Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: The Age of Miracles

What a triumph this first novel is for Karen Thompson Walker!  The premise was thought-provoking and new and the characters were interesting and believable.  The world as we know it begins to spiral into something different and the reader feels like they are living through the crisis alongside the characters.

It feels like an ordinary Saturday morning for eleven-year-old Julia.  But nothing will ever be normal again.  Julia and her family watch as reporters alert the nation to a new dilemma.  The earth's rotation around the sun is slowing a little bit at a time.  The days and nights grow longer.  The government's plan of action is to retain schedules according to the 24-hour-day clocks.  Dissenters, called "real-timers" buck the system and spend their days according to the rise and fall of the sun.  Gravitational pulls are altered, leading to sickness and other imbalances.  Birds are dropping from the sky.  Whales are washing up on beaches.  Julia must come of age in this uncertain world and learn new truths about friends and relatives that she never expected.

I will admit, when I finished reading this book, it felt like I had to align myself back to reality.  That is how deeply the storytelling pulls you into the crisis-mode of this book.  I think the ending to the story felt abrupt, but it was quite an interesting tale.  Not over-the-top award-worthy (it has received more accolates than it deserves, I believe), but still a feat of stunning skill for a debut novel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review: Shepherds Abiding

It would seem ridiculous to say that the timing wasn't right for listening to this audio book.  It is, after all, Christmas, so what better time to listen to a Mitford Christmas story?  Alas, I just felt too distracted to really enjoy this offering.  Perhaps, if I were a die-hard Mitford fan (i.e., had read loads of other Mitford books and felt more connected to the characters involved), I would have relished it more.

Father Tim, an aging Episcopal minister, finds a battered nativity scene in an antique shop and determines to restore it and present it to his wife for Christmas.  Along the way, several other Mitford characters weave in and out of the story, each receiving their own Christmas blessing.  Their various labors of love are warmly received and reap a wondrous reward of good feeling.

The narrator was wonderful.  I really enjoyed the times when he burst into song with Christmas carols nestled amid the story.  I was a bit frustrated with the audio, because there were numerous places where it skipped.  At one point, there is a character named "Pooh," in the story and the audio repeated the name over and over. I thought my boys would have died laughing if they had been in the car with me during that misplay.

For whatever reason, I just didn't connect enough with the story line or the characters.  It was a pleasant enough story and probably a decent tale for the Christmas season.  It just didn't move me.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club

I've seen this book mentioned over and over, so when our library acquired it, I quickly placed my name on the hold list.  Those who love books tend to love to read about others who love books equally.  This is a book in celebration of books.

Will Schwalbe's mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  During the medical visits when Will accompanied his mother, they would discuss books and even came to call it their own "book club."  Thus, when she did eventually succumb to the disease (much later than anticipated), Will set out to write a book chronicling both the difficult journey through the cancer experience and the delightful journey discussing important books.

While I did enjoy reading about the story in this memoir and certainly enjoyed the emphasis on books, I found that there were very few books mentioned that I was familiar with.  I think I was disappointed.  I wanted them to discuss books that I knew.  I could join in on the limited discussion about The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency books.  There were a few classics mentioned that I had read ages ago, like Gone With the Wind, and several children's books I'm familiar with.  But the majority of books sounded like things I just wouldn't select to read.  In fact, as one Amazon reviewer admitted, the books didn't really sound "bucket-list-worthy."  I found myself wishing the books within the book were more interesting and the discussions more profound than they actually were.

It was a brilliant tribute to his mother and I did find myself swelling with gratitude for the similar bond I share with my own mother through books (she often gives me reading suggestions and I am always grateful to hear what she is reading).  For me, there is nothing better than bonding with someone over a shared interest in a particular book.  While I love reading a book just for the thrill of reading a book, the enjoyment multiplies when someone else shares the experience.  I love the fact that I can always make a reading recommendation to my mother.  With other people, I sometimes get the feeling that they are just nodding with no real interest in the delight I feel for a particular book, but I always know my mother will respond with something like "Oh, I want to add that to my list of books to read."  In fact, I think if my mother didn't read this book review blog of mine, I might be tempted to shut it down, since it receives relatively limited numbers of readers.  But, I carry on because I want my mother to know how I feel about the books I read and also so I can look back and remember how a book struck me.

So, if you love to read about what someone else is reading, this might be a good selection for you.  In fact, you can look in the back at the list of books mentioned within the book to see if it is a list you are deeply familiar with or not.  If you are a liberal, this might appeal to you more than it did to me.  Also, if you are close to someone who is dying, this might be an interesting read for you, simply because it tells the tale of a family going through that difficult struggle.  It might spark a desire to spend some of your last moments discussing a shared interest in books.  Books are the common denominator here and, apart from religious experiences, I cannot think of a better common denominator.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: A Choice to Cherish

Looking for another inspirational Christmas read, I picked up Alan Maki's novel,  A Choice to Cherish. This is a small book, easily read in the space of a day or two.  If I were rating it, I would give it four out of five stars.

The main character, also called Alan Maki, is a nineteen year old boy who is summoned by his father to go to his dying grandfather's house to provide palliative care.  Alan hasn't seen his grandfather since he was nine years old, when a fastball, pitched by his grandfather, broke his nose.  His family whisked Alan away and cut off all relations with the grandfather.  Now, it is a week before Christmas and Alan is given a chance to make a final stab at a relationship with his grandfather.

After cutting down a Christmas tree on his grandfather's property, Alan is instructed to pull eight nostalgic items out of a large safe to place beneath the tree.  The grandfather informs Alan that he will be allowed to pick one as a gift after reading eight stories, written to accompany each item.  The stories reveal bits and pieces of the grandfather's life and explain the years of resentment between the father and son.  The stories also reveal the grandfather's relationship with God.  Throw a beautiful young woman into the mix of the difficult decision and you have a charming little Christmas tale.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Amazing Christmas Lights Displays

My mother sent me an e-mail with a story and video about some amazing Christmas lights.  Apparently, this guy lives near Cinncinati, Ohio and his display uses 45,000 lights. It attracted so much traffic and caused so many accidents that the police asked him to shut it down over certain hours.  Instead, he started charging by carload to pay for three police officers to direct traffic.



If you have time, watch his newer video from 2010. It takes 15 minutes to view, but highlights such songs as "The Carol of the Bells," and "Jingle Bells," among others.



While searching for links to the Holdman Light Display (above), I also found this interesting light display. It looks like it is set up indoors, which kind of detracts from the fun of driving past, but still looks entertaining.



I have fond memories of my parents taking us kids on a drive through a St. Louis neighborhood where the houses all had moving Christmas decorations (like a Jack-in-the-box jumping out of his box and Snowmen inflating and deflating). This was back in the day, so their displays were stupendous then. Plus, we would always drive through the story of the nativity at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois.

I also remember a house, near the airport in Chicago, where they had three trees all decorated. In the first story was a really wide base tree. Then, in the second story a tree slightly less wide and finally, on the roof, a small tree. The trees all gave the impression of one huge tree stretching through the whole house and out to the roof. It was amazing!

These are great memories. Nowadays, the memories I'm making with my boys are of calling them to the computer to watch the light shows on You Tube. Ha! Still fun, but not quite the same, no?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I agreed wholeheartedly when someone in our book group suggested this title.  Having read the book before, I knew it was a winner.  I did forewarn everyone that it contains quite a bit of bad language, but asked them to try to look past that because it develops the character of an autistic (Asperger-type) individual incredibly well.  Still, I will say, personally, that the story felt more coarse this time around, even when I knew what was coming.

