especially ones with dangerous and treacherous circumstances (like climbing Everest or any number of dangerous outdoor endeavors), I highly recommend this book. I very much enjoyed it. It’s an older book, and yet it has impeccable ratings on Goodreads (which is hard to maintain when so many people have read it and rated it). I’m hoping that since it’s older it’s something that isn’t necessarily on your radar. I really enjoyed it, and I will be reading everything else that they have written as well.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is quite a bit of language and some bawdy sea-faring humor. There is also a man who is a serious alcoholic and this could be triggering for some readers. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Freeform Friday: The Art for Joy's Sake Journal PLUS Watercolor Cards - Kristy Rice

Not long ago, I reviewed a book on how to watercolor and sort of caught 'the bug.'  Not a super-talented bug, mind you; I'm new to the medium. More of a curious, I'd-like-to-learn-more bug. So, when The Art for Joy's Sake Journal and a set of watercolor cards came my way, I was excited to test my newly acquired skills.  The experience of using them was super cool and perfect for Freeform Friday!  

First, The Art forJoy's Sake journal...


Summary: These beautiful pages invite you to pick up your brush and grow.  Kristy Rice's joy-focused approach to watercolor art has won the hearts of fans worldwide, and with this journal Rice offers ways for all levels of painters to make "art for joy's sake" and simultaneously paint a personal keepsake or add beauty to your inspiration wall.  

[The Art for Joy's Sake Journal] includes 9 illustrations ready to be water-colored on thick, textured paper, along-side full color, frameable reproductions of the same works painted by Kristy herself, demonstrating palette choices and brushwork.

Enrich your art with "prompt" ideas to inspire your painting's growth; pages with no-stress exercises for techniques; inspirational artwork and quotations; and even a few recipes for nourishing your body along with your spirit!  (Summary from back of book - Images from amazon.com and kristyrice.com - Journal given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  Have you ever found something that you truly loved - a hobby, a talent, or a side-gig - and then worked it so hard that the joy leaches out and you can't remember the reason you started doing it in the first place?  Me. Too.  The Art for Joy's Sake Journal asserts that the act of creation, and art in particular, can and should be a joyful experience.  Now, if you're reading this review and thinking, That's nice and all, but I don't DO journals, guess what?  I don't either and I still had a blast with this book. Perhaps, that is because it isn't a journal in the traditional sense of the word.  

The Art for Joy's Sake Journal has a few journaling prompts with space to write (or paint) your thoughts, but it is also filled with beautiful watercolors, painting tips, inspirational ideas, creative exercises, delicious recipes, reading recommendations, paintable designs, and so much more.  It is also next level gorgeous with a vibrant cover, thick, gilt-edged watercolor pages, a ribbon bookmark, and a stretch band to keep it all together.  I don't know how someone could look at it and not feel a spark of joy.  It 

For the purpose of this review, I decided to embrace to the experience and really dig in.  I read all the tips, stories, and quotes, journaled a bit (about my consuming fear of getting things 'wrong'), painted several of the ready-to-watercolor designs, completed some of the creative exercises, and even made the recipes! The author suggests pairing her recipes with a couple of friends for a painting party, but since we are deep in the heart of COVID right now I opted for a party of one. ME. I cooked, painted, devoured, and didn't have to share a single bite. It was pretty great.

Some might pick up this journal to reawaken their love of watercolors, to get lost in the art, or simply reconnect with their creativity and it would probably do all of those things.  For me, it was an exercise in letting go of my obsessive need to control every outcome.  It encouraged me to try new things, change my perspective, and embrace the unexpected.  In that regard, I found the creative exercises to be incredibly helpful in expanding my creative repertoire.  

One of the first exercises I did was about getting past the fear of taking the first step. It encouraged me to splatter random colors all over a blank page.  I am not a person who loves mess and unpredictability, so even this was a stretch, but I did it.  I even added a little message to my page: Make a mess.  It's okay.  And I think it's kind of perfect.  That exercise inspired me to go a little off book and do something that was (for me) pretty wild. Instead of painting the way I would normally paint (trying to mirror the artists style and color choice, I painted one of the ready-to-watercolor designs in all the 'wrong' colors.  GASP! I know, right?!  There were brown and blue flowers, plaid plants, violet tomatoes, and hot pink leaves everywhere.  The Mona Lisa it was not, but it was my own little breakthrough and it felt unbelievably liberating.  I also did another exercise that encouraged you to cover a page with circles and fill them with vibrant watercolors.  It was amazing how even though I have a fairly limited selection of colors, each circle manage blend in its own unique way.
 

The Art for Joy's Sake Journal contains several of the author's own watercolors that serve as both an example and inspiration for your own works.  With each piece the author talks about what types of watercolor she used (all sorts) and gives palette suggestions and tips to get motivated.  I was especially impressed by the page she did with Crayola watercolors.  That's right!  CRAYOLA!  Of course, I had to try it too and I was pleasantly surprised with the results (see below left).  It was nice to see that you don't always have to drop a ton of money to create beautiful art. 
 

I haven't finished all watercolors and exercises yet but, to be honest, I want to savor the rest of the experience, without forcing the moments to meet a review deadline. However, I would like to share a quote/tip from the book that really hit home for me:
You will get paint on your  hands.  Be okay with paint on your hands.  Own the mess; you can wash your hands later. It's difficult to make something fabulous if you're always worried about making a mess.  - Kristi Rice
Ultimately, The Art for Joy's Sake Journal is the artistic equivalent of learning find your why again.  The more I explored, stretched myself, and experienced all that this journal has to offer, the more I loved it.  If you're looking for a gift for the artist in your life, this one's a lock.  I would recommend it to anyone who needs a safe, creative space, artistic encouragement, or simply something fun to do in quarantine.  

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Control freaks might balk at this carefree approach to artwork but (trust me, I am one) it it will do them good.  

.... AND NOW FOR THE WATERCOLOR CARDS!

Summary: These beautiful cards invite you to pick up your brush and release your own creativity and imagination.  Printed on high-quality, textured art paper, the flat cards with envelopes feature 12 different images form the Painterly Days and Cutting Garden watercoloring books and are easily frameable.  (Summary from back of box - Image from barnesandnoble.com - Cards given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

 My Review:  I like to create things, but don't often find (or make) the time in my life to embrace that creativity. I enjoyed the opportunity to practice some of what I had previously learned about watercolor while painting Kathy Rice's watercolor cards.  

With thick paper and a variety of beautiful  designs, the cards are quite stunning and would make a wonderful gift for an artistically-minded friend, or for your own personal use.  Each card has a black-and-white paintable floral design that covers the back of the card and the margins of the front, with space left for a personal message. They were designed primarily for watercolor, but I imagine they could be colored with pencils, markers, or some other medium, if the artist were so inclined.


Though I am by no means a professional, I think I did passably well for someone with relatively limited experience in watercolors.  I do think I used a bit too much water sometimes, which caused the cards to warp slightly, but I chalk that up to my inexperience rather than a flaw in the cards.

Each card took several sit-down sessions for me to complete (because kids...and drying allowances) so these will be most definitely be reserved for special people and occasions. I am excited to paint and give away more of these cards as the opportunities arise. 

My Rating:  4 Stars

For the Sensitive...Painter?: All clear.

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