Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door

This selection for my young adult book club was one I had been wanting to read because I'd heard some buzz about Stephanie Perkins' debut novel, Anna and the French Kiss.  I usually like to read things in order, but I was assured that this novel, Lola and the Boy Next Door, was a stand-alone and it was. I did notice a character named Anna and saw the France connection, so I figured some of the back-story out in snippets. I don't think it will be a problem to read them out of order.

Although it is a standard formula - girl falls for boy next door - Stephanie Perkins did create interesting characters and a slightly heart-tugging story. Lola is quite a flamboyant teen, with her gay dads and her love of dressing in costume. Perhaps it was a bit over-the-top at times, because I'm guessing a daughter in that situation would try to deflect attention away from herself rather than constantly draw more eyes in. Max is the typical older boyfriend causing the parents concern. Her involvement with him is already sexual, which felt like an attempt to paint with a realistic brush for teens today, but also felt a bit unnecessary and dissatisfying to me (especially since Lola doesn't really have strong reasons for her affections for this older guy and isn't honest with him or anybody else for that matter). Cricket, on the other hand, is entirely charming. He is a well-dressed, tender, thoughtful young man who obviously cares deeply for Lola, despite a past heartbreak based on a misunderstanding. Add in the mix, Cricket's catty twin, Calliope (a tricky name to get behind), whose skating career takes all of the attention off her brilliant brother, and you've got a recipe for the tension so necessary in a good story.

The plot was quite predictable. After lengthy wavering, Lola comes to her senses and recognizes her true feelings for the boy next door. He comes through in a pinch and takes her to the winter formal, where she makes a grand entrance in her hand-made Marie Antoinette costume (worn with buckled platform combat boots???). The writing was smooth and the dialogue rang true (without resorting to the distraction of constant curses - thankfully - as so many other authors do in attempting to provide realistic teen fiction). It was a very readable book. Perhaps not my favorite YA read this year, but it should provide for interesting discussion. After looking over several Amazon reviews, it seems many readers prefer her first book over this second one. I'll have to put that on my to-read list.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book Review: A Week in Winter

Reading a Maeve Binchy book is like watching an artist weave a tapestry. One by one the characters are introduced, until you see the full picture and it all comes together to make a beautiful image. She was a master at crafting interesting characters and placing them in a distinctly Irish locale. I say was because this is the very last book Binchy completed, just days before she died in July of 2012. How sad that we will not have any more Binchy books to look forward to. Thankfully, I still haven't read all of her arsenal, so I have a few left to enjoy.

A Week in Winter chronicles the lives of many characters who come together for a week at an Irish retreat called Stone House in Stoneybridge, Ireland. The setting sounds beautiful with its cliff-side walks and caves to explore. We first meet Chicky Starr, a woman who returns from a misguided move to New York, to set up a resort in an old stone house in her home town. She is assisted by Rigger and Orla (each with their own background stories) as she prepares to open for tourists.

The tourists then arrive, bringing John, a famous American film star escaping into the Irish countryside for what he thinks is an anonymous visit, Winnie and Lillian, a mother and her possible future daughter-in-law, and Nicola and Henry, two doctors who are sick of death and their own inabilities to bring forth new life. Other guests include the Swede, Anders, who is trying to escape his father's plans for his involvement in the family business, Nell, a crusty old retired schoolteacher, who seems bent on making everything and everyone miserable like herself, the Walls, who won the trip in a competition, and Freda, a librarian fleeing her own dreadful mistake.

Each character provides its own vignette, with a separate plot and story arc, but they all come together in the seaside town of Stoneybridge. Binchy has done it again and I thoroughly enjoyed peering into the lives of these interesting characters. My only complaint with the audio version is that the narrator (while always providing that excellent Irish accent I crave when I listen to a Binchy book) makes the American characters sound like complete drudges. Books on Tape would do well to hire a separate person to read the American character bits.

