Review of “Coloring Dream Mandalas” by Wendy Piersall

In keeping with the worldwide adult coloring book craze, this latest offering from Wendy Piersall features quotes and images from the dream world. (Well, not my dreams, which tend to be about blueberry pancakes, but that wouldn’t make for a very exciting coloring experience.)


Piersall’s previous books featuring mandalas focused on animal mandalas and flower mandalas. I like this one the best. The images are more fantastical, and I think offer even more stimulation for the imagination.

A mandala (Sanskrit for circle) is, as mentioned in previous reviews, 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 by the author

Coloring by the author

Coloring Dream Mandalas is a collection of thirty hand-drawn outlines of beautiful images, including dragons, castles, fairies, butterflies and of course, dream catchers.

The designs are just intricate enough to put you into a “zone” of mindful/mindlessness.

I have new markers, and can’t wait to see if I start dreaming about mermaids or sprites from now on instead of breakfast…

Evaluation: This book would make a great present for yourself or others! Throw some colored pencils or markers into the gift box!

Published by Ulysses Press, 2015

Coloring by the author

Coloring by the author

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Review of “Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City” by Paul Strathern

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This is an historical account about the complicated times during the Renaissance when two main opposing forces were seeking to win the hearts and minds (and souls) of the influential citizens of Florence.


15th century Italy consisted of many separate city-states, which were usually warring with one another. Florence, though, was thriving; it was the center of the Italian Renaissance in art, producing notables like Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was also a great financial center, dominated by the Medici family banks. But Florence, like the rest of Italy, suffered from the rampant corruption of the Catholic Church, and in particular, the ruling Borgia family. The times were ripe for religious reform, which would have profound social and political consequences as well as religious ones.

Giralamo Savonarola was born and grew up in the town of Ferrara. He was moved by the worldliness and “sinfulness” of his fellow Italians to take Holy Orders with the Dominicans, in his words, “because of the blind wickedness of the people of Italy.” He moved to Florence in 1482, where he entered the monastery of San Marco. There Savonarola was scandalized by the secular pursuits of Florence’s Dominicans, who accumulated comforts in the service of Lorenzo (“The Magnificent) de’ Medici, the wily ruler of Renaissance Florence.

Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici by Agnolo Bronzino

Portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Agnolo Bronzino

Savonarola was a vociferous opponent of sin, which in his view included “anything that brought pleasure.” This did not, however, in his mind, include academic pursuits; in fact, Savonarola was quite an intellectual and scholar, even becoming friends with the freethinker and polymath humanist Pico della Mirandola. Together, they explored theological knowledge and unorthodox philosophy such as the Kabbala. Nevertheless, Savonarola remained strictly orthodox in his beliefs.

Savonarola was a fiery preacher. He sought not to enlighten or reassure in his sermons; he wanted to put the fear of God in his listeners. He was convinced he was a prophet, inspired by God. In his sermons, he often blamed Lorenzo for the evils of secular Florence.

Portrait of Savonarola by his friend Fra Bartolomeo

Portrait of Savonarola by his friend Fra Bartolomeo

In 1491, Savonarola was elected Prior of the monastery of San Marco. A year later he ministered to Lorenzo on his death bed, at which time he promised to refrain from preaching against Piero, Lorenzo’s son. But Savonarola was such an inspiring and dynamic speaker that he became a political power himself nonetheless. Strathan says his sermons brought people into “mass hysteria.”

The labyrinthine politics of Italy became even more complicated when Charles VIII of France invaded in 1494. Savonarola predicted apocalyptic doom, characterizing Charles as the “scourge of God.” When the French army approached Florence, Savonarola went out to meet Charles, and successfully persuaded him not to sack Florence, an act which served to enhance his prestige and political power.

Charles VIII of France, by the Ecole Francaise

Charles VIII of France, by the Ecole Francaise

Savonarola kept expanding upon his ministry. He claimed to have visited the Virgin Mary in paradise. He alienated many Florentines by advocating the death penalty for sodomy, which was widely practiced in Florence on both men and women because (1) women were supposed to be virgins when they married so they were unavailable, and (2) married men could still have sex with their wives in this way without a ruinous number of children resulting from their actions. But according to Strathern, most citizens approved of Savonarola’s repressive policies by and large, aside from the sodomy restrictions. In 1497 during Carnival time (the run-up to Lent), “Savonarola’s boys” (culled from catechism classes of San Marco) went around Florence collecting items associated with dissipation – called “vanities” – such as packs of cards, dice, jewelry, and books by poets, and made a huge bonfire. This “Bonfire of the Vanities” rose to sixty feet, with a circumference at its base of 240 feet. At its peak, an image of the Devil was placed, and while it burned, Savonarola’s boys, dressed in white, sang hymns.

