Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Book of Massively Epic Engineering Disasters

This is a really well researched and beautifully illustrated book aimed at middle readers.  Important engineering concepts such as stability, center of mass, movement, potential energy, load bearing and materials use, among others, are defined and illustrated through experiments.  Each of the experiments is used to explain engineering disasters from the ancient world up to the modern day.

The chapters are broken up into digestible sidebars and short texts which are full of interesting trivia.  The book could have been very dry and, dare I say, boring.  It's emphatically not boring.  I really enjoyed reading the history and the whys-and-wherefores of the science behind the scenes.

STEM (science technology engineering and math) education is so vitally important to problem solving and progress as well as safeguarding our limited resources.  Getting young people interested with accessible and fun learning materials is a huge positive part of the equation.

This book would a welcome addition to a classroom unit on engineering or natural science as well as a good starting point for a multitude of science fair projects or a homeschooling unit.

It's a solid book, 256 pages, and very useful and interesting for budding engineers. 

Five stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

The Fiddler is a Good Woman

Set up as collected series of interviews, snippets, letters, and recollections, this book is an oddly put together memoir and mystery. 

The titular fiddler DD is at the center of a constantly shifting cast of varied characters who want to mother her, protect her, exploit her and/or sleep with her.  All of them want something from her.  In the end, she disappears off the face of the earth and the author tries to find her later, hence the interviews and stories.

It's an interesting twist to a memoir.  It left me feeling quite sad about the level of exploitation and debauchery the author attributes to the traveling musicians on the folk/country circuit.  I don't doubt some of the stories and incidents in the book have some vague factual basis, he certainly writes very convincingly.  I've read a number of reviews (after reading the book) from folks who were horrified about the things related in the book.  If graphic descriptions of drug use or sex or generally disreputable and irresponsible behavior upset you, it's not the book for you.

I found it sad, but very well written and worth reading.  It did make me laugh out loud several times, kudos for that.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Batman: The Master Race (DK Saga III)

I was pretty disillusioned after TDKSA, so I didn't have very high expectations going into this one.  I really was pleasantly surprised (with a small exception) by this book.  I liked that I was able to follow the plot without any research, since it's been a while since I was caught up with my comic reading,  and I liked the team-up aspects.  I loved seeing the characters which so defined my early life (Atom! Hal!) and reading about them doing what they do best.  I assumed it would be a set up and story arc with an eventual net-zero ending, and that was perfectly ok with me.

I heard a lot of buzz about these books from my 'sister geeks' (i.e. other female gamer/comic nerds) that they hated that FM can't/won't(?) write positive female characters (or that he's a misogynist or whatever).  For my dime, though, I knew going in that it was going to be testosterone soaked and looking for positive female role models wasn't going to happen. 

My small(ish) grumble about the book is the hit-or-miss art.  It's so variable that I found myself actually yanked out of the story at several points. 

All in all ... enjoyable, especially for someone who isn't a currently super-engaged comics fanatic (I fell out of the habit in grad school, and haven't really ever gotten back into it, since my local comics shop is about 4 hours away *sigh*). I could follow the players without having to resort to looking anything up and the story made sense to me without having to ask for back info.

Three and a half stars from me

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Actually. Best. Jokes. Ever.

It's very refreshing to find a book full of clean (mostly) age-appropriate jokes for kids.  I tried some of these out on my nieces and they were a definite hit.

The jokes are split into sections: knock knock jokes, puns, wordplay, silly titles, riddles, tongue twisters and more.  I remember a fair number of these from my own childhood, but many were new to me.

There is very little interior art, but it doesn't detract from the jokes. 

Definitely worth a look for kids, people who work with kids, or anyone looking to reconnect with their long-lost childhood.

Four stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Happy Mail

I am a complete stationery nerd.  I have always loved pens, gel pens, fountain pens, ink, glitter, paper (handmade paper makes me weak in the knees), washi tape, notebooks, etc etc.  I absolutely love handwritten notes. I, in short, am a freak.  Eunice and Sabrina get it.
The problem of course is that when most of us sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, we choke.  We run out of ideas (if we had any to start with).

This book primes the pump.  It is jam packed with great tips and ideas, including, yes, templates which one can follow slavishly if one needs a gentle push.  It's a beautiful, colorful, exuberant book.  Even though it's relatively short, it is full of everything necessary to get started really changing someone's day. Think how happy the recipient of your time and effort will be.

Although this book is aimed at younger readers, it's absolutely perfect for anyone with a sense of fun.

I loved this book. 

Four stars with glitter on top!
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

In Grace's Time

In Grace's Time is a beautifully written book about loss and grief and friendship and love.  Grace has lost herself after the death of her 15 year old son.  She is weary, not coping well, generally falling apart, and not being there for herself or her family.

After a series of coincidences lead her to the opportunity to take a road trip with a friend she just met, she puts herself back together piece by piece along the way. 

I enjoyed the perfect mid-America kitsch and the wonderful descriptions of the tourist attractions and giant flea markets along their road trip in a giant land barge of a car.

It is a very sweet, gently written and honest book.  It's one which will stay with me.

Wonderfully written; highly recommended.

