Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

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Book Series Review: China Bayles Herbal Mysteries

China Bayles is the main character of the 28 and counting China Bayles Herbal Mysteries, a cozy mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert. After an intense career as a lawyer, China Bayles moves to the small college town of Pecan Springs, Texas to restart her life as the owner of an herbal shop. China uses her logic and  critical thinking skills gained as a lawyer and her knowledge of herbs and human nature gathered as a business woman to solve the mysteries and crimes that she and her best friend Ruby seem to fall into in their not quite quiet little town.

Each book features an herb that figures predominately as the title, theme, and key to the mystery. In addition, Albert sprinkles herbal facts, recipes, and even the occasional craft to support the herbal theme. The generous number of books in the series allows readers to follow the milestones of China’s life in Pecan Springs as her relationships, business, and role in the community grows. China is the kind of character you want to get to know in a small town like Pecan Springs. She’s funny, friendly, and has all the typical concerns and baggage that readers can relate to in a heartbeat like her stress in pulling together a meal after a long day or her musings over wardrobe and weight.

China Bayles Herbal Mysteries are the perfect books to savor on a summer weekend while sipping iced tea with something sweet.

Fresh Mint Iced Tea

Albert generously shares through out the series different recipes that China and best friend and business partner, Ruby would serve in their tea shop venture Thyme for Tea or at home. However, this fresh mint tea outlines a simple process that can be done as a quick gather in the garden after work that will be ready in time for a week night supper.

  • 8 sprigs of mint per cup of water
  • Optional: mix and match mint sprigs with basil, lemon verbena, lemon balm, or chamomile
  • Honey or sweetener of choice to taste or one sprig of fresh stevia per cup of water
  • Boiling water half the amount of water needed based on number of fresh herb sprigs gathered
  • Ice to equal to half the amount of water needed based on number of fresh herb sprigs gathered
  • Garnish: a slice of fresh citrus – lemon, lime, orange and/or a small slice of melon – watermelon

Let the fresh herbs, sweetener, and steep in the hot water for 10 minutes in a heat proof pitcher to create a concentrated liquid. Add the ice and let cool in the refrigerator until serving. Remove the pitcher herbs with tongs and serve with a fresh sprig of mint and ice in individual glasses. Add a garnish of citrus and/or melon for extra flavor.

Variation: use 4 sprigs of herbs and one tea bag per cup of water

 

China Bayles, lives in Pecan Springs, TX so in honor of her town here are two pecan recipes to snack on while reading about her adventures.

Pecan Butter Balls

  • 2 cups pecans
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup melted butter
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Chop the pecans in a blender or food processor until you have two cups. Combine all of the ingredients except confectioners’ sugar. Gather the dough into a ball. With floured hands, shape into one-inch balls and bake on ungreased cookie sheets. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and spray them with Pam. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes. Pull the cookies and papers off the cookie sheet and onto a cooling rack and let them cool slightly; be sure they’re still warm and then gently shake them in a bag with the confectioners’ sugar. Place them back on the paper and add more confectioners’ sugar while they cool. Makes 5 dozen.

 

Ginger Pecan Oatmeal Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 cup quick cooking oatmeal
  • 3/4 cup pecan halves
  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger  or 2 teaspoons grated crystallized ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks, 6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg

Directions

Grind the oatmeal and pecan pieces in a food processor until they resemble cornmeal–reasonably fine but with some texture. Whisk the whole wheat flour, cornstarch, ginger, salt and baking soda together in a medium bowl. Whisk in the oat/nut mixture.

In another medium bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until smooth and light, about 1 minute. Gradually add the granulated and light brown sugar; continue beating until evenly combined, about 3 minutes more. Add the vanilla and the egg.

Mix in the dry ingredients to make a dough. Line a 1 1/2-quart loaf pan or 3 mini loaf pans with plastic wrap and pack dough into the bottom half of the pan. Press to level off the dough. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on top and refrigerate until completely firm, about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Remove dough from the pan and unwrap. Slice dough in half lengthwise if using a large pan. Slice each log crosswise into 1/4-inch thick cookies. Place the cookies about a 1-inch apart on the prepared pans. Bake until golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool and crisp. Serve.