Florence in Savonarola's time

Florence in Savonarola’s time

Eventually, Savonarola went too far. His downfall came improbably, though, after a Franciscan monk challenged him to an ordeal by fire. This sort of thing no longer had much credence in a sophisticated city like Florence, but through a comedy of errors, the governing body of Florence decided it should go ahead, with two Franciscans going against two Dominicans. A thunderstorm interrupted the proceedings. Savonarola was blamed by the assembled mob not performing a miracle, and was accused of being a charlatan.

The mob then stormed Savonarola’s monastery and took him prisoner. With help of emissaries of the Pope, he was tortured for claiming that he was a prophet and had spoken with God. He resisted the torture manfully, but ultimately he broke down and made admissions that could be interpreted as heresy. His punishment was to be burned at the stake.

Discussion: Savonarola never tried to found a new sect – he attempted to reform the Church from within. [Two decades later, the Church was still subject to the same criticisms of corruption and worldliness, leading Martin Luther to reject the entire structure and start a new religion.]

The author seems very sympathetic to Savonarola, possibly because of his courage in the face of torture. Although I have little sympathy for the Borgias, I can’t help feeling that Savonarola would not have been a pleasant ruler. Fire and brimstone preachers are not necessarily an improvement over venal popes.

Evaluation: Strathan has done a remarkable job of relating the sinuous twists and turns of Renaissance Italian politics. Without that detail, it would be hard to comprehend the events described. Nonetheless, this book is not a “page turner,” and I found myself drifting off as I read about the intricacies of various great families’ internecine feuds. While the book contains very helpful maps and illustrations, one can see by the length of the “Leading Dramatis Personae and Main Factions” preceding the book that the history of these times is quite convoluted.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Pegasus Books, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward: How the Pretzel Was Born” by Anna Egan Smucker

As the author’s note explains at the end of the book, “We cannot be exactly sure who invented the pretzel.” But there are a number of theories, and this book expands on one of them, involving a monk who formed leftover bread dough to look like arms crossed in prayer.


In this story, Brother Giovanni is a happy man who is considered the best baker his monastery had ever had. But all was not well in his monastery. The Bishop was due to arrive, and the Abbot was worried their funding would be cut off because their young pupils could not say their prayers. No one else had succeeded in getting the children to learn, and the Abbot turned to Brother Giovanni to come up with a miracle. The Abbot suggested he “use his gifts.”


Brother Giovanni prayed for guidance. He tried teaching the children to sing their prayers; he tried teaching them to dance while praying; he even tried (unsuccessfully) to look mean; nothing worked!


Then shortly before the Bishop came, he had an idea while praying with his arms crossed. He would make baked treats that resembled arms folded in prayer.


“As the days went by, miracle of miracles, the children learned their prayers. For Brother Giovanni’s little rewards – pretiolas, he called them – everyone was working as hard as they could.”

By the time the Bishop came, the children could recite their prayers perfectly, and they all celebrated with figs, nuts, and Brother Giovanni’s pretiolas, or pretzels.


The story concludes with a note from the author about the history behind the story, and a recipe for soft pretzels.

The vivid and playful illustrations by the much-awarded illustrator, Amanda Hall, were created using watercolor inks combined with gouache. She continues, as in previous books, to employ some techniques reminiscent of the painter Henri Rousseau, such as his “naïve” style, magical imagery, and his playful variations in scale. The detail and imaginary aspects of the pictures will keep the intended audience of ages 4-8 transfixed.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2015


wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “We Never Asked For Wings” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I had trouble warming up to this book. The story was in one sense about baby mamas having babies and then neglecting them, out of either lack of any parental sense of duty (in the case of Letty) or of the necessity of working many jobs (in the case of Carmen).


Letty Espinosa, 33, is offensively immature, irresponsible, and self-centered, and her daughter Luna, aged 6, is unbearably undisciplined, spoiled, and bratty. Letty also has a son, Alex, almost 15, by a different father than that of Luna.

They live in Eden’s Landing – run-down, nearly abandoned projects near the San Francisco International Airport. When the story begins, Letty’s mother, Maria Elena, wants to go to Mexico to find Enrique, her husband, who left six weeks earlier but has not yet returned. Letty is in a panic; she has no idea how to take care of her two children without Maria Elena. So she leaves the kids a note and takes off to Mexico with her mother. She lies to Maria Elena, claiming she has left the kids with her BFF, Sara. Enrique refuses to leave Mexico, and Maria Elena refuses to leave Enrique; she basically pushes Letty out and sends her back to America.

