cricketmuse

a writer's journey as a reader

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Author Spotlight: James Herriot


Eons ago I became smitten with the James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small—both the books and BBC show.

The gentle humor, the insights into human nature, the animal stories, the quaint English countryside with all of its unique characters, the appreciation for life even in the hard circumstances of being a country became a tonic for this reader.

james herriot life work

It wasn’t until recently, while researching for a writing project, I came across James Herriot once again. This time I paid more attention to the writer. I came away more impressed than ever, and developed more respect for James Herriot or rather James Alfred Wight, the man behind the stories. Here are some facts I learned while reintroducing myself to his works:

  • He choose to write under the pseudonym of James Herriot due to strict veterinary association ethics of not writing under one’s own name to avoid self-promotion. He took the name from a professional football (soccer) player who played for Wight’s favorite Sunderland team.
  • Born in England, his family moved to Glasgow, Scotland when he was a baby. He spent 23 years in Glasgow and naturally developed an accent causing people to think he was Scottish.
  • He decided to become a vet due to the combination of loving animals, reading an article about choosing a vocation, and listening to a guest lecturer from the Glasgow Veterinary School.
  • Wight was an avid reader, one dedicated to classics and authors such as Sir Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells, H. Rider Haggard, O’Henry, P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare. These literary influences are evident in Wight’s writing with his ability to inject humor in unexpected moments with irony, imagery, and a turn of a phrase. His ear for natural dialogue added greatly to the rhythm of the story.
  • Being born in 1916 put Wight at a disadvantage since it placed him in the middle of an economic depression by the time he graduated from vet school, making it difficult to find a position.
  • He first worked with a veterinarian in Sunderland (where he was born) but due to the vet’s contract with the dog racing track having ended, Wight had to find another placement. This led him to Yorkshire where he would work with Donald Sinclair (Siegfried rom the books) for nearly fifty years.
  • After being hired by Sinclair, Wight had to run the practice single-handedly because Sinclair had joined the Royal Air Force.
  • Wight had tried publishing other stories before writing his country vet tales, yet only met rejections. He didn’t begin publishing his memoirs, his life as a country vet, until he was 50 years old and continued writing through his early 70s.
  • His initial book, If Only They Could Talk, was serialized in the newspaper, and a favorable literary review launched further reader interest. Soon after, his books sold constantly and his career as a writer began and to this day people are still fans of his writing.
  • Wight claimed 90% of his stories were true, having had the need to change names and situations, yet some dissenters, particularly Graham Lord, a biographer, say it’s closer to 50%, making his memoirs more fiction than fact. However, Wight’s son, Jim, maintains in his biography of his dad that 90% true is accurate [Does it really matter? The stories are marvelous—so what if there are embellishments?]
  • Wight continued his veterinary practice even while becoming a successful author, as he truly enjoyed being a country vet.
  • His books were bestsellers, sometimes remaining on the New York Times list for over six months.
  • To this day Wight’s books have sold over 60 million copies.
  • Thousands of fans, mostly Americans, would trek to Yorkshire to meet Wight and he would personally sign books and meet with people and he took the time to answer the cascade of letters sent to him. Today there is a World of James Herriot museum located at his original practice where devotees can learn more about the author.
  • James Alfred “Alf” Wight was always surprised at his success as a writer; he remained humble and in awe of his publishing achievement throughout his life. Though he became a millionaire author, he nevertheless lived a simple life, enjoying his marriage to Joan “Helen” for over 50 years and had a loving relationship with his two children, Jim and Rosie, who both became doctors (Jim carried on in his father’s practice, and Wight talked his daughter out of becoming a vet due to the strenuous work, so she became a general practitioner).
  • He received the OBE for his contribution to veterinary science, along with many other significant awards.

His original books published in Britain had titles such as It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, The Flying Vet, and were short volumes, which were combined to create longer volumes and retitled from lines of a famous British hymn: All Creatures Great and Small. Although I have read most, if not all of Herriot’s books, including his biographies, I do have my favorites:

Picture Books

Oscar, Cat-About-Town

Moses, the Kitten

Collections

James Herriot’s Cat Stories

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The Best of James Herriot, Favorite Memories of a Country Vet

Biographies

The Real James Herriot, Memoir of My Father by James Wight

Television and Film

The entire BBC series with Robert Hardy

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The first film with Anthony Hopkins

Young James Herriot

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Reader Round Up: June


June was a strange month. At one point I found myself trying to survive 112 degree temps in Arizona. It wasn’t a planned visit. DO NOT plan a visit in Arizona in June. Or July. Or even August. Some consideration can be given to September on up to May.

