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jenn

Murder by Death

I read cozy and historical mysteries, a bit of Paranormal/UF, and to mix it up, I read science and gardening books on occasion.

Pot Luck (Elliott Lisbon, #4)

Pot Luck - Kendel Lynn

If, from a bibliophilic perspective, the unthinkable should happen, and I was only able to follow 10 cozy series, this would definitely be one of the keepers.  There's just something wonderfully competent and enjoyable about Kendel Lynn's writing; the characters she's created feel like the kind of people I grew up with and the community resembles the kind I grew up in.

 

Having said that, this one didn't work quite as well as the rest.  It was still better than your average cozy, but she didn't hit it out of the ballpark.  The plot felt scattered, but as I write this I wonder if that wasn't part of the point.  Elliott feels scattered and disconnected to her own life and job in this book, wondering what happened to her focus; the plot definitely mirrored her inner turmoil, so perhaps that was the point.  If so, I still maintain the book wasn't all it could be if I didn't feel emotionally invested enough to immediately see the connection.

 

I'm also a little bummed at the lack of romantic spark in this one.  She's got all the elements at hand, and she spent the last three books setting it up, but either she's got us in a holding pattern, or she's jumped past all the good stuff.  I hope it's the former; I'd definitely like Ransom to play a more active role next time around.

 

For all the grumbling though, I'd still recommend this series in a New York minute.  It's solidly plotted, with an intelligent female lead who is surrounded by strong intelligent women and interesting (and intelligent) men.  Very few stereotypes, no caricatures.  Moderate humor.  I'm a solid fan.



Maggie's Kitchen

Maggie's Kitchen - Caroline Beecham

I wasn't sure how to rate this one.  I bought it on a whim, thinking it would be a typical British historical/chick-lit type read; the kind I really enjoy once in awhile when I need a break from my regularly scheduled genres.

 

It's exactly what I expected, except it's written by an Aussie author.  Aussie authors and I tend to have an on-again-off-again kind of relationship and my last fling with The Dressmaker left me, frankly, bitter and jaded.  So I went into this one feeling defensive and ready for confrontation, which might have coloured my perceptions a little.

 

This is a lovely story about a woman who applies to run one of the British Restaurants, created during WWII to offer hot, nutritious, and affordable meals to Londoners struggling under food rationing.  Maggie's struggle to keep her restaurant going in spite of food shortages and diverted allotments runs parallel to her attempts to help a young boy find his father and her very slowly developing relationship with a Polish refugee.

 

The author really brought home a tiny glimpse of what life must have been like living in London during the axis air raids of WWII; she didn't shy away from scenes of Maggie and her neighbours huddled underground during a bombing; the alternate neighbourhoods that sprung up in the Underground stations, or the way homes and business disappeared overnight after a bombing raid.

 

What she didn't get quite right, I don't think, is the gap-tooth style of the narrative overall:  unknown quantities of time pass unexpectedly without acknowledgement and relatively significant events are never fleshed out.  

 

From the beginning the reader is told that one of Maggie's brothers died when they were kids.  A tragedy; hints that Maggie was involved and that her mother abandoned them in large part because of this tragedy...and then nothing.  

 

Janek belongs to some Polish resistance organisation that may or may not be spying, but has the need to hide mysterious shipments of something at Maggie's restaurant without her knowledge.  We never find out if Janek is a bad guy or a good guy, nor whether or not that shipment was ever hidden at the restaurant; the whole thing just gets dismissed near the end with a vague line or two.  As Janek is the romantic interest in the book, a reader can't really be blamed for expecting a bit more information about him and his possible shenanigans.

 

Small things too, like details about the British Restaurant scheme, are never explained.  Does Maggie own the restaurant?  Is she leasing it from the government?  We're told Maggie received grants for renovations and equipment, but then she's put on probation with the possibility of being removed and replaced... so is she an owner or an employee?  Information was spotty and vague and at least some of it was central to the plot's crisis.

 

I don't know if I'm being hypercritical or not, but I can't help but think that even though I enjoyed the story as-is - and I really did - it could have been utterly fabulous with a more insightful editor and some restructuring.  There is a lot here that could have been removed and never missed, and plenty that wasn't here, but very much missed.



Phantom Kiss (Chicagoland Vampires, #12.5)

Phantom Kiss - Chloe Neill

After realising my last read was a DNF, this is what I grabbed from my iBooks app.  I love the Chicagoland vampire series; its books are always fun and the snark factor is high.  It's my love for the characters that got this short novella the third star.  Otherwise, the editing was non-existent; at one point the MC tries to share the important (to the plot) information that their house had no ghosts, but thanks to the editor that wasn't there, actually says that they did.  There was also zero mystery about who the grave robber was; the plot was transparent from go to woe*.