Ian McEwan (author of Atonement) says, "Mark Haddon's portrayal of an emotionally dissociated mind is a superb achievement."  I concur.  The author has done a stellar job of presenting a thoroughly precise picture of what it must be like to live with Asperger's Syndrome.  But, beyond excellent character development, this story holds the reader with a dramatic intensity.

When fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers his neighbor's dog, Wellington, lying in the garden with a pitchfork driven through it, all he can think to do is to cradle it in his arms.  He determines to solve the puzzle of who killed Wellington.  But Christopher isn't your typical teenager.  He struggles with any kind of change in routine and finds it very difficult to talk to strangers.  He clings to favorite colors and calms himself by working math problems.  Still, he drives on with passion, taking on challenges he's never before encountered in an attempt to solve the crime.  He cannot know what the solution will mean to his obsessively ordered life.

All I can say is that this book is an experience delving into the mind of a compulsively ordered individual with limited social skills.  The reader will embark on a journey and end up feeling like they have walked in the shoes of a highly unique person.  This still remains one of my favorite books, despite the coarseness and the foul language.  It is a masterpiece of storytelling.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Book Review: A Marriage Carol

This little Christmas novel, written by Chris Fabry (of Moody Radio fame) and Gary Chapman (author of The Five Love Languages), was much more what I was looking for.  It was very inspirational and brought tears to my eyes as I read.  It gives a nod to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but in a way that isn't trite or hackneyed.

It is Christmas Eve and Marlee and Jacob Ebenezer are on their way to sign papers finalizing their divorce.  They feel no more hope for their relationship.  A shortcut over treacherous mountain roads brings their trip to a halt when their car careens off into the snow.  Marlee awakens to find herself alone in the vehicle.  She walks until she finds a small home inhabited by an elderly man who takes her on a journey exploring her past, her present, and her possible future.

This novel would be powerful in the lives of couples who are contemplating calling it quits.  It is a strong reminder of the power of hope and the importance of choices in determining the outcome of our lives. It is really a reminder to all of us, in good marriages or bad, that relationships are worth fighting for and we can make the right choices that lead us towards one another instead of away from each other. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: The Christmas Scrapbook

Philip Gulley is an Indiana author often highlighted at our local library. I had never read any of his books, which take place in the fictional town of Harmony.  This looked like a light Christmas read and I was hoping to get out of a rut of Christmas Scrooge feelings.

With the weather looking dismal and gray for the past two days, the book didn't really succeed in lifting my mood, sadly.  It was just okay.  Nothing spectacular.  Nothing to write home about.  Just an average little down-home Christmas story.

Pastor Sam Gardner has determined to redeem himself from the previous year's failed gift and has enrolled in a scrapbooking class with the hopes of presenting his wife with an extra-special gift of a scrapbook.  Not wanting to tell his wife what he is up to, he tells her he is attending a men's group on Wednesday nights.  She fears the worst in two forms: first, an affair, and second, a terminal illness.  Sadly, he needs more help than he can imagine and the story unfolds into a series of mishaps and humorous misunderstandings.

If you are looking for something light and something with a small town appeal, this could be the story for you.  While not as inspirational or moving as something like Karen Kingsbury's red glove series, this story will give you a chuckle or two.  I read it in the space of a day, so it is easy to put away quickly.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Where is December Going?

I woke this morning and realized that I haven't posted anything since November and it is already December 6th!  This month is flying past me.  I am trying my best to get into the mood of things.  I've been playing Christmas music in the car and in the house.  The boys don't care for it and usually tell me to turn it off.

Thanks to a new system of drawing names, I don't have the overwhelming task of shopping for 18 nieces and nephews (now I only shop for the 3 who exchanged names with my boys, on my side of the family, and the three nieces and nephews under 18 on my husband's side).  I think I went a little bit overboard on my exchange gifts (perhaps spending more than I usually would, since it was such a smaller amount than buying for 15).  I used to be the cheap aunt.  The aunt who shopped in January during the after-Christmas sales for the following Christmas.  Thus, those nieces and nephews always ended up with last year's big hits.  Sad, I know.  One day, I woke up and decided I didn't want to be that aunt anymore.  It costs more, but I actually feel good about the gift I'm giving because I think they'll like it, not because I made a killing of a savings.

As for my boys, what a conundrum.  None of them really have expressed big desires (well, apart from the typical really big desires for I-Pads, etc.) and they don't need anything.  I would be tempted to get them nothing, but how disappointing would that be.  Then, I went out on Black Friday and purchased something for the two little boys that I am now having second thoughts about.  It was something for them to share and came to $100, but now I'm wanting to take it back to the store and get my money back.  I will have to discuss it with my husband and make a decision soon.

I think they will end up with chintzy little gifts (hey, I'm still not far away from the tendency to go cheap), but I hope to emphasize a different side of the holiday. They seem so excited.  Wish I could catch some of their enthusiasm.  Even the Christmas music is failing to really put me in the mood.

I did manage to get my Christmas cards out early again this year (a first last year).  I was always the person who sent out their cards closer to the new year than to Christmas.  I even had one recipient write to ask me to take her off my list since it seemed I was only sending one after they sent one to me.  Really!  The card I had printed (a first for me, since I usually go the cheap route and use prints) didn't really turn out all that well.  The resolution was a bit fuzzy.  Ugh!

How to inject a special feeling, when I am feeling like Scrooge?  I don't know.  I'm not even reading these days (apart from the two books the boys have been focused on: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel and The Secret of the Fortune Wookie).  I can't seem to get in the mood for anything.

If someone has a good dose of Christmas cheer they can send me, please do.  I've got to pull myself out of these doldrums.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Seven Quick Takes

1.)  My novel!  I finished the Letters from Anne novel on November 27th after writing 65,347 words.  I'm pleased with it.  I will let it sit for a few months and then begin the whole tedious revision process.  I don't know if it will ever make it to print, but it was a fun endeavor and I enjoyed writing it.  I think it was even a bit therapeutic for me.

2) I attempted two new recipes this month.  The first one, "The Unsloppy Joe," which I noted on-line and decided to try, turned out to be a very, very sloppy joe.  It was basically sloppy joe meat mixture, crammed with cheese into a Grands biscuit.  The tough part was the cramming.  I ended up with messy fingers, a messy counter and very messy-looking pastries.  They DID taste good, but I'll never try it again because it was a disaster to put together.  They have another easier recipe which cooks in a muffin pan.  I think I'll try that next time.

3)The second recipe I searched for on the Internet because I had a can of sweetened condensed milk that was nearing its out date.  I discovered a recipe for truffles and also had some dark chocolate chips which needed to be used up soon, so the recipe seemed perfect.  Once again, the actual making turned out to be messy and very unattractive.  In fact, they look like poop chunks.  But, the end result was still tasty.  I'm guessing there won't be any left by the time my family comes for their visit at the end of the coming month.



4) I have been desperate to capture a photo of us, or at least the kids, for a Christmas card this year, but it seems like the fates are against me.  Two weeks back, I had everyone dress up and told them that after church we would ask someone to take our photo.  It was only while I was sitting in the pew that I realized that I had forgotten to bring my camera along.  Groan.  The following week (last Sunday), I remembered the camera and we asked the pastor's wife to take the photo.  When she tried with my camera, all she could get were blurry pictures (darn this camera for not having image stabilization).  So, she offered to take them on her more professional camera and e-mail me. I still haven't heard a word. I know she's busy so I feel bad asking about when she's going to send them.  So far, these are the best photos of the boys that I could come up with:



5) Plus, my sister took this lovely photo of me when she came for a visit and we took a walk on our property. 


