Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

In a year that brought about a number of stellar books for readers of young adult fantasy fiction, including Lauren Oliver’s “Delirium,” (reviewed here January 30, 2011), Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” (Little, Brown, and Taylor, 2011) is a real standout. The New York Times selected it as one of the five notable young adult books of 2011, and with good reason—it’s a paranormal romantic fantasy with real emotional and mythic depth.
            Karou is a seventeen year –old art student in the Czech Republic city of Prague. Like many arty-types, she’s got her own quirky style—bright ultramarine hair, for starters. In Karou’s case, her hair really is blue, although she’s happy to let her fellow students believe she dyes it. And then there’s the matter of her family—or the closest she has to family. Karou was raised by chimeras: Brimstone, a horned monster with horns and the golden eyes of a crocodile; Issa, a serpent from the waist down, with the hood and fangs of a cobra; giraffe-necked Twiga; and Yasri, a woman with a parrot’s beak.
            When Karou isn’t attending art school, she is running errands for Brimstone, traveling through magic portals to Paris, Marrakesh, and some place in Idaho. She collects teeth for Brimstone—human, crocodile, bear, even elephant tusks—and lots of them. She’s not crazy about the work, but Brimstone pays her in scuppies, which can be used to grant minor wishes, like making her ex-boyfriend itch in unmentionable places, or causing a mean girl to grow a permanent unibrow. Why Brimstone needs them is one the great mysteries of Karou’s life. So are the indigo eyes inked into the palm of her hands, and the feeling that she was meant to be living another life.
            Soon, beautiful winged things begin burning black handprints into the doors of Brimstone’s portals around the world. One of those angelic beings is Akiva, a seraph. Although it is clear that the two are in opposing sides of a war that Karou does not quite understand, they are immediately drawn to each other. And, as with other star-crossed lovers, they soon find that the stakes are high indeed.
            Taylor’s world-building—whether describing the city of Prague, where “Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels,” or Elsewhere, with its two moons—is first rate, as is her character development. Even secondary characters, like Karou’s funny and smart friend Zuzana, are well drawn.
            The book ends on a real cliffhanger—or, more precisely, with Karou in the sky somewhere above the Atlas Mountains—that sets the stage for the second book of the trilogy.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, December 11. 2011 edition of The News-Gazette.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Blood Lie a realistic tale of bigotry, forgiveness

The Blood Lie
It’s September 22, 1928, and sixteen-year-old Jack Pool is itching to leave his small town in upstate New York. A talented cellist, he has an audition at the Bentley School of Music in three days. Acceptance to the elite boarding school will be his ticket out of Massena. It will also mean leaving behind the girl that he knows he can never have: Jack is Jewish, and Emaline Durham is Christian.
            In the opening pages of “The Blood Lie: A Novel,” by Shirley Reva Vernick (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), we learn the connection between the two: their mothers had become friends as newlywed brides recently moved to Massena. The mothers’ unlikely friendship—and a such a close relationship between Jewish and Christian women was unlikely in a small town at that time—spawned a friendship between their children as well. But when Emaline’s four-year-old sister Daisy goes missing after playing with Jack’s little sister, Jack finds himself the prime suspect in her disappearance.
It is two days before Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day of the year for the Jews, and someone in town with a definite interest in the case has revived the centuries-old lie that Jews sacrifice Christian children for their rituals—the blood libel.
“The Blood Lie” is based on a true story, which is described in an author’s note at the end. As a sophomore in college, Vernick was given the assignment of identifying a local controversy—past or present—in her hometown, and writing a paper about the outcome. This is her interpretation of the story that she uncovered.
            Vernick’s afterward also makes the point that the blood libel has not died. Stories of the Jewish sacrifice of Christian children persist, with a 2008 campaign in a Russian city claiming that Jews were “stealing small children and draining their blood to make their sacred bread.”
The book is not without its flaws. I found the ending a bit too abrupt. What’s more, after Daisy was found—safe, if a little unsound—there was speculation that the little girl had been molested, prompting some of the townsmen to vow that they would take their revenge on the Jews. I fully expected a dramatic confrontation, but oddly enough, there was none.
            Still, “The Blood Lie” is an engrossing story of forbidden love, terrifying bigotry, and, eventually, forgiveness. The rabbi in particular has some graphic remembrances that would be disturbing to younger readers, but this book is appropriate to middle grade and young adult readers. And honestly? Adults, too. 

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, November 20 edition of The News-Gazette. The review copy was supplied by the publisher. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sasquatch--really? Well, maybe...

