Book Review: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

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Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a beautiful book.

After a reading string of well-written, compelling but very sad stories about refugees (The Road from Home, The Day of the Pelican, The Endless Steppe), my children requested “something NOT sad.”  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon fit that bill.

Minli, a young Chinese girl in a rural farming village, lives with her father (a story telling farmer) and mother (who doesn’t appreciate stories).  When Minli sees an opportunity to change her fortune, she takes it, leaving her village to find the Old Man on the Moon.

Minli encounters many story tellers, including a stone lion, an incognito king, and an imprisoned dragon.  Their stories weave beautifully into a powerful narrative about what fortune ultimately means.

It’s labeled for Grades 3-6 but made a lovely family read aloud, which everyone loved.  Highly recommended.

Quick Lit: March 2016

Over the past month, I read a whole bunch of books not fit to mention here.  Most I gave up on after 20-30 pages, but a few I finished, all the time hoping they would improve.  Ugh.  It was like eating an entrée at a restaurant and then wishing later I hadn’t.

Anyway, here are the ones I do recommend:

Product DetailsThe Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change (Brenda Salter-McNeil and Rick Richardson) is excellent.  Salter-McNeil and Richardson have been friends and (and were colleagues at Intervarsity for years), and their history together provides so much richness on this topic.  Each chapter has both theological truths about racism and personal experiences of it.  Every chapter made me think and examine my own life and thinking.  But what I appreciated most were the meditations and prayers at the ends of the chapters. My heart isn’t done with this book, and I am hoping to use this with a small group for future study together.  Highly recommended.

Product DetailsDon’t be deterred by the Dirty Dancing overtones in the title.  Time of My Life (Allison Winn Scotch) is a thoughtful exploration of where one woman’s marriage went wrong, and what she would do differently if she could do it all again.. It’s R rated but not gratuitously so.   I enjoyed it so much.

Product DetailsDear Mr. Knightley (Katherine Reay) is a books of letters from a graduate student to the benefactor who funds her graduate studies.  She is a great character, and the book doesn’t shy away from her challenges or the darkness in her past. I found the romance problematic and am not sure I loved the ending, but it was still a great vacation book, and one both my daughter and husband are enjoying, too.  (Here’s my review of Reay’s other book, Lizzy and Jane.)

Product DetailsKatherine Paterson’s The Day of the Pelican is a fantastic book about a family in Kosovo in the late 1990s.  I don’t want to spoil any of it for you, but the characters are well drawn, the ethnic conflict real without being graphic, and the conclusion is perfect without being easy.  This was a real aloud with the kids, and no one wanted it to end. Highly recommended.

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Beating the February Blues: Day 14

Welcome to a month of ideas to beat the February Blues!

Day 14: Read a book!
This is my monthly collection of quick reviews of the books I’ve been reading.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery (Inspector Gamache #8) Product Details

Hands down, this was my favorite read this month.  I’ve requested the first and second Inspector Gamache novels from the library, but apparently the line is long.  So I picked up this one from the shelf and jumped right in.  I showed up at my doctor’s office, and he was very concerned that I had begun reading in the middle.  Apart from advising me to eat right and exercise, he recommended I don’t read any further in the series without backing up to the beginning.

Set in an isolated Quebecois monastery where the monks sing like angels, The Beautiful Mystery is a compelling psychological drama  with layer upon layer of tension.  It was almost polyphonic, really.  Highly recommended.

Estelle Ryan: The Braque Connection (Genevieve Lenard #3) Product Details

I was undecided about this series after the second, but the third book sold me on it again.  I love art, I love heists, and I love mysteries, so The Genevieve Lenard books should be a no-brainer.  She is a unique narrator, though, because of her autism.  I love series which deepen our understanding of the characters, and Ryan’s books do that.  I will definitely read on in this series.

Peg Brantley: The Sacrifice Product Details

This is my first reading of Brantley, whose fiction is a little darker than my usual fare. But I really liked the protagonist of The Sacrifice, Mex Anderson, who is a former lawman, now simultaneously fighting both his own demons and those around him.  The characters are multidimensional, the writing compelling, and the story kept me wondering.  I’ll be starting her Aspen Falls series next.

Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders (audiobook by Blackstone Audio with John Moffatt)

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Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express (audiobook read by Dan Stevens, HarperAudio)

Murder on the Orient Express

I wasn’t sure how the family would respond to Agatha Christie, but we’re at a funny stage where my older kids don’t want to repeat what they’ve listened to before, and my youngest still can’t handle a lot of complicated psychology.  Agatha Christie was complicated but not as graphic as a lot of what is out there.  These two CD books seemed to hit everyone’s sweet spot.

