Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lalylala's Beetles Bugs and Butterflies

Lalylala's Beetles Bugs and Butterflies is a cute amigurumi crochet tutorial collection from Lydia Tresselt (aka LalyLala) and F+W Media. The accessories and 'gurumi are basic shapes along with a load of variations (hats, horns, wing shapes + colorways, cocoons, shells etc) which will keep any crocheter occupied for many hours.

Included in the book's 128 pages are detailed descriptions of each project, including supplies lists, as well as beautifully illustrative photos for each tutorial. There's a lot of humor in the sidestory as well as the projects themselves. Example: a really adorable crocheted venus flytrap sewn onto a mini-purse frame to make a change purse! There's also a sort of Greek chorus of tiny little green aphids who provide commentary and background on the other projects.  (A tutorial for the cute little aphids with variations is included in the book).
The book also includes a little story about a hatching caterpillar and the insects and creatures she encounters, written by the author's husband.

The cover gives a good idea of the scope of the projects with variations and accessories.  There are 20 full tutorial projects in the book along with a pile of add-ons.  The first 25% of the book is introduction and technique, supply choice, finishing and general instructions with tips.  The project tutorials themselves take up the following 2/3 of the book.  The remainder (circa 10%) is given over to a good suppliers list, biographical info and  acknowledgements.

Available in both hardcover and ebook versions, there's something here for fans of amigurumi and yarncrafters.
I tested the snail and fly pupa patterns and had no trouble following them (the photos are really well done).

Four stars

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

The Last Best Friend

George Sims, (1923-1999) has been referred to contemporaneously and posthumously as a prodigiously talented writer of noir, memoirs and gritty realistic mystery/thrillers.  He was also an antiquarian bookseller in real life and wrote about his acquaintances and acquisitions in the rare book trade.  His writing garnered praise from a host of fellow writers and this particular book, The Last Best Friend, was included in H.R.F. Keating's list of '100 best books'.

The Last Best Friend (title taken from a poem by Robert Southey) begins abruptly with the falling death/suicide of Sammy Weiss, best friend of the main character, Ned Balfour. Ned, who is an antiquarian/rare book seller, is out of the country at the time, but immediately travels back to London to investigate.  Sammy was extremely acrophobic and Ned can't get his head around the idea of him intentionally committing suicide in such a way. 

I was immediately struck by the quality of the writing.  Technically flawless and gripping, the author manages to write two simultaneous scenes at the same time without detracting from either one, and also without being confusing in the slightest degree for the reader.  The writing is very simple and pared-down. Sims was a master of 'show, don't tell'. 

I devoured this book in one sitting and immediately reread it (and noticed a lot of things which I had missed on the first read-through).  Wonderfully written with a solid plot and dialogue that is pitch perfect. A lot of reviews mention 'swinging 60's London', but apart from mentioning place names, the setting and time period weren't really central to the plot line.  It didn't read as terribly dated as one might expect from other novels of the time period (compared to, for example, John Creasey (who is one of my secret passions - love his books, too)). I really admire that Sims never puffs up or shows off his writing.  The descriptions are well rendered but not overly so, the characters are believable and the dialogue is spot on.  There are, admittedly, some quotes which are dated ("He looked like a homosexual of the rare, vicious kind") and jarring (along with some *cough* relatively innocent(?) misogyny), but in general, the book reads well to a modern audience.

This is an author who deserves a much wider readership.  For fans of Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain and company, Sims, though certainly less famous (and British), will fill the bill nicely.

Originally released in 1967, and republished in all formats Nov 7th, 2017 by Poisoned Pen, with a new introduction for this edition by Martin Edwards.
Five enthusiastic stars

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

The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross

The second book in the Jesperson & Lane casebooks, The Witch at Wayside Cross nevertheless works well as a standalone.  The author, Lisa Tuttle, is a prolific and entertaining writer.  The series is marketed as a Victorian paranormal mystery series, but apart from a single strange subplot (basically a few pages), this book at least is very much within the scope of realistic murder mystery.

The book does have a fairly odd 'vibe', and the central plot line concerning the establishment of a school to educate and research pre-Christian belief systems in the British Isles, isn't the usual fare for more traditional Victorian murder mysteries.  The oddness persisted for me throughout the book and I found myself wondering about the behavior of several of the characters (Mrs Reverend Ringer for example... odd doesn't begin to cover it). 

The writing on the whole is adept and the plotting works pretty well. There are quite a number of interwoven subplots which are resolved satisfactorily by the end of the book.  I do have some caveats, however.  The two titular characters (Jesperson & Lane) are refreshingly free from romantic entanglement with one another (and I hope the author continues that way), but I found myself being very slightly annoyed that he (Jesperson) treats her (Lane) as a glorified secretary or appendage or finder-out-of-things and certainly not as an equal.  I'm sure it's intended as a nod to Holmes and Watson (or Poirot and Hastings), but since they are male and female, the power disparity was quite noticeable for me.  Not quite annoying, but slightly distracting. Also, the aforementioned odd behavior of some of the characters made me feel off-balance when reading the book.  It didn't quite break my suspension of disbelief when reading, but it was something of which I was often aware.

