October 31, 2016

End of October: A Dark & Stormy Day....

Welcome to my Eastern Washington, USA garden.

We live on the dry side of Washington state, but you'd never know it these past few months.
We have had a rainy, rainy fall this year--more so than most years.
There has been a break in the clouds and wet weather maybe once a week, if that.
My kids are really hoping that this means we will get big piles of snow this winter.

So, after a pouring rainstorm all night long, we woke up this morning to strong winds as well.
I ran out and snapped these pictures, shivering, and rain straight back in.
Remember how I said I am a Fair-Weather Gardener?
Yep, that still applies. Brrr.

The vegetable garden is done, although a few of the herbs are still going strong.
The green on the bottom is the oregano, and the top terrace has some thyme and rosemary, plus the bright red strawberry patch.
[I still need to bring in and dry the rosemary, which won't winter over.]
I also transplanted some irises to each far left corner.

The rest of the flowerpots need to be cleaned out and stored in the shed.

The wind really did a number on my flowering almond back here.
All those pretty yellow leaves are now a yellow carpet in the back flowerbed.

This bed is probably the most protected from wind--it looks about the same as it did last month.

This ninebark looks kind of comical, with just a few tufts of leaves left on the very ends of the branches.

My elderberry is showing some color!
I don't remember it turning orange last year.
I like it!

The snowball bush in all its fall glory--with echinacea seedheads adding a little drama behind it.

Front porch bed.

My 'William Shakespeare' English rose is still hanging on, despite all the rain.

Seasonally appropriate colors: brown peonies and black echinacea.

We had some fun carving pumpkins on Saturday.

Happy Halloween!
[Trick-or-treating tonight is going to be wet and cold. Yay. I guess.]

I am craving sunshine! If you've got some, send it my way!

To see other gardens, head over to The Patient Gardener.

October 28, 2016

Scholastic Book Fairs: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Our school just had a Scholastic Book Fair a couple of weeks ago. For anyone unfamiliar with that, Scholastic is a big publishing company that primarily works with schools. They generally offer paperback books at affordable or even cheap prices, and the books you buy as a parent build up points for their classroom teachers to purchase books as well.

So yeah. The Book Fair. There are definitely some good aspects to it. A percentage of the profits go toward the school library. Yay! Cheap books, as mentioned before. Double yay!  Lots of choices to get books into the hands of the children. Yes. All of that.

I'm about to swear off of them completely. (I'm skipping straight to the Ugly here.) It seems like every time I go into one of them I just about lose my ever-lovin' mind!

If it were all just books, my blood pressure might remain somewhat close to normal. However. Scholastic knows that kids don't care as much about cheap books as their parents. So every Book Fair includes tables full of little amazing toys--i.e., cheap junk--that are all way overpriced, and for which my children beg incessantly the minute they see them. I become a recording that says, "I'm not buying that. No way! Go put that back!...." over and over.

Then there are the gimmicky or toy-based books. I am a book snob. I can admit it!  The books that just want to sell my kid another piece of cheap junk, or subtly get them to buy a toy (or a movie) drive me crazy! There are always at least 3 large tables covered with these types of books. Of course, the books with the toys on front are always the ones my kids make a beeline for. Sigh.

So, I allow them each to choose one book. This time they all came back the first time with marginally acceptable choices. My daughter had a book way above her reading level--but it had a pen attached! My youngest son had a book of 3-D shark pictures, with cardboard 3-D glasses. My oldest son had a book about survival (compass included), a book about shark teeth with an almost-authentic-anyway-it-looks-cool shark tooth, plus a plastic "vault" that included a book on famous robberies and robbers from days gone by.

I managed to talk my daughter into a 2-book set of a series that she already likes, which also happened to include a ring. One down. My youngest wouldn't budge an inch on the shark book. I looked through it. There was a paragraph of shark facts on each page, and it was only $6.99. Sigh. Okay. I guess. (They were wearing me down, little by little!)

Now it was down to me and the oldest. I pointed out that with a 1-book limit, he had managed to choose 3--or 2 1/2, with the vault. He put back the shark tooth book, but the survival book wasn't for him! It was going to be a Christmas present for his Dad, plus he really wanted the vault. (Hoo boy. Putting back his own book--that softened me up.) Okay, fine. So now what about a book for him? But Mom, the vault has a book inside it! And he could use it in all these ways with toys he already has at home!