Andy Weir’s The Martian (audiobook read by RC Bray for Brilliance Audio) Product DetailsAlthough I loved both the book and the movie, this was another book I was unsure about listening to as a family.  The kids have loved it, and Sam and I argue about who gets to have the discs in our respective cars.  Somehow when I read it the first time, I must have blocked out much of the swearing.  Believe me, though, the kids notice it.  Highly recommended (with an advisory to listeners with sensitive ears.)

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Quick Lit: November 2015

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Lou is still heartbroken a year after her relationship with Will is over, and a freak accident and its aftermath are the fuel needed to restart her life.  I’ve been waiting for After You for so long!  (And then I handed it to Sam and had to wait for him to finish it before I could start.)  This is the sequel to Me Before You, and while the two have a different feel, Lou is such a great character I’d read another one about her in a heartbeat. Highly recommended.

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And then, because I was on a Moyes kick, I picked up The Girl You Left Behind.  It tells two stories in parallel: the story of Sophie, a feisty young woman whose life changes when her artist husband goes to war in 1914; and Liv Halston, a widow grappling with her loss.  Moyes paints loss so vividly, but she doesn’t leave her characters there, and her love stories are always multi-dimensional.  Also highly recommended.

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This is Birk’s third book about Terrence Reid.  The layers of this mystery kept going deeper and deeper.  I was wrong multiple times about who did it, and why.  I have been rooting for Reid and his wife for several books now, and Less than a Treason didn’t disappoint.  Great for fans of mystery and Christmas stories, especially ones in gorgeous Scottish castles.

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This is my favorite Penderwicks book so far, which I didn’t expect because generally I am not a fan of adding in new characters after a book or two.  Jeanne Birdsall crafts a beautiful story arc, in which all secrets are told and all resolutions are exactly right, even if you couldn’t see how to get there on your own.  The Penderwicks in Spring was great, and I can’t wait for book #4.

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20th Century History Readings

I would describe our homeschool curriculum as inspired by Charlotte Mason: we focus on living books and narration. But since Charlotte Mason taught 100 years ago, I have to say I was daunted when we came to the 20th Century. I had to make my own booklist.  Here is a selection of our choices from this year, described by topic and the age of the child(ren) who read them.

On the subject of Reconstruction and the condition of freed slaves, we recommend Elijah of Buxton (Curtis).  I read aloud Ann Manheim’s biography James Beckwourth, Legendary Mountain Man.   We started Jarvis’s Moccasin Trail at the same time, but biography caught our interest more, and we gave up on the Jarvis book.  One of our favorites, Little Britches (Moody), fits well into this time also.

We learned about workers’ conditions after industrialization. On this topic, my high schooler read both Paterson’s Lyddie and Sinclair’s The Jungle. Newsies (the Disney movie) is a good AV supplement to this topic.  Our middle schoolers listened to an audio recording of Giff’s House of Tailors (on CD) which describes the European difficulties which drove immigration and the immigrant experience here.  My high schooler read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, which describes conditions in China during the same period.  Another favorite read-aloud about immigrants (and the Titanic) during this time was The Watch that Ends the Night (Wolf).

We spent time on Woman Suffrage.  Our favorite books on this topic were You Want Women to Vote, Lizzy Stanton? (Fritz), I Could Do That (White), and Heroine of the Titanic, The Real Unsinkable Molly Brown (Landau).  We visited the Molly Brown House here in Denver and enjoyed the museum’s documentary and tour.


For high schoolers who like science, I recommend Gina Kolata’s Flu and John Rigden’s Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness.

Continuing in the 20th Century, Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Amazing Voyage (available on audio) is a vivid adventure book about his South Pole journey in 1914-7.  The book fits right in with our WWI reading, which included Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (for my high schooler), Harris’s The Fledglings, The Professionals, and The Victors (about the nascent Royal Air Force), and The Road from Home (Kherdian) about the Armenian genocideFacing History has great resources on the Armenian Genocide, including a curriculum of discussion questions based on primary documents.  We loved the audio of Listening for Lions (Whelan) which takes place in Africa during and after the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.  Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a vivid portrayal of the pandemic for high school and older.

We relied on both Mike Venezia’s entertaining picture-book biographies and David Adler’s more serious ones for the presidents.  Robert Burleigh’s biographies of Amelia Earhart, Henrietta Leavitt, Jackie Robinson, and Babe Ruth were a good addition to our reading.

