Monday, September 27, 2010


by Tess Gerritsen

One Thumb Up, One Thumb Down.

Abby DiMatteo is in the first year of her surgical residency.  But some things at the hospital are beginning to seem, at best unusual, and at worst downright frightening.  Dr. DiMatteo follows her conscience and solves the mystery at great peril to her future career and her personal safety.

Ms Gerritsen writes a great story.  The characters are realistic and enjoyable.  The plot is compelling.  The suspense is just right.  Ms. Gerritsen avoids explicit descriptions of the s*xual situations.

Although some of the medical descriptions are of a somewhat technical nature, Ms. Gerritsen smoothly pulls everything together so that her readers are able to understand the implications of the various details she later needs to use. Some detail of a seemingly unrelated episode will reappear later in the book where it has implications.  But because the author has given the details and descriptions earlier on, the action does not have to slow down during the important parts. The book was remarkably well done in that regard. 

The story line deals with serious lapses in medical ethics.  It made me uneasy to think of people putting their lives into the hands of someone who may manipulate the health of another for their own personal ends.  Although the story was a good read, it is one of those books that is realistic enough and whose premise is repulsive enough to me that it left me with an unsettled feeling that was hard to shake.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Overton Window

By Glenn Beck

Qualified Thumbs Up.

The much (self-touted by author) Overton Window, turned out to be a quick read.  It was somewhat entertaining, sometimes suspenseful, mostly well-crafted and purposefully educational.

Mr. Beck has crafted a decent story.  His interesting and diverse characters are well developed and mostly consistent.  There are a few characters who tend to lecture the reader, but this too, is consistent with how Mr. Beck has drawn their personalities.

Because of this "classroom lecture" type quality, however, the story line drags at parts.  The actual suspense and drama part of what Mr. Beck has called a thriller is not a very big part of the story.  The book was reviewed by one of the greats of the political thriller genre, Vince Flynn, as "one of the best thrillers I've read in years."  Poor Mr. Flynn.  I suppose he can't read his own books with the same pleasure we get from them.  If this review by Mr. Flynn would lead you to think The Overton Window might be a similar kind of read to one of Mr. Flynn's books, there is little comparison between this book and those of the Mr. Flynn.  Mr. Beck's purpose, however, encompasses a somewhat broader scope.

I appreciated the fact that Mr. Beck, in his characterizations does not stick to any one variety of those personalities one might label as conservative or liberal or power hungry or extremist or whatever pigeon hole within which one might be unflatteringly viewed.  Each of his characters is unique and multifaceted, as are real people.

The book is well documented and readers are encouraged to do their homework on each of a multitude of issues to which Mr. Beck alludes in his story.

One of Mr. Beck's stated goals is to give a reader tools with which to react to the glut of information we encounter daily; tools to take responsibility for analyzing information that comes our way.  He seems to strongly want readers to avoid the accusation of being led as sheep.  In the afterword,  Mr. Beck gives specific suggestions for following through on this research.  In the story itself the author includes examples of mistakes made by those who don't check their facts.

So although I don't think The Overton Window is a great thriller, it is a good thriller.  But more importantly, it can be used as a launching off point to explore and learn about many subjects in the news these days.  And readers are given some tools to begin that exploration process.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bridget's Beret

by Tom Lichtenheld

Thumbs Up.

Bridget is an artist.  But she has lost her beret and along with it, her inspiration and, she things, her abilities.  When the younger girls coax her to help with the sign for her lemonade stand, Bridget is newly inspired and regains her confidence.

The part I found most fun was Bridget's interpretations of classic works of art in her lemonade stand advertisements.  The author includes a section in the back on famous works of art.

1001 label

A word of explanation here, I reviewed awhile back 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.  I purchased the book for my family after seeing it in the library.   I encouraged the kids to choose several from within that book for their summer reading.  Some did, some did not.  

When I get a chance, I will review any we've had from those suggested titles.  I'll label it with the additional "1001" label.

The Three Robbers

by Tomi Ungerer

Thumbs up.  Mostly.