Store cookies in a tightly sealed container for up to 1 week.

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Series, Susan Wittig Albert

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Book Series Review: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series by Susan Wittig Albert is filled with many delightful ingredients — cozy mystery, historical Lake District setting, fantasy elements. Albert uses the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter as her main character. As a single female Londoner, Beatrix gets a mixed welcome to her new home in the village of Near Sawrey where she goes to her farm to write and draw her books as well as grieve for the loss of her fiance and escape her domineering parents. Over the course of the series Beatrix solves mysteries large and small while slowly becomes an integral and respected part of the village community.

Each book features a main mystery as well a couple of smaller intriguing issues that are neatly concluded by Beatrix’s keen observation skills, quick wit, and compassionate heart. Albert adds a whimsical fantasy addition by including a parallel problem faced by the animals of the village community who act and talk in the same manner as Beatrix’s literary creations – helpful dogs, generous badgers, marauding rats, even a brave dragon makes an appearance. The language of this series is definitely within the reach of readers as young as upper elementary or middle school and the light fantasy element would be appealing to them.

Albert’s attention to historical detail brings you into the heart of village life of Near Sawrey, as her characters react and reflect on their daily life, enjoy meals, gossip about neighbors, apply manners according to social status, dress for outings, and work the land of the Lake District. The land itself, like the people and animals, becomes a character in how it influences village life. At least once in each book, Beatrix takes time to just appreciate the land with walks or picnics or sketches. The land feeds her need for beauty as well as provides a venue for reflections.

In addition, Albert provides historical commentary in Historical Notes, Resources, recipes, maps, character lists, and glossaries of Lake District dialect words. This series would make a fine bridge into historical novels and period literature for young readers. Readers interested in the life of Beatrix Potter will also enjoy seeking the biographical references listed in the Resources.

Even though, readers know that the series is fiction, Albert makes Beatrix such a plausible and real character that we want to spend time with her. We cheer her steps as she grows from her grief, matches wits with the local matriarch, and discovers the answers to local mysteries. We watch as her makes friends, rebels against her controlling parents, and finds a new romance. We want to become her friend and just sit down and share a cup of tea while she spins another fascinating story. This is the perfect series to read on a picnic blanket in front of a beautiful lake view with some tea and scones.

Tea

In The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix often gathers clues while sharing a cup of tea visiting different villagers. The tea served was probably a black tea where the leaves go through an oxidation process in order to produce a richer flavor. The heartier flavor of black teas enable it to be served with either milk or lemon. Ceylon or Darjeeling teas would be examples of teas that would be served any time of the day. If Beatrix went on a morning visit, a strong tea, such as Assam or English Breakfast would be served. A lighter tea, such as Earl Grey or Formosa Oolong would be served in the afternoon without the milk or lemon due to its more delicate flavors.

Scones

Scones are a traditional treat to serve with tea. In the Cottage Tales series, Beatrix got her scones from a friend that ran a village bakery. This recipe was originally developed for an office gift-in-a-jar exchange. The basic dry mix was layered in a glass jar topped with the dry ingredients for the cranberry orange variation and decorated with a pretty cloth bow and recipe card with the instructions. Note: the addition of an egg is not a traditional ingredient in scones, however, I found a prize winning recipe using an egg and have discovered that the texture less crumbly making it easier to spread toppings. You can omit the egg for a more traditional recipe with the addition of a TBSP or two of extra liquid in the wet ingredient section.