At 261 pages (Kindle version), there's enough room for the plot to be fairly detailed and the it moves along at a good clip; I didn't find my interest waning or the narrative dragging.  For the denouement, I didn't really buy the motivations of some of the characters which also lent an odd feeling to the ending.  It almost felt as if the author had five or six different plots in mind at the halfway point and picked a likely winner and finished writing that one.  (I'm not a writer, perhaps ALL writers do that to a greater or lesser degree).

It's a tricky thing, writing period dialogue for modern audiences which doesn't break character and also appeals to the modern reader.  The author manages it quite well, and the dialogue, if odd in places, maintains character and form throughout the book.  I enjoyed it.  For readers of modern Victoriana who don't mind giving the romance angle a miss, it's a nice series to seek out.

Three and a half stars
Published November 28th 2017 by Random House - Hydra
261 pages, ebook format

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

Wine Not?

This is an adult coloring book from Xist publishing, published 9th October, 2017.  The illustrations are well done and printed on only one side, so they can be framed (or used as cards or for other papercrafts).  The illustrations are not as intricate or busy as a lot of adult coloring books, which means 1)they're simpler to color, in case your hand eye coordination is suffering from partaking of a favorite vintage, 2)more time for drinking wine, and 3)the quotes have more of a central place in the art and don't get lost in the details.

The quotes run the gamut from silly, "Wine o'Clock" to gently profound, "Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know". John Keats.  Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Homer, Benjamin Franklin, Yeats, Baudelaire and several others also get pages in this collection.  It's a very short book, 44 pages.  It would make a nice gift for a wine lover along with a nice bottle of wine and some gourmet nibbles.

Three and a half stars.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Ch√Ęteau

What a strange book!  Author Paul Goldberg's second novel follows up his successful debut The Yid with a blackly comedic exploration of the surreality of life in post-election-Trump America.  William (nee Ilya) Katzenelenbogen has lost his job as an investigative reporter at age 51, his college friend the so-called "Butt God of Miami Beach" aka Zbignew (a cosmetic surgeon), has fallen to his death, so he decides to revisit the scene of Zbig's demise with the vague idea of turning his experiences into a saleable book/movie/source of income.

Since his finances are in the crapper along with his professional life (he doesn't even have the cash to cover his upcoming rent), he plans to stay with his father and stepmother.  He's been estranged from his father for years, ever since his father's trial for fraud against the government for a scheme involving a non-existent ambulette service.

Bill/Ilya gets sucked into one farcical situation after another when he gets involved in his father's revenge and takeover scheme with his (the father's) condo board of directors.  Bill stretches his horizons to unlawful entry and a pile of other felonies in a largely vodka fueled attempt to support and reign in his father to some degree.

The entire book is a sort of morality play.  The writing is stellar, but I'm not nearly as hip or cool as the target audience.  I am very sure it will play well to young urban professionals, especially ones who are more familiar with the stereotypes than am I. 

There were several points in the book that surprised an uncomfortable bark of laughter out of me. I also enjoyed the way the author handled the non-English dialogue.  It was comfortable and seamless to read.  I also admire the heck out of the author's ability to do the necessary mental gymnastics to write characters who are philosophically diametrically opposed to one another.  Bill's interactions with his father are brilliantly written (and full of pathos(?)).

Bottom line, not a comfortable read for me, but extremely well written and powerful. Dark, dark, sarcastic humor.  Also worth a note, this book is extremely current.  Not precisely sure how well it'll play 10 years from now.  A lot of the humor involves the surreal and frenetic current news cycle and living in the USA.  If you feel like you've fallen into an alternate dimension every time you turn on the news, this book will tick a lot of boxes. 

Due out 13th February, 2018 from Macmillan's Picador imprint.
Four stars for the writing

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A Dangerous Language

If someone had told me that A Dangerous Language was an authentic heretofore unknown classic golden age mystery, I would have no trouble believing it.  It's beautifully plotted, taut, and meticulously researched. With most modern period mysteries, there's a polite suspension of disbelief which allows the reader to enter the story in whichever time period whilst reading a modern feeling narrative.  This book (and the others in the series) absolutely resonate with the spirit of the 1930s. I was transported.  Terribly trite, but the settings and story really came alive for me.

There is something very quintessentially Australian about this book.  Many (most?) of the wealthy social upper class in Australia still had close ties to England, and that's the case with Rowland.  He's on the outs with his ultra traditional (stuffy!) brother, Wilfred, who disapproves heartily of Rowland's bohemian friends, and feels that Rowland's escapades are willfully designed to embarrass.

Sinclair is affluent, self-deprecating and genuinely likeable.  He's loyal to his friends and dashing and not above a bit of derring-do and can be relied upon in a tight spot. With fascists and anti-communist thugs as well as disapproving family members and an old flame trying to make life difficult, Rowly and company have their work cut out for them.