6) During the walk, we chanced upon the dying body of a small cat (almost a kitten, really).  It was quite sad.  We had noticed the little black cat near our front porch on Sunday morning.  Then, Monday morning, Bryce called just after leaving for school (he's driving himself to school these days) to say that there was a cat in the garage.  John and I went out to see if we could shoo it out. It had pooped and peed in the garage - urgh!  The poop was green and John realized that the cat had eaten the poison that he had put out for a mouse that is in the garage.  Poor thing finally ran out of the garage and into the woods.  When my sister and I chanced upon it later, it was still breathing, but frozen with its eyes open.  So sad and I don't even like cats.

7) I snagged this lovely photo from Facebook.  The two sisters are my nieces.  Beautiful women!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tightroping Between the Law and Grace

It is hard to believe it was a whole year ago that I left off with my life-coaching for a spell.  When I left it, I still had three paid sessions available to me and I told my life-coach that I would get back to him when I needed them.  Then, things conspired to cause me to feel the need of them several weeks back.

Having just finished the novel I began at the beginning of November (the Letters from Anne novel, about a girl trying to make her way to forgiveness for her father after he has done something that impacted her life deeply), I am still deep in thoughts of forgiveness and grace.  In the novel, at one point, I explore the idea of the importance of extending grace to oneself.  I am so in need of this personally.

In my last session, my life-coach challenged my view of God and my view of my responsibilities to Him.  He said that my view of God has been tarnished by Christianity which places all kinds of caveats on the love of God. He emphasized that God's love for us is unconditional.  God loves the homosexual while he/she is involved in the act of homosexuality.  God loves the alcoholic on a binge.  God loves the thief while they are stealing. Or I should say, God loves before, during and after.  God's love is not conditional on how we behave.

I get that, when I think about my children.  I tell them all the time that they might do something that makes me sad, or even a little bit angry, but that my love for them remains intact.  But, it is harder to feel that when I feel like I am somehow not deserving of God's love ... that somehow my inability to jump through the right hoops keeps me from His overwhelming love.  Guilt holds a great grip on me.

Plus, I struggle with maintaining balance on this issue.  I believe there is such a thing as right and wrong.  I believe that acting in the right brings peace and the best things for us.  But, I believe we will not always choose the right.  I know I don't always choose the right.  Choosing to do wrong brings consequences.  Consequences are equally an extension of God's love, no?  God's love dictates consequences for choosing the wrong.

If I love my child, I will bring consequences to bear when they make a choice that is harmful for them.  So how does one balance the consequences and the feeling of God's love?  My life lacks a certain feeling of freedom and that seems to stem from bondage to expectations and a fear of getting it wrong.  If I could let go of those expectations and the fear of getting things wrong, I could experience a whole different level of freedom.  But, I'm hung up on the letting go of those expectations.  I live by those expectations.

At this point, I have no answers.  These are all just ideas swirling around in my head.  I keep chewing over God's unconditional love and trying to reconcile it with His desire for me to act according to His will.  It feels like a tightrope and it feels wrong to fall off on one side or the other. If I fall on the side of God's endless love, then what about the law and making the best choice (especially when choices deeply impact others)?  If I fall on the side of the law, then what about a loving God who is there waiting to extend His arms around me, even when I don't deserve it?  Obviously, if I'm going to fall off the tightrope, the preferred side to fall on is the one of unconditional love.  But, I cannot get myself to want to fall.  My toes are clinging to the rope and I'm just trying to get to the other side with my body and soul intact (and to hurt myself and others as little as possible). 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: The Mermaid Chair

There are some authors who hold you even when you don't particularly appreciate the direction a story is headed.  I'm glad that this was true of Sue Monk Kidd, in The Mermaid Chair, or I might not have given this story a chance.  At the beginning, it seemed like this was going to be a story of adultery just for adultery's sake.  I found myself talking back to the story, saying things like "You can't just abandon a marriage because you see someone and fall in love in an instant," and "isn't that too typical ... a person grows stale in a relationship and thinks that seeking love elsewhere is the answer."  And, I found the thought of a monk engaging in adultery to be a bit more than I could swallow. Thankfully, the lyrical prose which Sue Monk Kidd masterfully weaves kept me listening to this audio book.

I found myself wishing I could write as beautifully as she does. Her similes are creative and fresh.  She evokes images so well and thoroughly plunges the reader into the atmosphere of her story. The further the story went, the deeper I was pulled into this colorful tale. By the end, it was clear, there is significant truth in this story, despite what felt at the beginning to be a glorification of adultery.

Jessie has been summoned to Egret Island, the small island off the coast of South Carolina where she grew up.  In a seemingly senseless act, Jessie's mother has chopped off one of her own fingers.  Although her psychiatrist husband, Hugh, offers to accompany her and help her get to the bottom of things, Jessie insists this is a journey she must make alone.  She has been feeling stagnant in life ever since their only daughter, Dee, went away to college.  She feels she needs to get away to find herself.

In the midst of finding herself, she also falls in love with Brother Thomas, a monk who is about to take his vows.  Brother Thomas has come to the monastery to find shelter and solace after the death of his wife and unborn baby.  He is searching for something spiritual to fill the emptiness within.  He falls in love with Jessie the moment he sees her, as well (I think this is why I was talking back to the book).

Through images of mermaids and saints and intertwining threads, the author carries Jessie through this perplexing journey into her mother's madness and helps her to understand the death of her father more fully.  She begins to realize many things about herself that were set in motion when her father died on a small boat from an explosion thought to be caused by the very pipe Jessie had given him for Father's Day.

She does find herself.  She grows into herself, I should say.  She begins to see herself more clearly and then comes to her senses about what she really wants, which is to stand on her own two feet and make her marriage work.

I think the story could have been told without the adultery.  I think the two characters could have interacted in a way to show their broken lives gaining redemption without plunging into such a moral pit.  But, her writing was, indeed, beautiful.

Here is an example of the author's brilliant prose, taken from the very end of this story:

"Forgiveness was so much harder than being remorseful.  I couldn't imagine the terrible surrender it would take ....  There are things without explanation.  Moments when life will become arranged in such odd ways that you imagine a whole vocabulary of meaning inside them.  The breakfast smell struck me like that.  That was where our marriage had left off, that day back in February.  February 17th.  Ash Wednesday.  The day of ashes and endings.  Hugh had cooked breakfast - sausage and eggs. It had been the final thing before I'd left.  The benediction....

"[I was] afraid I would ruin whatever was about to happen.  The room seemed to hang in the air revolving, deliberate, like a bit of glass lifted to the sun and turned slowly to refract the light....

"There would be no grand absolution, only forgiveness meted out in these precious sips.  It would well up from Hugh's heart in spoonfuls and he would feed it to me and it would be enough."

That's the kind of writing that holds you spellbound and brings you around full circle so that you completely understand the changes the characters have undergone.  That's the kind of writing that makes you end a book wishing you could pick it up again and start all over.  I fully intend to start all over again, with her other bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees.  It is clear why her books are so very popular.  I hope she continues to weave these wonderful webs for readers to follow and perch upon.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Review: Crunch

Crunch, by Leslie Connor, is a Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee.  And for good reason.  Connor has written a delightful little tale about a family of children strapped at home, trying to run the family business while their mother and father are stranded somewhere else during a fuel shortage.

When fourteen-year-old Dewey Marriss agreed to run his father's bike shop for a week during the summer, he never dreamed that week would stretch on into two or three.  Nobody knew the fuel tanks would dry up while the Marriss parents were away on their big rig.  Thankfully, the Marriss children are resourceful and responsible.  They continue to keep things afloat despite the disappointment of an art class canceled (for the eldest daughter, Lil, who is eighteen), the pressures of a burgeoning bike business (everybody has resorted to this form of transportation), and the complications of a thief in town (stealing bikes and money and anything he can get his hands on, a little bit at a time).