This basic color and silhouette style illustrations appeal to even the youngest children.  The prose is also quiet simple, with a lilt of rhythm that makes it fun to read.

The story shows, perhaps, the redemptive quality of love and goodness.  But might also appear to support the mentality of taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

The plot has some cute turns but the story ends somewhat abruptly.  I always find myself turning the final page expecting that bit more closure.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Out of the Ruins

by Sally S. Wright

Thumbs up.

In this fourth book of the Ben Reese series,  we travel with our hero, Ben Reese, to Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia.  Ms Wright gives detailed descriptions that bring to life the island's scenery and architectural history.  She gives us another cast of interesting characters.  And she spins a good tale.

Although equally satisfying, this story seems a bit different to her previous books, but I'm not sure I can quantify the difference.  Ben is ready to begin to love again and that puts a different spin on things.  (And I must say that I'm not pleased with his choice or girls; see my last Ben Reese review.)  But the author continues to keep things clean which pleases me.

The story is also a bit slower paced than previous books.  Ms Wright perhaps spends more time in this book on historical setting and less on character action and interaction. 

Most interesting of all, however, is her use of a cliffhanger ending.

And yes, I've already requested the next one.

The Joy of Geocaching: How to Find Health, Happiness and Creative Energy Through a Worldwide Treasure Hunt

by Paul and Dana Gillin

Thumbs Up.

The Gillins have included sections on preparation, searching, use of specialized technology, and the more social aspects of geocaching.  Each section has several chapters interspersed with interesting stories, some told by another geocacher and some related by the authors.  I really enjoyed the vicarious thrill imparted through some of these anecdotes.

The book also includes three appendices with additional information and resources, and a nice index.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Death in a Prairie House: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Murders

by William R. Drennen

Thumbs up.

University of Wisconsin Baraboo/Sauk County professor emeritus, William Drennen traces the story of Frank Lloyd Wright.  After a brief introduction, he backs up to family histories, tracing those of Wright's parents and grandparents.

Drennen shows the strange and unusual relationship under which Wright, the most favored son, lived with his frighteningly possessive mother.  He tells of the religious and philosophical meld of Unitarian/Universalist and Transcendental/Emersonian philosophies deeply held in Wright's familial background.

Wright's father was an artistic and self-indulgent sort with apparently no financial management skills or common sense.  His family often lacked basic necessities while whims were indulged.

Drennen tells of Wright's early design successes.

We are told of his love for his first wife, Kitty, and their family, and how his entire design scheme at that time was an extension of that love, and an expression of family unity.  His idea of a prairie house included specific mechanisms designed intentionally to center around a happy family experience.

And then he went wacko.  Drennan spends some time spelling out the connection between Wright's religious/philosophical background and his seemingly sudden shift in world view.  If a person's religion is not based upon a specific Scripture, what is there to hold one firm?

After designing a house for a Mr. Edwin Cheney, Wright continued to spend increasing amounts of time with Cheney's wife, Mamah.

Mamah was an early feminist.  She and her husband Edwin had two children, but she did not see it as particularly her job to raise them.  Her primary fulfillment as a woman was to free herself from traditional female roles which she thought of as chains.  In order to be emotionally honest, she had to do only, exactly what she wanted to do at all times.

After a couple of years during which Wright seems to have been unsure of which path he wanted to follow, he threw in his lot with Mamah.  Wright seems to have become convinced of this superiority of emotional honesty and the virtue of living according to one's true desires.

Wright built Mamah the ultimate prairie house. Taliesin, outside of Spring Green, WI, has been described as the culmination of all Wright's design ideas;  the sum of what he had been trying to portray with his prairie style.

And then suddenly it was all gone.  Mamah was dead, along with six others, and the living quarters of Taliesin burned down at the hand of a madman.  Although the murderer was known right away, there has been much speculation surrounding the incident and many questions the answers to which no one will never know.

 Wright continued to work after this time, but his designs, according to Drennen, were of a much different sort.  Less beauty, less life.  And much fewer in number.  The tragic events seemed also to have spelled the end of Wright's genius.

