Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review: The Maze Runner

I believe this book, The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, came under my radar because it is coming out in movie form this year. It was a possible selection for my book club. I'm glad I added it to my list. A fairly clean book with great appeal for boys, I'll definitely recommend this to my sons in a few years (or perhaps to Bryce if he needs to read a book of his own selection - something he rarely does). I even thought it was headed for some Christian parallels when they began to talk about the need for a sacrifice in order to save the lives of all the others, but this broke down somewhat. I'll probably see the movie when it comes out in September. It looks like it will be good. Here's the trailer:

Thomas awakens to find himself being lifted into a new world in an elevator. This new world, The Glade, has a large group of young men who have been trying to find a way out through a terrifying maze for two years already. The maze walls change every night (after the giant stone walls close on it) and hideous creatures called "Grievers" come out to sting and kill anyone left in the maze. Thomas is desperate for answers but none of the other boys offer up much in the way of information. Then, something strange begins to occur. Used to receiving a new citizen once a month, the boys are shocked when the day after Thomas arrives a girl, Teresa, arrives. If that isn't strange enough, she is clutching a note which says the end is near. She seems to remember Thomas, although Thomas has no recollections of her or his previous life. The intensity grows as things begin to change and they must find a way out or die.

This book was highly reminiscent of the Patrick Ness books, The Knife of Never Letting Go and More Than This. Like the first book, it is a world entirely made up of males with the introduction of one female. Like the second book, the main character has lost memory and finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world of some strange sort, requiring him to figure out what is going on. The telepathic communication between Thomas and Teresa reminded me of the noise of audible thought in The Knife of Never Letting Go. The Creators have placed the boys in the maze-world for a reason, but they seem helpless to figure it all out until Thomas and Teresa arrive. While open-ended, I wasn't terribly thrilled with the ending. It answered questions, yes, but left me wishing for a more satisfying conclusion.

This book had all the elements that appeal to male readers - a male dominated society with their own unique curse-code, monsters, intense challenges, a mysterious and attractive female, a maze, death, and gore. The reading was intensely compelling. Although not as wild a ride as a book by Ness, it was equally riveting. I can see why this was selected for a film interpretation. Can't wait to see the movie. How about you?
Click here for a review of my experience with the movie and with the prequel, The Kill Order.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Anxiety of Letting Little Birds Fly Away

At this very moment, my oldest, Bryce, is on a plane headed for Florida for his spring break... on his own.  It has been a nerve-wracking several weeks. When he first came to us with the plan, he said that a friend offered him a place to stay in their condo for spring break. He thought he would just drive down to take up the offer. Just. drive. down. ???? Seriously.

We explained to him that he's never driven a long distance like that before and if he was going to be driving for 17 hours, he would need someone along to spell him. The next day he arrived home from school glowing with the news that his friend, Ross, could drive down with him and spell him. Um, no. Two teen boys in a Ford Mustang on a cross-country trip - not quite ready for that yet, either.

So, I began to scheme another plan. My parents live only two hours away from his destination and in the long decade they've been there, we've never been to visit them (sad, I know). I suggested that Bryce and I do the drive and I take the two younger boys along for a visit to their grandparents after dropping Bryce off at the condo.

I began to get kind of excited about the trip. Sure, we'd be in the car for two solid days down and two solid days back, but it would be an adventure and I'd get to visit my parents and show the boys the ocean for the first time. We're not the type of family who take vacations like this usually. The last time I went to Florida was back when Bryce was five or six and we flew to visit my sister there, when she was living in Key West. We had a marvelous time. We went on a glass-bottom boat, did other touristy things, and had a nice visit with my sister and her family. Another trip to Florida was sounding good.

Then, my van began to make an odd whining noise whenever I accelerate. It's just a small noise, but enough to make me leery of taking on a cross-country trip in it. I suggested I take my husband's truck, but his gas guage isn't working and he merely keeps track of how far he's gone to know when to refill the tank. I wouldn't want to run out of gas, so I didn't feel comfortable with that option either.