Lil turns her frustration over the cancelled class into motivation to create a stunning work of art on the side of the barn.  Dewey and thirteen-year-old Vince manage to keep the Bike Barn up and running, until it becomes completely overwhelming.  Then, they manage to think up a clever plan to clear the Bike Barn of all the repairs before their dad has a chance to return.  The two five-year-old twins muddle through the difficult emotions caused by their parents' absence.  Together, they even manage to identify the crook (with the help of a little blue paint).

All is restored to normal by the time the parents return.  The kids have proven that even though they can manage to be resourceful and responsible, it's a whole lot more fun to just be a kid.

This was an easy read and very suitable for boys and girls within the 8-12 year range.  The book had a good dose of humor, well-drawn characters and a pleasantly-paced plot.  This is one I'll have to remember to read to the boys in a few years' time.  I'd read it to them now, but I'm a bit afraid that Trevor would expect to do his own mural with spray paint on the side of our barn.  Ha!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Progress in Nanowrimoland

So, I declared that I was dragging my feet.  But really, that seems an unrealistic assessment now.  I have already reached the established goal for Nanowrimo, the coveted 50,000 words of a novel.  My novel is now pushing 53,000 words.  I am plugging away, determined to attempt to finish the whole thing before November ends.  If not, well, that's okay, too.

Although I don't feel as confident about this story line (my head goes back and forth saying, "maybe this character really wouldn't get the position she is trying out for because she is so ostracized... maybe this aspect of the story doesn't fit ... maybe I'm not portraying the conflict in the best possible terms ... maybe I should change the crime that caused all the friction between the main character and her father ... maybe it needs to be something else ... maybe I'm not totally ready to write the forgiveness scene ... etc."), the words are definitely flying onto the page.  When I walk in the morning, new aspects of the story seem to jump into my mind.  I am constantly analyzing it, constantly trying to find the best fit for each of the aspects and characters in my story.

Plus, I am listening to a well-written novel at the same time.  As I hear brilliantly beautiful analogies and similes, I find myself wishing I could laden my own novel with stunning prose like this gifted writer (Sue Monk Kidd).  But, I'm also feeling realistic.  This novel is an exercise.  I am flexing my writing muscles to see what I can achieve.  If this is merely a practice run, it is still of great value.  And, like the philosophy of Nanowrimo, I can always go back after the completed manuscript is done and rework the bits that need further revision.  I will, at least, have a shell to start off with and can further flesh out the details as need be.

So, I'm patting myself on the back for giving this year's challenge a go.  I didn't know if I was prepared to write at all.  I wasn't overly thrilled with my chosen topic (even though I had been all set to write this story a year ago, when a different idea popped into my head one week prior to the start of Nanowrimo).  But, I'm getting it done.  I'm writing with abandon ... and that is progress!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Little Bee

A few years back I ran into a mother of one of Bryce's classmates at the library.  She suggested that if I'm looking for a good read, I should try Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.  I've seen it raved about elsewhere as well.  I know it is an award winner and a New York Times bestseller.  I just didn't like it very much.  I'm not sure why. 

It is well-written.  The author does a superb job of shifting back and forth between two different narrators and weaving it all with expert timing.  The story is interesting and engaging.  The characters were bold and well-developed.  Somehow, none of that seemed to endear me to it as it should have.

Perhaps it is because it is such a sad tale.  Perhaps I wanted something with more sunlight, with more redemption at the end.  Perhaps I just didn't connect well enough with the story.  For whatever reason, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have continued reading if it hadn't been a book club selection.  And even then, I didn't make it to the book club this month because my husband needed me to stay home that evening with the little boys.  So, I don't know how others in my group responded (although all who wrote to say they couldn't make it said it made them profoundly sad).

I don't want to reveal the plot or spoil any surprises for those wanting to read this bestselling novel.  Instead, I will just say that it is a tale which intertwines the lives of two women, one a young Nigerian refugee and the other a British journalist.  The two meet on a horribly fateful day when one is asked to do something unthinkable in order to try to save the other.  They part ways, unsure how the future will pan out for each of them.  Then, two years later, they meet up again and once again attempt to remedy a desperate situation.

The only character I could fully relate to was the young son who refuses to take off his Batman costume and believes he is a superhero.  That fits with my realm of experience.  I couldn't relate to either narrator, even though I tried to really get behind the story.  I just found myself profoundly saddened and desperate for a better resolution than eventually came.  I know the goal was to move the reader.  And I can handle a book with a sad ending, but this just felt like nothing good ever came of the whole scenario.  I want redemption too badly.  I want there to be some value in the tale being told.  Are refugees being treated better because of the publication of this book?  I don't know.  I would hope so, but I'm not so sure.  If I run into a refugee will I be more likely to take notice of their story.  Perhaps.  But then, there are also refugees who are unwilling to go through the legal processes and just want to enter countries to absorb the benefits without following any legitimate steps.  I can't get behind that.

All that to say, go ahead and try the book if you like.  It didn't do much for me, but perhaps you will be enthralled and really moved by what "The New York Times" calls "an affecting story of human triumph."  Perhaps you will find yourself raving about it in a library to another patron.  Who knows.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review: Stray Affections

With my mind focused so intensely on the novel I am writing for Nanowrimo, I'm not sure I'll be able to produce a very good review of this book.  I stumbled upon the "Snowglobe Connections" series by Charlene Ann Baumbich quite by accident.  I had noticed a new book by Chris Bohjalian and it reminded me that I have been wanting to read his novel, The Double Bind, because of several good reviews by fellow bloggers who enjoyed the book.  I headed to the shelves and located the book, but also noticed these two novels by Baumbich entitled, Stray Affections and Divine Appointments.

Back in the beginning of November, I picked up Divine Appointments and began to read (because that title and cover hooked me in more for some reason).  However, I quickly discovered that this was the second book in the series (since it referenced a previous character and situation).  I decided it would be better to read the books in order and so left off reading that one and moved on to Stray Affections.

Cassandra Higgins is a daycare provider and mother to four boisterous little boys (are there any other kinds?).  She purchases a snowglobe at a Collector's Convention because the little girl in the globe is surrounded by dogs and looks like a miniature version of herself, a version not unlike the girl she used to be back when she had her own dog as a child.  Sadly, her memories of her dog are tainted by the brutal separation she experienced and she cannot seem to get beyond it to forgive herself (or her mother) and allow herself to open her heart to pets once again. When the characters within the globe disappear, Cassandra is driven to pursue long buried feelings.  What follows is a journey towards forgiveness and redemption (two of my favorite subjects).

It was a simple, easy read.  Both Cassandra and her mother make great strides in recognizing things within themselves which need to shift.  Although it ends with no explanation for the disappearance within the snowglobe, it does end with a happy resolution and paves the way for another book about the snowglobes.  The only minor thing that annoyed me about this book was the constant use of the word "critters" for the dogs.  I'm sure that's just a personal preference, but I would have preferred them to be called "dogs."

The book comes with recipes and discussion questions at the end.  It would be a perfect selection for a Christian book club looking for a light, redemptive read.  I will give the second in this series a go, as well.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dragging My Heels in Nanowrimoland

Yes, yes I am participating.  No, no I'm not feeling very confident about it.  It is not the word count that is shattering my confidence.  No, on day 9, I am already almost 21,000 words into the goal.  It is just that I cannot get a really solid good feeling about the novel I'm writing.  I am experiencing a great deal of self-doubt throughout this endeavor.  The writing is coming.  It isn't that.  It is just that I don't know where the story is going and I don't know how to get the main character where I want her to go, which is to the point of forgiveness.