 

I still enjoyed it though; again, strictly for the characters.  The book coming out in April is the last one; so I'll take all the Ethan, Merit, Catcher and Mallory I can get.  

 

(* go to woe - Aussie slang of the day, meaning 'beginning to end')



Why I Read - DNF (for now, at least)

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books - Wendy Lesser

I was off to the hair salon today and all the books I'm currently reading are bricks, so I grabbed this one off the pile to take with me.  Fortunately, I had my iPhone and some ebooks for backup, because this isn't quite the book I expected it to be.

 

Instead of an essay-type of read that, as the pull quote on the cover says is, "as if Lesser were writing to a friend about the most fabulous literary party of all time", what I got was more of an in-depth literary dissection.  A break-down of what's under the hood.

 

Discussing literature on this level is, to me, akin to revealing how magic tricks are done.  Interesting but ultimately it dulls the shine a bit.  Lesser's writing seems skilled; I only got about half-way through chapter 1 and then skimmed the first couple of pages of chapters 2 and 3 before putting it away and reaching for my iBooks app.  

 

It's not going into the big black box of disappointment yet, though.  I might come back to it at a future date, when I'm feeling more academic.



Here's to You, Rachel Robinson

Here's To You, Rachel Robinson - Judy Blume

This one comes closer than Just as Long as We're Together to the Judy Blume I remember.  

 

Rachel Robinson is the tallest girl in her class, a gifted student taking advance classes, on the debate team and an aspiring musician.  Her mom's a trial lawyer who has just been appointed a judge, and her father is a lawyer-turned-teacher.  She's the youngest of three and a very serious girl who compulsively cleans her room, her closet and her drawers when she's stressed.

 

To those around her she's extremely competent and intelligent, so naturally she's offered places in special programs: social, academic, theatrical and her friends want her to run for class president.

 

Judy Blume has perfectly captured the duck-on-the-pond teen: calm, cool and collected on the surface but underneath a boiling, churning, furious paddling to keep it all together.  Her family life is far from tranquil and the worse things get at home, the harder she tries to control her immediate surroundings.

 

If this book were written today, there'd naturally be a semi-catastrophic climax to the story; something allowing Rachel to shatter and put herself back together into a healthier, better adjusted self.  But that's not real life and Blume does real life, even if it makes for slightly less exciting reading.   There are small, pivotal moments throughout the story; tiny releases of pressure here and there, that aren't magical fixes for anything.  Rachel moves along, grows up, discovers that she continues to wake up each morning and the world continues to turn.

 

If Blume did anything for her readers it was sharing with them the knowledge that they aren't alone in their experiences, their feelings, or their angst.  She may not do riveting yarns, but she does comfort better than anyone.



February Reading

The Genius of Birds - Jennifer Ackerman The Persian Pickle Club - Sandra Dallas A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup The Big Over Easy  - Jasper Fforde The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms - Amy Stewart The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham From the Ground Up: The Story of A First Garden - Amy Stewart Wild Strawberries - Angela Thirkell Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers - Garrison Keillor, Bob Eckstein Speaking American: How Y'all, Youse , and You Guys Talk: A Visual Guide - Josh Katz

Another great month by the numbers, but in context, there were a lot of short books again this month.  I'm trying to get my TBR pile down quickly by going for the low-hanging fruit.

 

So 27 books read in February, and I've been good about updating my book editions with the correct page numbers, so I know I've read 5,024 pages this month.  Usually that's not a stat I care much about, but knowing it's accurate makes it more interesting (to me).

 

My stats are skewed this month for a variety of reasons: more 4.5 and 5 star ratings because of a few pop-up books that are sheer artistry:

Leonardo da Vinci's Remarkable Machines

Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs

Encyclopedia Prehistorica Megabeasts 

 

A gift book of quotes from a friend who personalised it with notes and cards, making it a personal treasure:

No Two Persons Ever Read the Same Book: Quotes on Books, Reading and Writing

 

And then the great reads this month from a more objective (yet still subjective) point of view:

 

Fiction:

The Persian Pickle Club

The Big Over Easy 

The White Cottage Mystery

Wild Strawberries

 

Non-Fiction: 

From the Ground Up: The Story of A First Garden

Speaking American: How Y'all, Youse , and You Guys Talk: A Visual Guide

Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms

The Genius of Birds

 

Another month heavy with non-fiction, and looking at my TBR pile(s) it's a trend that's going to continue; there's a lot more fact waiting on me than there is fiction.

 

The book I liked the least was Double Love, which sort of isn't fair: it's the poster-book for all that is silly teenage angst from a female POV.  It's a silly book, but it is written for a traditionally silly market.  And I loved it when I was a kid.

