Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: With Every Letter

I'm a sucker for a story told in letters.  I love to feel like I am eavesdropping on a character's most private revelations.  I especially love a love story woven through letters.  Thus, I was game to try this novel, With Every Letter. If the cover hadn't hooked me, the description of the war-time anonymous letter effort surely would have.

Lt. Mellie Blake doesn't fit in.  For her, finding true friendship is very difficult.  Then, she is asked by her superior officer to correspond anonymously with one of the servicemen in order to boost morale during the war. Enter the man, Lt. Tom MacGilliver, who is unable to get past the evils associated with his name because of his father's dreadful actions.  To everyone else, he is known by the moniker, "MacGilliver the Killiver," but he is loathe to kill, even on these killing fields where he must in order to save his fellow soldiers.  What a salvation the anonymous correspondence turns out to be for both of them.

I appreciated the historical bits, especially the telling of the story of these flight nurses who flew right to the front lines to remove the wounded.  I loved the idea of re-telling the "Shop Around the Corner" story.  Somehow, for me, I felt this novel could have been even better than it was.  There could have been much more character development through the letters.  I grew tired of hearing the same phrases about each of them finding it difficult to make friends.  The point was clear without so much repetition. Still, I was rooting for the characters when they finally found one another and revealed their identities.  And, I am impressed with the amount of research the author obviously did in preparing to tell this tale.  I would give it 3-1/2 stars.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Review: Saturday Night Widows

One of the things I love about reading is that you can enter into the life of someone else and feel what they are feeling, see what they are seeing and, vicariously, experience what they are experiencing.  In the case of this book, I'm certain that I only want a vicarious dose of the author's experience.  But the very title, Saturday Night Widows: The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives, spoke a word of encouragement to me and begged to be opened.

As the fly-leaf says, Becky Aikman is "a widow too young and too modern to accept the role." She tried a standard widow's group and found that she not only didn't fit in, but really wasn't wanted because she went there looking for hope, instead of endless rehashing of the defeat of death. So, she attempted to pull together her own group and set up perimeters to meet once a month on a Saturday night (a difficult night for widows missing their husbands) and to focus on moving forward.  Although the group did share their individual pain extensively, they also forged a friendship (the kind which flourishes when each member shares a key experience together) that helped them weather the storms of new beginnings, wrinkles, and unexpected blessings.

The book was certainly encouraging.  New life can be carved out of loss.  The going may not be easy, but one of the keys to surviving is having someone to walk the road beside you and spur you on to things you might not attempt alone.  Although my own losses are nowhere near the level of loss these women have faced, I found myself jealous of this deep bond they have formed and the strength it provided to each individual in the group.  I admire their willingness to lay bare their souls for the purposes of this book and to share so openly from their pain (one lost her husband to suicide and another to the results of alcoholism). I also admire their determination to not allow the loss of their spouse to define them for the rest of their lives. This is an example anyone can follow, no matter what loss you are recovering from.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Book Review: On Becoming a Writer

Thanks to my new on-line writer's group, I received word that this book, On Becoming a Writer: What Every Blogger Needs to Know, by Denise J. Hughes, would be available for free on Amazon for two days.  I have been asked to teach a class on blogging at my sister-in-law's women's retreat in May.  This resource was helpful in gathering some thoughts on the art of blogging.

First, the author addresses the purposes for blogging: to encourage, entertain, inform, or persuade.  She highlights the importance of knowing why you blog.  Next, she gives suggestions on what to blog (write what you are passionate about - for me, that is books).  Finally, you must know who you are writing for (your intended audience).  Once you have these essentials down, you can begin to focus on the writing craft itself.

You have to show up and practice your art in order to get better.  You must provide concrete example that the reader can understand and relate to.  You should engage the reader with a hook.  Plus, it is helpful to go back over your writing and cut what is unnecessary or whatever detracts from the clarity of your focus.  Twitter is helpful in this, for as the author says, "If we can summarize our article in 140 characters, then we know the article has a focus."