Then there was a conference I had to attend barely having time to refresh my suitcase contents and reviving from heat prostration.

I will never take the greenery, nor the rain, of my region for granted–ever, ever again.

I returned from one conference long enough to appreciate my bed for a few nights, read a bit in the hammock, and repack the suitcase. Back-to-back conferences sounded like a good idea back in April when I scheduled them. You know, get business out of the way to leave the rest of summer to enjoy…

Unscheduled life events can throw neatly planned calendars right out the window.

I haven’t really started Summer Break (yes, it’s capped–because it is important) but I have snuck in a few choice books during my heat endurance trial. The site library had air conditioning. Fortunately.

Cormorant’s Isle by Allan McKinnon

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

A freebie from the library rack and I’m glad I grabbed it. Publish date is 1952 and has that old feel of a Mary Stewart mystery with a bit of Ian Fleming. I’m determined to find more of McKinnon’s books.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

The librarian within thrilled to the idea of reading about the great Los Angeles Library fire–not because I harbor pyro tendencies, because such a huge event had gone unnoticed–a library fire that consumed hundreds of thousands of books and I hadn’t heard about it?

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Victoria Jones is 18 and is graduating out of the foster care system into an independence she is not prepared to handle. Almost feral in how she survives her emancipation, Victoria nevertheless has an innate, refined talent for flowers and finds herself immersed in the world of San Francisco’s flower world.

Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Reminiscent of Twain, Culler, and even Lee in its portrayal of a family full of memorable characters, Kaye Gibbons provides a story that reads like an autobiographical tribute to matriarchal families of yesteryear.

A Stranger’s House by Brett Lott

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Having read Jewel, I was prepared for the transparent rawness of Brett Lott’s writing style, that intensity in which he peels back the veneer of coping with life and shows the hurt, anguish, and truths of what it means to live with our humanity. The story still caught me sideways in the way Lott reveals pain and sorrow.

The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

The third installment of The Tripod series provides both action and a thoughtful commentary on world peace.

The Seven-Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Is it possible to reach Sherlock saturation? Apparently not. There are many, maybe too many, adaptations, reinventions, and suppositions of Sherlock, both in print and film out and about. Some better than others. Yet, in 1974, Nicholas Meyer provided a clever pastiche called the Seven-Percent Solution and readers, even Sherlockians, can appreciate the effort.

Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Tiffany. This is the place where dreams abound in its grand showcases and is multi-story wonderment of glitter and gold. What would it be like to work there? Marjorie Hart describes her summer working at Tiffany with her best friend Marty. The two girls, fresh from Iowa, find plenty of first time adventures as they explore New York as young adults, barely out of high school.

Told in first person in a light pleasing style, Hart provides a lively memoir of her “best summer ever.”

Had the potential for a higher review rating, yet vague details and a rushed ending dampened the otherwise enjoyable recollection.

June was an odd month filled with more than a few stress-filled moments; however, books, those paged balms, helped me cope.

How was your June?

Any memorable reads to share?

Reader Round Up: May


May was a month of escapism as different stresses cropped up and reading is my escape goto having learned that finding frozen yogurt in the local groceries is frustrating and futile.

An eclectic batch indeed:

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell⭐️⭐️⭐️

Malcolm Gladwell has proven his ability to combine an intriguing premise with research data, anecdotal examples, and an engaging style of bringing it all together. This method worked well for Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers. Not so much for David and Goliath.

One problem is how the premise is not fully defined, or tends to flex and morph into something a bit different as the book progresses.

True to Form by Elizabeth Berg

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

True to Form continues the story of Katie Nash, a 13 year old girl who has both little and everything going on in her life. With only one friend and a summer filled with jobs arranged by her emotionally distant father, Katie is fairly sure her summer of 1961 is going to be dreary.

While Katie’s summer is far different than she anticipated, she discovers new friendships, experiences new opportunities, and finds out making choices can be very serious—and can drastically change a person’s life.

Engaging and charismatic, Katie’s voice borders on being a bit too precocious for a young teen girl, yet there is much truth to Katie’s observations. This can be read as a stand alone.

Whose Waves These Are by Amanda Dykes

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

A small town in Maine is the setting for a novel that interconnects various stories of coping with loss. Switching from WWII and its aftermath, to present day, the author explores how people cope with losing someone they love, exploring emotions from guilt and sorrow to regret and restored faith, Dyke weaves in humor and poignant human drama to create an engaging inspirational romance with historical insight.

Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

One aspect of rereading books from long ago is rediscovering and reconnecting with the story. I only vaguely remembered the incident of finding Jackaroo’s costume, all else was like reading a new novel.

