March 29, 2017

5 Middle Grade Novels

With everything going on in my life right now, I've found myself reading quite a few middle grade novels. They're usually not too deep or full of angst, and are generally a nice little break--without sucking me in for an entire day. However, it's much easier to read the books than to sit down and write a review! So here's an attempt to catch up--on some of them at least!

Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

4 stars: One little girl's transformation from clingy and dependent to strong and capable.

Elizabeth Ann lives with her aunt, who has always been very protective of her young charge. In fact, after 9 years of constant hovering and smothering, Elizabeth Ann is fearful of just about everything. When her aunt must send her off to live with relatives in the country, Elizabeth is terrified. She has been told all her life about how awful this family of cousins are and now she must live with them!

Right from the beginning, the Putney's expect things of her that have never been expected of her before. Things like thinking for herself, doing chores, and solving problems. By the time her aunt comes to retrieve her at the end of a year, the now resourceful and confident Betsy can see her old life for what it was a bit more clearly, and will have a very hard choice to make.

* * * * *
Timeless! This book was published 100 years ago and it still rang true. Another that I want to read with my kids. It could be a parenting manual in some respects. I know I was nodding my head and taking mental notes at times.

More than that, though, it was a charming, wholesome story about Betsy herself and her changing perspective. It was so satisfying to see her growing and thriving, as she rose to meet the demands placed upon her. I also loved the side story about Betsy's rescue of her little friend who needed a family to take care of her, and the grownups' easy acceptance of another child in the home.

(Finished reading Feb. 18)

Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards

4 stars: A child's dream--finding a little place of their own and setting up house.

Mandy is an orphan girl who fiercely longs for a home and a family. One day she climbs over the wall of the orphanage to explore and happens upon a tiny little abandoned cottage surrounded by a sadly neglected garden. She immediately decides to fix things up and have this as her secret place--a safe haven that she can fix up just the way she want it. As she carries out her plans, she learns some important lessons about honesty and friendship. It's not until a dark and stormy night, however, that she begins the next phase of her journey to find a family to belong to forever.

* * * * *
A sweet, old-fashioned story. I need to read this with my daughter. I think she would love it! I remember playing "house" as a kid, and imagining these types of things. Well, this is the game of "house" come to life! A house just the right size for one little girl to clean and furnish and make her own--even with very limited resources. Then an ending that brings Mandy the fulfillment of hoped-for dreams.

Recommended for fans of The Secret Garden.

(Finished reading Feb. 20)

The Sixty-Eight Rooms (Sixty-Eight Rooms #1), by Marianne Malone

2 stars: Promising premise; clumsy execution

Ruthie lives in Chicago, just waiting for something interesting to happen in her life. She never suspects a 6th-grade class trip to the Chicago Art Institute will be the catalyst for that something to begin. She and her best friend Jack discover a magical key to the Thorne rooms--an exhibit of 68 different miniature rooms, each from a different time period in history.

The key actually shrinks Ruthie down to 5-inches tall--just the right height to explore the enthralling rooms. Before long, she figures out how to shrink Jack down with her, and the two of them have the adventures of a lifetime. After all, it's not just the rooms that are a bit magical--the world outside the windows of the rooms are real and alive as well!

* * * * *
I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. So many elements with great potential!  Unfortunately, it was hard to get past the writing style to enjoy the plot. Many, many, times, the author just stated how the characters were feeling or what motivated them, rather than naturally allowing the action of the story to show it. There was an attention to detail in describing the rooms that was a bit distracting at times. In addition, every potential conflict in the plot was easily resolved with a minimum of effort. Too bad--it could have been great!

(Finished reading Mar. 16)

The Girl from Felony Bay (Felony Bay Mysteries #1), by J. E. Thompson

4 stars: An action-packed mystery involving an resourceful girl with nothing to lose, some rather nasty villains, buried treasure, and an alligator named Green Alice.

Abbey Force's life turned upside down about 9 months ago, and nothing has put it right since. Her dad was accused of a terrible crime, but has been in a coma and unable to explain or defend himself ever since being found at the crime scene. As a result, the family plantation has been sold to strangers to pay off the debt, Abbey has been sent to live with her hateful Aunt and Uncle, and a cloud of shame and taunting seems to follow Abbey wherever she goes.

The thing is, she knows that her Dad would never have done what everybody says he did. She also knows he's going to wake up someday soon and put everything right. The only problem is, things have started to go more and more wrong and he still hasn't woken up yet. It looks like it's going to be up to Abbey herself to get to the bottom of what really happened 9 months ago, along with her new best friend Bee Force (no blood relation) who moved into the Plantation with her grandma.