I’ve never really thought that Bigfoot, or Sasquatch as it’s sometimes called, is anything more than a myth fueled by a series of clever (or not-so-clever) hoaxes. And so I was more than a little skeptical when I began reading Kelly Milner Halls’ latest book, In Search of Sasquatch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). I knew Halls to be a terrifically talented and prolific writer of nonfiction books for young people (Saving the Baghdad Zoo, Mysteries of the Mummy Kids, and Tales of the Cryptids are some of her better-known books)—but Sasquatch? Really?

Leave it to Halls to make you think just a little differently about your worldview. After reading In Search of Sasquatch, I can’t say that I’m packing to go on a Sasquatch search expedition, but I’m willing to entertain the notion that it may very well exist.

The many people Halls has interviewed for the book include an anthropologist, a linguistic expert, a biologist, and several people who claim to have sighted Sasquatch. While acknowledging that Sasquatch hoaxes abound, she bolsters her argument for the possible existence the mysterious creature by example: for centuries, paleontologists believed that the coelacanth was a long-extinct prehistoric fish—until a living coelacanth was discovered in 1938. Similarly, the giant squid was a thing of Greek legend—until it was discovered in 2004.  

Her text is accompanied by gorgeous illustrations, additional resources, a glossary, and an extensive bibliography and source notes. Kids who are drawn to the weird and wonderful will love this book. So will adults. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Myracle’s New Book “Shines”

When the National Book Foundation called Lauren Myracle to tell her that her book "Shine" (Amulet Books, 2011) was a finalist for the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category, she was surprised--and thrilled. A short time later, in an unprecedented move, the Foundation added a sixth finalist, Franny Billingsley's "Chime" (Dial Books, 2011). Two days later, Myracle got another call from the Foundation. It seems there had a been a mix-up: the judges had read their list of finalists over the phone, and apparently the Foundation heard "Shine" instead of "Chime." Myracle was asked to remove her book from the list "to preserve the integrity of the award and the judge's work," the author told the New York Times. Myracle was crushed, but agreed to do so. Soon, there was an outpouring of support for Myracle, and Amazon sales of "Shine" skyrocketed. 
            So is "Shine" worthy of being a National Book Award finalist? I haven't read the books on the list yet, so I couldn’t really say. But if they are better than this dark and beautiful novel, then it is a strong field indeed.
            Seventeen year-old Patrick is found near death, strung to the pump of the local gas station where he worked with the nozzle of a gas pump in his mouth and an anti-gay slur scrawled across his chest. The sheriff of his local small North Carolina town is quick to pin the blame on out-of-town gay bashers. But Cat, his childhood friend, suspects that perpetrator is home-grown. Driven by love for her friend and guilt over a past betrayal, she is determined to find Patrick’s would-be-killer, despite the urging of her friends and family to stay out of it. As Cat uncovers the ugly truth about the crime, she confronts her own demons—the demons that caused a rift in her friendship with Patrick and others. Filled with memorable characters, richly atmospheric, "Shine" throws an important light upon anti-gay bigotry and the meth epidemic in rural areas of this country.
Some good has come of the "Shine" debacle. Rather than giving Myracle the $1,000 she would have received as finalist, the National Book Foundation has agreed to donate $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization that promotes tolerance of gay teens. The foundation is named for a student killed in a notorious anti-gay hate crime in 1998.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, October 30 edition of The News-Gazette.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Forensic science in the news: October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month

Do hackers have it in for Sony, or have they just found an easy--and very large--target? Back in April, hackers broke into Sony's PlayStation Network and walked away with personal, and possibly credit card, information of 100 million customers. The company had to shut down several online services and rework its security system. 

Intruders once again hacked into Sony's network this month, stealing tens of thousands of IDs and passwords. Sony quickly locked the accounts emails users on how they could reset their passwords; the company said that credit card numbers were not at risk. 

Still it's a reminder of just how important it is to protect yourself online. One quick tip: don't use the same password  for online gaming that you use for your bank account, for example. 

Visit for the latest cybersecurity tips. Or you can check out my book Cybercrime: Data Trails DO Tell Tales, especially Chapter 3, "Viruses, Bots, and Zombies--Oh My!" and Chapter 4, "You've Got Spam!"

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Forensic Science in the News: RIP, Steve Jobs

I came on board pretty early with Apple. It must have been 1984 or 1985 when my research advisor at the University of Chicago bought a few computers for the lab. I hadn't had a lot of experience with computers at the time--well, who had?--but this one seemed different from the other clumsy personal computers that were available at the time. I loved it. I wrote much of my thesis on it. When it came time to buy a computer of my own, I didn't think about anything other than a Mac.

