Sunday, June 30, 2013

Music Camp Memories

I returned last night from a full week of music camp and am feeling highly blessed.  I had a wonderful time and made many happy memories. Every year I get anxious about my responsibilities, but every year things work out fine in the end.

As camp started off, my anxieties were compounded.  The officer who was supposed to be my assistant (and piano accompanist) ended up being unable to make the first several days of rehearsals.  One of the girls she brought to camp had lice.  Groan.  The officer didn't arrive back at camp until Monday (which left me managing the first days of rehearsals by myself and without her assistance in selecting a second number to perform).  But I barreled on alone. 

The song I had already selected had cd accompaniment ("An Old Irish Blessing" by Teresa Jennings - a beautiful piece with a moving brass band introduction and accompaniment) and I selected another number with cd accompaniment from the resources at the resource table.  The second selection was a Gowans and Larsson piece called "Hundreds and Thousands."  It was a bit more difficult than I felt my choir could manage (I saw many tone-deaf kids in the auditions).  It had a wonderful up-beat tempo, but included a counter-melody during the last verse.  Even though it was "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," the pitches were a bit different than the normal chorus, so I wondered if my kids would be able to stay on the proper pitches.

After seven days of twice daily rehearsals, I think we were all growing weary of both songs, but the kids really rallied and did well for the final performance (at the awards concert).  They nailed the tricky lyrics ("two a penny, far too many, there must be," "and flowers fair the meadows wear for all to see").  Amazingly, the counter-melody worked well and I felt they did a fantastic job.  The sound crew didn't raise the volume enough for the Irish Blessing piece, and the kids got ahead of the music, but I was able to slow them down and get them back on track.  All in all, I was proud of my students/campers and enjoyed the process.

My rhythm band class (all the senior vocal students) was a nightmare for the first session.  The kids were all talking and not participating appropriately.  It got so bad that one of my assistants stood up and reamed them out for not respecting instructors who were volunteering their time to come work with the campers.  I left the first class session feeling really discouraged.  But, for the second session, I decided to place some of the students in front of the class (first with some rhythm imitation exercises and then with dividing up parts for the candy bar rhythm demonstration).  I was greatly pleased when the teens really responded to these exercises and took ownership of their various parts.

I suppose I should explain the demonstration more fully.  We talked about candy bar names and tried to determine which rhythm patterns fit which candy bar names.  Then, we passed out the rhythm pattern posterboard strips and had one or two individuals chanting the candy bar names in rhythm.  So we started with the whole note ("Mounds" held out for four beats) and then added the half notes ("Mars, Mars"), then the quarter notes ("Twix, Twix, Twix, Twix"), then eighth notes ("Snickers ..."), etc.  We had all sorts of rhythm examples, like Raisinets, Mr. Goodbar, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, Butterfinger BBs, etc.  The teens really were enthusiastic about their performance of these rhythms.

They also enjoyed the choral reading of "Whirligig Beetles," written by Paul Fleischman.  I had only intended to use the "Candy Bar Choir" number (as we came to call it), but when I pulled out the Whirligig poem again on the final rehearsal, the teens begged to perform it as well.  Now that's encouraging!

I was pleased that my students were both having fun and learning.  I enjoyed working with them and getting to know some of them better.  Still, my favorite part of the week had to be the times of fellowship with the other faculty members.  One night a dozen of us went out to Steak-and-Shake after the evening activities were over.  We had a great time of conversation and laughter.  Another night, we had pizza brought in.  Then there were two nights of nachos in the faculty lounge and the final evening offered an ice cream social specifically for the faculty members.  I had a blast.  It was such an encouragement to my heart and soul (I get far too few moments of fellowship with like-minded individuals in my isolated daily life).

Faculty band was a bit anxiety-laden.  The pieces we played were often difficult to follow.  My highest anxiety stemmed from a piece called "Serenity."  I had an alto horn solo of "When Peace Like a River," which got up into the upper registers, and I really struggled with it.  In the end, even doing my best, I failed to play one note correctly (it was natural and because of the previous key signature, I played an E-flat).  Even though I felt like I failed, it was still fun to challenge myself and fun to play outstanding music with other fine musicians.

I was equally nervous about leading the Variety Show (something I never would have blinked at years ago, but now causes great anxiety).  In between numbers, while groups were setting up, I led the audience in some choruses (like the chorus "Father, I Adore You," done in a round).  It all went by quickly and turned out fine.

