Review: The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel

Two posts in a month! Yeah, I’m kinda freaked out too, but I’m a bit overdue with my review of Radhika R. Dhariwal’s The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel, aimed at middle grade readers, is a fun adventure, to be sure. It took me a few chapters to get into the world, but once I did, I enjoyed the myriad layers to the story. Our hero, Squirrel, is the last slave in the kingdom of Bimmau, a land occupied by animals who talk and wear fancy clothes, but also stick together by species and rarely cross those bounds. At  a somewhat scandalous wedding between a cat and a dog (this, I admit was hard for me to wrap my head around at first), Squirrel sips a strange drink and hears his deceased mother’s voice whispering a puzzle to him.

The plot is a straight up quest. Squirrel must work through a series of clues that will lead him to a special key that has the potential to free him from slavery and to reveal his true name. Squirrel and a rag-tag group of adventurers must stay one step ahead of enemy forces who also want the key, because although it has the power to free slaves, the key may also be used to enslave others. Of great fun for me, and my children who also read the book, was ability to play along with the puzzles. There are riddles to answer and codes to break, making this a good step up for kids who enjoy the Geronimo Stilton books, but are ready for a new challenge.

I wish I had done this as a read aloud with my kids, rather than them reading the book independently. My daughter didn’t like the occasional swear word (“damn” if you’re wondering), and some subtle flirting confused my son, but would have kept an adult’s attention while reading.

I suspect a lot of the book’s nuances were lost on them. Part way through, I had an epiphany – the various animal species functioned like a divided human society. Some of the characters were open-minded enough to see past the physical difference and appreciate what similarities existed even when the differences seemed insurmountable. The themes of home, family, identity, and nourishment recur in different places.

I really wish publisher Simon & Schuster had included a reading guide or discussion questions, because as parents, sometimes our brains hurt by bedtime and we need a little help, so here’s a few thoughts from me. If reading aloud, the parent (and child if they read aloud too) could stop and ask questions about whether Squirrel and Des are good guests and if bees or mice are better hosts and why. There are a number of places where the adult could ask a child why a character behaves they way they do and raise issues of fairness. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is a terrific book for raising issues around empathy but also hierarchical societies. Because the animals bear resemblance to humans – and not just for the fine footwear – sharing this story can be a way to ease into some uncomfortable conversations about privilege, whether economic, social, or racial.

But if that’s too esoteric, then focus on quest and puzzles.  I give this a 5/5 for a read aloud story, and a 4/5 for independent reading.

Oh – and the disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

And another oh – the illustrations by Audrey Benjaminsen are charming and add character to the story.

The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is available from these and other retailers

Amazon   

Barnes&Noble

Simon&Schuster

I am not who I thought

Indigenous Peoples Day seems as good a day as any for this particular post.

Ask me who are you? Where does your family come from?

Me answering at age 7: “I’m a real mutt. I’m British, and German, and Cherokee, and Scottish, and Irish and just all mixed up!” Yeah – I was sort of an ignorant dope back then. But I learned a bit. Maybe.

Me answering at say age 27: “My family is primarily from Great Britain – especially Wales but also Scotland and Scots-Irish, with some German and Sioux mixed in for good measure.”  Somewhere between ages 7 and 27, I learned my family history did not include the Trail of Tears, but rather our mysterious ancestor, for whom we have only a name, was part of the Plains people.

Me at age (lets just blur this out because I like denial) “Let’s take a DNA test and find out for sure. That would be cool.”

So I did. After seeing all those commercials of people  discovering their heritage, taking fun vacations, or buying new hats, or learning new dance moves, I wanted to know what adventures could be found in my spit. This seemed particularly important, after a third or fourth or some cousin did one that had a surprising result and led my family to question what we had been told about one of our forebears.

My results are in. Ancestry will not invite me to make a commercial. I am boring. My ethnicity is overwhelmingly Great British. My German shows up as a “low confidence region” of Western Europe and clocks in at 2%.  My “Native American” DNA heritage clocks in as zero, which is the same percent as European Jewish, Russian, Middle East, African, Chinese, and pretty much everything else.

In the commercials, people are delighted to discover new backgrounds. I did find one. The test came back a high confidence of an 8% heritage from Italy/Greece. One of those Roman soldiers must have gotten bored whilst invading England in the first century. Those kinds of trysts happened, so it’s not much of a surprise. Unlike the commercial-people, my DNA test shut doors of possibility.

