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.