I loved how she clarified the three characteristics of good writing: 1) connection, 2) contribution (must contribute something positive to the reader's life), and 3) clarity.  Good writers tend to write to their strengths.  They also worry more about content than design.  Finally, they wield their pen with truth and grace and criticize with objectivity.  This is most important if you are writing a blog full of reviews.

I would have to say this was some "good writing." I felt connected to the topic, it contributed to my understanding of the blogging process, and it was written in a clear way with coherent organization.  While none of her points were necessarily new to me (having read many books on writing), the author provided a great reference point for individuals who are interested in starting a blog or improving their blogging abilities.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Damn Cancer!

If you've ever had trapped gas, you know the pain a small amount of air can make when trapped in a pocket of the intestines.  Last night, I awoke to these sharp pains in my gut.  I did what I often do in those circumstances.  I dropped to the floor beside my bed, on my elbows and knees, in a prostrate position, and rocked back and forth.  Sometimes this works to dislodge the problem and reduce the pain.  Last night, however, the ache, upon waking fully, merely shifted to an intense pain in my heart.  I continued to rock on my knees, now wracked with the groanings of the spirit.

Yesterday, my sister-in-law sent an e-mail with the results of my younger brother Tim's CT scan and they weren't good.  In his first follow-up appointment after the testicular cancer was removed, they saw two spots on his chest x-rays.  We had to wait a week for the CT scan.  Now the results are in: the cancer has spread to his lungs and liver (5 spots on the liver and 4 spots on the left lung) and is considered stage four.

When I first heard the news, I literally could not breathe.  It is the kind of thing that takes your breath away, but not in a good way.  Even after several hours, I still am not able to fully process this information.  But, as I rocked, I heard the lyrics of a familiar Toby Mac song, called "City on Our Knees." The song says, "If you gotta start somewhere, why not here?  If you gotta start sometime, why not now?"  I found myself hurling those words back at God ... why here? why now? why Tim?

They are just on the verge of celebrating Amelia's five-year remission point from her battle with leukemia.  It will be hard to rally a victorious cry for her, when her father is facing such devastating news of his own.  Cancer is like a parasite inside and you never know where it will aim its hungry jowls next.  For my brother, it is his lungs and liver.  The next step is a biopsy (to determine if it is the testicular cancer or some other type) and then chemotherapy.  All I can say is THIS SUCKS!

Information is too readily available on the Internet these days.  Of course, I googled Stage 4 lung and liver cancer.  The prognosis sounds horrible.  I am overcome with fear and loathing.  I hate this enemy something fierce!  I fear what this means for my beloved little brother and his family ... his wife, his children.  At the same time, I still cannot wrap my head around this.  It was just three months ago, my husband and I sat with Tim and Mary on our back porch (heated, thankfully - but we were still wrapped warm and cozy in blankets) laughing and talking well into the night.  How could there have been this evil lurking inside his body without our knowledge?  Will we sit on that porch again enjoying a post-Christmas visit?  What does the future hold?  Who can say?

Only God knows.  And with that I have to trust in His wisdom and His plan.  He knows where we are.  He knows what time this tragic news has come.  He knows what plans He has for my brother.  Somehow, I have to trust, but I'm telling you, the trusting isn't coming easily.  My brother's final words in his status update on Facebook: "God is bigger than all of this, but yes, this does stink!!"

Another line from that song says, "Through the fog there is hope in the distance."  I'm straining to see the hope, but the fog is pretty thick at the moment. The pain in my heart is worse than the pain in my gut will ever be.  All I can say is "Please, God, send a miracle!  Do a mighty work in Tim's life! Give us more than months to enjoy the blessing of his presence in our lives."  There are numerous people joining with us in this prayer.  We are, indeed, a "city on our knees."

UPDATE: In speaking with Tim, I gained a little more hope through the fog.  He said he doesn't have Stage 4 lung and liver cancer.  It is merely that his cancer has spread to the lung and liver (thus "stage four" merely because it has travelled).  His oncologist said this is beatable, so the chemotherapy is a good bet.  Praise God!  Still praying for His miraculous touch.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Discarded Reads

Over the past few months, I've found myself starting and then giving up on several books.  I'm not usually one to do this.  For some reason, I feel loathe to give up before a book might get good.  But, as The Deliberate Reader says, you should "make the most of your reading time."  I didn't want to waste another minute on these books.

