Book Review: Crow Planet

crow-planetCrow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt beautifully blends nature and science. Haupt, an award winning nature writer, shares her keen observations about how crows relate to ever-encroaching urbanization.

Crow Planet delves into the fascinating study of these distinctive members of the Corvidae family which also includes jays, magpies, and ravens. The book describes crows’ impressive intelligence, their living habits, and how they’ve adjusted to dwindling natural habitats. The author takes her readers into her West Seattle backyard and shares her own little pocket of wildness. Haupt’s vast knowledge as an observer of nature mixed with her gift of language makes this book of interest to anyone concerned about our planet.

It’s easy to become alarmed about diminishing wildlife, but Haupt presents a viewpoint of hope and inspiration of what individuals can do to enhance nature’s bounty to change the course of events.

I particularly enjoyed the many intriguing crow stories, especially my favorite about a crow following a mail carrier every day for more than two years, walking behind him like a golden retriever. This book is loaded with lore and facts, world concerns and minute details that only a keen observer would notice.

From Crow Planet the reader learns how to really observe. Haupt lists ways to become a student of nature and she emphasizes the beauty of living simply. The book is an informative, well-stated study of crows and how they have adjusted to the planet. Haupt makes a strong point of recognizing the importance of the interconnections of all life.

For more information about the author and her work, visit

Book Review: Liberty’s Christmas

Libertys Christmas

Liberty’s Christmas by Randall Platt follows the unpredictable path of teen Liberty Justice Jones. An unusually bright girl, Liberty says of herself, “A brain like mine requires strict control.”

When Liberty gets even for a trick played on her, she finds herself in deep trouble, at school and at home. The Great Depression has hit Texas hard and the family struggles to make ends meet. In fact, they’re losing the battle. Their home and tree farm are being threatened with foreclosure.

Liberty has a plan, but like many of her plans, she hasn’t worked out all the details. If she could only win a Christmas tree contest being held in Austin, the prize would solve many of their problems.

When her prize tree is “accidently” cut down and hauled away with other trees, Liberty takes drastic action, getting herself and her companion in ever-deepening trouble.

Liberty’s Christmas shows the hardships of the Depression in vivid detail. It was a tough time for many, particularly those already on the edge of poverty. But through it all, a teenage dynamo is determined to make life better for her family. Humor, love, compassion, and resourcefulness bring this book to the forefront of excellence. The book’s glossary identifies regional expressions of the 1930′s.

Reviewer’s Note: I was present when Randall Platt received the coveted WILLA Award for Children’s/Young Adult Fiction & Nonfiction at the Women Writing the West conference in Kansas City, Missouri. When accepting the award, the Northwest author shared that Liberty’s Christmas originally took place in the Northwest, known for its Christmas trees. However, when Texas Tech University Press accepted the book for publication, they requested that she use a Texas setting, explaining that yes, Texas does indeed grow Christmas trees. The resulting regional research involved is a tribute to Platt’s creative talents and dedication to her craft.


Book Review: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

A_Long_Way_Gone2Ishmael Beah, 12 years old, lives in a small Sierra Leone village in West Africa with his father, step-mother and brothers. He loves hip-hop music and, with his secondary-school friends, goes to a neighboring village to show off their dance skills in a talent show. While they are away, anti-government rebels attack their village, causing the villagers to run for their lives, scattering in all directions.

Ishmael and his friends attempt to find their families, but as the war rages, they are forced into hiding. As the boys get deeper into unfamiliar territory, their situation becomes more desperate. They forage for food, sleep where they can, and continue to look for their families. Occasionally they come to other villages, but are met with suspicion or hostility when the people accuse them of being boy soldiers. In some instances the rebels have already ravaged the village and the boys find dead bodies. They witness ghastly scenes where villagers have been tortured and left to die.

