Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rising Storm (Warriors #4) by Erin Hunter


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers!! ***

This book had kind of a slow start. On the one hand, Fireheart had a lot of problems to deal with - including Tigerclaw, Bluestar, Cloudpaw, and the sick ShadowClan cats - but at the same time, I frequently just felt like I was waiting for something to actually happen.

For much of the book, Cloudpaw's evolution was the most interesting subplot to me. As much as his story's twists and turns surprised me, I couldn't help but feel that his character was poorly developed. He held such promise as a young kit, so what made him change? He was acting like a lazy and rebellious teenager, yet none of the other kits or apprentices seemed to go through such a phase.

Three-quarters of the way through the book, it was like we finally got rewarded for sticking it out. Lots of action and emotion, and more than any of the other books so far, it ends on a real cliffhanger.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Forest of Secrets (Warriors #3) by Erin Hunter


I was really conflicted about what to rate this book. On the one hand, I was riveted! As the title suggests, this book is just chock full of secrets! In some cases, enough hints were dropped so that the reader could feel self-congratulatory for figuring something out. But, there were also a couple of unexpected twists that did surprise me. Developments happened at a pretty good clip, and there was just the right amount of suspense between action-packed battles.

So even though I was thoroughly entertained by this book, I just couldn't give it a full 5 stars. I felt the first two books were appropriate for kids in the upper elementary grades (e.g., grades 3-5), but the content of this book seemed to fall squarely in the middle school camp. In fact, Amazon lists the first two books as appropriate for grades 3-7, but this third book is labeled for grades 5-7! It seems a bit much to expect a third grader to read the first two books, and then wait a couple years before finishing the series. Especially since Amazon has books #4-6 of the series going back to listing grades 3-7 as the target audience!

Anyway, here are the concerns I had. There was a bit of romantic drama involving queens having kits and who fathered whose kits, though I have to say, the book skirted the issue of mating pretty effectively. There's also a whole lot of violence, including a crippling injury, murder, attempted murder, and treachery. Not to mention a death of a sad and sensitive nature. I don't think the events of this book would fly as a children's book if the characters were all humans - but I guess that's the point, right? They're cats. I guess by making up a fantasy world of talking cats, you can get away with more than you could with actual people.

It's an interesting question, though. Why am I okay allowing my 3rd grade daughter to read about anthropomorphized cats killing other anthropomorphized cats, when I certainly would not want her to read a book about people killing people? I guess the whole point of creating fantasy worlds is to open up the realms of possibility.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fire and Ice (Warriors #2) by Erin Hunter


In this installment, we follow Fireheart as he takes on new responsibilities as a warrior of ThunderClan.

Fireheart continues to find himself in the middle of all kinds of action. Along with his courage and intellect, Fireheart is characterized by his generous nature and his willingness to help others. With Fireheart now acting as a mentor, we get a good lesson in the importance of not allowing eagerness to turn into foolhardiness, though it was a little disappointing to see this lesson laid out twice in the same book, with two cats exhibiting the same behavior.

As Fireheart struggles to be accepted as a full member of the clan - some cats still hold his kittypet roots against him - he finds that clan life is not entirely satisfactory. The other cats share a bond of kinship, and having been born outside the clan, Fireheart feels like an outsider. It was good to see Fireheart exploring his conflicted emotions, but I wondered why he never confided in Yellowfang, who was also not born into ThunderClan. Also, with all the added talk about kin and kits in this book, it didn't make sense that none of the other young cats - like Graystripe, Sandpaw, or Dustpaw - had any kind of relationship with their mothers. Who were their mothers, anyway?

I also thought it was kind of strange that in this book, it became apparent that grown cats aren't supposed to play. At one point, Graystripe played briefly with a leaf, but then he felt guilty for doing so. That seemed weird to me. Apparently, clan cats are supposed to be serious and strong, but aren't they ultimately still cats? I don't know much about cats, but I always figured they were keen on playing.

The mystery surrounding Tigerclaw took something of a backseat in this book, but the questions continued to linger. He actually struck me as something of a Professor Snape character! Fireheart (like Harry Potter) has seemingly strong evidence that Tigerclaw (like Professor Snape) is evil. When he presents his evidence to Bluestar, however, she (like Dumbledore) re-affirms her faith in her trusted deputy. Is Tigerclaw really up to no good? Or has Fireheart completely misinterpreted all the evidence, and Tigerclaw is actually loyal to ThunderClan after all? I'll just have to keep reading to find out!