If you've never read a Maeve Binchy book, or if you are even slightly interested in Ireland, or if you love books which focus on characters more than plot, you must try one of her books. I can't think of which one to recommend first, since they are all good. Perhaps, one of these days, I'll set a goal to read them all in the order in which they were written (since many of the characters and places carry over into other books). The only thing better than a couple of months holed up with the assortment of Binchy's books (29 novels, novellas, and short story collections according to Wikipedia) would be the opportunity to read them while in Ireland. Now that would be something! Someone should establish a Binchy week in winter and tour the places Binchy describes while incorporating readings from her various books.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: A Long Way Down

I have read both Nick Hornby's About a Boy and How to Be Good and enjoyed them fairly well. I remember jotting down lines from How to Be Good because they resonated so much with me. So, I expected to like his new book, A Long Way Down. I shouldn't say that I disliked it entirely. It was certainly readable, but I just didn't enjoy the read as much as I had expected. Perhaps it was because the subject was a downer or perhaps it was because the characters were abrasive and edgy. For whatever reason, I would say it wasn't my favorite read this year.

The story is told from the perspectives of four different individuals, (and by different, I mean light-years different), and is somewhat confusing at the beginning, before the characters' personalities are solidified in the reader's mind. Hornby manages to pull off the multiple narrators and create distinct voices for each of them. While I didn't generally like the characters, they did have somewhat interesting life stories.

You have Martin, a former talk-show host, JJ, a washed up musician, Jess, an unbalanced teenage girl, and Maureen, a mother of a severely disabled boy. These four individuals end up running into one another on the roof of Topper's House, a popular London location for committing suicide. They end up talking each other down and forming an alliance in an attempt to get through another day and another day when none of them really want to face one more day.  They are an unlikely group and they know it, but circumstances continue to bring them together and they muddle through somehow, even milking the situation to get money off the press.

Having had my own dark night of the soul, I should have been able to relate to the issues plaguing these characters and making them want to end their lives. Yet, somehow, I never felt their despair warranted suicide. It was clear that Maureen just needed a chance to step away from the overwhelming duties of caring for her son (isolation and constant demands can be killer). Martin needed to start over and establish some positive relationships in his life. JJ needed to reassess his skills and interests and choose a new direction. Jess was a little more difficult. I'd say she needed a slap across the face and a whole lot more love from her parents. I just never got to the point of feeling the validity of their despair. Indeed, even they eventually acknowledge the lack of validity for their despair.

Wishing I could say I liked this book better, since I do think Hornby is a good writer. Sadly, I didn't find much in it to embrace. I have no desire to pass the story along to others. Read one of his other books. This one is being made into a movie (trailer here). Who knows, maybe this will be one time where the movie will be better than the book.

Update: I'm feeling my comments in the fourth paragraph of this review were unclear. Thus, I am posting some further thoughts about suicide and this book.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review: Heart of Darkness

After reading Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and noticing so many other reviewers referencing the similarities to Joseph Conrad's classic, Heart of Darkness, then learning that my son was reading Conrad's book for his AP English class, I decided to give the classic a try. Oh my! I was a high school English teacher, yet I had never read this book before. If I ever find myself in a teaching position again, I can guarantee I will never willingly teach this book to high school students.

I know the book receives countless glowing endorsements. I stumbled upon a fair share of them on the Internet, swooning about Conrad's masterful technique of the story within a story, his grasp on the terror of British imperialism and the rape of Africa's ivory, his effective example of how one person can dramatically change another person. One reviewer said the book brought her to tears. Seriously?

All I can share is my opinion. I found the book tedious and long-winded. The whole of the story is that a man gets a job aboard a steamer bound for Africa, where he meets and attempts to save the remarkable Mr. Kurtz, a man with an astounding reputation for gleaning the most ivory and securing the support of the natives. Plot? Hardly any. Interesting characters? None. Fine writing? Only if you consider it to be noble to tell a limited story with as many words as possible.

