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. :)

Drip, Drop, Splish, Splash! Picture Books for a Rainy Day

I think I may have mentioned it once or twice, but this has been an extra wet and rainy late winter/early spring. (Today the sun came out, but it is COLD out there! Doesn't seem right!)

So, if you'd like to find an indoor way to enjoy the rain, check out some of these books, cuddle up with your little ones on the couch, and read away!

Blue on Blue, by Dianne White
Illustrated by Beth Krommes

It's a beautiful day along the coast, then the storm clouds build up and the rain pours down.

* * * * *
Oh, the language in this book! It's an illustrated poem, full of rich imagery and descriptive vocabulary, but with just a few short lines per page, it is accessible for even young listeners.

     Gray on gray. Dark and glooming.
     Black on black. Storm is looming.

The illustrations are done with scratchboard and watercolor. My scratchboard art never looked like this! The pictures fill up each page, and have plenty of details to notice. My son's favorite page was the pond, where you can see fish underwater if you look closely.

Bunny Loves to Read, by Peter Bently
Illustrated by Deborah Melmon

Peter Bunny's friends can't understand his love of reading, until one rainy day when they're all stuck inside. Peter has just the right suggestions for each of them. By the time the sun comes out again, they're all ready to go play games--as soon as they finish their books!

* * * * *
Okay, so this one has a rainstorm in it, but it's really more about the fun of reading. That's okay with me. I like to read when it's stormy outside, too!

** You can get this in hardcover for only $6.99 on Amazon right now!

Float, by Daniel Miyares

In this wordless picture book, a boy makes a newspaper boat and takes it out for a sail on a rainy day, but what will he do when it sails away from him?

* * * * *
Love the use of color in this one! The boy's bright yellow rain gear, plus the few squares of color on his boat, stand out in the rainy-day palette of shades of gray, leading us through the story. Then at the end, the color scheme is reversed, and it's the world that has become bright yellow and the boy in shades of gray.

I also appreciated the way this story stayed grounded in the real world, while still leaving some room for imagination.

In the Rain with Baby Duck, by Amy Hest
Illustrated by Jill Barton

Baby Duck is grumpy. It is raining and she does not like walking in the rain. Unfortunately for Baby, it is also Pancake Sunday at Grampa's house across town, and she does love pancakes--and Grampa. So off she goes with her parents, pouting all the way. Happily, Grampa knows just what to do for a Baby Duck who does not like the rain.

* * * * *
This tender story is a favorite of ours (and it's one that we own)! Baby Duck is so adorably grumpy and Grampa so wise and understanding. The illustrations add just the right amount of nuance and color to the story. One of my favorite pages is where the Ducks are eating their pancakes and Baby is lifting up the tablecloth to get a better peek at her boots. My kids' favorite page is where they're going up to the attic, because they always have to help Baby find the "tall, green bag."

Mushroom in the Rain, by Mirra Ginsburg
Illustrated by Jose Aruego & Ariane Dewey

It's raining and one little ant seeks shelter under a tiny mushroom in a meadow. As the rain keeps on, more creatures--each one a little bigger--come to the mushroom and beg shelter. Somehow they all manage to fit underneath. They even are able to hide a frightened rabbit from a hungry fox! How is this possible? Well, what happens to a mushroom in the rain?

* * * * *
A sentimental favorite from storytime days. I actually made a flannel board set to go with this story, back in the day. It's perfect for that medium, as it's a simple story and easy to remember while you put up each piece. In fact, this is one of those stories that lends itself very well to a child "reading" it right back to you--i.e., retelling it in their own words.

One Rainy Day, by M. Christina Butler
Illustrated by Tina Macnaughton

Little Hedgehog is excited to see the rain, so he can try out his new umbrella and raingear. As he stomps his way through puddles, enjoying the day, he and his umbrella come in very handy for several friends who could use a helping hand.

* * * * *
A winsome little story about enjoying the rain--and serving your friends while you're at it. Little Hedgehog's umbrella is shiny on every page, which may help keep younger listeners interested.