Such a fun read.  The dialogue is wonderfully written and pitch perfect.  There are sidebar news bits providing current (1934) headlines and backstory history along with an epilogue at the end of the book with real-life backstory, with which I was previously unfamiliar.  The historical sidebars and chapter intros make up roughly 10% of the page content and are cleverly interwoven into the plot seamlessly.

Five stars, brilliantly written, flawlessly executed.  I want to go re-read the series now.

As an aside.  I do think the book could be read as a standalone, but definitely benefits from being read as part of the series.

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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Booking In

Booking In is the 7th outing for lawyer/fixer and sometimes sleuth Crang.  He's a likeable, intelligent jazz fanatic and martini lover.  He is stable and has a great relationship with a woman he cares for and a house and home life he enjoys.

He has a loyal group of friends and associates with particularly 'interesting' (not necessarily strictly legal) talents which play a part in his freelance consulting.  When one of his legal client's safe gets burgled and some potentially very valuable documents are stolen, he calls in his friends, a former safe-cracker and a burglar, to help figure out who/what/how (and maybe why).
The secondary cast of characters include some memorable comic relief and provide a foil for Crang's witty repartee and occasional fisticuffs.
There are several interwoven stories and the way they're resolved form the basis for a really solid mystery.  The writing is top notch and the characterizations and dialogue are very well written and a lot of fun to read. It's cleverly written and the denouement is satisfying.

I just really enjoyed reading this book.  As a bonus, there are a lot of great jazz, literature and poetry references.  Well worth a read! Anyone who enjoys Robert Parker's Spenser books, or John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books will definitely find something to please with these books.  I read Booking In as a standalone, you get all the necessary background without having to read the other books first.

Four stars

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

The Whispering Room

Whatever else happens, Dean Koontz can always be relied on to provide a great reading experience. Rogue FBI agent Jane Hawk is back in the sequel to The Silent CornerThe Whispering Room takes up where the first book left off, and Jane is determined to get the whole story out to the public and save the world and herself (and maybe get a little justice for her murdered/programmed suicide husband).

This book managed to trap me within a very few pages and really hold my interest until I'd read it completely. There are not many books which have actually made me miss my bus stop, but this one did.  Narrative tension is hard and Koontz makes it look easy.  He's a masterful writer and writes well crafted exciting books.  This is a solid brick of a book, 528 pages, and I didn't find that it lagged anywhere.  Jane encounters a whole host of secondary characters (I <3 Bernie!!!!) but they're described well and mostly introduced serially, so there's no problem with keeping track of who is who.

For fans of thriller/conspiracy/black ops type books (Clive Cussler, Lee Child, Robert Crais & co., I'm lookin' at you!), Jane is pure entertainment.  I'm looking forward to seeing how she manages in book #3.

If Amazon were Disneyland, Dean Koontz would be an 'E' ticket ride.

Published 21st November, 2017 by Bantam
Format: Kindle, Hardback, Paperback, audio (Audible)

Four stars

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

I Was Picked: The John Challis Story

Some background.  I work as a bio-engineer in a histopathology laboratory in a teaching hospital.  It's a large hospital, with many thousands of biopsies and tests going through our department every year.  I'm a very small cog in a big productive machine, but every single day I'm at work, my colleagues and I see biopsies and every one of them has a story.  We don't have direct patient contact, of course, but we understand and never forget that there's a patient (and family) behind every test we run and everything we analyze.

 The book begins with an introduction and short early biography of John and his family.  From a tough early infancy (they thought he had cystic fibrosis) and surgery, John turned into a normal and active kid.  He participated in sports, he went to school, he lived his life up until age 16.  Nobody expected his cancer diagnosis, terminal liver cancer with lung metastasis.

Most of the book is written about the time after his diagnosis.  It's about how he and his family reacted, how his teammates and people in the community reacted and the people he touched in his 2 year cancer battle.   The picture album in the middle of the book is especially poignant.

This story puts a very human face on cancer.  It's honestly and powerfully written and the author never lets his words steal the emphasis from John and his family's story.  None of us know how long we have or what's going to happen. The only thing we have control over is how we interact with our situation and the people around us.  Even though he died at 18, John had dignity and humor and grace which belied his age.

John Challis was very real to me.  I could feel his personality and sadness and compassion and humor and anger.  It's an emotional and raw book, especially for me personally because I grew up in the area and know so many of the places written about in the book.

The author, Howard Shapiro, worked closely with John's family and friends to research and write this book.  It's a book that will stay with me for a very long time.

“If I’m mad at anything in this, it’s that I’m not going to be able to have a son, I’m not going to be able to get married and have my own house. Those are the things I’m mad about. But not dying.”
—John Challis

Five stars, so gracefully written.

