hearth/myth: Rursday Reads

A place for me to talk about the books - mostly indie books - that I've read and enjoyed. Looking for a weekend read? Here you go.

The Mighty Oak and Me (Mr. Pish Backyard Adventure Book 2) - K.S. Brooks & Mr. Pish

The Mighty Oak and Me (Mr. Pish Backyard Adventure Book 2) - K. S. Brooks, Mr. Pish, K. S. Brooks

For my final 2016 IU Reading Challenge book, I've chosen a cute picture book starring Mr. Pish, the Traveling Terrier.


This new edition of The Mighty Oak and Me brings the book into the Mr. Pish series, which promotes reading and outdoor literacy. Here, Mr. Pish talks about his favorite tree from his backyard in Maryland -- a 300-year-old oak tree. The book is full of interesting facts about oaks (which are one of my favorite trees, too), as well as a bunch of things that trees in general do for us.


I expect that after reading this book, young readers would be banging down the back door to get out and visit their own backyard trees. Highly recommended for fans of trees, dogs, and early education.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/12/the-mighty-oak-and-me-mr-pish-backyard.html

The Sun Singer (Mountain Journeys #1) - Malcolm R. Campbell

The Sun Singer (Mountain Journeys Book 1) - Malcolm R. Campbell

Fifteen-year-old Robert Adams is a normal American teenage boy, with two differences. For one thing, Robert sometimes has dreams that come true. And for another, his grandfather knows the way to a parallel universe. Old Thomas Elliott once told Robert that he must go back to this other land, where he left important tasks unfinished, and Robert vowed to help. But now, Grandfather's health is failing, and Robert must go alone to Pyrrha and finish what the old man began -- if he can.

The Sun Singer is a cut above your typical YA epic fantasy. Robert is an appealing hero, and the other characters in the novel -- in both worlds -- are well-rounded. There's only one elf, and no dwarves or orcs, which is a relief to this somewhat jaded epic fantasy fan. And when magic is afoot, the narrative is often lyrical -- as it should be.

The book ends with a revelation about Robert's family, and the sense that there are more adventures to come. And in fact, I believe the second book in this series is already out. So I'd highly recommend that YA fantasy fans get started on The Sun Singer now.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/11/the-sun-singer-mountain-journeys-1.html

Gino's Law - Candace Williams

Gino's Law:: For Every Action There's An Overreaction - Candace Williams

The subtitle for this book is, "For Every Action There's an Overreaction," a mantra that our antihero, Gino Gibaldi, inadvertently lives by. One of his neighbors -- a slimy lawyer -- turns up dead; when the cops stop by to chat with Gino, he mouths off to them, just sort of on general principles. Unfortunately, the cops have circumstantial evidence that he's the murderer, and Gino sure looks guilty to them. You'd think he'd wise up and straighten things out, wouldn't you? He wouldn't overreact and run from the law, would he? Of course he would. And then things really begin to get interesting.


Williams calls this a quirky mystery, and there's certainly a whodunit aspect to the plot. But the best part for me was the characterizations, from Gino the misanthrope, to the Miss Jean Louise, the beauty-prize-winning hamster owned by Gino's gay neighbor. I saw a couple of instances where the Spanish wasn't up to snuff (for instance, a native Spanish speaker would say problema, not problemo -- "no problemo" is American slang), but by and large, the book is well-written and well-edited.


If you're looking for a fun mystery story, you could do worse than Gino's Law. Highly recommended for readers who like humor with their whodunits.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/11/ginos-law-candace-williams.html

A Spool of Blue Thread - Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel - Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is a master at making family relationships come alive, in all their messy glory, and A Spool of Blue Thread is no exception. Set in Baltimore, as most of her novels are, this book tells the story of the Whitshanks -- a family who came up from nothing, yet ended up owning a house as quirky as they are.

The patriarch these days is Red Whitshank. He and his wife Abby have four grown children and a number of grandchildren. Red and Abby are getting on in years, and part of the plot centers around how the adult children can best help their parents age in place. But that's only one of the things going on here; the family has several secrets, and you can bet they'll all be revealed before the final page.

A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, among its many accolades. I enjoyed the book, but I wondered whether the Booker nod wasn't as much for her career as for this book in particular. Maybe when I read it, I wasn't in the mood for a book about a quirky but charming American family, one with plot threads that weave around each other to create a fabric rather than racing toward a finish line. There's humor and heart here, but not enough to make me love the book Suffice it to say that I've read a few of Tyler's books, and this one isn't my favorite. (That would be The Accidental Tourist.)