I am really hoping to get to participate on faculty again next year.  We shall see.  My husband seemed really exhausted, from dealing with the boys, when I arrived home.  He said it was a long week.  Oh, well.  I'm just grateful for the opportunity I had to spend a week away from home in a challenging, stimulating environment with other like-minded individuals.  I had a blast.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Heading to Music Camp

I have such fond memories of attending music camp in my younger days.  The anxiety of first day placement auditions, the fun with friends, the challenging and enjoyable music, and times of spiritual commitment.  This is my second year attending as a member of staff (my dad was often on staff when I attended as a kid) and I am feeling equal parts anxiety and excitement.

Trevor has noticed my preparations (I've been making several new posters to use and brought up the poster he made last year of a boy with a wide-open mouth, to encourage my young singers to open wider while singing).  He and Sean both seem a bit anxious about my departure, even though during part of the week they will have fun at Holiday World with Dad while Bryce holds down the fort at home.  I think last year was hard for them to be without me for a week.

My anxiety stems from the large load of responsibilities and roles I'll be performing.  I am responsible for the placement auditions for the junior choir and leadership of that choir throughout the week.  I am the Piano Theory leader (I don't play piano, but I'm sure I remember some theory).  I am the assistant for the Drama elective class (does that mean I'll have to perform on stage with the campers?  I hope not!).  I will be leading the Senior Vocal Rhythm Band (this was the one I was most unsure about, but think I've made sufficient plans to get through four or five class sessions and a performance).  I'm also responsible for coordinating and emceeing the Friday Variety Show (where the electives, rhythm bands, recorder classes and band choirs perform).  I am one of the vocal/piano solo contest judges (hmm) and a final day cabin inspector.  Sheesh!  Sounds like I'll be mighty busy.

Despite the anxiety I feel, I'm also looking forward to having a good time away from home.  I certainly won't miss being on call to feed my eating machines or to keep said machines in clean clothes (although I suspect I will return to large loads of untended laundry - ha).  Just the time to breathe on my own and do something challenging apart from the kids will be beneficial.  I need the stimulation camp provides, even though it taxes me out of my comfort zone.  At least my anxiety is tempered by the fact that I've led the choir once before and it won't be quite as intimidating as it was last year.

At this point, I've only selected one of the two numbers we will be performing, but I'm hoping the director will have resources on the first day where I can select an additional piece with the support of my co-leader (who is actually a pianist, so this year we will have piano accompaniment readily available during all rehearsals, whereas last year we only rehearsed with a pianist twice).  For the rhythm band, I've made posters with rhythms to accompany candy bar names (hopefully this will appeal to the teen participants) and have selected a choral reading which should demonstrate a feel for the rhythm.  I am praying I won't have any belligerent campers to deal with, since discipline has never been my forte in the teaching realm.  I am too timid and too eager to avoid conflict.

I failed to prepare blog posts to pre-schedule, so there will be some silence on my blog.  I don't want to take my laptop along since the accommodations aren't locked.  It will be a wonderful week of cyber-vacation!  I'll think of it as a return to the dark ages, when life didn't revolve around our technology and social networks.  Thankfully, I can take along books to fill the afternoon hours of free-time.  It will be a reading paradise!  Just up my alley!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book Review: Don't Go

Although she is listed as a New York Times bestselling author, I had never heard of Lisa Scottoline before.  I was swept in by the cover and the inside cover description.  Her writing was easy to read and kept me deeply engaged in the story as it unfolded.

Dr. Mike Scanlon is an army doctor serving in Afghanistan.  He realizes that his service puts a strain on his wife and infant daughter, but cannot know how significant his absence will be until he learns that his wife has died in a household accident.  He comes home on a short leave, to lay her to rest, and learns some things about her that he hadn't expected.  Plus, he finds he feels ever more distant from his one remaining family member, his infant daughter.  Leaving his daughter in the care and guardianship of her aunt and uncle, Dr. Scanlon returns to Afghanistan for another year, until he loses his arm in a skirmish.  Although he is considered a war-hero, he doesn't feel like it and he finds that his life is utterly falling apart when he returns to re-establish things on the home-front.  Will he be able to navigate new waters for employment, reclaim his daughter and rekindle their relationship, and also figure out the missing links in the story of his wife's death?

