October 21, 2014

Two Pairs of Brave and Lively Siblings

The Sign of the Black Dagger, by Joan Lingard, (Floris Books, Myrick Marketing and Media, LLC), 192 pages, originally published in 2005, new edition released September 1, 2014.

If you’ve got a middle-grader who enjoys historical adventures, you may want to check out The Sign of the Black Dagger. The plot follows two pairs of children: the present-day Will and Lucy and historical figures William and Louisa, who lived in Will and Lucy’s house two hundred years ago.

Both sets of children face similar problems. Their fathers have run up huge debts and have left their families. Will and Lucy’s dad is hiding from unsavory creditors; William and Louisa’s dad must live in the debtor’s sanctuary attached to a noble house. The present-day scenes are written in third person. The historical scenes are written in first person, alternating between the voices of William and Louisa.

This isn’t one of those children’s books that transcend the genre sufficiently to make good reading for adults as well. Nonetheless, for the right age group (perhaps fourth through seventh grades) this book will provide a relatively quick, satisfying read.

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October 17, 2014

The Part-Time Vegan

The VB6 Cookbook: More than 350 Recipes for Healthy Vegan Meals All Day and Delicious Flexitarian Dinners at Night, by Mark Bittman,  (Clarkson Potter), 272 pages, released May 6, 2014

While I’ve been an on-again, off-again vegetarian throughout my adult life, I’ve never been vegan. Give up cheese? Never! But love of cheese aside, I’m always eager for a book that takes a new approach to vegetarian cooking. VB6 isn’t a vegetarian cookbook, but it’s a good 3/4ths vegetarian, and definitely worth a look for vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores alike.

Mark Bittman’s approach to eating evolved out of his love of food and the health challenges that many of us hit along the way: extra weight, pre-diabetes. Rather than completely changing his eating habits or beginning to take an assortment of medications, Bittman came up with his own dietary compromise: he eats vegan for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, but is open to all possibilities at dinner.

The recipes he offers are delicious. While some may be familiar, there are interesting possibilities as well. (What that man can do with chickpeas!) The gorgeous photography throughout the book increases the temptations. Bittman categorizes fruits and vegetables into into groups we can eat in unlimited amounts (leafy greens, citrus, melons) and those that we should eat occasionally because of starch or fat content (avocados, corn).

The book offers recipes for breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, and desserts. He also puts together a month’s worth of daily menus. The menus are a great idea, but would involve more time working with food than I’m accustomed to. I can spend a while cooking dinner, but breakfast and lunch are on the run, so I can’t imagine myself actually using the meal plan. And I’m a curmudgeon about desserts. As a diabetic, I try to skip prepared desserts and to stick to my favorite fruits, so a whole section of desserts felt a bit like wasted space to me, though I know others will disagree.

Final verdict: I’ll be keeping this book on my shelves, but won’t build my diet around it. Instead, I will use it primarily as a source of interesting dinner recipes. I’ll also make regular use of his advice on stocking a pantry and buying groceries. It’s sound, helpful, and definitely doesn’t have the feeling of diet depredation.

Note that I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.

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October 16, 2014

Three Scientists Walk into a Henge

The Stonehenge Letters, by Harry Karlinsky, (Coach House Books), 256 pages, pub. June 3, 2014, available in paperback and electronic formats

The Stonehenge Letters is a remarkable creature: sort of a hybrid history/science mockumentary. I have never come across another book like it. I’ve read short pieces of science satire or humor, but Karlinsky sets up his joke and maintains it through two hundred and fifty-six engaging pages.

The premise behind the book is this: After establishing the Nobel prizes, shortly before his death Nobel funded a one-time prize for the “solving of the Stonehenge mystery.” The competitors for this prize were limited to the first decade of Nobel prize winners, a group that included the likes of Marie Curie, Rudyard Kipling, and Ivan Pavlov.

The book is written as carefully produced non-fiction and includes a variety of forms. There’s a narrative of the discovery of this competition by a psychiatrist searching the Nobel archives in an attempt to understand why Freud was never granted this honor. The book is peppered with documents: wills, photos, and the like. And the fun only increases when it moves on to texts of the articles written by the various Nobel laureates who competed for the prize.

The fun of this book lies in its seriousness. If it weren’t for the subject matter at hand, one would be hard pressed to accept the fact that it’s fiction.

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October 14, 2014

An Uneven Journey through Seventeenth Century London

The Thief Taker, C. S. Quinn, (Thomas & Mercer), 432 pages

The Thomas and Mercer that publishes The Thief Taker is an imprint of Amazon, which may (or may not) affect your interest in purchasing this book. As Amazon becomes increasingly draconian in its negotiations with major publishing houses, it’s also cutting the publishing houses out of the loop entirely. Normally, I wouldn’t be on the side of big anything—but whatever size a publishing house it, it most assuredly is smaller than Amazon. Had I known this title was an Amazon publication, I probably would have been more hesitant to request a review copy as I’ve been trying to disentangle myself from the empire that is Amazon.