We enjoyed several books on The Great Depression this year.  Esperanza Rising (Ryan), Out of the Dust (Hesse), and A Letter to Mrs. Roosevelt (De Young) were all good for my middle schoolers.  McGinty’s Gandhi: A March to the Sea and Kimmel’s A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi’s Great Salt March are both beautiful and informative picture books.  High schoolers might also enjoy Seabiscuit (Hillenbrand) and The Boys in the Boat (Brown).

We spent a lot of time on WWII.  My high schooler read Code Name Verity (Wein) and Unbroken (Hillenbrand).  My middle schoolers read The House of Sixty Fathers (Dejong), Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Coerr), and The Upstairs Room (Reiss) and Navajo Code Talkers (Santella).  We read aloud Number the Stars (Lowry) and The Endless Steppe (Hautzig).  Our unanimous favorite read aloud was Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build- and Steal- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.

On the Civil Rights movement, we really enjoyed Weatherford’s books The Beatitudes: from Slavery to Civil Rights and Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins. The Bus Ride that Changed History: The Story of Rosa Parks (Edwards) is very accessible for elementary-aged kids. For high schoolers, I recommend Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and To Be Young, Gifted and Black; Beal’s Warriors Don’t Cry and Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot) is a brilliant blend of science and the history of race relations in the 20th century and best for high schoolers.  Sheinkin’s Port Chicago 50 details the effects of segregation in the armed services and would be appropriate for all ages.

We wrapped up the year with a unit on the Cold War.  I read aloud Rocket Boys (Hickam) (with a few edits of high school libido my youngers didn’t need to hear), and the kids begged for it.  We watched War Games, the Hunt for the Red October, and White NightsCountdown (Wiles) portrays the Cuban Missile Crisis so well at a middle-school level. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now have taught my kids about the Vietnam War and have generated so many great discussions.

We only hit a couple off my list of titles (mostly fiction) that portray the international situation in the 20th Century, but I recommend Tasting the Sky by Barakat (Palestine), Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Compestine (China), Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (South Africa), Park’s Long Walk to Water (Sudan), Paterson’s Day of the Pelican (Bosnia), Choi’s Year of Impossible Good-byes (Korea) and Kadohata’s A Million Shades of Gray (Vietnam).

Quick Lit: May 2015

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

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I picked this up because we loved Sheinkin’s Bomb, and I wasn’t disappointed.   Sheinkin poured through recorded oral histories and court documents to compile the story of 50 convicted mutineers who were some of our country’s first civil rights pioneers.  Yet another piece of US history I didn’t learn in school, but Sheinkin’s book is fully accessible from middle grade readers up, and a is quick read.  Highly recommended.

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

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Countdown is the story of Franny Clapman, an eleven year-old in Maryland in October, 1962.  She likes reading, headbands, and mysteries.  She does not like bomb drills, not knowing what her older sister is up to, or how her best friend is treating her.  I liked Franny’s voice, and I kept turning pages on this one long after I should have been asleep.  It’s full of photographs and ad clips from 1962, which appeal to my daughter who is also reading the book. I loved Countdown’s vivid portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a part of Franny’s life, but I’m pretty sure my daughter won’t notice she’s reading history. She’ll just want to know what happens to Franny next. Highly recommended.

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus by David Quammen

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This slim book is excerpted from Quammen’s work Spillover and updated to include some of the preliminary information about the current outbreak of Ebola virus in west Africa.  I’ve been fascinated (and horrified) by Ebola since hearing about it in medical school, and Quammen’s history of it here is clear, concise and riveting.  Recommended.

Grandad, there’s a head on the Beach by Colin Cotterill

Grandad, There's a Head on the Beach: A Jimm Juree Mystery (Jimm Juree Mysteries Book 2)

I really like Cotterill’s Dr. Siri mysteries, so I gave the Jimm Juree series a try.  Jimm is a Thai journalist with a wacky family, and because of them, Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach reads very much like a cozy at a second-rate Thai motel. The mystery turned out to hinge on an issue very close to my heart, and between gags, Cotterrill tells some truth. Recommended.

 The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

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The book is a carefully crafted account of the effort to save the cultural record of Europe as the Allies liberated Europe from Hitler.  The first part of the book describes some of the key players in the fight and how they were uniquely skilled for the work.  The second two-thirds of the book paints the recovery of the artwork and the effort to save the cathedrals that both sides were ready to destroy.  Hitler’s Nero policy, which was a grown-up version of a two year-old’s “if I can’t have it, neither can they”, shocked me.

We see similar destruction going on right now under ISIS in Iraq, and in Syria.  Millenia-old buildings, art and documents are being intentionally destroyed by ISIS as they take control.  The war in Syria has demolished entire cities.  The question posed by The Monuments Men- is saving a work of art worth the price of a life?- is worth asking, and this book poses it well. Recommended.

