Review of “Coloring Flower Mandalas” by Wendy Piersall

If you have been to any book or craft stores lately, you will know that adult coloring books are all the rage. And they cover myriad subjects: you can color gardens, tattoo patterns, animals, cities, and even outlines of indie musicians. Mandalas are perhaps the most popular category for these books.


A mandala (Sanskrit for circle) is a symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the universe. Mandalas are employed for meditation, by focusing one’s total attention on the mandala (as opposed to say, one’s to-do list of chores). Many people believe that creating (or by extension, coloring) mandalas helps stabilize, integrate, and re-order one’s inner life.

Coloring Flower Mandalas is a collection of thirty hand-drawn outlines of beautiful flowers, including orchids, roses, lilies, poppies, sunflowers, – just waiting to come alive from the addition of colors.

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The designs are manageable by anyone, but just intricate enough to pull you outside of your quotidian cares and into “the zone” of mindful/mindlessness.

The books are flying off shelves; apparently a lot of people have found that one can color oneself to calmness, so to speak. Craft stores have great collections these days of pencils and crayons and markers. It’s an inexpensive way to find tranquility, and in the process, create some beautiful decorations for your house.

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Evaluation: This book would make a great present for yourself or others! Throw some colored pencils or “Gelly Roll” pens into the gift box! Or, ooooh, glitter pens!

Published by Ulysses Press, 2015

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Review of “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789” by Joseph J. Ellis


Joseph Ellis has authored several entertaining books on the Founding Era of American History.  In this book, he hones in his focus to the period of 1783-1789 and makes two basic arguments.  The first is that this period constituted a second “American Revolution”:  1776 marked the declaration of independence from Britain, but the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 created a nation.  Or, as Ellis puts it at one point, the first event was a revolution, while the second was an evolution.

His second argument is that four men were central to this transition from a confederation of very independent-minded states to a nation of Americans:  namely, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.  He further recognizes an essential supporting cast consisting of Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Jefferson.

Robert Morris

Robert Morris

The rest of this short but densely packed book expands his arguments, going back and forth among the activities of his main actors in this time period.  He does a good job of it, and of course the story is a good one in any event; these were extraordinary times, allowing for the principals to effect extraordinary results.

If I were to make any criticisms, they would be small and do not detract from the essence of the saga.  One is that Ellis tells us mostly what his quartet (and the other three – in truth, more of a septet) did to bring about the American “Evolution,” but not much about the contributions of others.  It took the efforts of many more people as well, any of whose contribution could be thought of as necessary, if not sufficient. In addition, Ellis downplays the importance of the critical external issues that catalyzed reaction and response, such as the British debt crisis and austerity measures that retarded the growth of the colonies – especially, the restriction of international trade.

Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris

A second criticism is that Ellis begins by claiming that Lincoln was “historically incorrect” by asserting, in the Gettysburg Address, that a new nation was brought forth in 1776.  Lincoln, a scholar of the Constitution as well as a consummate politician, knew exactly what he was doing by referencing the defining American document as that of 1776 instead of 1787; certainly one of his goals was to help shape the narrative understanding of the country’s formation; that is, the history that defined our collective identity as a people.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

As legal scholar Robert M. Cover wrote:

No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live. . . . In this normative world, law and narrative are inseparably related. Every prescription is insistent in its demand to be located in discourse – to be supplied with history and destiny, beginning and end, explanation and purpose.”

Thus, Cover perspicaciously concluded:

Law may be viewed as a system of tension or a bridge linking a concept of a reality to an imagined alternative – that is, as a connective between two states of affairs, both of which can be represented in their normative significance only through the devices of narrative.”

More precisely, the Declaration set forth our normative goal, and the Constitution provided a legal and political framework by which it might fulfill its promises to get us to that ideal.

Third, Ellis pretty much dismisses the idea that the hoi polloi harbored any nationalist feelings, but doesn’t offer much support for this contention, and other scholars have argued otherwise.  Certainly Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, widely read throughout the colonies, repeatedly refer to “the American Cause,” stating, for example, in 1776, that “America will never be happy till she gets clear of foreign dominion.”   