Wright rebuilt Taliesin, the living quarters burned once again at a later time.  He rebuilt again.  Although Wright built on the same sites and even using the remaining structures each time, both rebuilds were less great than the original.

Death in a Prairie House is well told.  Drennen includes a thorough bibliography.  He tells readers when he is guessing, and what others have asserted and surmised regarding Wright's life, his personality, and the circumstances of the Taliesin murders.

I have lived in Madison, WI, and also in Oak Park, IL, both stomping grounds of Wright.  Many of the places mentioned were familiar.   I was glad to know more about this 20th century great.

The book made we want to learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and his designs, and also about transcendentalism and universalism and how they affected 20th century worldviews.

While reading this book, I was often reminded of a theory a good friend once proposed.  She said that all masters or geniuses (as in those who are "way above normal" great at what they do) are a little bit crazy.  If true, Frank Lloyd Wright is no exception.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Teashop Girls

by Laura Schaefer

One thumb up; one thumb down.

The story starts out as thirteen--almost fourteen--year old Annie is standing on her head in the closet of her Grandmother, Louisa's teashop, the Steeping Leaf.  She is calming her nerves in anticipation of some coming stress the reader is not yet privy to.  All of a sudden, she is knocked over by the cutest boy in the world who is carrying a large box into the closet.

So starts the story.  As the story unfolds, Annie finds out that the Steeping Leaf is not a profitable business and Louisa may have to sell it.  But Annie, who loves the shop, calls in reinforcements, the Teashop girls.  Annie and her two best friends spent their girlhoods in the shop and Louisa encouraged them start a tea lovers club called the Teashop Girls.  The three girls now must fight for the very life of the Steeping Leaf.

There are several very nice touches the author includes that make the book appealing.  Each chapter beginning is decorated with a pen and ink wash of something one might find in a teashop: a cup and saucer, a teapot, or some delicacy such as a luscious looking layer cake.  The pages are interspersed with reproductions of old ads promoting the benefits and joys of tea and recipes for teashop specialties.  The author fills the story with little historical anecdotes of tea, tea drinkers and unusual tea facts.  Of course she includes instructions for making a perfect pot of tea.

The characters are quirky.  The plot is sweet.  Annie and her friends deal with typical early teen issues such as crushes, too many outside activities, misunderstandings, frustration with parents and family, etc. 

But with many things going for it, the story somehow falls flat.  I really wanted to like this story.  It was one of several books I read while on vacation.  I thought that maybe I just couldn't concentrate through all the excitement of vacation.  But when I mentioned to my daughter, who had also read it, that it wasn't really grabbing me, she agreed, saying that it was kind of boring.

The one character I didn't care for was the grandmother, Louisa.  Her late husband was a UW Madison botany professor.  He had specialized in the history and uses of Eastern herbs or some such thing.  Louisa was a practitioner of yoga and other Eastern philosophical stuff. She cured her customers problems with a combination of Eastern philosophy and herbal remedies.  Annie also, idolizing her grandmother as she did, was well versed in yoga and its philosophies.  It all was a little surreal, I guess.

That said, the story was set in Madison, WI.  I attended college there.  So I do realize this character is not far-fetched.  In fact, I probably could list several people of the same age demographic upon whom Louisa's character may have been based.  All the same it isn't the kind of character I want my daughters to emulate or admire.

If you can stick with it, however, the book is worth reading just for all the fun stuff.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Conspiracy 365 series

by Gabrielle Lord

Thumbs up.

These books are great quick reads.  They are definitely what I'd call candy reading.  Certainly they will not change your life or challenge any of your life's foundations.

However, they are wonderful for easy, lazy suspense.

The premise is that Callum Ormond gets a warning from some guy who looks like a homeless lunatic.  He must either hide away for one year or expect constant danger and trials.

This warning comes on the afternoon of New Year's Eve and by the time Callum's finished watching the midnight fireworks that night, the troubles have already begun.