Fast forward. I'm writing this on my new 27-inch (the better to accomodate my aging eyes) iMac. I've worked, reluctantly, on PCs at other jobs, but at home I've always had Macs, iPhones, and now an iPad. I'm not an acolyte, exactly, but I know what works for me, and Apple has always worked for me.

So Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple and the genius behind the modern brand, has always been a special figure in my life. Something you might not know is that Jobs and Steve Wozniak, co-creators of the original Apple computer, had been inspired by a 1971 article in Esquire magazine (reprinted here) about "phone phreaks," a group of people who realized that they could manipulate the computerized phone network to place free calls anywhere in the world.

You can learn more about Jobs' involvement with phone phreaks* and the history of computer hacking in my book, Cybercrime: Data Trails DO Tell Tales (Enslow Publishers, 2011). Jobs, like the other early computer hackers, weren't interested in stealing data--they simply wanted to understand the ways in which computers  and computer networks worked.

*"Phreaking" is a portmanteau word made by combining "freak" an "phone" (and, in some definitions, "free"). Lewis Carroll, the author of Through the Looking Glass, adopted the word "portmanteau"--the French word fo suitcase--to describe combining the sound and meaning of two words to create a new one. (Cybercrime: Data Trails DO Tell Tales, Enslow Publishers, 2011, p. 26)

A Love Story for Dog Lovers

“A hundred and two days.” So begins Paul Griffin’s young adult novel, “Stay With Me” (Dial Books, 2011). That’s probably about the length of the average teenage romance, Griffin writes, but the relationship between Mack Morse and Céce Vaccuccia is anything but average.
            Mack is a shy fifteen year-old high school dropout with a learning disability and a criminal record. His mother has been AWOL since he was eight, driven away by his brutal, alcoholic father. But he has gift: he has a way with dogs. He rescues, rehabilitates, and trains abused and abandoned fighting dogs.
            Fifteen year-old Céce is no child of privilege, either; she lives with her loopy mother and brother, just barely making ends meet. But their goodbyes always end with, “Love you like a crazy person,” and Céce is a straight-A student hoping to be able to transfer to a school for the gifted and talented.
            Written in chapters that alternate between Mack’s and Céce’s points of view, “Stay With Me” is the story of the star-crossed teens’ 102-day romance. Mack is strong-armed into looking out for Céce by her brother (who also happens to be Mack’s friend) when he enlists in the Army. Despite a rocky start, the two are soon a couple, and they begin to dream of a future together. Mack is training a rescued pit bull that he calls Boo. He hopes to gives it to Céce, who has grown to love the dog. And then Mack makes a terrible mistake, and suddenly their future together is impossible.
            Griffin has such a way with characters. Mack is deeply conflicted and struggles with his anger, yet he has a huge heart. His tenderness and love for Céce and his dogs is touching. Céce is funny, insecure about her weight (one of the things I love about Mack is that he doesn’t seem to notice that she’s a little overweight), and cares deeply about her family.
Even the supporting characters are complex and memorable. Anthony, Céce’s older brother, and Vic, the kind-hearted owner of the café where they work, are steady moral compasses throughout the story. Céce’s mother dyes her hair crazy colors, drinks too much, and bakes inedible holiday-themed cornbread to cope with the anxiety of her son’s impending deployment.
            “Stay With Me” contains sexual themes and some violent scenes that make it appropriate for older teens. The book does not have a “happily-ever-after” ending, but it is full of heart, redemption, and hope for a better future. It may just make you want to take in a rescue dog. 

Advance review copy provided by the publisher. This review originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, October 9, 2011. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forensic science in the news: Ned Kelly's Bones

Ned Kelly the day before his execution.
Note the awesome hairdo and beard!
(Source: Wikipedia)
As promised, to celebrate the publication of my forensic science books, I'm starting a new series on this blog: "Forensic Science in the News." First out of the circle is an article that appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, "A Hero's Legend and a Stolen Skull Rustle Up a DNA Drama."

Now, before reading this article my knowledge of the Australian folk hero Ned Kelly was pretty much confined to the fact that there is an Illinois chain if steakhouses named after the man--or at least there used to be, until they all went belly-up, leaving some employees unpaid. Ned Kelly would have been rolling in his grave, if not for the fact that his bones are at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. Well, all but his skull. But I'm getting ahead (pardon the pun) of myself.