I must say, I never grew fond of any of the characters in this book.  I didn't like Dr. Scanlon or his associates.  I didn't like the aunt and uncle.  So, I never felt myself pulling for any character in the book.  While it was a great story and I was riveted to the page, eager to find out all of the missing details, I never connected with the characters and that's too bad.

Plus, I think the cover illustration led me to expect the story to go into a deeper father-daughter relationship, while really the time-line of the story on leads up until the infant is two.  So, I found the cover to be misleading, despite it being the original pulling point in my selecting the book.  We never really see the warm, loving relationship portrayed on the cover.

Although the story ended on a hopeful note, the ending reversed the previous tensions a bit too quickly and wrapped things up in a tidier way than expected.  I'm not saying I didn't like the book, because I did enjoy the read, but these were some of the concerns I had.  If you are interested in books which explore the difficulty soldiers experience in returning to their lives at home, then this is definitely one you should read.  If you like mysteries that deal with relational conflicts, this is a good bet.  It is a well-written story, with excellent pacing and character development. I would give it 3-1/2 stars.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini is an amazing writer.  He weaves stories like silk and peoples their landscape with warm characters fraught with relational conflicts.  While I absolutely loved his first two books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, this book didn't quite reach the same level.  I'm not saying it isn't worth the time to read.  I would still tout it as a good read, but not as riveting or dynamic.

The story centers on two motherless siblings, Abdullah (age 10) and Pari (age 3), with a powerful bond.  It opens with a story told by their father of a father forced to choose one child to give up to a powerful genie to protect the rest of the family and village, foreshadowing events to come.  The story is poignant and forces the reader to put themselves in the father's shoes.  The rest of the book, follows the lives of this family and other intersecting families over the years.  It highlights the consequences of choices we make, the troubled bonds between family members, the fallout from political events, and the satisfaction available for a life lived in service to another.  It is a gripping story and I quickly absorbed the full 400 pages.

I do think the book could have been edited down to 300 pages.  The story jumped around from one time period to another following the various lives of different characters.  This jumping around fragmented the story line.  Plus, there were times when the author followed characters who were rather minor in the story (Markos and Adel) and didn't matter to the central arc of the tale.  Moreover, the most powerful situation was that between Abdullah and Pari and yet it was treated as a peripheral component.

But, setting these criticisms aside, the book is remarkable in its scope.  It manages to weave together numerous relational experiences under the canopy of one story.  You have the difficulties which arise in an adoptive relationship, the complexities of a caretaker who is loved by his employer, the emptiness of lives ripped apart by loss, and the horrors of a child forced to fend off society's curiosity after a disfigurement.  Each of these elements is powerful on its own, but they are woven together to form a magnificent tapestry of humanity.  Although the book didn't contain the height of redemption which The Kite Runner offered, or the depth of political atrocities explored in A Thousand Splendid Suns, it still presented a telling view of the world of Afghanistan and an accurate assessment of human frailty.  The book spans the globe, journeying from Afghanistan to France to America to Greece.  Like a kaleidoscope, the tale reveals the story of each character and brings them together to form a beautiful, thought-provoking, picture.  It was an adventure worth taking.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: Best Kept Secret

Best Kept Secret is the third book in the Clifton Chronicles by award-winning author, Jeffrey Archer.  As with the first two installments in this series, I remained on the edge of my seat throughout the telling.  Archer is truly a gifted storyteller.  Once again, I listened to the audio version and reveled in the wonderful British accent (although I will say the narrator, Alex Jennings, tends to provide a whiny voice for every single American accent he delivers - are we really that whiny sounding?).  I'm going to be anxiously awaiting the final two books in this series, since Archer always manages to end with a cliff-hanger (this time, someone dies, but we're not sure who yet).

In the previous book, the cliffhanger involved a decision pending from the House of Lords.  With a tied vote, the Lord Chancellor must make the deciding vote and it will have long-reaching ramifications for the Clifton and Barrington families (deciding which of the two will inherit the Barrington estate, "and all that therein is").  Harry Clifton navigates the labyrinth of a best-selling author and Emma decides to attempt to adopt the young girl who was left behind when her father was killed.  But the bulk of the story centers around Giles Barrington, with his political aspirations, and Sebastian Clifton (son of Harry and Emma), with his educational worries and his unwitting involvement in an act of international art fraud.  As always, there is a final twist in the tale, and in the end, we are left to wonder whether the criminal's son or Sebastian Clifton has died in a horrific traffic accident.