* * * * *
Abbey was a likeable character from the beginning, when she stood up to a bully in defense of a younger, smaller boy. She was tough, smart, and mouthy. However, it was her ability to make friends and do the right thing that made the difference for her in the end.

The adults in this novel were either good or bad. The bad ones might be a bit terrifying for some sensitive or younger readers. Abbey and Bee were kidnapped and nearly killed, chased, threatened, and smacked around a bit. So keep that in mind when deciding what age to hand this one to. I would recommend it for ages 10+.

The Kindle edition of this one is only $3.99 right now!

(Finished reading Mar. 20)

Sherlock Academy (Sherlock Academy #1), by F. C. Shaw

3.5 stars: A school for budding detectives and a mystery that hits close to home.

Rollie has always been interested in solving mysteries, particularly the way his hero Sherlock Holmes did it--with logical deductive reasoning and minute attention to detail. When he receives a mysterious letter inviting him to attend the Sherlock Academy, a private school for learning to be a detective, he can hardly believe his luck! Even better is that his best friend Cecily received a letter as well. They will board at school during the week and return home on weekends.

The school is just as mysterious and intriguing as they could have hoped. What they didn't expect, though, was to be in the middle of a real mystery soon after starting there. An important object has been stolen from Rollie, and in the wrong hands it could lead to all kinds of problems. Rollie is determined to follow every lead, even if it points to a suspect he doesn't want to believe could have committed the crime. His training has begun!

* * * * *
Echoes of Harry Potter in the beginning, with the letter and Rollie's boisterous family--reminiscent of the Weasleys. Creative world building--I particularly liked the different ways each teacher at the Academy did roll call, and the Rearranging Library. The plot was a bit predictable, but an enjoyable ride nonetheless.

Kindle edition on sale for just $2.99!

(Finished reading Mar. 21)

* * * * *

What types books do you read when you need a break? Have you or your kids read any of these?

March 28, 2017

Times and Seasons

While I was right on top of things with reading goals this year, you may or may not have noticed a distinct lack of gardening goals or plans. This is unusual for me, and it's not because I have suddenly stopped caring about gardening. Ha!

No. The thing is--we're moving.

We've known about this for quite some time, but it has taken a long time to get everything finalized, so we haven't been free to talk about it--until now.

We are leaving here in early June for beautiful Heber Valley, Utah.
I am excited for this change, especially as we will be much, much closer to both sets of parents.
Right now we are a 12-hour drive from either--which sounded really close when we lived in Missouri! Now that we've been here for 7 years, though, 12 hours (each way) is a lot of driving, particularly with 3 kiddos in tow.

Not only that, we worry about our parents making the drive out to see us, too. Any way you come there are mountain passes to go through, with no cell phone reception, which tend to be quite icy and slick in the winter.
For a long time we've felt like we needed to be closer.
So we're off in a couple of months! 

However, as you might suppose, that puts a damper on any gardening plans I might make this spring.
We have been packing and getting our house ready to put on the market--here in the next week or two, we hope. Instead of figuring out varieties of vegetables I want to try, or what to plant this year, my focus has shifted to maintenance: clearing out and weeding flowerbeds, pruning, etc.
I will probably put in a small spring veggie garden, more as a selling point than anything, since we won't be around to harvest it. Then, we'll be leaving right around the time for planting summer stuff.

A few weeks after our arrival in Utah, it will be time for this baby to make an appearance.
Let's think about this:
Newborn + new house + moving boxes to unpack + midsummer = not much time for gardening this year.

Maybe we'll get lucky, and the people we buy our house from will plant a garden for us.
Or maybe I will have to make do with visits to my parents, in-laws, and siblings gardens this year.
 Either way, you know, it's going to be okay.
Everything goes through cycles in life: there is a time and a season for all things. 
I've come to terms with the fact that this summer will be a dormant cycle for me when it comes to active, hands-on gardening.

This kind of makes it sound like I'm going to be done blogging about gardening for the year, too.
Don't worry--I'm not!
After all, I've got to document my last spring in this home!
At the same time, I am excited about the prospect of a fresh start.
While it will be too late in the season to plant much, I will have plenty of time to think and plan out what I want to do with our new yard and garden areas.
Not to mention, my Dad is a gardener extraordinaire, and we will actually live close enough to go up and help with the harvesting this year! (He grew somewhere around 5,000 pounds of potatoes last year. You read that right. Fun times ahead!)

So yeah. That's what's going on in my life. :)
 Any exciting news to share with me?

March 27, 2017

Plant File: Iris Reticulata

It's time to shine a spotlight on one of my favorite early spring bulbs!
For a dash of blue and violet in the spring landscape, try planting some of these mini irises.