Guys, I totally caved and bought him the vault. It was $17(!!), and despite the fact that he is a very responsible boy, I'm not expecting it to last more than 6 months before it gets broken.  It also has the most annoying alarm known to man, which neither the "key" nor the "key card" will turn off. (The batteries have since been taken out of the alarm.) The "book" inside is more like a large pamphlet, but whatever.

My husband could not believe I paid $17 for a plastic vault. I can't either. I'm pleading temporary insanity brought on by the Scholastic Book Fair.

Hey, it wasn't a complete loss. I managed to find a Christmas book by Jan Brett that I'd never seen, for only $5.99.

What has been your experience with Scholastic Book Fairs? Any tips? :)

October 27, 2016

Mini Theme: Halloween-ish Books (Middle Grade)

I wanted to read some seasonally appropriate middle grade books, in hopes of finding some that I could share with my kids. I don't love Halloween--at all--and I never read horror on my own. I wasn't looking for truly scary books, just some with a pinch of Halloween flavor.
If that sounds like it would be right up your (somewhat deserted, not very dark)--alley here you go! Enjoy!

Bunnicula, by Deborah and James Howe

5 stars: Just reading it myself, probably a 3-4 star read, but as a read-aloud--5 stars all the way! This was such a fun book to share together!

Harold, the family dog, tells the strange story of a new pet brought home from the movie theater--a black and white baby rabbit with red eyes. The family names him Bunnicula, because they were watching Dracula when they found him all alone in a shoe box. Something is not quite right with this bunny, though.

Chester the cat is convinced that Bunnicula really is a vampire and he tries to convince Harold as well. The completely white, drained vegetables the family has been finding in the kitchen proves it! First the vegetable drawer, then the world!!

* * * * *
I was pleasantly surprised! I've known about this book for a long time, but never really taken the time to read it. It was not scary--it was funny! The interactions between Harold and Chester were the best. The vampire bunny sucking the juices out of all the vegetables was so ridiculous it was just funny, as well.

Just this week, I read it to my kids in one sitting. We were all giggling through the whole thing! In fact, I think that's the most we have ever laughed during a read-aloud! Even my 8-year-old, who was reading his own book on the other couch, kept stopping to hear the dialogue between the dog and cat and laughed right along with us. I call that a win! There's a whole series of these--I'll have to check out the next ones.

(Finished reading Oct. 18)

The Door by the Staircase, by Katherine Marsh

3 stars: Mary must make herself a home with Madame Z--and hopefully, not get eaten.

Mary Hayes, a resourceful orphan from the Buffalo Asylum for Young Ladies has come up with an escape plan. She almost makes it too, except that a very strange whirlwind bars the way, causing her to get caught. The next morning, she is resigned to a long and dreadful punishment, when Madame Z shows up and actually adopts her! Takes her away that very day. Mary can hardly believe her luck!

In fact, Madame Z takes very good care of her, feeding her lots of delicious meals and providing her with warm clothing and boots that fit. Even Yulik the cat seems to like her, which Madame Z admits is unusual. Her new home is just outside a small town known for its magic acts, and Mary soon makes a friend--a boy named Jacob. Jacob is the son of one of the magicians, and he not only has very quick hands, he can spot a fake every time.

Mary can't let herself completely settle into her new life, though. She just feels there's something a little...off about Madame Z. Hard to pinpoint. Some of it has to do with the door by the staircase. You see, when Mary stuck her finger in the lock it bit her. Also, the oven in the kitchen is very, very large. In fact, large enough to fit a whole person inside it.

As the strange and unexplainable events pile up, Mary comes to believe more and more in magic---real magic. She also realizes that her very life may be in danger, despite the kindness Madame Z has shown her so far. How will she get out of this one?

* * * * *
In this Baba Yaga tale, Mary proves herself to be every bit the heroine: smart, capable, and loyal. She handles challenges admirably, with her sidekick Jacob.

It was more suspenseful than scary. There were some tense moments, but they didn't last too long. I guess kids might get scared by the several mentions of eating children. It comes up several times; a bad habit that Madame Z has gotten into.

I would recommend this one to ages 10+, though it could go younger if your child has already been exposed to these types of fairy tales. It certainly wasn't any scarier than the first Harry Potter, for instance. I actually think my older 2 (ages 8 and 6) would be fine with it, if I read it out loud to them. They're not familiar with the Baba Yaga stories, but they've definitely heard Hansel and Gretel multiple times.

(Finished reading Oct. 19)

The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel

2 stars: To be honest, this book freaked me out!