The author has done a superb job of crafting a highly involved plot and peopling it with interesting, well-rounded characters.  The reader ends up hating the bad guy, rooting for the good guy, and waiting with bated breath to discover the final outcome.  I relished hating Sir Giles Barrington's scheming and conniving wife.  I equally despised Sir Giles Barrington's political opponent (and lifelong foe).  I was thrilled to see the story weave in another generation and can only hope for more interesting storytelling in the final two books.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mixed Feelings on Writer's Conference Experience

First off, what an exhausting day it was!  I crammed in 14 hours of learning and attempting to sell myself (well, my ideas and my writing).  By the end of the day, I was beyond beat.  I was mentally and emotionally drained.

I thought I was going in more prepared than I had been previously and in some ways that is true because this time I went with four completed manuscripts to pitch, whereas before (when I went a decade ago) I had ideas but few completed works.  However, my idea to create a pitch page (which had my contact information, a photo, and four paragraphs offering blurbs to describe each of my four young adult novels) was a disappointment.  I had spent so much money making copies of these (and of the first chapters of each novel) in the hopes of passing them out to potential editors and agents.  I had scoured the faculty listing for ones interested in young adult manuscripts and checked off ten individuals I might approach.

Alas, when I arrived at the conference, I discovered that a single-day attendee was only allowed to sign up for one slot with a faculty member.  Plus, the Tyndale House editor who deals with young adult manuscripts was out sick for the day - sigh.  So I signed up with an agent I know doesn't accept unsolicited queries.  Then I noticed that there were loads of openings, since most people had signed up earlier in the conference and gotten these little meetings out of the way.  A sign indicated that after Wednesday, I could sign up for another one if there was room.  I probably broke the rules, but I signed on with four individuals, even missing the first half of one of my classes in order to meet with these individuals and pitch my manuscripts.

Most of the agents and editors looked over the sheet but didn't wish to take it or even take any of the chapter samples I offered.  I got the general impression that they didn't wish to be inundated with four different ideas at one time.  They all seemed to want me to select one which I feel most passionate about (as if you could choose one of your children that you think stands out above the others).  I found myself really discouraged that I had put the time and effort into preparing something to pass out, which they obviously didn't want to see or take.

Some of the meetings went very well and others, well ... I'll get to that in a minute.  The first meeting, with the excellent agent whose blog I've followed for writing and publishing advice, was a bit disappointing, but she was very kind.  She explained that stories told in letters and journals don't appeal to her and that she probably wasn't a good fit for any of the ideas I was pitching.  But, she did say they were sound ideas and had potential, just not with her.

The second and third individuals were both very positive and encouraging.  The second one kept my pitch paragraph sheet and even accepted each of the four first chapters I had to offer.  She asked me to send the first three chapters and a synopsis for each one.  The third editor also requested the first 3 chapters (saying she really liked my "voice" and my ideas), in addition to a synopsis and a book proposal.  The third editor even sent me to linger near a different editor (she was convinced he might be interested, as well) until he had an opening.  I seized the moment just before lunch to check in with him and he expressed an interest in my Dream-catcher and the Frog-Kisser manuscript.  He even grew quite animated as he envisioned how the novel would end and different plot development ideas (which didn't exactly coincide with how my novel actually goes - an example of where an editor has a different vision for your manuscript than you do).  Still, he also requested the first 50 pages, along with a synopsis and a book proposal.

As I talked with these three editors, I was both excited and overwhelmed.  It was a great feeling to hear their enthusiasm for my ideas.  But, I've only had experience writing one synopsis, and I believe I did that one incorrectly because I found something on-line which said you list chapter-by-chapter what happens in the book (a model more for a non-fiction book - fiction is generally a one to three page condensed version of what all happens in the novel).  Moreover, I've never written a book proposal and that is most daunting of all.  I will definitely be buying Michael Hyatt's book on writing book proposals.  I think it was tremendously overwhelming because even though I've come a long way from where I was a decade ago, it was clear that I still have so far to go and am still quite green about this whole exhausting process.