Basic Dry Scone Mix (can be mixed and stored in a jar)

  • 2 ½  C self-rising flour baking mix or buttermilk biscuit mix
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 2 Tbs dried milk powder (optional, unless using juice as a flavor add-in instead of milk/half & half)

Wet Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1/3 cup milk or half/half
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Flavor Add-in Variations (Note dried ingredients can be stored with dry mix)

  • 3/4 cup cranberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS orange zest or 1 tsp orange extract or 1/3 cup orange juice frozen concentrate (defrosted)  in place of milk
  • 3/4 cup frozen blueberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS lemon zest or 1 tsp lemon extract or 1/3 lemon juice concentrate in place of milk
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries & 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  • decrease butter to 2 TBS, add 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese & 2 tsp herbs de provence
  • replace sugar with 3 TBS maple syrup & 1 tsp cinnamon & 1/2 tsp ground ginger or 1 tsp minced crystallized ginger

Preheat the oven to 400. 

Start with dry mix in a bowl.

Top with wet ingredients.

Add any flavor variations from above.

Mix gently with a spatula until the dough just comes together.   

Using a cookie scoop, drop dough balls on to a sheet pan and lightly pat down to flatten – makes about 12 individual or 24 mini-bite scones.

Optional: sprinkle sugar on the tops for a slightly crunchy, shiny topping that browns faster.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on size, until the edges are just lightly browned on edges – tastes best warm from the oven.

 

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Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

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Booklist: If You Like Peter Rabbit… Bunny Books for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Fallen, David Baldacci

Book Review: The FallenDavid Baldacci

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Fiction: The FallenDavid Baldacci

Amos Decker remembers everything. He cannot forget. After a traumatic brain injury on the football field, his mind changed and he developed a literally photographic memory. This is a terrific help when it comes to solving crimes for the FBI, but far from helpful when dealing with his own memories. Decker found his wife and daughter murdered. For most of us, memories dim with time. Most of us don’t have perfect recall. Decker’s memories are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. For him, murder is always personal.

 

David Baldacci has created a special detective in his series of “Memory Man” books. (Memory Man, 2015; The Last Mile, 2016; The Fix, 2017; The Fallen, 2018.) Amos Decker has a perfect memory. He also has synesthesia, which means his mind associates colors and/or smells with certain things, i.e. whenever there is a dead body he sees the color blue. With these changes in the way information is processed came changes in the way he processes emotions. He has trouble with empathy and often does not weigh the emotional impact of his words or actions.

 

When he is on vacation with his FBI partner visiting her sister’s family, Amos spots something strange in a neighboring house. Running over to investigate, he sees a fire. Breaking in to stop the fire, he finds two bodies, one dressed in a police uniform. He soon learns these are the fifth and sixth murders in this small town within a very few weeks. Amos and his partner offer their services to the local police; serial killers are their FBI area of expertise, while murder is not typically common in small-town Pennsylvania. What they don’t realize is that murder is not the only criminal act in this town. One character tells Amos, “Nothing is illegal in Baronville.” That may have been true before, but that is not acceptable to the Memory Man.

 

Baldacci is a bestselling author for good reason. His characters are solid and memorable. His dialog is brisk. His descriptions of small town life in Rust Belt Pennsylvania ring true to my observations of the area. He devotes several pages to the scourge of the opioid epidemic, describing it and its impact in chilling detail. All this while keeping a wide-ranging plot moving forward and never losing sight of the core humanity of his characters. Amos Decker is a complex protagonist who has come to terms with his new normal, a normal that is far different from the “normal” that most people have. But in this book, he is confronted with some limitations to his memory. That forces him to look hard at who he is–is he a walking, breathing memory machine or is he a man with a prodigious memory? He also has to deal with a six-year old girl who reminds him of his murdered daughter, and who is confronting a terrible loss herself. Can he find the compassion and empathy within himself to be more than a detective? Can he remember more than just the facts and remember how to care? Those challenges guide the character’s growth.

 

I loved the Memory Man character going into this fourth book of the series. This book makes me love him even more. Baldacci has a special talent for creating powerful characters that do not remain static. The Fallen may be his best work in a long and distinguished career.