There's something wrong with Steve's baby brother, but his parents won't tell him what it is. They're just gone to the hospital a lot, and worried when they do come home. Steven has worries of his own. There are wasps everywhere--strange large white and black ones. He has started having very real dreams about a wasp queen. She is telling him that they are going to fix his brother--and it has something to do with the large wasps' nest steadily growing bigger under the eaves of his house. Before long, Steve will have to make a choice. The consequences that follow will change his life and his family forever.

* * * * *

If you have a wasp phobia, or claustrophobia, don't read this one. I don't have either, but I was cringing by the end. It has the feel of a B-movie, where something considered harmless--or relatively so--becomes an unstoppable force, pursuing with evil intent.

I specifically told my 8-year-old NOT to read this one, as he gets stung several times per summer by wasps, usually for no good reason. I think this book could give him nightmares. I am not targeted by wasps, and I still shuddered inside when I thought of that attic.   

However, for your family, it might be just the thing to get you and your kids into a Halloween mood! Perhaps a good one to preview first, though, before handing it off. It's short, so a quick skim wouldn't take long. It's a little creepy.

For ages 10+.

(Finished reading Sept. 1)

The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver

3 stars: Big sister to the rescue! + soul-stealing spidery spindlers.

One morning Liza realizes that her younger brother Patrick is no longer himself. It's not something she can put a finger on, exactly. He's quiet instead of noisy. He gives perfect answers to her tricky questions, but there's a hardness to him--a blank space where there used to be a whole boy.

She knows just what is wrong, too. Their babysitter told them all about the spindlers, before she went off to college. They are like spiders, but they come in at night and fish your soul out of your body, then replace it with an egg sac. She has no proof, but Liza knows that Patrick's soul has been taken by the spindlers. She is determined to get it back, no matter what perils she may face in the Underworld.

* * * * *
Okay, I really don't like spiders. Maybe for someone who doesn't mind spiders, this book would not merit a place on this list at all. The adventure itself isn't overly intense. Liza meets up with a rat who has a funky fashion sense, and who becomes her guide to the Underworld. Along the way to the Big Showdown with the spindlers, there are some other interesting characters they run into and have to deal with.

There were echoes of several other books in it, including Gregor the Overlander and Alice in Wonderland. It's quirky and a bit predictable. For ages 8 and up.

(Finished reading Aug. 29)

Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson

4 stars: As good as I remembered!

Arriman the Awful was an evil wizard prodigy, but now he's growing a bit weary of all the blighting and smiting. Not that he wants to turn good, you understand, oh no. Just that it might be nice to have some time to develop some other hobbies once in awhile. He goes to a fortune-teller by the name of Esmerelda, who foretells a new evil wizard is coming, even greater than Arriman himself. This new master of darkness will take over from Arriman, leaving him to do as he pleases.

Except that as the years pass, the new Wizard doesn't come. Finally, Arriman faces up to the dreadful idea that perhaps he is meant to marry (a witch, of course) and produce an heir...who will then replace him. He decides to hold a contest for all the local witches. The winner will be his bride.

Unfortunately, the witches of Todcaster do not have much to offer these days. There's old Mother Bloodwort, who in times of distress turns herself into a coffee table; the ever fighting Shouter sisters; Mabel Wrack, daughter of a mermaid; and Ethel Feedbag, whose favorite footwear is Wellies with manure on them. Oh let's not forget Belladonna, of course, but as she is a white witch there's no possible way she could win the contest anyway.

Despite the obvious shortcomings of the contestants, the contest must go on. Arriman is not a quitter. Each witch must perform a spell for a panel of judges. The darker the better. May the best witch win!

* * * * *
This one is a sentimental favorite. I had a copy of it that I read several times growing up, though it has probably been 10 years since I've read it last. It's poking fun at the Dark Wizard trope, and the characters are so overdrawn it's just amusing.

This time around, Arriman's faithful assistants who shore him up ("No use turning back now, sir") were probably my favorite part of the whole book. Mr. Leadbetter, secretary, was an ordinary human (albeit with a small tail), and Lester was an ogre.

It was interesting reading it from the persepective of a parent, wondering if I should read it to my kiddos. Not yet. I think they would get sidetracked by the sorta creepy stuff (a ghost who murdered all 7 of his wives, the ghoul, everything about Madame Olympia,) and not see the humor in it.

Content: Covens and witches, evil spells, and some nasty characters. For ages 12+.

(Finished reading Oct. 12)

October 26, 2016

Plant File: Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea)

Okay, you had to know this was coming.
This shrub is one of my favorites!
There is something lovely to look at all 4 seasons of the year.

