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Monday, November 30, 2015

Musings and Reviews

What happens when you take unintended breaks, even though short, from blogging?  For me, it is a feeling of being overwhelmed...and divided about what to do next.  I have been reading--but not reviewing and not crafting--and still getting behind on most of the mundane things we must to do to keep life in a semblance of order.  

Spent the past week in the country with a changing array of family and friends and, of course, the usual overabundance of good food.  Came home apathetic.  

Too long out of my routine, with no desire to think about the upcoming Christmas holiday and decorations and barely interested in keeping up with laundry.  Others have their trees up, gifts bought and wrapped, and are planning menus for Christmas parties.  Well, I'm never there, but usually I'm at least thinking about getting the tree out and considering what needs to be done to make ready for the decorations before actually getting into motion.

This year, I'm stuck with my nose in a book trying to avoid all of the practicalities and necessities that require thinking or effort!  I'm giving it one more day, then hope to get back to a more energetic, active life.

Some quick reviews of neglected November books:

Dragon Trials by Ava Richardson.  A quick read that will appeal to the younger end of YA readers.  Enjoyable, but with nothing that lifts it above the ordinary YA fantasy.  Might make a good gift for a young reader who likes dragons, adventure, and a slow-growing friendship. Dragon Trials may be one of those books that sets the stage for a series that grows in depth and interest.


YA Fantasy.  Nov. 7, 2015.  Print length:  203 pages.

Amberwell by D. E. Stevenson is a quiet story of the Ayrton family, especially of the five siblings, in the years between the world wars.  The beginning is a bit slow as the history of the Ayrton family and Amberwell is recounted, but with a deft hand, Stevenson creates the world of an upper class family, the small dramas, the conflicts, and the connection of the children.  There is never a great deal of action; small incidents are important for most of the book. Stevenson concentrates on the characters, life on a beloved family estate in Scotland, on a time and place where a way of life is still undergoing changes from the first world war, then must face even more as WWII approaches.

I liked it, but the slow pace and lack of action will put some readers off.

NetGalley/Endeavor Press

Family Saga.  First published in 1955; 2015.  Print length:  248 pages.

The Silence of Stones:  A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir by Jeri Westerson is set in 1388 during the reign of King Richard II.  So, naturally, there is going to be some peripheral association with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Richard's uncle.  Gaunt is going to be a part of any English history during the late 1300's, but it is Katherine Swynford (Gaunt's mistress, and eventually, his wife) who plays an important role in Westerson's novel.

I read the first Crispin Guest novel in 2011 and enjoyed it, but I did think it a bit dark, so I found it interesting that the series is now considered medieval noir.  I read the first novel, and The Silence of Stones is the 8th in the series--so much for keeping up.

Brief plot outline:  The Stone of Destiny is stolen, King Richard enlists Guest's services to find and recover it.  The King, who justifiably, hates Guest has imprisoned Jack Tucker.  If Guest does not recover the Stone in 3 days, Jack Tucker will be executed.

I like medieval mysteries, and I enjoy seeing the way different authors view the powerful characters of the times, their views of events and political maneuvering.  The 1300's are particularly popular among medieval mystery authors, and each one gives his or her own imaginative take on kings, archbishops, regents, wives, mistresses.  

My view of Katherine Swynford was formed years ago by Anya Seton's Katherine, so having Westerson give Katherine an important role in the novel appealed to me.  

NetGalley/Severn House

Medieval Mystery.  Feb. 1, 2016.  Print length:  240 pages.
The above books are all ARCs from NetGalley, but the next one came in the mail.

I've read and enjoyed several books by Juliet Marillier, but I've not read The Dreamer's Pool which is the book that precedes Tower of Thorns.  Although I was curious about some of the details in the first in the series, Tower of Thorns works as a stand-alone.

Skillfully written with a kind of amalgamating of myths and fairy tales, the book follows Blackthorn the healer and her companion Grim on a quest to aid the Lady Geileis, who seeks to end the curse of the monster in the tower of thorns.  A monster who is trapped moaning and wailing all day each day in a way that disturbs the entire countryside in dreadful ways.  Everyone feels his agony and finds both their physical lives and mental health threatened.