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, contends Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Walter McDougall, “united most Americans in common hatred and fear of outside oppressors as well as inside dissenters.”  While it is not entirely clear, McDougall concedes, whether Paine helped create “American mass politics” or if it already existed for his pamphlets to have been so successful, the fact was, by 1776 one could appeal to an “American” consciousness to call men to arms.  And before the first year which is the start of Ellis’s book, French-born writer M. G. Jean de Crèvecœur was extolling the virtues of “this great American asylum [haven]” and asking, in his widely-read book of 1782:  “What then is the American, this new man?”

Nevertheless, Ellis tells a good story, especially if you are already aware of the wider context.  These were indeed, as Paine famously wrote, “the times that try men’s souls.”  Ellis allows that “the founders occupied a transitional moment in the history of Western civilization. . . ” In addition, and critically, because of the non-aristocratic structure of American society:

…this meant that politics in America was open to a whole class of talented men – women were still unimaginable as public figures – who would have languished in obscurity throughout Europe because they lacked the proper bloodlines and inherited wealth.”

And thanks to at least seven of these men, we came away from that time with a pretty good scaffolding for a future society.

Evaluation:  This pithy summary of the foundations of the Constitution is excellent.

Rating:  4/5

Hardback published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2015

Note:  I both read the book in hard copy, because I like to consult footnotes, and listened to it on CD.  I was surprised to discover that the emphases given by the narrator in the audio version helped me understand the meaning of the written words more fully.

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Robertson Dean, does a great job, especially in changing his voice to set off quotations, so that listeners can distinguish them from the rest of the text. 

Published unabridged on 7 CDs (8 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “Owen & Mzee: The True Story of A Remarkable Friendship” by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Paula Kahumbu

How can you not love this story? It is the true account of a baby hippopotamus and a giant tortoise who became friends after a devastating tsunami off the coast of Kenya in 2004. The authors of this book include Dr. Kahumbu, who is director of the sanctuary where the two friends made a home.


After the tsunami in December 2004, a baby hippo was alone and stranded on a coral reef in the Indian Ocean near the small coastal town of Malindi. The hippo was too tired and scared to reach the shore. The villagers wanted to help him, but, although he was a baby, he still weighed 600 pounds and was slippery. Finally he was caught with a shark net and the efforts of a brave man named Owen Sobien, which is how the hippo got the name of Owen. The villagers contacted Haller Park, an animal sanctuary some fifty miles away near the city of Mombasa (the second largest city in Kenya), and Dr. Paula Kahumbu offered to come get him. Meanwhile, the sanctuary workers prepared an enclosure for Owen with a pond and mud wallow, an area already occupied by a number of other animals, including Mzee (pronunced mm-ZAY), a 130-year-old Aldabra tortoise.


When Owen arrived, he went directly to Mzee and crouched behind him, just like baby hippos do with their mothers. Mzee tried to get away from Owen, but Owen kept tagging after him. Furthermore, Owen would only eat if he was next to Mzee.


Finally, Mzee began to get friendlier, and the two soon became inseparable. As the authors note, “our most important friends are sometimes those we least expected.”


According to Haller Park staff, Owen began to behave more like a tortoise than a hippo. There was also growing evidence of physical communication between the pair, with Owen nibbling Mzee’s back feet to get him to walk in a desired direction. The two even developed a sort of vocal communication of their own, according to Dr. Kahumbu.

At the time this book was published, the two were still together. The same year, however, Dr. Kahumbu decided Owen had grown too large to safely interact with Mzee. (Full-grown adult hippos can weigh as much as 8,000 pounds.) A separate enclosure was built for Owen and a new (female) hippo named Cleo, with whom he bonded quickly. Mzee was also provided with a mate.

The photographs in the book, by Peter Greste, are just wonderful.

The book includes a guide to pronouncing the names in the book.

There is a website for kids that has a video on the story of Owen and Mzee. The Scholastic Press website also has an excellent collection of resources on the pair.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Scholastic Press, 2006


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Review of “A School for Unusual Girls” by Kathleen Baldwin

This book, set in 1814 Regency England, is full of charm. Napoleon is in Elba, but everyone seems to know that island won’t hold him for long. The backdrop of the story revolves around the political intrigue of Napoleon’s supporters to get him back, and the royalists who want to restore the Bourbons to the the French throne. (Although the book takes place in England, Napoleon’s whereabouts and fate were of critical importance to all of Europe.)