In the meantime, Bryce claimed to have possibly found another ride. He knew he had a ride home (with a family whose husband was driving down, but had to fly back mid-week to return to work, leaving an extra seat in their vehicle). But the ride down fell through and we were back at making a decision about the drive down.

I think both my husband and mother-in-law were hesitant to allow me to make the trip. So, we purchased a one-way flight for Bryce (with gas expenses and a hotel for two nights during the drive time, probably cheaper in the long run). Thankfully, we were able to find a spot on a direct flight (no layovers or chances to miss connecting flights). Still, I have been full of anxiety about his taking this big step on his own. My husband says I'm a needless worrier. After all, he's almost 18 ... he ought to be able to handle this.

Still, when I left him at the entrance to the gates this morning, still needing to go through security checks and find the right gate and board the right plane, I felt nervous for him. I'm hoping he manages to board the right flight, secure his luggage at the other end, and find the family who offered him a spot at their condo (they are flying in a little later than Bryce). I'm hoping he doesn't burn significantly (he already got a slight burn at a tanning bed while preparing for the extensive sun exposure), doesn't have his wallet or belongings lost or stolen, doesn't get into any form of trouble down there, and most of all, has a great time on his final spring break for his high school years (he's never really gone anywhere for spring break while all of his friends head off almost every year to some exotic location).

I know he's almost considered an adult, but I still feel like a momma bird watching her little one fly off on his own for the first time. I'm sure the anxiety is normal. I'm also feeling a little depressed over the whole thing. I was actually looking forward to the adventure of a trip and now I'm facing a week at home with two squabbling boys who need physical activity, while the weather here continues to be frigid, wet, and unaccommodating. We plan to take them to Sky Zone and to a laser tag facility at some point during the week. Plus, there's the option of driving down to Bedford, Indiana, to ride in a boat in an underground cave.

Hopefully, Bryce will have a wonderful experience. We will survive our week at home. And one day, we'll make it down to Florida (with Dad along, would be my preference) to visit my parents and perhaps even take in Disney World. I looked up a glass-bottom boat in Ocala, Florida. That would be nice, as well.


Update: He called to say he arrived safely but his bag wasn't on the carousel. He gave the baggage claim guy all his information and waited there for a half hour before the woman who accidentally took his luggage came back with it. He said her luggage didn't even look that similar and had a pink tag on it. He was so mad he told her to learn to read next time - yikes! Thankful he is there and his luggage situation was ironed out.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Place for Gender-Specific Books

A new campaign called "Let Books Be Books" is afoot. Their rallying cry? Books shouldn't be earmarked specifically for boys or for girls, but should rather be encouraged to fall into a unisex category. A good book for a boy is a good book for a girl, too. It is merely "a good book."

At first glance, I agree with the premise. The mark of a truly great book is one which crosses all categorical audiences, one which appeals to children and adults, boys and girls, men and women. I would have to say there are certainly those kind of books out there. I want a world where books have such a widespread appeal that simply everyone is talking about them.

But, then again. I don't want that to be the only way books are marketed. As much as I love the books which knock it out of the park for everyone, I also feel there is a place for gender-specific books. The world is made up of categories. Even if you blur the categories, they still exist.

There are books which would not be marketed to young children. Take, for instance, The Hunger Games. I loved the series. I devoured each book with relish. But, I wouldn't encourage my seven-year-old son to tackle those books, despite his advanced reading ability. He might be able to read the words and make sense of them, but developmentally he is not ready to consider the concept of sending a young child off to almost certain death in a gladiatoresque-arena.  I seek out age-appropriate literature for him.

In the same way, I also wouldn't encourage my nine-year-old son to read Jasper Jones, an outstanding young adult title with great boy appeal. I'm not a young adult, yet I loved that book, despite the violence, the constant cursing, and other tawdry aspects which would usually earn my derision. There will come a time when I allow him to read it, and even encourage discussion about the book because although it is outstanding, it presents a very nihilistic worldview, a worldview I don't share. It will provide an excellent opportunity to discuss such things and help him iron out where he stands. But he is not ready for that yet.