Four stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Pullman Porter

Author Vanita Oelschlager and artist Mike Blanc teamed up to create a beautifully illustrated and written book for young readers about the Pullman Porters of railroad's heyday.
The work was often grueling and poorly paid, but it was considered a prestigious job for African Americans (many of whom, in the early days, were ex-slaves). The book is short, 44 pages, but each is beautifully illustrated and the text is accessible and well written.

I can imagine this being a useful book in a classroom setting, as a part of a unit on post Civil War America, as a background book for a unit on ethnic diversity and roles in America, or as a study unit on railroads/travel.

I remember when I was a child, traveling from Pittsburgh to Boston and Cape Cod every summer.  We traveled by train, and even in the 60s and early 70s it was a wonderful adventure.

This book does not sugar-coat or play down the degrading and often dangerous work which was required of the porters.  They were expected to purchase and maintain their uniforms and even to buy the shoe-polish they used.

Well researched and factual, I learned a lot about the history of the Pullman porters and the afterword even lists some of the more famous of their descendants.

Five stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Death at the Seaside

Death at the Seaside, the 8th entry for author Frances Brody's Kate Shackleton is another wonderful English cozy set in the interwar period.  I have followed this series from the beginning and really look forward to each book.

This book has Kate on holiday visiting her school friend Alma.  The trip is poignant for Kate because she and her late husband had a shared history in Whitby, the seaside town in which Alma lives. On a whim, Kate decides to go into the jeweler's to look at a bracelet as a gift for her goddaughter, Alma's daughter.  She finds one murdered jeweler instead.

The book is entertaining, well written, and full of old and new treachery.  There are too many motives for murder and deceit and nobody seems to be telling the truth.

At 400 pages for the Kindle edition, there's enough room for masterful plot and character development but the pacing never slows or stalls in the slightest.  I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it (and the series) very highly.

The secondary characters, including her sometimes associate, former policeman Jim Sykes, and her estranged former love interest, Marcus, are very well written and believable.

This book, indeed the series, is a very worthy addition to English interwar cozies, and goes on the shelf in my library next to Maisie Dobbs, Daisy Dalrymple, Amory Ames & co.  Classic, smart and relaxing reading with strong intelligent female characters.

Five stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Park Bench

Completely without written dialogue, this book is a narrative around the fixed point of a park bench in a public park over time.  The art is simple and well drawn and manages to convey a sense of atmosphere and pace with the seasons changing and the same recurring characters as time passes around the same park bench.

Much of the human experience is represented here.. life, rebirth, death, sadness, love, constancy, hate, sadness all contrasted with the hurrying obliviousness of living a life of unvarying routine and failing to simply notice what's happening around us.

I was familiar with this artist/creator from his other works, but was surprised how moving this book was for me.  It really could easily have been extremely pretentious or overly precious, but it was touching and profound.  Deftly, beautifully written. 

It's a relatively long book (336 pages), but I read it in one sitting and with a later re-read, noticed things I had missed on a first reading.  I suspect it's one I will revisit many times.

Five stars.

 Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Riley Can Be Anything

Riley Can Be Anything is a charming read-along children's book with beautiful illustrations and rhyming text.

Riley's visiting his older cousin Joe and getting some future career advice along the way.  Will he be a chef? A jazz musician? A doctor?  Only time will tell.

I wish I lived in a world where it didn't attract my attention (and appreciation) that there are more books today with a positive message about diversity and possibilities for children of color.  This book does not make a big deal at all over the fact that Riley's a non-white kid, but it's nice that there are books out there with a positive message for all kids. 

Positive, upbeat, sweetly silly rhyming, and the illustrations are adorable.  The pic of Riley's classroom with their little school uniforms made me *awww* out loud.  (Really, I'm a total sappy marshmallow).

I can see this book becoming a favorite bedtime read.  It's VERY short (24pages).

Four stars

 Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Deer Life

Mixed metaphors, weirdly arranged sentences and slightly stilted grammar.  A quote:

At this curious line of questioning, Grimsby’s smile faded to
make way for a new look of discomfort, which had spread across
his pie-shaped countenance like strawberry jam.

The book has a rolling stream of consciousness vibe and doesn't so much break the fourth wall as torch it to the ground, grind up the ashes and spread them to the four winds. The story is somewhat surreal and a bit dreamlike and muddled.  I think this is intentional on the author's part, and although the tense shifts in mid-paragraph might be intentional, they do get a bit wearisome.

The cover is absolutely gorgeous.  The interior illustrations are odd and seem unfinished. (I read an early galley proof, the illustrations may be completely different for the released version of this book).

As stated, my copy was an early galley proof, so I can imagine that it hadn't yet gone through final re-writing and editing yet.  It's not terribly polished, but the story itself is interesting and very fairy-tale-esque with a wicked witch (being wicked, because she's a witch of course), villagers and evil vs. good, with a happy ending.

The bones of the story are solid and I can definitely see this being translated very successfully into a musical or graphic novel someday.

Three stars.
 Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos

A gentle and colorfully painted biography of Frida Kahlo aimed at a young audience.  The book is age appropriate and deals with the tragic parts of Kahlo's life in a good manner, not neglecting to mention them, but not dwelling on her illnesses or chronic pain or difficulties either.
The focus of the book is Frida and her animals.  The animals which are represented in her paintings are listed in the afterword biography along with dates.
The book is full of small background history such as the fact that her dogs were Xolo, a hairless breed known to the Aztecs. 
The art itself is very colorful and primitive and does a good job of being reminiscent without attempting to copy Kahlo's style.  The paintings and narrative go well together.