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

Seeds of Revenge

This is the third book in the Greenhouse Mystery series by Wendy Tyson. I was unfamiliar with the series before reading the third book (I know, I know), but it worked fine as a standalone.  All the necessary background info is included in the narrative and I didn't feel lost or annoyed keeping track of the characters.

This is a holiday themed cozy, so the murders are convoluted and ridiculous and the law enforcement is predictably inept (but friendly).  The denouement is satisfying and the elderly sidekick is fun. The love interest is Scottish and manly (and bonus points for being smart and loyal and romantic).  All in all, a fun undemanding read. 

I also enjoyed it that the protagonist, Megan Sawyer is intelligent and mature. She's an ex-lawyer, a widow, and organic farmer/local agriculture proponent. She has a complicated past which is covered at least partly in the earlier books in the series and alluded to in this third installment.

I also like the quaint, nostalgia themed 'seed packet' cover art (which is, sadly, uncredited in the galley proof I received for purposes of review). 

Title: Seeds of Revenge (book #3 in the Greenhouse Mysteries)
Author: Wendy Tyson
Pub: Henery Press
Published 14 Nov, 2017, Ebook, hardcover, paperback and audible versions
288 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1635112757

Three and a half stars

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

Monet: Itinerant of Light

Monet: Itinerant of Light is a graphic novel biography of the great painter and visionary Claude Monet. He had such a difficult and often painful life and seen backward through our lens from the future, it's amazing that he managed as much productivity as he did.  The book was written by artist/historian Salva Rubio and was released 1 Nov, 2017 from Papercutz.

There's a lot of straight historical fact in this biography of course, but it's the non-judgemental sensitively handled human aspects of a complex man and the people in his orbit which lifts this book from a straight biography to an illuminating glimpse into the past culture and society in which he lived and worked.  I think for most of us who are not completely obsessed by something, it's difficult to understand even to a small degree the mindset of someone who is.  One of the quotes, directly from Monet himself, referring to painting the deathbed scene of his beloved wife, Camille Doncieux struck me deeply.
“ You can’t imagine,” Monet replied to me, “how true everything you just said really is. It’s what obsesses me, torments me, and fills my days with joy. To such an extent that one day, having found myself at the bedside of a dead woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself, as I stared down at her tragic face, casually wondering about the pattern, about the gradual loss of color that death had brought to her lifeless features. Hues of blue, yellow, grey? That’s how low I had stooped. It’s a natural reflex to want to reproduce the last image of the one who has just left us forever. But before the idea came to paint the features I was so deeply attached to, my natural instinct was to react to color first, and my reflexes were leading me, in spite of myself, to subconscious rote behavior that swallows up my day-to-day life. Like a beast grinding at the mill. Feel sorry for me, my friend.” (Clemenceau, G. (2010) : Claude Monet “ intime ”, Parkstone Press International, New York, p. 24).

It is always fraught to use a visual medium to explain visual art.  The illustrations in this biography are beautifully rendered by EFA and pay homage to (and mirror in many clever ways) the original subjects they depict.  Many of the page setups are explained in the afterword: Monet’s Mirror:
Behind the Canvas
.  These pages (about 15% of the total content) give the background and supporting information for the graphic novel and also include pictures and biographical info about the artists and models whose lives Monet touched in his long and productive life.

This is a beautifully written and illustrated and (so far as I am able to ascertain) unvarnished and accurate biography of Monet.  112 pages, hardcover and Kindle/comiXology versions.

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

PVC + Pipe Engineer

PVC + Pipe Engineer, due out

Nicely designed, stable, well made projects with well photographed and illustrated tutorials.  
144 pages, softbound, due out 1 Dec, 2017.  

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

Peanut Butter and Jelly

Narwhal Peanut Butter and Jelly by Ben Clanton from Penguin Random House Canada, is book 3 in this cute graphic series which is due out 27 March, 2018.  The art is super simple and adorable.  

It's a short book, 64 pages, with 2 small stories, a mini-comic 'by Narwhal Peanut Butter and Jelly Floyd', and a 2 page spread with facts about sea creatures great and small from blue whales to sea cucumbers.  There is also a useful table of contents in the front end of the book.

I try hard to avoid comparisons with books I'm reviewing, but this series reminds me in a very good way of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants, silly and fun and with good underlying messages which aren't preachy and don't get in the way of a good story. 

The primary audience for Narwhal and Jelly is in the 6-9 year old range, but quite fun for adults as well.  It would make a good read-together, short and sweet (with lots of scope for silly dialogue and voices for the reader).   :)

Four stars, adorable!