I would not want my child to wander the stacks of adult books and come home with a book of erotica because "a book is a book," no specifications allowed. That is a category of book for a specific age and type of person. I understand the category and I steer myself away from it because, in my opinion, it is a classification of book I have no desire to delve into. In such cases, a book is not simply a book.

Books are pegged for specific age ranges. It is a practical function which helps the reader determine the appropriateness of the selection. No one is clamoring for children to be encouraged to read books clearly intended for adults.

So, if the age categorization isn't a problem, why is it suddenly a problem to market a book directly to boys or girls? I understand the outcry. People want there to be neutrality in their children. They want their child to be allowed to determine what things they are drawn to, without being hung up by gender stereotypes.

My nephew went through a stage where he was obsessed with Polly Pockets. He loved their minute size. He loved being able to create a small world with those little dolls. My sister was levelheaded enough to allow him to play with the toy, despite the categorical marketing of Polly Pockets toward girls, and I commend her for that.

But I am not bringing home dolls to my sons in an effort to turn them gender-neutral. I don't believe such a world would be the blessing others perceive it to be. I believe there is a reason for separate genders and a place for a man and a woman in this world. While I don't want my sons to grow up thinking housework and cooking are merely the domain of the wife (which thankfully, in my case, they understand that Dad is a far better cook than Mom), I also don't want them to grow up without a clear vision of the purpose God had when He chose to design them as a male. I want them to be providers, protectors, and warriors for their families. I want them to cherish their wives and treat them like princesses.

If I were to adopt a child from another country, everyone would encourage me to raise the child with an understanding of his/her cultural heritage. It would be in the best interest of the child. It would help affirm who they are in the world. There are many races and they are different, with different cultural backgrounds and tendencies. I love the variety God chose to place on our magnificent earth. If I were to adopt such a child, I would hope to find books specifically targeted to the cultural background of my child.

In the same way, I want my sons to be able to identify books which serve their particular persuasion. I want gender-specific books out there encouraging my boys to embrace their masculinity. Two of my sons are typical reluctant readers. Gender-specific books, like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Jake Drake series, clearly appeal to them more and I am all about finding and selecting books they identify with strongly. (For suggestions for high-quality boy books try Ann Voskamp's son's list or Jennifer Murray's reader's survey list.)

Having said that, I don't want all books to be categorized as gender-specific. The books with crossover appeal should certainly be marketed with crossover appeal. Some of my sons' favorite books have been series which feature a strong female protagonist but, in a wonderful way, appeal equally to my boyish boys: the Junie B. Jones series, the Clarice Bean series, and the Ivy and Bean series, to name a few. If those books had pink covers, it might dissuade my boys from selecting them. I encouraged them to read them anyway. I didn't need a special campaign to tell me they were good books, despite bearing certain appeal to girls.

I feel it is my role as a parent to steer my child toward the books I desire, be they girl-centric or boy-centric. If a book like Pippi Longstocking has general appeal, I want it to be marketed equally to boys and girls. But, if my boys are looking for tales of adventure, I'm all for steering them toward series which are targeted at the boy craving adventure. If I had a daughter, I'm sure I would cradle her in my arms while I read the adventure series to my sons and she might grow into an equal love of the books targeted outside of her gender.

I merely feel there is a place for gender-specific books. There are different genders. There are different audiences for books. Let's not throw out the possibility of gender-specific books in our desire to create a world where there are no lines and no categories and no stereotypes to hold a reader back. I want those dynamic books with across-the-board appeal. I just don't want to throw out the possibility of finding books which cater to my sons and their masculine persuasion. Isn't there room in our world for gender-specific books in addition to those with general appeal? I sincerely hope publishing companies continue to encourage boys to read by helping them select books with boy appeal. In the meantime, I'll continue to seek out the very best literature I can find to open up my sons' horizons to the wonderful world out there, a world full of boys and girls, young and old, black and white.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Review: Hate List

I didn't think I was going to like this book, Hate List. It was selected for my March Young at Heart book club (we read young adult literature, but most of us are well past the young adult range). To begin with, it was about a school shooting. Depressing, right? Surprisingly, I did get engrossed in the book and came to genuinely like the main character.