But just as Lady Geileis keeps secrets and refuses to reveal all the information Blackthorn might require to end the curse, Marillier makes use of the partial reveal--over and over. While I liked Blackthorn, I never felt completely engaged by her character.  Grim, on the other hand, gained my sympathy and respect.  

I had no trouble sticking with book, but found myself feeling manipulated by the oft hinted threats and a lack of attachment to Geileis and Ash.  The elements that kept me from enjoying this as much as Marillier's other books would be spoilers.

Fantasy.  Nov., 2013. 439 pages.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

This and That

A friend sent me a link to this New Yorker article  Can Reading Make You Happier?.  Very interesting look at bibliotherapy.

 I've gotten quite a few books in the mail recently.  Some of them I've read and will review...eventually.  A few I doubt I'll read.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Two More Mysteries

Gwen Moffat's series about Melinda Pink is a new one to me.  The series began in the 1970's, and The Lost Girls was first published in 1998.  Miss Melinda Pink is aging, but still fit and sharp of intellect.  She has in the past been a justice of the peace and the director of an adventure center.  She is also a crime writer; her experiences echo that of the author.

The story centers on a  village flooded for a reservoir.  I always find the idea of towns and villages flooded for this purpose interesting.  Entire towns abandoned and then existing under water can't help but inspire the imagination.  In the Lakeland dale, one such village was flooded, but 45 years later, after a prolonged drought, the waters have receded.  

When a young runaway and her dog discover bones, an old mystery and disappearance is revived.  One that many locals would rather not have revisited.  Fortunately, Miss Pink is visiting friends and is able to unravel the decades old mystery of a missing husband and a missing child.  Miss Pink is a formidable force.

Although I received this from NetGalley, it is available free from Kindle Unlimited.

NetGalley/Endeavor Press

Mystery.  1998 and Oct. 2015.  Print length:  360 pages.

The Point Between by M.A. Demers is an unusual mystery populated by a dead novelist, one of her characters, and a dead detective.  

Lilly Harrington, a well-loved author for her mystery/romance novels, is discovered hanging in what looks like a suicide.  A very confused Lily finds herself at the crime scene unable to communicate with the detective and deputy who are present.  Marcus Mantova, the detective protagonist in her novels suddenly appears and offers his help.  Lily is just trying to make sense of Marcus' appearance when Penelope shows up. Penelope, a real detective murdered on the job, has a lot to say about Marcus--none of it pleasant.

The three ghosts (?) team up to solve Lily's murder.  A dark comedy.

I love the cover, but I'm not altogether sure of the book.  I was very hesitant after the first few pages, then grew intrigued.  It was kind of a see-saw with like and dislike--now, I do; now, I don't.

The idea of ghost detectives appeals to me, though.   

NetGalley/Egghead Books

Mystery/Supernatural.  Nov. 1, 2015.  Print length:  230 pages.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Lights Out by Ted Koppel and a Fiction Pairing

Lights Out:  A Cyber Attack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath is a cautionary tale. 

Ted Koppel's intensely researched book presents a scenario that trumps dystopian novels about zombies and plague--because this threat is real.

I've been pondering this review for over a week.  If a cyber attack on the electric grid resulted in widespread, lengthy outages, the consequences  would be catastrophic.  Koppel's interviews with experts in many fields, governmental and private industry, make this clear.  Many believe it is a when, not an if, possibility.

I was impressed at how readable the book is.  The first section gives a lot of technical information that was sometimes a little slow, but related some of the problems in enough detail to make things clear--like the aging transformers, the expense of obtaining new ones and/or backups, how long it takes for an order for a new transformer to be built and delivered, the problems with transporting them. 

A few of the consequences of extended power outages (a week, a month, or more):  communication is difficult, if not impossible, as cell phones run down and can't be recharged; no computers will be working--and what government agency or private business doesn't run on computer today; no running water and the concurrent problem of sanitation; food supplies and pharmacy stock can't be re-supplied; medical machines down; fuel runs out.  Our society depends on this infrastructure. 

More than one review of the book has commented on the lack of solutions to the problem of a lengthy power outages.  True.  For most of us as individuals, there is not a lot that we can do to prepare for a really lengthy black out.  Hopefully, the book will stimulate more thought and more action on the part of governments--local, state, and national.  

