Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades 9-11’ Category

Mix together a mail order bride, a murder, and a goat. Set them down into 1863 Colorado. Throw in historical facts and stories. The result is The Lucky Hat Mine, a fun western romance by J.V.L. Bell.

Gunfire rents the air, tearing Millie from a restless slumber on a packed wagon. This time the gunshots were aimed at a rattle snake. The next time, they came from bandits. Gunshots and adventure follow Millie everywhere she goes. It follows her from New Orleans, across the Great Plains, and even to Colorado. If this trip wasn’t perilous enough, upon her arrival at Idaho Springs, she finds herself without a finance but with plenty of suitors. One of them has already murdered her finance and soon is leaving threatening notes for Millie. Surviving her new life, let alone making herself a home, will take courage and smartness.

Millie has both. She could have hopped on the first wagon leaving town. Instead she stays to bury her finance. She could have stayed at a hotel. Instead she hikes the trail to her cabin in the woods. She could have accepted any number of proposals. Instead she rejects all suitors, knowing that they only want the cabin and the mine that have been bequeathed to her. Upon settling in her new home, Millie wastes no time in making friends with nearby neighbors and in learning how to shoot a gun. When suitors persist in wooing her, she appeases them with home-cooked meals but also accepts their offers of help. And upon discovering that her finance had been murdered by a towns person, she sets a trap for them with the help of her finance’s brother.

In many ways, The Lucky Hat Mine is a typical frontier story. Millie’s finance was murdered for his gold. He left behind a treasure map. Millie has no lack of suitors who court her. One of them falls hard for her; and she eventually falls for him too. There are bar fights, attacks by wild animals, and cave-ins and landslides. In other ways, J.V.L. Bell elevates The Lucky Hat Mine beyond that of its genre. Bell is a Colorado native who was raised climbing Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains, exploring old ghost towns, and reading stories about life in the early frontier days. She infuses her personal knowledge of Colorado and her extensive research into The Lucky Hat Mine. In addition, Bell adds humor through a quirky character, that of a goat named Buttercup.

Mix together a feisty heroine, a mystery, and baby goats. Set them down into 1863 Colorado. Throw in frontier legend and lore. The result is The Lucky Hat Mine, a madcap and heart-filled adventure.

Emily Hall’s love of her cats and enthusiasm for taking them on outdoor adventures radiates on every page of The Beginner’s Guide to Traveling & Adventuring with Your Cat. This seven-chapter e-book is a colorful, well-designed, and easy-to-read guide about how to turn your cat into an adventure cat. Hall wrote her book “to help educate and encourage people to try adventuring with their cats” and picked content based on what she viewed as important info and on common questions she’s been asked. The Beginner’s Guide to Traveling & Adventuring with Your Cat available for free simply by subscribing to her blog Kitty Cat Chronicles.

In chapter one, Hall gives three reasons for people to have adventures with their cats. For starters, it’s fun! Hall inspired me to take my youngest cat to pet-friendly stores, restaurants, and parks this past year. Second, it’s a great way to bond! I learned that Rainy prefers to start out in her stroller when visiting new places, but that she also appreciates the opportunity to sit or walk next to me when she becomes comfortable. Third, it’s healthy! Rainy doesn’t like being outside by herself nor would she be safe. At the same time, an active cat like Rainy goes stir-crazy being indoors all day. Taking her on adventures is the solution.

Chapter two overviews the personality traits of an adventure cat. Those traits are: calm, confident, inquisitive, and easily-handled. My experience is that these traits are trickier to access than you might expect. Case in point is our oldest cat. In our house she displays all the traits of an adventure cat, but outside of her comfort zone those traits tend to diminish. When my husband and I used to take her to visit his parents, in contrast to Rainy who explores their house, Cinder curled up on a resting place and waited for us to go home. A year ago when I brought her outside, she plainly showed that she preferred the comforts of home by making a beeline for our house.