(P.S. The movie is worth watching as well.  Here is a link to the plugged in review of it.  And Google has a virtual exhibit on the recovery of art in WWII, link here.)

 Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear

Product Details Product Details(For longer reviews of these books, click on their titles above.)

I am a fan of re-reading.  I don’t re-read every book, but those I love I revisit.  Without fail, I always see new things I didn’t see before.  In fact, one of the times I heard Ms. Willis in person, she recommended reading Agatha Christie books twice through back-to-back: the first time to see what she does, and the second to see how she does it.  These two books (one story, published in two volumes) are masterpieces of puzzle-making.  The three main characters are historians at Oxford University in 2060, where they use time travel for their historical research.  Except while each of the historians in is WWII, the time-travel net breaks down and they’re trapped.  Highly recommended.  But learn from my mistake.  Make sure you have access to All Clear before you finish Blackout.  Just sayin’. Highly recommended.

King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear (2008) Poster

Halfway through my reading, I realized that I had never read (or seen) this play before.  The names were familiar, but that was about it.  The whole time, I couldn’t decide if Lear had dementia or was just so used to the sycophancy that surrounded him as king that his expectations had become ridiculous.  I suppose that was one of Shakespeare’s points.

Every time I read Shakespeare, I realize how bare the script is.  It’s just dialogue, [Enter] and [Exeunt]. There aren’t liner notes full of the psychology of the characters.  Because of that, each character is open to interpretation, which is so true to life.  I can only infer meaning from the actions of those around me. Thank goodness I’m not an egotistical king with a kingdom to dispose of.

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Quick Lit: April 2015


Product Details Bomb: The Race of Build-and Steal- the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Steve Sheinkin): This is a fantastic YA non-fiction book that held everyone’s interest.  It handled The Manhattan Project and all the spying that went with it in fascinating detail.  We listened to it on CD.

Busman’s Honeymoon (Dorothy Sayers): This mystery follows Gaudy Night (one of my all-time favorite books) and completes the train of thought developed begun there.  What does marriage look like?  How do we blend two lives without one person disappearing under the other?

Product DetailsThe Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis): I’ve been listening to the recording by Joss Ackland, whose chuckle perfectly fits “your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”  Lewis’s keen observation of human nature is only matched by his ability to prescribe the antidote.  I’ve been listening to it as I make dinner each night, and then I go to dinner chastened by my own sin and amazed by Lewis’s insight.

Product DetailsNumber the Stars (Lois Lowry) is such a beautiful picture of human courage.  This time through, I’ve been struck by the idea of how it’s easier to be brave when we don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle before us (thank you, Uncle Henrik).  My kids wanted to read it again as soon as we finished– that’s a recommendation for you!

Product Details The Endless Steppe (Esther Hautzig).  Obviously we’re on a WWII jag around here.  I read Hautzig’s book of Siberian exile as a child, and it stuck with me.  Reading it today, Esther’s story is just as vivid and universal as it was to me thirty years ago. Hautzig doesn’t minimizes the horror of war or exile and still manages to write a story full of hope.

Most of this is school reading, which seems odd to me given that we had Spring Break a few weeks ago. I had a kindle full of books (and a few in my bag, too) and managed to touch none of it. But that’s how things are right now: everything that has to get done right now is getting done, but that’s all I can manage.

What are you reading?

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Quick Lit: March

Product DetailsThe Road from Home by David Kherdian.  This book is an account of a young woman’s life during the Armenian Genocide.  The story reads like a novel and would have flown by if my children hadn’t kept asking me to take a break because it was so sad. Veron, the main character, grows from pampered eldest daughter into a resilient survivor, and then into a young woman wanting to determine her own future.  There is kindness here, and bravery. Worth the read for the character and for the story, not to mention for the history.

Product DetailsFirst Cut by Mary Birk.  The second book in the Terrence Reid series, this thriller is broader in scope than the first.  Reid’s character deepens, and the relationship between Reid and his wife flows at the same dramatic pace as the story.  Read it with the lights on, though– it’s scary.

Product DetailsProduct DetailsAt Risk and The Front by Patricia Cornwell.  These two are the start of a second series by Cornwell, and although I don’t like the characters as much as I like Kay Scarpetta, the narrative is fresh and immediate.  The books are much shorter, and– so far– free of the serial killers that bogged down the later Scarpetta books.  I liked them.

Product DetailsBlack Notice by Patricia Cornwell.  I’ve been reading the Scarpetta books completely out of order, and this one caught me completely off-guard, as at the beginning of the book one of the characters I really liked was dead.  I kept waiting for Scarpetta to discover it was all a ruse or mistake, and that never happened, which I think was part of the point.  The grief was very real.  Cornwell does forensics so well, to the point that the dead speak, and this one was exceptionally vivid.