And what a wonderful story! Adventure, Middle Ages setting with villages, earls, and plenty of Robin Hood trope. Voigt crafts her story with full characters and descriptive imagery that rounds out a story not easily put down once started.

There are enough twists in the plot to prevent the usual stale tale script from forming, and the ending is definitely satisfying.

It will be a happy mission hunting down the other books in the series.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Exupery

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

The Little Prince is of those mesmerizing books containing a deep message as it twinkles and beguiles readers with its captivating prose and quaint renderings. For children it’s the magical tale of a prince who rules a planet and journeys to other worlds. For adults it’s an allegory of despondency–how life is not always as it seems to be, for we get caught up in our world of being grown up for having peeked behind the curtain, we sadly realize the truth behind the magic.

June and summer vaycay is welcome anticipation. What titles are you looking to read? I wouldn’t mind plumping up my “want-to-read” list now that it’s under a 100.

Reader Round Up: April


I don’t know if this is embarrassing or if it is something of an accomplishment to crow about–here it is:

I have read 57 books of my 101 goal. And it’s not even halfway through the year.

What does that mean?

Have I surreptitiously slipped from bibliophile, merely a person loves books, into a bibliomaniac, being crazy about books?

‘Tis a ponderment.

If I were to submit to a consultation, as if there is real concern about reading too much, (is that even feasible?) What would be revealed about my reading habits?

Today we will look in on the eminent Reader Analyzer, known for her insightful understanding of reading habits. The following is a session excerpt with Cricket Muse, known for her monthly Reader Round Ups and efforts as a chirpy Book Booster.

RA: Cricket, I appreciate your willingness to share your views about reading.

CM: Well, isn’t this really about whether I’ve drifted from casual reading into habitual reading?

RA: No one here is judging. We are here to celebrate your accomplishments. You do like to read, don’t you? <smile>

CM: Somewhat of an understatement. You’ve read my rap sheet: three years in a row of surpassing my Goodreads goal of 101 books? Reading 57 books before May 5 hit the calendar? I read 4 books in one week! <lowers voice> Is that even normal?

RA: Normal is subjective. Some say “normal” is a setting on the dryer.

CM: It is? Mine says “dry or more dry.” What type of dryer you own? A Kenmore? I think my mother had an old dryer that had that setting.

RA: Back to books and the normal reading standard. Who is to say what the new normal is? Reading isn’t what it used to be is it?

CM: That’s true. Some of my students wouldn’t ever pick up a book if I didn’t require SSR, silent sustained reading. I don’t know many adults who are avid readers either.

RA: Not being surrounded by readers, what influences you to read?

CM: Getting right down to it, aren’t we? Well, I read because at the end of the day I suffer from screen scream. When I’m not teaching up front and personal, my time is at the computer grading and creating lesson plans. My brain is buzzy from all that screen activity. My solution is to grab a book and knock back a couple of chapters, letting my brain settle down. Holding a book in my hands, feeling that paper between my fingers, hearing that crisp swish of pages turning is very therapeutic.

RA: Not judging <smile> but you said four books in one week? Teaching must be stressful.

CM: It can be. That four book week was not a teaching week. I was in a situation that resulted in a combination of weather conditions, downtime, and the need to de-stress.

RA: Sounds like reading is your go to for relaxing. Do you read for other reasons?

CM: Of course! I read out of curiosity–what’s the big hype about The Martian, for instance (I actually liked the movie better, but reading the book helped enjoy the movie more)? I read because as a writer I need to know what is current on the market–what are others reading and what are others writing? And yeah, I read for pleasure. A cup of cocoa, my cozy chair, a crackling fire, a good book or glass of lemonade, my hammock, a soft backyard breeze, a paperback of choice–yup, these are a few of my favorite things.

RA: Enjoying a book, for whatever reason, could be addictive. Do you just read?

CM: I see what you’re doing <wink/finger point> I have a full life that includes books; it doesn’t revolve around books: teaching, working out at the gym, volunteering at the library, writing, putzing about in the yard–books are frosting, not the cake.

RA: Sounds like a good balance. I can’t resist–what good books have you read lately?

CM: Here’s a few titles from last month and a couple of recommends. So–am I crazy about books or am I crazy?

RA: Not here to judge, remember–but it is crazy wonderful how much you enjoy reading. I’d say keep on reading on. Thanks for revealing your thoughts about reading.

CM: See you around, and I hope you find a good book to read this week.

April Read Highlights:

The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ sequel to The White Mountains–classic science fiction and ignore that it’s in the juvie section because it’s a great plot and writing

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Another juvie–yet appropriate for adults, especially for Bardalators and Bardinators as it is a time transfer back to the Renaissance Globe theatre when A Midsummer Night’s Dream played. Lots of marvelous historical detail and the plot is intriguing as well.