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Book Review: The FallenDavid Baldacci

Book Review: Song of the Lion, Anne Hillerman

Book Review: Song of the LionAnne Hillerman

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Fiction Mystery: Song of the LionAnne Hillerman

For decades, Tony Hillerman brought New Mexico to life through the pages of his marvelous books. Featuring Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Hillerman wrote mysteries that shared the beauty of the Navajo nation and its people. Often the landscape itself became a character, with its sacred mountains, its desert climate, and its vast distances between the small towns in the reservation and nearby.

 

Tony Hillerman died in 2008, but his characters continue to live in new works by his daughter Anne. In her 2017 novel Song of the Lion she continues their story as they work to solve a car bombing. An alumni game has brought past basketball heroes back to Shiprock High School. One of those alumni heroes has apparently also brought an enemy with him, as his car blows up during the game, killing a young man whose connection to the target is unknown. Officer Bernadette Manuelito, wife of Jim Chee and herself a Navajo police officer, is attending the game as a spectator. When the bomb goes off she immediately begins working to secure the scene and help the victim. Afterward, she, her husband, and retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn find themselves protecting the target of the blast and working to solve the mystery. Who wanted to harm the man, now a lawyer in Phoenix? Was this related to the mediation he was involved with over plans for a resort in the Grand Canyon? Who was the dead man, and how did he fit into the situation? Throughout, Hillerman’s characters weave their way through Navajo and other native tribal sensitivities and through the desert Southwest which is the silent but still powerful character in all of the novels.

 

Anne Hillerman shares the profound respect for the Diné, the Navajo name for themselves, that her father had. You cannot read a Hillerman book without appreciating the care he or she has for the people who inspired those characters. Anne Hillerman may be a bilagáana (white person) herself, but she writes in love and with a deep desire to get it right. Her father was named a “Friend of the Navajo” by the tribal council in the early 1990s, and she clearly works to make sure his legacy and her own continue accordingly.

 

There is not a bad place to jump into this series. Whether you pick up the latest book (2018’s Cave of Bones) or go all the way back to the beginning (Tony Hillerman’s 1970 The Blessing Way), you will be rewarded by strong characters, intriguing plots, beautiful settings, and the powerful and rich culture of the Diné. Anne Hillerman, like her father Tony Hillerman, can take a standard mystery novel and weave into it the beauty of New Mexico and its native people to create something beautiful.

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Book Review: Song of the LionAnne Hillerman

Book List: Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

Book List: Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

Growing-up to be an actual astronaut is a daunting and competitive career path considering how many astronauts there really are in the world.  So why is it that so many children have dreams of working or living in space? Perhaps it is the adventure that challenges the imagination and compels the dreams — equating the vastness of space with the unlimited opportunities it could provide. The following shared reading book list features both nonfiction/biography books as well as fictional works to inspire your child’s interest in adventures in space.

Before Shared Reading

Ask your child questions about the book cover – encourage your child to make predictions about the story or book information based on the cover elements: title, author, illustrator, picture, book blurb/summary. Share any background information you have about the book, for example: our library newsletter said this said this book won an award for _____.

During Shared Reading

Asking questions is a great way to make shared reading more interactive. Remember to balance the number of questions asked with the flow of the story, so your child maintains interest in both reading and talking about the book.

Also maintain a balance in the kinds of questions asked. Alternate quiz type questions with question prompts for your child’s input about the story or topic.  For instance, if it looks like your child is getting distracted, then point to a picture and ask a simple fact finding question (What color is ___? How many ____ are there?  Where is ___?) to draw your child’s attention back to the page and story.  In order to deepen understanding or clarify concepts, ask open-ended questions it connect your child to the text and encourage critical thinking (Why do you think the character did ___? How would you feel if ___ happened to you? What do you think will happen if  ___?)

After Shared Reading

You can encourage your child to ask questions about a story or book topic by: wondering aloud about ___, pretending to ask the author about ____, or taking turns asking each other questions during a re-read session. Ask your child to share a simple book review: What was their favorite part of the book? Why? Does this book remind them of any other books?