First, I tried Juliann Garey's Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See.  Great title!  Interesting premise, following the life of a man suffering from bi-polar disorder and depression.  I wanted to really get into this book and dig deep into what it is like for a person suffering with this disorder.  I wanted to see how it affected his life and the lives of those around him.  Sadly, I only read about 50 pages and couldn't take it any more.  It was raunchy, for one thing.  It was disjointed.  It was hard to follow and not very absorbing.

Next, I tried to listen to Gretchen Rubin's Happier at Home, a follow-up book to her Happiness Project book.  I think I'm just not the type of person to get into this book.  I don't really do lists and I'm not driven to accomplish more than the average person.  I'm not discontented with what I'm gleaning from life, even if I do wish I could be happier just staying home.  It felt like too much work to listen to her striving for more value in every minute.  I gave up and am happily listening to The Gift of an Ordinary Day now.

Finally, I tried Divine Appointments, by Charlene Baumbich.  Actually, I tried this one twice.  I mentioned when I read Stray Affections that I had accidentally started the second book in the series first and then backed off of it so I could read the first in the series.  Divine Appointments is the second in the series of Snowglobe Connections novels.  I could not get into it at all, despite reading 100 pages in.  The main character, Josie, is a driven systems analyst.  I found her character to be completely unlikeable.  Plus, there were too many characters introduced right at the beginning.  It was hard to keep track of them all or see their importance to the story.  My final dissatisfaction was with a novel-in-progress one of the characters was supposedly working on.  It was tiresome and pathetic beyond belief.

I will say, for this final author, that I would be willing to try another novel by her.  I think she can write a good novel.  This just wasn't the one for me.  Plus, the snowglobe didn't really seem to have any magical transformative power over the story (which is what I expected).  The first novel in this series was merely better than the second.  I don't know if I'll try the third in the series, but I might try one of her other books.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book Review: Having Our Say

This was our book club selection for March.  In Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years, Amy Hill Hearth weaves the stories of two African American sisters whose lives have spanned numerous changes for black people in America.  Bessie, otherwise known as "Queen Bess," doesn't like the term "African America," or "black," since she herself is brown, not black.  She declares herself to be an American who happens to be a negro.  Her feisty nature shines through.  Her sister, Sarah or "Sadie," tends to be quieter, but just as determined.

Sadie and Bessie Delaney grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the children of the nation's first elected black Episcopal bishop.  They, along with their eight siblings, valued education and hard work and rose to prominence in their professional careers, Sadie as a school teacher and Bessie as a dentist.  Their family's foundation was built upon their faith and quiet fortitude against the societal pressures mounted against black people.  They believed the best way to rise above prejudice was just to out-perform any low expectations.  They excelled at excelling!

I didn't glean many messages explaining their longevity (attributed primarily to a genetic disposition for longevity and proper diet and exercise), but the stories were interesting and full of color (no pun intended).  This outstanding oral history pairs the vivid stories these women remember alongside explanations of the historical context.  I think Amy Hill Hearth has done a fine job of drawing out the stories and placing them into a readable context.  Having written an oral history myself (I wrote a history of The Salvation Army in Champaign, Illinois, while I was in graduate school, and interviewed a fine elderly woman named Fern Bialeski, who provided endless fodder for consideration in the telling of that story), I know how difficult it is to organize and retain the most pertinent facts of a person's history.  The listening and compiling must have been such fun for Hearth.

I think these were my favorite lines: from Bessie - "When people ask me how we've lived past one hundred, I say, 'Honey, we never married.  We never had husbands to worry us to death.'" And also from Bessie - "It took me a hundred years to figure out I can't change the world.  I can only change Bessie.  And, honey, that ain't easy, either." And from Sadie - "Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet."  Even at over 100, they count their lives short and have done all they can to make them sweet.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: Real Love

In Real Love: Guaranteed to Last, author and poet Anne Peterson weaves simple, heart-felt stories to reveal deep abiding truths of God's infinite love for us.  Peppered in with the personal stories, Anne shares several of her poems.  I agree with another reviewer who observed that Anne is "a masterful storyteller and poet extraordinaire." My only complaint?  I wanted more ... more details and more poetry.  I would have loved to have had a poem attached to each and every chapter. My favorite poem, in Chapter Five, was "You Are God."