Ishmael and his friends, desperate, hungry and homesick, come to a village occupied by the government army. Finally, they feel safe, are given food and a sheltered place to sleep. The boys are manipulated into becoming soldiers, issued clothes, shoes, and guns. They receive training and learn how to kill.

At first Ishmael believes they are fighting for the “good side,” the ones who did not kill their families, but soon, caught up in the madness of war, it becomes hard to discern the good guys from the bad guys.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah is told with arresting and vivid detail. Having lived in Africa for two years with the Peace Corps, I found the book especially interesting. In Gambia, we experienced an attempted coup and 118 of us expatriates sought shelter in a house for eight days. I well remember the feeling of helplessness and dread. But our experiences were nothing compared to Ishmael’s. His journey is a stark reminder of the horrors of war and its resultant life-changing effects. Not everyone would enjoy this book, but I feel it is a well-written, heartrending account of actual events. I can’t say I enjoyed the book as much as I was intrigued with the honest writing of gut-wrenching experiences, and the realization of what mere children, boy soldiers, are experiencing in war-torn African countries.

Thanksgiving in a Far Away Place

Thanksgiving RoosterThanksgiving was almost upon us. Even though it wasn’t a celebrated holiday in West Africa’s The Gambia, we intended to make it a special day and invited two fellow Peace Corps volunteers to join us.

Our chickens were all producing eggs so we didn’t want to slaughter one of them. I decided to buy a live chicken. Buying one already slaughtered, defeathered and prepared to cook was unheard of in this rural, third-world country.

That morning, soon after I arrived at work at the Health Centre, I asked Sister Roberts if live chickens were always available at the market. I didn’t even bother asking about a turkey–I’d never seen one in The Gambia. Sister was familiar with our Thanksgiving. “You’ll want a big bird, Mariama, so you should buy a rooster. But you must leave now or they’ll all be gone. People buy birds early in the morning.”

“Leave now? But I have this work to do.”

“That work can wait. You need to get your Thanksgiving bird.”

So I left the Health Center and walked to the market. Sure enough, the few birds for sale were going fast. I found a large rooster and bought him, probably paying more than I should have. I’d forgotten to ask Sister Roberts what it would cost. It was big and I had my hands full of flapping wings before I could settle him into the crook of my arm.

Planning to put him in our chicken coop, I stopped by the hospital to tell Sister I’d purchased my bird and I’d be back as soon as I took him home and walked back again.

“Why walk all the way home and back again? Here, give him to me.”

She opened a supply closet door, put the rooster on the floor and closed the door. My mind whirled with the idea of a live chicken in a hospital closet.

Once in awhile that day we’d hear a muffled cock-a-doodle-doo coming from the closet. No one else seemed to think it was strange at all.

At the end of the day I picked up my bird and carried him home. I stroked his smooth head feathers. Already I’d grown attached to him, but I steeled myself for his pending demise. I wasn’t looking forward to that part of our Thanksgiving preparations.

I had a renewed appreciation for America’s pilgrims and how they had an even more difficult struggle for food. We added a new level of appreciation and thanksgiving..

Book Review: Cowgirl Up!

cowgirlup-cover-3x5Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women by Heidi M. Thomas provides an exciting insight into women’s role in one of America’s greatest passions, rodeo.

American rodeo started at small ranch gatherings when cowboys showed off their roping, bulldogging (steer wrestling), and riding prowess. In those days, it was pretty much a male sport.

Many ranch girls learned to rope and ride as they helped their fathers, brothers and later their husbands with ranch work. These girls learned to “cowgirl up,” which means to rise to the occasion without whining or complaining. As local competition became popular events, girls got into the spirit and began competing with the men. Girls’ involvement raised some eyebrows, but they persisted, often wearing cumbersome skirts to be less offensive and more ladylike. Even so, many people thought of rodeo cowgirls as “loose women.”

Cowgirl Up! is about these women of rodeo, many of whom started their careers as young as fourteen, competing against and often earning higher points than seasoned cowboys.