So what am I writing about?  It is a story about a girl whose father has gone to prison and she refuses to speak to him on the phone or communicate with him in any way.  Something needs to happen to her to get her to the place where she can open her heart back up to her father, but I'm at a total loss as to what it is that is going to happen.  I think in the past, I've always had somewhat of an idea of what brings about the final resolution in my story.  This time, I am flying by the seat of my pants and not liking it one bit.

Plus, there's all this emotional static in my life threatening to distract me.  My sister is going through a particularly difficult time and that is difficult for me to watch or to stand by not knowing where the resolution will come in that situation either.  My niece, who has battled leukemia and been in remission for a long time has a new worrisome spot that must be removed.  In a similar vein, I don't really know much about the details or the prognosis or anything and that leaves me feeling uncomfortable and emotionally stressed.  Then, personally, I'm addressing some issues that have been long-standing and are quite all-consuming in my psyche these days.  I wish I could see the resolution there, as well.

Alas, I am wandering in the dark, trudging on the best I know how and merely filling in the words as they come.  The other stuff ... well, I'll have to take that as it comes, as well.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Review: Any Minute

While searching for another audio book to listen to, I noticed this book, Any Minute, written by Joyce Meyer and Deborah Bedford.  With Joyce Meyer's name on the cover, I knew this would be a Christian book since she is a leading Bible teacher in Christian circles.  I'm sometimes leery of attempting Christian fiction because I anticipate the story being overly-laden with overt messages rather than focused primarily on story.  This book had sufficient story line to carry it along and didn't hammer the reader over the head with its Christian message.

Sarah Harper's co-workers tease her about her fast-paced driving habits.  Her driving habits reflect her living habits.  She has places to go and no time to waste in getting there, even if it means short-changing her family on time.  She has her infant's nanny on surveillance and abandons her son over and over again when they try to make it to a Cubs game.  Her relationship with her husband is at a breaking point, but Sarah doesn't know how to slow life down or even trust others in her relationships.  She harbors bitterness over being her mother's "mistake" and struggles with establishing any kind of positive relationship with her mother.

In one minute, life can change.  For Sarah Harper, that one minute happened when she decided to race the bridge as it opened to allow a boat to pass.  She plunges off the bridge into the icy waters below.  While she is under she is given a Christmas-Carol-style-chance to review her life.  What she sees isn't pretty.

The story was interesting, although a bit cliche (Type A, driven person, begins to reflect and slow their pace of life).  I didn't find it too preachy.  The message was gently interwoven with the story.  I had a hard time swallowing the bit about the Lord providing an angel for the Cubs, but this is probably because I'm not a huge sports fan (although I suppose if ever there were a team that needed divine intervention, it might be the Cubs).  I'd say it was a worthwhile read and especially helpful if you're on the fast track and wanting to reflect and slow down.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Trevor's Origami Yoda Collection

Earlier in the summer, Trevor dropped my camera and jammed the lens open.  Unfortunately, even with the lens open, it wouldn't work, so we had to take it to a shop for repairs.  When we finally got the camera back a few weeks ago, we began to upload the numerous photos we had taken for his blog.  Plus, he's been very busy creating more graffiti pictures lately.

Anyway, one of his other artistic endeavors has been the creation of a whole set of Origami Yoda characters.  They are pretty cute, so I thought I would post them here and provide the link to his blog for his other recent art.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Kudos to my Kids' Teachers

Towards the beginning of the school year, I wrote a post about my dissatisfaction with the stress levels my boys were experiencing in regards to school.  They were not enjoying it and I was defensive, like a mamma bear, on behalf of my cubs.  Thankfully, that initial season waned into a much brighter experience.  I am thrilled with the teachers my two little guys were given this year. 

Although Sean's kindergarten teacher came down hard on his lack-luster coloring efforts, she has really inspired Sean to do his very best work.  More than that, she has sparked his interest for reading (something any teacher will receive my utmost kudos for).  She teaches the letters of the alphabet and the sight words they are learning via songs.  I didn't realize Sean would latch onto this teaching style so thoroughly.  I will hear him off in the bathroom by himself singing the little ditty for "B-L-A-C-K spells black, licorice candy and a witch's hat, I like things that are colored black, B-L-A-C-K," or "At is written, at is written with an A and with a T, " , oh where's my hat, I don't know where it's at ..."  He is constantly asking me to ask him to spell various words to show off his prowess at learning.  Plus, he has taken off with his reading and is constantly begging for more simple readers to try (his favorite: the Dorling-Kindersley series, "Pat the Cat and Friends").

I was thrilled when Sean returned after his first day back at school with his cast on his broken arm and said that his teacher had all the students try to write with their left hands for a while.  They all told him how hard it was.  He gleefully admitted that he must be "ambidextrous" (a word his brother taught him) because he can now write fairly well with his left hand.  Plus, the teacher sent home a wonderful little packet full of drawings and get well sentiments from each of the students in his class last week, when he still couldn't attend school because his arm had to be elevated.  It was so very sweet and thoughtful.

Trevor is also benefitting from a teacher who inspires a love of reading.  His language arts teacher uses a variety of tricks to encourage the students to focus on reading more thoroughly.  He had the entire class in competitive mode trying to see how long they could corporately remain with their heads in a book (without looking up) during silent reading time.  They have worked their time up to 17 minutes now. 

He also gave each student a reading license which indicates what level of books they are allowed to select to read during class reading times.  These levels raise every nine weeks, but keep the children from accessing everything they might want.  You might wonder why I find this appealing, since in essence it is limiting their selection process.  What I have found is that Trevor is desperate to get to the point where he is allowed to read a Goosebumps book that is slightly higher than his reading license allows.  Of course, he can read the book at home because we have so many of the Goosebumps books (a series Bryce actually was interested in collecting back when he was in elementary school).  Say something is off-limits and watch my driven boys try to fight their way into the reading material.  Ha!

At the beginning of October, Trevor came home with a reading log and a challenge to read 300 minutes during the month.  While it is tiresome to have to write down every little thing we read (and sometimes, I just ignore it, since we're in no danger of coming up short - we documented more than double the reading goal), it is still motivating my son to focus on reading.

Trevor's favorite books at the moment are from Tom Angleberger's "Origami Yoda" series (which, no doubt, appeal to his love of 3-dimensional art) and Annie Barrows' "Ivy and Bean" series (about two unlikely best friends who are in the second grade).

Even if my boys get nothing more out of school this year than an increased love of reading, I will be one happy mom.  Of course, they are doing well in math and science, too.  But the language arts focus is near and dear to my heart.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween





 
 
Happy Halloween from my gruesome twosome!
 
It is also the eve of Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month.  I have participated for three years in a row and completed the 50,000 words each time.  But, at this moment, I'm not sure if or what I will be writing for Nanowrimo.  For the moment, I'm too depressed to think about it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: A Monster Calls

My first introduction to Patrick Ness was when the cover of his first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy caught my eye with the enticing title, The Knife of Never Letting Go.  It was the title that did it for me.  I had to see what this was about.  Thus, I was sucked into a roller-coaster ride of an adventure in reading that series.  If you've never tried them, I can promise the first chapter will hook you and "never let you go."

So, when I noticed this book, A Monster Calls, I decided to give it a whirl, as well.  This is a book Patrick Ness was asked to write on behalf of author Siobhan Dowd, who died of cancer before she was able to write the book herself.  Patrick skillfully took her idea and created a story I am sure she would praise.