Carmen, 28, living in an even worse area than Letty, had her daughter Yesenia when she was only 14. Neither Carmen nor Yesenia are U.S. citizens, which means their futures are always in peril. Letty’s son Alex, almost 15, is in love with 15-year-old Yesenia. Yesenia is deformed from early domestic abuse, but Alex is fixated on the “beauty” of her deformities and how “tiny” Yesenia is. He ardently wants to protect her from the bullies that attack her because of her perceived weakness, and will do anything for her.

In addition, Alex has enlisted Yesenia to help him spy on his father, Wes Riley, who lives in nearby upscale Mission Hills. (Luna’s father is unknown.) One day, Wes follows Alex home to see who this kid is who is always spying on him, and to his shock finds Letty; he had never even known she was pregnant when she broke up with him.

Meanwhile, Letty has started to see Ricardo (“Rick”) Moya, a 29-year-old bartender where she works. Ricks attraction to Letty was not believable to me at all. He was like the analogue of a common female character with incredibly low self-esteem who falls for a guy who mistreats her, is rude and abusive, and steals from her. But Alex didn’t seem to have a problem with a sense of self-worth, and I couldn’t see why he kept putting up with Letty or her daughter.

Wes was a cypher too – why was he never with anyone after Letty? Did he still love her? How did Letty feel about him after all this time? Why did he so easily let her go? None of that was ever really clear to me.

Soon Alex and Luna are both thriving at new schools in Mission Hills, thanks to Rick finding Letty a place to live there as a caretaker of a house. Alex wants to get Yesenia in his school too, because she is beat up regularly without him there to protect her. He puts his reputation and their freedom in America on the line, when he does what he thinks he must to protect Yesenia.

After the inevitable disaster, all the adults come together in a frenzy of sudden responsibility and try to save the kids from themselves and maybe even prevent more future baby parents, although that last part isn’t guaranteed.

Evaluation: I understood what make Letty and Luna the way they were, but didn’t like them. The males were much more opaque, which did not allow me to feel invested in their fates either. The story of the situation in which immigrants find themselves might have been more compelling without the focus on Letty, whose bitter sense of entitlement and appalling self-absorption didn’t make her very endearing.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published in the U.S. by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015

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Review of “Fool’s Quest” by Robin Hobb

Note: Spoilers for previous books in the Farseer saga and for Fool’s Assassin

This book picks up immediately after the end of Fool’s Assassin, when Fitz’s nine-year-old daughter Bee was kidnapped from their country estate at Withywoods by Servants of the White Prophet. The Servants believed Bee to be “The Unexpected Son” from the White Prophecies; that is, the next authentic White Prophet, who they call Shaysim. (For most of the book, they think Bee is a boy, and she goes along with it, because she has seen what the captors do to girls.)


Fitz, now 60 (albeit appearing to be 35), had been away at the time. He was temporarily staying at Buckkeep Castle, tending to his battered friend The Fool, whom he had not seen for twenty-four years. Fitz believed that Bee was safe back at Withywoods, and so came to try to help heal the Fool, who was tortured (and in the process blinded) by the Servants to find out the whereabouts of The Unexpected Son. The Servants believed this foretold son was the offspring of The Fool.

Clearly, readers know immediately what the story is, so to speak, but we have to wait a very long time for Fitz and even the Fool to figure it all out.

In the meantime, Chade’s daughter Shine, also taken with Bee, manages to escape (thanks to the efforts of Bee) just before the Servants tried to pull them through the Skill Stones. Fitz finds Shine and restores her to Chade, and then builds up his strength so he can go after Bee, or at least get revenge against those who took her.

Eventually, he takes off on his quest, and in spite of intending to go alone, he is accompanied by Chade’s other illegitimate child Lant, Bee’s friend Perseverance, The Fool, and The Fool’s attendant Spark. They complicate matters for Fitz and put him in even more danger, but Fitz of course only feels guilty for not caring for taking better care of them all.

They all end up in Kelsingra, where the Fool becomes even more dragon-like, and Fitz experiences a great enhancement of his Skill-magic. But the Fool gets them into trouble, again, and all of their lives are in danger. Again.

Discussion: We get a hint of what is behind some of the newer plot elements when one character tells Fitz, “Nothing is really lost. Shapes change. But it’s never completely gone.”

The Fool’s sway over Fitz is increasingly annoying, both because of The Fool employing it, and Fitz being vulnerable to it. This aspect of their relationship dominated the plot, and had the effect of lessening my enjoyment of the book vis-à-vis other installments. But this is not to say I didn’t love it anyway. Hobb is a master at fantasy, both in terms of world-building and in the depth of her characterizations. (It might be noted that some of her most endearing and unforgettable characters are not human.)