The book would be well received by any young reader and could be well used in a unit on art history.

I liked how the illustrations in the book included reminders of her chronic pain and difficulties, such as a wheelchair and prosthesis, without explicitly overemphasizing them.  I think it would resonate well with a reading group of youngsters to maybe see that people are more similar than they had thought.

Beautiful book, well written.  Very basic but a good introduction for further reading.

Four stars.
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Don't Dangle Your Participle

Another winner from philanthropist author Vanita Oelschlager. Humorous illustrations support and explain what a dangling participle is and how to correct one.  The book makes it easy to remember and avoid the common pitfalls.  Although it's aimed at younger readers, the lessons contained are timely and fun for adult readers as well.

I do wish that the examples in the book hadn't all been formatted in the same way, and I felt that some of the corrected versions were a little stiff and unnatural.  Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book and think it could make a fun addition to a grammar unit in a school or homeschool environment.

Three and a half stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Friday, August 25, 2017

3D Printing Projects

This is a short but very well illustrated book about 3D printing.  It includes a good working explanation of the parts of a 3D printer, the tech behind it and the supporting tools and software to successfully utilize a 3D printer to design and produce useful items.

The first part of the book (roughly 20% of the content) introduces tools and materials and moves on to a short explanation of designing including 3D geometric (based on geometric shapes) and organic modeling (curved surfaces with complex 'natural' outlines).  The book discusses interface software and various settings and how to use them in the design process.

There's a troubleshooting section as well as a short tutorial on 'slicing' (using the design software to created the structural filling inside the printed design which supports it and provides stability). The troubleshooting section includes a 'fix it!' guide with good illustrated advice for fixing inevitable imperfections in printed projects.

Next come the project tutorials, well illustrated and photographed.  There's a desk organizer and dinosaur (or whatever design you desire) stamp, coat hooks and customized photo frames, a treasure box with fitted lid, a phone/tablet stand (pictured on the cover), and a lamp.  There are also cute fridge magnets and some little hanging plant pots in addition to several others (I want the printed chess set for myself!).

The book has a simple glossary and index.  It's aimed at younger readers, but perfectly usable as an introduction to anyone wondering what all the fuss is about and what exactly 3D printing is.

Four stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

The Seagull

There are relatively few authors whose work I know I will be seeking out no matter what.  Ann Cleeves is one of a handful on my list.  I especially love her Vera Stanhope books (as well as the wonderful TV series based on the characters).  I had pretty high expectations going into this book but never expected to be blown away.

What a great reading experience!  There's an almost nostalgic vibe as the plot reveals events and crimes from the late 1990s surrounding an expensive nightclub called the Seagull.   In addition to the extremely well written narrative, there are murders (multiple) and cover-ups and corrupt police and organized crime. 

The book also fills out Vera's back-story with more information about her father, Hector, and his bird-watching and poaching associates.  I really love the development of Vera and the people on her team.  From the first book (The Crow Trap), Vera and crew were well fleshed out and believable, and the plots have been solid and well crafted.  This book is so well written and clearly Ms. Cleeves has hit her (masterful) stride.  In my opinion, it's the best and most intricate one yet in the series.

There are plot twists and reveals right up to the very end and a really shocking denouement.  I sat in my reading chair with my mouth (literally) hanging open.

Beautifully well written and completely compelling.  Seriously.. five stars doesn't come close to being enough.
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Epic Cardboard Adventures

A new creative book from Leslie Manlapig and Capstone absolutely full of fun projects to fire up the imagination.  The adventures are arranged thematically: Explore the World, Travel Through Time, Put on a Show, and Work a Cool Job.  Each of the adventures are broken down into many (many!) individual projects and props for playtime. 
The 'explore the world' adventure contains multiple scenarios with lots of projects for outer space,  Egyptian pyramids and costumes, ocean adventure (shark fin, snorkel mask, boat design), and jungle explorer themed play.  Each of the other adventures are set up similarly with many creative projects for hours and hours of playtime fun.

The materials lists are clear and easy to find.  The tutorials are well written and amply photographed.

A wonderfully fun book with really cool projects.

Five stars. 

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Death on Tap

This is the first in a new cozy mystery series by Ellie Alexander about Sloan, a brewer who works in a brewery owned by her in-laws.  Since her husband has taken up with an employee ('the beer wench') and she needs some space to work out her future, she takes a job with a new-to-town brewer.  When a rival brewer is found in one of their brewtanks and her husband is a suspect, Sloan decides to see if she can clear his name.

The main character is also in a crossover standalone story in the other series by this author (Bakeshop mysteries) called Trouble is Brewing.  
I really enjoyed the pacing of this mystery, though the actual murder and 'whodunnit' seemed almost incidental to the plot and character development.  I was surprised by the denouement and expected a few more twists, but the writing is very solid and I look forward to the next in the series.

Either the author is a brewer herself or this book is extremely well researched.  I found the background and brewing information really interesting. She's serious about her beer!