The writing was so dense it was hard to make sense of what was trying to be conveyed. My son admitted to really struggling with the reading assignment and I can imagine there are many other high school students struggling under this burden as well. To what end? So they can say they read a fine little classic about a sailor who travels into the heart of darkness and reveals the darkness within all mankind, the greed for more spoils.

I'm sure there are good things which could be said about the novel. I am amazed to consider that the author wrote the novel in English, when it was not his native tongue. He uses far more English words than I have command of in my vocabulary. There are deep truths beneath the story, no doubt. I merely felt the writing got in the way of getting to the heart of the story, let alone the heart of darkness (a phrase repeated numerous times in the telling of the story). By comparison, Patchett's novel was more accessible and interesting.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Review: Look Again

This book jumped out at me in the Christmas book sale at our library. The premise sounded intriguing. "What would you do if the face in a missing child photo was your son's?"

Here's the back cover teaser:

"When Ellen Gleeson gets a 'Have You Seen This Child?' flyer in the mail, she almost throws it away. But something about it makes her look again, and her heart stops. The child in the photo looks exactly like her adopted son, Will.

"Everything inside her tells her to deny the similarity between her son and the boy in the photo, because she knows her adoption was lawful. But she's a journalist and won't be able to stop thinking about the photo until she gets to the truth. And she can't shake the question: If Will rightfully belongs to someone else, should she keep him or give him up? Ellen makes the wrenching decision to investigate, uncovering clues no one was meant to uncover. And when she digs too deep, she risks losing her life - and that of the son she loves.

"In this emotionally charged, heart-pounding thriller, Lisa Scottoline has broken new ground, Look Again questions the very essence of parenthood and raises a moral quandary that will haunt readers long after they've finished the last page, leaving them with the ultimate question: What would I do?"

This was an outstanding read. I couldn't stop plowing through the pages. Scottoline hooks the reader from the very first sentence and takes them on an emotional ride with ups and downs and unexpected jolts. Throughout the whole story you wonder whether the main character will find the truth about her son and whether she will follow that truth to do the right thing or hold back out of her own selfish desires.

The story explores deep questions. Is a child someone that you rightfully own as a result of giving birth? What is best for a child in a situation of abduction? Should a parent relinquish possession if it turns out the child, in fact, belongs to someone else? Is it better to place a child with a single parent who loves the child immensely or return the child to the biological parent simply based on the fact that the parent gave birth to the child?

I thought the characters were well-drawn. The plot sucked you in and continued to provide new twists and turns to keep you guessing. The premise was stirring and the conclusion was satisfying. I will say it took some suspension of disbelief since the main character repeatedly blows off her work assignments (how can she afford to jeopardize her job when she is the sole support of her beloved son?) and leaves him for lengthy times with his sitter (while claiming to be unable to bear the thought of being separated from her child ... plus, that sitter must have had no life to be available for whatever hours the reporter needed). But, if you can suspend a little disbelief and are looking for a good read, and perhaps a good book club selection, you can't go wrong with Lisa Scottoline's stirring book, Look Again.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Another Water Park Weekend

This year, instead of going to French Lick, Indiana's water park, Big Splash Adventure, we decided to put out a bit more money and try out Ohio's Great Wolf Lodge. We were supposed to depart on Friday, as soon as the boys were home from school, and return Sunday evening. Alas, Friday brought more horrible winter weather and travel advisories. We called to tell them that we would not be leaving until Saturday morning. I was figuring we were out the money for our reserved Friday night, but Great Wolf Lodge graciously changed our reservation for us to Saturday night only. We were told we could access the water park as early as 1 p.m. on Saturday and stay through the entire hours of Sunday, after checking out of the room at 11.

Thus, we left on Saturday morning around 8:00. We were so grateful to have cleared roads to drive on (Friday would have been slow-going and nail-biting, no doubt). Still, we were horrified to come upon the scene of an accident. We must have arrived just moments after the impact because there were only a few cars deep stopped behind the accident and no police or rescue vehicles yet. One vehicle was smashed up on its side against a guard rail and looked like the whole top of the car had been dented in. I could not imagine that the occupants could have survived the state of that vehicle, but when we returned home I searched the Internet and could find no details of a fatal accident on that stretch of road on that day. As we drove by, I said a quick prayer for all involved.