The Martian by Andy Weir ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ finally got around to reading this and it was a bit better than okayall the science detail proved a bit daunting, but the Castaway on Mars with Mark proved a decent story.

For more reviews check out my Goodreads links on the right (on full site) or look me up on Goodreads as I have plenty to say about all those books I read.

Until the next Reader Round Up…

Shakespeare Celeb: Beyond the usual Bill of Fare


Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays can be easily found from traditional:

To interpretative:

 

There are far fewer films that delve into the life of Shakespeare himself. A couple that come to mind:

Liberties abound, although it was entertaining.

A rolicking funny version of Shakespeare’s purposed life:

And Branagh, as only he can do Shakespeare–a bit over the top, yet commendable:

Debatables: March–What’s So Funny?


Time for another round of Debatables, where Mike Allegra, my partner in literary pettifog, and I take on meritable topics such as “Who is the Most Appealing Mouse of Middle Grade Fiction” and make quite a fuss. Sometimes Mike wins, and sometimes I do. Like last month. Just saying.

This month we take on the serious topic of “The Funniest Picture Book.” Now, I could be at a disadvantage because Mike is truly a funny guy. His family stories are a hoot. I shall strive for another win. Like last month. (oh dear, I promised Mike I wouldn’t crow).

Here are the Debatables ground rules:
Each debater is allowed one brief argument (fewer than 300 words) on a previously agreed-upon topic. These brief arguments will then be followed by a briefer rebuttal (fewer than 150 words).

For my Funniest Picture Book entry I nominate:

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Yes, this book is so funny it’s been a play at the Kennedy Center, a TV special, AND a Disney movie.

 

Mike suggests:

Image result for stinky cheese man

Okay, fine–it won an award

Cricket’s Turn:
Some days just start out wrong, and keep getting worse. Having a bad day, especially from a kid’s point of view, is what Judith Viorst’s classic picture book is all about. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is just that–a really bad day in the life of six year old Alexander.

This is one of those books that is a perfect blend of text and illustrations. Viorst succinctly states with comic vaudevillian timing the woes of Alexander’s day. Ray Cruz’s illustrations deliciously capture Alexander’s expressions. Like this one:

Image result for alexander and the terrible horrible no good very bad day illustrations

Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, he trips on his skateboard, and drops his sweater in the sink. And that’s just the start of his day. He’s smushed in the car pool, his friends snub him, he leaves out 16 in counting, and there’s no dessert in his lunch. And the day just gets worse. There is also the running gag of moving to Australia.

 

Alexander’s no good day is relatable. This is a book anyone from 6 to 96 can enjoy. The story is funny. The illustrations are funny. Alexander’s bad day is a good funny, because all bad days come to an end. Viorst knows this and doesn’t sugarcoat the terrible, horrible of the Alexander’s bad day. They just happen. And when they are done we can laugh about it.This is a book that parents and children can read and laugh about together. Bad days happen. They just do. It’s cathartic to laugh about them. A book, a play, a TV special, a movie–people can’t get enough of this story.

Image result for alexander and the terrible horrible no good very bad day illustrationsMike’s choice of The Stinky Cheese Man is commendable, yet its satirical humor leans towards mean. The gentle humor of Viorst and Cruz is family friendly and it’s made for kids. TSCM? Do kids, little kids, the ones picture books are supposed to be for, really get that crazy, hyperbolic humor? Hmm, to each their own kind of funny. Alexander is cute. The cheese man is, well, stinky. What’s so funny about a stinky cheese man?

Mike’s Argument:
“Gentle humor” and “funniest” aren’t synonyms. Not even close.

Is Alexander And The Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day a good book? Yes. It is an excellent book. It may even be a better book than The Stinky Cheese Man.

But hardly anyone could say it’s funnier. And this debate is all about the funny.

AATTHNGVBD generates warm, nostalgic smiles. But Stinky Cheese gets laughs. When my son was little, I read him both Alexander and Stinky. He liked them both, but only laughed at Stinky. Heck, the book still makes him laugh. It still makes me laugh, too.

In this compendium of “fairly stupid tales,” an ugly duckling grows up to be really ugly. A “frog prince” is is fraud, one who just likes smooching (and cares little about the slime he leaves behind on princess’ lips). The titular Stinky Cheese Man, like The Gingerbread Man, runs away to avoid being eaten; but nobody is chasing Stinky Cheese because, well, he stinks something nasty.

Lane Smith’s illustrations greatly contribute to the book’s comic tone. His ugly duck, for example, is not just a dippy, drooling disaster; he is a happy, dippy drooling disaster. He’s ugly. He knows it. And he’s cool with it. What could’ve been a cruel story in the hands of a lesser illustrator, is hilarious, for Smith’s duck seems incapable of hurt feelings.