Provide your child with the opportunity to ask their own questions about a story or book topic. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to a question. Use that as an opportunity to work together find answers. Model for them a simple research process: writing questions down, looking for answers in credible resources, discussing if you’ve gathered enough information to satisfy your child’s question and curiosity, and then writing down the answer as well as any new questions.

Nonfiction Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

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Chasing Space

Leland Melvin

Nonfiction Memoir Ages 8 – 12

LeLand Melvin narrates his journey from NFL draftee, through injuries and accidents, to serving as an astronaut on the International Space Station.  There is also a grown-up version of the book.

 

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The Darkest Dark

Words by Chris Hadfield

Pictures by the Fan Brothers

Picture Book Memoir Ages 4- 8

Before Chris Hadfield grew-up to be an astronaut, he was a little boy who was afraid of the dark.

 

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Mae Among the Stars

Words by Roda Ahmed

Pictures by  Burrington

Picture Book Ages 4 – 8

Celebrates Mae Jemison’s persistance to become the first African-American woman to travel in space.

 

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Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space

Tam O’Shaughnessy

Nonfiction Biography Ages 10 – 14

Traces the journey of Sally Ride as America’s first woman in space with vivid details that share her personality behind the headlines.

 

Fiction Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

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Max Goes to the Space Station

Words by Jeffrey Bennett

Pictures by Michael Carroll

Picture Book, Ages 7 – 9

In this book, Max the dog not only goes to a space station, he also saves it! Note the side text boxes with scientific information which can be shared during or after follow-up re-readings of the story. Part of the 2014 Storytime from Space Project when this book was actually read on the international space station. Also, part of an award winning series of books.

 

 

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Space Boy

Words and Pictures by Leo Landry

Picture Book, Ages 4 – 7

Nicholas takes a picnic adventure to the moon to enjoy the quiet solitude of space before bedtime. Great for children who need a little quiet time in their routine to re-charge and re-group.

 

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Green Wilma, Frog in Space

Words and Pictures by Tedd Arnold

Picture Book, Ages 4 – 8

Green Wilma, a frog, and Blooger, a baby space alien, accidentally get their places switched between earth and a space ship. Oops! Can they get home again before supper? Children who enjoy the Hi! Fly Guy series will adore this quirky book. This book was also an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice book and a PBS Storytime featured selection.

 

 

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CatStronauts Mission Moon

Drew Brockington

Graphic Novel, Ages 8 – 12, First of Series

In a universe populated by cats, a brave team of CatStronauts are on a mission to establish a solar energy power plant on the moon.

 

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George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt

Words by Lucy and Stephen Hawking

Illustrated by Garry Parsons

Chapter Book, Ages 8 – 12, First in a Series

Professor Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy co-wrote this series. Best friends George and Annie team-up for an across the universe scavenger hunt discovering the wonders of space and space travel. Includes reference information, essays, and photographs from the latest space research.

 

 

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Mousetronaut

Words by Mark Kelly

Pictures by C. P. Payne

The story of Meteor, the mouse,  was inspired by an actual mouse that flew with astronaut Mark Kelly on the space shuttle Endeavor.

 

Book List: Astronaut Books for Shared Reading with Children

 

 

 

Book Review: The Tenth Justice, Brad Meltzer

Book Review: The Tenth JusticeBrad Meltzer

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I will admit, I am a sucker for some of the blockbuster authors. Baldacci, Grisham, Clancy, Patterson–I have read and will continue to read their books. An author who can tell a story, make me like a character, and pull me into a place will get my attention. 

 

Brad Meltzer’s debut novel, The Tenth Justice, was published in 1997. Supreme Court clerk Ben Addison knows he cannot reveal deliberations or decisions outside the court. When a friendly former clerk just wants to casually reminisce and talk shop, though, what could it hurt? As it turns out, plenty. Meltzer’s book introduces sharp characters, has an intriguing plot with several twists, and pulls the reader inside the Supreme Court and into the life of one of its clerks–a life that is unraveling before our eyes.