When a monster shows up at midnight, Conor is surprised that it isn't the monster he has been expecting, the monster from his recurring nightmares, the nightmares which started when his mother began treatment for breast cancer.  But the monster has come.  Even though Conor isn't frightened by it, the monster demands the truth in exchange for three stories.  The stories leave Conor perplexed, but in the end, he does indeed give forth the truth.

All I can say is that I wept huge tears at the end of this story.  It tugged at my heart so strongly, that I felt I had crawled right inside a teenager who is facing the inevitable death of a beloved parent. I have a friend who, when she was only fourteen, lost her mother.  Part of me wants to ask her to read this book to see if it resonates with her (how could it not?) and part of me is too afraid to suggest it because if it were me, I might not be willing or eager to go there again.

Siobhan Dowd died in 2009 at age forty-seven.  I have never read any of her books, but Patrick Ness recommends them highly.  I will have to keep an eye out for one some day.

For another review of this book, read Jessica Bruder's review for "The New York Times."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: Son

As I sat down to begin writing this review of Lois Lowry's conclusion to her powerful book, The Giver, I found myself wishing I had been writing my blog back when I read the second and third installments to this series (Gathering Blue, and Messenger).  I want to know how I felt after reading those two books.  I know that I absolutely loved The Giver.  It was a phenomenal book, with so much fodder for thought.  What I don't remember is how well I liked the other installments to this story.  Perhaps I should have read all three of them over again before approaching this final conclusive episode in the tale.

I have mixed feelings about Son.  On the one hand, Lois Lowry is such a fine writer that it seems wrong to say that this book could have been better, but that is somewhat how I feel.  I think the best review I read for this book was one written by Liz Rosenberg  for the Boston Globe.  I share these sentiments.

The book steps back in time to the birth mother who gives birth to Gabe.  In the dystopian world of The Giver, young girls are merely seen as "vessels" to carry a "product."  The leaders of society never anticipate the mistake of failing to put young Claire (the main character in this book) back on the pills which dull the senses from experiencing colors or emotions.  Thus, Claire, unlike the other vessels, feels an intense pull for her child, quite uncommon in that world.

I loved returning to the world of The Giver.  I feel that Lowry kept that portion consistent and clear.  However, this is just the beginning of the book.  After Claire learns that her son will be euthanized because he is not fitting the expectations of society, she is desperate to save her child.  The young "giver," Jonas, is the one who escapes with the child and Claire boards a ship hoping to catch up with him.  Instead she is washed ashore on a more primitive society.  There she is welcomed with love and nurtured until she is strong enough to go looking for her child.

This is the point where I began to feel not as drawn to the book.  The scenes of physical preparation for the challenge of leaving this primitive world (climbing an impossible cliff) were somewhat boring and mechanical.  I found myself wanting to skip over this bit and the part of the actual climb.

Then the book begins to lean towards a more magical side of life with the reappearance of the Trademaster (from one of the middle two books) who puts a spell on Claire.  I know this was necessary to add conflict and to reintroduce characters from the previous books, but it didn't seem satisfying to me.  Plus, Claire lingers on the edge of society without really introducing herself to this son she has been so thoroughly desperate to find.  It is only when Jonas (a weaker version of Jonas than we see in The Giver) intervenes that Claire is reunited with her son.

I liked how the book wove together all of the aspects from the other books, but still didn't think it was quite up to the level of mastery that Lois Lowry has displayed in the past.  Of course, it would be very difficult to be in her position, with the whole world awaiting the final conclusion to an absorbing series of books.  I still say that The Giver is my favorite book in this series and it is worth reading by itself. However, this book did make me want to go back and reread the earlier installments, so it certainly achieved success in rekindling my interest in the series.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

With Boys Come Broken Limbs

I am truly amazed that we've managed to go this long without having some sort of bodily harm befall us.  I anticipated something happening to Bryce, since he is playing football.  Instead, Sean brought our first broken limb.

Sunday evening, Hubby had taken the two little guys over to their school's playground for a while.  When they returned, Trevor burst in the door saying Sean had possibly broken his arm.  John wasn't sure and thought, perhaps, Sean was just being a baby about it.  But when we asked him to try to raise his arm, it was obvious to me that something didn't look right.

I was in the middle of baking cookies and John decided he would dash off with Sean to the emergency room (not really a brief dash when it takes you a half hour to get to the nearest hospital) and I would follow after putting Trevor to bed.  I was thankful to miss the traumatic moment when he had the IV inserted (ever since his kindergarten shots went wrong, he's developed a fear of needles).  I arrived in time to comfort him before he headed in to surgery to correct the bad fracture of his elbow joint.

Here is a picture of the x-ray:
Ouch!

I've been very grateful for our recent purchase of a new couch and matching recliner.  He fits perfectly into the recliner with enough room to prop the arm above his heart with his fingers elevated above the elbow.

Trevor was so worried about him.  He made him a t-shirt and asked me to bring it to him.  It was a god-send, because the extra-large size allowed the sleeve to go over the temporary splint (he gets a more permanent cast on Friday).  Trevor drew a picture on the shirt of some computer character called Slender.
He is such a sweet patient.  He will ask me to bring him water and then will say, "Thank you, Mommy, for bringing me this water."  His biggest complaint is the heaviness of the splint.  At this point, he still wants me to help support the splint when he moves around.  Thankfully, he is young and his bones should heal quickly.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: The Sins of the Father

The Sins of the Father is the second book in a series called "The Clifton Chronicles," written by Jeffrey Archer.  As soon as I finished listening to the first book in the series, Only Time Will Tell, I checked our library's holdings and discovered they did have the second book, in audio form, as well.  I snatched it up, eager to answer some of the questions lingering from the first book.

In the first book, Harry Clifton decides that, in order to escape consequences of possible family lineage, he will assume the identity of an American man, Tom Bradshaw, who dies beside him after the two were plucked from the sea.  It seems like the best solution, until police officers approach and arrest him for the murder of Adam Bradshaw.  The second book picks up this story line and traces the lives of Harry and the Barrington family members after his arrival in America.  Emma Barrington, who cannot believe Harry is actually dead, travels to the United States in an attempt to free Harry from his new-found entanglements.

Once again, I enjoyed listening to this intriguing tale of the Barrington family saga.  Archer employs the same technique of introducing the story gradually through the varying perspectives of each important character.  He weaves twists and turns into the tale clear to the end of the second installment, which again ends with a cliffhanger.

I will agree with several other reviewers on Amazon who stated that this wasn't up to the same caliber as the first book in the series.  It definitely felt like filler in spots.  Plus, the conflict is belabored a bit too long and isn't even resolved at all in this installment.  I ended with the same questions I started with.  It also felt more difficult to keep track of the time frame for each of the characters in this one and since it was an audio book, I couldn't exactly go back over and review the dates mentioned.  Still, I did enjoy listening and was just as sucked into the story as I was with the first book.

Now I am left with the sad state of waiting with bated breath for the final three installments.  If they take three more years to appear (as I believe Archer mentioned in the author interview at the end of the audio version of the first book), then I will be very discouraged.  He has hooked me in and I want to know what happens in the lives of this interesting family.  Truly the mark of a great book!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Faking It

Somehow I didn't like this book as much as the other two of Jordan Sonnenblick's books which I have read (Notes from the Midnight Driver and Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie).  I will say that he has once again provided a male protagonist with a story sure to appeal to pre-teen and teenage boys and he nails the teenaged angst.  There are not enough authors writing good books for boys out there, so I still applaud Sonnenblick for this endeavor.