On a lark, Valerie Leftman and her boyfriend began making a "hate list," of things and people they hated. For Valerie, it was all a way of blowing off steam when others bullied her. She had no idea that her boyfriend, Nick Levil, would one day decide to really punish those on the hate list. Valerie attempted to stop him, jumping in front of Jessica, one of the targeted girls, and taking a bullet to her leg. Then, she watched as her boyfriend put the gun to his own head.

That is a summary of what propels the story in this book, but the book is about so much more than the school shooting. The book is primarily about Valerie's road to recovery. She has to decide if she is the hero or villain of the story. She must return to life at her high school and face the fallout of that fateful day. Without much support at home, she works with Dr. Hieler, to face her demons and attempt to see what is really there.

If you're looking for a plot-driven story, you'll have to look elsewhere. But, if you like to delve into the mind of an individual facing a tragic and emotionally-fraught circumstance, then this is the book for you. I appreciated that all of the characters eventually were portrayed as both bad and good. Their humanity was, at times, open and raw, and at other times, tender and redeeming.

This is just another great debut novel. The writing flowed, the characters were well-drawn, the concepts beneath the surface worth considering. I foresee many more titles from this author (who also writes middle-grade fiction and women's fiction - see her website for more information, including information about a novella connected to this book).

Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: A Land More Kind Than Home

Wiley Cash's second book grabbed my attention on the recent acquisition list for our library. I joined the hold list, but also checked to see if they had his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. I was in luck.

The cover alone led me to believe this would be a worthwhile read. I love the title, taken from a line in Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again (the full quote being: "[Death is] to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.") The rich colors of sunset on the side of a small hill with a house and trees were inviting. Then there's the quote by Clyde Edgerton declaring it to be "a first novel that sings with talent."

I'd have to agree with Edgerton. I'm always in awe of writers who can move a reader so intensely right out of the gate. No stumbling about with preliminary efforts to nail the voice and plot required to suck a reader in. Wiley Cash has just that ability. He has created a story with an enticing premise and three clearly-voiced narrators.

Jess Hall is a curious nine-year old boy, fiercely protective of his mute older brother, Christopher, a boy everyone calls "Stump." One day, Stump sees something he shouldn't have, and this leads to a path of destructive fall-out. Jess watches it all unfold, alongside the town midwife, Adelaide Lyle, and the town sheriff, Clem Barefield.

The story revolves around the events of one day, a Sunday when Stump's mother, Julie, takes him for a healing service at her extremist church. The charismatic pastor has convinced his parishioners to believe in the Holy Ghost power to allow individuals to hold snakes, drink poison, and miraculously thrive from the laying on of hands. Only Stump doesn't thrive or regain his voice. He dies. His father, Ben, and his newly returned grandfather, Jimmy, want answers.

I loved how the author managed to unfold the tale like a flower coming into bloom. The characters each have rich back-story, but the back-story was never disruptive. It served to tease out the tale. Moreover, he captured rich tension between the characters. Readers simply cannot pry their eyes away as the tale sweeps into further destructive territory.

I already have his second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, in hand. I'm expecting another excellent read. I foresee a great future for this young, talented writer.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Down but Not Defeated

I had been putting off contacting them ... the publishers who requested two book proposals back in July. I knew that it had been a long time since I had heard anything from them, but fear held me back. If I contact them, I might finally hear their rejection, my brain reasoned. So, I put it off until finally, I got off my duff and wrote the contact person (the editor I had pitched my ideas to at the writer's conference last year, who had then put me in touch with the head editor at her publishing company). I merely stated that I was wondering if they had found time to review the book proposals I sent back in July.

