Matzo Frogs – A hopping-good children’s book about acts of kindness – #bookreview #children’s books

Matzo Frogs

Sally Rosenthal (author) and David Sheldon (illustrations)

(NewSouth Books hardcover)

Matzo Frogs is a fun tale, delightfully told and superbly illustrated. It tells and shows how one act of kindness can lead to another:  “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.”

The book has been created for children and for parents of children who are still learning to read. But adults also need to be reminded about the special powers of kindness and working together. Matzo Frogs can help with that task, too.

Matzo Frogs tells the story of kind-hearted Minnie Feinsilver. Her favorite cousins are coming over for Shabbat dinner, and Minnie is up early, fixing matzo ball soup. Unfortunately, Minnie has an accident and spills the soup. And she doesn’t have time to prepare a new batch. She has promised to spend the day helping a friend who is bedridden with a broken leg. So she goes off to do that good deed.

Her next-door neighbors, a colony of frogs living in a pond, know what has happened to Minnie, and they decide to help, to do a mitzvah, by preparing a new batch of matzo soup in her kitchen.

David Sheldon’s artwork brings the cooking adventure to hilarious life as the frogs hop into action, opening the recipe book, gathering the special ingredients, making the matzo balls, cooking the soup and jumping back home just before Minnie returns home to her surprise.

Minnie realizes that while she was out helping her friend, someone else has helped her by saving her Shabbat dinner for her cousins. And, when she finally figures out who did the mitzvah, she thanks them in a kind and special way.

The book’s author, Sally Rosenthal, is an Emmy Award-winning documentary film producer. Matzo Frogs is her first book. The illustrator, David Sheldon, has created artwork for more than 80 children’s books.

By the way, if you are hungry for some matzo soup but don’t want to gather  up and cook the ingredients or wait for kind frogs to fix it for you, here’s a link to a well-known packaged mix.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

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The Ides of April – An entertaining new Lindsey Davis detective series debut – #mystery #bookreview

The Ides of April

A Flavia Albia Mystery

Lindsey Davis

(Minotaur Books, hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio CD)

Many fans of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries set in first-century Rome will delight in this new spin-off series by London author Lindsey Davis. Readers eagerly seeking another unusual detective to follow may relish this series debut, as well.  

In The Ides of April, Flavia Albia, the adopted daughter of Falco and Helena Justina, makes her series debut as a private informer in Rome during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who later will be ranked somewhere in the safe middle between the best and worst rulers of the Roman Empire.

The year is A.D. 89, and a young widow named Flavia Albia has taken over Falco’s old apartment and is struggling to build up her business as an investigator. Flavia is British-born and served as nursemaid to Falco’s children before Falco and his “unofficial” wife Helena Justina adopted her.

The pay scale for a private informer is “no win, no fee.” Also: “As a female, I had no rights at all in matters of law, but why let that stop me?” Flavia has two other qualities that work in her favor as a detective in Rome: She doesn’t like to be defeated, and her adoptive parents taught her how to comfortably blend into virtually all levels of society.

Of course, it’s never easy to be a female detective in ancient Rome. As Flavia points out: “Fortune never favoured me and the problem with being a woman was that sometimes I could only obtain business that all the male informers had sniffed and refused.”

One of those “refused” cases, of course, starts out simple and soon turns into a murder investigation that includes the hunter being hunted by the killer.

The cast of characters in The Ides of April extends for two pages, and new readers of a Lindsey Davis novel likely will find themselves frequently flipping back to it for reminders of who exactly Junillus or Robigo or Felix or Serena is.

Indeed, if this is your first exposure to Lindsey Davis’s well-detailed, history-based fiction, you might consider photocopying the extensive cast list and keeping it close at hand so you won’t have to keep flipping back to the front of the book.

One other note. While the setting is ancient Rome, many of the descriptions, attitudes, and dialogue exchanges would not seem out of place in a 21st century English detective novel. This can be at least momentarily jarring for new readers of a Lindsey Davis mystery. However, we must remember that English had not yet been cobbled together in A.D. 89. And, thankfully, the author does not throw a lot of Latin at us.

Fans of Marcus Didius Falco may grumble about Falco being downsized to a much smaller character in this tale. Yet as Lindsey Davis points out on her website:

“After 20 novels, I need a break and have no current plans for a new Falco novel. I am enjoying the ‘spin-off’ series about Flavia Albia….” (The one that will follow The Ides of April will be titled Enemies at Home).

“I am also excited to be writing a ‘QuickRead’ for 2014. These are a special series of short books for adults who came to reading late or who don’t read very much. Mine is called A Cruel Fate and is set in the Civil War.”

So Marcus Didius Falco is not dead. He has just been put out to pasture while Flavia gets an entertaining and engrossing chance to make her mark in the family business.