Three and a half stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Out of the Box

Just about everyone has experienced gift giving where the recipient child winds up ignoring the (usually) expensive gift in favor of playing pretend with the box. This book will open up a world of possibilities for using the box (and maybe saving the cost of the expensive whatsit inside)!
This book is full of really great projects to do together.  There are fun activity toys (ring toss, puppet show, 'rabbit' (cardboard) racing game) as well as decorative crafts (flowers, butterflies, dinosaurs etc).
The book starts out with an introduction of techniques and materials, followed by written and visual project tutorials. 
Most of the projects also include a 'Now try this' after-activity which builds on the crafts for each project.
The photographs are well done and illustrate the tutorials beautifully.  The page layout is fun and engaging and accessible.
The target audience is grade school(ish) but there are many projects which are 'all ages' with a friendly facilitator/adult.
The projects themselves range from the simple (toilet paper roll owls) to pretty complex (pirate ship with play accessories).  They're colorful and fun and will keep any kid (*ahem* of whatever age) amused for hours.
Five stars.  I can't see it being better than this.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Vintage Knits for Modern Babies

This is a book full of well photographed simple projects with pure classic lines and wonderful yarns, based on a vintage aesthetic. I went looking for this book because I needed a classic bootie pattern with other accessories (mittens/hats) which could serve as a 'go-to' gift for my coworkers who are having babies.

All of the patterns are good solid basic accessories with a few larger projects such as pram blankets and cardigans and a few small items like soft toys and an apron dress. All are more-or-less blank canvas for further embellishment or perfectly lovely just as they are.

Classic and lovely! Highly recommended.

Four stars

Find Your Awesome

It's undeniably true that most people are their own worst critics.  We would generally never dream of being as critical or negative to other people as we casually are to ourselves.  I've never had much luck with the whole 'look in the mirror and tell yourself you're great'! (I felt like a complete goofball).  Anyhow, this book has a much more thought out and structured method for internalizing positivity and being kind and loving to ourselves (and those around us).
Set up as a personal journal/activity book, this 30 day challenge is full of sweet and brave daily challenges to increase your ability to care for and cherish yourself.  Some of the exercises are profound, some are a little bit goofy, they're all positive and uplifting and do-able. The daily challenges have checklists with spaces for notes and lists to be filled in by the reader.
One of the first 'rules' is that 'there are no rules'. Life is a journey and not just a set of criteria to be gotten through.

The art is wonderful.  Much of the book reminds me a lot of the currently popular 'adult coloring books'.  The daily challenges have author-written examples to get the reader's creativity primed. (As an aside, I think it's incredibly sweet and brave of the author to bare her own feelings and meanings - there's a lot of vulnerability and trust involved to put these things out there).

Really good advice and an easy to digest format.  We all need more hope and love in our lives.

Personal experience.  I started this challenge the first day I received this book.  Starting on day 2, I started getting comments and compliments about what a good mood I was in, and how happy I seemed.  I have often gotten comments about how nice/upbeat/positive I am in general, so it really surprised me to get so many comments from people who are used to my normal level of 'goofy/happy'. I'm still getting comments (on day 4 now).

Four stars - recommended

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Room Love

Though it's ostensibly aimed at young girls (tweens-high school aged), I found some nice DIY ideas here which wouldn't be out of place in a grown up environment.  Many of these were 'awesome' according to my 18 year old daughter.

The book is lavishly illustrated and the tutorials are full of easy-to-understand instructions. The book is arranged logically in sections with similar projects grouped together.  The sections include: Furniture & Fabrics, Storage & Organization, Dressing Zone, Walls, and Glam Decor & More.

The projects run the gamut from practical to very whimsical (and a few are a bit silly, but everyone needs a little silly in their space, right?).  I liked the advice posted at regular intervals in the book (*remember to get permission!).  I also like the empowerment vibe in this book.  You can do it.  I am all for people doing more DIY and recycling instead of just ditching everything in a landfill.  The book also starts with a welcome bit of advice to clean up your bedroom/space and organize.Awesome advice (I'm a mother :)

Definitely a useful and creative book.  Recommended!

Four stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Stash of One's Own

If one thing is pretty much universal about knitting nerds it's 'The Stash'.  We joke about it, sometimes feel guilty about it, sometimes revel in it... in short, most of us can't pass up a sale, charity resale shop, going out of business sale (*sigh*), or any other place which has the potential for stash enrichment without at least having a look.  There are, apparently, knitters who have one project going at a time and who buy supplies for that project and only that project, knit on it until it's finished and then move on... those people are outliers... they are not in the statistical norm. 

We knitters even have acronyms built up from our shared experience... LYS (Local Yarn Shop), SABLE (Stash Acquired Beyond Life Expectancy), WIP (Work In Progress), UFO (UnFinished Object) and a million others. 

This book is a collection of essays and musings by some of the best known knitters and designers, authors and fibre-philosophers.  A casual look at Ravelry or Craftsy will contain page after page of patterns or mentions of the contributors to this book. The book contains an introduction (worth reading!), 23 essays (ditto) and closes with an 'about the authors' section that is well worth taking notes from to inspire follow up reading.