I enjoy dystopian novels, but Lights Out is not a novel and is  thoroughly documented.  I found it both interesting and informative.  
Since November is nonfiction month, Lights Out might be a good nonfiction choice.  A lot of blogs have been pairing fiction and nonfiction books.  An interesting fiction pairing for Lights Out is One Second After by  William R. Fortschen.  While the book is about the consequences of an EMP attack and Lights Out is about a cyber attack on the electric grid--the effect is the same, loss of every technology that depends on electricity.  

 I read it in 2013, and it gave me a lot to think about.  Here is an excerpt from the book description of One Second After:  

"Months before publication, One Second After has already been cited on the floor of Congress as a book all Americans should read, a book already being discussed in the corridors of the Pentagon as a truly realistic look at a weapon and its awesome power to destroy the entire United States, literally within one second. It is a weapon that the Wall Street Journal warns could shatter America. In the tradition of On the BeachFail Safe and Testament, this book, set in a typical American town, is a dire warning of what might be our future...and our end."

If One Second After was "cited on the floor of Congress as a book all Americans should read,"  maybe Lights Out will result in some action.

Sidebar:  One of the consequences of a lengthy outage in a city like New York is that there is no way to evacuate that many people.  Yet there will be movement of millions of people, refugees leaving heavily populated areas.  To get an idea of what that might be like, think of the Syrian refugees flooding small European towns and the challenges of caring for them.

Links to Interviews/Articles about Lights Out:

Chicago Tonight    The Washington Post   PBS    CBS News

NetGalley/Crown Publishing

Nonfiction.  Oct. 2015.  Print length:  290 pages.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ashes to Ashes and Family Ties

Ashes to Ashes by Mel Starr is the latest in a series about medieval surgeon Hugh de Singleton.  I have not read any of the previous books in the series, but enjoyed this one.

Set in the 14th century, Hugh studied at Oxford and in Paris; for his time, Hugh has a most advanced medical education. 

In 1349 and again in the 1360's outbreaks of the Black Death devastated the population, creating a shortage of labor and social upheaval.  This post-plague setting adds to the interest of the novel.  

Labor is now a valuable commodity and there is more mobility as peasants/serfs/villeins move to find work, leaving behind land they had been bound to for generations. Feudal tradition is still strong, the hierarchy is still firm and powerful, but great changes are in progress.

 Some of the previous books cover how Hugh came to settle in the village of Bampton, which is a real village not far from Oxford.  Surgeon and bailiff to Lord Gilbert of Bampton Castle, Hugh is an intelligent and mild-mannered man with a young family.

When charred bones are found in the remains of a bonfire, Hugh must discover the identity of the body and whether or not murder was done.  The book gives wonderful historic detail about medieval law and justice, the social hierarchy, the way the church and religion affected people's lives, details of "croft and toft," and medical treatment in the late 1300's.  The details are woven in to give the reader a feeling of the dynamics of the time.

Just a sidebar--Hugh uses lettuce seed to induce sleep.  So did real medieval surgeons.    

Character development could be better--especially as there are some interesting minor characters who deserved more depth--but an engaging mystery with great historical detail.

(The title brings to mind the nursery rhyme associated (though inaccurately) with the plague and the bonfire (bone fire) to create allusive references to the effects of the plague.)

NetGalley/Lion Fiction

Medieval Mystery.  2015.  Print version:  256 pages.

Family Ties by Nicholas Rhea, originally published in 1994, had a new release in October.   

Hmmm.  I found Detective Mark Pembleton a little annoying.  A nice guy, dedicated, etc., but at times he got on my nerves.

An American Vice President is to visit England in search of his ancestors, and Pembleton is in charge of the British security detail.  Doing a little advanced research, Pembleton discovers that one of the VP's ancestors was murdered in 1916.  

That part of the mystery was intriguing, and I enjoyed the untangling of the details.

Nicholas Rhea is best known for his Constable book series which led to the Heartbeat British television series that ran from 1992-2010.

