Saturday, June 24, 2017

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

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This is not a book I would normally read but I am tutoring a young boy who will enter fifth grade in September and his entire class was given one book to read over the summer: Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. 

This student and I have been meeting weekly for about six months and are working on his reading and writing skills. Now we are both reading Out of My Mind independently, writing chapter summaries, creating character profiles, and making a list of unfamiliar vocabulary words. Then we compare our notes to make sure he has captured the important details. He will no doubt be writing about some aspect of the book when school starts and I want to be sure he is thinking about more than just what happens in the story.

We settled on giving ourselves five weeks to read the book which is an average of eight chapters a week or about 60 pages. For him, it's a long book for a short summer. 

The narrator is Melody, an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. She has a photographic memory, is funny, smart, and rarely feels sorry for herself. She can't walk or talk or write. She has to be fed, dressed, and taken to the toilet. She uses a wheelchair fitted out with a communication board — a tray with letters, numbers, and phrases that she can point to. This is the only way she can express herself. That and what she calls her tornado explosions when she is totally frustrated.

Each chapter lets the reader in on one aspect of Melody's life: how she and her parents get along and how they never give up on her; how her teachers treat her; how the other kids in her class behave; how one doctor suggests she might be better off in an institutional home; how she adapts to pets, a younger sister, and a new friend.

Melody has a wonderful voice. Her wry comments on the world around her - known only to her because, remember, she can't speak or write - are quite astute. At times, Melody's story is heartbreaking but it never comes across as self-pitying.

Eventually, according to the book jacket, Melody is given the ability to speak through what I suspect is some sort of computer or tablet. But, we haven't gotten that far in the story yet.

My student and I have already had interesting discussions about what life must be like for Melody and how we might react to having her in our circle of family and friends. 

So that is what I will be reading for the next couple of weeks. And here I thought, at my age, I was finished having homework for the summer.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Cold Blue Blood, The Marx Sisters, and Unwelcome Guests

I have spent the past week fighting tiny ants in my kitchen. All of a sudden there was one, then two, then a swarm. (To me, any gathering of bugs over two is considered a swarm.) Mostly I was just smashing the one or two scurrying about, but recently I have had to resort to Bug Spray. 

In the mean time, I began two new mystery series. One by an author I already know and like — David Handler — and another by new-to-me author Barry Maitland.


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Mr. Handler, if you remember, is the creator of the Hoagy and Lulu series that I wrote about here. In The Cold Blue Blood he has created the unlikely duo of Mitch Berger, film critic, and Lieutenant Desiree Mitry of the Connecticut Major Crime Squad.

It is summer and Mitch, who is grieving the death of his young wife, has rented a cottage on a private island off the coast of Connecticut. Desiree enters the picture when Mitch unearths a body in the cottage garden plot. It turns out to be Niles, the man everyone thought had run off with his wealthy wife's money and his new girlfriend. Desiree is already investigating the murder of a woman who, as it turns out, is the girlfriend of the murdered Niles. 

I already like Mitch and his infinite knowledge of movies and actors. Desiree is a graduate of West Point and rescues and finds homes for feral cats. She also has a secret passion for rendering in charcoal crime scene photos. She doesn't show them to anyone. It is just her way of processing the gruesome sights she comes upon in her job. She is an intriguing character.


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The Marx Sisters introduces the team of Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla and Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock. 

When the elderly Meredith Winterbottom is found dead in her apartment in London's Jerusalem Lane, it looks as if she simply died in her sleep - until DS Kolla discovers a plastic bag in the garbage that contains hair and saliva of the dead woman. Was Mrs. Winterbottom smothered because she was the last property owner on the historic lane who refused to sell to the development company? Or was she murdered for the collection of papers she had in her possession that were written by Karl Marx?

There is no shortage of suspects and this one gets more and more entertaining the further along I read.

Both series are most promising. I do love a good mystery.

Now, a third mystery. Where are those pesky ants coming from?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas

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I discovered Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas through a review in the Guardian

Dragon's Green sounds as if it could be a small city park or perhaps an herbal tea, but it turns out to be a book that was left to Effie by her maternal grandfather, Griffin Truelove. Effie, who is eleven, has long suspected that her grandfather had something to do with magic, but it's not until he dies and leaves her his pouch of magical objects, his library of powerful books, and his mystical silver ring that she comes to realize she was right. Although confused to have this magic life thrust on her, she bravely carries forth. 

We first meet Effie five years after the Worldquake, an event during which the earth shook for seven-and-a-half minutes. It is a strange world now. There is no internet although there is something called the dim net. There are no cell phones and people carry pagers and use two-way radios to communicate. There is an organization called the Guild and another one - an evil one - known as Diberi. 

Effie's mother went missing after the Worldquake and is presumed dead. Effie's father, who has become distant from his daughter, sells the grandfather's library to a sleazy character. Effie's quest, with the help of her friends, is to rescue the books.

I am enjoying Effie's adventures with her newfound friends, Lexy, Maximilian, Wolf, and Raven. The book holds lovely descriptions of food, books, and cabinets full of curiosities. I am just along for the ride and putting my practical mind on the shelf and letting myself fall under the spell of this tale. 

It makes me wish that someday someone would bequeath me a library full of magical books and a pouch of enchanted objects.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Man Who Died Laughing by David Handler

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This is an entertaining mystery series featuring ghostwriter Stewart (Hoagy) Hoag and his faithful Bassett Hound Lulu.  Hoagy has a fondness for single malt whiskey. Lulu has a fondness for seafood. Author David Handler has created the dapper Hoagy, a writer who had one bestselling novel and then crashed and burned. Along with the crash came divorce from his wife. He got custody of Lulu. Now, he has taken to ghostwriting the memoirs of the rich and famous. And, solving mysteries.

In the first tale, The Man Who Died Laughing, Hoagy's subject is Sonny Day, one time partner in the comedy duo of Knight and Day. Sonny and Gabe Knight had a splendid movie and stage career going for years until they had a big public brawl at a famous Hollywood restaurant. No one has ever said what the cause of the fight was. That was some years ago and now Sonny wants to set the record straight. If he only lives long enough.
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In the second, The Man Who Lived by Night, Hoagy is in London to work with T.S. Scarr, rock star extraordinaire now a whacked out recluse living on his country estate. Lulu is with him of course and both are happy to be reunited for a time with Hoagy's ex-wife Merilee Nash the famous actress. But, someone in Scarr's life is keeping secrets about the death long ago of one of the band members and Hoagy's interviews are stirring up some not-so-happy memories.

I read the first book and moved right on to the second. The setup of both books is similar. The reader is given access to the transcripts of the taped interviews that Hoagy conducts with the characters. This is a different way of getting to know the personalities of the main people in the story and to hearing the backstory in their own words. These interviews are interspersed with chapters furthering the story and the action.

The time period for both is the 1980s with references in the first to Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, and others of that Hollywood scene. In the second mystery, there is talk of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Mersey Beat. All these 'real' details drew me even further in the stories.

There are eight mysteries in the series with another one due out in August — The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

I am quite taken with Hoagy's wit and sleuthing skills - both in trying to get to know his subjects and in trying to solve the murders. I also like the time period and the references to real celebrities.  

I look forward to more 'ghostwriting' with Hoagy and Lulu.