Sunday, January 15, 2017

Book Review: The Sixty-Eight Rooms

I'm always curious to know more about the authors I read. Thus, I was especially excited to learn that this author, Marianne Malone, is from Urbana, Illinois, my husband's hometown. I agree with The Chicago Tribune, as it declared, "Marianne Malone has tapped into a fantasy that is ... completely universal." I know I have dreamt of what it would be like to travel back to different times or to grow tiny enough to enter an elaborate doll house. I don't recall ever visiting the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago (for a vicarious view of the rooms, view this You Tube video), but it brought to mind Queen Mary's Dolls' House that I observed at Windsor Castle.

In The Sixty-Eight Rooms, Ruthie and her best friend, Jack, are sixth graders living in Chicago. When their class takes a field trip to the Art Institute, they stumble upon a key in a corridor behind the scenes of the elaborate miniature rooms of the Thorne Rooms. The key proves magical, shrinking them to size so that they can experience a fabulous adventure in the rooms and their environs. While there, they discover evidence of another visitor and happen upon something accidentally left behind.

Although I did tire of hearing (I listened in audio form) the details of their shrinking and enlarging and the logistics of maneuvering through the rooms, the adventure was, indeed, magical. Children will delight in a fantasy about exploring tiny worlds unknown to them. Adults will enjoy soaking in the history presented. This simple tale is sure to appeal to many diverse readers. It certainly left me with a desire to visit Chicago and experience the Thorne Rooms for myself. Moreover, I was thrilled to discover sequels are available: Stealing Magic, The Pirate's Coin, and The Secret of the Key.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book Review: Falling Free

I don't know Shannan Martin, but I'd like to. She doesn't live far; in my own state no less. I'd like to know her and I'd like to be more like her. Her message in her book, Falling Free, is a simple one: stop chasing the American Dream and allow God to use you wherever He calls you. This is her story, a story of leaving behind a comfy farmhouse and moving into an urban setting where she could be a neighbor to hurting people. While I'm not planning to pack up my farmhouse just yet, I did glean a host of helpful thoughts.

She argues against the truism - "Hurt people hurt people" - saying, "hurt people heal people." When we acknowledge that we are all in the same boat, no better or worse than the one standing next to us, we are able to lend support, and in lending support we might actually find some of it coming back around our way. As Luke 6:38 says, "your gift will return to you in full - pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back." Shannan's question is: Are we giving enough? Are we looking for new opportunities to give to others?

I guess what I really love about Shannan is that she admits her weaknesses and attempts to cast the light on the needs of her neighbors instead of intense self-focus. She writes, "Less me. And more Jesus. Here, in this abundance of less, where more of us is stripped away, we'll uncover the person we were made to be, the one created in the image of a God who sank holy feet into our human mess." That's what I want: less me, more Jesus.

No, she doesn't run from admission of weakness. She says, "God could use weakness to redeem failure.... To touch the expansiveness of God, we've got to befriend the ways we come up short.... The truth is weakness is a simple fact of life. It's what we all are, at our core. We are weak. We need God, and we need His people. We need hope.... What I'm beginning to see, though, is that God doesn't fix my weakness by making me strong. He becomes my strength in my perpetual weakness."

I was especially convicted by this quote from Dirty Faith by David Z. Nowell, "New Testament faith cannot be practiced in private. Either the faith will destroy the isolation, or the isolation will destroy the faith."

Going to the lost will not be painless. It demands sacrifice. We have to be willing to fall into His arms and cast aside the safety and self-provision we cling to (hence the title: Falling Free). She writes, "God calls us to an obedience that prizes his protection over our own. He promises us gifts that leave us clinging to his grace and incomparable goodness. Rather than settling for safety and status quo, he offers us faithfulness.... He's begging all of us not to detour around the pain."

As I said, I'd love to be more like Shannan Martin. I hope this book will stir within me the desire and the motivation to go where it feels uncomfortable, to seek spaces He can use me, and to be willing to let go of the things I believe I need in order to experience the blessing He holds for those who gladly give all to the one who made all.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: Good Advice on Writing

Good Advice on Writing: Great Quotations from Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well is a book that you can read in snippets here and there as the mood takes you. The quotations are arranged alphabetically according to topic. I expected to glean far more noteworthy quotes, but ended up with only a handful. Here were my favorite four, along with a recipe for establishing character:

"I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime." - Ray Bradbury

Doesn't that create a beautiful image for a writer?

When it comes to warming up and getting in rhythm, Leonard Bernstein writes - "It simply doesn't matter what you write; it only matters that you write."

Here again, don't worry about what comes out, just set about to the task at hand. Revision is always possible later on. And once words are revised, they should be so smooth that the reader is unaware the writing is using words at all:

"Words ... if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault; in the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"If you can't bring yourself to put a finished manuscript away for a year to give yourself perspective when you look at it again, try six months. Four months. Three weeks. If you waste a day because you wrote nothing worth saying, don't worry about it. It comes with the territory. Don't hesitate to start a novel over, though you've been working on it for two years. Don't be afraid to change the protagonist or the ending, or to decide that you are not writing about the theme you originally had in mind. That's O.K." - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

This is so freeing when one feels stuck in the midst of novel writing.

Character recipe: 1) What does this person want? 2) What prevents him from getting it? 3) What does he do about this obstacle? 4) What are the results of what he does? 5) What showdown does all this lead to? 6) Does he get what he wants, finally?

Great questions to ask yourself about characters you are creating.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Book Review: Paris for One

I've never read anything by JoJo Moyes. I picked up Me Before You at the library once because I thought it best to read the book before seeing the movie, but alas I never read the book or saw the movie. After reading Paris for One, I might be more inclined to do so.

Paris for One is a novella, packaged with a few other short stories. The back cover proclaims Kirkus Reviews as saying Moyes is a "Maeve Binchy for the twenty-first century." I can understand the comparison. Moyes presents characters and relationships in such a way that you feel as if you've known them for years or are simply eavesdropping on their lives. Indeed, just last month, I tossed aside a posthumously-published Binchy book of short stories, A Few of the Girls (they must assume that Binchy fans are so desperate for more that they will be satiated with hidden manuscripts found in her desk drawers. The stories were not the quality of her typical work and I wonder if she isn't turning over in her grave at their unpolished presentation to the world). After setting that book of short stories aside without finishing it, I was pleased to be fully engrossed in this author's fare.

I think my favorite stories were the final two, but all the stories were believable and entertaining. The author has managed to tap into the complexity of relationships and often, with a twist in the tale. Thus, I would bill her as a one-level removed Jeffrey Archer/Maeve Binchy blend (meaning she's not quite at their level, but not bad). Highly readable and satisfyingly entertaining.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review: The Tale of Three Kings

I don't often read e-books, but I started off the new year with a little one called The Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness, by Gene Edwards. It came to my attention because an old friend mentioned it on Facebook in a Facebook memory with the instruction to PLEASE read it! I immediately checked our library and they didn't have it, but a neighboring library had it available in e-book format. I had to join something called Hoopla, but it was a painless process and before I knew it I was reading and then done with the whole book (yes, when I said "little," I meant "little").

Gene Edwards presents the story of three kings: Saul, David, and Absalom. On the dedication page, the author prays, "May you be so utterly healed that you can still answer the call of him who asks for all because he is all." The book is directed at Christians who have been wounded by the actions and behavior of other Christians (often those in leadership positions). In dissecting the methods and manners of these three kings, Edwards points out the blessings that can come from such pains, sorrows, and crushings.

One of my favorite lines in the book described King David thus: "There in those caves, drowned in the sorrow of his song and in the song of his sorrow, David became the greatest hymn writer and the greatest comforter of broken hearts this world shall ever know." Despite our questions, God can use our pain and suffering to produce healing and comfort for others. He alone can make us strong to withstand the fiery spears that might be hurled in our direction. He chooses weak individuals to show forth His strength.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

16 Best Reads of 2016

Click on any title for a link to my review of these favorite books in 2016:

Favorite Fiction:


Favorite Non-Fiction:


Favorite Faith Reads:


Favorite Writing Reads:


Favorite Middle Grade:


Favorite Young Adult:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall

The tween audio book section of the library is always good for a short, clean listen. This book, The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, met my need for a brief read that could be completed in three days of treadmill walking prior to our departure for the holidays. With hints of the flavor of The Secret Garden and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, this book tells a simple ghost story.

Twelve-year-old Florence arrives at her uncle's manor house glad to think that her life in the London orphanage is over. But, what awaits her there is a cold-hearted aunt, devoted to the memory of Florence's recently deceased cousin, Sophia. In the aunt's eyes, Florence doesn't hold a candle to Sophia. But, as Sophia manifests to her brother, James, and cousin, Florence, it is clear that Sophia wasn't the gem her aunt believed her to be. Intent to recreate the scene of her death, with the hopes of killing her brother, the ghost interferes with their lives at Crutchfield Hall.

While the story was interesting and the writing good, the ending just sort of fizzled out. I kept thinking something more would occur, but the last few chapters whimpered to a close without any further revelations. While the back cover proclaims that Hahn pays homage to Poe and Dickens, her story is not on the level of these greats. It is a simple story with fairly interesting story development. I suppose it would appeal to the tween set, but didn't really satisfy my grown-up tastes. I would give it three stars.