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Project Extreme Brewing

Project Extreme Brewing, due out 21st Nov, 2017 from Quarto Publishing and the very well known artisinal brewers and beer advocates, Sam Calagione and Todd & Jason Alstrom, is a useful tome of beer advice, instruction and recipes covering 'extreme brewing', which they define as:
Extreme beers are beers made with extreme amounts of traditional ingredients or beers made extremely well with non-traditional ingredients. The people who make these kinds of beers, both professionally and at home, share a curiosity for how things work, and a passion for breaking free from the crowd (in this case boring, watery beer), a desire to put their own thumbprint on the world, and a propensity for risk. (1)
The book starts with a pretty good introduction to methods, necessary kit and sterilization.  The authors do presuppose that the reader isn't a total neophyte brewer and is more or less familiar with the basics.  There are also some interesting introductory picture and question sidebars with some neat trivia and info about the artisinal brewing culture in the USA and short history of same. The intro and tutorial parts of the book fill about 40% of the total content.

The lion's share of the content is given over to very specific recipes in both extract and all-grain formats.  These recipes are for specific beers from specific breweries including Sam Calagione's own Dogfish Head Brewery. There are a couple recipes for saison in the book which I fully intend to make this winter.  (Fruited beers and spiced meads (aka metheglin) are my faves, and I don't care who calls me a philistine!!).

The last 10% of the book has a nice Q&A and afterword, along with a handy index.

All in all, a worthwhile addition to the zymurgist's library and guaranteed to keep the keen homebrewer busy for a long long while.

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Wildcrafting Brewer

There is a bewildering array of brewing tomes out there from which to choose. It's often difficult or impossible to know which of the myriad 'best ways' of doing things is the right way or most workable way.  It's easy for brewers to be discouraged and confused. The Wildcrafting Brewer is unique in my experience because the point of the entire workbook is to experiment, find ingredients in one's local terroir and use controlled experimentation, availability, and creativity to make unique brews and sodas which are based on wildcrafted and locally sourced produce.

Due out 12th Feb, 2018 from author Pascal Baudar and Chelsea Green Publishing The Wildcrafting Brewer is both a workbook and primer along with a healthy dose of anthropology and oral history.  It's a weird and very entertaining book full of guidance and experience. 

The first chapters introduce the concept of wildcrafting in relationship to brewing along with a general introduction to beers, meads, sodas, wines, and hybrid concoctions which defy categorization.  The author spends a great deal of time explaining safe gathering and brewing methods as well as preparing the gathered materials for use in brewing.

About 15% of the content is spent defining the history and methodology of brewing covering equipment and supplies as well as different types of sugars (gotta feed those yeasts and turn the sugars into alcohol).

Next he delves into a study of finding and sourcing yeasts and what the different sorts of yeasts and starters can add to homebrews.  All yeasts are not created equal and the author provides a guide for tweaking and adjusting the sugar content to best suit the type of yeast which is being used.  As an example, wild yeasts from homemade starter are generally less resistant to alcohol, so they die off at a lower alcohol percentage.  If you use a recipe tweaked for a champagne yeast, which is hardy to up to 15% alcohol by volume, the wild yeast will die off long before all the sugars are converted in the wort, leaving an overly sweet resultant brew. 

The yeast chapter is especially interesting and thorough, and encourages reflection and experimentation.  The entire book has an encouraging DIY feel, but I especially appreciated the interesting aspects of sourcing and finding wild yeasts and making starters from wildcrafted supplies.

The book progresses through adding flavors and different methods for brewing as well as a relatively exhaustive look at sugars and sources, to finding (or making) different types of less processed and refined sugar in wildcrafted brewing.

The specific categories of brews; beers, wines and meads, ethnic drinks and medicinal brews, and sodas get their own chapters with a fairly exhaustive look at each group. 
The book closes with an resource list and recipe index.

As a homebrewer, I've never used wildcrafted ingredients in my brews, apart from honey (I'm a beekeeper) and homegrown fruit (I'm a gardener).  This book is not really for the 'blind follower' or for the brewer who's interested in cookie cutter brewing which will give identical results consistently.  It is, however, a guided look at primitive brewing with wildcrafted ingredients along with a heaping dose of historical reference to our ancient connection with brewed and fermented drinks. 

Definitely out of the ordinary, but well researched and beautifully photographed.

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Art of Brush Lettering

I love calligraphy books. There is something very relaxing and meditative about sitting quietly and finding a thoughtful zone and seeing a piece come together on the paper. Even (especially?) the practice that goes before getting comfortable with a new technique is a meditative process and valuable for the quiet time and sense of mastery it provides.

The author of The Art of Brush Lettering talks in her introduction about the mindfulness and relaxation of daily practice and the satisfaction that comes from making progress with the lettering techniques she presents in this book.  The writing style is calm and inspires confidence even with beginners.

The book starts off with an introduction of what brush lettering is, what style of lettering this particular book covers, along with photographs showing the materials and some different styles of pens and how they work and what the strengths and differences are.  How to choose and care for your tools is important and she does a decent job of explaining how to lengthen the life of your pens, what kind of paper to choose and how to make/print practice sheets for lettering.

Our bodies are our most important tools, and the author uses several pages with photographs explaining ergonomic working positions, relaxation, posture and combatting fatigue including exercises for relaxing muscles in the shoulders, neck, hands, arms and fingers.