Yet, this book is not really about politics at all. What is going on in the wider world merely forms the context for this coming of age story about Georgiana (“Georgie”) Fitzwilliam, 16, who, as the story begins, is being banished to Stranje House by her parents. Her parents believe they are putting her in a punitive boarding school that will ensure that their rebellious and unladylike daughter is remolded into marriageable material. But Headmistress Emma Stranje is not who they think, nor is the school to which they have cruelly consigned their daughter. Rather, Emma runs what might be more accurately described as a “safe house” for girls who don’t fit in – that is, girls who are intrepid, think for themselves, and care for more than ruffles and flounces. Emma is, moreover, helping them to improve, rather than suppress, their talents and unique abilities, and to become scientists, thieves, and spies, while learning how not to “stick out like odd ducks flapping about atop the beau mind’s Plum Pudding.”

At Stranje House, Georgie is asked to continue her experiments to develop invisible ink (the “last straw” for her parents), in order to help two spies who are associates of Emma’s: Lord Sebastian Wyatt, and the man who has raised him as a father would have, Captain Grey. Of course the impulsive Georgie falls for Sebastian, and he for her, but it’s complicated, and all the girls of Stranje House are called upon to employ their special talents to save both Georgie and Sebastian…..

The story ends with a bit of “alternative history” to allow the author to make a point about individual agency, but I don’t think she needed to go that far to make her statement.

Discussion: I thought this book was adorable. Although it has some similarities to the Fair Assassin series, I found it closer to the Ruby Red Trilogy. This book is full of humor, for one thing, and the writing more like Gier’s than that of Robin LaFevers.

Georgie is wonderfully “nerdy,” always thinking about science and math, even at tea time:

I picked up a small square shortbread biscuit and stared at it, noting the uneven angles, wishing it were a perfect square, but it was, after all, merely a baked good, and baked goods did not ordinarily form perfect squares.”

Yes, there is InstaLove, but I don’t think it is an unusual occurrence for that age range. And yes, Georgie thinks worth is a function of how attractive you are, but she has been raised by extremely superficial parents. (Lest anyone not understand why Georgie’s red hair is such an issue, red hair in England was, and still is to this day, considered to be almost an affront, as it is associated with the Irish, who historically continued to resist British terror tactics to give up their religion, land, and autonomy.)

Evaluation: This book has a delightful premise, and the setup shows promise for some entertaining companion novels. Emma Stranje is a particularly intriguing character, and I hope we see her featured more in future books. The book is full of good messages, such as the overriding importance of inner worth, and the notion that “home” is where you feel accepted for who you are. It’s an especially great book for young girls!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Tor Teen, a division of Tor/Forge, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, 2015

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Review of “The Wolf Border” by Sarah Hall

This beautifully written book held my attention throughout the story, but I’m not sure how I feel about the ending.


Britain Rachel Caine has been living in Nez Perce, Idaho for the past ten years, tracking and studying wolves on the (fictional) Chief Joseph Reservation. She goes back to the Cumbria district in England at the behest of a wealthy landowner, who wants to recruit her to oversee the introduction of wolves on his very large estate. She doesn’t want the job until, soon afterwards, during a New Year’s Eve celebration, she gets pregnant by her best friend and co-worker at Chief Joseph. She decides to go to England, take the job, and have an abortion, but once in England finds she wants to keep the baby.

Observations of lupine behavior alternate with Rachel’s personal story, all embedded in glorious evocations of the wild landscape around her. While Rachel cares deeply about her wolves, she is oddly dispassionate about other human beings. She becomes close to her brother Lawrence when back in Cumbria, and more tied to her new child than she thought possible. And yet, her distance from everyone keeps us distant as well. Moreover, it affects our feelings about Rachel. To what does she owe the child’s father? Or the local veterinarian with whom she develops a bit of a relationship (the effort is mostly on his side – she shies away when he tries to get closer, as when he brought her flowers). She seems to fear that “domestication” would be as harmful to her as it is to wild wolves.

