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

 

 

 

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

Mitt Romney, Secret Keynesian? Read Paul Krugman’s ‘End This Depression Now!’ – #bookreview #in #economics #politics

End This Depression Now!
Paul Krugman
(Norton, hardback, list price $24.95; Kindle edition, list price $24.95)

If you’d like to watch some ultra-right conservatives break out in hives, do a St. Vitus Dance or just spontaneously combust, ask them to read End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman.

Most of them won’t read it, of course. They will cast it aside or maybe even set it on fire. Their hearts and minds are firmly set in ideology and rhetoric concrete. No matter what Krugman says or writes, they will remain firmly convinced he is a spawn of the Devil or, at the very least, some kind of Communist-Socialist-Liberal-Radical Raider of the Lost Tax Cut.

Actually, Paul Krugman is one of America’s smartest economic smart guys, and he has some very good ideas about how to help America pick itself up–and stay standing–after getting knocked down, hard, and robbed of its wallet by the Great Recession and depression that followed.

I am an unabashed fan of Krugman, winner of a well-deserved Nobel Prize in economics. He makes clear and steady good sense in his New York Times columns, and he makes damned good sense throughout his new book.

“In the Great Depression,” he writes, “leaders had an excuse: nobody really understood what was happening or how to fix it. Today’s leaders don’t have that excuse. We have both the knowledge and the tools to end this suffering.”

We do, indeed, as he demonstrates convincingly in his book. But we also have seemingly intractable political polarization at the very time when our leaders should be gathered in the middle, rapidly hammering out compromises, and actually doing something to help the nation, not just their financial backers and parties.

Krugman lays out many solid strategies, most of them built around growth, not European-style fiscal austerity, particularly in a time of lingering high unemployment, stagnant or falling wages, and tepid consumer spending. And he looks toward the November election with at least a token effort to appear independent and bipartisan. He has, in fact, strongly criticized economic mistakes made by both sides.

If Obama wins, Krugman writes, “obviously it makes it easiest to imagine America doing what it takes to restore full employment. In effect, the Obama administration would get an opportunity at a do-over, taking strong steps it failed to take in 2009. Since Obama is unlikely to have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, taking these strong steps would require making use of reconciliation, the procedure that Democrats used to pass health care reform and that Bush used to pass both of his tax cuts. So be it. If nervous advisors warn about the political fallout, Obama should remember the hard-learned lesson of his first term: the best economic strategy from a political point of view is the one that delivers tangible progress.”

On the other hand: “A Romney victory would naturally create a very different situation; if Romney adhered to Republican orthodoxy, he would of course reject any action along the lines I’ve advocated.”

But that’s not all. In Krugman’s view: “It’s not clear, however, whether Romney believes any of the things he is currently saying. His two chief economic advisors, Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, are committed Republicans but also quite Keynesian in their views about macroeconomics. Indeed, early in the crisis, Mankiw argued for a sharp rise in the Fed’s inflation target, a proposal that was and is anathema to most of his party. His proposal caused the predictable uproar, and he went silent on the issue. But we can at least hope Romney’s inner circle holds views that are much more realistic than anything the candidate says in his speeches, and that once in office he would rip off his mask, revealing his true pragmatic/Keynesian nature.”

To which Krugman adds: “I know, I know, hoping that a politician is in fact a complete fraud who doesn’t believe any of the things he claims to believe is no way to run a great nation. And it’s certainly not reason to vote for that politician!”

The upcoming election is still just a distracting sideshow to what America needs now. We need jobs, spending, revenue, investments in education, and re-training for the long-term unemployed. And, yes, we need for a lot of Krugman-style clear-thinking and common sense to miraculously infect the brains of our economic and political leaders.

Get, read, and heed this book.

Si Dunn

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present – #bookreview #in #music

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present
Jean A. Boyd
(Texas Tech University Press, hardback, list price $65.00; paperback, list price $39.95)

Fans of 1930s and 1940s western swing will find plenty to enjoy in this entertaining book by Jean A. Boyd, a  Baylor University music history professor and native of Fort Worth, Texas.

She celebrates the distinctive music and its Texas roots and highlights several groups that, unlike Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, did not or have not made it into the national spotlight.

Yet these bands have picked, fiddled, strummed and sung their way to regional stardom in Texas and Oklahoma.

Her book likely will also appeal to musicologists and performers. She includes musical analysis and transcriptions of recorded performances, as well as histories and recollections.

Si Dunn 

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Steven Saylor’s ‘The Seven Wonders’ – A fine intro to Gordianus the Finder, famous sleuth of ancient Rome – #bookreview #in #mystery #fiction

The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
Steven Saylor
(Minotaur Books, hardback, list price $25.99; Kindle edition, $12.99)

To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.

I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.

Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.

The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.

The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.

It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.

He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”

A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”

The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.  

There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.

Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.

I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.

The Seven Wonders will be available starting June 5, 2012 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.