That said, I did request a review copy, and I did read it. The Thief Taker wasn’t quite what I’d hoped, but it did keep me reading through all 400+ pages. The novel is set in 1665, after the restoration of the monarchy in Britain, a time of fierce Protestant-Catholic tensions, of an epidemic of the Black Death, and just months before the great fire of London—which readers know is coming, even if characters in the book don’t.

Given this, I’d been hoping for my favorite kind of historical novel: one deeply imbedded in its time that brings to life the the fierce, brutal wrangling of religious factions and that depicts in detail the now-almost-unimaginable conditions of everyday life of the period.

I got a little bit of this sort of thing—but mostly I much more predictable historical romance with occasional interesting detail thrown in.

The plot is this: a murderous plague doctor stalks London, unidentifiable beneath his protective robes and bird-beaked hood. Maria, the sister of one of his victims hires thief taker Charlie to find the killer. Maria is beautiful, haughty, with airs appropriate to the much-wealthier status her family held before the civil war. Charlie is an orphan left at a foundling home with a mysterious key hung about this neck, a thief-taker with a wide range of lower-class contacts and an eye for ready escape routes. So you know what’s going to happen. There will be bickering and more bickering. There will be assorted types of disdain. There will be repressed longing.

If you enjoy this sort of historical romance, you’ll probably enjoy The Thief Taker. I had hoped for something more and was left feeling only partly satisfied as I finished the book.

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October 09, 2014

Victorians, Vampires, and Steampunk—Oh, My!

The Spiritglass Charade: A Stoker & Holmes Novel, by Colleen Gleason, (Chronicle Books), 360 pages

The Spiritglass Charade is the second volume in Colleen Gleason’s young adult Stoker & Holmes series (the first was The Clockwork Scarab). Stoker and Holmes are not Bram and Sherlock. They’re Evaline (Bram’s younger sister) and Alvermina Holmes (niece of Sherlock, daughter of Mycroft). These women live in a steampunk, alternate version of Victorian England and work as investigators for the government, taking on cases that require female detectives.

The two women make an interesting team. Alvermina, who goes by the less-cumbersome Mina, lives with the company of a housekeeper. Her mother left the family. Her father is almost always occupied elsewhere on government business. She, like her better-known uncle, is highly logical and expert in all sorts of abstruse fields, what might be called a “right brain” type. She thinks of herself as plain—she has the “Holmes nose.”

Evaline, in contrast, is wealthier, a member of society by virtue of her brother’s theatrical fame, highly impetuous and intuitive and absolutely confident in her own attractiveness, what might be called a “left brain” type. She is also—surprise!—a venator: a hunter of vampires.

Given Evaline’s calling as a venator, it’s not surprising that working together is challenging for both women. Mina is reluctant to believe in the supernatural world Evaline inhabits. Evaline is irritated by Mina’s methodicalness—when the undead are present, immediate action is called for.

I admit that I am growing attached to these two young women. Reading The Clockwork Scarab, I wasn’t certain how successful this series would be. Now I’m hooked. This isn’t highbrow reading, but it’s too much fun to be missed. Besides Mina and Evaline the reader meets Irene Adler (of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”), employed by both the British Museum and the government’s intelligence-gathering arm; Dylan, an unwilling time-traveler from our Twenty-first Century; and Pix, a mysterious, sometimes threatening, presence in the London underworld, who deals in illicit electricity—this being a steampunk England, all means of power besides steam are outlawed.

In this England, cities are built in multiple layers and one must be able to afford fare for an elevator to move between them. The upper levels are supported by hot-air balloons. This is an age of invention, and nearly every apparatus imaginable has been invented, in a steam version, of course. There are equivalents to Segways and motorcycles, automated holders and page-turners for newspapers, even “Hystand’s Mechanized Eyelash-Combe.” If you can allow yourself to accept this improbable and uneven body of technology, you’ll have quite a good time.

In this volume, the two women are working on behalf of the Princess of Whales, who is concerned about a friend who has become prey to unscrupulous spiritualists as she attempts to contact her dead mother and locate her missing brother. Mina, of course, is determined to prove these spiritualist frauds; Evaline, while suspicious, feels they may well be genuine (there’s also the matter of a pair of mediums who know her childhood nickname of “Linney-Lou”).