The Rain Came Down, by David Shannon

One Sunday morning, the rain came down, and it just set everybody off! The bad mood spreads all over town until the rain stops and the sun comes out. Everything is quickly set to rights--though perhaps not in the way it would seem obvious at first.

* * * * *
Shannon's characteristic illustrations bring a high level of movement to the story, while the problems and arguments keep building momentum up to the climax, then all melt away as quickly as a raindrop in the sun.

Rain School, by James Rumford

Thomas is excited and anxious to go to school with his big brothers and big sisters, but he is surprised that the first thing they have to do is build the school! The children learn how to make bricks, then walls and desks out of dried mud. They thatch the roof with grass and saplings. Finally their school is ready!

After 9 months of learning, the school year is over--and just in time, too. The rainy season has come, melting their school back into a big pile of mud. That's okay, though. The children have the knowledge safely stored in their heads, and they will rebuild their school next year.

* * * * *
Set in Chad, Africa, where the author and his wife taught school. I love the chance to give our kids a different perspective on school! How would it be to first have to build your school every year before you could learn, with just one pencil and one notebook per student? I also love how positive the teacher is, encouraging the students.

The illustrations are simple and colorful, keeping the focus on the story.

The Rainy Day, by Anna Milbourne
Illustrated by Sarah Gill

Three children experience a rainy day, from mist to sprinkles to pouring rain, to squishy mud afterword.

* * * * *
Vibrant illustrations match the simple text, right on level for preschoolers, telling the story of rain. Where does it come from? What do animals do when it rains? What happens after it rains? This would be a great pick for a spring preschool lesson!

Umbrella, by Taro Yashima

A little girl named Momo receives 2 special gifts on her 3rd birthday: red rubber boots and an umbrella. She is so excited to use them, but her mother keeps making her wait--one day is too windy, another too sunny. When the rain finally comes, Momo is so excited and feels so grown-up carrying her umbrella straight and tall.

* * * * *
A simple story that most children will probably relate to: having to wait and wait for something you've been promised, but then the excitement and wonder when it finally comes!

This illustration style was not my favorite. In particular, the little girl's face throughout the book was shown as dark pits for eyes and no other facial features.  Some of the pages included a Japanese character, it's name, and the English word as well.

Easy Readers

Drip, Drop, by Sarah Weeks
Pictures by Jane Manning

Pip Squeak really just wants some sleep, but leaks keep springing up! Every time he gets something to catch the water, a new drip starts dropping. What is a mouse to do?

* * * * *
Rhyming text and lively illustrations, with a funny little twist at the end.

Henry and Mudge in Puddle Trouble, by Cynthia Rylant
Illustrated by Sucie Stevenson

Henry and his big dog Mudge in some spring adventures: the first flower of spring (and what to do with it), a gigantic-sized puddle, and a box of brand-new kittens.

* * * * *
One of the earliest Henry and Mudge books--#2, in fact. The friendship between the boy and his huge slobbery dog is a winner, no matter the topic.

Detective Dinosaur Undercover, by James Skofield
Pictures by R.W. Alley

Detective Dinosaur goes "Undercover," has a scary dream about blobs "Under the Covers," and has to figure out why he's the only one getting rained on in "Under the Weather."

* * * * *
The silly scenarios will get your kids smiling. Mine especially liked "Under the Covers." The watercolor illustrations add to the humor. There are 2 others featuring this bumbling dino detective, if your kids love this one.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Rain or Shine, by Erica Silverman
Painted by Betsy Lewin

Cowgirl Kate and her faithful horse Cocoa have some farm chores to do, but there's time for a little fun too, like racing the wind, and looking for the pot of oats under the rainbow. Cocoa even learns how much he would miss out on if he got sick and the advantages of wearing a rain sheet. No matter what, these pals will have it made!

* * * * *
This horse has an attitude that cracks me up! Cowgirl Kate knows just how to handle her wily horse, though, and the two look out for each other.