The voices in this volume are varied, as in all such compilations.  You'll find whimsy and serious reflection.  I tried to read this collection as a box of chocolates, one at a time, savoring the individual nuances.. but honestly read it like I generally eat a box of chocolates, having 'just one more' until the box is empty.

Lovely book, and not just for us knitting fanatics.  I think it's a good window into our stashing mindset and justifications... so if you're close to a knitter, this could explain a lot. 

Four stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.   

Purple Palette for Murder

This is the 8th book in the Meg Harris series by R.J. Harlick. This series has been on my radar for a couple of years, recommended by a good friend of mine.  She knows I love mysteries set in the wilderness, and bonus points for First Nations themes or arctic settings (or both).  This was my first foray into the series, but I am definitely going to go dig up the other books in the series immediately.

The author has an amazing facility with description.  Breathtaking scenery and wilderness really made the story come alive for me.  In fact the writing and descriptions reminded me a lot of Tony Hillerman's books and the characters' delicate balance (or imbalance) trying to be true to their culture whilst being forced to conform to white culture were a recurring theme in this book as well.

The story itself is a well plotted mystery with greed and double crosses, politics and assault, old history and old crimes which won't stay buried.  The plot twists and denouement were fairly done and I hadn't worked out the whole solution by the end of the book. 

For anyone who is a fan of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett books, or Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series, definitely find this book.  I can't believe it took me this long.

Four stars, I'll definitely be reading the rest of the series.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.   

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Star Rover

Originally published in 1915, this is an unabridged reissue to be released in September 2017 by Dover publications. 

I was actually unfamiliar with this particular book by London, set up very loosely based on interviews he conducted with a San Quentin inmate named Ed Morrell. 
The book is a series of short stories about the out of body/deprivation experiences of a prisoner on death row named Darrell Standing during the beatings and 'jacketing' which were common disciplinary methods used in prison at that time.  The lives which the main character sees during his 'travels' out of body are varied in history and coming back to his 'reality' in prison, ties the narratives together. 

I'm reminded when reading classic writers, the ones we were all 'forced' to read in school, why they're remembered centuries after they die.  Jack London is amazing.  This book is really well written and full of depth and is genuinely moving. I found it much more engaging and mature than White Fang or The Call of the Wild. 

Regarding the book itself.  The prisoner is on death row.  The beginning of chapter two reads:
I am Darrell Standing.  They are going to take me out and hang me pretty soon.
So I knew going in that it wasn't going to be an 'up' book.  It does manage to be so perfectly written that it is quite uplifting, however.  When the inevitable end came, it left me shaking:
Spirit alone endures and continues to build upon itself through successive and endless incarnations as it works upward toward the light. What shall I be when I live again? I wonder. I wonder. . . .
 Perfect reissue of an amazing work, London's last work before his death in 1916 as far as I can find out.

Five stars, difficult reading, but utterly amazing

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.  

A Grave Misunderstanding

Most mysteries I've read try to confine themselves to one genre. This one couldn't decide if it was a locked room mystery, a country house murder, light science fiction mystery with robots, humorous cozy mystery with puns out the backside or what. 
The story really reads like a period piece, so much so that references to cell phones, Star Wars, apps and Uber, came as interruptions, yanking me out of the narrative.

The language is jarringly uneven.  It goes from Miss Marple prim straight to 'f-bombs' left right and center without any pause (and then back to Miss Marple).
There are also weirdly distracting asides, such as his watch never telling the proper time ("Ten minutes later, at exactly 44:37 according to his watch....") and several references to 'Duct Tape Wine-the wine that can fix anything'.

Much of the humor comes from having the main character, Inspector Simon Grave, forgetting things (Pratchett? Asimov? Heinlein?) and generally being a bumbling idiot.  He often confuses things or forgets things.  I would have attributed it to a Columbo nod from the author, but unfortunately the feckless inspector doesn't get much better throughout the book.

This is a sidekick book, and in a weird twist (or maybe another nod to the peerless wit of Douglas Adams' SEP field), Graves' sergeant Blunt has some sort of minor cloaking field which makes it impossible for people to 'see' him properly. 

All that aside, I enjoyed this weird uncategorizable book. I liked the strange 'Scooby Doo' ending. I liked all of the science fiction/android bits. I actually quite honestly look forward to any follow-up books from this author. I just can't try to think about what category to try to fit it into because it's impossible.

Three and a half stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.  

Lies We Tell Our Kids

This is a darkly humorous book with really wonderful illustrations from Brett E. Wagner and Animal Media Group.  The illustrations are beautiful.  The 'lies' are not really commonly told lies so much as weird 'what ifs'.  I wasn't familiar with most of them, though a few (if you pick your nose, your finger will get stuck, if you cross your eyes, they'll get stuck that way, etc) I had heard in my misspent youth. Many of them were straight up weird and seemed a bit like the author was trying to think of anything to pad out the book somewhat.

That being said, it's a short (105p.) book with gorgeous illustrations by a very talented author.

If you think of it in the same vein as Go the F**k to Sleep or Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book then it's quite a bit funnier. I enjoyed it.

Three stars

PS If my mom told me dragons came from stinky shoes, I guarantee I'd never have changed my socks or shoes again, just on the off chance of getting my own dragon :)

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher. 