My one complaint here is how quickly and completely both Mina and Evaline are beguiled by handsome young men. They’re delightful examples of independent young womanhood, but one wearies of them blushing in the presence of a number of young men who are recurring characters in the series. In their favor, however, they walk a fine line between the mores of their time and their own determination to live life as they choose. They fret regularly about propriety, but also acknowledge the pleasure of being kissed.

If you know a young woman in her mid-to-late teens, this book is apt to make an excellent gift, an invitation to fun and adventure, made even more interesting by its imaginative setting. And if, like me, you’re an adult reader, you’ll still enjoy this book as a sort of mini-vacation between other, more demanding volumes.

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October 07, 2014

Life Among Endangered Birds

The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered, by Michele Raffin, (Algonquin Books), 240 pages

Michele Raffin’s The Birds of Pandemonium is an engaging read offering one model of avian conservation and raising questions about conservation efforts that deserve further examination. Raffin fell into the work of conservation gradually, beginning with an attempt to help an injured pigeon on the roadside. Her home and yard now house some 350 birds, representing 40 species, many of them threatened or endangered.

The threats facing exotic and endangered birds are being addressed on many fronts—though there’s always more that needs to be done. Conservation groups buy and protect key habitat; individual birds are moved among zoos to keep breeding populations diverse; and both avian veterinarians and rare bird dealers study and care for these birds, engaging simultaneously in research and husbandry. One of Raffin’s biggest concerns, addressed in the book and in her life, is the scattered, often carefully guarded knowledge among breeders.

Yes, what breeders do is one kind of conservation. When birds are bred for sale in captivity, they’re less apt to be removed from the wild for sale, leaving existing populations better off. It’s often breeders who have the patience and time to discover what’s necessary for successful nesting and raising of young. On the other hand, what breeders do is also a business. As Raffin tell us, there’s a hesitancy to share knowledge with potential competitors, which means that discoveries in husbandry rarely have the broad impact they might.

At the close of the book, Raffin lays out her large, long-term ambition: to create sanctuaries for exotic and endangered birds across the U.S., to purchase flocks from breeders that will remain with the breeders during their lifetime and will be moved to sanctuaries after breeders pass on, and to set up apprenticeships so that the breeders’ knowledge can be preserved for eventual broader use.

Raffin builds up to this proposal through some delightful story telling. We meet individual birds, learn their idiosyncrasies, and follow her thought process as she determines addresses their individual needs. There’s the parrot Amigo, a problematic biter, who steals the heart of one of Raffin’s sons. There’s a one-legged turaco with a particular sympathy for autistic boys.

Because Raffin gives her story a chronological structure, the reader has an opportunity to learn along with her. She begins by opening her home to “special needs” birds: those with behavioral problems or whose owners face a crisis that means giving up the bird. Without ever losing her love for these neediest birds, she comes to concentrate on breeding and raising highly threatened species. This allows her to provide zoos and other conservation groups with new birds to add to their colonies in order to maintain genetic diversity.

This book is well worth reading both for the information it contains and for the simple pleasure of coming to know some of the birds Raffin has met during her work in this area. And, if readers want to learn more about Raffin’s work and bird conservation in general, they can go on to visit the web site for Pandemonium Aviaries.

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September 30, 2014

Artists’ Colony in a Time Warp

The Hundred-Year House: A Novel, by Rebecca Makkai, (Viking Adult), 352 pages

The Hundred-Year House is a novel in reverse. Its four sections move back in time: from 1999 to 1955 to 1929, and finally ending in 1900. This makes reading it a bit of a game. Each step backwards offers new pieces of the puzzle to snap into place, assuming the reader is alert enough to catch them all.

The house of the title is Laurelfield, which began as a private home, became an artists’ retreat, then became a private home once more. Laurelfield may or may not have ghosts. The house has seen tragedy aplenty, but the rapping may be spirit communication or falling acorns.

My primary complaint about The Hundred-Year House is that as the novel progresses, the sections grow shorter and less filled-out. The 1999 characters are developed in detail, surprising readers as new aspects of their personalities are revealed. By time the novel reaches 1900 the characters are essentially stick figures: we’re told things about them, but aren’t given enough to feel as if we’re entering their inner world.

That said, The Hundred-Year House is an engaging read. When I reached the end of the 1999 section exactly halfway through the story, I was uncertain where the writer was headed; I felt as if I’d read a complete novel by the time I got there. Even though I found the later sections less well-developed, I enjoyed the backward journey Makkai took me on. There most certainly was more to say—and 1999 was truly more of a beginning than an ending.

Pick this book up when you’re looking for a mix of entertainment and riddle. It always offers enough of at least one of these (and often both) to keep the reading pleasurable.

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September 30, 2014

Need a Wonderful Gift for Someone in the 8 to 12 Age Range? This Is the Perfect Book!