Ned Kelly was born in 1854, the son of an Irish convict exiled to Australia. He took up arms against the British colonial authorities, robbed banks, and stole cattle. He dictated a letter describing the mistreatment of Irish Catholics by the police and British authorities, which the historian Alex McDermott called "one of the most extraordinary documents in Australian history." He was arrested after a shoot-out, wearing homemade metal armor, and was hanged in 1880.

He was buried in a mass grave, but his skeleton was recovered in 1929 when the site was slated for development. The remains were reburied, but in the chaos that ensued, two skulls, thought to be those of Kelly and notorious serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming were stolen. Fast-forward to 2008, when yet another excavation uncovered the remains--at least 3,000 bone fragments, which were sent to the Institute.  Some of them might belong to Kelly, but how could they tell after all this time? To make matters more complicated, a man named Tom Baxter came forward with a skull he'd had for three decades, claiming that it was Kelly's.

The forensic scientists compared the skull with historical photographs and a copy of Kelly's death mask. They sent samples of the skull and other remains to a forensic laboratory in Argentina, where scientists there were able to extract DNA from the old and degraded samples. They found one of Kelly's distant relatives, a schoolteacher who was descended from Kelly's mother, who agreed to submit a blood sample for DNA analysis. They compared the DNA samples from the teacher, the skull, and the bone fragments. The verdict? The fragments, including a palm-size piece of skull, belonged to Ned Kelly. But DNA from the stolen skull was most definitely not Kelly's. Scientists at the Institute are trying to determine whether the skull belonged to the serial killer, Frederick Deeming.

You can learn more about how forensic scientists used DNA to confirm the identify of a set of bones thought to have belonged to the notorious Angel of Death Joseph Mengle in the "Cold Cases" chapter of my book, Bones: Dead People DO Tell Tales. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Poisoned House: A Ghost Story

Take a plucky but downtrodden scullery maid, a tyrannical housekeeper, the Lord of the House teetering on the brink of madness, a very insistent ghost, and what do you get? “The Poisoned House: A Ghost Story” (Albert Whitman & Co., 2011), a deliciously creepy new gothic horror story by Michael Ford.

That plucky scullery maid is fifteen year-old Abigail Tamper—Abi, to her friends. As the book opens in 1850s London, Abi is attempting to escape her miserable life in Greave Hall, an elegant but increasingly troubled household. The chief architect of her misery is the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs. Cotton, who punishes Abi for the slightest infraction. The return of Lord Greave’s son Samuel, injured in the Crimean War, seems to have only worsened his Lordship’s mental condition. And the ghost is none other than Abi’s mother, who had been Samuel’s childhood nurse before her death a year earlier.

After Abi’s foiled escape from Greave Hall, strange things start to occur. There is a mysteriously closed bolt that should be been left open. A handprint appears on both the inside and outside of the library window. Lord Greave’s drinking glass is shattered—but by whom? At first, Abi feels comforted by her mother’s ethereal presence, until she realizes that the ghost is trying to warn her of something. She is no longer safe at Greave Hall—if she ever was.

Although the plot of “The Poisoned House” is somewhat predictable (it does, after all, follow the conventions of the gothic novel), its many twists and turns provide plenty of suspense. And Ford has a real knack for creating terrific characters. Abi makes for a wonderful companion; she is resourceful and sympathetic, a young woman still trying to find her way in a world that seems not to love her. Mrs. Cotton is a villain in the finest Gothic tradition: cruel, petty, and domineering. I suspect Ford had the most fun creating her character, because aren’t villains always the most interesting?

Teens who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” as younger readers will like “The Poisoned House.” And if gothic novels are your cup of tea, you really must read Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” one of the greatest gothic novels of all time. Preferably (with apologies to Miss Brontë) when the cold autumn wind brings with it “clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise is now out of the question.” 

Advance review copy provided by the publisher. This review originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, September 18, 2011. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Look at what the FedEx man brought!

That's's copies of Bones: Dead People DO Tell Tales, Cybercrime: Data Trails DO Tell Tales, and DNA & Blood: Dead People DO Tell Tales (Enslow, 2011).

I nearly threw my arms around the FedEx guy and kissed him, but fortunately for both of us I merely smiled and signed for them.

If dead bodies, bloody footprints, or zombie computers are your thing, I've got the books for you. And, I'm happy to report, they are available both in library and paperback editions. You can order them from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite independent bookstore.