* * * * *
For more picture books about weather, don't miss my other booklists:

Clouds are Amazing! Books for Kids
8 Picture Books for a WINDY Day

Hope your weather includes some sunshine today!

March 15, 2017

March Bloom Day: Crocuses!

If you're new here, welcome!
I garden in Eastern Washington state, USA, zone 5b.

After several days of snow and rain, we seem to have settled into a holding pattern of warmer weather (in the 50's F) and near-constant rain.

The lawn is a soggy, squishy mess, and all the dead foliage from last year's flowers is practically rotting where it stands. I am thankful it hasn't snowed in almost a week.
Now we just need a bit of sunshine to dry things out!

In the meantime, the warmer weather has brought up some crocuses!

Those blessed crocuses!
They aren't opening up much today, with the overcast skies, but I'll take them any way they come.

Two iris reticulate just breaking open.

One little snowdrop.

They may be small and few in number, but they make my heart happy!

Head over to Carol's blog at May Dreams Gardens to see what everyone else has blooming right now.

March 13, 2017

Series Spotlight: The Lyra Novels, by Patricia Wrede

I just finished this series of 5 books, which came all in one set for Kindle, under the title The Lyra Novels. While they are set in the same world, there aren't any overlapping characters and the books can be read in any order. Of course, certain types of people and places play central roles in some books and more peripheral roles in the others.

One recurring theme throughout the series is the idea of powerful magical objects that have fallen into the hands of somewhat ordinary people. The object must then be protected and saved from those determined to get it, who are usually much more experienced and also evil.

Shadow Magic was Wrede's first published book. As I have only read her later work up until now, it was enjoyable to see her early efforts and appreciate her growth as a writer. In fact, at the beginning of the series, she talks about the experience of re-writing Shadow Magic several years later, with examples of changes she made. It was fascinating. This was the rewritten version, by the way.

Even though I didn't find any that I loved, I'm glad I read them. They're written for adults, but teens would probably like them, too. If you just want to read one, pick up #5: The Raven Ring. My second favorite would be Shadow Magic.

Shadow Magic (Lyra #1)

3 stars: What legends are made of.

There has been some trouble lately with caravans disappearing and attacks from Lithmern increasing, and the Lord of Brenn is quite concerned. It all hits home, though, when his daughter Alethia is kidnapped. Among those who set off to find her are her brother Har and is friend Maurin. In the process, they all uncover a problem that is much deeper and more dangerous than anyone could have guessed.

The Lithmern have awakened an ancient power and plan to use it against Alkyra. If the noblemen of Alkyra can't stop squabbling long enough to even muster a defense, it will mean the complete downfall of the kingdom. Alliances must be made--quickly---amongst the non-human people of the land, as well. It will take everyone working together to defeat the darkness threatening to engulf the land, with Alethia playing a bigger role than anyone could have guessed.

* * * * *
A good mix here of politics, race relations, and magic. A light touch with the romance, which is how I like it. An enjoyable, quick read.

Content: Battle scenes with some blood and death, but nothing too graphic. Otherwise clean.

Daughter of Witches (Lyra #2)

3 stars: A glimpse into a Lyran dystopian society. This one probably had the most connections to other stories.

Rinara is an indentured servant to an abusive innkeeper. Her city, Drinn, is not a safe place for anyone to be, though. The Priests of the Temple rule the citizens with an iron hand and have eyes everywhere, it seems, particularly during the Midwinter Festival. Magic or being a witch is one of the worst offenses a person can be accused of and usually results in a fiery death for the accused. In fact, Rinara's own parents were burned for being witches, leaving her this wretched life she lives now.

When 3 guests--strangers and outsiders--book a room at the inn during the Midwinter Festival, Rinara knows there will be trouble. The city is closed to outsiders during that time, and the closure is strictly enforced. What Rinara doesn't realize is how her fate will be bound up closely with theirs, and what she will discover about herself in the process. Assuming any of them survive, of course.