Image result for stinky cheese man ugly duckling

And let’s not forget the character that ties all these ridiculous tales together. Jack the Narrator accidentally drops the table of contents on Chicken Little’s head. He spoils the ending of “Little Red Riding Shorts.” And, in a great running gag, he tangles with a very belligerent giant.  

Nope, no “gentle humor” here. The Stinky Cheese Man is brash, wildly original, and comic gold.

Cricket’s Rebuttal:
Some people like obvious humor that’s a bit loud:

Image result for stinky cheese man cow

This cow is flabbergasted that a stinky bit of cheese is remotely funny

Others enjoy the subtle comedy of a facial expression or comment can evoke:

Image result for alexander and the terrible horrible no good very bad day illustrations dad office

It comes down to what’s funny to an individual. In a world that dwells on harsh and mean, I much prefer the gentle humor of a boy coping with a bad day where delightful illustrations accompany witty commentary. It’s relatable, enjoyable, and resonates with good vibes long after I’ve read it. I smile just thinking about Alexander. He lightens my bad days. I choose him over slimy frogs and the stink of rude, cheesy banal jokes.

Mike’s Rebuttal:
You’re right, Cricket, one’s interpretation of “funniest book” will always be subjective. But you’re not making an argument for The Funniest Book; you’re making an argument for The Most Relatable, Resonant, Warm, Fuzzy, Good Vibe-ist Book.

C’mon, you! Yes, I’m looking at you, Cricket—with your smart aleck ways, plethora of puns, and encyclopedic knowledge of weird cow jokes. Let’s get real.

You might love AATTHNGVBD—and you should love it—but you know which book generates more honest-to-goodness laughs. Stinky Cheese pulls out all the stops. One page is upside down. Another page contains a Surgeon General’s Warning. Another page is blank because the diva-ish main characters walked out of the story in a huff. Stinky Cheese is a layered, visual and verbal feast of funniness.

The book blazed a new trail in no-hugging-no-learning meta fiction. And readers laughed. So did critics. So did the Caldecot judges. So did I. And—admit it—so did you.

 

Well, there you have it. You, our most marvelous readers, now have the opportunity to add in your own commentary about which of the two books is the funniest. And while we appreciate your suggestions, we really, really want you to stick with what you see here: either Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible No Good Very Bad Day  or The Stinky Cheese Man.

Thanks for stopping in and thanks even more for your comments and votes.

Reading Round Up: February


For a short month February provided ample time to plow through a bevy of satisfying and diverse books. Two snow days from school helped in getting some serious cozy cocoa and recliner reading done. So many great titles and discoveries to share with you!

 

The Warrior Maiden by Melanie Dickerson
4 stars

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A reimagining, rather than a retelling of the Chinese folktale of Mulan, Dickerson’s version is set in 15th century Lithuania. In this version, Mulan is the illegitimate daughter of Mikolai, a warrior father who has died. Mulan serves as a warrior to save her mother from becoming homeless, and to escape from an unwelcome arranged marriage.
The first half of the plot relates Mulan’s adventures as a soldier. With realistic detail, Mulan struggles to meet the demands of fighting amongst men, while trying to hide her identity. During battle she meets and becomes friends with Wolfgang, a duke’s son. Inevitably their friendship develops into something deeper once Wolfgang discovers why he is attracted to and is protective of the young soldier known as Mikolai.
Unfortunately, the second half of the story becomes enmeshed in being more of a romance novel than the adventuresome first part. Attention to historical detail and the smooth rendering of the multiple points of view, lean this more towards a four star than a three star review.
This title refers to characters from the previous book in the Hagerheim series, yet it can be read as a standalone.

NOTE: received as review copy from the publisher in exchange for an objective review

The Long Game (The Fixer #2) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
4 stars

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Sequels are tough. For the most part The Long Game continues the energy from The Fixer, and weaves in enough referrals to keep new readers abreast of previous action. The Long Game focuses on action instead of characters and character dynamics is what made The Fixer such a riveting story. There is not a mention of Gramps in The Long Game and considering how important he is to Tess and Ivy, it seems an injustice to drop him from the plot. Tess is one amazing young woman, yet she is a high school teen not Jason Bourne. Still, the writing is superb, the plot twists darn right surprising. Just wee bit too intense with a few plot holes holding it back.

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson
4 stars

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I am not sure how this book escaped my attention as a kid. Best to make up for lost time. It is a classic and has all kinds of charm—YET—I’m not sold out on Amos. I can’t get past how only Ben could hear Amos talk, and all those other plot holes, like how does a mouse buy a hat?  The illustrations are the best part of the story, and they were actually better than the story. Just saying.

