Sunday, November 17, 2019


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The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden, Del Rey, 2017, 363 pp
I do like fantasy novels when they are done to my rather picky standards. The Girl in the Tower is #2 in Katherine Arden's Winternight Trilogy. These books hit all my loves in fantasy. I would call this trilogy historical, myth-based fantasy.
Vasya is a complex yet believable heroine. She was raised on tales from her nanny, including one about the Frost King, a tale that opens the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale. She can see the spirits that inhabit hearths and barns. Morosko, the Frost King, is a character in these books and someone who Vasya has strong feelings for. Because of all this, she is considered a witch by her family and community.

So, I loved The Girl in the Tower as much as I did the first book. Vasya has grown into a young woman in this one, impersonating a boy and trying to avoid marriage vs the convent as she tries to help her brother who is a monk and her cousin, the Grand Prince of 14th century Moscow, save the kingdom from their dangerous enemies. She also has a fabulous horse!

Lots of story, action, tension and I never wanted to put the book down. So glad there is still one more book to read.

Friday, November 15, 2019


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A Passage to India, E M Forster, Harcourt Inc, 1924, 362 pp
This was the second most challenging book for me in October. It is a classic. I have only ever heard the highest praises for E M Forster and I discovered for myself that he was a wonderful writer. My trouble with it stemmed from the characters. Not that there are too many but each one had a first name, a last name and many of them also had an office title such as Civil Surgeon, the Collector, etc.
Had I not been entranced right away by Forster's melodious language, I might have noticed sooner that he used these names and titles interchangeably as he went along with his story. In the back of my mind I felt there were triple the number of characters than there actually were as Mr Aziz became the underling of the Civil Surgeon, Cyril became the headmaster, etc.

Finally I came to my senses and sought out a character list online. As I studied this, suddenly the whole story came into focus. I admit I felt a bit tricked or perhaps taken advantage of by Mr Forster. I think though that novels from earlier times coddled readers less than our carefully "edited for the masses" bestsellers of today. Another reading lesson learned.

A Passage to India is truly a wonderful story about the clash of cultures, the insensitive ways of colonialism, prejudice, racial tension, religious conflicts, etc. It even contains a mystery centered around a perceived assault by an Indian native on a young British woman. #MeToo in 1920s British ruled India. Who knew? Not me, until one of my reading groups sent me there.

Thursday, November 14, 2019


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The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett, G P Putnam's Sons, 1961, 543 pp
Note: I have some free time this week, something I've not had much of recently. So I am going to pour on the posts in an attempt to get caught up on all the books I have been reading. I hope I don't subtract too much from whatever free time you have!
Summary from Goodreads:
Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land. 

My Review:
This was the most challenging book I read in October. Normally I read about 30 pages an hour. It took me three days to read 119 pages and six more days to finish. In the end, it was also one of the most rewarding.

The barriers to my reading speed were the time period (1547 was not a known time to me), the humongous list of characters (though thankfully a character list is provided), the politics between Scotland and England in that time, and a fairly convoluted plot. With quite a bit of help from the internet, I conquered all!

A Game of Kings is the first in Dorothy Dunnett's six book series, The Lymond Chronicles. Francis Crawford of Lymond is a fantastic character whom I now intend to follow to the end of the series. He reminded me of one of my favorite Neal Stephenson characters, Jack Shaftoe from his Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Francis is  a wily, outrageous, determined patriot of Scotland, carrying deep personal burdens, who comes within inches of being hanged by his own people. It is as though he embodies all the evil of those he fights against. He understands the craven qualities of his enemies so completely that he defeats them by aping them.

I learned a lot more than Scottish history by reading and figuring out The Game of Kings. It was an education in how to read. If I want to read such deep and twisty historical books (and I do), I have to put in some work of my own. 16th century Scotland had many differences from present day America.
A big theme in the book is chess and I have never mastered that game's intricacies, but I was forced to understand it a bit better as Dunnett uses it as a metaphor for the times when kings and queens ruled the world.

So, thank you to Dorothy Dunnett (1923-2001) and to Helen at She Reads Novels. Dorothy must have been someone close to genius. Helen is one of the most knowledgeable bloggers I know when it comes to historical fiction and she introduced me to Dorothy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


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The Blunderer, Patricia Highsmith, Coward-McCann, 1954, 265 pp
This was Highsmith's third novel, published a year before The Talented Mr Ripley. As in Strangers On A Train, her first novel, it concerns a double murder. Two men lose their wives to what appears to be murder, but one of those men did kill his wife and the other did not. To twist things a bit more, both wives died in similar ways.
The two husbands become involved with each other in an antagonistic manner. Then there is the cop who wants to make a name for himself by solving the murders and pits these two men against each other further, in an effort to get confessions from both.

Her theme of the psychology of evil and violence which pervades her novels in is full play in The Blunderer. I have quite a few of her novels left to read and I am curious as to whether she just keeps working on that theme or if it evolves into more.

I guess I will find out eventually.

Sunday, November 10, 2019



The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It has been awarded annually since 1938 by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

I do not know how this whim came about but one day I got the idea to read a decade of Caldecott Medal winners. I have always included the Caldecott winners in the years of My Big Fat Reading Project. When I read those winning books from the 1940s and 1950s I recognized a few because my mom read to me and my sisters every night before bed. For some reason I wanted to compare the books from a decade I had not gotten to yet.  I chose the 1990s.