She rounds out the introductory chapters with a discussion of papers and other supplies (rough paper vs. smooth and how it impacts the durability of the brush pens, etc).  The introductory chapters comprise roughly 20% of the total content.

The next chapters are set up in a primer format.  Pages of strokes and parts of letters/spacing/words which will make up the tools with which the artist creates.  These chapters begin simply and develop in complexity and completeness as they progress.  These chapters form roughly 30% of the total content and are thorough, but not intimidating.  They include clear, concise diagrams and practice examples.

The last half of the book is given over to elaborating on the basics. There are chapters on freeform lettering and special techniques to make dimensional, highlighted or otherwise embellish the basic letters covered in the primer.

The end includes a complete set of tracing and practice templates with examples and good photographs to help the artist along.
There are no links at the end of the book, but there is a simple index included.

Lovely and relaxing prose, beautiful clear photography and good, well explained practice sheets.  A worthwhile addition to the calligrapher's library.

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

Queen of the Flowers

It's always fun to enjoy Kerry Greenwood and Hon. Phryne do what they do so very well.  Queen of the Flowers, originally published in 2004, and now, re-released by Poisoned Pen Press in a new edition, is the 14th book in the series.

The series is wonderfully full of a sense of place and fully realized characters.  The descriptions are spot on.  It's always a joy to read a new installment of Phryne and family's adventures.  This book is perhaps slightly grittier and more realistic than previous books in the series.  The subject matter is tawdry and sad (human trafficking and abuse, among other things).  I liked very much that this book includes more back story for Phryne's daughter Ruth; I've always felt Ruth was more of a foil for Jane's more assertive/analytical personality, so it's nice to see and understand a little more of Ruth and her motivations.

Just a delightful read.  Perhaps slightly darker than the average cozy mystery, but Ms. Greenwood can certainly write masterfully and entertainingly.  Well worth a read. 

Title: Queen of the Flowers
Author: Kerry Greenwood
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
256 pages, Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback and other formats
Original pub. date: 2004, re-released in new edition Nov. 7, 2017

Five stars, I <3 Phryne

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

Chicken Fact or Chicken Poop

Andy Schneider, aka 'The Chicken Whisperer', is well known on chicken keeping and backyard poultry boards, as well as from media appearances.  He's a no-nonsense, down to earth, and very funny guy on all things poultry.

His first book, The Chicken Whisperer, was published in 2011 and has become a go-to book of up to date information on suburban chicken keeping. The book filled a void because information is scanty and difficult to find at best, and downright scary and incorrect at worst. Most poultry keepers have been forced to consult each other for information about husbandry on backyard chicken fora and newslists. A short skimming of homesteading groups will net you everything from top-notch expert advice to downright incorrect information.  Caveat emptor, indeed.

Thus Chicken Fact or Chicken Poop fills a void with careful, science based question and answers in an easily digested format written in layman language which is accessible and clear to everyone. The writing is clear and concise, though the format takes a bit of getting used to.  Each page has a 'Fact or Poop' sidebar with the question itself as a header, the expert giving the answer (and their credentials), and a concise answer to the question.  Some example questions and answers include: “ Adding red pepper flakes to your chickens’ feed will increase egg production.”, “ Chicken coops need heat.”, “Keep vitamins and electrolytes in the water at all times so your chickens will have stronger immune systems.”, and many others (note, the above quoted examples were mostly 'poop' (i.e. false).

The book is divided into three broad chapters with many subheadings.  The chapters are: 1: Home Sweet Home, 2: Safe and Sound, and 3: Illness & Ailments.  Many of the question and answer pages have sidebars with more information and specifics concerning diseases in chickens which can also affect humans, such as salmonella and coccidiosis.

It's a short book, 136 pages, peppered with full color plates including lots of pictures of beautiful chickens.  The pictures are beautiful but I couldn't find any identification of breed or type of bird.

The book ends with a useful links/resources list which, though suited to a North American audience, is useful to poultry keepers in other areas.  There is also an index after the resources section.

Final verdict, very entertaining and interesting book, well written and on-topic, and fighting the good fight against misinformation.

Four stars

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

Thursday, November 9, 2017


I remember reading the original Valdemar books in the late 1980s.  I have been a lifelong reader of speculative fiction, so it was delightful to me to read about a society where difference was often a strength rather than a reason to be judged and despised.  Mercedes Lackey occupied a space in my library with Ursula LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Sheri Tepper, Zenna Henderson, Evangeline Walton, and many others (Heinlein, Bradbury, Clarke, Atwood, Bester, Ellison, etc etc).

Throughout the years, I've always loved anthologies.  Whether or not they share a thematic cohesiveness, I like the inevitable variation of having a group of stories from which to choose, and have never yet been disappointed in finding a story to fit whatever reading mood I'm in.