Product DetailsThe Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood.  This book came recommended to me as “Jane Eyre without Mr. Rochester.”  And as far one could describe Jane Eyre as a book about a young governess thrust into a house with secrets, that’s accurate. Unlike Jane Eyre, this is a YA or MG read-aloud without much emotional depth, and the end didn’t satisfy me.  None of the questions posed were answered.  My children, however, asked to begin the sequel immediately, which we’ve done.  I have to give a shout to the illustrator- the drawings had a whimsy entirely suited to the book.

Product DetailsWhat the Bride Didn’t Know by Kelly Hunter.  This is the third book of Hunter’s I’ve read, and they are all true to a traditional romance formula. Beyond that, though, her characters are fresh and bold, with real issues and backstories she paints so well.  Her dialogue is brilliant, and I always come away feeling like I know the people I’ve just been reading about.

Book Review: Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Product Details Goodness, this is a beautiful book.

Pam Munoz Ryan has captured both an individual character and a historical period that had been hard for my kids to imagine.

Esperanza is 12 when her story begins.  She is the pampered daughter of a Mexican landowner in the 1930’s, just after the Mexican Civil War.  Her father’s death at the hands of bandits sends her and her mother into hiding, and they make their way to the San Fernando Valley.  More significant than the miles is the transformation in Esperanza’s spirit.

The book paints the hard issues of the Great Depression and the fight for worker’s rights in a way that is clear yet complex.  There are no easy answers here, but lots of great characters.

We listened to this on audio, read by Trini Alvarado (Meg of Little Women).  Product Details

It’s a beautiful recording of a terrific story.  We were all sorry it ended.

Quick Lit: February

Product DetailsThe Seville Communion (Arturo Perez-Reverte) is a heady whodunit, set in a Seville so vivid I could taste it.  I stayed up late reading this one, but it left me flat the end.  His male characters, from the former fake lawyer who dropped ash on his white suits to the many priests who peopled the mystery, were well-drawn and complex, but I found the women lacking in depth.  They all had backstories quirks, but they didn’t come together for me.  And I’m over the underlying theme of intellect makes faith impossible.  I will look for another by this author, though. He writes so well.

Product DetailsMatthew Inman is also known as The Oatmeal.  He writes about the inner battles he fights with his self-esteem and self-control and self-destruction as they are embodied in a giant, potato-shaped blob that tries to defeat him in all areas of life.  And instead of fighting and losing and despairing and lying on the couch and eating another bag of Cheetos, he choses to outrun his demons.  This is a delightful, crass, highly-illustrated romp through my psyche.  Loved it.

Product DetailsI’m late to the Seabiscuit party, I know, but I’m a huge fan of Laura Hillenbrand after reading UnbrokenSeabiscuit is also extraordinary.  Somehow Hillenbrand manages to capture all those little details from real life that make long ago times and places come alive.  It also had short sections that made this easy to continue with despite the many interruptions of my day.  I’m determined not to miss her next book.

Product DetailsShauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine, a love letter to life around the table is exactly that.  Each section read like a letter, and her love of people and food and friendship came through.  Her essay about becoming able to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep had me weeping on the couch.  Loved it.

Product DetailsI enjoyed the relationships in this novel of complicated family dynamics.  I’m not sure I bought Lizzy’s identity as a high-powered chef in NYC, but what do I know.  I’ve never been one.  I’ll look for another from Katherine Reay.

Product DetailsMarcus Samuelsson’s Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home was a blast of a read– it made me not only want to eat, but want to cook.  Between his and Niequist’s encouragement to make recipes my own, I’m full of newfound passion for cooking.

Product DetailsI devoured Patricia Cornwall’s Red Mist like candy… late at night and in the bath.  The forensics were fascinating, and the novel pulled me along like an undertow.  I really like reading books with strong protagonists, in which the women aren’t all victims and pawns, and the Kay Scarpetta books suit me well.

Product DetailsI’m not a huge fan of paranormal stories (I like my Sci-Fi with a heavy dose of Sci), but I’m glad I read The Telepath Chronicles.  It’s an anthology of paranormal stories, including one by a writer I really enjoy, E.E. Giorgi (of Gene Cards, see review from November).  It’s hard to describe the story without giving spoilers, but I’ll say that she weaves together beautifully the threads of grief, despair, wonder and hope.  As a whole, the stories were thought provoking and good reads.

And P.S. Mary Birk’s Mermaids of Bodega Bay (which I reviewed a few months ago) is a free Kindle unlimited download right now!