The Swallow: A Ghost Story, by Charis Cotter, (Tundra Books), 320 pages

I’ve just finished Charis Cotter’s The Swallow and am in that good-novel afterglow—smiling and a bit teary and wishing I could read this book again for the first time.

On the surface, The Swallow‘s plot is fairly simple: two isolated girls who spend time in connecting attics meet and befriend each other. One can see ghosts; the other is fascinated by them. Cotter deftly manages to maintain an otherworldly uncertainty throughout the book. Is Rose, who can see ghosts, a ghost herself? Who is the malevolent spirit residing in Rose’s attic who seems determined to kill Rose’s new friend Polly? What is the story of the aunt Rose never met, the one who no one speaks about?

The above questions give you a taste of the sort of book The Swallow is. It’s an unsettling read that leads readers first one way, then another. But throughout the twists it has an inherent sweetness that draws readers to the central characters. There’s nothing maudlin: just two girls the reader grows closer and closer to as she tries to understand who they are and what the relationship between them is.

If you need to buy birthday or holiday gifts in the next few months for your favorite ‘tween, The Swallow is a sure winner. And I’d like to suggest you read it yourself before wrapping it up for gift-giving. You don’t want to miss the pleasure of this read.

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September 25, 2014

A Murderous Victorian Lark

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, by Julie Berry, (Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), 368 pages

If you’re looking for a romp of a book, either for yourself or for gift-giving, I highly recommend Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. Ostensibly this is a young-adult novel, but it’s also plenty of fun for adult-adult readers.

Set in Victorian England in the town of Ely, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place features an engaging group of seven core characters, all boarding students at a small girls’ finishing school. When the director of the school dies, along with her brother, the girls decide to bury their bodies in secret so that they can continue living with one another and can take control of their own lives.

Watching the girls rise to this situation is an absolute delight. Each of them finds strengths she didn’t know she had—and they all draw closer together because of, rather than in spite of, their differences from one another.

I suspect this book is intended as a one-off, but I would welcome the opportunity to spend more time with the sisterhood. They made me laugh; they also made me think about the changes in women’s roles and opportunities over the past century (give or take a few decades).

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September 23, 2014

A Novel of the First Printed Book

Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel, by Alix Christie, (Harper), 416 pages

As a novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice is good, but not great; as an historical piece, it’s fascinating. The plot is straightforward. Peter Schoeffer (all these characters are historical figures), an aspiring scribe, is called home by his step-father Johann Furst, who has become business partners with Johann Gensgleisch, who we know as Gutenberg. Peter is to be Gutenberg’s apprentice—and his step-father’s eyes in the workshop. Initially Peter finds the printing process spiritless, far inferior to the production of individual books by hand, but eventually he comes to see printing as a miracle, a gift that honors God. As Peter learns the printing business, relations between Furst and Gutenberg grow increasingly strained. The reader knows all this because the framework for the novel is an elderly Peter’s relating of these events to the Abbott Johannes Trithenius, who becomes a historian of bookmaking and printing (among other things).

While it’s is intended to be Peter’s recounting of his life’s story, the novel is written in third person, which distances readers from the central character. Readers are told of Peter’s doubts about this new form of bookmaking: “This wasn’t even work that in the end brought forth some lovely thing. A brooch, a chalice, or a gleaming monstrance could at least lift a soul above the flames.” Peter’s conflicting feelings as Furst and Gutenberg grow increasingly hostile to one another are described, but one never feels that one is getting to experience these events as Peter did.

As I said, however, this book is fascinating, a must-read for book lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts. Christie herself is a letter press printer, as well as a novelist, and the mechanics of early printing are described in detail bringing the process to life. The fist letter-molds were made of sand hand-impressed with a reverse image of the desired letter, and were good for only a single use, a process that seems to be almost no improvement over hand-lettering. The staff of the workshop shifts as Gutenberg comes to learn the different rates of compositing and printing.

Similarly interesting are the passages examining the different character’s perceptions of the art of printing and its purpose. Peter comes to see printing as sacred work, at first not realizing that the presses can be put to use for inglorious purposes, as well as glorious ones: “He had not thought of it before—the prospect of their art abused, its glory twisted to the traffic of the church.”

One can also see in the Mainz of the novel the church practices that will lead to Luther’s reformation in another hundred years: the varying ways that ecclesiastics wring monies from the poorest under their jurisdiction, the selling of indulgences, with money lining clerical pockets at all levels.

Harper’s initial run of this book is 75,000 copies, a substantial number, particularly for a first novel. Their faith in it is well-placed. The multiple layers of historical detail contained in Gutenberg’s Apprentice make it a book that can be read and pondered repeatedly.

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