 

Meltzer is at his best when painting the portraits of Ben’s closest friends. Although from Boston, Ben’s roommates have been besties with him since high school. Nathan, Ober, and Eric each found their own way to Washington, DC, but they also found their way together. Sharing a house, the friends are each deeply affected by Ben’s troubles. The consequences of their actions together and separately test the limits of friendship and make for some of the funniest and some of the most painful scenes in the book.

 

Meltzer has written several books since this auspicious debut. I may be late to the party, but I definitely plan to add his later works to my TBR list. It may not carry the weight of the Supreme Court, but that would be a good decision for you as well.

 

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Book Review: The Tenth JusticeBrad Meltzer

Book Review: Foreigner Series,  C. J. Cherryh

Book Review: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

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Science Fiction: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

The first Foreigner book was published in 1994. C. J. Cherryh won her first (!) Hugo Award in 1979. Sustained excellence is hard. Bands come and go. Companies wax and wane. Even countries rise and fall. In any walk of life, maintaining a high standard is a constant struggle. After twenty-four years, nineteen novels and two short stories, she could perhaps be forgiven if she went through the motions on her latest offering. Instead, she continues writing must-read books in a must-read series. In a genre that has tended to overlook talented women, Cherryh’s body of work demands respect.

 

Bren Cameron is the main protagonist through the series. Cameron is the “paidhi,” an intermediary between the native (non-human) “Atevi” population and the human colony on the planet. The role developed almost 200 years earlier, created to maintain peace between the species after a war almost wiped out the humans soon after they landed. Traditionally, the paidhi translated documents, negotiated trade deals, and basically tried to stay out of sight. Largely ignored by the atevi and forgotten by the humans, for two centuries the paidhi was kept in the dark and left to his own devices, unable and unwilling to serve the needs of either species.

 

A young Bren Cameron accepted the position straight out of college, about the same time as a new ruler became “aiji” of the Atevi. “Tabini” became supreme leader of the Atevi with a vision to unify the Atevi and to reconsider the relationship between humans and Atevi. In these goals he found a willing ally in Cameron. The need for change accelerated when a new spaceship appeared in the sky. The space station humans had built and abandoned two centuries before still orbited the planet, but when a new ship with humans arrived, the Atevi realized they needed to catch up technologically to their visitors and the guests they shared their planet with.

 

Through the Foreigner series, Cameron strives to be the impartial mediator that the “paidhi” role requires. He redefines it multiple times, developing it under Tabini’s direction into essentially a cabinet role within the Atevi government. He becomes a negotiator, not only between the island community of humans and the mainland population of Atevi, but between the spaceship humans and the planetary populations, between different Atevi factions and Tabini’s government, and ultimately between a new species, the Koh, and the two populations he serves. Cherryh does a remarkable job shepherding Cameron’s growth as a character through the series, changing his perception of himself from that of a human serving a human function to a human serving an Atevi function to a person–still human–but representing people of whatever species they may be.

 

The other main character of the books is Tabini’s young son, Cajeiri. Cajeiri is born early in the series, but as he becomes a boy his role in the books becomes more prominent. The most recent books in the series split their attention and their perspective between Cameron’s activities and Cajeiri’s. Cajeiri starts as a brash, immature child who tries to escape his caregivers and find adventure. Not appreciating that as the son of the ruler, adventure could quickly become danger, Cajeiri is wont to make poor choices and rash decisions–just like many 7-year-old humans do. As he ages through several of the books, though, Cajeiri matures. He learns from his mistakes, he embraces his role as future ruler of his people, and he begins to attract followers who are loyal to him personally. A bright and precocious child, he brings a point of view to the books that is both childlike (and sometimes childish) and distinctly non-human. He deeply admires both his father and Bren Cameron, and they in turn grow to trust him. Through his adventures in space with Cameron, he develops his own human friendships that violate tradition and precedent. Cajeiri will clearly become a leader who takes his father’s vision of interspecies cooperation to new heights.