When we arrived at Great Wolf Lodge, we were again thrilled to find that they were graciously allowing us into the room early, since no one had occupied it the night before. We had a fine lunch in the Grill (hamburgers all around, apart from John's veggie burger) and then headed into the water park. I was grateful for the fact that my boys are all older now and I can merely sit at a table and read while they run off and entertain themselves (no worries about drowning or getting lost). They did pull me in to ride one ride, where the whole family could fit on a giant inner tube. It was fun, even if I did get plastered with water at the bottom of the ride.

After a few hours of swimming, Trevor and Bryce came to the table to tell me, in Trevor's words, that they were "going up to the room for some big brother-little brother time." I am really proud of Bryce, since I'm sure he wasn't all that thrilled with the idea of giving up a weekend of his own plans to spend time with his younger brothers at a water park. He spent the entire time hanging out with his brothers and didn't complain once, despite obvious boredom by Sunday afternoon. We realize that this could be one of the last vacations we take as a whole family.

Our room was amazing. We secured a fireplace/loft room. Bryce was able to have the whole area up in the loft to himself, but he did hang out with the boys down in the lower room, watching TV.

The boys had great fun at the Arcade and then we brought pizza up to the room for dinner. The pizza was just fair. While I stayed in the room to read, the boys all returned to the water park for another hour of fun (although they said that the lines for the rides were ridiculously long because there was only one inner tube in use for one ride and the workers seemed to just be chatting for ten minutes between each passenger). All in all, I don't think they rode very many of the rides because it was just too crowded and the lines too long. They said the rides weren't that much better than the ones at the "pirate water park" (what we call the French Lick one). We also noted that unlike the pirate water park, where the breakfast buffet is included in the price of the room, the buffet there was quite expensive (especially since all Sean ate for his $9 fee was a biscuit, two slices of bacon, a strawberry and five grapes - groan).

I think our final consensus was that the greater expense just wasn't worth it. Sure, the room was more elaborate, the water park and facilities more spacious, and the rides a bit more intense, but the crowds were also more excessive and the price more expensive. For the additional money, the food wasn't really better than the food offered at the pirate water park. Perhaps, we just felt that way because we selected a popular weekend (a three-day weekend, due to President's Day, which our kids didn't have off because of all the recent snow days), but I doubt we'll head back to Great Wolf Lodge next year.

Still, we had a wonderful time together and made some great family memories. The boys all got along nicely (no great temper tantrums when one got a jackpot and the other didn't) and pooled their arcade tickets to purchase prizes equally between the two little guys. Bryce had a chance to beat the high score twice on the basketball arcade game (first shooting 77 points and then 79). The boys played several games of air hockey without dissolving into competitive angst. We enjoyed the lazy river and the wave pool together. I was able to read an entire book. Plus, the drive turned out to be nice both directions. All of this made for a great weekend.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: State of Wonder

I believe I own Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and attempted to start it at one point. Perhaps that is why I kind of dragged my heels in starting this book club selection for February. But, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, State of Wonder, so much so that I shared bits of it with my boys and with my husband (a sure sign of an enthralling read).

Dr. Marina Singh works for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota. When her co-worker winds up dead in the Amazon after being sent there to locate the jungle laboratory of Dr. Annick Swensen (supposedly hard at work developing a drug which will enable women to bear children well into later life), Dr. Singh is asked to go down to find the rouge doctor and glean a more satisfying explanation for the death of her co-worker. The difficulty of finding Dr. Swensen is compounded by Marina's memories of a tragic past. The antimalarial drug is messing with her mind, the great Dr. is avoiding interference, and the Lakisha tribe is demonstrating a rare ability to bear young well into their seventies. Add in the mix a young boy almost killed by a lengthy, threatening anaconda, a neighboring tribe of cannibals, repeated requests for Dr. Singh to perform surgeries she feels unprepared for, and a secretive relationship with her boss and you have a story full of adventure and suspense.