To celebrate, I'm going to start a series of blog posts about the true crime stories and forensic science featured in the books. First up: The Murderous Beginnings of Forensic Anthropology.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

First Descent

Pam Withers sets the pace for her latest novel, “First Descent” (Tundra Books, 2011), with the opening sentence: “When the shot rang out, I leapt from my bed, lifted a corner of the bedroom curtain, and looked down on the river bend.”  (It’s not what you think.)
            At the age of seventeen, Rex Scruggs is already a world champion kayaker. Now, he is determined to descend the Furioso, a Columbian river that lives up to its name. Only one man has ever attempted to kayak the Furioso: his legendary (and thoroughly unpleasant) grandfather, Malcolm Scruggs. This is Rex’s chance to carry on the family legacy—and   prove his worth to the gruff old man. His grandfather’s one request was that Rex find the Calambás family: a starving daughter, so the story went, had given him a necklace in return for an avocado sandwich. The necklace has become Rex’s good luck charm.
            Once in Columbia, Rex meets the young woman who will be his guide along the river, Myriam Calambás, an indigenous Columbian who has lived along El Furioso her entire life. At this point, you may have deduced that Myriam has some connection to the necklace, but it’s not as far-fetched as you might imagine. In Myriam’s chapters, which more or less alternate with Rex’s, we learn that her community is beset both by the guerillas, who supposedly fight for the poor, and the paramilitary soldiers, hired by the rich landowners to fight the guerillas. Myriam dreams of attending college and becoming a journalist so that she can make others aware of the plight of her people.
            Rex, who in many ways is like his grandfather—narcissistic, dismissive of others, and over-confident—soon learns that the real danger in this new world is not the river, but the guerillas and paramilitaries. Can he achieve first descent, and do right by the people he has come to care for?
            Pam Withers is a former whitewater kayak instructor and raft guide, and her expertise shows. I’m not a kayaker, but the book’s whitewater passages are so full of strategy, muscle, and energy that you can almost feel the water’s spray as you hurtle down the page.
           In her effort to familiarize readers with Columbian life and culture, Withers sometimes explains the obvious. Most American readers, after all, will not need to be told that empanadas are “meat and cheese pastries.” But the occasional authorial intrusions are a minor quibble with what is otherwise a compellingly readable tale of courage, sacrifice, and adventure.

I received an advance review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewer program. This review was originally published in the News-Gazette on Sunday, August 28, 2011.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wild About Nature

I just got an emergency delivery of chocolate from Switzerland from my dear husband, so the writing should be zipping right along in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I'd like to encourage you to check out my author interview on the blog Wild About Nature. Thanks to Laura Crawford, the author of In Arctic Waters and many other terrific books for kids, for interviewing me!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Dreamland Social Club

I recently visited Coney Island, famed for its Cyclone rollercoaster, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, and freak shows. So of course I was primed to read Tara Altebrando’s young adult novel “Dreamland Social Club” (Dutton Books, 2011). 

Set in Coney Island, this book perfectly captures the nostalgia and gritty wonder of Brooklyn’s legendary playground, full of quirky, colorful characters.

Sixteen year-old Jane Dryden and her older brother have spent much of their lives moving from one place to another, following their father’s work as a rollercoaster designer and engineer. 

Still grieving ten years after the death of Jane’s and Marcus’s mother, the family inherits their mother’s childhood house in Coney Island from a grandfather the children never knew, Preemie. “There was an amusement part here in the early nineteen hundreds,” Jane’s father explained. “Dreamland. Incubators had just been invented…Your grandfather was part of a premature baby display when he was born,” who later made a living “harassing people on the boardwalk into playing a carnival game where you shoot clown mouths with water guns.” 

Her grandmother, Jane learned, was a sideshow act, supposedly part bird. Jane is determined to explore the secrets of her mother’s past, a life she both loved and longed to escape.

Jane is a wonderfully complex character who just wants to find a place where she can fit in, call home. But at Coney Island High, her new friends are Leo, the Tattooed Boy; Babette, a goth dwarf; Debbie, who sports a peach-fuzz beard; H.T., who has no legs; and a giant named Legs. Normal never seemed so…weird. Jane discovers that her mother founded the mysterious Dreamland Social Club, something that everyone seems to know about but her.

Over the course of the year, Jane finds herself in the middle of a decades-old family feud involving a carousel horse chained to the radiator the living room as well as an ongoing battle between a development company that might have a job for her father and preservationists who fear that their beloved Coney Island will be turned into another slick theme park and shopping mall.