Before I sign off, though, I want to mention a couple more things that didn't sit right with me in this book. First, in the beginning, it seemed that the Twolegs who made a brief appearance were homeless drunkards! They slept out in the open under a road overpass, it sounded like they threw a glass bottle, and the cats reported that they "can hardly stand"! I know Twolegs aren't exactly looked upon positively in this series, but this portrayal made humans out to be downright vulgar.

And finally, very early on, I was put off by an egregious editing oversight. On page 12, we learn that "Redtail had been the ThunderClan deputy before Tigerclaw. Fireheart had never met him, but he knew Redtail had been deeply respected by all the clan." A mere 6 pages later, on page 18, we again read that "Redtail had been the ThunderClan deputy before Lionheart. Fireheart had never met him, but he knew Redtail had been deeply respected by all the clan." I know editing mistakes happen, but that one seemed particularly bad.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Lago - Meredith, NH


We drove from Weirs Beach to Meredith, looking for a place to eat. Our first two choices had closed their doors for the season, so we literally just drove around looking for a place that was actually open. Lago turned out to be quite a good find!

We were seated in an area that appeared to be a closed-in porch. I imagine the view must be beautiful during the day, but it was night time during our visit, so we didn't really get to enjoy it. Despite the potential view, our table wasn't really that great. There was a draft coming in from the windows so that I had to wear my jacket throughout the meal, and the space was awfully cramped so that the people sitting in the aisle had to consciously sit close to the table, or else they would block off the traffic behind them.

I ordered "balsamic and brown sugar braised short ribs" with risotto. It was delicious! The meat was amazingly tender and flavorful. The risotto, however, was a bit on the mushy side.

Ken ordered spaghetti with "shrimp, scallops, tomatoes and spinach sautéed with a garlic butter sauce". We each ate half of our dishes, and then switched plates, so we both got to enjoy two orders. This seafood scampi was light yet well-flavored, with a generous amount of shrimp and scallops.

My dad ordered "pan-seared Atlantic salmon with a garden-fresh radish relish", and he said it was cooked perfectly.

Isabelle and Sebastien shared a flatbread cheese pizza - not on the menu, but a request they were able to accommodate. (They offer various flatbread pizzas, but the ones on the menu were all fancier than plain cheese.) Sebastien enjoyed the 3+ pieces that he ate, though when I tried it myself, I thought the flatbread crust was kind of chewy. Isabelle ate a piece or two as well, but she actually much preferred the bites of salmon, beef, and shrimp that she ate off of the adult plates. Maybe it's time for Isabelle to move away from kids' menus!

Garwoods Restaurant & Pub - Wolfboro, NH


We made a weekend jaunt to New Hampshire just as the fall season was ending. We literally rode the M/S (motor ship) Mount Washington on its very last day of service for the year. We were lucky to get the boat ride because, as it turned out, many establishments had already closed their doors for the winter. We ended up eating at Garwoods because it was one of the few restaurants that was actually open when we visited Wolfboro.

The dining room has a fantastic view of Lake Winnipesaukee.

While we were looking over the menu, Sebastien loudly whined because mac 'n cheese wasn't listed. The bartender - who couldn't help overhearing - got my attention and let me know that they actually could accommodate a mac 'n cheese order. Yippee!

Ken and I split our dishes. He ordered fried clams, and I ordered fish tacos. We each ate half, then exchanged plates. In both cases, I felt the food was good, but I had certainly had tastier fried clams and fish tacos before.

My dad ordered the hamburger, and I was surprised when it arrived without any lettuce, tomato, or onion. My dad pointed out that those were listed as toppings that would cost extra. I didn't think that was cool, especially since my mom's crab cake sandwich did come with both lettuce and tomato. She said her sandwich wasn't anything special.

Over all, a decent meal with a great view, and I SO appreciate their flexibility in accommodating Sebastien's request, but it's not necessarily a place I would go out of my way to recommend to others.

Mysteries According to Humphrey (Humphrey #8) by Betty G. Birney


I enjoyed this book. I think it's one of the best in the series!

As the title indicates, there's a mystery in this installment. One morning, Mrs. Brisbane does not show up for school, and no one knows why! All the humans find out the reason soon enough, but nobody thinks to tell Humphrey. To him, it's "The Case of the Missing Mrs." The class has a substitute called Mr. E. ("Mister E", "mystery", get it?), and it's also a mystery why he continually leads the class in games instead of teaching them! Mr. E.'s teaching really was an effective portrayal of ineffective teaching. Both my kids (ages 6 and 9) weren't fooled by all the fun, and they quickly realized that a good teacher ought to be organized and clean, keep discipline in the classroom, and actually teach lessons.