Recommended for readers who enjoy meandering family sagas with moments of humor.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/11/a-spool-of-blue-thread-anne-tyler.html

The Man in the Black Hat - Melissa Bowersock

The Man in the Black Hat - Melissa Bowersock

For this month's Indies Unlimited Reading Challenge, I'm going slightly out of order and reading an indie book "of my choice." (I'll do the one-of-a-series challenge next month.)

Although one could be forgiven for thinking The Man in the Black Hat is part of a time-travel quasi-series. Bowersock's previous two novels were about a modern man named Travis who finds himself mysteriously transported into the past, and makes a better life for himself there than he has in the here and now. Clay Bauer, the main character in this book, is no Travis. He's a character actor in the movies -- the guy who always plays the heavy because of his looks. He's resigned to never being the leading man. But one day, while on location for a Western that's shooting in Sedona, Arizona, Clay stumbles through a sort of wormhole in time, and finds himself in the honest-to-goodness Wild West.

Almost immediately, he meets Ella -- which is a good thing, as he sustained a broken arm in a fall when he transitioned to her time. Ella and her brother Marcus are homesteading near where Sedona will be located someday. The two of them patch Clay up, and let him rest up and heal. But when it's time for Clay to go back to his old life, Ella has a choice: stay with her brother, or leave with the man she has come to love. But will she be able to adjust to life 115 years in the future?

I've enjoyed every Bowersock novel I've read, and this one is no exception. She has clearly done her homework on the history of Sedona, as well as on the movie business. Clay is an engaging fellow, Ella is as spirited and independent as you would expect a frontier woman to be, and the resolution to their dilemma rings true. I would highly recommend The Man in the Black Hat to readers who love a sweet love story.

I reviewed an advance reader copy of this book.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/11/the-man-in-black-hat-melissa-bowersock.html

The Druid (Storytellers Book 1) - Frank Delaney

The Druid - Frank Delaney
I'm reaching into the vault for this week's book. I read the first couple of Storytellers short stories by Frank Delaney when they first came out, a few years ago, and recently realized that I'd lost track of the rest of the series. Which is too bad, for Delaney spins a fine yarn.
For those on this side of the pond, Delaney was a writer and broadcaster in Ireland and the UK for more than thirty years. He's somewhat of an expert on James Joyce, and he has been a judge for the Booker Prize. I read his novel Ireland years ago and was charmed by it -- and not only because he named one of his characters Mrs. Cantwell.
The Storytellers series was, I think, conceived as a promotional vehicle for his most recent novel, The Last Storyteller (which I have not read). The short stories and the novel came out at about the same time, and the first chapter of the novel is included with The Druid. Which I should probably get around to reviewing now.
The story is set in Ireland, and the main character is a fake druid named Lew. The ugly little fellow decides he must marry Elaine, the fairest young girl in the neighborhood -- not because he loves her, but because he's convinced her wealthy father will set them up for a life of ease. Alas, Elaine is already promised to another -- a stranger who is shortly to arrive to collect her. Lew and his one-legged crow have only a few days to figure out how to trick Elaine into marrying him.
Delaney's tale is told effortlessly and with a great deal of fun. As you read it, you can almost imagine yourself gathered with your loved ones around the hearth while the Old Storyteller weaves his tale about you all.
I need to find the other stories in this series. Highly recommended for those who love a good tale.
Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/10/the-druid-storytellers-book-1-frank.html

Nova - Samuel R. Delany

Nova - Samuel R. Delany

Basically, I was shamed into reading Nova. Well, maybe not shamed, exactly. But a number of friends, upon learning that I'd never read anything by Samuel R. Delany, strongly suggested that I read this book.

Nova won the Hugo Award for Delany in 1968. It's a space opera about a good-guy space captain named Lorq van Ray and his quest to find a plentiful source of Illyrion, the element that makes space travel possible. He believes he can generate it by sending his ship through a nova, so he assembles a ragtag crew and heads for his destiny. Compounding the danger are his nemeses, Prince Red and his beautiful twin sister Ruby. The Red family currently controls the largest viable source of Illyrion, so if Lorq succeeds, the Reds will be ruined. But Prince Red's hatred of Lorq goes back much farther, to their shared childhood. In short, Lorq is the good guy, Prince is the mentally unbalanced bad guy, and Ruby is the siren whom Lorq is in love with -- although there are hints that her relationship with Red, and her fierce loyalty to him, are more than just brotherly love.

But some of the most interesting parts of the story involve the members of Lorq's crew, most notably Mouse, a gypsy from Earth who plays a remarkable holographic synthesizer called a syrynx; and Katin, a Harvard-educated fellow who is knocking around the galaxy to tour moons while he gathers material to write a novel -- an archaic storytelling device that nobody bothers with anymore.