* * * * *
Characters I cared about, with a side of interesting world-building. Rinara's awakening to her own abilities, and to the reality that life could be different from her narrow experience was satisfying. I had hopes that the plot would move beyond the "on the run" section, but alas, that's where it stayed for a very long time. Not my favorite, but I guess it worked for us to get know all our characters quite well. There were a few minor inconsistencies, but nothing big enough to really bother me.

Content: Some innuendo, as one of the Priests has turned his lecherous intentions toward Rinara.

The Harp of Imach Thyssel (Lyra #3)

2 stars: Fine, but not particularly memorable.

Emereck and Flindaran are off a lark together when they stumble upon an ancient castle and its even more ancient magical artifact: the Harp of Imach Thyssel. Emereck is just out of minstrel training, so he immediately takes to the Harp, though he can sense that it has  powers beyond what he can or should be involved with. He decides the Harp must be taken to his masters back at the Guild, to be studied or destroyed, as they see fit.

Unfortunately, life has other plans. Once they get to Flindaran's house, leaving with the Harp will not be so easy as it appears. The Harp has power that is hard to resist, but it tends to leave sorrow in its wake. Emereck will find himself tested beyond what he thought possible, as sorcerers of all stripes descend upon him in search of the power of that he holds.

* * * * *
When I was thinking back on the series as a whole, it took me awhile to remember what this one was even about. So that's not a great sign!

Also, Emereck and his love interest--what's-her-name--(no really, I can't remember it), had this very different relationship going on. He basically chose to be moody and rude a lot of the time--mostly because he was trying to scare her off for her own protection or something--while she somehow saw through all of that and didn't let any of it faze her. She stuck to him like glue no matter what he dished out. Seriously, what did she see in him? In real life that would get old very fast, I would think, romantic ballads or no.

Content: Clean.

Caught in Crystal (Lyra #4)

2.5 stars: 80% talking and flashbacks, 20% action. Maybe 90/10.

Kayl is an innkeeper in a very small village, raising her two children alone after the death of her husband who was a Varnan wizard. The two met on an ill-fated expedition to the Twisted Tower many years ago, when Kayl was still a member of the Sisterhood--a group of women with access to great magical power of various forms. She hasn't even looked at her sword in many years. In fact, she has successfully blocked out most of her memories from that time in her life.

Then a visitor named Corrana arrives at Kayl's inn. Corrana is an Elder Sister--as Kayl later finds out--and in fact, has come to recruit Kayl for another mission: a return to the Twisted Tower. Kayl's group is the only one that has ever successfully breached the spells on the door--at great cost to themselves--and the magical power of the Sisterhood has been waning for many years now. They think it must have something to do with what happened in the Tower so many years ago. They are desperate to get back inside and remedy the problem.

Soon afterword, an old friend shows up at the inn: the other wizard that came on the expedition way back when. He's a wanderer and sees troubling visions. In fact, he has seen one pertaining to Kayl, her children, and the inn. While not all of his visions come true, he is certain enough that this one will, that they all flee the inn: Kayl, her children, Glyndon (the wizard), and Corrana. Eventually, they end up in Kith Anuel, the home of the Sisterhood, where Kayl will have decide how much of her past she is willing to let back into her life again.

* * * * *
This one got off to a strong start with the forced desertion of the inn, but then about the time they left for Kith Anuel, it hit an extended slow stretch. Most of the time travelling to Kith Anuel--6 months covered in a few pages--and the time within the city itself was made up of people talking at each other and Kayl remembering the original Tower trip and its aftermath. There were a few exciting moments, but they didn't last very long, before we were back to more discussions. Yawn. The ending picked back up again finally, but not enough to redeem the middle.

I will say, the kids added some good distractions and gave Kayl's character quite a bit more depth. As for the romance, I could see it coming, even though there didn't seem to be many outward signs of the two falling in love. I felt like I wasn't surprised because I was told not to be, not because I saw it happening for myself.