In the end, after a run-up of rather suspenseful events in which all the issues explored in the book come together, we get only the hint of a resolution. Am I an immature reader to want to see a bit more of the story ends tied off? I suppose I am, but I would have liked to see how the author felt about some of the existential questions she posed in the book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harper, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

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Win Two Books: Anne of Green Gables & A Modern Retelling: Ana of California

Ana of California by Andi Teran is a Penguin Original retelling of Anne of Green Gables.


The publisher provides the following information on the story:

Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana (“one n, like fauna—not Anna, like ‘banana’”) Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California. When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, but Ana comes to love Garber Farm. When she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.”

One winner (US only) will receive a copy of this charming-sounding retelling, along with a beautiful edition of the original Anne of Green Gables.


You can learn more about the retelling from this online book club kit which includes a very cool map, author interview, recipes, and playlist and more.
To enter, fill out the form below with your own information (comment field says “required” but it is “optional”). (If for some reason the form does not show up on your browser, add a comment to the post.) A winner will be selected at random in one week, on July 7.

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Review of “The Firebird” by Susanna Kearsley

This is a companion book to The Winter Sea, so while it is nice to read both, and to have read The Winter Sea first, it is entirely unnecessary. Both are very well researched, shedding light not only on the Jacobite Movement in Scotland, but in this book, on the active Jacobite community in St. Petersburg as well.


The action in The Firebird moves back and forth from the present to the early 18th Century. The protagonist in current times is Nicola (“Nick”) Marter, who works at a gallery of Russian art and artifacts. As the story begins, her boss Sebastian introduces her to a Scottish woman who has a small carved bird she calls “The Firebird”; she claims it was given to an ancestor named Anna by the Empress Catherine (the wife of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great). When Nick holds the bird, she suddenly has a vision of Anna receiving the bird from the Empress. Nick has the gift of psychometry, which allows her to see visions about objects that she touches. She has tried to repress this gift, however; she doesn’t want to be seen as a freak. She doesn’t tell the woman or Sebastian about what she sees; it wouldn’t help in any event to use information derived in that way as “verification.”

When Sebastian asks Nick to go to St. Petersburg for an art exhibit, Nick wonders if she can find some evidence there to prove the true provenance of the carved bird, and turns for help to Rob McMorran. Nick met Rob when she took some tests at an institute researching parapsychology. There was no one there with more skill than Rob, and they began seeing each other. But Nick ran from the relationship; she wanted to hide her skills, even from herself, and have a “normal” life.

Rob has never gotten over Nick, however, and accompanies her to Russia. On the way, Nick tells Rob about Russian folklore concerning the firebird. Although there are a couple of different stories, the point of both of them is that what you bring back with you at the end of a journey might not be what you started out searching for in the beginning. And that of course will clearly be the theme of the book.


When they get to Russia, Rob and Nick together reach back into the past and find the young woman Anna, who was born in Scotland but later lived in St. Petersburg. As the two go back to their past (via their visions), we learn how and why Anna ended up in St. Petersburg along with other Jacobites. [Jacobites were mostly Irish and Scots in the early 1700’s who were seeking to bring the exiled Catholic King James VIII back from France to take the Scottish throne. James is Jacobus in Latin.] The two “meet” a number of characters from The Winter Sea, as well as some new ones, since Anna was just a very small child in the previous book.

There are parallel romances in both the past and the present, with one character even paraphrasing one of the most famous quotes from Jane Eyre (and probably the one most often paraphrased), saying:

And looking at his face I felt a swift, insistent tug beneath my heart, as though someone had tied a string around my ribs and pulled it sharply.”

The ending will satisfy readers, even though, as with the quest for the legendary firebird, all the various seekers end up with something different than what they thought they wanted.

Evaluation: I’d have to say, to my surprise, that I liked this book a tad more than The Winter Sea (which I also enjoyed), in spite of the fact that this book had a paranormal element and the previous book soft-peddled that aspect. I loved the characters, especially those in the past. Anna is a winning character both as a child and as the 17-year-old she becomes later in the book. The author is very adept at romantic scenes, more interested in conveying the emotional engagement of the characters than giving readers anatomy lessons. And of course it’s hard to beat a setting that combines Scotland and St. Petersburg!

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. in paperback by Sourcebooks, 2013

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