Scientific name: Iris reticulata
Common Names: Reticulated iris, Dwarf Dutch iris
Cold Hardiness: USDA zones 5-9

Size will partially depend on how far south you are in its range, and also your soil type.
Here in Eastern Washington state, in clay soil, mine stay very small--growing just 3-4 inches tall.
In warmer climates, apparently they can get to be double that: 6-8" tall.
Also, in warmer climates, you may have to treat it more like an annual and replant every year.
I guess there are some advantages to cold winters!

Full sun to partial shade.

Blooms in late winter/early spring, so mid-March around here.
These pictures are all from my front flowerbeds right now!

These little beauties are of the "plant it and forget about it" type.
You plant the bulbs in the fall--just a few inches down, as they are quite small--and then sit back and wait for the spring show.

Several sites mention that they are "deer resistant."
Also, one said that they tolerate black walnut proximity.
Good to know.

As time goes on, they will form thick clumps and keep spreading. 
Like other bulbs, they can be divided late summer or early autumn, after the foliage has all died back.

What would I do without spring bulbs? :)

March 24, 2017

Mini Theme: Wildlife Smugglers

What makes stories of true crime so fascinating?
I suppose for me it's a glimpse into a world that I had no idea existed, in my sheltered life growing up. Even as an adult, I prefer to look at the happier side of life, and believe that the world is full of good things happening, even if the news is irrevocably skewed toward reporting the bad stuff. (Sometimes I have to take a break from reading the news for my own sanity.)

I think part of the fascination for me is also just trying to figure out what makes these people tick. Why are they spending so much time and effort to do something illegal and damaging to others? Also, I like to find out if they've been caught. (Just a sidenote: I can not and will not read true crime related to serial killers or the like. I already know they would freak me out. I need to be able to sleep at night.)

Anyway, one niche of true crime that I keep coming back to is stories of wildlife smugglers. Did you know that millions of dollars worth of plants and animals are illegally smuggled into our country every year? It's hard for me to fathom. Truly. It's hard to stop, too--when murders and drug dealers are walking the street, it's hard to even get a sentence passed down for a suitcase full of baby turtles--but there are some good people out there working tirelessly to shut it down.

So, if you want to learn more, here are a few that I've read to get you started:

The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers, by Bryan Christy 

4 stars: Well-written, with many different aspects woven in to create a fascinating true story.

Christy investigates the multi-billion dollar industry of selling reptiles in the United States. In particular, the dealings of Michael van Nostrand and his company Strictly Reptiles, which supplies most of America's pet shops and dealers. It's a company that does a lot of legitimate business, but it is also up to its neck in the illegal wildlife trade and black market.

It's not just the story of an industry. It's also the story of Chip Bepler, the FBI agent determined to shut down the constant flow of smuggled animals, and van Nostrand himself, who rather reluctantly (at first) joined the family business, only to take it to new depths.

* * * * *
As with other books in this genre, I was angered and saddened by the way greed has powered the destruction of animal species and habitats around the world. Christy talks about reptile people almost as if they were a different sort than the normal human race. The way he describes it:
"Reptile people are on a trajectory from the time they are children: bigger, meaner, rarer, hot. . . Most reptile enthusiasts give up their hobby long before the hot phase, and some never feel it at all. Still, few who get into the reptile world as children do not long, at some point, for something exotic, something imported." (p. 6)

He explains that "hot" is slang for "venomous" but also can mean illegal. Perhaps that attitude lends itself to the high rate of crossover Christy describes between smuggling poisonous snakes to dealing in other illegal substances--like drugs. Apparently, of all the wildlife smugglers, pretty much everyone agrees the reptile guys are the worst. Most, if not all, are also involved in drugs to some extent, and have other connections to the underworld.

This makes me never want to buy a reptile for my child as a pet! Not that I had a strong desire to do so before reading this book.

Content: Some language--mostly from interviews.

(Finished reading March 17.)

Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy, by Eric Hansen

5 stars

Hansen delves into the world of orchids and those who love them, and finds it to be a rabbit hole of some depth, where things just keep getting curiouser and curiouser. He hears stories that seem unbelievable: armed men with dogs raiding an orchid nursery; orchid ice cream that you eat with a fork and can use as a jump rope; and sets out to get to the bottom of it all. He finds out all sorts of things, but the Truth, in most cases, remains a bit slippery.

* * * * *
I have one orchid on my windowsill, that continues to live and bloom despite lack of any special care whatsoever. After reading this book, that's probably where I'll stay in relation to orchids. A healthy distance seems wise.

Content: There's a chapter or so that compares orchid flowers to sexual organs and talks about the "lust" side of things. Um...just skip it--you won't miss much.