 

Cherryh is remarkable at switching perspectives from human to Atevi, from adult to child, and from planet to space. Atevi dialog is distinct from human. Relationships are different. “Love” and “friendship” mean very different things to humans and Atevi, and those relationships and the words we use around them figure prominently through the series. Loyalty and service, politics and tradition, all the sundry inner workings of family and clan and city and community are outwardly similar in many regards between the species, but the devil is in the details and without understanding the differences misunderstandings are easy–and potentially deadly. Cherryh weaves a tapestry that is both familiar in its threads and yet deceptively intricate in its stitches.

 

The Foreigner series is actually several series, each a trilogy. The most recent book (2018) is Emergence. Although you can enter the series at almost any point and quickly capture the direction, it is well worth the investment of time to go back to the original book (Foreigner, 1994) and start from the beginning.

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Book Review: Foreigner Series, C. J. Cherryh

 

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Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew Sullivan

Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan

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Fiction: Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan

 

Lydia is a bookseller at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. A large, independent bookstore in Denver, CO, it is the home for a number of quirky employees and for a number of regular patrons, the BookFrogs as the employees call them. One night a young member of the BookFrogs, Joey, hangs himself on the third floor during Lydia’s shift. This tragedy starts Lydia on an arc of discovery, about Joey, about herself, and about the night twenty years earlier that changed her life forever.

 

First, this is just a cool book. The characters are fun, the dialog is fresh, and the story feels real. Lydia’s journey is authentic. She is a young woman who survived a brutal event, an event that cost her almost everything dear to her. This has left scars that cannot be hidden, though hide them she tries: a new name, a refusal to discuss her past, complete disconnection from her father. But Joey’s death draws her reluctantly down a path of rediscovery and reconnection with that past. Old faces return to her life in new ways. In unraveling the threads of Joey’s life, she begins reweaving threads of her own. Matthew Sullivan makes Lydia a heroine that we can cheer for. She is broken, but her response to the brokenness is hopeful and empowering.

 

For an adult with fond memories of his childhood in Denver, this book is delightful. Colfax Avenue could almost be a character in the book. America’s longest street, Colfax winds through the neighborhoods of Denver carrying traffic to every kind of business. Sullivan takes his readers through some of these neighborhoods. The LoDo of the book is a real place. The Bright Ideas bookstore itself is a thinly veiled homage to the venerable Tattered Cover Bookstore, one of the best bookstores in America! (No hometown bias in this review!) Sullivan knows Denver–he used to work at the Tattered Cover–and his love for the city is apparent throughout.

 

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a solid book. It is a mystery, but it is not bogged down in procedural drama that so often marks the genre. Instead, the mystery of Lydia’s self-discovery, her journey toward finding her own answers about her own life, guides the reader through the streets of Denver into the life of a special young woman.

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Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew Sullivan

 

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

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Science Fiction: An Unkindness of GhostsRivers Solomon

I love finding new books from authors with different voices. Often, their characters are refreshing and also speak with different voices, representing populations that open my eyes to people I might otherwise overlook.  Rivers Solomon is such an author, and the lead character “Aster” in An Unkindness of Ghosts has that voice. Aster is poor, mixed race, sexually ambivalent (“they” is the preferred pronoun for the character–and for the author), and leaps off the page with fire and rage.

 

The Matilda is a spaceship that has been searching for a new home for humanity for centuries. On board the spaceship, differences between race and class mean everything. A religious/military government, basically comprised of white people, rules harshly over the entire ship. Lower decks are lower class–and largely black or brown in skin color. Into this stratified world walks Aster. Aster is brilliant in many ways: studying under the ship’s Surgeon General Aster has learned traditional medicine. Aster has also learned from books and from experimentation how to grow plants and distill medicines that replace those withheld from the lower classes by the ruling elites. That genius is both recognized and resented by people throughout the ship. Others with darker skin appreciate the skill, but resent that Aster has access to parts of the ship they cannot visit. Guards and rulers also appreciate Aster’s skill, but feel compelled to remind Aster constantly that they are in charge. Aster is a freak, and few can see past the freakishness to appreciate the person inside.