Scientific Name: Hydrangea quercifolia
Common Name: oakleaf hydrangea

June 29, 2016

Cold Hardiness: USDA zones 5-9
Spread: 4-6' tall and wide. Some dwarf varieties stay smaller.
Full sun to part shade.
Native to the southeastern United States.
No significant insect or disease problems.

July 28, 2016

All hydrangeas like water (hence the "hydra" part of their name), but oakleaf hydrangeas can take drier conditions than most. They do need well-draining soil, though.

The one pictured here is planted under an overhang of the house.
It doesn't get watered unless I do it, usually, and it is thriving under there! 
(In July & August, I probably watered it every week to 10 days, along with everything else out front.)

August 14, 2016

It blooms in June at my house, then the large conical blossoms stay on and turn pink as they age.
You can see the progression with these photos.
They start out creamy white, then slowly the pink blush takes over and gets darker.
Someday I want to get the cultivar 'Ruby Slippers,' which turn a deep crimson-pink.

Note: This is not the type that turns blue or pink depending on the acidity of the soil.

Then, on top of all that, it has gorgeous fall color!

October 2015

If you plant it where it can get some morning sun, the colors will be even more brilliant.
By the way, oakleaf hydrangeas can also take more sun than other hydrangeas.

I don't have any pictures of this, but established shrubs have peeling bark that adds interest even in the winter, when nothing else is going on. I'm telling you--this shrub has it going on!

They make great cut flowers, also, the large blooms adding drama to an arrangement.

If I could only add 1 shrub to my yard, this would be a serious contender.

October 25, 2016

Rook, by Sharon Cameron

If you enjoy history--particularly the French Revolution--retellings of well-known stories, or dystopian worlds, try this combination of the three!

Rook, by Sharon Cameron

5 stars: Clever and atmospheric. A worthy retelling of its predecessor.

In the Sunken City, everything old is new again. Peasants are rioting, the upper class fear for their lives, and The Razor--a guillotine in the public square--has been shaving more and more heads from bodies lately. The prisoners' only hope is that the mysterious Rook will rescue them before their number comes up. When the guards come to the cells thus emptied, all that they find are the black rook feathers, tipped in red to show whose handiwork it is.

Meanwhile, Sophia Bellamy--who lives across the sea in the Commonwealth--has a ball to prepare for. In fact, she is supposed to meet her betrothed tonight. It's an arranged marriage; an effort to save the family estate, in fact. She is not looking forward to it.

Then she meets him: Rene Hasard, vain empty-headed fop, and is even less impressed. However it's not long before she realizes that there is more to her fiancé than meets the eye. Well, good. Same goes for her, too. She must play her best game now--his cousin is LeBlanc, the man responsible for the bloodbath in the Sunken City--and she suspects Rene may be in league with the him. It really is too bad he is so darned attractive.

* * * * *
This one hit all the right buttons for me! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's set in a future world where the Ancients (that would be us) are a distant memory, though our plastics, cement, and satellites--among other things--continue to outlive us. In fact, anything plastic is a prize. Much of the knowledge and ideas of the Ancients, however, have been lost. Paris (The Sunken City, in case you missed it), and England (the Commonwealth) are still around, though with a few alterations here and there, of course.

It would have been a solid read if it was just the dystopian world, which I found entertaining in its own right. Throw in the retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the parallels to the French Revolution, and it bumped up a notch to fascinating. Strong side characters with complex motives didn't hurt a bit, then as the icing on the cake, clever Sophia and possibly even more clever Rene trying to outwit each other and not fall in love. It was just delicious!

I had one quibble, but since it involved the ending I will not discuss it here. Once you read it, let me know and I'll see if the same thing bothered you!

Plus, I have to say--whoever designed that cover deserves a bonus! It set just the right tone going in.

Content: Some passionate kissing. Also, some gruesome scenes involving LeBlanc and his victims--though most of it happened offstage and you just got the results. For ages 16+.

(Finished reading October 8.)

* * * * *

Have you read The Scarlet Pimpernel? Or seen any of the movies? The only movie version I've seen is the one with Jane Seymour in it, but I really liked it! "Sink me..."

October 24, 2016

How to Plant Irises

We finally had a break in the weather on Saturday, and I was able to get out and get some irises divided and transplanted.

If you need help dividing irises, check out this post.
Once you've got them divided out, it's time to find a new home for them!