Miracle Brew

Have you ever had a conversation with someone (at a party etc) who is passionately fond of and knowledgeable about a subject?  Those people I've met who are really really REALLY into something, a hobby, a passionate study of a particular subject, even the most obscure things, generally enjoy talking about them.

One of two things happen, after 20 minutes or so, you're willing to fake a heart attack to get away from them or you're suddenly catching the fever and find yourself signing up for a beginner beekeeping/water gardening/butterfly collecting/14th century Danish textile history class and thinking, 'Ok, this sounds really cool'!

This is the latter.  As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, I have brewed beer (and mead and wine etc).  I'm a beekeeper, I'm a fanatical gardener, but apart from my relatively hit-or-miss forays into beer brewing, I hadn't really thought about the magical process itself or why the things which happen, happen.  Even as a hobby historian, I hadn't really thought about the complex and fascinating history of beer and brewing.  I (like most) had heard the oft-told apocryphal Egyptian 'accidental brewing' story (i.e., grain got wet, dried out, got wet again and someone hungry said 'I'm gonna eat/drink it anyhow, can't afford to let it go to waste' and got drunk, then sat and thought, 'That was great, I'm gonna do that on purpose from now on'!).

Pete Brown logically dissects and debunks that story and many others about how and when humans settled down into more or less stable groups (malting for brewing could be one reason we did settle into more agrarian settlements).  His writing style is wonderfully accessible and humorous (but not in the slightest precious or overly cute).  He writes WELL about a subject on which he displays a stunning depth of knowledge.  Additionally he backs it up with extensive research and references and does it in a way which isn't dry or boring at all.  His descriptive powers concerning such relatively mundane acts as swallowing the first mouthful of beer on a hot day are amazing.

I really enjoyed this book very much.

The book is set up in sections, Barley, Water, Hops, and Yeast comprise the majority of the book.  The last section is more narrative and discusses the cultural implications of beer, specifically the Reinheitsgebot, a 500(ish) year old law passed (some say it was the first and oldest food standards legislation in human history) in Bavaria to insure that beer was only made from its 3 principal ingredients (hops, barley, water - and later when we figured out what yeast is, included that as well).
This section of the book is really very funny and discusses amongst other things, the way beer fanatics discuss beer between themselves, beer tourism and beer-bonding. 

The best takeaway line in the book:
Keep calm and have another beer.
I think I will, thanks! :)

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do... But You Could've Done Better

Published 10th Jan. 2017 by Animal Media Group LLC with illustrations by

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Expressive Flower Painting

Published 8 Aug. 2017 by artist author Lynn Whipple and Quarto Publishing, this 128 page book is lavishly photographed and vibrant and just plain exuberant.  The first introductory chapter is titled "permission to play".  I just love that.

The author's style isn't condescending at all.  Many art how-to books in my experience include instructions that start with 'draw a circle' and then, skipping about 42 years of practice, go directly to 'firm up your outline drawing and wind up with this' (step2):

step 1

step 2

I'm not daVinci.  Aaaaanyhow, to make another glaring contrast, this book is different from most all of the other art instruction books in my personal experience.

The author's style is playful and fun. She knows we can succeed once we quit trying to be daVinci and start being ourselves and letting our creativity lead us to our own creations (not someone else's).  That was quite profound for me.  Plus she quotes probably my favorite living author, Neil Gaiman:
“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.” —Neil Gaiman
Beautiful sentiment beautifully expressed. If you have a chance, please go read/watch his moving and profound commencement address from whence came the quote above

Back to the book. It spends a fair amount of effort preparing the aspiring artist to embrace their creativity and tapping into it and letting it out.  She also mentions how freeing and exciting and fun it is getting in touch with our creativity. There is an introduction and discussion of tools and supplies, studio solutions including lighting and ergonomic working spaces and the use of humor as an exercise in opening up our creativity.

There are creativity exercises including concrete advice listed in bullet points for starting and succeeding, choosing music that inspires you (and sometimes dancing is necessary)

The exercises progress from opening yourself up to expression through to finding your voice as an artist and finally learning sharing and finding a community. 

I really enjoyed this brightly written book with lovely humorous photographs full of blazing color.  Exuberant really is the correct word from cover to cover.

Four stars - there is valuable content here. 

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Fatal Charm

Fatal Charm is the newest mystery romance from Blair McDowell. Release date was 8th September 2017 from The Wild Rose Press, available in ebook and paperback formats.

I read this book in one sitting.  The action is non-stop.  There are murders and double-crosses and international jewel thievery.  The plot rotates around a baroque pearl dragon amulet once owned by Marie Antoinette which eventually wound up stolen from the Louvre.  Two of the thieves were caught but the third got away with the amulet.

The main character (a beautiful art jeweler named Caitlin) gets trapped into the action almost randomly and the plot hinges on her attempts to safely return the dragon to the Louvre.  The original thieves haven't forgotten about getting caught years ago and they're out for revenge, even if that includes murdering Caitlin and anyone else who stands in their way.

The mystery and thriller elements are well written.  Romance writing in general isn't the top of my reading list, but the sex and romance scenes were not 'cringe worthy' and seemed naturally written and advanced the narrative, so they weren't at all gratuitous.