Overall, it is a wonderful series, which really should be read in order from the beginning of The Farseer Series. I am truly grateful to have been pointed toward Robin Hobb; some books just help you pass the time, but some enhance your life and your appreciation of it; I would definitely put these books in the second category!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015

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Review of “The Start of Me and You” by Emery Lord

This YA story differs from most in that, although the protagonist and narrator, Paige Hancock, is 16 and a junior in high school, she is pretty naïve about boys, still attached to her “Grammy,” and pretty much of a “goody goody.” She had a boyfriend for two months a year before, but he died in a freak swimming accident, and ever since then, she has been known in high school as “Paige Hancock, The Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned.” She has avoided most school activities because she can’t stand getting “That Look” of pity. She used to swim a lot herself, but is now afraid, and has recurrent nightmares of drowning. And she feels guilty when she enjoys herself at anything.


Knowing that she has to get over this, and inspired by advice from her grandmother, Paige makes a list of goals for the year, and sets out to accomplish them:

Parties/Social Events
New Group
Date (Ryan Chase)

She calls the list “How to Begin Again.”

As part of the plan, she joins the “QuizBowl” team, because she knows a lot of trivia about popular culture. The captain of the team happens to be Max Watson, the cousin of Ryan Chase, Paige’s “ultimate, since-middle-school pipe dream of a crush.”

Predictably enough, as Paige and her BFFs begin to hang around with Max and his BFFs (which include Ryan), Paige finds that Max is more her type than Ryan:

“Ryan Chase was my eight-grade collage, aspirational and wide-eyed. But Max was the first bite of grilled cheese on a snowy day, the easy fit of my favorite jeans, that one old song that made it onto every playlist. . . . Not glamorous or idealized or complicated. Just me.”

But Paige runs into a couple of significant barriers: one is that she is afraid to get close to anyone ever again, because of the fear of loss. The second is that Max happened to see her planner, and concluded she just hung out with him to get to know Ryan. Hurt, he withdraws from her life.

Evaluation: In spite of there being no surprises in the story arc, this is a sweet coming-of-age book that focuses on the importance of family and friendship in a way many YA books do not. I also liked the way that although Ryan may be cute and a sports star, he’s a nice guy. Nevertheless, Paige prefers “nerdy” Max, who may not be as good looking, but he’s pretty amazing as a person.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, a member of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015

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Review of “The Upright Thinkers” by Leonard Mlodinow

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

In The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow sets out to summarize the development of humanity’s perception of the world and the role of human beings in it. He takes us from the first anthropoids to stand upright, to early civilizations and the appearance of cities, to the development of philosophy by the ancient Greeks, through the scientific revolution led by Galileo and Newton, and finally to the modern physics of relativity and quantum mechanics. Along the way, he also covers the history of chemistry from medieval alchemists through the development of atomic theory and the periodic chart. Biology too gets its share with a long section on Darwin. All this in 352 pages interspersed with personal recollections and a fair amount of humor.


Mlodinow is a lucid writer, and this is a fine introduction to the history of science for the non-scientist or casual reader. It is also a pleasant read for someone who knows a bit about the subject. It is interesting to contrast this book with Steven Weinberg’s To Explain the World, a book that covers much of the same material in an entirely different way. Weinberg shows the details of formerly accepted but now discarded theories. For example, he shows how Ptolemy was able to “preserve the appearances” of phenomena in his earth centered model of the universe through the construction of epicycles and equants. By contrast, Mlodinow paints with a broader brush, omitting Weinberg’s mathematical rigor, although his discussion of Newton does describe the use of infinitesimals in the invention of calculus.

Several themes permeate Mlodinow’s description of the practice of science. Most prominent is that science is hard work, and that brilliant ideas do not simply appear to prescient scientists. Newton struggled for years to articulate his theory of gravity and Darwin spent years writing about barnacles before his big idea of evolution through natural selection began to emerge.

Even after a great idea finally is fully-formed and clearly expressed, it is not always readily accepted by the scientific community. Mlodinow echoes Thomas Kuhn’s idea that revolutionary theories are seldom generally accepted until the existing scientific cohort dies off.

Mlodinow writes that the “most human” of our desires is the search for knowledge. And indeed, real progress has been made in mankind’s understanding of the universe. As Einstein said, “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Evaluation: This is an enjoyable tour of science – not too technical, and with plenty of background for new initiates to the subject.

Rating: 3.5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version of the book, read by the author. Although he does not have the polished diction of a professional actor, he is understandable and not annoying. Even though the book is about science, its lack of equations and diagrams obviates the visual aspect of comprehension.

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

Note from Jill: I listened to this along with Jim, and it is totally accessible to a “lay” listener. (Sometimes, what counts as non-mathy and non-sciencey to someone who practices differential equations all day is not the same as someone who reads, say, healthy doses of young adult books. But in this case, I enjoyed the book as much as Jim.)

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