The next two chapters cover gear and training needed. Personally, I would recommend that one buy some gear, do some training, buy some more gear, and continue to alternate. If your cat absolutely hates the harness and/or the leash, the rest of the gear will be of no value. Even if your cat learns to accept them, there still may be limits to the adventures you’ll have with your cat and thus the type of gear you’ll have. Categorizing the gear as beginner, intermediate, and advanced would be helpful. Alternatively, given that Hall dedicates all of chapter six to road trips, perhaps chapter three and four could just cover the basic necessities.

Chapter five is dedicated to helping you brainstorm destinations for you and your cat. In this chapter, Hall lists backyard, pet stores, parks, and pet-friendly businesses. Elsewhere Hall also refers to the woods and on the water. A number of the photos show her cats in these more adventurous places. In her sequel, I’d like to see tips on how to acclimate cats to these vary different environments, each of which have their own dangers and perks.

In chapter six, Hall talks about road trips. She stresses that you call ahead to confirm that a hotel will allow you to bring a cat (or multiple cats) with you. This is sound advice anytime you take your cat to a public place. Some parks and businesses allow pets; others don’t.

What if you have a cat like our Bootsie who is nervous, shy, timid, and difficult to handle? Then chapter seven is for you! Even the least adventurous cat will tire of having nothing to do. Every cat needs enrichment: You can provide enrichment with scratchers, climbing trees, hiding places, and natural treats such as cat grass.

With three adventure cats of her own (Sophie has been adventuring for about 5-6 years. Kylo Ren for almost 3, and Caster for almost 2), Hall drew on her personal expertise to write The Beginner’s Guide to Traveling & Adventuring with Your Cat. If her guide inspires you to take your own cats on adventures, I highly recommend joining the online Facebook group KCC Adventure Cats, where members are encouraged to share adventure spots and suggestions, training tips and tricks, and fun photos and stories of their adventure cats, and more! Hall took a year to write her guide, which has received favorable feedback, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

The Ginger Kid by Steve Hofstetter is the inspiring memoir of a misfit who became a popular comedian. I related to Hofstetter’s awkward adolescence and applaud his message to aim high. The Ginger Kid is a notable addition to the young adult nonfiction.

Steve grew up an unhappy teen. He was a shy poor redhead who spent most of school years being bullied. He had very few friends and his first date was with a girl who simply wanted the prestige of having a boyfriend. In addition to being a nerd, Steve didn’t excel at sports or academics. He also spent many years being the brunt of jokes instead of making others laugh. His family often wasn’t helpful either. His parents never got anything done on time and they often fought. Steve could have easily ended up a nobody.

The teen years weren’t kind to me either. I was shy and introverted. Although somehow I mostly escaped being bullied, I had a highly sensitive personality and so the smallest criticisms wounded me. My friends and I were on the fringe of our peers, perhaps because we were average in sports, academics, looks, and everything. Like Steve, one of my passions was writing, which didn’t win me any favor among my peers either. Being the only child of a single father made me different, which also negatively impacted my social acceptance. Unlike Steve, by the end of high school, I still didn’t know who I wanted to be.

In his high school graduation speech, Steve credited a positive mindset, hard work, and the right people for preparing him to face the world. One of those right people was a high school teacher. Mr. Mikkelson gave automatic points to those students who showed that they had read and understood the assigned material. In addition, he allowed Steve to choose baseball as the focus of his main economics paper, because he knew Steve would take the work seriously. Thanks to Mr. Mikkelson, Steve started to succeed in school as a student. Another one of those right people was his brother. David gave him this sage advice: “Most people live their life in the middle. They don’t go far down, but they don’t go far up either. The further you go toward this top line, the further you will also go towards the bottom line. You decide if it’s worth.” Steve kept this advice in his mind when he applied for improv, which taught him many life lessons, and ultimately helped him find his place in life.

