Weekend Reads: “The Magic in Changing Your Stars”

The Magic in Changing Your StarsThe Magic in Changing Your Stars by Leah Henderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ailey Lane is excited to audition for his school’s production of “The Wiz.” He wants to play the Scarecrow. However, when he gets on-stage for his try-out, he freezes. Not one step or song lyric remains in his head. So, he goes home in humiliation.

That’s when his grandfather tells him a story about how he, too, had frozen when he had a chance to audition. He was given a pair of tap shoes by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and told to come with them at a certain time — and he chickened out. Benjamin tells Ailey where the shoes are hidden, and explains his shame.

Well, Ailey goes and puts on the shoes — and winds up back in 1930s Harlem, where he meets his grandfather as a young boy. This is where the history comes in, as we get a look at life for African Americans during the time period.

Almost all of the characters are either named after or actually are important Black figures from the arts and sciences (there is a listing at the back of the book). We get to see them as young people, for the most part, and read about their struggles, challenges, and triumphs through Ailey’s eyes.

Of course, one of Ailey’s greatest concerns is getting home — so we also see what he goes through as a kid out of place and time.

Time-slip historical fiction is, I think, a great way to help modern people relate to history. It puts contemporary concerns and mores in conflict with those of the past, and shows how we’ve grown and changed. This book adds the importance of confidence and kindness to the lessons.

Highly recommended for the 12 and up set.

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Weekend Reads: “Dachshund Through the Snow”

Dachshund Through the Snow (Andy Carpenter #20)Dachshund Through the Snow by David Rosenfelt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another combination fair-play puzzle and thriller, all rolled up into one.

Lawyer Andy Carpenter’s wife, Laurie, is big on Christmas. For her, it’s three months long. Any time she gets a chance to take a child’s holiday wish from a giving tree of some sort, she is determined to make it happen.

The year it feels impossible is when Danny Traynor’s wish includes not just a coat for his mom and a sweater for the family dachshund, but finding his father, Noah, and bringing him home. So, Laurie puts her husband to work, since he has a team of investigators.

The problem is, Noah is a suspect in a high profile murder from 14 years previous, and he’s gone into hiding since the case has come back into the public eye.

At the same time, Andy is representing a police dog, Simon, whose handler is about to retire and would like to take Simon (and his aging, degenerating hips) with him. So, we have that rather sweet subplot as well.

Pretty soon, everyone Andy talks to about Noah’s case turns up dead, and it’s a race against time to see whether he can prove Noah not guilty before more witnesses are killed.

The clues were all laid out in such a fashion that I found myself mentally smacking my forehead when the reveal finally happened. I couldn’t believe it had gotten past me. The ground is laid in very subtle fashion, and both the means and the motive in the reveal were a surprise.

I particularly enjoyed one moment when Andy is searching a suspect’s home and finds a David Rosenfelt thriller on the nightstand. “I heard he’s pretty good; I should read his stuff some time.” The self-referential moment made me smile.

Recommended for dog lovers and mystery fans.

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Weekend Reads: “The Jane Austen Society”

The Jane Austen SocietyThe Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, I was a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Austen’s books, though they are few in number, are some of the most splendid social commentary of their time. Her works give us an intimate view of life in Regency England.

This novel takes place during and shortly after World War II, in the town of Chawton (Austen lived there toward the end of her life). Frances Knight, a descendant of Austen’s brother, is living a reclusive life in the ancestral home while village life goes on around her. We get to meet Adeline Grover, the school teacher, Dr. Benjamin Gray, attorney/solicitor Andrew Forrester, and many other denizens of the city. We also meet American film star Mimi Harrison. What eventually brings all of these characters, and a couple of others, together is their love for Austen’s novels.

Ultimately, the book is a highly fictionalized telling of how the original Jane Austen Society was founded. While none of the characters are real people, they *feel* real all the same. Their foibles and desires are revealed throughout the book; no one is flawless, but all of them are believable.

I finished this book in just three sittings because I didn’t want to stop reading. Janeites (as fans call themselves) are sure to love it, but those who enjoy good historical fiction will be just as delighted.

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Weekend Reads: “For the Love of Europe”

For the Love of Europe: Musings on 45 Years of TravelFor the Love of Europe: Musings on 45 Years of Travel by Rick Steves
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the hardest things about shelter-in-place, for me, has been that I cannot travel. Nor, it appears, can those of us who hold US passports, go much of anywhere for an indeterminate amount of time. So, I find myself doing the next best thing: armchair travel.

In this book, Rick Steves shares essays based on his travel experiences over the years (some of which we see in his exceptional PBS series). We not only get to see the sites, but also meet some of the people he’s encountered along the way. The book is not only a delightful text, but is rich with photographs.

The travelogues take us not only around the more familiar locations, but also to remote towns and villages that are not on most itineraries. Steves’ fondness for getting off the beaten track allows us to see aspects of Europe that we might not otherwise consider.

Highly recommended.

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Weekend Reads … and an Anniversary

I am informed by WordPress that today is the four-year anniversary of this blog. Thanks to all of you who read/follow/subscribe! Now, on to this week’s review.

House of the Patriarch (A Benjamin January Mystery Book 18)House of the Patriarch by Barbara Hambly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are a few book series for which I eagerly await the next installment; this is one of them.

This time, Ben is asked by family friends Chloe and Henri to help find the missing daughter of *their* family friends. Eve Russell has become enamored of some new Second Great Enlightenment beliefs and has disappeared in upstate New York.

Eve’s parents offer Ben a substantial reward, and include an advance. So, against his better judgment, he departs for upstate New York himself, in the guise of Chloe’s slave.

The book is peppered with historical situations, although the Shining Herald cult under investigation is fictional. Joseph Smith founded his religion during this same period, in the same region … and is referenced. We also get to meet P.T. Barnum, who is deeply enmeshed in this particular “whodunnit.”

The book is a fair-play puzzle, with all of the clues and information laid out … but it also has a tinge of the thriller to it. Ben has to deal with “black-birders” (slave catchers who are more than happy to abduct a free man, destroy his papers, and sell him down-river), threats to his loved ones, and more. “Will he find Eve in time” is always lingering around the edges.

Part of what I love about these books is how well-researched they are. It’s possible to learn a great deal while simultaneously being entertained.

Each book in this series may be read as a stand-alone, but I do recommend reading them from the beginning to see how much Ben has grown as a person and an investigator.

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