Anne tells stories about interactions with her grandsons, anger after a miscarriage, a dream-trip to Israel, dealing with her son's discouragement and despair, life with an abusive father, and dealing with the loss of her sister (at first missing, then ruled a homicide).  At only 43 pages, it is hard to believe she's packed so many stories into such a tiny package. Her life has been full of various trials and difficulties and yet she is able to see clearly to the love the Lord bestows in the midst of and through these trials.

If you are looking for encouragement and the stories of God's love revealed in another person's life, this quick, enduring read is for you.  It is bite-sized, but full of satisfying spiritual nourishment. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Distant Shores

I like Kristin Hannah's writing.  I think I was headed to the shelves looking for another book (The Things We Do For Love or Home Front), missing that day, and stumbled upon this one instead.  While it wasn't one of my favorite of Hannah's books, it did give me things to think about and lessons to absorb, so it was still a worthwhile read.

I must be thick because I was over half-way through this book before I understood the significance of the title.  I kept expecting the main character to run off to "distant shores" or something.  Instead, the two main characters (a husband and wife) share the last name of "Shore" and are distant from one another throughout the book.  Ah, I see.

Elizabeth and Jackson Shore have been married for twenty-four years.  Let's face it, that's a long time and things can get rather stale at that point in marriage.  Then the husband is offered the job of his dreams in New York and Elizabeth must decide whether she will follow him there or decide to chart out in the unfamiliar territory of following her own dreams and life-goals (primarily that of painting).

I could fully relate to the idea of a woman losing herself in the daily demands of caring for everyone else's needs in a family.  I think the presentation of this element was reliable and enticing to women who have faced the same dilemma.  I also gleaned a lot from the discussion centered around following one's dreams.  You have to name it and claim it!  You cannot wait for it to roll over and ask you to scratch its back.

Moreover, I loved the lesson the character learned about not giving up, despite set-backs and the disinterest of others.  I am trying to incorporate this lesson into my own views about my novel writing.  Getting a novel published is hard work.  It won't come easily and I cannot fold because several agents queried aren't knocking down my door to read the manuscripts.

I cheered for Elizabeth when the narrator said, "One little setback and she'd folded into the old Birdie.  She'd considered quitting.  As if the point of art could be found in supply-and-demand economics.... Even if no one ever liked her work. It would be enough that she did."

This idea was hammered home again this morning when I read this quote from William Zinsser which said: "There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published.  Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative.  It allows you to work through some of life's hardest knocks - loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure - and to find understanding and solace."

If you are looking for some encouragement in following your own dreams... if you are feeling stagnant in your marriage and wonder what havoc or blessing a separation could wreak on your relationship with your husband and children ... if you just want to escape into the life of a woman who is finding herself for the first time after many years of submerging her own visions and goals, then this book would be a suitable read.  And if you're worried that the tale may end badly, don't despair, there is a happy ending and hope for the future.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: Defending Jacob

This book was on our book club suggestion list for this year, but didn't make it into our final 11 selections.  I can see where it would make a good book club choice because there is much to discuss about how well we know our children and how we maneuver this job called parenting.  Plus, it was definitely a page-turner ... over 400 pages and yet they just flew by.  The author did a fantastic job of setting the scene and pulling you directly into the drama, although the characters were somewhat unbelievable and hard to get behind.

When assistant district attorney Andy Barber is called in to investigate and prosecute for a case involving the death of a 14 year old boy from his son's middle school, he doesn't hesitate to put himself on the case.  Then, his own son's fingerprint is discovered on the jacket of the murdered boy.  Ruling it a "conflict of interest," he is removed from his job and begins the lengthy process of dealing with allegations against his own son.  He firmly stands behind his son as more evidence surfaces.  Just how well does the man really know his son?  Is the son wrongly accused or did he really murder a boy who was bullying him?  Given the history of several generations, do the father and son carry a "murder gene?"  Throughout the riveting ride, the reader is left wondering how the pieces will eventually come together to explain the final outcome.