Even as an adult, I still at times wonder if aiming high is worth it, and it helps to know that others have faced this quandary. One Sunday earlier this fall, my husband and I took our therapy cat to Home Depot on a shopping trip. As I walked into the store wearing a “proud pet mom” shirt and pushing a cat stroller, I experienced strong misgivings. I wondered whether everyone who saw me would dub me a “crazy cat lady”. Then I thought about Steve’s decision to always aim high. Sure, there were peers who ridiculed him and disliked him, but there were also peers who enjoyed his presence and who had his back. The reality is that no matter what path Steve choose, there would always be places where he didn’t fit but also places where he would. Similarly, when I take my therapy cat in public, there will be people who roll their eyes but there will also be those who will stop to say hello and even feel better because they got to pet Rainy.

Everyone gets scared and everyone experiences rejected. How one handles these feelings can make a huge difference in who one will become in life. Most of the readers of The Ginger Kid won’t end up becoming famous like Steve, but they might find themselves inspired to do improv or to follow some other dream that will positively change their life. Such is the power of a good book!

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is an atypical reading experience. Set in Russia in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the USSR has just ended and Russia is still in its infancy, One-Two takes you into the mind of conjoined twins Faith and Hope. The style is at first disconcerting, being told from an alternating first and second person, but in the end feels like the perfect choice. A psychological drama, the novel reflects on how difficult but also how important it is to remain human.

Faith and Hope do not have an easy life. Their own mother, aghast at the sight of them, signed their death certificate. The twins were handed over to one institute and then another as experimental subjects. When the scientists wearied of the twins, they were transferred to boarding school where they experienced some measure of happiness. The windows had no grids, the air smelled of moss and pine, and the twins felt like normal children for the first time. They even developed friendships. Unfortunately, due to a suicide by one of the boarders, their stay was short-lived. The next stop was an orphanage, where once again the twins were viewed as objects of curiosity and sunk into misery. Their one relief was a library and the news that successful operations were being performed to separate conjoined twins. But again, these comforts were short-lived. One-Two is a hard story at times to read, as there seems be no redemption in sight.

But I want redemption for Faith and Hope, who from start to finish I am rooting for. I like who the twins are. They value friendships from their peers, the knowledge to be found in libraries, and the kindness of strangers. They’re also self-aware and know when they are being cowardly or mean, but also how to be strong in the face of relentless suffering and pain. I empathize with the twins who wish for a different appearance, just as many of us are dissatisfied with our looks. Faith grows up knowing the story of the Ugly Duckling by heart, because she wants to undergo a similar transformation. She treasures artwork of a friend who depicts them as beautiful. Whether accurate or not, I find enlightening the insights into life as a conjoined twin. One teacher tells the class that anyone cheating will be seated at separate desks, and Faith laments how impossible that would be. Then there are the constant questions from bystanders of how the two function day-by-day with bodies that are conjoined. Perhaps the most bittersweet is how the twins at times encourage other and at other times wish desperately to be their own person. Finally, I feel abhorrence at their treatment. When the twins take a bus ride, passengers make comments such as they’ll never get used to them and they’ll one day turn into haggish toads. At the orphanage, when staff see them, the twins are told to cover themselves. And these are among the least cruel reactions.

The style is initially what I least cared for. The first person is used when Faith describes her traumatic childhood, and the second person is used when she talks to her conjoined twin. There are times when I wanted to simply stay inside Faith’s head and times when I wanted to know what her sister thought not what Faith said to or about her. At the same time, the technique serves to increase tension, and thereby creates a frightening foreboding. While narrating her story Faith occasionally presents philosophical truths that seemed too mature for her to know at the age being depicted. At the same time, her emotions swing from optimism to despair, and feel agonizingly real. By the novel’s end, I felt as if the author could not have chosen any other way to tell his story.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is one of those books that need to be reread due to its complexity. The twins manage to struggle past thoughts of revenge, suicide, and other dark emotions to hold on to the belief that their life has been amazing and full of miracle, and therein they teach us how to be human. Upon the initial reading one will grasp the essentials of the plot and the characters, but an additional reading will be needed to fully comprehend all the truths being imparted.