When San Lee is forced to move to a small town in Pennsylvania (after his father is abruptly removed from the picture in his life), he must choose how to present himself in his new environs.  He has already adopted different persona in the various locations he has lived.  This time he decides to present himself as a Zen master.  He is eager to win the affections of Woody, a guitar-strumming beauty who is intrigued by his wisdom and quirkiness.  Unfortunately, Woody's home life isn't any better than San's.  As San goes deeper into his deception, he increases his chances of losing the one girl he might actually be attracting.  How long can San maintain his fictitious persona and will he get the girl or not?

The characters are strong.  The idea is believable (teens are often trying on different personas while trying to find the one that fits).  The pages did turn fairly quickly, but the ending didn't hold the conflict to a crisis point.  It sort of simpered to an end.

Perhaps it was the whole Zen spin that didn't appeal to me.  I don't know.  The story was cute enough and pretty standard fare, but I just didn't come away with as strong a connection as I felt to Sonnenblick's previous books.  I'm not giving up on Sonnenblick yet, just saying this wasn't my favorite book by this author.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Book Review: To Heaven and Back

Mary C. Neal, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon who writes of her experience dying, going to heaven and then being sent back to her body to resume her life's purpose here on earth.  In 1999, while kayaking on a river in South America, Neal's kayak became wedged under a waterfall where she was submerged beneath the water for at least 15 minutes.  Eventually, her legs broke (bending her knees in the opposite direction) in order to allow her body to exit the kayak.  When she appeared bobbing in the water, her fellow boaters pulled her from the water and began to attempt to revive her.  Their efforts resulted in sporadic breaths and further silence, until eventually she regained normal breathing and returned to them.  At that point, two individuals (who were later unable to be identified or located) led the rescuers out of the terrain and to a road where an ambulance happened to be standing.

Dr. Neal recognizes her experience as miraculous and credits God with determining that she still had unfinished business on earth to attend to.  Her tale bears similarities to the stories given by Colton Burpo in Heaven is for Real and Don Piper in 90 Minutes in Heaven.  Like Colton's experience, heaven is dazzling beyond comprehension.  Like Piper's experience, Dr. Neal went through a period of depression upon returning to this physical plane and would have preferred to remain in heaven instead of being required to continue living.  Moreover, she doesn't really provide more than a brief glimpse of heaven.

I don't know why I've been drawn to these kinds of books lately, but I did enjoy reading of her experience. I agreed with her assertion that God is interested in our maintaining joy despite our circumstances and that His presence in our lives is more important than any other thing we experience or encounter.  It was a very well-written book (perhaps better written than the other two mentioned books).

Once again, though, I feel it necessary to indicate that I don't really require evidence from someone else to affirm my belief in an afterlife with Jesus in heaven or in the existence of angels who assist God by intervening in our lives at certain moments in time.  So, while I enjoyed reading of Dr. Neal's experience and her interpretation of what occurred in her life, my beliefs are firm with or without her testimony.  Many of the naysayers to books affirming the existence of heaven, likewise, start out with their own firm beliefs and will not be persuaded to alter their perspective based on the story of an individual who sees the miraculous in a common life.  Still, this book would be a comfort to any believing Christian who has recently lost a loved or is facing a terminal illness.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Book Review: Only Time Will Tell

I discovered this audio book through the recent acquisitions at our library.  I have long been a fan of Jeffrey Archer's short stories. He has a real gift for turning the end of the tale with a twist.  I had never attempted one of his novels and didn't really realize when biting at this one that I would be getting myself into a five book series.  And, with Archer's skill, I am certainly hooked for the whole shebang.

Only Time Will Tell, is the first book in a five book series, "The Clifton Chronicles," covering the life of the main character, Harry Clifton.  Told from seven different perspectives (the seven primary characters in the story) it spans the 1920's to the early 1940's.  Harry has been told that his father was killed in the war, but knows this cannot be true, given the date of his birth.  He is convinced that he will go on to lead a similar life to his father and uncle, working on the docks in Bristol, England.  However, he discovers a new life opening up for him when he is recognized for his stupendous singing abilities.  Entrance to the choir leads to a scholarship to attend St. Bede's, where he meets his two best friends, Deacons and Giles Barrington.

Harry Clifton's hard-working mother does all she can to keep him in attendance at the finest schools, with the goal of his eventual attendance at Oxford University.  Old Jack Tarr does all he can to assist in Harry's education and encourages him to stick with school, despite the typical harrassment Harry faces from one cruel prefect.  As the story progresses, the actual events of his father's death come to light but bring forth further questions as to his parentage and his place in the world, even possibly shattering his chances at love.

This book held me riveted chapter by chapter.  I enjoyed the use of a variety of perspectives.  I marvelled at Archer's ability to carefully weave the story so that bit by bit the full picture emerges and sucks the reader into a maelstrom of character conflicts and plot shifts.  Archer is, indeed, a master storyteller.  I knew that the ending would hold some unexpected twist and that it would compell me to search out the second in this five-part-series. 

I raced to the library this morning to pick up the second installment (also in audio form - because I delight in listening to the marvelous accents), The Sins of the Father.  I'm expecting this second book to be as appealing as the first and cannot wait for Archer to complete all five books in this lengthy journey, which will, as the back cover proclaims, "bring to life one hundred years of recent history to reveal a family story that neither the listener nor Harry Clifton could have ever imagined."

You can visit the Macmillan website for the books to listen to an audio snippet from this first novel in The Clifton Chronicles.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Book Review: Plain Truth

This was another book club selection.  Although I have read and enjoyed one other Jodi Picoult book (The Pact), I sort of shied away from her books after attempting to read the first novel she wrote, entitled Song of the Humpback Whale.  I couldn't even get through that book, but cast it aside about a year ago and hadn't sought out a Picoult book since.  She has definitely grown as a writer and this novel, Plain Truth, was an engrossing read.

The book tells the story of an eighteen-year-old Amish girl, Katie Fisher, who has given birth but doesn't remember any of the circumstances of that birth or of the subsequent death of the newborn.  Ellie Hathaway is a disillusioned attorney who has come to Paradise, Pennsylvania, to get away from a dead relationship and the pressures of her job.  When she learns of Katie's murder charge, she finds herself jumping in to defend the girl.  I found it a bit unbelievable that a lawyer would be allowed to be the client's guardian under bail conditions, but it certainly set up interesting character dynamics to have the lawyer living in the home of this Amish family (a family fraught with its own interesting dynamics and skeletons in the closet, including the earlier death of the youngest child and the disowning of the oldest son for his interest in pursuing a college degree). The reader gets to watch both Katie and Ellie change and grow.

I loved the characters.  I loved the setting and pace.  It was a real page-turner and I enjoyed every minute of this book.  Jodi Picoult is a master storyteller and knows how to weave in appropriate bits of information to keep the story moving.  I did guess the twist at the end, but wondered throughout whether or not my guess was accurate or not.  I think I would have handled the twist differently, just because it lacked some credibility, but overall, I still enjoyed the story line and the interactions of the characters.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Book Review: In the Bag

What a delightfully cute little novel.  I will admit that I am a big fan of Kate Klise's children's books.  Many of them are written with journals, newspaper articles and letters.  This novel, for grown-ups, chose a similar style with a more sophisticated story line (a small amount of bad language and a more casual view of sex than I care for).

In the Bag tells the story of four characters whose lives briefly intersect on a flight from Chicago to Paris.  Andrew Nelson and his teenage son, Webb, are headed for Madrid to work on an art display Andrew is designing.  Daisy Sprinkle and her teenage daughter, Coco, are headed for a week of vacation in Paris.  When Andrew accidentally spills wine on Daisy's expensive outfit, he is both mortified and taken with her.  He decides to slip a note of apology, mixed with an invitation for a date, into her purse before exiting the plane.

Coco and Webb's lives intersect when the two accidentally mix up bags.  Webb ends up in Madrid with Coco's clothing and Coco ends up in Paris with a pair of work boots, t-shirts and dirty jeans.  Thankfully, Coco has tucked her e-mail address into the side of her bag, so Webb is able to contact her via e-mail.  This begins an adventure of correspondence and leads to a clandestine meeting in Paris, unbeknownst to the two parents who are also beginning to strike up their own tangled relationship.

The novel was an easy read, full of humor and relational angst.  The cover describes it as "a tale of two suitcases, three cities, four people, and one big mix-up..."  I loved it.  I read this book in a little over a day's time.  It was a pleasant diversion while watching my youngest jump and play at a birthday party Saturday night and a great Sunday afternoon leisurely read.  I hope Kate Klise continues to come up with her light-hearted, entertaining stories for both children and adults.

The inspiration for this book came when Kate Klise herself found a note from a fellow passenger in her carry-on bag after a long flight.  It just goes to show you that you never can tell where or when the germ for a good story might come your way.  Thankfully, Kate followed up on the story idea even if she might not have followed up on the passenger's note!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book Review: Honeycomb Kids

I found Honeycomb Kids: Big Picture Parenting for a Changing World ... and to Change the World on the shelves of recent acquisitions at our library.  The endorsements and book descriptions on the back and inside the front cover hooked me.  It says the author, Anna M. Campbell, is "a sustainable living educator, public speaker and beekeeper who has helped thousands of people discover the joy of sustainable living.  She and her husband are having loads of fun and facing lots of challenges raising their kids 'honeycomb' style."

The premise of this book is good.  We live in a rapidly changing world where our future holds many questions.  My husband and I are equally concerned about the lives our children will be asked to lead when the current economy looks shaky and politicians and big companies are more interested in the bottom-line than in the health and well-being of individuals.  Like the author, we wish to do our best to prepare our children for the future.  We wish to raise citizens, instead of consumers.

The author presents her ideas in the context of examples from beekeeping.  She encourages the reader to confront the "stark realities our children are confronting now (the power of advertising, instant gratification, poor nutrition, toxins, terrorism, etc") and will confront in the coming years (global population growth, technology issues, resource depletion and more)."  I agreed with everything presented in the first section of this book, which presented the big issues.  Our world is indeed facing a variety of challenges like population growth, climate changes, food shortages, energy supply issues, health issues (like the genetically modified corn I mentioned in a recent post), and technology-driven issues.

It was when I got to the second half of the book, the primer for raising 'honeycomb kids,' where I began to feel both overwhelmed and a bit put-off.  On the one hand, I began to hold my own family up against these examples of endless conversation starters and recognized my own shortcomings in preparing my family to live sustainable lives or lives free of the traps of persistent use of technology. 

It brought to mind many families that I admire.  These families have made drastic changes in their diet (focusing primarily on raw foods and avoiding processed, packaged foods) - a goal I embrace but seem to find difficult to fully put into practice.  These families encourage their children to take responsibility for benefiting their community - another thing I would like to do, but somehow fail to really pull off with my own children.  These families also respond to life's issues as a never-ending opportunity for conversation about how one should live.  I fail and fail again.

But, the book also seemed quite unrealistic.  I don't think many families fall into that ideal frame.  Most families, like mine, recognize the areas for improvement, but are also realistic about expectations.  This book lacked a healthy dose of realistic expectations.  My biggest beef had to be the endless suggestions offered at the end of each chapter.

I'll give you an example of several of the ones I felt went over-the-top:

- "Have an electronic-game free month at least a couple of times a year.  Leave your children to their own devices without their devices!  Plan some fun family activities.  After they go cold turkey and the whining stops, notice the changes in your children and the mood of the house - you might just make it an electronic-game free year after that!"

- "Take a month off to travel as a family to find out who you all are free of the influences of TV, computers, work, school and peers.  Don't head to a fancy resort and throw the kids in childminding; travel frugally within a three-day radius of your home.  Try rock climbing, gold fossicking, hiking.... Visit all the libraries you come across.  Along the way apprentice your family to an indigenous person, woodworker, farmer or artist.  Volunteer at old peoples' homes and animal shelters and see where the road takes you."

All I can say is "Yeah, right!  Dream on!"  Plus, the suggestions began to take on an air of arrogance.  The author seemed to imply that now that she had altered her own way of living and parenting, she had found life's solution and it was her duty to share that with the world-at-large so that everyone else could benefit from her boundless knowledge of improvements that can be made.  It is not that the suggestions for conversation starters were bad, it was just that the presentation was a bit offensive and over-the-top.

I still hope to do a better job at preparing my children for a changing world.  I will look for areas where I can find teachable moments.  But, this book, in the end, left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a lingering question: "Who takes care of her bees while she is gone from the home for a month teaching her children to bond and develop greater community perspectives?"

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Whitethorn Woods

Many years ago, my mother introduced me to a beloved writer, Maeve Binchy.  She is a wonderful story weaver who is able to make a reader feel like they have literally stepped into the lives and locations of the characters.  Like the stories of Alexander McCall Smith, where the story itself is made more rich when you can listen to someone read it in the intended dialect, Binchy's books are perfect when consumed in an audio format.  Thus, after learning of Binchy's recent death, I made a point of selecting one of her novels for my listening pleasure recently.

Whitethorn Woods, like so many of Binchy's books, introduces the reader to a cast of interesting characters all connected to the tiny town of Rossmore, Ireland.  A new road is set to run through Rossmore, cutting through Whitethorn Woods and threatening a local shrine to St. Ann.  Opinions are divided on the merits of the road and the importance of the shrine.  Various characters are introduced in one story line after the next until they all become a full-fledged community and take on a larger-than-life feel for the reader.

Binchy has certainly maintained her trademark skills in this novel (although some may find it a bit more difficult to get into than some of her other novels since each character is almost a separate entity or short story, linked together by the common attachment to this local shrine).  I am saddened to think that we will no longer have access to further stories from this master storyteller.  One more novel, A Week in Winter, is set to be released in 2013, but after that, Binchy's repertoire has been set.  Thankfully, I haven't exhausted her entire repertoire yet, but fully intend to.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Beaming 'Cuz the Boy Can't Wait to Read

My last post about Trevor was one of embarrassment.  This post is one of pride.  He has made me one happy momma this morning.

Last night, I was beat.  I had stayed up until almost midnight the night before helping Bryce type up a paper for his American History class.  Thus, I left hubby in charge and headed to bed early (around 8).

This morning, John informed me that Trevor did two things that would make me smile.  First, he drew a picture for his big brother (who was away playing football last night).  It was a picture of Bryce in his football uniform, with his number and name on the jersey, throwing a football.  He left it, along with a note wishing him luck, on big brother's desk.

But the biggest thing involved getting in trouble.  John put the boys to bed at 8:45, but when he popped in to check on them at 9:45 he found Trevor reading a book under the light of a Halloween decoration behind his bed.  The name of the compelling book?  The Strange Case Of  Origami Yoda.  (He's really feeling his oats this morning, because he just came by and corrected me, telling me that instead of italics, I must underline it because it is a book!)

I cannot begin to tell how happy and proud this makes my momma heart feel.  I love books.  I have craved the experience of having a child who loves books with equal passion.  Bryce has nothing but disdain for books.  He cannot begin to tell how much he loathes them.  Groan.

Praise God for books that are enticing to boys!  Praise God for a child who knows the thrill of hiding under dim light to finish a book that is just aching to be read!  May this wonderful experience happen again and again, perhaps without the disobedience next time.