 

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a powerful book, creating a world that pulls the reader in. It is dark. The book does not offer easy answers, it does not end with “and they lived happily ever after.” Aster is a survivor. Sometimes, survival is ugly. It is also triumphant, though. Aster’s answers may not be the answers they, or we, were looking for. But life often refuses to give the answers we want. What matters is what we do with the answers we are given. An Unkindness of Ghosts demands that we examine who the “freaks” are–those who are born differently, who choose a different path, who wear a different skin, who love fiercely the people they love whatever their gender, or those who draw lines between “us” and “them,” who use skin color and gender to divide, who treat power as the opportunity to abuse and mistreat. The Matilda may be a dystopian nightmare. Perhaps, that type of misery is the fertilizer needed for an Aster to fully bloom.

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Fiction: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

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George Saunders book “Lincoln in the Bardo” has won some of the most prestigious literary awards given, including being only the second American book to win the Man Booker Prize. It is an extraordinary book, truly unlike anything I have read before.

 

The book is set in the few days following the death of Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son. Willie Lincoln died of illness during the Civil War. He was a boy who many felt was the very image of his father, more in his heart and demeanor than in his appearance, and Lincoln was devastated by this personal loss. Compounding the loss of his child, the progress of the Civil War was very much in doubt at this time. It was a dark period in the White House.

 

Saunders sets this scene with quote after quote from historians, contemporary observers, and historical documents. In fact, the entire book appears to be a series of quotes in succession. Fans and critics of the president have their say, with both noting that the boy died the same night as the White House held a gala. No doubt the music from the gala traveled to the boy’s sick room, but provided no comfort to the child nor to his distracted parents who frequently excused themselves from their guests to check on him. Many of the quotes are eerily similar to what we read on Twitter and other social media today. Criticism and defense of the president has a strong historical foundation.

 

Once the boy dies, he is interred in a nearby cemetery. The style of the book continues as a series of quotes, but now the quotes are from other residents of the cemetery. People who died and are interred there now get their chance to weigh in, observing the burial of the child and interpreting the actions of the living through the lens of their own lives. And Willie Lincoln himself gets a voice, reflecting upon his own short life and the love he shared with his father.

 

“The Bardo” is a Buddhist construct, a place of waiting where the dead can let go of their lives and then move on to the next plane of existence. In this cemetery lie people who have been waiting, some for days, others for decades, unable to let go of their hopes and dreams, or their “sins” and wrongdoings, and transition to the next stage. We meet and get to know these self-imprisoned souls in their own words and in the descriptions given of them by their fellows. Saunders’ “quotes” are extraordinary, finding voices for people who are lost, alone, disenfranchised, abandoned, and confused. Each character has a unique voice. Their interactions with each other allow their stories to unfold. We meet ordinary people, white and black, rich and poor, shopkeepers and preachers and housewives and the child of a president, and each gets the chance to speak and be heard. There is no “plot” in the traditional sense, but we find the story moving forward by the statements and conversations of the spirits stuck waiting for futures they will not get, held back by pasts they cannot undo.

 

President Lincoln comes to the cemetery to visit his son’s body. That simple event, one that is recorded by historians and contemporaries, creates a crisis of faith in the Bardo. Each spirit waiting there is forced to confront the real reason why he or she is still waiting. Their stories, told in the first person with all the biases and lack of perspective we have about ourselves, are the beauty of this book. You can almost see Saunders sitting there with a tape recorder, capturing their conversations and reflections and sharing them verbatim, unvarnished and unredacted. The author has an extraordinary gift for finding the voice and unveiling the motivations of his characters.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo touched me. Deeply. The book may be about ghosts. But it is the most profoundly alive story I have read in years.

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders