Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Review: Shopaholic to the Stars

Am I tiring of the character of Rebecca Bloomwood Brandon? Please, say it isn't so. I've loved her for so long, but this book just didn't thrill me. As with the short story I reviewed last month, Becky's character merely comes off as shallow and childish. I'd say this was my least favorite installment of the Shopaholic series (and apparently I'm not alone, as many of the reviews on Amazon show).

Becky has moved temporarily to Hollywood so her husband can represent a famous actress, Sage Seymour. Becky has stars in her eyes as she imagines her own career as a personal stylist taking off. The only problem is that it isn't exactly taking off. Even though she's offered a spot with Sage's rival, things seem to spiral out of control and she is caught up in the whirlwind of the Hollywood gossip trail.

I kept hoping for some classic Kinsella humor to shine through. I kept turning pages, waiting for things to pick up, but somehow I never felt any more connected to the events or conundrums Becky finds herself in.  I kept hoping to catch glimpses of the Becky I adore (the ditsy, sweet-hearted girl who somehow gets herself into scrapes and manages to work her way out with greater understanding and growth), but instead kept seeing a totally self-absorbed, irresponsible Becky.

Perhaps it was just because the focus was Hollywood. I'm not exactly a fan. The scenes at the rehabilitation center were so contrived and the scenes on the red carpet equally disappointing. I tried and tried to get into it, but it all fell flat. The children, both Becky's daughter and her best friend's kids, felt like an addendum as the adults go about their business free of the concerns of caring for them. Somehow they finagled a spot in a day care facility thanks to the intervention of a dreaded previous enemy.

Kinsella ends the book with a teaser for the next installment, leaving it hanging where Becky's father and her best friend's husband have disappeared off to Las Vegas for some unknown reason and Becky and Suze are headed off to find out why and where the men have gone. To be honest, I don't know if I'm all that excited about this aspect of the story development. It doesn't suck me in. Perhaps, it is best when she sticks with Becky in her native environment of Britain. I don't know. All I can say is that this American installment of Becky's adventures turned out to be a real let-down. I don't even know if I'd grant it three stars. Perhaps Becky's moment in the spotlight has really and truly come and gone.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Recipe Find Friday - Chicken Roll-Ups

Okay, so my last installment of this feature was a Recipe Fiasco Friday. This time around, I found a recipe (once again via Facebook) easy enough that I nailed it. Yes! (fist pump) It was a huge hit!

There are lots of recipes for Chicken Roll-ups on the Internet (some with cream cheese, some with just milk instead of milk and broth and flour, etc). The one I found was from a link to a Facebook page called Foodgasm. I like the way this turned out. The only thing I might tweak is possibly cutting out the broth to reduce the salt content.

Chicken Roll-Ups

2 large chicken breasts (I simplified this recipe by using fully cooked grilled chicken strips)
1 can crescent rolls
1 - 10.5 oz. can cream of chicken soup
1/2 soup can chicken broth (I used a bouillon cube in boiling water)
1/2 soup can milk
1 Tbsp flour
6 oz. shredded cheddar cheese
salt & pepper to taste

Place chicken in pot and cover with water. Bring to boil, reduce heat to medium and cook till chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken (save broth). When cooled enough, remove the chicken from bone and shred, set aside [this is the step I skipped by using the fully cooked shredded packaged chicken]. Whisk together soup, broth, milk, flour, salt & pepper. Unroll crescent dough and separate into triangles. Place a little cheese over dough and at larger end, place a good heaping of the chicken. Roll up and place in 9x13 casserole dish. Repeat with remaining triangles. Pour soup mix around each one and drizzle a little over the tops (not too much). Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove and top with more cheese and return to oven for 5 minutes. (soup mixture will thicken up like a gravy).

Talk about easy! Talk about yummy! I served it with steamed broccoli and strawberries. The only problem I encountered? It didn't make enough for the four of us. John and Trevor both wanted more than two crescent rolls apiece. Next time, I'll make a double batch and we'll see how well it warms up the next day. This recipe gets two thumbs up! Easy enough for a kitchen klutz like me. Next, I'll teach Trevor how to make it (he loves learning new things in the kitchen - his father's child).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: The Night Circus

This book, The Night Circus, came well recommended by Catherine at A Spirited Mind and Sheila at The Deliberate Reader. It looked like their book club had a magnificent spread the evening they discussed this book. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall.

I will say that I probably enjoyed this novel more than usual because I listened to it in audio form. It was narrated by Jim Dale (winner of ten Audie Awards, two Grammy Awards, and seven Grammy nominations as a narrator). He did a magnificent job of sweeping the listener into the story and presenting each character with separate flair. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its classic Victorian setting, its richly articulated characters, and its hauntingly magical air.