NOTE: I had to scurry and read this for our February Debatable–which was a doozy of a debate. What? You missed it? Best check it out [my choice of best mouse won with Reepicheep of Narnia series fame]

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
4 stars

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This one of those literary novels that are Joycian in how there is no plot, rather it’s one long character study with a tableau of characters. Nothing really happens, yet there is an urgency that something might. And it takes ever so long to realize it doesn’t. Brilliantly written, of course.

NOTE: since the library doesn’t own The Bookshop, which I hope to read before watching the movie, I grabbed this instead. If this were made into a movie I would envision Bette Davies as Freddie.

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe
4 stars

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Avoidance of Holocaust books is my usual modus operandi, yet a based-on-a-true story about a library in Auschwitz? I pulled it down from the shelf with anticipation.
The beginning is absolutely riveting as the young Dita attempts to hide a couple of books during a spot inspection. Will she be caught?  From that auspicious start the plot veers into a medley of different characters with historical facts woven in for good measure. The omniscient present tense creates a distance, making it difficult to fully embrace the story. Dita is amazing, but she is not truly the focus.  The atrocities began to burden the story until it began to be a reading of endurance instead of interest. Of course a book set in a concentration camp is going to have tragedy; however, I was drawn in by the title—a librarian at Auschwitz? That sounded like a story based in hope.
The research and details are well-done and this, perhaps, is what creates a barrier from establishing a solid connection with the characters—a bit of a textbook mingled with a dynamic storyline is the result. It almost works and maybe it worked better in the author’s original language. Translations sometimes do lose some of the story’s essence.

The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
5 star

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YA usually comes in the flavors of dystopian, supernatural, romance, strong female protagonist, sci fi, high school drama, adventure; however, the newest menu choice is political thriller. The Fixer is surprisingly addicting and amazing in how it takes the high school drama trope, mixes in some adventure, with a strong female protagonist, and tops it off with political intrigue. Unexpectedly refreshing.
Tess, who hails from Montana, suddenly finds herself planted in Washington DC in a life far different than her previous. Although shoveling muck out of horse stalls and brooking a strong intolerance for bullies are skills that serve her well in DC.
The writing is superb, as is the pacing, and the plot twists are to be applauded. This is a reluctant 5 star due to the difficulty of totally accepting the maturity and capabilities of this group of teens. Then again, living in DC is not for sissies.

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos
5 star

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Santos had me at Cary Grant. All the mentions of classic black and white films was a bonus to the imaginative plot, dynamic characters, and lyrical prose. To be perfectly honest though, this is more of a 4.85 rating as the ending half began to unravel a bit with tying off of loose ends. The author’s background in poetry serves her well, since the descriptive imagery practically sings, yet doesn’t overshadow the plot. A couple of unexpected plot twists, a winsome little girl, and a mystery mom, along with unconventional storytelling techniques makes this a memorable read. And it’s her first one–looking forward to more.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
5 star

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Harbor Me is in the vein of Wonder in how it brings people together with its message of acceptance. Although it is a middle read, its prose is rich and well-crafted and is, quite frankly, thoroughly amazing. A niggling concern is how in the world could a school legally get away with having an unsupervised “chat” room for students? Definite artistic license superseding legal responsibilities. Setting that aside, the conceit of ARRTful sharing works in how it opens up the world of a diverse group of children on the verge of becoming teens in a world becoming more and more complicated.

The Citadel by A.J. Cronin
5 star

634747A solid classic. Strong, memorable characters, engaging storyline, and enriching details come together to purport the tale of a young, penniless doctor who rises out of the obscurity of backwoods coal mining towns to becoming a rich, well-respected London physician. His trading out of idealism for a comfortable life comes with great costs, yet the story just falls short of moralism. Due to the style found in the time period of publication,some of the story techniques are a bit antiquated, as in the tried and true, “tell rather than show” instead of having the story evolve from the characters themselves. There is also some melodramatic moments. Nevertheless, it is still well-written and a meritable read.  It’s not surprising that the book was made into a film and a BBC series.

Don’t Close Your Eyes: A Silly Bedtime Story by Bob Hostetler illustrations by Mark Chambers
5 star

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Playfully engaging, the rhyming text teams up to the whimsical illustrations to coerce its audience to NOT fall asleep. That’s right. Instead of the usual drone of encouraging young listeners to gently enter slumber, this book keeps cheerfully reminding its readers to stay awake. The reverse psychology is fun and children will no doubt enjoy the gentle nudge to keep their eyes open wide open instead of closing them for the night.
One of those books that invite multiple reads.