Si Dunn

LEGO Bonanza — Stack ’em up: 3 hot new books for LEGO builders – #bookreview

No Starch Press recently has released three new books aimed at the world’s millions of LEGO™ builders:

  • The Unofficial LEGO™ Builder’s Guide, 2nd Edition
  • The LEGO™ Adventure Book, Vol. 1
  • The Unofficial LEGO™ Technic Builder’s Guide.

Here are short reviews of each.

The Unofficial LEGO™ Builder’s Guide, 2nd Edition
Allan Bedford
(No Starch,
paperbackKindle)

Allan Bedford’s popular how-to guide has been updated, and all photographs and illustrations are now in color.

The well-written 221-page book starts at the absolute beginner’s level, showing and explaining the various LEGO pieces, which range from “bricks” to “plates” to “slopes” to “tiles” and numerous others. From there, it shows the best ways to connect pieces for successful construction.  Then it delves into three different, progressively larger, sizes of LEGO constructions –minifig, miniland, and jumbo – before briefly going smaller, to microscale.

Bedford explains how to design and build structures and characters from LEGO elements and also shows how to put together several projects, including a train station, a space shuttle, a mosaic, a game board, and a sculpture of the Sphinx.

His book’s Appendix A offers a helpful “Brickopedia” that contains “a selection of more than 275 elements, from basic bricks, slopes, and plates, to specialized elements, arches, and even decorative elements.

The pieces included represent the most common and most reusable elements in the LEGO system,” Bedford notes. The parts’ specifications are given, and helpful notes are included, as well.

Appendix B, meanwhile, shows how to download and use design grids to plan complex LEGO projects before you build them.

The LEGO™ Adventure Book, Vol. 1
Megan Rothrock
(No Starch, hardback 
Kindle)

Megan Rothrock’s book is the debut volume in the new “The LEGO™ Adventure Book series” from No Starch Press.

Subtitled “Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More!”, Volume 1 presents excellent color photographs of nearly 200 intriguing models crafted by LEGO builders around the world. Ms. Rothrock’s 200-page book also features “brick-by-brick breakdowns” of 25 models that range from a medieval village to T. Rex and a British Railways steam engine.

The constructions are shown step by step in close-up, so even inexperienced builders can duplicate them. Some are simple, such as a small bridge “that can be added to any scene” in eight steps. And others are more involved, such as a mecha named “Counterblast” that is well-armed with big guns that requires more than 50 steps to complete.

Megan Rothrock is well-known in LEGO builder circles. She is a former set designer for the LEGO Group, and her models have been widely displayed, including at ComicCon and LEGO events in Europe. She is now a freelance toy designer in Denmark.

LEGO builders frequently claim that they can build models of “almost anything” with LEGO parts. With books such as The LEGO™ Adventure Book, Vol. 1 helping guide and train you, you definitely can learn to build lots of different types of models.

The Unofficial LEGO™ Technic Builder’s Guide
Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć
(No Starch, paperbackKindle)

The LEGO™ Technic system lets you build LEGO models that move. The system includes motors, gears, pneumatics, pulleys, linkages, and other devices designed for LEGO constructions. But working with Technic can be complex at times.

Fortunately, Paweł “Sariel” Kmieć has excellent credentials for showing and explaining how to construct Technic models and make them operate. He is described as “YouTube’s most popular LEGO Technic builder, a guest blogger for the official LEGO Technic blog, and a 2012 LEGO Ambassador.”

His 333-page book is packed with illustrations, photographs, explanations, and tips on everything from simple “pins” (which “keep bricks and beams together”) to wheeled suspension systems and using a subtractor to get better steering of a tracked LEGO vehicle that has two motors and is radio-controlled.

While most of the focus is on details of how to use specifics Technic parts, he also shows some amazing and inspiring powered models that he has built from LEGO pieces and LEGO Technic devices.

Whether you are new to Technic or an old hand, you likely will want to build many things that move, once you have this book. 

Si Dunn

Panobook 2012: Award-Winning Panoramic Photographs – #bookreview

Panobook 2012: Award-Winning Panoramic Photographs
The Kolor Team
(Rocky Nook, hardback)

Beautiful.There are few other words to describe this gathering of 150 prize-winning panoramic color photographs.

The photographs were judged as the best of the 1,647 entries in the Panobook 2012 competition sponsored by Kolor, developer of Autopano image-stitching software. The software enables individual images shot with conventional digital cameras to be stitched together to create expansive panoramic photographs. 

Professional and amateur photographers all over the world submitted photos for the competition.  And, in the words of the book’s editors, the results included “[s]ublime landscapes, original compositions, artistic and technical performances …exceptional images that invite you on a unique journey around the world.”