(Originally reviewed March 2013.)

Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery, by Jennie Erin Smith

3 stars

Delves into the history of the reptile trade and those who have made and lost fortunes importing wild animals from other countries; particularly snakes, but also all kinds of others. Primarily follows the rise and fall of two main smugglers/importers: Henry Molt and Tom Crutchfield.

* * * * *
I find it fascinating and a bit mind-boggling that the American appetite for reptiles supports this type of subterfuge.

(Originally reviewed March 2014.)

3 stars

A new FBI agent takes on the kingpin of butterfly smuggling. Takes a disturbing turn towards the end when Kojima (smuggler) takes a sexual interest in Newcomer (agent) and becomes super needy/borderline stalker. Yikes.

I was a bit disappointed--though not too surprised--with the outcome.

(Originally reviewed July 2013.)

* * * * *

Are you a fan of true crime? Any recommendations for me?

March 22, 2017

Spring Cleanup + A New Giveaway Winner

Happy 3rd day of spring!

We have actually gotten some whole hours here and there of sunshine, amidst all the rain, and since my last post the snow has not returned.

One of the most satisfying garden chores is spring cleanup.
This is where you cut back or pull out all of last year's dead flowers to make room for this year's.
For one thing, you get to be out in the [finally!] warmer weather.
Spring sunshine can cure all sorts of what ails you.

Aside from that lovely bonus though, cleaning out the flowerbeds for spring is one of those chores that lends itself to dramatic--nearly immediate--results.

Case in point: my front flowerbeds.

Here's what they looked like a couple of weeks ago:


It's a wasteland of dead, rotting stems, with little bits of green peeking through.


The tulips have grown at least 3 inches since all that dead stuff was cleared from the top of them.
Look! You can see new shoots coming up from the daylilies, coneflowers, and mums, too!

The red in the middle there are peony buds just coming up.
Plus, more tulips!

I've had to do a section at a time between rain showers (persistence!), but I'm almost all the way down around the corner now. Pretty soon I'll be to the lilac and daisy corridor on the east-side terrace.
My oldest son came out and helped for his daily chore the other day, which was a great boost.

In other news, I had to make a trip to the thrift store and get a couple of sweatshirts that would actually zip up over my big belly (25 weeks and counting!)
I found some for cheap, so it's all good!

It is so fun to see the plants all waking up again.
The other day my husband said to me (while looking rather doubtfully at the pre-cleanup terraces):
"How much of this stuff is going to come back?"
I couldn't help the big grin on my face when I said, "Well, all of it!"
That's the beauty of it, isn't it?
Literally. :)

A few more things I was excited to see:

That, my friends, is bleeding heart foliage.
It's coming!

In the back flowerbed, I'm going to have daffodils soon!!

Obviously, my cleanup efforts have not made it around to this flowerbed yet!
Our lawn is still so wet that we haven't been walking on it yet...and I would have to walk and kneel on it to get to those dead stems.

The sedums are definitely ready to shed last year's stems.
Maybe this week it will dry out some more and I'll be able to get back there!

* * * * *

As I haven't heard anything from Stampin' Sheri, I went ahead and drew another giveaway winner.

Suzanne, this book is for you!
I'll email you today for an address to send it to.

March 20, 2017

Catch and Release

The library book shelf (on top there.)
All of these books went back this week, including a few unread.

It seems like I often overestimate either my desire to read certain things or my time to do so. So I go to the library with my list, I find the books, I bring them home, and they sit. Nine weeks later, I'm out of renewals and there are still at least a couple that I haven't read yet.

I have always felt vaguely guilty about it, as though now that I've made the commitment (and kept them off the shelves for a couple of months,) the least I can do is actually read them. Lately, though, I'm just letting them go--along with expectations of myself to read them anytime soon. I may get to them again--I may not. 

Hey, at least I know that the library has them, right? If I do want to pick them back up, I know where to find them. In the meantime, I still have plenty of books on my own shelves that I haven't read yet. In some ways, it's a relief to send them back, to be honest. By the end of the nine weeks, they seem almost reproachful there on the shelf.

Do you play catch and release with books? Do you have a limit of how many times you check it out or renew it before just sending it along downstream?  

March 17, 2017

And the Winner Is...

Stampin' Sheri, you are the winner of my giveaway!
Unfortunately, I was not able to access your Blogger profile for your email address, so I don't have a way to get the book to you.  Let me know soon if you see this! If I don't hear from you I will draw another winner on Wednesday, March 22.

Our new winner is Suzanne!

Thanks to all of you who participated!
It was fun to talk flowers with you. :)