My main complaint revolves around the author's decision to label the son with reactive attachment disorder (otherwise known as R.A.D.).  Although I've never had first-hand experience with this diagnosis, I have a friend whose journey with an adoptive son, displaying RAD, imploded their family.  The boy threatened and attempted to kill their biological son on a number of occasions.  Plus, I have a blogging friend who is presently experiencing the difficulties that RAD introduces to family life.  From everything I've heard about RAD, I believe it would be near-impossible for a father to have a son with RAD and not realize that anything was amiss.  These are children who make their challenges known in an earth-shattering way.  I think if he had settled for giving the boy labels of narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder, it might have felt more believable.

Still, setting that quibble aside, this was a very engrossing book.  Although I was expecting a twist of some sort at the end, which the author delivered, I was still waiting intently to find out what that twist would be and how it would implicate or clear the boy.  As far as literary crime novels go, this was a pretty good example and worth the read.  Not amazing, but still entertaining and riveting.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Book Review: Snobs

I've certainly heard all the buzz about "Downton Abbey."  Many of my friends on Facebook are addicted to the show.  Several bloggers I follow write their reactions to the show.  I have never watched a single episode.  There are several reasons for this.  Primarily, it is because I don't watch television.  Moreover, we have Dish Network and our plan doesn't provide for regular television channels.  In order to access the normal channels, like PBS, I would have to manually switch something on the television controls and I don't ever bother.  I do think I would enjoy the show, since it is British, but I still don't feel like making time to sit around and watch it.

It was all the buzz over "Downton Abbey" that caused me to pick up this book, Snobs, by Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey."  Plus, it is about British culture and that always appeals to me.  However, I wasn't entirely thrilled with this book.

Not surprisingly, the book is about British snobbery.  The key sentences pitching the book are: "The English, of all classes as it happens, are addicted to exclusivity.  Leave three Englishmen in a room and they will invent a rule that prevents a fourth joining them."  I'm sure Fellowes' portrait of the English upper classes is quite accurate, but I didn't find it terribly entertaining.

The story revolves around a middle-class girl, Edith Lavery, who seeks to raise her position in life by accepting the proposal of an earl.  She doesn't really love him, but is, instead, in love with the idea of being an earl's wife.  Of course, once the deed is done, she quickly grows bored with her new husband.  Enter a dashing, handsome young actor who has come onto the estate property for the filming of a period drama.  Edith is swept away by her lust for this individual and leaves her husband to live with the aspiring actor, assuming that she will rise to another level of popularity as his mistress.  She discovers that life is no more interesting in these new circles and offers less esteem than she had expected.

I'm not really sure why I kept reading.  Several times, I contemplated just putting the book aside.  I suppose I got so far into it (the book is fairly short) that I felt it would be a shame not to just go ahead and finish.  The writing is good and it is about England (a love of mine), but other than that, I can't find much to say about it. It got good reviews, so it might be your cup of tea, but it wasn't mine.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: The Missing Ink

In The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, Philip Hensher writes a love letter to the handwritten word, an endangered art in this world of technological advances.  Handwriting is going by the wayside because everyone focuses on their electronic gadgets.  Texting, typing and even voice-activated messaging are all the rage.  Who writes a handwritten letter anymore?

The impetus for this book came when the author realized, with a bit of sorrow, that he didn't know what a friend's handwriting looked like.  There is something about handwriting that conveys the essence of an individual.  Nowhere is that more clear to me than my own emotional response to letters penned by my mother.  Her handwriting is immaculate and always has been.  When I was a teenager, I tried to emulate her neat style and used the printed form of 'a' that she used.  Still, my handwriting never came close to her perfection.  When I see words in her handwriting, my whole insides smile and all the love I feel for her wells up.  No doubt you've felt something similar when looking at your loved one's specific handwriting. As Hensher observes, "In the past, handwriting has been regarded as almost the most powerful sign of our individuality."