Just when I thought I couldn't possibly fit any more irises anywhere, I had a bright idea.
What about the corners of my vegetable garden beds?
The far corners, especially, are not great for planting vegetables.

Exhibit A: Too narrow for the tiller, not enough root space for most veggies.

So, what you want to keep in mind is that irises are quite shallow-rooted, because the fleshy part has to stay above ground. That's right. You're not burying this thing!

If they've been in one place for a couple of years, their roots will go down maybe 4-6 inches, but as you're transplanting them, those roots are going to be just under the surface.

First, dig up the area you're going to plant to loosen the dirt.
Then spread it back out evenly.
Again, you're not making a hole.
In fact, it's probably better to keep the soil even with hard surface at this stage.
You'll add more dirt in a bit.

Lay your iris rhizomes onto the surface where you want to plant them.
Spread the roots out.
You can snap or cut any roots that are way too long for your space.
If the roots are growing straight down from the bottom, you may need to dig a little bit on the sides to accommodate them--just make sure your rhizome is still resting at ground level.

Once I've got them laid out, I usually grab each one and push it down into the soil with a little jiggle, just to get it set in there better.

By the way, you can put them so the leaves are going different directions.
Sometimes I make a little 3-pointed star, with the leaves around the outside.
This time though, I want them all going up the wall at the back, and not flopping onto the walkway in front as much--hence all in a line.

Notice the baby rhizome beginning to grow on the right side of this one.
It didn't have its own root system yet, so I just let it stay where it was for now.
If it had been bigger, with its own leaves and roots, I would have broken it off and planted it separately.

By the way, the leaves were all at least 3 feet long when I divided them.
I tore them off to make the irises easier to work with.

Okay, here they all are.
Once you've got them where you want them, cover up those roots!

I took soil from the garden nearby to cover them up.
Pack the dirt down firmly.
Don't forget to add extra soil behind the "head" where the leaves come from--that end is usually a little higher off the ground than the other.
Try to jiggle them again.
If they move very easily, you need to pack more dirt around them.

See how the rhizomes themselves are still above ground?
That fleshy part needs sunlight and air to keep it from rotting!

All the roots buried!
By spring, they should be firmly anchored in the dirt, with at least a few new roots growing into the new soil to hold on!

My 3 new iris patches.
Do you like how I keep adding flowers to my vegetable garden? Ha!
They look like the come out pretty far from this angle, but really they're not taking up very much space.
(That's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

October 21, 2016

Featured Author: Patrick F. McManus

I grew up with the stories of Patrick McManus. Have I ever told you I am the only girl in a family of 10 boys? Knowing that might help you understand why his book were so popular around our place. His stories of fishing, hunting, getting lost, and other outdoor hijinks--not to mention sketchy childhood inventions and his sister The Troll--have become a part of our family's shared fond memories.

We all read them. They would get passed around again and again, to the extent that certain phrases were like code words in our family vocabulary. It's one of the wonderful things that comes of sharing books with your kids--and eventually--them sharing books with each other.

My husband doesn't think they're nearly as hilarious as I do--but then again, I don't think he's ever given them a real chance. Just the other day, though, my 8-year-old started reading one. It made me so happy! The legend lives on...

So Patrick McManus was born in 1933 in Sandpoint, Idaho. His father died when he was 6 years old, and he was primarily raised by his mother, older sister, and grandmother. According to Wikipedia, he went to school at WSU, and later became an English Professor there--well, what do you know? That's very close to where I live. Man alive, I would have loved taking a class from him!

In his early writing days, he mostly wrote columns for Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, and other magazines. Most of his books are compilations of articles or essays, although I just found out that he has written a mystery series in the past 10 years. He's married and has 4 daughters.

For his books, I decided to take some of the ones that I own, and choose my favorite 3 chapters. I ended up pretty much re-reading them all! So hard to choose.

The Grasshopper Trap
 "The Skunk Ladder": It all started when he and Crazy Eddie Muldoon decided to dig a hole...
 "A Hunker is Not a Squat": To get a farmer's permission to hunt on his land, you may have to hunker with him a spell.
 "'Twas a Dark and Dreary Night": Every young outdoorsman must first conquer his fear of the dark.

Never Sniff a Gift Fish
 "Two-Man Tent Fever": If you think cabin fever is bad, just hope you never catch two-man tent fever!
  "The Christmas Hatchet": "Now don't chop anything!"
   "Edgy Rider": Every kid needs a horse...or a cow...or something...to ride.