A step above the Harp of Imach Thyssel, but not a big step.

Content: Clean.

The Raven Ring (Lyra #5) 

3.5 stars: Good balance of action, quirky characters, and a little bit of romance.

Eleret is a warrior, trained in the ancient ways of her people, the Cilhar. Her Ma was killed in battle and Eleret takes it upon herself to travel to the city Ciaron, to pick up her mother's things in person. It's a good thing she does, too. There have been some incidents relating to her mother's kit--attempts to steal it--that has the Commander thinking there must be something unusual or important inside.

The only thing Eleret finds that would even be worth stealing is a silver ring with a raven on it that is a family heirloom. Despite feeling completely out of place in the city, her plans to return home keep getting delayed, as more and more people seem to think the ring is not only worth stealing--it is worth killing for. Killing her, to be specific.

In her short time in the city she has managed to find a handful of allies, which is good, because she'll need all the help she can get. Not that she isn't completely capable of winning a fight, but some fights take more than physical prowess--particularly in this strange new world of politics and intrigue that is the city. Who--or what--wants the ring so badly, and why?

* * * * *
Of the 5, this was probably my favorite. I was glad to enter the mind of a Cilhar warrior, after being introduced to them in Daughter of Witches. Plus, Eleret was down-to-earth and smart. It was enjoyable to see the way she stayed true to her heritage, but still managed to beat some of the city girls at their own game--when she wasn't fighting assassins and such, that is. 

I also appreciated the faster-moving plot, as compared to some of the others. The chapter all about the card reading got a bit slow, particularly as it got into multiple explanations of what each card could mean, but other than that the pacing kept me engaged.

Content: Some fight scenes, including injuries and death. Otherwise clean.

* * * * *
What series has caught your fancy lately? Any others by Wrede that I should be sure to check out?

March 10, 2017

Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden + A Giveaway!

Do you remember me mentioning my excitement about a book coming out from Floret, a blog I've been stalking for a few years now?

The book is here! I got a very fun box in the mail from Floret that included the book, plus a few freebies--a calendar, a couple of seed packets, and a postcard. YAY! I sat right down and read it in 2 days. It was so good! I'll have more to say about it in just a minute.

Then 2 days ago, another package came in the mail, this one from Amazon. I opened it up. Another copy of the book. Wait, what? I was so confused! To be honest, I am still baffled. I think I must have pre-ordered on the Floret website AND from Amazon, but I have absolutely no recollection of doing so. Um....? Can I blame it on pregnancy and move on? I think so.

Anyway, however it happened, and as much as I love this book, I do not need 2 copies for my personal library! So I get to share with one of you lucky people! Just to whet your appetite, let me tell you about it.

Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest & Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms, by Erin Benzakein with Julie Chai

5 stars: Loaded with practical information, gorgeous photos, and helpful tips. A winner!

Erin Benzakein lives and grows flowers on a 2-acre farm in Western Washington. Her farm provides wholesale cut flowers all over the region, bouquets for weddings and special events, and also does all kinds of things to promote the sustainable, local, cut flower movement. In addition to the blog, they host workshops, give interviews, write articles, etc.

On her website, Erin (I feel like we're on a first-name basis) explains that this is the book she wishes she had when was she just starting out ten years ago. It is geared for the beginner, but there's so much information in it that even seasoned gardeners will learn something from it as well.

Don't think you have to have aspirations to become a flower farmer yourself to enjoy this book. If all the space you have to dedicate to cut flowers is one garden bed, or even a couple of flower pots, this book has the information that will help you make the most of that space. Those ready to take on more will find tips for scaling up as well.

So it starts with the basics: assessing your site, deciding what to plant, preparing the soil, dealing with weeds, and so on. There's a section called "Essential Techniques" that walks you through starting seeds, providing support for your flowers, pinching, and what to do with flowers after you've picked them to extend vase life. There's a section on Tools.