The second half of December I treated myself to three dog cozy mysteries. All three are titles my husband bought for me at a library book sale. The first is by an author (David Rosenfelt) whom I know about through the animal rescue world, while the others are by authors with four or five-star ratings at Cozy Mystery List.

My interest in the Andy Carpenter mysteries by David Rosenfelt comes from my having read his funny account of the start of a dog rescue foundation. The series contains sixteen titles to date and features a reluctant attorney who is most likely to be persuaded to take a case when a dog is somehow involved. In Dog Tags, the eighth book in the series, a German Shepherd police dog witnesses a murder. If his owner, an Iraq war vet and cop-turned thief, is convicted of the crime, the dog could be euthanized. Dog Tags didn’t fit my perception of a cozy mystery, which supposedly don’t focus on violence and contains bloodless murders that take place off stage. Instead Dog Tags revolves around a murder case with roots in Iraq, payoffs, hit men, and even a possible national security threat. Indeed, some reviewers have noted that Dog Tales is darker than earlier Andy Carpenter titles. What helps lighten the intensity of the plot is Andy’s sarcastic style, adamant opposition to danger, and obvious love of his wife and dog. I also enjoyed the quirky characters including Pete who is always calling in a favor, Marcus who eats as if there were no tomorrow, and Hike who puts pessimists to shame. Dogs are front and center, with one being on trial and the other being Carpenter’s own pet. Dog training and the building of trust are also integrated into the mystery.

The Chet and Bernie mysteries by Spencer Quinn have the most unusual quality of being narrated by a dog. To date, the series contains eight regular novels and four behind-the-scenes books. In Thereby Hangs a Tail, the second book in the series, Chet and Bernie are hired to investigate threats against the unlikely target of a pampered show dog named Princess. Although the series reads more like a thriller than a cozy mystery, I’ve become a fan due to the style, characters, and the location. More than any other animal book, thanks to his unique style, Quinn had me wondering what goes on in the mind of my dog or for that matter any dog. As a canine partner, he likes to puzzle out what scents mean for the case. He’ll also wag his tail, growl, and bark to turn Bernie onto clues. And he enjoys helping Bernie tackle criminals. At the same time, he’ll also interpret phrases so literally that conversation can be quickly lost on him. He’ll also scavenge places for food and will rarely turn down food—no matter what it’s source. Bernie is an equally multi-layered character. He makes bad financial investments, and proves a tough guy with criminals, but also has a soft heart for his dog and the woman he loves. Thereby Hangs a Tail takes place in remote areas in Arizona, well-suiting it to the cozy mystery genre.

The Rachel Alexander and Dash mysteries by Carol Lea Benjamin is my only selection by a female author. The series contains nine titles to date and features a female detective and her pit bull. In The Wrong Dog, the fifth book in the series, Sophie Gordon hires Rachel because her cloned dog does not possess the skills of a service dog as was promised to her. While Rachel is searching for the Side-by-Side agency that led Sophie astray, she’s thrown into a deeper mystery when Sophie is killed. I found the first two chapters, wherein Sophie recounts her story to Rachel, somewhat confusing and dull. After that, the narrative improves. I enjoyed how the plot unfolded, with Rachel finding herself in more and more danger as she digs deeper into Sophie’s murder. I also appreciated Rachel’s attempts to find Sophie’s two service dogs a home. Although the dogs (and an iguana!) are often in the background, they’re still prevalent in the story. The dogs like playing in the dog park and accompanying Rachel on her sleuthing expeditions.

Now that I have read six animal cozy mysteries, I’m curious about trends. Are dog mysteries normally darker, written by men, and starring male leads? Are cat mysteries normally lighter, written by ladies, and starring female leads? I’d also welcome reader recommendations! For those of you who are fans of animal mystery cozies, who are your favorite authors and why?


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