This book is steeped in Coney Island history and the carnival-like atmosphere of Jane’s new world. If you’ve ever been to Coney Island, or know anything of its history, you’ll be nodding your head in delighted recognition throughout the book. If you’ve never been there, you may well find yourself making travel plans—or wishing you could. Fortunately, Altebrando lists some excellent resources for readers wanting to learn more about The People’s Playground.

This review was first published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, August 7, 2011. 

Monday, July 25, 2011


There's nothing like travel to get the writerly juices flowing. Today I, along with several members of my family, hit Coney Island. We went on The Wonder Wheel (89 years without an accident!)

And...The Cyclone (um, no signage about accidents or lack thereof).

These are things you owe it to yourself to do, unless of course you are afraid of heights or being hurtled down steep heights and around tight corners at terrifying speeds, especially on rides that'd have been around for a very very long time.

Overheard conversations:

"Dear God I'm no ready to die!" (on the Cyclone, naturally)

"I love, love, love Pop-Tarts. There is nothing better than Pop-Tarts."
" "
"Pop-Tarts are poison!" (on the subway to Coney Island)

"' his hat all cock-eye like this, you know, 'cause he just got hit upside the head..." (on the boardwalk)

All fodder for stories. Have you taken any trips lately that inspired you to write something new?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cultivating literary touchstones

I just saw the final Harry Potter movie with one of my daughters and my son. My daughter, now 23, grew up along with Harry, Hermione, and Ron. My son, 18, was a precocious reader after a rocky start, finishing the first Harry Potter book by the time he'd finished first grade. We began reading the series together and then, as the kids got older, individually, passing the books from one person to another. I've really loved reading those books and watching the movies with my kids, watching them grow to adulthood as my children did the same.

As it turns out, it was my son who introduced me to a series of books that would become the real literary touchstone that we would turn to when the alternative was sullen silence or argument. We had just moved to Geneva, Switzerland for six months. The year was 2006, my son was in 8th grade, and for obvious reasons very unhappy about the move. He had begun reading George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, and loved the books. He urged me to read them, and although I don't normally read a lot of fantasy, I knew it was important to him. I was training for a half marathon, so I downloaded the first book on and explored Geneva and its environs as I listened to Martin's marvelous story. That first book led to the next, and the next, and now of course we've been watching the TV series together (the racy scenes are a bit much to watch with him, but we both kind of avert our eyes). I've yet to download the latest; my son is reading it on his Nook, and he's already pressuring me to do so.

My relationship with my son continues to be somewhat rocky. But we know that when other topics of conversation will inevitably lead to an argument, we can always fall back on Martin and Rowling and those other storytellers who find a way to bring us all together.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

Okay, so it’s July, and you and I both know that at some point this summer you’ll have to crack open whatever book the schools have decided you need to read this summer. Fine, you gotta  do what you gotta do. (Can you tell I’m no great fan of assigned summer reading?) Here, then, is my antidote to the summer reading assignment: “The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack,” by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2010). It’s a rollicking, head-spinning steampunk adventure that is unlikely to find its way onto any summer reading list.

The book’s hero is Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great British explorer, linguist, and scholar, and his diminutive sidekick, Algernon Charles Swinburne, the thrill-seeking young poet. (In an appendix titled “Meanwhile, in the Victorian Age,” Hodder gives brief biographies of these and the many other real-life characters who appear in the book.)

Although it opens in London, 1861, this is not the familiar Victorian London. For one thing, the young Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840; her husband, Albert, is King. The country is in the midst of a technological and social upheaval. Engineers, part of the new Technologist caste, have created steam-driven velocipedes, flying rotorchairs, and giant crab-like robotic street cleaners. Eugenicists, the other half of the Technologists, have created messenger parakeets with the unfortunately tendency to pepper their messages with insults, giant swans pulling passenger-carrying box kites, and most frighteningly, werewolves that carry off young chimney sweeps. The new Libertines oppose repressive laws, while the Rakes dabble in magic, drugs, and anarchy.

Enter Spring Heeled Jack, a bogeyman legendary for groping young women, leaving them shocked or permanently damaged. After an encounter with the strange creature, Burton is commissioned to investigate. I don’t want to give too much away, but the Rube Goldberg-style plot reveals just how Victorian London was transformed into Steampunk London, and it’s satisfying indeed. Throw in a talking orangutan, a sinister albino panther-man, appearances by Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Florence Nightingale, and you’ve got one heck of a fun summer read.

I found this book on the adult science fiction shelf in the library, but it’s suitable for older teens. There is some rough language, the most colorful of which is spoken by the messenger parakeets (“Message for the Marquess of buttock-wobbling Waterford!”), talk of attempted rape, and the sort of violence you’d see in superhero movies, including exploding werewolves. If you liked this book, Burton and Swinburne return in “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man” (Pyr, 2011).