 

My least favourite this month that was written for my demographic is Better Late Than Never which is what a reader gets when good writers go bad.  At least I got my happy ending.

 

Generally a very happy reading month; hope everyone else had one too!

 



Just as Long as We're Together

Just as Long as We're Together - Judy Blume

This book and its followup, Here's To You Rachel Robinson are the only two Young Adult books by Judy Blume that I had not read as a young adult (they were published after my time).  I saw them both at a Free Little Library and thought, why not?

 

It's good, but I don't know if I'm missing something reading it for the first time as an adult; some small essence of teen that can be recalled but not brought up fresh, or if this just isn't as good as Blume's other YA books.  I enjoyed it but it failed to click with me on any deep level.  

 

The girls' friendship is flawed from the beginning; secret keeping is a big part of the plot here, but of all the secrets kept and revealed, the biggest one

that Rachel knew about Steph's parents' separation before she did

(show spoiler)

was never confronted or discussed.  How do you know something like that and not bring it up with your friend?  Keeping secrets about your own self is your prerogative, but keeping secrets that affect your bff seems inexcusable. 

 

Who knows though, I might have missed some subtle hint that Steph knew and was just not facing it.  Or maybe that just isn't a big deal to teens and I don't remember that far back as clearly as I'd like to.  Either way, it was still a good read, even if it wasn't a classic Blume.



Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries - Angela Thirkell

This was really good!  I'd read High Rising last year and enjoyed it; enough to buy the next couple of books, obviously.  But then they languished on the pile for awhile, because High Rising wasn't that good.

 

But this was great!  If you like family pandemonium (the kind where you sit back and wonder at the chaos as each member lives in their own orbit, occasionally bumping up against each other, while all somehow working as one eccentric unit), a smattering of light romance, a lot of tongue-in-cheek stereotyping and a story line that really meanders and goes nowhere in particular, this is a book worth checking out.

 

It's a historical piece, so there is at least one cringe worthy use of language, but in the context of the time it was written it, it doesn't come across as painful or nasty.

 

Mostly, it's just a wonderfully silly book.  I closed it thinking "that was fun!". 



NPR Laughter Therapy

NPR Laughter Therapy A Comedy Collection for the Chronically Serious - (U.S.) National Public Radio Inc.

A collection of NPR's funnier interviews, April Fool's day gags, news stories, etc.  Like in any collection, there were some I found funnier than others and 1 just fell sort of flat.

 

It's a short, easy listen and it was fun to hear a few voices that aren't with us any more (Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller).  I miss NPR, so seeing this in my local library was a nice boost to the spirit.  



Double Love (Sweet Valley High, #1)

Double Love - Francine Pascal

Hoo boy! did teenage me have some bad taste in books.

 

I saw this yesterday in a Free Little Library and couldn't resist finding out how it would read now.  

 

It's pretty awful; what was teenage me thinking??  The characters were so cardboard: Jessica is the vain, selfish, shallow, 'evil' twin; Elizabeth is everything good and shiny.  Jessica steals Liz's love interest and Liz is all brave and noble.  Liz's love interest is an absolute jackass of an 80's teen with a 50's mentality.  And I don't even know what the hell was supposed to be going on with their parents...

 

Dumb book.  I'd probably be less harsh with it if I didn't know there were authors out there like Blume who were doing exponentially better books for teens long before this was written, but thankfully there were, and thankfully I read them.



Cats in Books

Cats in Books: A Celebration of Cat Illustration through the Ages - Rodney Dale

Another library sale find; one I'd never seen before, but really it's a book about cats.  In books.  How bad could it possibly be?

 

It's a gem!  The only reason I didn't rate it a bit higher is because it's a rather too concise overview of cats in literary history.  It's a slim volume; easy to read in one sitting.  Rather than looking at cats as subjects in literature, it sticks to an illustrative perspective: cats in illuminated manuscripts, fables, short stories and, of course, children's literature.  It's fully illustrated itself, of course, with examples for each entry.  A nice edition from the British Library.

 

As I said, a gem of a find; one of those karmic gifts that make library sales even better. 

 

 



I Could Pee on This

I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats - Francesco Marciuliano

I've wanted to read this for a few years now and I was able to pick it up at the library sale last weekend, which is the perfect place to find such a book.

 

Middling poetry, cute cat pics (is there any other kind?).  Some of the poems were unexpectedly touching, like 'Something's Wrong' but most are just lightly amusing.  Totally fitting for a book called I could pee on this.

 

It's cute and it made me smile.  Worth every cent of the dollar I spent on it.  ;)



Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations

Atlas of Cursed Places: A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations - Olivier Le Carrer

I saw this book in the bookshop and it was the perfect storm of "buy me":  Gorgeous cover, a title with Cursed in it, and content focused on the unusual. 