The 1920s were rodeo heydays for cowgirls, producing more champion female riders than any time since. These girls knew hardships, but persisted in their rodeo dreams.

Soon organized circuits formed and performers traveled from rodeo to rodeo, paying their own travel expenses and fees, often sleeping in tents. Many women brought their babies with them. It was a tough life for both men and women, but in addition to roping, riding bucking broncs, staying atop a writhing, twisting bull, these women made it their business to still appear feminine when not in the arena.

Two fatal injuries in1929 and 1933 among notable women competitors contributed to eliminating women from the Rodeo Association of America (RAA), later renamed Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), events.

Despite these setbacks, women persisted in rodeo competition, turning to smaller privately-produced rodeos. Many became national stars, sought after by such venues as Madison Square Garden in New York. New events geared toward women were added including trick riding, barrel racing and breakaway roping (where a calf is roped, but not thrown).

Cowgirl Up! is a riveting and personal account of individual Montana women who followed their dreams to hard-won fame. Tenacity is a common thread among their impressive achievements. One thing that surprised me was that despite broken bones, concussions, torn muscles and ligaments, many of these strong women have lived into their nineties.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a notable personality. My favorite is Oprah Winfrey’s “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” That quote perfectly sums up the cowgirls’ struggle for rodeo recognition.

Author Heidi M. Thomas grew up on a working Montana ranch and speaks with authority on rodeo history. Her grandmother rode bucking stock in the early days of rodeo and Thomas’ trilogy–Cowgirl Dreams, Follow the Dream, and Dare to Dream–are fictionalized accounts of her grandmother’s life. Her latest work, Cowgirl Up! is a well-researched history of individual women’s impressive role in rodeo.

For more information about the author and her work, visit

My Guest Today: Shanna Hatfield

Hardman Community Center

Hardman Community Center


My guest today is Shanna Hatfield, author of the Hardman Holidays series. Shanna, tell us about the setting for your exciting new series. I understand you’ve breathed life back into the ghost town of Hardman, Oregon.

Thank you, Mary. Two years ago, I decided to write a sweet Victorian holiday romance. As I debated making up a town or using a real one, I happened to come across information about Hardman, Oregon and chose it for the setting of The Christmas Bargain, the first book in my Hardman Holidays series.

Although classified today as a ghost town, Harman was once quite an exciting place to be.

John L. Royse, reportedly one of the most successful farmers in the area, and his brother were said to be the first permanent settlers in Hardman.

Originally named Dairyville, the town was popular as a freighting center and saw promising growth in its early days. Dairyville became known as Raw Dog, while a mile away a rival settlement sprang up, known as Yellow Dog.

Stagecoaches and wagon trains traveling north and south through eastern Oregon and Washington found convenient shopping points in both Raw Dog and Yellow Dog. The rivalry between the two locations escalated as they competed over which town would secure the stagecoach depot for the area. When Raw Dog received a permanent stagecoach station, the two towns became one, known as Dogtown.

The town’s name changed to Hardman in 1881 when David N. Hardman, a pioneer farmer, moved to town and, with the government’s consent, brought with him the post office which previously had operated from his farm. The town took the name of the post office, Hardman.

In the 1800s, the town boasted a skating rink, four churches, a school, and newspaper office.

In the late1800s, excitement rippled through Hardman with rumors that the railroad would be coming through town. When the railroad was routed through the nearby town of Heppner instead, the community of Hardman suffered a devastating blow, effectively stunting future growth.

By the 1920s, trucks replaced horses, mail routes changed and Hardman began its decline. The last business in Hardman closed in 1968.

Thank you, Shanna. I’ve always found ghost towns fascinating and your bringing fictional life back to Hardman is intriguing. For more information about the author and the Hardman Series, visit


Shanna christmas-bargain-cover

Book Review: Once Upon a Time, There was You

OnceUponATime_2-16Once Upon a Time, There was You by Elizabeth Berg, is an engaging study of family dynamics, its humor, frustrations, scares, scars and secrets.