After that it's divided into seasonal sections. For each season, she starts off with a chapter on tasks specific to that season. Then she goes more in depth into specific flowers that are usually blooming during that season. For each flower type she highlights, she includes growing tips, favorite varieties, and vase life tricks. There are 175 types of plants that she talks about! (I picked up that little tidbit on the website.)

Then at the end, she has 3 projects to make with flowers in bloom that season. For instance, one of the spring projects is a flower crown, and one for winter is a garland. The projects include step by step instructions, with photos to help illustrate each step.

Did I mention the beautiful photography? Many, many, color photos throughout the book, showing life on the flower farm, illustrating concepts, etc. Some serious eye candy going on here.

What makes this book different from most I've read is that it isn't just about the gardening or the floral design. It's both. It's tips for growing your flowers efficiently and productively, then what to do with them once you've cut them. I will say the practical information is more weighted on the side of growing the flowers vs. floral design, but hey--once you've got all these pretty flowers growing, playing around with them is the fun part! Again, you don't have to be a professional on either side to get started. Just get in there and get your hands dirty!

* * * * *
So, who wants a copy? :) If you would like to be entered into my giveaway drawing, leave a comment on this post talking to me about flowers. What are your favorites? Any fond memories of flowers to share? What do you have blooming now or plan to plant this year? Or what are you admiring in other people's gardens? Do you find it hard to cut flowers from your garden? (I do, unless there's an abundance--hence this book!)

Also, please leave an email address so I can reach you if you're the winner!
I will choose a giveaway winner on St. Patrick's Day: Friday, March 17.

Good luck!

March 8, 2017

March is a Tease

Listen up, March!
It's time to stop this nonsense!

Guess how many times it has snowed in the last week?
Somewhere around 4, including right now.
How about rain?
Um...whenever it's not snowing.
Sleet, hail, or any of those mixtures?
At least 3 times I can think of right off.
What is UP?!

I mean, I expect variable weather in spring.
That's just what it is.
 But this. This is ridiculous!

Here's how it's gone down:
Wake up to 1-3 inches of snow covering everything.
It sticks around for a few hours to a few days...
...until it warms up enough to rain.
Rain melts (almost) all the snow.
Throw in a little sleet or hail or freezing rain during the transitions.
Oops! Temps dip colder again. Back to snow!
Wait another day or so.
More rain!

Oh my goodness!
It's killing me!
I get a glimpse of grass and bulbs poking up and dead plants that need clearing out, then they're gone again, completely covered with SNOW.
It's pretty, I suppose, although by March snow has ceased to impress me.
You know what would be even prettier?
My spring flowers!!
I mean, at least it's melting off (mostly) each time.
I guess.

Can it please please please just be spring already?!
Also, some sunshine to dry things out a bit would be much appreciated.
I mean, while I'm asking and everything.
I am itching to get out and do some spring chores!

Instead, every time I look out the window, something wet is falling from the sky.
I am beginning to sympathize with King Derwin of Didd.
Maybe some nice oobleck would be better.
At least it would be green!

By next week it's supposed to be in the 50's! YES!
Except, raining every day. Boo!

That's March for you.

* * * * *
What's your weather like?
Have any sunshine you can send my way?

March 1, 2017

End of February: Not Quite Spring

If you're new here, I garden in Eastern Washington state, USA, zone 5b.

So, 2 weeks ago I had convinced myself that spring was on its way.

We had grass!
Wet soggy grass, but at least you could see it.

The snow was receding from all the edges!

[Wow, there are bushes under there.]

Then 2 days ago, we woke up to this:

It has snowed off and on for the past 2 days.
I can't say I'm surprised, really.
After all, it was still February. Barely.

However, in the spirit of March, and SPRING to come: 
I spy with my little eye....

Green shoots in the back flowerbed!

Even a few poking up through the snow on the East-side of the house.
[Incidentally, I thought I had dug those all out 2 years ago.]

Happy March 1, my friends!
Good things are coming, I just know it!