2017 is the first year that Indigenous Peoples Day is not part of my personal genetic heritage. Most years, I had given thought to that bit of my past and wished I knew more about the indigenous part of my heritage. I wondered where “my people” had come from, what sort of housing they slept in, and what sort of beadwork the matriarch created. I bemoaned not knowing that part of myself and had wondered if I would have a richer, fuller life if I could connect with the indigenous part of my heritage. As it turns out, there is nothing to know – only a hollow where my curiosity once lay.

I’m embarrassed for the times I have misrepresented myself out of ignorance, and I hope my transgressions will be forgiven. I can only hope that what was once empathy stemming from vague sense of being part of the indigenous story will transfer in empathy for fellow human beings who have a rich heritage that all Americans should acknowledge and respect.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should probably look up a good recipe for bubble and squeak, whatever that is.

 

Popsugar reading update

I have a few more books to add to my last reading challenge update.

12. A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read
13. A book by or about a person who has a disability

For 13 – I read Wonder by R.J. Palacio I can see why this is a well loved book among the late elementary school age. With the shifting points of view, kids are likely to find someone who speaks to them.

For book 12 – Oh crud. I just noticed the bestseller designation. Not sure either book I read qualifies for that. Oh well. My first thought for this category was engineering textbook. My second was historical romance.I picked up Love’s Spirit by Elizabeth Mayette, a historical romance set during the Revolutionary War. I’m enjoying it more as a family saga. There are so many lives intertwined with the politics, that although the romance is present, to me it is not the main thrust of the story. I have about 50 pages to go, but I expect a good review. The research and eye for detail and accuracy show.

The other book I read at the same time was a cozy mystery, book 1 of the Trailer Park Princess series, The Middle Finger of Fate by Kim Hunt Harris.  It seemed like a campy, goofy series with a snarky heroine which is what I wanted. Turns out, it’s less camp and more Christian. I didn’t know there were Christian cozy mysteries, but now I do. It was okay, but I probably won’t read the rest. I suspect my reaction had more to do with my reader expectations going in and a sense it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.

So there we go. I still have a lot of book categories to sort out.

Pop Sugar 2017 Challenge

I figured it was about time to do an update on my 2017 Pop Sugar Reading challenge.

1. A book recommended by a librarian
2. A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long
3. A book of letters
4. An audiobook
5. A book by a person of color
6. A book with one of the four seasons in the title
7. A book that is a story within a story: The Life we Bury by Allen Eskens
8. A book with multiple authors
9. An espionage thriller
10. A book with a cat on the cover: Tea with Milk and Murder by H.Y. Hanna
11. A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
12. A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read
13. A book by or about a person who has a disability
14. A book involving travel
15. A book with a subtitle: My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach
16. A book that’s published in 2017: Between Nowhere and Lost by Alexandra Christle
17. A book involving a mythical creature: Blythewood by Carol Goodman
18. A book you’ve read before that never fails to make you smile
19. A book about food
20. A book with career advice: Bird by Bird by Anne Lemott
21. A book from a nonhuman perspective: Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson
22. A steampunk novel: Marianne and the Mad Baron by Kathryn Kohorst
23. A book with a red spine
24. A book set in the wilderness
25. A book you loved as a child: On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
26. A book by an author from a country you’ve never visited
27. A book with a title that’s a character’s name: Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein
28. A novel set during wartime
29. A book with an unreliable narrator: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremble
30. A book with pictures
31. A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you
32. A book about an interesting woman
33. A book set in two different time periods:
34. A book with a month or day of the week in the title
35. A book set in a hotel
36. A book written by someone you admire
37. A book that’s becoming a movie in 2017
38. A book set around a holiday other than Christmas
39. The first book in a series you haven’t read before A Scone to Die For by H.Y. Hanna
40. A book you bought on a trip

January project on hold

The last few years, I’ve made it a point to read overlooked or newer books that have few reviews on Goodreads and/or Amazon.  Not this year. I got myself looped into reading for a contest and sometime mid-January a pile of 6-8 books will appear on my doorstep and I will have about 4 weeks to read them. I’ll have to look for a different month to give out reviews to books in need.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to take the 2017 PopSugar Reading challenge. Some categories look easy – I do an audiobook a month so no worries there. Some look more challenging – I don’t usually buy books on a trip. But I’ll update my progress both here and on Goodreads.

I hope I don’t have as much time to read this year. As much as I love reading, I hope to get some writing done this year too.

Are you doing the PopSugar challenge? Let me know. We can share reading ideas.

Yup – I’m lazy

I was super lazy this year. I didn’t put together the fancy-schmancy top books I’ve read this year list. I read some good stuff, and a lot of middling stuff that I pushed through to try and figure out why the book didn’t work for me. I read a terrific work in progress that will be coming out as a book in 2017 and I read some books (both published and not) that should have stayed either under the bed or as an unshared digital file. It was an okay year of reading. Maybe I’ll organize the highlights later.