Rubber Legs and White Tail-Hairs
**This one is probably my favorite of the books listed here.
 "Muldoon in Love": Show and Tell in the 3rd grade goes country.
 "Pigs": You just can't pass up a farm selling pigs for only $7.
 "Not Long For This Whirl": Pat and Retch drive their English teacher to see a friend, in their mountain car named for her.

They Shoot Canoes, Don't They?

 "Skunk Dog": Strange, the family dog, steps in when a skunk sets up house under the woodshed.
  "Tenner Shoes": One set of shoes to rule them all.
   "Physic Powers for Outdoorsmen": Levitation, mind-reading, you know--the basics.

I was chuckling--again!--choosing these chapters. Good old Patrick McManus--always good for a laugh. Please tell me I'm not the only who thinks these books are hilarious!

October 20, 2016

Look to the Skies

Or in other words, more clouds!

Hey, I've been saving up--but they can't wait forever!
Mostly cumulous this time around.
Those puffy white clouds get me every time.

The first picture also serves to illustrate the topography of my town.
This is not the top of my hill, but one of many in town.
Everywhere you live is on a hill, if you live here.

Nice combination of stratus and cumulous in this shot.
(Did you like how I threw in 2 cloud names there? I'm practicing...)

These next two were from our Labor Day hike.

Cloud shadows on the wheat fields.
Fall is golden around here.

And...what was making those cloud shadows.
Yes, I had my husband pull over so I could take this picture.
Yes, he was rolling his eyes.
Ha! It's all good.

There have also been some stunning sunsets in the past few months.
I only managed to snap pictures of a few of them.

We even had some gorgeous sunsets on our trip to Utah.
I only got the one picture, but almost every night there was beauty.

Sunset behind the mountains--be still my heart.
This was another side of the road shot, though it was a city road not country in this case.
I got some weird looks and honks.
Hey, you do what you have to do when there's a pretty sky out there.

Fall colors...with clouds.

My daughter took this picture.
She told me the other day that she wants to start studying clouds and rain.
YES! Bringing the next generation on board...
Really, though--how cool is this cloud for her first picture?
Somewhat tornado shaped (no, it wasn't rotating), with a horizontal rainbow right through the middle of it.
Kudos, girl!

Maybe if she starts taking some cloud pictures, we'll get something other than cumulus and sunsets around here!

October 19, 2016

2 True History Tales: Duel with the Devil and Manhunt

I've read a couple of true history books lately. I especially enjoy narrative nonfiction for learning about history. I have a great memory for the stories--not so great for dates and names. My hope is that reading a whole book about some of these events will stamp the names into my memory, once and for all!

In any case, these were both very interesting and brought historical figures to life in memorable ways.

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder Mystery
By Paul Collins

3.5 stars: Life and politics in the early 1800's, plus a murder trial.

In 1799, Manhattan was a fledgling city with all kinds of problems. One of the biggest problems was the lack of sanitation and clean water. Yellow fever ravaged the populace nearly every summer, and clean water to drink was simply not available for most people. Yet that was just the status quo back then.The city started a big project to put in pipes that would siphon water from an uncontaminated well, known simply as "Manhattan's Well."  

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, bitter political rivals, both lived in Manhattan for at least part of the year. They were both top lawyers and often faced each other from opposing sides of the bench in the courtroom. They both hoped to carry the voting in Manhattan for the upcoming presidential election. Burr was behind the clean water project, hoping it would help provide him some badly-needed revenue.

One cold winter night, Elma Sands, a Quaker woman living at her sister-in-law's boardinghouse, simply disappeared. Her body was found in the Manhattan Well several days later. It was obvious foul play had been involved. One of the other boarders was promptly accused and taken into custody--an up-and-coming young carpenter named Levi Weeks. The public outcry was swift and outraged. They wanted his blood and nothing less would do! Pamphlets proclaiming his guilt were widely distributed. His fate seemed to be sealed.

Meanwhile, Levi's older brother Ezra stepped in to help clear his name. Ezra Weeks was well-off, very well respected, and had connections with many of the leaders of the city. With his money and influence, he managed to hire both Hamilton and Burr to defend his brother.

The trial that followed had so much public interest behind it, that a complete copy of the courtroom transcript was published hours after it was over.

* * * * *

Collins really brought to life the climate and people of the times. America was still such a young country, and peaceful succession of the president was not at all a sure thing. Add to that the stressors of widespread illness and poverty, and you had disaster brewing. It's hard to believe that Burr and Hamilton agreed to be on the same side of this trial for any reason!

Content: Poor Elma's corpse was quite vividly described. For adults.