The reader is introduced to Le Cirque des Reves, a travelling night circus only open from dusk to dawn. Inside the circus there are many characters who play parts, but two individuals hold special roles as they compete against one another in a competition of sorts. Neither one volunteered to be sucked into the competition and neither one has a full understanding of the terms and goal of the game. The story of this competition is teased out over another story of a young boy's fascination with the circus. I enjoyed both aspects of the tale (both the bits about Celia and Marco in the competition and the bits about Bailey and his friends within the circus, Poppet and Widget). I think Poppet and Widget were perhaps my favorite characters of all, but I did enjoy watching romance bloom between Celia and Marco. How can two opponents continue to compete when they have fallen head over heels in love with each other?

Toward the end of the book, after the life of the circus is threatened, Widget visits one of the men who set the competition in motion. The man in the grey suit asks Widget what he does with his talent and what purpose it serves. Then came this passage I couldn't help but stop to write down (even though it was tedious going, writing it down from the audio playback) because it captures the importance of authors and their words:

"I tell stories," he says. It is the most truthful answer he has.

"You tell stories?" the man asks, the peaking of his interest almost palpable.

"Stories, tales, bardic chronicles," Widget says. "Whatever you care to call them. The things we were discussing earlier that were more complicated than they used to be. I take pieces of the past that I see and I combine them into narratives. It's not that important, and this isn't why I'm here."

"It is important," the man in the grey suit interrupts. "Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures, and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener and for each and every ear it will be different and it will affect them in ways they can never predict, from the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that."

Powerful words! Words I want to remind myself of often! For those words alone, this book was well worth the listen. It affected me in ways I could never have predicted.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review: Raising Boys

In 2013, Steve Biddulph released the third edition of his book, Raising Boys: Why Boys are Different - and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men. He is hailed as "one of the world's best-known parenting authors." A family psychologist for more than thirty years, he draws from personal experience dealing with families struggling with their sons for one reason or another. Yet, I didn't find anything new or exceptionally helpful in this book. It basically offers up things I have read in other boy-centric parenting books.

Biddulph outlines the three stages of boyhood, how testosterone changes behavior, and how boys' brain development differs from girls'. He also deals with questions about preparing sons' attitudes toward sex, questions of involvement in sports, and issues with finding the best school environment for your sons. His book addresses moms and dads and provides encouragement for their separate and vitally important roles.

I think, of the books on raising boys which I have read, I would lean more toward recommending Boys Should Be Boys by Dr. Meg Meeker (a Christian book) or The Purpose of Boys by Michael Gurian. I got far more out of both of those titles than I did from this book. Indeed, I found myself skimming the pages, rather than devouring the information presented.

If you are looking for more books on raising boys, you couldn't go wrong with the suggestions offered up by Mia Wenjen of The Pragmatic Mom blog. Even though this post is over four years old, I believe the suggestions (of the top ten books for parents of boys) are more along the lines of books I might find appealing and informative. I'm also thrilled that she included Rachel Balducci's book on raising boys, How Do You Tuck in a Superhero (even though I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, I do visit her blog and appreciate her Christian insights into the process of building men from boys).

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Book Review: A Northern Light

The inside cover of this novel, A Northern Light, highlights nine different awards this book received, including an ALA "Top Ten" Best Book for Young Adults. I'm so glad this was the selection for our January meeting of my young adult book club. I really enjoyed this book. Kudos to this author for creating such an enduring character who intersects with a historical moment, yet manages to come alive all on her own.

Back cover teaser: "Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

"Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original."

I came to love Mattie so much. I loved her love of books and words. I loved her adventurous spirit. She had big shoes to fill when her mother died of cancer and left her basically in charge of all her younger siblings. She just held so much promise and I ached for her to realize her dreams. The murder is really secondary to Mattie's story. It is woven through the tale, but really stands as a foil to prompt Mattie to take hold of her dreams instead of letting them slip away.

This book was full of the raw details of life (death, illness, racial prejudice, loneliness, desire, infidelity, gossip, etc), yet came off as so redemptive and hopeful, despite these bad things. It resonated with truth. I will be thinking about this one for some time to come and may even wish to take a stab at Dreiser's An American Tragedy (I read Sister Carrie in college).


Looked up Dreiser's An American Tragedy and found that it is 896 pages long. Schwew! That's a hefty reading investment. Granted, it IS a classic, but perhaps if you are looking for this tale in short-form, you'd be better off reading Donnelly's version. Then again, Dreiser seems to paint the characters involved with a broader brush stroke and turns out an epic adventure (although one reviewer on Amazon wrote "Evil... I hate this book. I wrote my 10th grade term paper on this book in 1992. It still gives me nightmares. It's boring, dull, and drawn out." - Ha!)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: The Mark of the Dragonfly

The Amazon listing for this book recommends it for fans of Frozen and The City of Ember. I would have to agree. I know my middle son really enjoyed reading The City of Ember for school and this is a book I would happily recommend to him if he needs further reading selections. It contains a hint of a magical world, apart from our own, with its own set of problems and challenges.