Pathways, due out is a collection of  21 short works set in the Valdemar universe, including a novella by Mercedes Lackey herself.  The stories are varied, but editorially cohesive and all of them, in my opinion, are true to the spirit of the Valdemar books.  The author list is a nice blending of established writers and unfamiliar-to-me authors, which brings me to another reason I love anthologies.  I've yet to read an anthology (and I read a lot of them) that didn't increase my reading list at least a little bit and introduce me to authors with whom I was previously unacquainted.

The general quality of the stories in this anthology is high, with several standouts.  I enjoyed seeing familiar characters in new roles and totally new characters.

The cover art is by Jody Lee who will be familiar to readers from earlier volumes (and many other covers in the original novels and collections).

There is something here for Valdemar fans old and new as well as fans of fantasy.

Four stars

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

Last Stop in Brooklyn

Last Stop in Brooklyn is the third of the Mary Handley Mysteries by Lawrence Levy. Due out 9th January, 2018, this entry pits Brooklyn's first female consulting detective against anarchists, corrupt business tycoons, crooked politicians, a serial killer, and her overbearing mother.

I love period mysteries, especially with feisty female sleuths.  I'm used to allowing a fair bit of latitude for anachronism and style to make books more readable for modern audiences.

The book is thoroughly readable, but had too much superficial snark (for snark's sake) which made it seem very modern when read.  It didn't seem like a period mystery at all, except for references to famous local attractions (like the Elephantine Colossus on Coney Island).  The language was anachronistic as well.  Though the word 'f*ck' was probably in use at the end of the 19th century (1894), it wasn't all that common (according to Wikipedia) until the mid 20th century and having the female protagonist use the word several times felt somewhat jarring to me.

The dialogue and plotting were well paced with several interwoven plot-lines which resolve into a (mostly) tidy denouement. There is a problem with the serial killer plotline (why are the records sealed for those murders??).  It's certainly an entertaining ride, even though the constant (but sadly not historically inaccurate) racism and sexism in the book are wearying.  There are multiple racist and unflattering pejoratives used for black, Jewish, Irish and female persons in the book as well as a surprising (to me) amount of cursing for a period cozy mystery.  I wasn't offended (in context, obviously) but it did yank me out of the story, to some degree.

There's always some risk involved in writing narrative fiction which includes historical characters and verifiable dates and events.  I found no obvious errors with dates, but wasn't thorough in checking.  The characterizations of some of the robber barons was a little two dimensional (again, to my taste).

All in all, an entertaining and well written period cozy mystery with some caveats.  I finished it in two sittings and enjoyed reading it.

Three stars

Stats: Last Stop in Brooklyn
Author: Lawrence H. Levy
Publisher: Crown Publishing
320 pages, Kindle and Paperback formats
Anticipated release: 09 Jan, 2018

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Constable at the Dam

Constable at the Dam is the 21st entry in the Constable Nick mysteries by Nicholas Rhea.  For anyone who enjoys English country village cozy mysteries, this is another addition to what I think of as reading 'comfort food'.  The author inspired and wrote/consulted on the ITV television series Heartbeat and the books deliver more or less the same experience.  If you enjoy Heartbeat (I do), you're virtually guaranteed to love this installment of this sweetly nostalgic series. So many of the familiar characters from the ITV series make an appearance in the books, such as Alf Ventress, Sergeant Blaketon, Constable Nick, Claude Greengrass and many more.

I've heard that these descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside and village life existed only in fiction, but honestly it doesn't matter if they're idealized fiction more than straight fact.  The stories are well written and enjoyable.   There's no super dramatic tension to be found here, no murder, nothing scary or particularly scandalous, and sometimes after a long and trying day, that's exactly what's needed.

Sadly, the author passed away 21st April, 2017, so this might well be the last installment for this comforting light series.  This is a re-release in a new edition, originally published in 1997, and this edition was released 4th October, 2017.

Four stars, I enjoyed it very much.

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Cloister

A new narrative historical fiction from James Carroll and Doubleday, The Cloister uses parallel storylines from the 12th and 20th centuries to illuminate and emphasize the timelessness of faith, love, fidelity, understanding and salvation.  

I cannot emphasize enough how well written and lyrical this book is.  It's definitely one of the more masterfully written books I've read this year.  The prose is beautiful and luminous.  The author's ability to write so honestly about some of the most atrocious, brutal, and heartbreaking episodes of both the 12th and 20th centuries is breathtaking.  

I was really struck by the elevation and sanctity of these two couples (whose relation to one another form two potential halves of a whole circle) separated by almost a millennium, being shaped and molded by these watershed moments.  That there are valuable human lessons in the midst of devastation and horror throughout time and history and that it was just as true a thousand years ago as now, was very profound to me.

This is a book which is going to stick with me.  I think this is an important book, even (especially?) for people who have no active religious belief system.  The book provides such an eloquent and unassailable logical argument for compassion and self control especially with regard to external belief systems.

It's not an easy book to read.  It's emphatically not light reading.  The language is finely crafted, but it took me time to digest and understand.

Flawless and achingly beautiful.