NOTE: received as review copy from the publisher in exchange for an objective review

The last entry is not so much a dissapointment, but it just didn’t fulfill the hope of being better:

The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman
3 stars
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Historical novels set around WWII easily catch the interest, especially when it’s a unique view of the war effort through work done at the Springfield Armory. The jacket blurb indicates family drama: two sisters who cannot reconcile petty jealousies and misunderstandings that fill their relationship from childhood to being adults.
What could have been a deep study of family relationship interaction became a bouncing point of view telling with several women each telling their perspective. The intermittent timeline weaving and flashbacks made it difficult to truly connect with the characters. Multiple viewpoint stories run towards the problem of thinly spreading the plot too wide. Well-placed setting, though, as it is obvious the author did her research

Movie Musings: The Birder’s Guide to Everything


I learned to appreciate birds from my parents, mainly my father. I have his set of adequate binoculars, purchased from J.C. Penney, which obviously indicates their vintage status.

I learned to appreciate quirky indie films from my days of attending the University of Washington in Seattle and frequenting the variety of theaters in the fair city of the Space Needle.

As for Sir Ben Kingsley, ever since his performance of Ghandi I have been a fan.

So–an indie movie about watching birds with Ben Kingsley? That was a quick grab off the shelf for movie night.

The trailer pretty much sums up the whole movie: boy loves birds, because his mom shared her love of birds with him, mother dies, father moves on, boy is passively resentful, boy goes on a Bildungsroman road trip.

There is more than that formula plot, of course. There is the humor of watching the provided stereotypes, knowing they know they are set up as stereotypes. There is the quirky enjoyment of watching people watching birds. And there is the brief appearance of Sir Ben, adding in the perfect blend of pathos. There is also a swear word about every two minutes.

We watched most of the movie muted due owning a DVD player installed with Angel Guard, a device that catches profanity before it’s uttered and mutes it. This is a leftover from our days of raising children with a conscious effort of protecting them from harmful influences in the world. Right. Somewhere there must be a study out there correlating whether this measure of parental watchfulness truly has any significant impact on protecting children.

The children are long flown from the nest–oh, an unintended birder metaphor, but the Angel Guard lives on and the Hubs and I haven’t a clue how to reprogram it. Then again, we’re not fans of profanity and muted potty mouth works. With no subtitles, in this PG-13 film, we filled in the blanks. There were a lot of blanks. What was available, though, was a thoughtful, sensitive, often humorous coming-of-age movie of living with loss and discovering that the pain of losing someone cherished doesn’t ever truly go away, but one can learn to cope with the pain.

One of the best features of the film, beyond the commendable performance of Kodi Smit-McPhee, witty script, and Sir Ben, was the bonus feature of a Cornell bird identification insert. A winsome plug for their site: All About Birds  . 

This film helped me to better understand the culture of birdwatching, although I haven’t decided where I am in categories. I am beyond the casual bird feeder crowd, not quite the dedicated birder, and definitely not a lister, checking off spottings of avian treasures. An appreciative fan? I know just enough about birds to sound like I know something about birds.

This film falls in the category of adapted John Green novels showcasing awkward adolescence pain mixed with humor populated by quirky people and moments:

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Reading Round Up: January


January. If I could somehow whisk myself away to a warmer clime, one with no snow, and a proclivity towards blue sky. Just for January. That’s right–January is my least favorite winter month. The day job requires I stick around, so I combat my winter blues with copious book reading. January racked up 17 books. I’ll highlight the hits.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Absolutely provoking, yet falls short of being truly inspirational due to a tendency to bring in too much personal angst. While the author’s experience has meritable points, that an elite education tends to prepare graduates for being stellar at certain aspects, such as being lawyers or being English professors, it falls short at mundane abilities i.e. talking to tradesmen. But that isn’t everyone’s experience, and the point he makes unravels into an unfortunate profanity-laced rant in the last few chapters.

The first half of the book is the most effective, and by the numerous sticky notes I flagged in this section, made the most impact. An abundance of worthy passages on what a college education should be in found the first half; however, the second half of the book becomes more or less conjecture, and loses traction.

Overall, an effective thesis concerning the value of an elite education, give or take a few moments of ranting. No shame in a state university diploma after all.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Continuing right from where the first book left off, Ada relates her story of adjusting to life in Kent during WWII. Much stays the same, the hardships of war, the loss, the deprivation; however, Ada sees many changes as well: her foot surgery is successful, Susan becomes her legal guardian, they must live with Lady Thornton in one of the estate cottages, and Ruth, a German Jewish girl, comes to stay with them.