My two afternoon classes were both very informative and enjoyable.  The first one, taught by the agent mentioned earlier, talked about building a platform by using Google to find readers for your book.  The second class, taught by the agent who requested my Dream-Catcher and the Frog-Kisser manuscript several months ago, moved me to tears.  She was trying to encourage writers to change lives by writing books with powerful messages.  She read aloud from several examples (this is where the tears came in) and I was deeply moved and challenged.  I thought to myself, "if only I could write a novel with the depth of meaning held in these examples." (One of the examples was The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and another was Charlatan's Boy by Jonathan Rogers.)  I loved the agent's encouragement to "write what God wants you to write" and "you can blatantly preach in your stories, but you cannot be preachy."

I left those classes feeling super-charged and, still, a little bit intimidated.  Then, I approached the fourth editor for a pitch session.  This editor was from a very conservative university publishing house.  I should have realized that it wouldn't be a good fit before scheduling it, but it did say YA on the sign-up sheet and I thought I'd give it a shot. 

This was the most demoralizing experience I've ever had at a writer's conference.  She was negative and demeaning through the whole ten minute encounter.  After reading the very first paragraph, she turned and said, "You obviously didn't read our guidelines, or you would have known that we don't handle any manuscripts with time travel or elements of magic."  My bad and entirely warranted.  Then, she picked apart my novel about a young girl who finds forgiveness for her father through a correspondence with an elderly aunt.  It was the way she said things that felt so wounding.  "Do you remember, from your English classes, the diagram of plot development?  You have to have an action that propels the story upward towards the moment of climax.  All you have here is a character with an emotional response."  Finally, she looked at my If Bones Could Speak blurb and shot it down with "There's a girlfriend in this!  Our readers won't tolerate any form of boy-girl attachment in their novels.  These are home-schooling families who don't want to introduce their teenagers to that element or idea."

It certainly would have been nice if she could have found one encouraging thing to say to me during our interaction.  Instead, I left feeling like I had just been attacked by a pit bull.  I went to dinner and considered just abandoning the evening session and the critique group.  Thankfully, I plugged on.

The key-note speaker, Bob Hostetler, got up and expressed exactly what I was feeling.  The highs and lows of emotion, the exhaustion, the feeling of "Who am I kidding?  I'll never make it."  But, he charged us with three things: read, pray, and write.  He acknowledged that writing is hard and will test you in tremendous ways, but in the end, if you can't help but write, then it is entirely worth it.  I picked myself up out of the doldrums and renewed my pledge to do whatever God wants with the talent and ideas He has given me.

The critique session was encouraging, as well.  The other five or six people in the group were very positive in their comments and suggestions.  I was able to read samples from two of my books.  I was thrilled when I heard them comment that I nailed the voice on the main character in Dream-Catcher and the Frog-Kisser.  They loved the title, but wondered if it shouldn't have a "The" at the beginning.  I'm not sure how I feel about that suggestion.  Still, I appreciated their input and they even taught me how to eliminate the pesky extra space which keeps showing up after each paragraph in my Word documents.

So, I came away with a great deal of learning, some encouragements, and some discouragements.  The positives outweighed the negatives, but I still felt overwhelmed.  It was a good, but hard, experience.  Now, I have to follow up on the requests and learn a thing or two about writing synopses and book proposals.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heading to a Writer's Conference

I am moments away from leaving to attend one day of a four-day writer's conference in Wheaton, Illinois, called the Write-to-Publish Conference.  I have gone twice before and netted no greater results than camaraderie with my writer's group in attendance, encouragement to keep writing, and a chance to meet a few other writers.  I am hoping for great things from this visit.

For one, I am taking a class taught by the agent who holds one of my manuscripts (it is even an appropriate class for me to take since its focus is on not boring young readers).  I think this will be a wonderful opportunity to give her a face behind the manuscript and provide her with evidence that I've prepared more than just one YA novel manuscript for consideration.  I have made up a page of pitch paragraphs, condensing each of my novels down into one paragraph, complete with my contact information and my photo.  I hope to pass this out to as many agents and editors as I can while there and am hoping that my photo will help them to remember me long after the dust of the conference has settled.

I have also printed out copies of the first chapter (or first ten pages) of each manuscript, in case one of the agents or editors expresses an interest in seeing a better view of my actual writing ability.  Sadly, our toner cartridge went on our printer prior to my need of these copies, so I found myself at a copy shop this morning, paying an exorbitant amount to bring along this ammunition.  I hope that I am able to discharge every cartridge (hand out every manuscript sample) and that some of the shots hit their desired target.