Five stars
Anticipated publication date: 6 March, 2018
Formats: Kindle / Hardcover, 384 pages.

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Dig Two Graves

Dig Two Graves is the debut in a new series from author Keith Nixon and publisher be-ebooks. Less of a police procedural than a psychological thriller, it's nevertheless a taut, well plotted ride.  Soloman Gray is a disillusioned, depressed, alcoholic and completely dysfunctional man.  His young son went missing 10 years ago, his wife has died and his career as an inspector is hanging by a thread.

When he's called to the scene of an apparent suicide, the coincidence of the victim's age matching his missing son's leaves him even more shaken and disoriented.  Things go from bad to worse when Solomon's own contact info is found on the victim's mobile.

Every step forward shoves Sol deeper into his self destructive cycle and implicates him more closely with the ongoing investigation as the bodies pile up.

I personally found Sol's unrelenting depression and self destruction wearing.  He wasn't a particularly likable or sympathetic character. The writing and plotting were, however, masterful and I felt genuinely interested to see the characters' development.

The denouement was well done (and somewhat surprising) and sets up the next book(s) in the series.  I'll look forward to seeing how Mr. Nixon carries on, and hope the future is somewhat brighter for poor Sol.

Four stars, solid plotting, good dialogue.
Published 10th October, 2017
227 pages, Ebook and Audible formats

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

The Uncanny Express (The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters Book 2)

This is the second book for the Bland Sisters by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Jen Hill. Aimed at middle readers, this clever book is full of wordplay and puns which will also appeal to adults and would make a fine family read-together.

The writing is simple and often silly and uses the blandness of the unadventursome sisters (they love to eat cheese sandwiches on dry day old bread with flat soda whilst they darn other people's socks) to explore concepts of family, loyalty and going outside of our comfort zones.

The overarching story has Jaundice and Kale's (*snicker*) absentee parents sending them first on an adventure (The Jolly Regina - book 1 of the series) where they're captured by pirates and more, and then, just when they escape and think their world is safe for darning socks and deep cleaning the bathroom, they receive a mysterious note to go and meet their Aunt Shallot at the Dullsville train station.

I try to avoid comparing books or authors to other books (or authors) but the story itself reminds me in a lot of very good ways as a sort of Lemony Snickett and Roald Dahl mashup. There are so many fun mystery and adventure tropes that it's fun to try and identify them but that doesn't detract from the plotline or enjoyment of the mystery (on a train! with a collection of suspects!).

The art is nostalgic, rendered in pen and ink and adds a lot of depth and character to the book.  Each of the chapter headings has a little drawing and quote from whichever book the sisters are reading at the time.   The drawn panels and margin drawings comprise roughly 15-20% of the book and are all amusing and illustrate the story well.

Quite a lot of fun, with a decent amount of appeal to grown-ups as well (and the opposite of saccharine/sweet).

Four stars
Anticipated release date:

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Mr. Mergler, Beethoven, and Me

This is a beautifully illustrated and gentle story for young readers. Each of the 32 pages are rendered in pen, ink and watercolor by illustrator Mathilde Cinq-Mars.
The text is written simply and eloquently by David Gutnik. The story follows a young Chinese girl who meets Mr. Mergler with her father in the park and becomes the latest of his many piano students.  It's a poignant story and I was surprised to learn that Mr. Mergler was real, and the basic elements of the story were true.  There's an afterword with a short biography of both Mr. Mergler and Beethoven.

I loved the art and the story was honestly written.  I have experienced the joy and enrichment which comes from music myself, and Mr. Mergler seems to have been a wonderful and generous man whose lifelong dedication to teaching and inspiring hundreds of students over his lifetime is a fitting tribute.

Four stars.  

Anticipated release date: 18th April 2018 from Second Story Press

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

The Pug Who Bit Napoleon

The Pug Who Bit Napoleon is a collection of anecdotes and lore about animals and their humans in the 1700-1800's.  Many of them encountered (or occasionally bit) famous people, were immortalized by poets or artists or otherwise found their ways into the annals of history.

The book has a chapter/story format with different animals separated into different categories.  There are categories for dogs and cats of course, but also for farm animals, birds, rodents (and rabbits), reptiles and fish and a couple of stories about exotic animals (foxes) and a final weirdly endearing chapter about flea circuses of the Victorian era (odd and silly in about equal measures).

The book is lavishly illustrated with beautiful paintings and illustrations from the period.  The stories themselves are well written and (mostly) historically sound, and when there are discrepancies, they're clearly noted.  The book also includes a useful index and a sources list as well as a bibliography which provides a good resource list for further reading.

I enjoyed this book a lot and found the author's informal style both accessible and fun to read.

Stats: The Pug Who Bit Napoleon; nimal Tales of the 18th&19th Centuries
192 pages, Kindle & Paperback format,
Anticipated pub. date: 30 Nov, 2017
Publisher: Pen & Sword UK

Four stars

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