(Finished reading Sept. 29.)

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, by James L. Swanson

3 stars: I actually preferred the middle grade version: Chasing Lincoln's Killer.

The story of Lincoln's assassination, and how John Wilkes Booth and co-conspirator David Herold escaped justice for 12 days on the run.

* * * * *

I picked this one up after reading Swanson's version of the same story written for middle grade audiences, Chasing Lincoln's Killer, with my 8-year-old son. I was ready for the full story, in detail. I did get a bit more detail, but not any more substance. There were side characters and stories that his other book didn't mention, but nothing so illuminating that I just had to tell my son what he missed. A woman in the alley here, a stable owner there. The ending was more fleshed out, including Booth's final hours, and what happened to all the co-conspirators (and their remains.)

Strangely enough, I thought his depiction of the Seward assassination attempt was more gory in the younger book. Not sure why he made that choice. Even so, my vote would be for the middle grade version. It's much shorter, and what you miss is not of great consequence.

Content: The assassination scenes were quite bloody and intense, as was to be expected. For adults.

(Finished reading October 5.)

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Do you have any more true history suggestions for me? I'm ready for the next!

October 18, 2016

Series Spotlight: The Waterfire Saga, by Jennifer Donnelly

I've been holding off on this post, because I'm on a waiting list for the library to either buy or borrow #4, Sea Spell.  So far, neither has happened, and there are big projects going on at the library right now (parking lot reno followed by carpet replacement), so the upshot is--I'm giving you what I've got, and a review for #4 will have to come later. I could buy it on kindle for $9.99, but I don't want to buy just #4, plus I'm a cheapskate.

I picked up Deep Blue on a whim, when I saw it was a Young Reader's Choice Nominee for next year. It took me awhile to make the connection with the author--I didn't know Donnelly wrote mermaid books! The only other thing of hers I've read is A Northern Light, which was historical fiction. It's been so long, I'd have to re-read it before I could review it, but it won a Printz Honor Award in 2004. Anyway, I was a bit surprised, that's all.

I've read several mermaid books over the years and most were mediocre, at best, so my expectations weren't very high going in. These were a cut above the others I've read. The setting was fully realized--it was more than just "under the ocean." From all sorts of mermaid delicacies and foods mentioned (including candy,) to housing, to light sources, to slang; even clothing that seems as though it would actually work (not just seashell bras, thank you!)

That's just the beginning. There's actually history of how the Mer people came to be, political and cultural traditions, different Mer realms with their own intermingled histories, creatures both real and ghostly, and a unique magic system based on singing. You can tell Donnelly really put some time and thought into creating this world.

Granted, this is not high literature, and keep in mind that these were still written for a teen audience. Some of the dialogue made me roll my eyes a bit, and in some places it felt like Donnelly tried too hard to have a comparable teen culture under the sea. For the most part, though, I was impressed! If you like mermaid stories, or think you might like them, I would definitely give these a try.

Deep Blue (Waterfire Saga #1)

4 stars: I was impressed by the depth of world building, and kept reading for the action!

Serafina--a mermaid--is the daughter of the reigning regina of the Mer realm Miromara. She's had some very strange dreams lately. Dreams of the Iele, or river witches, and a terrible monster trying to break free from its cage. The witches were telling her that she must come to the River Olt with 5 others, to help battle the monster. The only thing is, Iele are make believe. At least, as far as Serafina knows.

Meanwhile, it's not like she has nothing else to do. As the crown passes from mother to daughter, that means she's next in line for the throne. Her Dokimi--a 2-part ceremony to determine her fitness for the throne--is coming tonight. She still has parts of the tricky songspell to practice, and her betrothed is coming for the Dokimi as well--she might get to see him. Although, from what she's heard over the past few years, she's not sure she even wants to anymore. It seems he has turned into a party boy since the last time they were together.

During the Dokimi everything goes according to plan, right up until an arrow comes out of no-where and hits her mother seated on the throne. Instantly the entire court is thrown into chaos. Before Serafina even really knows what's happening there are soldiers wearing black down every hallway, her father is killed right in front of her, and dragons begin smashing down the castle walls. She escapes from the castle with her best friend Neely. It turns out Neely has had the same terrifying dreams. After trying to go for help and getting captured, the two eventually head for the River Olt; in fact, they feel compelled to do so. What they find there will change both of their lives forever.