Ada still struggles with the shadows of her past life in London, but is slowly learning to open her heart to the good things that come her way.

A bit faltering in the beginning, yet once the strong characterization and plot take hold as in the first book, Bradley’s sequel is just as riveting. It’s hoped Ada’s story will continue.

The Warrior Maiden by Melanie Dickerson

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

A reimagining, rather than a retelling of the Chinese folktale of Mulan, Dickerson’s version is set in 15th century Lithuania.

In this version, Mulan is the illegitimate daughter of Mikolai, a warrior father who has died. Mulan serves as a warrior to save her mother from becoming homeless, and to escape from an unwelcome arranged marriage.

The first half of the plot relates Mulan’s adventures as a soldier. With realistic detail, Mulan struggles to meet the demands of fighting amongst men, while trying to hide her identity. During battle she meets and becomes friends with Wolfgang, a duke’s son. Inevitably their friendship develops into something deeper once Wolfgang discovers why he is attracted to and is protective of the young soldier known as Mikolai.

Unfortunately, the second half of the story becomes enmeshed in being more of a romance novel than the adventure story of the first part. Attention to historical detail and the smooth rendering of the multiple points of view, tip this more towards a four star than a three star review.

This story refers to characters from the previous book in the Hagerheim series, yet it can be read as a standalone.

The publisher provided a free copy in exchange for a review, with all opinions being mine.

Eye of the Crow by Shane Peacock

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

What of the boy Sherlock Holmes? So little is known of who or what he might have been like, that it is fair game to improvise, and maybe take liberties in creating his backstory.

This is the case in Eye Of The Crow, the first in a series about Sherlock Holmes as a boy. Shane Peacock, an obvious admirer of Doyle’s famed detective, has provided a fast-paced supposition of young Holmes.

Smartly written, and full of action, as well as memorable characters, Peacock provides a worthwhile read.

Prince Not So Charming by Roy L Hinuss

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

What happens when you cross a reluctant prince with a reluctant dragon? Answer: You get a book that fractures the fairytale motif with humor and fast action.

Mike Allegra, writing under the nom de plume of Roy L. Hignuss, presents the first book in a series highlighting Carlos, a prince of a kid who would rather grow up entertaining the court than ruling it.

Throw in some potty humor (because what kid doesn’t appreciate how “duty” sounds like, well you get the idea) and a dragon who shirks his fiery calling, along with royal parents who totally don’t get their son, and a new favorite is shelf ready.

This is a recommendation for those young readers transitioning from early readers to chapter books. A fun read with whimsical drawings.

Rewired by Ajay Seth

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Providence can be the only explanation for the series of events that starts with an infected raccoon bite and leads to an experimental procedure that changes the field of prosthetics.

Dr. Ajay Seth. a professed small town surgeon from Ohio, relates the case of Melissa Loomis through a conversational narrative which includes personal anecdotes that add a warmth to his story. What really stands out is the quiet faith that radiates through Dr. Seth’s writing, as his patient puts her trust in him, and as the doctor acknowledges how the events were beyond coincidence.

More than another medical miracle book, this is a story of exploring options and celebrating victories when defeat seems imminent.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided this book exchange for a review, with all opinions being mine.

Reader Review: Such Good Reads


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The Goodreads elves sent out their annual Year in Books report earlier than expected this year. Although I surpassed my reading goal of 101 books, I’m still reading! I hope to reach 135, and I just might.

Because I know you are interested, here are the highlights:

The Golden Mean by Nick Bantock Shortest book–46 pages/4 stars

Part of a series I discovered at the library. Very creative format.

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Longest book–655 pages/3 stars

I read most of Brian Selznick’s books, having

enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This title, although an interesting, wasn’t quite as compelling as his other stories.

The Girl on the Train by Paula HawkinsMost popular read: 1,790,319 readers can’t be wrong? Right?

I read it simply to see what the fuss was about, and why so many of my students were reading it. An idea Hitchcock, no doubt, would have explored. Or did he?

Literature Made Easy the Merchant of Venice by Ruth ColemanLeast popular read: 0
–that does not bode well for my upcoming unit…

Highest rated on Goodreads: a warm tribute from a son to his well-known, beloved father.

Through My Father's Eyes by Franklin Graham

First review of the year:

The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman A four and half star read that contained an intriguing plot twist (or two). A find at the library sale.

Last review of the year:

A fun, and surprisingly informative introduction to Shakespeare I found while shelving at the library. A solid four stars.

I will continue setting my goal at 101 for next year. We’ll see what happens. And I am open to suggestions for reads.

And if you are really interested the elves might be willing to show off their colorful Goodreads chart work by clicking here.

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