My nightmares and a public “Thank you, Delta Airlines”

Since my daughter was diagnosed with a peanut allergy at 17 months of age, my nightmares have had a recurring theme. In them, she has a severe reaction and we are away from home.  Sometimes the settings are as mundane as playgrounds where children run wild with peanut butter sandwiches. Other times we are isolated, camping in the middle of the woods, or on a boat. Most often, we are on an airplane.

I’m not a comfortable flier to begin with, but when my daughter is with me, the winged tin can takes on all the qualities of a death trap. I don’t fear water evacuation. I fear the peanuts and cashews I see ground into the floor even after I’ve called ahead to warn the airline of a peanut allergy. I tense at the sound of every snack package ripped open because I have no idea what has been brought on board and whether this will be what sends my daughter’s immune system into overdrive.

On July 3rd, 2016, my nightmare came true on Delta flight 304. At 30,000 feet somewhere between Montego Bay, Jamaica and Atlanta, Georgia, my daughter, who sat next to her brother and her Gran in the row ahead of me, turned and said, “I have a hive. I need a Benadryl.”

I handed her one–this is routine for us–and flagged the flight attendant. I identified our group as the peanut allergy and asked we could get up and clean her seat of residue, even though the fasten seatbelt sign was illuminated. The flight attendant offered to take her to the back and help our group of five find another group with whom we could switch seats.  My daughter walked down the aisle and I offered a reassuring smile from my middle seat.

“Where’s the mom? Do you have an Epipen?” Maybe 30 seconds had passed from when she stood. Two or three minutes since she asked for a Benadryl. I grabbed the bag from under the seat and sprang into action. I suppressed my urge to panic or show my fear. My daughter stood in the back galley, looking pale. The backs of her legs were blotchy with hives, an angry wave spreading north and south with a ferocity I’d never seen.

“Do you want to do it?” I asked as I pulled off the cap.

“I’m scared.” Her voice rarely trembled, but this time it did.

“Okay. I’m going to give you a big hug.” I stood behind her and wrapped my 5’2″ frame around her 5′ one. “On the count of three. One. Two. Three.” She tightened her grip. We counted to ten. Several new faces had joined us in between. I have no recollection of who came when or how they got there. Time bends and narrows in an emergency.  Lots went on while I held her. My husband cleaned seats and surfaces, people changed seats, flight attendants procured enough new in the package blankets for us to make a sort of blanket fort to protect her from contact with potential contaminants and two medical professionals, a nurse and a pharmacist, stepped forward to help monitor my daughter’s vitals and the reversal of the allergic reaction.

I owe a huge thank you to amazing flight crew working Delta 304 on July 3. I didn’t get all of your names, but you are all my heroes. Our lives seemed pretty up in the air, but you kept us grounded, especially Rosanna (P.S – I hope your daughter outgrows her allergy and that you never need to use an Epipen on her). To the pharmacist and the nurse, I thank you so much for your calming presence and for helping to ensure we didn’t have to use the second Epipen. The flight crew called ahead and paramedics walked my daughter off the plane when we landed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport. They were gentle giants (seriously – I think they were all at least 6′ tall) who gave my daughter the best care possible. You’d expect in an airport the size of Atlanta that everyone would be in a rush, but they spent more time assessing her symptoms than we’ve sometimes experienced during some urgent care visits.

Thanks, Mary, for looking after your grandson and keeping him calm, while your granddaughter needed medical attention. He said later he was scared, but felt better with you beside him.

I also want to thank my fellow passengers on Delta 304. I was worried you’d be mad that our emergency disrupted the drink service and delayed your disembarking from the plane, but as the paramedics escorted us off, many of you offered well wishes and reassuring smiles.  Your kindness gives me hope.

epipen usedWe may never know exactly what triggered this episode. But it has been a reminder that we must maintain our vigilance, even when we can’t see the allergen. We got lucky this time. She didn’t ingest peanuts. We had the Epipens handy. We had a lot of wonderful people willing and able to help. This may not always be the case.  My nightmares continue.

If you’ve read this far, and are interested in doing more to make air travel, school, and life safer for those with life threatening food allergies, please visit Food Allergy Research & Education. They will get a fat check from me this year.

Read Local Month- the end point

I finished my last “read local month” book today, appropriately enough. I closed out the month with three more entries: Sacrificial Lamb Cake by Katrina Monroe, Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher and Rogue Angel: The Matador’s Crown by Alex Archer.