Even on their wedding day, John and Irene had serious reservations whether they were doing the right thing. But their plans were made and they did what was expected of them. Now divorced and living in different parts of the country, the one thing they have in common is their mutual love for their eighteen-year-old daughter, Sadie.

Sadie lives with her mother in San Francisco, John lives in their original home state, Minnesota. Four times a year Sadie visits her father, mostly in Minnesota, but sometimes he comes to California. She’s a bright girl, itching to be on her own. It’s late summer when the story takes place, and Sadie is looking forward to college and independence.

Irene passionately loves her daughter, knows it’s time to begin letting go, but is finding it hard to accept that Sadie will soon be on her own. The empty nest is looming, but she’s not ready to let it happen. John, as the absent parent, is seen at the “good guy,” someone Sadie can confide in, and sometimes Sadie can get him to intercede for her with her mother.

Sadie has a boyfriend, Ron, whom she’s dated on several occasions, but hasn’t yet introduced to her mother. She’s asked her mother’s permission to go on a rock climb, but with no success. Rock climbing isn’t something Irene could imagine anyone doing and she can’t fathom why Sadie would want to do such a dangerous thing. At Sadie’s request, John talks to Irene, who reluctantly gives in. Sadie has actually made other plans, the rock climb is a ruse, but her clandestine plan backfires. When tragedy strikes, Irene and John come together to support Sadie.

Author Elizabeth Berg’s character development is superb. Like them or not, her characters ring true, flaws and all. The story is a portrayal of love: love between man and woman, love toward their child, and the sometimes spotty love a child has for her parents. The novel is a realistic look at the pains and perils of raising a child in today’s world of broken relationships.


Book Review: House Rules

house-rules-157Stephen King nailed it when he said, “Picoult writes with unassuming brilliance.” Jodi Picoult, author of House Rules, has written a splendid novel, a truly memorable account about the complexity of human relationships.

Jacob is eighteen and suffers with Asperger’s syndrome, the highest functioning form of autism. His life is driven by routine–foods of a certain color must be served on scheduled days. No matter what else is going on, it is imperative that he watch reruns of a favorite daily police drama while making meticulous notes in his journals. All changes of routine must be planned well in advance. Jacob has a strong and highly informed fascination with forensic science. He’s even surprised the local police with a correct analysis of a puzzling crime scene. Although brilliant, Jacob lacks social skills, has no friends, is brutally honest, and struggles to understand slang or sarcasm. Although he has a good vocabulary, his voice is a monotone and he finds it difficult to look someone in the eye. When worried, Jacob displays tics and twitches.

Emma, Jacob’s mother, a single parent since her husband walked out on the family when Jacob was diagnosed, has devoted her life to making life easier for Jacob. Her life evolves around this son who can’t fit into the world. When a routine is broken and Jacob goes into a meltdown, she’s the one who physically calms her son, sometimes by lying on top of him. Emma has seen to it that Jacob attend high school, one that has special needs facilities. She has no social life–all her energy is aimed at helping Jacob fit into a sometimes unfriendly world.

When Jacob’s social skills tutor is found dead, the evidence points to Jacob. He is arrested, jailed and must stand trial to prove his innocence.

Other characters play important parts in this fascinating drama. At 15,Theo, Jacob’s younger brother, fights to be a normal teen. But how is that possible when he’s embarrassed to bring friends home?

Oliver, Jacob’s young, brand-new attorney, is suddenly confronted with a case for which he is professionally unprepared, but is compelled to accept.

Rich, the arresting officer, is tough but compassionate. He sees this case as unusual, but facts and evidence cannot be refuted.

Put this all together and you have a rich masterpiece, a book you won’t forget. House Rules is not only a fascinating and enjoyable read, it gives readers insight into autism, and Asperger’s in particular. This is a magnificent novel and one I highly recommend.