NetGalley/Endeavor Press

Police Procedural.  1994/Oct. 2015.  Print length:  201 pages.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid

Splinter the Silence

Val McDermid's series featuring psychological profiler Tony Hill and Carol Jordan is one of my favorites.  The last couple of novels in this series have been setting up the situation for this one.

Carol's drinking has been a part of previous novels, but she has always been able to function.  Now that she is no longer part of the police force and has become more isolated, her drinking will have a devastating effect.

As Carol has continued to seclude herself, Tony feels her loss more than anyone and attempts to re-establish Carol's connections with the old team and to force Carol to realize the consequences of her drinking.  

When Tony sees a pattern among some high profile suicides of outspoken women, he tries to involve Carol in his investigation.  Despite herself, Carol's curiosity begins to get the better of her as the possibility that the deaths of three women were not suicides, but cleverly disguised murders, becomes clear.  

Even as she must confront the results of her own destructive behavior, she finds circumstances offer a way back up.  Despite the enemies who delight in her difficulties, Carol has some enthusiastic supporters, not only within her former team, but among some powerful individuals. Yea, John Brandon!

McDermid proves once again that she can keep a reader enthralled with her characters and their situations, book after book.  I have to admit that my images of Tony Hill and Carol Jordan are based on the British series Wire in the Blood--those are the faces I see when I read the books.

NetGalley/Grove Atlantic

Crime/Police Procedural.  Dec. 1, 2015.  Print version:  416 pages.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I'm finally going to discuss How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.  This one was mentioned in Failing Our Brightest Kids which I reviewed a while back; then my friend Teresa mentioned she was reading it.  

From the book description:  "Drawing on groundbreaking research in neuroscience, economics, and psychology, Tough shows that the qualities that matter most have less to do with IQ and more to do with character: skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism."

We have relied extensively on standardized testing to determine which children have the best chance at academic success.  All of the testing from elementary school through high school and scores on the ACT or SAT exams are hugely important in the evaluation of kids.  But we all know individuals who have not performed particularly well, and in some cases performed abysmally, on standardized tests and yet have been quite successful in college and in life.

Most people have a common sense realization that hard work pays off and that certain character traits are more important than IQ when it comes to achievement.  The question is how are character traits  like grit, curiosity, self-control, and optimism instilled?  What can schools and teachers do to reinforce them?

Tough's research focuses on children who are disadvantaged by poverty, violence, and/or abuse.  Why and how do some of these kids overcome these circumstances?  The most important element (again, common sense) is that the kids who succeed have at least one person truly invested in their care.  Despite poverty and violence, if a child has one person who values and nurtures him, the chance of  success in school and in life increases exponentially.  

Tough interviews students and educators and provides some interesting glimpses at some ways of intervening by innovative educators, methods that have helped trump the inauspicious beginnings many of our children experience.  Those children who have been nurtured have more self-control and can better utilize other positive traits.  

What I took away from this on the simplest level is that, especially among the disadvantaged children of this country, the emphasis put on cognitive development before they attend school is less important than learning self-control and persistence and developing an optimistic approach to circumstances.  

In other words--yes, children from disadvantaged backgrounds may have smaller vocabularies and fewer learning opportunities at home, but what enables them to increase vocabulary, learn to read, learn to problem-solve, and ultimately improve their overall skills is largely dependent on developing self-control, being willing to work hard, and believing that they can succeed.  And for that, they need at least one person who values them.  Nurture allows Nature?

This is really not much of a book review, more of a disentangling of my thoughts about it.  I think the following is a good summary of why you might want to read it.

When asked how writing the book influenced his behavior as a parent, Tough replied:

"In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race--the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character--or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure." (the highlighting is mine)

Digression:  another one of those synchronicitous events occurred after reading the book, when I found a couple of related articles.  

The first one is about researchers studying kindergarten kids and giving them a Social Competency Test.  One important factor mentioned was self-control; the study was over a period of nineteen years.

The second one, and more visually dramatic than words, compares the brain scans of children.  The brain of a three-year-old child who has been neglected and/or abused is so shrunken, so visibly different from the brain of a three-year-old who received love and care.

 This really isn't anything new, when we remember what happened to children in orphanages during WWII and again later, with dramatic accounts of Romanian children in institutions.  Somehow, though seeing these images has an even more chilling effect.