Much has been written about Nova's use of metafictional techniques: Lorq's whole voyage is a grail quest, and two crew members (Lynceos and Idas) are named for two of Jason's Argonauts. Also, the Tarot figures prominently -- and interestingly, in this society the Tarot is considered to be not only accurate, but worthy of scientific pursuit.

My friends were right -- Nova is worth your time. Recommended for fans of space opera, as well as for anyone interested in serious science fiction.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/10/nova-samuel-r-delaney.html

Repulse: Europe at War 2062-2064 - Chris James

Repulse: Europe at War 2062-2064 - Chris James

Historians, futurists, and sci-fi fans alike should like Chris James's new book, Repulse: Europe at War 2062-2064.


The novel opens with a bit of a sketchy tale about how this manuscript purportedly fell into the author's hands. Then it goes full-out into history mode, recounting -- from a vantage point nearly 80 years into the future -- the details of a European war that hasn't happened to us yet.


James has done a crackerjack job of world-building, imagining a future where technology is far advanced: medical nanobots make short work of battlefield injuries, brain scans of captured soldiers reveal the enemy's plans, and cities destroyed in battle are rebuilt in a matter of months. The bad guys in this world are a secretive Third Caliphate that intends to destroy the Christian infidels in a reverse Crusade. It's up to a scant few military geniuses to develop the tech necessary to beat back the threat.


The tone is dry, as befits a "history," but those who like reading about military strategy and gee-whiz technology should enjoy this book.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/09/repulse-europe-at-war-2062-2064-chris.html

The Newark Earthworks - Lindsay Jones & Richard D. Shiels, eds.

The Newark Earthworks: Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings (Studies in Religion and Culture) - Lindsay Jones, Richard D. Shiels

Those of you who read my posts at my regular blog, hearth/myth, know that I've become a teensy bit obsessed with the Newark Earthworks. This complex of earthen mounds and ditches in central Ohio was built by Native Americans 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists today call the builders the Hopewell culture, and suspect they died out after contracting diseases brought to North America by Europeans without ever having come in direct contact with a white man.

The Newark Earthworks, together with other Hopewell culture earthworks nearby, have been added to the short list for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The editors of this volume, Jones and Shiels, were among a group of archaeologists, historians, cartographers, experts on Native American cultures, and other scholars who gathered in 2006 for the founding of the Newark Earthworks Center at Ohio State University. The members of this group realized that no one had produced a comprehensive book explaining why these earthworks needed the World Heritage designation. This collection of fifteen essays, published this past spring, is meant to be that book.

Some of the essays are kind of dry, as scholarly works can be. But in all, they paint a picture of a remarkable achievement by a supposedly primitive culture. The complex includes two large circles, each nearly 1,200 feet in diameter, and a square and an octagon of similar size -- all joined by wide "roads" delineated by earthen banks. Each structure was placed deliberately to provide sight lines for various celestial events, including a moonrise position that happens only every 18.6 years.

What is also remarkable is how the structures have been preserved over the centuries, even through public use of the land for everything from a county fairgrounds to a military encampment. (Today, the Octagon is part of a country club's golf course.) And the site, which was built as a ceremonial center, is experiencing a resurgence in interest -- not just from scholars, but also from today's Native Americans, including the Shawnee, who called the area home after the Hopewell culture had died out and before their own tribe was force-marched to Oklahoma in the 1800s.

I learned a lot from reading The Newark Earthworks, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Hopewell culture, ancient structures, or World Heritage sites.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/09/the-newark-earthworks-enduring.html

Return to Crutcher Mountain (Cedar Hollow Book 2) - Melinda Clayton

Return to Crutcher Mountain - Melinda Clayton

In Return to Crutcher Mountain, Melinda Clayton travels back to Cedar Hollow, West Virginia, to further the tale of Jessie, the troubled, abused girl who was adopted by Billie May Platte in Appalachian Justice. Jessie is an adult now, and has created a successful career in Hollywood as a movie producer. But she still has problems with trusting people -- including the man she's currently seeing.

After Billie May died, Jessie inherited her mountain land. There, she has founded a center for children with developmental disabilities. And now she's called back to Cedar Hollow because of some problems at the center -- problems serious enough that the center might have to close. In rescuing the facility, Jessie may find healing once again, this time with the help of a little boy named Robby who's staying at the center.