The stunning shots range from the interior of a basilica in Krakow, Poland, to an idyllic landscape in West Virginia, to an amazing tangle of trees in New Zealand, as well as elegant city skylines, landscapes, shorelines, building interiors, and even panoramic underwater photographs.

Almost anyone who likes photography and pursues it as a profession or hobby will find many inspiring and engrossing pictures in this collection.

Si Dunn

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel – Imagining French mathematician Sophie Germain as a young teen – #bookreview

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel
Dora Musielak
(Math Association of America, hardback)

The Mathematical Association of America recently has published the second edition of this intriguing “mathematical novel.” Its story is built around a fictional diary and a real-life French mathematician, Marie-Sophie Germain.

The well-written tale imagines Ms. Germain writing down her thoughts and experiences while coming of age and learning mathematics amid the social turmoil that is roiling 18th-century Paris.

Marie-Sophie Germain is remembered primarily for her number theory work that offered several “novel approaches” to solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Si Dunn

The Last Camel Charge – An intriguing look at America’s pre-Civil War desert military experiment – #bookreview

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment
Forrest Bryant Johnson
(Berkley Caliber, hardbackKindle)

The U.S. Army employed camels as transportation and pack animals in the American West during the mid-19th century and tried to create “a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps,” the author of this fascinating history work notes.

Initially headquartered near San Antonio, Texas, the fledgling camel corps soon became involved in expeditions of discovery, as well as fighting in several areas.

The notable actions included a victorious camel charge against Mojave Indians in the Arizona Territory and helping naval lieutenant Edward Beale’s successfully create a wagon trail from Texas to California.

The Civil War ended the camel corps experiment, the author shows. But Union and Confederate forces both used camels during the conflict, and the last U.S. Army camel died in captivity in 1934.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a few wild camels, distant offspring of the Camel Corps, are still alive and roaming the most desolate and isolated areas of the American Southwest. Indeed, the author notes, several wild camels were photographed near a West Texas railroad track in 2003.

Si Dunn

Man in the Blue Moon – Fine Southern fiction by Michael Morris – #bookreview #fiction

Man in the Blue Moon
Michael Morris
(Tyndale, paperbackKindle)

Book reviewers, particularly Southern U.S. book reviewers, frequently pick through new “Southern” novels looking for “echoes” of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, or Walker Percy. (I wish some of them also would look for echoes of that good but now almost-forgotten Southern novelist James Street.)

Though I was born in Mississippi and grew up in Arkansas, I had never thought of Florida as “Deep South.” It was, after all, something of a military backwater during the Civil War (yet a vital place for smuggling in supplies for the Confederacy). During my 1950s youth, when bands played “Dixie” and all-white crowds stood up to raucously cheer, I always pictured the Deep South as ending at the southern borders of Georgia and Alabama. Florida never really entered my thinking as a Confederate state, even though it was among the first to secede.

There are, however, plenty of “Southern” echoes in Michael Morris’s fine new novel, Man in the Blue Moon, set in rural Florida during World War I. How the characters talk, think, and interact seem very Southern to me. And the values they hold, as well as the self-righteous justifications they bring to wrongdoings, also seem familiar and right in my recollections of growing up in the South. So I am happy to declare Michael Morris an excellent novelist “in the Southern tradition.” And I hereby amend my mental picture of the literary Deep South to include Florida – especially its panhandle.

In Man in the Blue Moon, Ella Wallace’s drug-addicted husband has disappeared and left her deep in debt in tiny Dead Lakes, Florida, with three young sons to support, a small store to run, and a tract of panhandle land “thick with pines and cypress.” Ella’s father had called the tract her “birthright” and, on his deathbed, begged her to hold onto it, no matter what. Now, however, a crooked banker in nearby Apalachicola has come up with a scheme to profit from Ella’s land and is playing every angle – some of them creepy and deadly — to gain possession of the acreage. At the same time, looming large in the background and close around, the infamous 1918 Spanish flu epidemic is taking lives with shocking suddenness.

Against this grim backdrop, a mysterious stranger enters Ella’s life in a very unusual way (no spoilers here). And he quickly has two strikes against him. One, he is a distant relative of Ella’s missing husband. And two, he seems to have both a troubled past and some abilities to heal sick and wounded animals and people. These simply heighten the suspicions that Ella and others hold against him. Yet, to save her land, her store and her family, Ella must trust him to help her and her sons try to harvest enough timber in time to pay off the bank note, even as murder, hypocrisy, and other troubles unfurl around them.

After reading and relishing Man in the Blue Moon, I am very pleased to add Michael Morris to my personal pantheon of fine Southern novelists. He brings his own echoes to the hall.

Si Dunn