I thought the book was very good. The writing flowed from page to page carrying the reader deeper and deeper into the jungle and into the tense story line. With intriguing characters and an enticing plot, this book will make you stay up well into the night attempting to get to the answers and discover how Dr. Singh will resolve the many conflicts in her situation.

I will offer one criticism: There is an adulterous sex scene at the end of the book that I just couldn't buy into. It wasn't just the adulterous aspect of it. It simply didn't seem realistic, given the man's utter devotion to his supportive wife. I felt myself thinking, "Oh, really, author? Did you have to go there, just to bring some gratuitous sex into the story?" Plus, I was left with an unconfirmed suspicion that the woman ended up pregnant (since the story line clearly stated that women who chewed on the bark of the native trees felt all cravings for the bark go away upon the moment of conception. Yet, nothing was said to indicate that the story line headed off in that direction).

I think there are a lot of different opinions about this book. Given the mixed reviews the book received on Amazon, I will be interested to see what my fellow book club members thought of the book. Regardless, I believe I should attempt Bel Canto again, for good measure.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review: Expecting Adam

I happened upon this book in a thrift store and was enticed by the cover to buy it (especially since it bears endorsements from Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron). I'm so glad I did. As the Time Magazine comment on the front cover asserts: "Slyly ironic, frequently hilarious, Beck's memoir charts the journey from being smart to becoming wise."

This is the perfect memoir if you are looking for something to combine excellent humor with deeply moving insights into human nature and all that is most sacred about life. I laughed so hard my sons asked what was so funny. Of course, the author's wry sense of humor was way over their heads, but I loved every minute of it (far more than the other humorous book I tried earlier this month).

Martha Beck and her husband were both Harvard students, used to the world of intense academic achievement and cut-throat competition, when they learned that she was expecting her second child and that the boy would have Downs Syndrome. When I wasn't laughing at her choice expressions and descriptions of the events, I was deeply moved by the intensity of her experience with the reactions, both her own and those of others around her, and by the magical nature of her new sense of understanding of life and the world after Adam's birth. In a world where excellence and perfection seem to be all-important, many could not understand her desire to give life to this less-than-perfect baby growing in her womb. But the experience of expecting Adam caused Martha to learn more about what is truly important in life and to recognize the beauty that often is overlooked or considered meaningless.

Here are a few brief examples of her wit. When describing their first babysitter, she writes: "It was obvious to me she was a heroin addict, probably with Mob connections, who was just waiting for John and me to depart so that she could sell our daughter to slave traders in Pakistan.... Nothing went obviously wrong, although I still have a little money saved up for Katie's therapy in case she ever starts having flashbacks of that bizarre, black-clad young woman sacrificing pigeons on the window ledge of our apartment."

Of her son's delivery, she writes: "The births of my daughters, by comparison, were rowdy, noisy affairs, with doctors cracking jokes and John coaching me through the breathing and me occasionally mentioning that I would have preferred a quick, painless death." (Perhaps this struck me as funny because I clearly remember labor with my first and my own screams of "just kill me now.")

But besides the humor, Martha Beck manages to convey so eloquently what must have been a time of great confusion and discouragement. The book could have been terribly depressing as she recounts the insensitive comments of several Harvard colleagues, but instead it is full of laughter and hope, transformation and redemption. Every reader will benefit from the experience of coming alongside Martha Beck as she is Expecting Adam.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: Blueberry Muffin Murder

With Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen mysteries, you know that you will be entertained with two key ingredients: baking tips and a good story. Once again, in this third installment of the Hannah Swensen Mystery series, Blueberry Muffin Murder, the super sleuth is on the trail of a murderer while baking up delicious confections.