I am also hoping that I can manage to pack the benefits of the full conference into the single day I selected (I couldn't afford to be away for all of it).  I am bracing myself for a day of over-stimulation.  I will, no doubt, crash and burn tomorrow night.  Thankfully, I have friends who have offered to put me up, so I was able to forego the expense of accommodation.

All this to say, I am on pins and needles as I prepare to pull out of the driveway on my little jaunt.  I am praying that God will work out the connections that He sees fit to make in my time there.  I have placed my writing in His hands.  Now, I'm off to sell myself and my writing to the best of my ability.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: The Thank You Room

This was another book I accessed for free through Story Cartel in exchange for an honest review.  Honestly, I loved it.  I read it in one sitting.  I love to read memoirs because it is someone else's story.  I get to peek inside someone else's life.  But the really good memoirs are the ones where the story sucks you in and the emotions are provided in addition to the actions.  Serenity Bohon has succeeded on both counts.

Serenity tells the story of her twenty-ninth year, a year when two very important things stretched her beyond herself.  It was the year she discovered she was pregnant with her third child and also the year she was diagnosed with cancer.  She writes candidly about her emotions through this entire year - the good and the bad, the faith-filled moments and the moments of sheer terror.  She wears her human frailties openly and I applaud that.  It gives the reader a more authentic view of the experience of facing cancer.

Perhaps I was more ready for this book, given the fact that my little brother has been recently diagnosed with his own cancer that spread to his lungs and liver.  I can relate to the sheer terror, to the lingering thoughts of the possibility of death and what that would mean to a family with children.  But, more probably, I can relate to it because it is a story well-told and with great poignancy.  The author tells the tale in a series of thank you notes to the people who came alongside and supported her in the struggle.  It is a testament to the power of human connection for strengthening one for whatever battle one must face.

I think the thing I appreciated most in the tale was the author's honest assessment of the trials others face.  At one point, she mentions a friend who was struggling with depression.  She acknowledges the ease with which others rally around someone facing cancer and the discomfort others feel in trying to assist someone with depression.  There are trials far more sensitive and raw where support systems don't fall into place as easily.  Kudos to Serenity for shining a light on those who struggle with the awkward trials and for thanking her tremendous entourage of burden-bearers.  I am thankful for the chance to witness the power of community and God's grace through trial.  So, as a reader, my thank you echoes in her thank you room, as well.

It is available for purchase through Amazon or for free, for a limited time, through Story Cartel.  Also, here is a trailer for the book.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review: Gregor and the Marks of Secret

Gregor and the Marks of Secret is the fourth book in The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games.  Of the three previous installments, the third book was my favorite.  This book was full of adventure, but still ranks behind Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods in my opinion.

I guess, for me, the mystery that pulled the characters into quest mode in this book didn't quite hold my interest.  Gregor is returning to the Underland more frequently because his mother is still there recuperating from the plague she succumbed to in the third volume.  He returns for regular echolocation exercises with Ripred, the Rat.  At the beginning, Ripred informs them that they must kill the Bane because he has risen to great power now that he is fully grown.  Gregor is still loathe to do him in, despite his great size and his eagerness for power.  I got the impression the book would be about destroying the Bane, but I was wrong.

Instead, Gregor and Queen Luxa are drawn into a quest to determine what is happening to the Nibblers (mice).  Even though he doesn't want to be drawn into another prophecy, Gregor agrees to accompany Luxa (for whom he is beginning to have stronger feelings) on her search for the mice and the reason for their disappearance.  Once again, they end up going on the quest with the baby, Boots, in tow.  Not sure why this keeps happening, although it always seems to provide more incentive for Gregor to be careful and watch over her during the quest.

In this installment, Suzanne Collins has incorporated story-lines to parallel actual experiences with war.  When Queen Luxa declares war on the rats (even though it doesn't officially begin in this book), the reader is bound to begin thinking about the ethics of war.  Deeper concepts are presented through the use of story equivalents.  This book excels in forcing the reader to make real-life connections and to ponder important issues.

Still, this feels more like a filler book, leading the way to the final book in the series where Gregor will once again be called upon to fulfill his role in an Underland prophecy.  It wasn't a slow read.  Plenty of action and adventure carried the story along, but it did seem less gripping than the previous book.  I am eager to read the final installment and see how Collins has chosen to end Gregor's destiny.  Will he die trying to fulfill the final prophecy?  Will some further ill come to Queen Luxa?  Or will Luxa and Gregor end up together after all, providing a joining of the two worlds, the Overland and the Underland?