I knew I could find evidence of her style (both print and cursive) in the dedications she wrote in the Bibles she gave to me when I was a child and then a teen:

My husband's handwriting, while sloppier, also evokes a particular sentiment tied to my love for the individual behind the pen:

Over time, Hensher admits, handwriting evolves and he's not the least bit bothered by that (he argues you wouldn't still wear the same hairstyle you had ten years ago, so neither should your handwriting remain static).  My own handwriting has changed significantly.  When I used to teach school, my students struggled with my printed form of 'a,' often confusing it with a 2.  Then, I began aiding in a kindergarten classroom and realized that I really had to change the 'a,' so that the students wouldn't be confused in their learning process.  I began to make the circle with the short line.  Plus, over time, I've noticed that my handwriting has grown more sloppy.  I suppose this is because typing presents such ease of getting down thoughts quickly that when I sit down to write in my journal, my mind wants to spin quickly and my wrist grows weary of trying to keep up.  Speed always hinders legibility.

Here's an example of my handwriting (notes from a lecture at CBLI - a description of a story about a young boy's gift to his missionary teacher):

Hensher's discussion of handwriting covers a wide gamut and is often peppered with humorous anecdotes (although I didn't feel the interview sections added anything to the book).  He mentions the thrill of writing on various surfaces (I personally love the feel of a ballpoint pen on the surface of a napkin and my husband tires of finding lists I've made in this way).  Hensher even notes finding a crazy blog where the author claims you can improve your handwriting by changing your diet.  He discusses the thrill of finding a good pen.  He provides a brief history of the evolution of the pen (as well as the evolution of the teaching of handwriting, something we are losing as more and more states shift from the teaching of cursive to the teaching of keyboarding).

He ends with 10 charges to encourage people to retain handwriting in their lives.  These are things from as simple as making lists and slowing down to write notes instead of typing them into your mobile device, to keeping a journal or writing someone an actual handwritten letter (my favorite thing to receive in the mail).  I'm in complete agreement that the world would be a better place if more people took the time to send handwritten notes to friends and family.  Thankfully, I've received and replied to two such letters myself in the past four months.

In conclusion, Hensher declares that "handwriting is good for us.  It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual.  It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people.  It gives pleasure when you communicate with it; when done at all well, it is a source of pleasure to the user.  No one is ever going to recommend that we surrender the convenience and speed of electronic communications to pen and paper...  Though it would make no sense to give up the clarity and authority of print which is available to anyone with a keyboard, to continue to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity."  Hear, hear!  Long live the handwritten word!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane

This is the second book in the Underland Chronicles series by Suzanne Collins.  Although my friend's kids are transfixed by this series, I'm finding it hard to rally their level of enthusiasm.  I'm not saying the books aren't interesting.  They are.  I'm just not feeling as connected to the characters, or perhaps as invested in the characters, as I had hoped. It will be interesting to see how my boys react to these books, but I'll wait for a few years, as I think they are a bit young for them now.

Gregor once again finds himself in the Underland beneath New York City.  He is summoned when his younger sister Boots is kidnapped and dragged below by the enormous cockroaches.  Another prophecy calls for Gregor's help.  This time he is asked to find and kill the Bane (a scourge of a rat who is entirely white).  The adventure requires the team (made up once again of supporting warriors, including the feisty princess Luxa) to travel along the Waterway in search of the Labyrinth, where the Bane is hidden.  The cryptic prophecy suggests that the baby will die.  Gregor is loathe to lose his sister, but also loathe to face the challenge of killing the Bane.  He learns that he holds a magical power for fighting, but will he use it to fulfill the prophecy or not?  Will Boots come away unscathed?

The writing is good.  The plot moves along quickly enough, with plenty of twists and turns.  Still, I couldn't help thinking that I could tell the ending before it even began.  While I did not predict what would happen during the confrontation with the Bane, I was correct in guessing what happened to the little sister.  At least, this second installment clarified the purpose in Boot's involvement in these quests to begin with (since I was fuzzy on her role in the last book).  Parents may find the second installment to be a bit more violent than the first.

I will continue to give this series a chance and will seek out book three.  However, I still am more a fan of "The Hunger Games" series than of this one.  I'm guessing we can expect this author to continue to improve with each series she writes.  Collins has a wonderful skill for creating a world and conjuring challenges.