Hannah Swensen, owner of The Cookie Jar, is thrust into her detective mode again when the famous cooking television personality, Connie McIntyre, shows up dead in Hannah's own kitchens. Her business is shut down until the police can determine who the killer is, thus motivating Hannah to step in and do her own sleuthing. Once again, working with her sister, Andrea, Hannah eliminates countless suspects in the plot-thickening mystery of "Connie Mac's murder." With not one, but two dead bodies, the story grows in intensity as it careens towards a show-down between the murderer and these two amateur sleuths (although I did figure out the murderer mid-way through the book).

Sprinkled among the light-hearted story-line, the author serves up seven original cookie and dessert recipes that will make your mouth water. From the tip to add blueberry pie filling to the batter for her blueberry muffin recipe to a stack of delectable ingredients for her Multiple Choice bars, the recipes sound fantastic (although I've never tried one out). This would be a series of books worth purchasing so you could have easy reference to the recipes the stories inspire.

Like a cookie-addict, I'm hooked on these delightful murder mysteries. Thanks Mom, for introducing me to this author. I was thrilled to discover that there are so many books in this series (20 by the end of 2015). The next up for me will be book four, Lemon Meringue Pie Murder. I was also interested to hear the titles of the last two on the list (due out in November and December of 2015): Tootsie Roll Murder and Taco Bell Murder. Amazing to think the little town of Lake Eden, Minnesota, could be flooded with such an extensive crime streak and that Hannah would continue to evade all these close calls with the killers. Ha!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

After being a bit disappointed with John Green's Paper Towns because of the distractions of language and teens behaving badly, I am glad I still picked up this other bestselling work by Green, The Fault in Our Stars. It was a very good book. Even though it was sad and some people might have great difficulty reading it (if anyone close to you has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer), it was a wonderful read.

I think Green did a marvelous job of developing the characters and creating genuine dialogue. The characters pulled you into the story directly. I loved the first page. It was magnificent:

"Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

"Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying."

From the very start, we are pulled into Hazel's world and forced to face the difficult challenges she is facing. We also get to enjoy the interesting relationship developing between Hazel and one hot guy named Augustus Waters. The experience is a whirlwind of romance and despair and trying to balance between hope and the inevitable path toward death.

I don't even want to write more about what the story is about because it is just one you have to observe unfolding on your own. This book deserves its spot on the New York Times bestseller list!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book Review: Getting the Words Right

This is an older book. I've had it on my shelves for some time, but thought it might be good to review before I prepare to make further revisions on my most recent novel (I've had one go-through at this point).  As the title suggests, Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite, is most concerned with the editing phase of writing.

Theodore Cheney outlines the three Rs of revision: reduction, rearranging, and rewording. He encourages the writer to weed out the unnecessary, refine the sentences worth keeping, and strive for the goals of unity, coherence, and emphasis. With plenty of examples of note-worthy revision, the book walks the reader/writer through the process of polishing one's words.

This was, perhaps, not my favorite writing book of all time, but it was helpful, nonetheless. It will be a good guide as I begin this process of honing my own words to get them right. Revision is essential and I'll take all the help I can get to get the words right.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The World Needs Your Expression

I stumbled upon a tumblr site where my niece, Kirsten, posts. I always wonder if that is okay. I mean, does she feel like I am looking over her shoulder when I want to read or see what she is posting, or is she perfectly fine with my interest in the thoughts swirling around in her brain.

Here is something she posted which made me pause in my tracks and vow to copy it so that I would never lose the sentiment myself, even though I have no idea who Martha Graham is:

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
Martha Graham

Isn't that brilliant! How I needed to hear that - really hear it. The world needs my expression, even if I'm never satisfied that my very best expression is good enough!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review: Hyperbole and a Half

I have never been to this author's blog. I haven't even heard good things about the book.  But when the library description for Hyperbole and a Half showed up in my in-box, I decided I was up for a funny book. I waited my turn and the book came in today. I read it in an afternoon (since it is in comic book form, it was a quick and easy read).

While not as funny as I had hoped, it was still a good chuckle here and there. Plus, I will have to say that the author's description of the confusing nature of depression was spot on. She really nailed what it feels like to go through a major depressive phase. Her explanation of the responses of others was also true to life. I feel bad for her because she had to go through a chronic depression in order to come up with those insights.