Book Review: The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsOne of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd, a native Southerner, has written another memorable book, The Invention of Wings, a novel that spans 35 years, beginning in 1803.

For her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke is given a personal slave, Hetty, who goes by the name Handful. Horrified, Sarah tries to refuse the gift, but is seriously rebuked by her aristocratic family. Sarah’s father is a highly respected South Carolina Supreme Court justice and her mother a rigid taskmaster who doles out harsh punishment to their many slaves.

Handful, ten when the story begins, is third-generation slave. She’s adorned with lavender ribbons, like a wrapped present, when she’s “given” to Sarah. Although the gift cannot be rescinded, Handful and Sarah form a bond that will eventually shape their lives. Sarah refuses to treat Handful as a slave, but a slave she is and as such is expected to work long hours, then sleep on the floor in the hallway by Sarah’s bedroom in the event her “mistress” has needs during the night.

The book artfully toggles between Sarah and Handful’s stories. Deeply affected by the mistreatment of the slaves, Sarah silently rebels. She develops a speech impediment after witnessing the whipping of a woman slave, an impediment that haunts her the rest of her life. When Sarah teaches Handful to read, an act that’s against the law in antebellum South Carolina, both girls are severely punished.

Sarah has a good relationship with one of her older brothers and later, when little sister Angelina is born, the two girls become inseparable.

Divided into six parts, the book progresses through Sarah and Handful’s lives and the social attitudes of the time.

Sarah and sister Angelina move north, to slave-free Philadelphia, and begin promoting abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Surprisingly, they find strong support for abolition, but resistence for women’s rights.

Meanwhile, Handful has reached middle-age and yearns to be free. Sarah and Handful have remained friends, keep up a correspondence, and struggle for their common goal, freedom.

The Invention of Wings is loosely based on the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimke who became famous, even infamous, speakers against slavery and for women’s suffrage. Many of the situations portrayed are real-life events. Kidd describes the barbaric mistreatment of slaves in vivid detail. The story takes place pre-Civil War, and Kidd does a good job presenting both sides of slavery. I highly recommend this powerful and sweeping novel of American history.

Book Review: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison

Orange is the New BlackSeeking excitement and freedom, Piper Kerman makes some bad choices after graduating from Smith College. Her naivete in briefly getting into the drug trade costs her dearly when, ten years after the deed, she faces a 15-month prison term at a women’s federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut.

The adjustment to lack of privacy, dignity, and rights is understandably tough and at first Kerman mostly keeps to herself. But slowly, she gets into the rhythm of incarcerated life, acquires a prison job as an electrician and tries to maintain a positive attitude.

To her surprise, in the early days before her financial account is available, many of her fellow inmates are helpful, even generous with their limited supplies of soap and shampoo, and clothing. Kerman is quick to point out that her situation is unusual in that she has a supportive family and friends who see to it that she has funds available in her account so that she can purchase what she needs in the rather meager prison “store.” She also emphasizes that her fiancé, family and friends visit, write regularly, and send books, giving her moral support. Most incarcerated woman don’t have nearly the advantages that Kerman has and through her experiences, it becomes clear why many women’s lives take downward spirals while in prison and after their release.

Through Kerman’s eyes we see the anguish and moral degradation of life in prison, the overwhelming feelings of guilt and humiliation. It’s easy to say the inmates “have it coming,” but it’s also clear that the emotional and physical needs causing the original problems aren’t being met. Many women are themselves victims of circumstances of violent or abusive home environments. Kerman has a strong support system to return to, but often times the women, once released, will be in homeless shelters, or will return to desperate home situations with no hope of living decent, fulfilling lives.

Orange is the New Black doesn’t offer solutions to these social problems, but offers a look into what poor choices, for whatever reason, can cost. The book offers an engaging glimpse of life in prison, sometimes heartbreaking, at times humorous, often enraging.

To learn more about the author and her memoir, visit