I enjoyed reading about Paris and the French countryside and coast.  The author is very talented and the ending was clean and satisfying.  The almost-epilogue at the very end caused a little internal eye rolling, but honestly, it's a romance mystery.  I would recommend this one to any of my romance loving friends who like a little mystery/thriller with their romances.

Three and a half stars rounded up.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Stan Lee

There are very few people who have lived their lives more in the public eye than Stan Lee.  He himself has never been shy about media attention and, from his teenage years has been involved in the publishing world, publicity and comics.

I grew up in a comics loving household.  (My paternal grandfather taught himself English using comic books, a love he passed on to my dad, and to me).  Since I lived near a major metropolitan city (Pittsburgh, Pa) and not impossibly distant from NYC, I got involved in the large and vibrant fandom in my area.  I've met Mr. Lee on several occasions and every single time I met him I came away with an awestruck feeling at how much energy he has and how positive and gracious and accessible he is.  I never fail to grin at his cameos in the comics films.  I have never heard anyone say he had a bad day or was cranky or ungracious when they encountered him.  He's a force of nature.

So, when I sat down to read this -meticulously- researched brick of a book (260 pages), I opened it with a little trepidation.  Would the real man behind the phenomenon have feet of clay? Was he really just a man and not the cyclone of my formative years?  He's a man who has never shied away from controversy, would the biography have an angle? An agenda?

Obviously there are many (many!) other biographies and biographical resources about Stan Lee.  His life has basically been one continual open book, lived in the public eye.  The question is really, does this particular book bring anything to the table in terms of new material or unique perspective?  I believe it does.  I don't recall ever reading much about his very early life growing up in the depression or his difficult early home life.  The author suggests that as one reason for his incredible work ethic, it could be true.  (Reminds me somewhat of the work-til-you-drop ethic of people in my grandparents' generation, which also had its genesis in the great depression).

There is a lot of content in this book.  I think it will be a valuable resource for enthusiasts, students of ephemera, and future historians. I appreciated the incredibly detailed footnotes and reference sections.  Amazingly thorough job.

Four stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Mountain States Medicinal Plants

With a slant toward the plants found in the western mountainous regions of North America, this book is a great resource to identifying, harvesting, wildcrafting, and using botanicals. The author is a wildcrafter and lecturer who owns Rooted Apothecary in Crested Butte, Colorado. The included plants and instructions are by no means limited to the western states, as the useful plants and instructions are found in wide areas of North America. 

The book is broken down into sections and begins with an introduction 'Wildcrafting your medicine', followed by 'Timing your harvest: A guide to seasonal wildcrafting'
The meat of the book is taken up with an ID guide to 101 different (by my count) wild plants.  The pictures are extensive and specific.  Dangerous look-alikes are covered quite well with ample photograps and descriptions and cautions.  

The book has a charmingly sweet vibe (ask permission of the plants you want to harvest and when many of them say 'No', respect that and move along). Is it a little bit 'woo/new age/neohippy'? Yes, however... We live in a world that has firmly embraced the idea that profit and personal gain is a worthy goal and the sacrifice and pillage of our environment and our planet is the natural order of things.  Humans are doing irreparable damage with blatant disregard.  A little respect and restraint toward our earth is wonderfully refreshing (and vitally important).

If you look at the trend in medicines and cosmetics today, every possible company (some of them incredibly disreputable) tout 'back to nature' and 'natural ingredients'.  What better way to know what's in the products you put in and on your body than to gather and control the ingredients, and make the final product yourself. Included are recipes for various decoctions, soaks, salves, syrups, teas and other items.

I enjoyed this book very much and recommend it.  The finished products are well crafted (if one follows instructions!) and gentle and not harmful.  Cautions about use specific herbs under specific conditions (pregnancy etc) are sensible and reasonable.

As a bonus, there are photos of the author's own apothecary jars and some small interior shots of her shop.  Beautifully organized and traditional, the jars and labels are beautiful.  I would love to visit the shop sometime.

The book ends with a resource and references section.

A good book for wildcrafting, beautifully made.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Stereotypical Freaks

I had read a little background info on this book before I came in, so one of the main plot revelations had been spoiled somewhat for me before reading.  That did absolutely nothing to lessen the gut punch effect of this story. The writing by Howard Shapiro is wonderful.  The art by Joe Pekar is clean and well inked.  The characters' facial expressions and body language are such a significant part of the narrative adding to and filling out subtext between the characters.  There are silent panels without dialogue that tell a whole story by themselves.

Beautifully written and provides a true window into daily life (as I remember it at least) in a typical American high school, including the jocks, the brains, the 'unattainable' girl, the shy overweight kid.  Sounds pretty stereotyped and the danger here of course is that this book -could- easily have been two dimensional and flat.  It was emphatically not that.  Wonderful storytelling, wonderful story, believable characters, and dammit, it made me cry.

There were a few minor (minor!) penciling typo/editing problems (I read an ARC, so they might well have been corrected before publishing), but one of the characters is spelled Marcel and Marcell several places in the book.

Final opinion: gorgeous powerful story wonderfully illustrated and not to be missed. This one will be with me a long time.

Five stars, wonderful work

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Cat Among the Pumpkins

As others have said, this is a book about anthropomorphic cats who are detectives, not a tea-cozy mystery about a human detective with a cat. 