This review originally published in The News-Gazette, July 17, 2011. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Corpse Flower

Mme. Hardy
One of the criteria I have for the roses I plant in my garden is that they must be fragrant. I hate those hybrids that look OK but have no smell. You might as well stick some plastic roses in the ground. Shakespeare got the point of a rose, after all, when he wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." 

Corpse flower

Recently, though, I've become a little fixated on a flower currently blooming at the University of Illinois' Plant Biology Conservatory, Amorphophalus titanum. Native to Sumatra, it's more commonly known as the Corpse Flower, due to the Eau de Rotting Flesh fragrance it gives off when it flowers. Rotting flesh? Yes indeed--all the better to attract the carrion-eating beetles and flesh flies that pollinate it. To add to the illusion, the texture and reddish-purple color of the plant's large spathe, or petal. resembles...rotting meat. AND! If those things weren't clever enough, the temperature of the spadix, the baguette-shaped thing in the middle, rises to about 100 degrees, which helps release all of that lovely perfume into the air. Here's a picture I took this morning--it's not fully open, but oh, boy, does it smell...not like a rose.

Here's what it looks like when it's fully open. It's really kind of pretty, isn't it? Whether you call it Amorphophalus titanum or corpse flower or any other name, it still smells rotten. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What a character!

Have you ever met someone and thought to yourself, "Wow, now HE'S a character!"? I've been following the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky with my husband, a writer friend, and her husband this weekend, and we've met our share of the characters along the way.

Take our innkeeper at the B&B in Louisville. A small, prim man with a Colonel Sanders goatee, he was clearly uncomfortable in the role of host. It was a bit of a challenge to get him to serve us orange juice, because he didn't think we'd indicated it on our breakfast card the night before (we did). And then, probably because he had read in Hosting a B&B for Dummies that you should tell stories to your guests, he told us a tale about visiting a Dairy Queen on his honeymoon with his wife in Arizona, and his extreme surprise at this thing called a Blizzard! With Snickers or any old kind of candy mixed in! His Puritanical mind, he said, couldn't quite accept such excess. We were not quite sure what the point of his story was.

Later, in Frankfort, we found Rick's White Light Diner, which we soon found had been featured in the Food Network show "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives." (The food, by the way, excellent! I recommend the pulled pork BBQ sandwich and the coleslaw.) Rick, a bearded old hippie, cheerfully greets everyone in his tiny diner and dispenses his political philosophy (far left) in colorful and often profane language.

Two characters, one day, both ideal fodder for writers. Can you imagine a conversation between these two? Write it down, see where it takes you. They may just become characters in your next short story or novel. (Thanks, Alice, for the idea!)

The Bourbon Trail, in case you're wondering, is just a collection of distilleries in the region in between Louisville and Lexington. Many of the distilleries offer tours and tastings--we visited Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark, both well worth the trip. More about the tours when I can post some photos.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes

Every girl should have a quirky but loving aunt, a free spirit unencumbered by the responsibilities of motherhood who encourages her niece to think outside the box and embrace the unknown. I had one. So did seventeen year-old Ginny Blackstone, in Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes (HarperTeen, 2006).

This whirlwind of a book begins with a letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, an artist. Aunt Peg has enclosed $1,000 cash for a passport, a one-way ticket from New York to London, and a backpack, along with four rules and instructions to pick up a package at 4th Noodle, the Chinese restaurant under her old apartment in New York City. The package turns out to be a packet of thirteen letters, the first of which is to be opened on the plane.

This kind of action was just something Ginny might have expected from Aunt Peg, who had mysteriously left New York City two years earlier for an open-ended trip to Europe.
But Aunt Peg had died of a fast-moving brain tumor three months earlier. 
Guided by the letters and Aunt Peg’s friends, Ginny visits London, Edinburgh, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, the Greek island of Corfu, and finally, back to London. Along the way, Ginny collects pieces of information about her beloved and enigmatic aunt, finds romance, and learns something about herself.

At times, Johnson’s plot seems a little implausible. Would Ginny’s practical mother really allow her daughter to go to Europe solo on an adventure orchestrated by her unpredictable sister Peg? My advice is to suspend disbelief and just enjoy Ginny’s European adventure. Let go, as Aunt Peg might have said, and live a little. Harrod’s of London, Rome’s narrow and bustling streets, Parisian cafés, the canals of Amsterdam, a trip on a modern-day Danish Viking’s houseboat to see the windmills, the impossibly blue waters of Corfu—all come to life in Johnson’s vivid, lively descriptions.