The books are named after the months of the year, January, February, etc, with twelve planned.  Each is nonstop thrills and danger as Callum, with the help of his best friend tries to unravel the mystery involved in his father's recent sudden death, and thereby stop the danger.   Although the books race right along, the characters are developed enough that they are somewhat endearing.

The books are currently in publication with each title released on the first of the month coinciding with its title.  So the next one, October, will be released on October 1.

My teen aged son likes them; I think my middle school daughter would like them.  I think an advanced elementary aged child would enjoy them.  The vocabulary is not too challenging.  The stories are clean, so that is a big plus. The suspense is very intense, however, and at times a bit gruesome. 

Reading these books reminds me of a kind of funny thing that happened to us after we first had a computer with a DVD player.  We were new to the entire watching movies at home thing, having previously not even had TV.  Our local library was just starting to invest in DVDs, so the selection was somewhat limited.  But Wal-Mart had these great bins of really cheap DVDs of old classics.   So we stocked up on a few now and then.

One of the selections we got was an old John Wayne western.    We were watching it one night and kept waiting for the movie to get over.  But every time we thought it might end, it started another round of adventure.  We finally figured out that it was a serial.  Each time there was a resolution, it was the end of an episode.  We had been watching and watching and had inadvertently watched about six of these things.  We were, truth be told, kind of sick of the whole buisiness.

I think I'd feel a bit the same way if I read these books all at once.   Lots of excitement, lots of adrenaline; things slow down a bit; is it going to work out?  Not on your life, just when a reader thinks a solution might be within reach, there is a tremendous cliffhanger with absolutely no rescue possible and the story ends.

So yes, read them for a fun thrill.  But don't read them all at once.  Make yourself wait a few weeks in between.  Besides, if you read them all right away, you'll end up waiting for the last few to come out.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jaqueline Kelly

Thumbs Up.

In 1899, Fentress, Texas, Calpurnia Tate is the only girl of the seven Tate children.  The weather is hot and dry.  And things are changing.  In this amusing and heartwarming tale, Jaqueline Kelly shows what it might have been like for a female coming of age at that time.

Calpurnia learns from her grandfather the secrets of the natural world and the new and exciting (and forbidden) theories of Charles Darwin.  She dreams of being a scientist.  She struggles with the fear of not being allowed to pursue such a dream on account of her gender.

Calpurnia must, however, learn to cook and do needlework.  Although brilliant with regard to her studies with Granddaddy, she is an abysmal failure at these homemaking skills.  The author works in several amusing situations highlighting Calpurnia's struggles in this area.

The spirited Calpurnia also learns to accept her oldest, dearest brother's interest in girls other than his only sister.  But she learns this only after an episode of embarrassing and painful interference on her part.

Besides all the life lessons Calpurnia deals with, the overarching conflict in the book is the wait she and Grandfather must endure after having submitted to the Smithsonian for analysis, what they think is an entirely new species of hairy vetch.

Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin's Origins of Species.  The author then applies the quote, instead of to the natural world, to things going on in Calpurnia's life. 

Although the book follows a Darwinistic theme, it does not preach evolutionary theory.  But it does introduce a few of Darwin's ideas and places the theory of evolution within the context of the lives of ordinary people at the turn of that century.

The book would make an interesting tie-in for a home school family in a unit on evolution, botany, the history of science, or the women's movement.  Although I think boys might appreciate some of the lighthearted moments, the most likely audience is middle school girls.

It was a fun and witty book.  The characters are lifelike and colorful.  The plot is engaging.  It is an entirely enjoyable book from first-time author Jaqueline Kelly.  It is a Caldecott honor recipient.

And as an aside, when reading up on the author I was quite amazed to find that Ms Kelly was first a physician, second a lawyer, and finally, a children's author.  Such accomplishments in anyone would amaze me, but this woman does not appear to be very old.  I am always somewhat awed when I read about people who can accomplish so much in one lifetime!  My hat is off to Ms Kelly, and I hope she has more stories to pull from her proverbial hat.