 

The cover is still gorgeous.  Cursed didn't mean exactly what I thought it meant, though it was still very interesting.  I flashed on the simplest definition: a hex conjured by really pissed off people.  The author used the word in the broader context: places that seem eternally destined for strife, challenges or difficulties; an area prone to high death rates, but because of geography as opposed to the wrath of an individual or group.  Still great stuff, just not quite as edgy.

 

The writing is good, but the editing was disappointing; in a book that was obviously so carefully put together, these word-order errors were jarring.  The author, La Carrer is unapologetically sarcastic at times, and not for humorous effect; I got my edginess, but not in the way I was expecting.  There are small touches of humor here and there, and the entry for Point Cook, Australia is hilarious; he makes it sound like the mecca for animals who are only here to kill you.

 

It's a quick, easy read and I learned a lot; I didn't feel like he chose run of the mill places on the map.  Amityville and Gaza aren't going to be new to anyone but for me at least, most of these were almost or completely new.  Kibera has almost completely squashed my desire to see the Maldives, but I'm now incredibly interested in seeing the Kasanka National Park (spoiler alert: it involves bats).



If you've ever enjoyed goofy animal antics...

 

I mentioned the satin bowerbird in my last review, and I started looking for videos of their wooing dance.  I came across this BBC gem of a New Guinea cousin and it is hysterical!

 

If you want to skip straight to the goofy, go to 1:38.

 

You won't be disappointed - I promise.  :)



The Genius of Birds

The Genius of Birds - Jennifer Ackerman

It seemed natural to move from a book about earthworms to a book about birds, and while the reading demographic for this one will naturally be larger, it's still not a book that will appeal to the masses.  

 

It should though.  I'm not a dedicated birdwatcher, but I find them fascinating, endearing, entertaining and sometimes comical.  And it turns out some of them are impressively clever.  In fact, accuse me of anthropomorphism if you'd like, but I'll go so far as to say intelligent.  

 

Not all of them of course; 15 seconds with any one of my chickens would put paid to that idea.  But we all know about crows and their ability to make and use tools; they can also play the game known as Concentration - the memory game where you have to match up images.  Going one step further, the crows, when asked to match a card with another that had a corresponding theme (i.e. match a card with 2 yellow squares with a card that has 2 yellow circles), the crows could immediately do it successfully.  That's cognition. 

 

Then there's Alex, the African Grey Parrot who not only knew hundreds of vocabulary words and how to use them in correct context, but could also categorise objects correctly and when asked how many objects were in a category could correctly answer 8 out of 10 times.

 

Clark's nutcrackers and scrub jays collect food for the winter and hide it in hidden caches.  These hidden caches can number up to 5,000 different locations in a single season for nutcrackers, and for scrub jays those caches include fresh fruit, insects and other perishable items.  7 out of 10 times the nutcrackers will go directly to the precise location of their stashes - that's 3500 little caches of food, buried anywhere in an area from a dozen square miles to hundreds of square miles, that they can immediately recall to the millimetre, as necessary.  The scrub jays keep track of what is in each of their caches, which caches have perishable items that need to be eaten first, and where those caches are.

 

I'm lucky if I can keep track of my keys and phone for more than 24 hours.

 

There's so much more, but I'll stick with the highlights.  And my personal favourite (I think - it's hard to choose):  The Satin Bowerbird.  The male satin bowerbird builds bowers as a way to woo a female (or females).  These aren't nests - no mating or rearing takes place in these bowers.  Rather they are monuments to, and for, seduction; the stage and props he'll use as the backdrop for his wooing dance: 

 

picture via viralforest.com

 

If that's not fancy enough to impress, how about the efforts of the Vogelkop Gardener Bowerbird?

picture via thewildernessalternative.com / the constant gardener

 

Each species of bower building bowerbirds is partial to a specific color.  Satin bowerbirds are all about the blues; in fact when scientists placed scarlet items in their bowers, the birds immediately ran in and removed those items and made sure they could not be seen from their bower.  When they couldn't be removed, they buried them.

 

The Genius of Birds is full of information like this, written in an easy conversational style but including the science, the studies, the theories and counter-theories.  Not enough to scare off the non-science bird-lovers, but more than enough to satisfy the armchair naturalist.  What's missing is referenced in a very comprehensive notes section at the back.  There are a few references to types of studies I abhor, no matter what anyone would argue about their scientific merit, but they're passed over quickly.

 

If you're interested in a broad overview of the under appreciated gifts birds have, and their misunderstood intelligence, this is a great book.  



Famous art - the cat versions

 

The Garden at Bellevue (Edouard Manet):

 

 

The Thinker (Auguste Rodin):

 

 

 

The Night Watch (Rembrandt van Rijn):