Katrina Monroe’s Sacrificial Lamb Cake is a rollicking farce in the mode of Christopher Moore. If you take your religion seriously, this may not be the book for you, but if you are open to the idea of the second coming arriving in the form of lesbian waitress/artist from a family of ecoterrorists, then you’ll love this book. The author envisioned God as corporate CEO of “Trinity Corporation” and I thought the whole conceit of heaven as a business played out as a witty statement on big money mega churches. Like Moore, Monroe’s book is well researched and knowledgeable about the biblical stories it drew from. Irreverent? Yes. Hilarious? Yes. Read this, and I predict we can have a book club meeting with the author on a cozy bench in Hell someday.

I wasn’t familiar with the Rogue Angel series by Alex Archer, but I had acquired a book from the locally based author of this particular entry. Alex Archer is a pseudonym and many authors write for this series centered on an archeologist, Annja Creed, who also wields Joan of Arc’s battle sword. I read “The Matador’s Crown” which is somewhere in the 30s. These books are intended as stand alone titles and I had no trouble catching on to the concept quickly. It was okay. The mechanics were fine, but content-wise, it was below my background knowledge level. I’d have no trouble sharing this with my tween, but I prefer my archeology books to delve a little deeper into the history.

The absolute standout for me, in what has been a pretty terrific month of reading, is Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher. Covering the span of one Minnesotan college’s academic year, this is a book that tweaks the epistolary form so that it is written entirely in Letters of Recommendation from a worn out academic. Who know you could put together so much plot in a series of letters that at first seem unrelated? This book reminded me of what I loved about being in grad school, but also why I am okay with my decision not to pursue academia as a career.  It was painful and brilliant and funny, often at the same time. Few books make me snort coffee out the nose. This one did and that (in my mind) is high praise.

Overall, “Read Local” month was a success. I read four new-to-me authors and visited a dear literary friend. I learned some history about my adoptive state of Minnesota, and also found a lot of humor. For a low-glamor state, Minnesota has a lot of talented writers. Maybe the long winters help foster creativity. All I know for sure, is I will seek out more books from local authors after this.

Half-way point, Read Local

I’m approximately half way through both the month and my reading list for read local month.  I moved to Minnesota about two and a half years ago, and during that time, I’ve been impressed with what a book lovers paradise it is. I won’t put together a list of Minnesota authors here, but there are a lot who can make some claim to the state.

I kicked things off with Jess Lourey’s February Fever. Although most of the book takes place on a train and not in the fictional Minnesota town of Battle Creek, I enjoyed what appears to be the final caper in this cozy mystery series. Lourey’s books probably did more to alter my perception of Minnesota in the years before I moved here. In my mind it was all snow, Prince, Hamm’s beer and a place you wrote on an envelope when you had a cereal rebate to collect.  Lourey’s Murder by the Month series changed that, with the loving descriptions of gardens, Nut Goodies and the MN State Fair.  Lourey’s Minnesota looms large in my mind. Subtract out the murders, and you get a sense of what makes Minnesota special.

I started a steampunk novella set at sea, but I couldn’t get into it so I set it aside.  The writing was fine, but the story world didn’t grab me and there are too many other books to read.

I rounded out the first half of the month with Nicole Helget’s Stillwater, a book I bought in Stillwater, MN at the delightful Valley Bookseller. Helgert is a new to me author, but I’m glad to know she has two more books waiting for me. Stillwater is set in the mid-nineteenth century, at a time before Minnesota was a state. Local Minnesota history is fairly new to me, so I’ve been borrowing my 6th grader’s textbook to learn more about it. I loved how Stillwater brought together so many of the people integral to formation of the state. Helget showed how the different populations, competing indigenous tribes, European settlers, women of ill-repute, small traders, runaway slaves, church officials and logging barons each brought different elements to the path to statehood.  There is so much history packed into this relatively slim volume, but it never feels heavy-handed. At times, I would have liked to explore those paths more, but perhaps it will inspire me to pick up more non-fiction. The author’s use of language created beauty out of log jams, death, and pre-paved roads. I don’t read a lot of historical fiction typically, but this makes me want to read more.

So, two winners. There are a lot of good books out there.

Read Local

Since my local farmers’ markets won’t open for awhile I’m declaring March “Read Local” month. For me, this means a month long focus on Minnesota authors.  readlocalI have a few others tucked away too. I loved Jess Lourey’s Murder by Month series even before I moved to Minnesota, so I’m looking forward to that one first. The heroine, Mira, is my Minnesota gardening guru. I’ll post my progress (and reviews) from time to time.

Comment below if you wish to share in the “Read Local” fun. All I ask is you make a commitment to read local for a month and share any great books you encounter.  This post is as good a place as any keep comments, so I’ll pin it for March.  Thanks for playing.