The class also spends some time in this book reading "The Red-Headed League", a Sherlock Holmes story. I am almost ashamed to admit that I have never read a Sherlock Holmes book! The references to "The Red-Headed League" sufficiently piqued my interest that I dare say I might try to pick up a Sherlock Holmes book soon.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Into the Wild (Warriors #1) by Erin Hunter


Well! When I first picked up this book to see what all the fuss was about - Isabelle is devouring the series - I was skeptical. I must also admit, I was perhaps even a bit turned off when I read on the back cover that the world the author created was "shaped by her interest in astrology and standing stones." I never suspected I would give this book 5 stars!

Actually, I wavered quite a bit between 4 1/2 and 5 stars. I hesitated with the 5-star rating because from the beginning, I just wasn't comfortable with the idea of characters fighting to the death, even if the characters are all anthropomorphized cats. Truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of books about anthropomorphized animals to begin with.

But, in the end, this world of cat clans living in a forest on the edge of human civilization just won me over. Right off the bat, the book starts with an extensive character list and a couple of maps. I love it when books have maps! And, it helped that we eventually learn that the ThunderClan warriors - the ones the book is mostly about - "do not kill unless they have to."

I love that the book offers up some valid lessons amidst the adventure and suspense of Firepaw's introduction into the ThunderClan. Firepaw learns to honor the warrior code, but he's not just a blind follower, he's praised for being a "thinker." He learns to not back down when faced with a challenge (unfortunately, this lesson is taught through physical fighting, but as I said, I had to move past that); that every member of a community has a useful role to serve; that you should respect your elders and be conscientious in your training. Even the importance of good, honest, fair leadership is made clear.

There were a few unexpected twists, and by the time I got to the end of the book, I was surprised at how much I had been drawn in. Knowing that this book is only the first of a series, I should have realized earlier that not all loose ends would be tied up by the end! I'll just have to read the next one.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Seasons 52 - Burlington, MA


Sarah and I went here for lunch, and I loved it! My sea scallops with butternut squash risotto was perfectly prepared, and utterly amazing! And the espresso I had with my dessert was delicious and remarkably smooth.

Still, I give this place 4 1/2 stars, instead of 5, for two minor reasons.

First, I think they messed up my drink, but they did make it right when I asked them to. I had ordered the Mango Jalapeno Crush cocktail. I really enjoyed the jalapeno kick, but I just could not taste any mango at all. Sarah convinced me to say something, so giving the bartender the benefit of the doubt, I asked the waiter for "more mango" in my drink. The original drink I got was perfectly clear, but the new drink I got back was light yellow. I'm convinced that the bartender forgot to put the splash of mango in my original drink, so it's good Sarah encouraged me to speak up.

Second, I wish the portions were a bit larger. :P Sea scallops usually tend to be smaller-portioned than other entree dishes, so this critique may be out of line. Still, I actually left the restaurant feeling like I could have eaten more, and that shouldn't happen.

I did order one dessert, a Mocha Macchiato. Their desserts are miniature versions of regular desserts served in small glasses about the size of shot glasses. It was delicious, but I wish I had known that I ought to have ordered two or three different kinds. As I said, small portions!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

School Days According to Humphrey (Humphrey #7) by Betty G. Birney


I really enjoyed this installment!

I loved that Room 26 had a whole new class of students, with a whole new set of problems. I also appreciated that it took time for Humphrey to get used to his new classmates. Even as an adult, sometimes I have to remind myself that you can't compare people you've just met with people you've known for years and years. Friendships take time to develop.

I especially liked the way Mrs. Brisbane handled the two students whom Mrs. Wright accused of misbehaving. I have very strong childhood memories of feeling like I was treated unjustly by a teacher, usually because the teacher made an assumption based on a moment's observation, and I was too shy or too scared to speak up for myself. I so very appreciated the way Mrs. Brisbane took the time to calmly speak with the students to get their sides of the story.

While I read this book with the enthusiasm of potentially giving it a 5-star rating, in the end I had to go with 4 1/2. One reason was the annoying overuse of the word "unsqueakably". When Humphrey first used that word in previous books, I thought it was cute! But suddenly, in this book, he seems to be using it all the time.

Also, I get that Humphrey is supposed to help out the class, but maybe the way he helped out Mrs. Brisbane in this book would have gone over better if Mrs. Brisbane had been a new teacher, like Ms. Mac. I just thought it was ridiculous that Mrs. Brisbane, a 30-year teaching veteran praised for being a great teacher, wouldn't herself know how to best match up students for classroom jobs!