Why am I recommending a book that came out in 2006? Because the sequel to “13 Little Blue Envelopes,” titled The Last Little Blue Envelope, was just released in April of this year (that one’s for another review!). If you want to join Ginny on her next European adventure, you really owe it to yourself to read the first one. Perfect summer reading for high school girls with a little wanderlust but no Aunt Peg to send them to Europe.

And now a note about what I think was brilliant marketing. Maureen Johnson offered a free download of 13 Little Blue Envelopes to coincide with the publication of the above-mentioned sequel, The Last Little Blue Envelope, betting (rightly, in my case), that reading the first book would motivate people to buy the second. This seems like a great strategy for authors of series books. I rarely (never?) pick up a book mid-series without having read the first one. What do you think? 

Based on my review originally published in The News-Gazette, June 26, 2011. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Double rainbow

I just returned from a road trip to St. Peter, Minnesota to help a dear friend celebrate her 60th birthday. It's a  9 hour drive each way, although I would drive any distance for this woman. I generally like road trips, unless I happen to get caught in a raging, pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road-because-I-can't-see thunderstorm  as I did--twice!--on the way back. But I was rewarded after the storm by the sight of this double rainbow, somewhere near LeRoy, Illinois.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Revolver" Loaded With Suspense

"Even the dead tell stories."

So begins Marcus Sedgwick's terrific novel “Revolver” (Roaring Book Press, 2010), a Prinz Honor Book for 2011. Fourteen year-old Sig Andersson had heard his father say these words many times before. Now, with his father's frozen corpse lying on the table in his family's cabin somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, Sig waits for the dead man's story to unfold.

The main action of Revolver takes place in just three days in 1910 outside of Giron, a lonely outpost in northern Scandinavia. The Giron chapters are interspersed with passages set in Nome, Alaska in 1899-1900 that fill in the back-story. Sig has found his father, fallen halfway through the ice where he’d tried to cross the nearby lake on his dogsled. Sig realizes that his father must have been in a terrible rush to get home, violating his own advice, "Never cross the lake by the river mouth; the ice is always thinner there. Even in wintertime." But what—or who—could have caused his father to abandon all caution in his haste to get home?

After his sister and stepmother (their mother was murdered in Nome) leave to get help, Sig’s first clue to the mystery of his father’s death arrives in the form of a terrifying visitor, a giant of a man named Günter Wolff. Wolff claims that Sig’s father owes him a share of gold, stolen while both were working in Nome. Sig knows nothing of the gold; neither does his sister Anna, who returns alone. Now both Sig and Anna are Wolff’s captives. He makes it clear that he will kill one of them to get the other to reveal the location of the stolen gold.

Sig realizes that their only hope lies in his father’s beloved Colt revolver, hidden in the storeroom near the cabin. Although Sig’s mother and stepmother were both devout, nonviolent women who hated the revolver, Sig’s father called it, “the most beautiful thing in the world…after your sister, and your dear mother, that is…. things can be “beautiful from the inside, because of what they can do.” In the remarkable passage that follows, Sig’s father describes exactly how a gun works and shows his children how to shoot. In his words, it is indeed a beautiful thing, although, as Anna says, “what happen when the bullet hits something? Someone, I mean. That’s not beautiful. That’s terrible.”

Gradually, Sig comes up with a plan for using his father’s revolver to defeat Wolff, while at the same time honoring his mother’s pacifism. Teens who like the books of Gary Paulsen and Jack London will love “Revolver.” It’s a quick read, but the questions it raises—truth-telling versus deceit, faith versus action, violence versus pacifism—will stick with you for a long time.

Originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, June 5, 2011.


I can't believe my previous post was dated February 14, 2009! Well, actually, I can. A lot has changed since then, and I've decided it's time to give blogging a go again. I have three new books on forensic science coming out this fall, and I wanted to be able to tell you all about them. I hope that all of my old readers will come back, and that I'll get some new ones as well.

I have a new website (see the link at the right), which I hope you'll check out. I discovered that for some reason websites created with iWeb often are not correctly formatted (or sometimes not at all) on the Chrome browser, so I decided to switch to a free website creator called Weebly . So far I'm pretty happy with it. Let me know what you think.

Every three weeks I write a review of YA books for our local newspaper, The News-Gazette. I had all of my book reviews posted on my old website's blog; eventually I hope to transfer them all to this blog. I'll start with the most recent and work my way back.