Piper is a scrapper, an orphan girl who survives by scavenging for refuse dropped in the meteor showers her world encounters regularly. One day, when she is caught out in the midst of a storm, she comes across an amnesiac girl who bears the mark of the dragonfly, a mark given by King Aron to those who fall under the protection of the king himself. Before Piper can even do much to help the girl, a menacing man appears who claims the girl, Anna, is his daughter. Yet, Anna recoils and calls him "a wolf." Piper and Anna run from the man and board the 401, a train bound for the capital city. Because of Anna's tattoo, the two of them are given a place on board the train, despite the suspicions of the head guard, Gee. Piper is doing all she can to help Anna reclaim her lost memories. The chase is on and Piper and Anna must face unexpected obstacles on the journey before they can discover who they truly are.

What I liked: The author, Jaleigh Johnson, has created a complete new world and peopled it with interesting and colorful characters. Those characters grow throughout the story. I appreciated the message that we all have personal strengths and abilities within us and we must allow those to shine in order to be fully ourselves. I appreciated the compassion displayed. I thought the pacing was well-done and I enjoyed the unexpected twist of identity at the end.

What I didn't care for: The introduction of a new belief system framed upon the distant supervision of a goddess (as opposed to the Judeo-Christian God). This goddess never actually intervenes and yet is invoked numerous times in the speech of the characters. I found it mildly annoying to read over and over again the characters' comments like "for goddess's sake," and "the goddess willed," etc.

Overall, I felt it was a good book and certainly would be entertaining to a 10-14 year old reader. I read one reviewer who told of using this as a read-aloud in her fifth grade classroom and it received a standing ovation at the end of the novel. Now, I count that a clear success!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: Love Walked In

Sometime, somehow, I logged into a page revealing Jen Hatmaker's favorite books. Jen Hatmaker is a fairly famous Christian blogger. Several of my friends link to her posts from time to time on Facebook. Perhaps this is how I came upon her list. This book, Love Walked In, was listed in her favorite fiction reads.

I wanted to like it a lot. I really did. I mean, Jen Hatmaker liked it, so why wouldn't I, right? Well, I didn't like it. Sorry. Just my opinion.

Why didn't I like it? I think the primary reason was an irritation with the central main character, Cornelia. I didn't like her name. I didn't like her perspectives. I didn't like her constant references to classic movies, ad nauseum. But, most of all, I didn't care for her "voice." It was downright annoying. The story is told from two perspectives, alternating between first-person narration from Cornelia and third-person narration about Clare, the young girl she encounters in the story. The chapters from Cornelia's perspective are meant to be a stream-of-consciousness style of narration. But, frankly, her brain processes hurt my brain.

Here's the story in a nut-shell: Cornelia Brown is an underachiever, working at a coffee shop in Philadelphia. In walks a stunning man, comparable to Cary Grant, and Cornelia is swept away by his beauty and swept into his life. Then, one day, he shows up with an eleven year old daughter, Clare, in tow. As Cornelia realizes that she doesn't, in fact, love the father, she also realizes that she desperately loves the daughter and wants, more than anything, to help her out of her horrid situation with an ill mother who has basically disappeared off the face of the earth.

The story just grated on my nerves from the very beginning. The shallow sense of being drawn to people who are physically beautiful (which happens twice for Cornelia - once with Martin Grace and then with her sister's husband, Teo). The absurdity of acceptance of Cornelia ending up with her sister's husband. The brash things Clare encounters with her mother (both advice on sex and the image of her mother having sex). The blithe, casual discussion about how the earth didn't really move for Cornelia when she had sex with Martin. The neat tidy ending with Clare returned to the care of her mother, Viviana, and Cornelia paired with her heart's desire, Teo. I just was annoyed.

I could get behind the basic story line. I did feel for the young girl as she attempts to deal with a mother spiraling out of control in the throes of bi-polar. I could relate to Cornelia's desire to rescue and save the young girl and make a new life for the two of them, together. I could accept Cornelia's hesitations over the father who fails to be there for his only daughter. Even Clare's valiant efforts at keeping life under control were understandable and to be commended. But, I just couldn't get behind all the rest of the claptrap aspects of this story.

Perhaps it was simply a matter of built-up expectations. I expected it to be a really great book. It just wasn't up my alley. Several others on Hatmaker's list have made my own favorites listings (The Light Between Oceans, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand).  Of course, she also presented Little Bee as a favorite and I disliked that one, as well. I guess it just proves the flip side of that old adage: One man's trash is another man's treasure. So, one person's treasured book is another person's disdained book. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.