* * * * *
Serafina's a strong character who doesn't know her own strength yet. Perfect for a teen audience! As her whole world comes crashing down around her, she makes the best choices she can in difficult circumstances, and slowly comes to realize her potential to be a leader, like her mother was.

Content: Violence via Death Riders. Otherwise clean.

(Finished reading Aug. 31.)

Rogue Wave (Waterfire Saga #2)

3 stars: Choices, journeys, and battles--both inward and outward.

Serafina and 4 of the other 5 mermaids summoned to the River Olt are now bound by a blood oath to defeat the monster Abbadon. All 6 of them are direct descendants of the 6 powerful mages in Atlantis, who ruled the people anciently. The 6 teenage mermaids have the potential to become like their ancestors in strength and magical abilities. It's going to have to happen soon, though. Abbadon is going to break free from his cage and wreak havoc on the entire world, unless someone unlocks the gate and kills him. Or 6 someones, in this case.

In order to do so, there are 6 talismans that they must find, each a key to unlocking the prison where the monster lives. First though, they have to find out what the talismans are, where they were hidden, and then--you know--actually find them. All the oceans and waterways of the world are possible hiding places. Okay go! It pretty much feels impossible.

However, Serafina has at least a couple of starting places in mind: first, the sunken city of Atlantis itself. Perhaps there are clues amongst the ruins that will shed some light. Of course, Atlantis is now populated by cannibalistic sea creatures called Opifago. Better watch out for those. Another place to look is at home in the good old library--or Ostrokon--where there are conches filled with history. She remembers learning about her ancestor-mage, Merrow, who made a trip around the world. What if she was hiding talismans while she was at it?

They must figure this out! Everything depends on it. Meanwhile, back at home, there's a resistance movement growing called the Black Fins. Serafina really wants to stay and help fight the usurpers who have taken over her mother's throne, and protect her people--what's left of them--as well. So many choices, so little time.

* * * * * *
This time the narrative is split between Serafina's journey and Neely's. I know, my summary hardly mentioned Neely. Here you go: Neely goes home and gets locked in her room, because her parents think she is mentally unstable after hearing her story and seeing how she's changed. Finally she escapes and goes to look for her talisman. Better?

Anyway, good for a second novel. Faint praise, I realize. I think writing a second novel as strong as the first must be one of the hardest things to accomplish in fiction writing. In a fantasy world, especially, the newness of the setting has worn off by book 2, so any filler plot-wise shows up more starkly.

Thankfully, it's not all wandering and endless searching for mysterious talismans. Enough subplots continue to develop to keep the story moving forward. A few twists thrown in to keep things interesting, as well. I appreciated the way Serafina kept learning and gaining confidence her ability to make decisions and lead others, "playing the board and not just the piece," as her mother taught her.

Content: Some violence, but the romance stays sweet.

(Finished reading Sept. 5)

Dark Tide (Waterfire Saga #3)

4 stars: Building up to a big finish (I hope!)

Serafina has found her talisman (sorry if that was a spoiler), so now she's free to lead the Black Fin Resistance against those in the palace--who shall not be named for spoilerish reasons. The BFR needs gold--lots of it--in order to survive, and also to buy some allies up north and raise an army. The BFR has discovered a way into the palace treasury...if they can pull it off. Big plans.

Meanwhile, the search goes on for the other talismans. Astrid returns home to find her father on the brink of death, an arranged marriage in the works for her, and political intrigue as thick as thieves in the palace. Ling's been captured by their common enemy and is on her way to a work camp at the edge of the Great Abyss. Becca is also on the run, but manages to hook up with Astrid for a time--long enough to learn Astrid's shameful secret. Ava also heads back home, only to find an unpleasant surprise waiting for her there, as well.

* * * * *
This was a stronger addition to the series than book 2. After 2 books mostly focusing on Serafina and a little on Neely, we finally got a little more backstory on the other 4 mermaids that haven't played as big a part yet: Astrid, Becca, Ling, and Ava. We also got a closer look at the villains; their methods and motivations. Some other reviewers thought the switching POV's made it too choppy, but I liked the way it kept the plot progressing, and didn't have any trouble following.

Serafina continued to show growth as a character (also hard to sustain in a series). For the others in the bloodbind, they at least made some progress toward getting answers, whether or not they liked those answers. At the same time, a few more romantic entanglements started simmering in this one. It will be interesting to see where they all end up in the last book.

Content: Some creepy parts with a couple of the villains, again some violence, clean romance. Still teen appropriate.

(Finished reading Sept. 6)

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Once I get my hands on Sea Spell, I will let you know how it caps it all off!