The funniest bits were probably about her two dogs. I could also relate to all the people telling her how easy it is to train a dog. As if!

I don't think I'm destined to become one of her blog readers, but did appreciate the light-hearted good laughs she provided.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Gotta love Flavia de Luce, the heroine of Alan Bradley's murder mysteries. She's a feisty, intrepid youngster with a love of chemistry who solves crimes more quickly than the investigators around her. In this spunky installment, Flavia has decided to set a trap for Father Christmas (this was a bit of a stretch to believe she would actually buy into the legend) by putting a sticky birdlime solution on the roof and has also concocted a plan to orchestrate a stellar fireworks display to celebrate the eventful evening.

When Buckshaw is leased out to a filming company for the month of December, Flavia expects to be quarantined in her room for the duration. But nothing can keep her from exploring the cast and crew and getting to know the lead star, Phyllis Wyvern. She is completely taken by surprise when she discovers Miss Wyvern in her room, strangled with a length of film. She immediately sets about to unlock as many clues as she can find. With numerous possible suspects, she must hone in on the truly important details. As she unravels the mystery, her birdlime and pyrotechnics on the roof both play a part in leading to the moment of climax in the story.

Although I wasn't as pleased with the third installment in this series, I have rallied again to a great love for Flavia's stories, in this fourth installment, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows. The characters were colorful. The plot moved along swiftly (despite the murder not being introduced until the end of chapter 11?), with ample moments of humor. The denoument, while a bit flimsy, was satisfying. I will certainly be looking for the next installment and will once again embrace this clever little sleuth.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Book Review: Do Hard Things

It is rare for me to check a book out from the library and, within the first few chapters, run out to buy the book.  That is exactly what happened with Alex and Brett Harris's Do Hard Things. I checked this book out in audio form from my local library and began listening while walking on the treadmill. The words of this twin team challenged my heart and soul so dramatically that I immediately wanted to place the book in the hands of my own teen.

Written by teens, for teens, Do Hard Things, is a manifesto against society's low expectations for the teen years. If I could put this book in the hands of every teen I know, I would do it. Indeed, I encourage every reader who is interested in rising above the status quo to embrace this book - read it and apply the principles outlined within its pages. I found encouragement and motivation for my own life. At a point when I was contemplating giving up on my writing goals, I began to listen and believe that God may indeed have a purpose behind my desire to write. It fueled the flames of my internal passion at a time when the embers were fading. I cannot thank the authors enough.

The style and structure of this book makes it easy to read. The authors begin by exposing the myth of adolescence, outlining how low our culture's expectations of teens have fallen. Next they list five kinds of hard things and offer encouragement for meeting those challenges. They provide examples from history and from current day teens who have come alongside the authors in this vision for stepping up to the plate, joining in their "rebelution" by following their blog,

Using the telling illustration of how elephant trainers can hold an elephant down by simply placing a rope around their foot (after teaching the elephant at a young age that resisting against heavy chains is pointless), Alex and Brett warn that the tremendous potential of young people is being held back by a thin rope of cultural expectations to use these years as a time for partying and enjoying life, free from greater responsibilities or challenges to impact their world. They urge readers, young and old, to choose hard things and raise the bar. They encourage every reader to seek God's given purpose and follow a road that, while hard, will reap untold rewards.

As Chuck Norris writes in his introduction to the book, "Each of us is called to reach for greatness. There really is a hero in all of us. We've all been designed by God to be a blessing to many - a hero to some. But there's only one way to get there - it's described by the title of this book: Do Hard Things.... The authors sound a battle cry to raise the cultural bar on teenage potential and to challenge young people to reach for their God-given best."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. As important as it is for teens to read this message, it is equally important for all Christians to consider what God desires from the years with which He has entrusted us. He calls us to do the hard things. He equips us to carry it out. Our world is in great need of individuals who are willing to hear the challenge and rise to the occasion.