Clayton tells her story with a sure hand. Robby's first-person sections are cute, but not overly so. I spent a good chunk of the book rooting for him and hoping he would eventually be able to tell Jessie what he knew about her past. Jessie is properly worldly and self-assured, yet vulnerable. There's a plot twist toward the end that was totally plausible, and the ending seemed to hold promise for everyone.

I'm highly recommending the whole four-book Cedar Hollow series, which Clayton recently released as a box set. You don't have to read them in order -- I didn't -- but readAppalachian Justice first. It explains Billie May's back story, which is key to a full appreciation of the rest of the books.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/09/return-to-crutcher-mountain-cedar.html

The Alchemists' Council - Cynthea Masson

The Alchemists' Council - Cynthea Masson

The Alchemists' Council is the first book in a fantasy trilogy (a fantasy trilogy -- imagine that!) where the people-in-charge make up a sort of magical Trilateral Commission.

Our main character is Jaden, a young woman who was half-invited, half-dragged to a parallel realm where alchemists regulate the events that happen on earth. Their job is to maintain the world's elemental balance by keeping the Flaw in the Lapis, an infusion of red in an otherwise blue crystal, from getting any bigger. The Flaw allows those who live in the outside world to have free will -- but too much free will, the alchemists believe, and chaos would result. So they seek to limit its size, with the goal of someday eradicating it entirely.

But there's a Rebel Branch of alchemists that's fighting to expand the Flaw, and the rebels want Jaden to join them. Jaden has been taught to fear the rebels, but soon she finds herself wondering who to believe.

Masson has created a complex yet logical system of magic for her world; one of the most charming, yet horrifying, scenes in the book is the one in which Jaden realizes where the crystals in the Amber Garden come from. The political intrigue, both between Council and the rebels and within the council itself, rings true.

This is not a fast-paced book by any means, and yet the plot doesn't meander. I enjoyed The Alchemists' Council and would be very interested in reading the next book in the series.

I should add that I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/09/the-alchemists-council-cynthea-masson.html

Mr. Pish's National Park Centennial Celebration - K.S. Brooks

Mr. Pish's National Park Centennial Celebration: A Mr. Pish All Ages Activity Book (Mr. Pish Activity Books) (Volume 1) - K. S. Brooks, Mr. Pish

Last week was the National Park Service's 100th anniversary. In honor of that -- and as this month's Indies Unlimited Reading Challenge book -- I'm reviewing Mr. Pish's National Park Centennial Celebration: A Mr. Pish All Ages Activity Book.

I'm supposed to be reading a children's book for the IU challenge this month, and this book qualifies as that. But some of the puzzles, and even some of the detailed coloring pages, may be a challenge for the smallest readers. No matter, for the traveling terrier does his part, as usual, to encourage everybody to get outdoors and learn about the world around us. I've been visiting national parks since I was four years old, and even I learned some things from this book.

Mr. Pish's National Park Centennial Celebration is available only in paperback. Highly recommended for preparing for your next visit to a national park -- even if you only dream about it.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/09/mr-pishs-national-park-centennial.html

Shadow Days (Cedar Hollow #4) - Melinda Clayton

Shadow Days (Cedar Hollow Series Book 4) - Melinda Clayton

Shadow Days was a tough, but ultimately cathartic, read for me.

The main character is Emily Holt, a widow living in Florida whose sons are away at college. On the anniversary of her husband's death, Emily gives into an impulse to flee. She gets in her car and drives away, wandering aimlessly, until her car breaks down on a winding mountain road. The sheriff's deputy who picks her up takes her to the nearest town -- which happens to be Cedar Hollow. There, Emily begins to find her way out of her complicated emotions, and she also finds a way to tell her sons the truth about their father's illness.

Clayton has created a realistic portrait of a woman with a loved one who's suffering from mental illness. Emily's husband, Greg, was manic-depressive, and she spent the vast majority of her marriage covering for him in one way or another: finding him work, dealing with his behavior and his medical needs, and raising their children pretty much by herself. To compound matters, she strove to shield the boys from all knowledge of Greg's illness.

Without going into detail, I'll just say that I identified with Emily in a lot of ways. I was in tears more than once. And I was heartened that Emily's story might eventually have a happy ending.

Shadow Days is available both on its own, and as part of Clayton's Cedar Hollow omnibus. All four novels are highly recommended, but I think this one might be my favorite.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/08/shadow-days-cedar-hollow-4-melinda.html

The Tradition of Household Spirits - Claude Lecouteaux

The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices - Claude Lecouteux

The Tradition of Household Spirits is a fascinating look at spirits of place in the medieval world.