Here are the ten books I read with short comments on each:
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1990: Ed Young translated and illustrated this Chinese version of the Red-Riding Hood tale. Po Po is the grandmother. The mother of her three grandchildren leaves to visit Po Po because it is her birthday. While she is gone, a wolf comes to the children's home, claiming to be their grandmother. After figuring out that it is not Po Po, they trick the wolf. In fact, the kill it!
The illustrations are watercolor and pastel, appearing in panels, soft-edged with mists and shadows but also lots of color.

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1991: I had to read this one several times before I "got it." Each double-page spread is divided into quadrants, each showing a part of four different stories that by the end seem to merge. I wonder if a child would understand it more easily than I did.

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1992: This story involves frogs who fly about on lily pads one night. Leaving their wetlands pond they invade a neighborhood where they frolic about in the yards and streets in the moonlight until they return to their pond at dawn. 
The story is as crazy as a cartoon but the illustrations have the look of art.

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1993: One of my favorites. With illustrations reminiscent of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the author creates a story based on Charles Blondin, the famous 19th century French tightrope walker. Mirette, a daredevil of a little girl who is always climbing on things, meets a famous tightrope walker who has come to rest at her mother's inn after an accident. He has become afraid of heights.
By convincing the man to teach her, she helps him recover from his fear. A more magical and beautiful picture book I had never read.

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1994: Allen Say wrote and illustrated this one. He honors his Japanese grandfather with his own paintings to recreate the love of both of them for Japan and America. The grandfather was an immigrant who took Allen to visit Japan years later. Both felt a constant desire to be in each country at the same time.

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1994: Sometimes the winning books are both written and illustrated by the same person. In this one, the author wrote a fine story about what riots might mean to the children who live through them, inspired by the Los Angeles riots in 1992. 
David Diaz won for his striking illustrations with boldly colored drawings of the characters set against collages of objects. The results are a stunning synergy of talent.

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1995: This was the funniest of the books I read for the project. In fact, it is hilarious.
Officer Buckle collects safety tips and goes around to schools sharing his tips with the kids. They are very bored.
Then his department gets a dog named Gloria, a trained K-9. Buckle starts taking Gloria along on his safety speeches and the kids love it. You'll have to read it to see why.

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1996: I felt this one might be too scary for little children. It is based on the medieval legend of the Golem, a tale of supernatural forces called upon by a rabbi to fight the oppression of Jews in 1580s Prague.
The illustrations are stunning. There are many more words of text than in most picture books. I loved learning the original legend and I think somewhat older children would benefit from learning it too.
I also admire the ALA for awarding the prize to this author.
In A Note at the back of the book, a fuller explanation of Golem and its history is given, along with details about how oppression of Jews gave rise to the establishment of Israel.

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1998: Another one of my favorites for the decade. The author and illustrator creates a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale based on several different versions.
The illustrations are all his original oil paintings with lots of peacocks! As well as recreating the tale, his paintings are in the Italian Renaissance style. 
In his author's note he references the history of the fairy tale and mentions the versions he consulted. The book is so beautiful, I want to purchase my own copy.

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1999: We come to the end of this project with a biography! Wilson Bentley was born in 1865 in Jericho, VT, where he lived all his life. His family were farmers. He is the first known photographer of snowflakes.
First line: "In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything else in the world."
The author tells the story of Bentley's life and that is a story of what can happen when you follow a passion.
Mary Azarian, the illustrator who won the medal, filled the book with woodcuts colored in the blues and whites and grays of a Vermont winter, accented with reds, greens and wood shades.
A wonderful book because it is filled with wonder.

I hope you enjoyed this brief tour through a decade of Caldecott Medal winners. All of these books are in print and available at your favorite bookstore or local library. My gratitude goes out to the Los Angeles Public Library for keeping all the books in their catalogue and to my local branch librarians who helped me locate the books. 

If you have little ones in your life, any of these books would make excellent holiday gifts.

Do you have any tales of your own about reading these books to kids or having them read to you?

Friday, November 08, 2019


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The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E Harrow, Redbook Books, 2019, 371 pp
Just today I was proclaiming on one of my friend's blogs that I don't read romance novels. Then I sat down to write this review and realized that I do like love stories. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is built around two wonderful love stories set amidst a complex historical tale in the 19th century. The narrator is a woman who lost her mother in infancy and whose father comes and goes, so she is a little more than half an orphan.
When our heroine, named January, was seven she found a door to another world. The world she lived in was a world of privilege as the ward of an extremely rich man who seemed to be her protector. He was also the man responsible for sending her father on long journeys for reasons unknown to January. The door she found as a young girl and and a strange book she found later may contain answers to the mystery of her life.

I loved this book with all my heart. Not everyone does, including the other two readers with whom I discussed it, but I love them for leading me to the book. Alix E Harrow was trained as an historian, though she jumped that track and wrote a debut novel that may have a flaw or two but deals with portals to other worlds. The villains of the story are evil rich men who would have those portals closed lest they let in new and strange ideas that might upset the order upon which their wealth depends.

Ever since I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, I have been fascinated by the idea of portals that lead to other worlds. Therefore this novel was just right for me. There are wonders beyond portals, full of adventure and often danger, but always possibilities that you might find your true self, not to mention true love.

If that sort of thing appeals to you, you will want to read The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019


Big month for reading groups, though two of my groups are reading the same book! Watch for it.

Molly's Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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One Book At A Time:
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Carol's Group:
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Bookie Babes: 
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Have you read and/or discussed any of these? What will your reading groups discuss in November?