I love cozy mysteries, whatever form they take, library, bookmobile, amateur sleuths, professors turned investigators, I'm not picky. Animals are a plus.  So I really assumed this would be right up my alley, so to speak.

The writing is fine and even the dialogue and pacing move the narrative along.  The part that I found really tough going were the utterly relentless puns and tongue-in-cheek cuteness.  It just never stops.  Towns are called Much-Purring-on-the-rug, Much-Purring-on-the-Cushion, Much-Purring-on-the-Step, etc. The shop names are full of puns. The characters names border on the criminal (a cat with an apparently neurological tremor is called Delirium Treemints and she's not the only one).  Right on the very edge of unforgivable is right on the cover (and mentioned often in the book): the first book in this series (there are more of them) is called 'The No.2 Feline Detective Agency'.  Virtually every single sentence contains some sort of culture/book/film reference. It gets wearing after a while.

Because the author wanted to make every character and place in the book a punny reference to other books and characters, the characters are quite difficult to keep straight Beryl & Betty, Marks & Spinkle (groooooooan - yes, this is a Marks & Spencer *wince* reference), the Indian shopkeepers are called Pakora and Rogan Dosh, their nephew is Bhaji.  /banging my head on my desk.  There are also references to the cats smoking catnip.  If casual light drug use is a worriesome, that might be problematic. 

I did finish this book for the purposes of review.  The actual mystery part was honestly pretty well crafted. 

Two stars (for the writing). Eye-wateringly bad puns. 

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Inspiration Kantha

I'm a fibreart fanatic.  I have at least tried everything from hedebo to hardanger to stumpwork to quilting.  I love knitting, sewing, crochet, tatting and more. 

I had never even heard of kantha. The earliest written record of kantha (from a Sanskrit word which means 'rags') appears in the book Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita which was written over 500 years ago.  It is a traditional quilting/embroidery form in the Indian peninsula and surrounding areas.  It was a traditional thrifty method of binding together worn saris and dhoti into layers to use as coverlets and extend the usefulness of worn out fabrics. Running stitches, traditionally in white red and blue, were used to further stabilize and decorate the fabrics.

This book is exhaustively researched and authoritative.  I was amazed at the depth of information and background in the introductory chapters including discussion of the materials, types of kantha, different areas and traditional quilting patterns associated with them.

Supplies and stitches follow the historical introduction and are well photographed and described.  Motifs (with color diagrams and clear photographs) are followed by specific projects more or less in order of difficulty. Beautifully photographed and with clear finishing instructions, there are many lovely things including a bucket bag (bag with round bottom), notebook cover and a drawstring bag.

There is a gorgeous white on white coverlet/hanging and a meditation/affirmation project followed by a inspiring jaw-dropping gallery full of gorgeous photographs. 

At the end is a useful, well arranged appendix with line drawn motifs and stitch tutorials.  There is also a useful, well referenced glossary and further reading list.

Meticulous and beautiful, this book will absolutely stay in my collection. 

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Downward Dog. Very serious Haiku from a Very Serious Dog

I really enjoyed this (very) short book.  Like the form of the poetry it embraces, the line drawing illustrations are spare and minimalistic and suit the material very well.  Haiku is not easy (well, that's the point).  This book is beautifully written, poignant in places and really funny in places.  It ends with an important message about adopting a companion from a shelter (like the author and coverdog, Martin :)

I find it difficult to not quote examples, but they are lovely and deal with the entire palette of experience from love and food and bonding, to fear of death and the endless universe.  It's a touching profound tribute that moved me and made me laugh (sometimes at the same moment).

Well done.  Truly well done.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Clay Lab For Kids

We live in a time when strapped school systems, already cut to the bone, have to make the impossible decisions about 'what has to go'.  It's tragic that all too often the first thing to be cut are the arts and art education.  So we have generations of stressed unhappy kids who are still not learning to love education and the educational process, still struggling with math and science, and who aren't lifelong lovers of reading either.

I really believe (as a product of an education which included music, dance, and visual and creative arts) that arts are vital to a quality education.

This book is a great collection of 'labs' - projects for young artists to grow and experiment and build up techniques with a bunch of different types of clay.  The emphasis is on allowing kids gently guided access and letting them create.  The author is an art educator and artist and has so much valuable advice.  (Don't take over for the young artist and 'correct' their project, their projects won't always look like the things in the book - and that's as it should be! etc)

The 52 projects are very well photographed and the tutorials support the artistic process.  The techniques, from pinch pots to coil pressed pots, to polymer clay are basic methods for building a good basic working knowledge of clay (in various forms) and the strengths and weaknesses of the different media. The projects are arranged in units with related themes. Unit 1 introduces basic concepts and is mostly slanted to the educator/parent/facilitator. Unit 2 deals with air-drying clays and basic techniques.  Unit 3 deals with sculpture (including a project for a marionette that is -really- cool). Unit 4 deals with polymer clay and how it behaves including a segment on color mixing.  Unit 5 is more sculpture with poly-clay. Unit 6 - making your own clay and further exploration.

The book includes a useful resource guide with further reading and online resources.

There is so much fun in this book. 
Heartily recommended!

Five stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.