Lecouteaux's biography says he is a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne, and he has written a number of books on subjects in his field. In this book, he seeks first to explain how and why people in the medieval period believed their homes to be sacred space, and how they delineated the boundaries of that space. He then goes on to talk about the spirits and/or deities these people were honoring. It's clear to him that ancestors took on almost godlike status in succeeding generations; families believed those who first built on the land would stick around to bless them, if only their descendants treated them well.

The author concentrates on European practices and beliefs -- both Eastern and Western -- with a little bit of Asian lore thrown in here and there. He seems to think it significant that so many of these practices are similar, but I was less entranced. After all, most of the peoples he talks about can be traced back to a shared Indo-European homeland. We see that root in language as well as in pagan pantheons; with that much of a shared cultural root, it should be no surprise that people considered walls and hedges to be protective boundaries, and windows and doors to be liminal spaces that needed special protection.

Still, I learned a fair amount from this book. One thing he talks about is the belief that a cricket on the hearth will bring good luck. I always thought the saying referred to a literal cricket, for which I suppose I can thank Charles Dickens (and Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin). But Lecouteaux writes, "Isn't a good housewife sometimes referred to as the 'cricket of the hearth'?" I had never heard that before. Maybe it's a French proverb.

Lecouteaux ends his book with a lament that we no longer honor household spirits today: "Like so many other creatures that once embellished life and brought hope, house spirits have vanished and with them the souls of our houses have fled, never to return." Au contraire, professor: Some of us do still attempt to honor spirits of the places where we live, if not the spirits of our hearths.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/08/the-tradition-of-household-spirits.html

Concealed (Virus #1) - R.J. Crayton

Concealed (Virus Book 1) - RJ Crayton

Concealed is the first volume in a dystopian YA series about a virus that has turned the world upside down.

Elaan Woodson is a lucky girl. The Helnoan virus has infected most of the population. Almost everyone who contracts the disease dies from it, although some recover -- and a handful, like Elaan, appear to have a natural immunity. In addition to her immunity, she is also the daughter of a scientist who's working on a cure for the virus, and because of that, she, her brother Lijah, and her father are living in the underground bunker where her father's lab is located. Lijah is a survivor -- as is Josh Wells, the only other teenager in the compound. Elaan and Josh are obviously headed for romance, but Lijah keeps warning her away from him. Lijah says Josh has a secret that will hurt Elaan, but then Lijah has a big secret of his own. And the most important secret is the one Josh's father is keeping from all of them -- one that might cost Elaan her life.

Crayton spends a lot of time in this book developing her main characters and the setting. We learn a lot about Elaan's daily life, and about how the underground facility operates, including the behind-the-scenes machinations like management hierarchies and gossip. The plot, however, takes a while to get going. I found myself wishing somebody would just break down and tell Elaan something already, so the story could move along. Things do finally accelerate, but the action doesn't pick up until near the end of the book.

Crayton is a fine writer, and her topic is certainly timely. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series. Recommended for those who enjoy YA science fiction.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/08/concealed-virus-1-rj-crayton.html

Tell a Thousand Lies - Rasana Atreya

Tell a Thousand Lies - Rasana Atreya

For this month's Indies Unlimited Reading Challenge, I'm reading a book from another culture than my own. I've chosen a book that I have been meaning to get around to reading for several years: Tell a Thousand Lies by Rasana Atreya.

The book is set in rural India, where a grandmother has taken on the task of raising three sisters: Malli, the eldest; and fraternal twins Lata and Pullamma. In this traditional village, the most a girl can hope for is a good marriage, and these girls have no dowry. But it's worse for Pullamma, as her skin is darker than the other girls', and she grows up hearing -- and internalizing the message -- that her future is hopeless. But then, a local strongman sees a political angle. He pays the village soothsayer to claim that Pullamma is a goddess reborn, and suddenly the girl is the center of a lot of unwanted attention. Eventually, she escapes -- but the corrupt politician still has his hooks in Pullamma and her family, and her life will be ruined many times over before she has an opportunity to triumph.

Atreya champions the rights of Indian women in this book. Pullamma's twin sister Lata wants nothing more than to get an education and become a doctor -- which her traditional grandmother considers to be madness. And too, the whole book is quite a send-up of the idea that women should only aspire to make a good match, and then be obedient wives -- nothing more than that.

My only quibble is that the plot gets quite melodramatic -- very much like a soap opera, with one horrible thing after another happening to Pullamma, her husband, and Lata. I've only seen one or two Bollywood movies, but the plot here is very much like one of those.

If you like Bollywood flicks, I'd highly recommend Tell a Thousand Lies.

Source: http://www.rursdayreads.com/2016/08/tell-thousand-lies-rasana-atreya.html