She seemed very apologetic. I guess, in my inexperience, I didn't really know what was a reasonable amount of time to wait. I secretly hoped that the reason I wasn't hearing anything was because the proposals were making the rounds of committee meetings where everyone has to get on board before requesting the full manuscript. Probably not the way it works, but my brain was hoping.

She contacted her head editor and he finally sent me a reply. He wrote:

"Thanks so much for submitting both of your young adult fiction proposals.... Thanks also for discussing these proposals with -- -- last summer. She only forwards manuscripts to me that she sees strong potential in, and I greatly appreciate her efforts.

"I am sorry it has taken so long to get an answer to you regarding your proposals. I have found the writing to be top-tier and the story lines to be quite interesting. I wish we could expand our YA fiction by adding both titles.

"But sadly we are tapped out on fiction titles for the next two years...."

So, some sad, but also encouraging, news. On the one hand, it was a no. Ouch! But on the other hand, my writing was declared to be "top-tier" and my ideas "quite interesting." That is a good sign. At least I know I am not sending out rubbish.

I had also heard another no from a different publishing company prior to that. It wasn't unexpected because the contact editor had warned me in advance that their publishing company seldom publishes any young adult fiction. In her rejection, she declared my manuscript to be "a strong book and concept."

The Christian market for young adult fiction is very slim. This begs a whole conversation about why that is the case, but I have no desire to speculate at the moment. For me, it is what it is and I have to work around those limitations.

So, what am I doing? I'm actually moping less than I was when I was waiting for some word. I immediately switched tracks and spent some time fine-tuning my middle-grade manuscript. I then submitted it to Eerdmans, one of the few publishers who will accept unsolicited manuscripts. Of course, they receive thousands of these unsolicited manuscripts each year, so my chances are again slim, but it was worth the shot and it was some form of action. That is what I have resolved to do - keep taking some form of action, attempting to get my manuscripts out there.

I'm not to the point of considering self-publishing yet. I still feel very strongly that I am supposed to seek out a publisher for my work. Maybe when I have exhausted all other avenues, I will turn to that possibility, but for now ... I'm just going to keep plugging away. My brain has been tossing around a few ideas for a women's novel, a much easier market to break into. Of course, my passion is still young adult literature, but it can't hurt to try a different angle.

The real question I keep coming back to is whether or not I should be seeking employment in the midst of this struggle. We could certainly use the extra income, but I wouldn't want to take any kind of position which required me to place my boys in before or after school care, so the options seem limited there, as well. I could go back to something in education, but I'm not sure that is where I want to be either. It is hard to know what to do, but I'm not giving up on my writing. It is still a dream and one I feel is worth pursuing.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: Pictures of Hollis Woods

This Newbery Honor Book was recommended to me by my mom. Patricia Reilly Giff writes award-winning books. She has great talent, for sure.

Hollis Woods was named for the woods in which she was found abandoned as an infant. A note requested that she be named Hollis Woods. For some reason, this detail made me think that the birth mother was going to show up in the end of the story to reclaim her child. I was wrong.

Hollis is a runner. She's run from the last five or six foster homes she's had. She'll probably run from this new one with an elderly artist who carves wood. But Josie is interesting, if not quite all there in the memory department, and she allows Hollis to be who she is. Hollis begins to love the old woman, but she also continues to remember the last family she fell in love with. Things didn't go so well with that family and the story comes out through a series of pictures Hollis brings to mind throughout the story.

The story weaves in and out through time with Josie and pictures drawn from times with the Regan family, a home where she really felt she belonged. But things transpire to keep her from remaining with the Regan family and things will transpire to keep her from remaining with Josie, but this time Hollis wants to run toward her foster parent instead of away.

It was a fun little book. I loved how the author pried the story out in increments. Hollis was an endearing protagonist and her struggles were heart-rending. It was an excellent middle-grade read and was apparently made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie, as well.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

When the Older One Doesn't Want to Be Associated with the Younger One

We're in a difficult phase these days with our two younger sons. For seven years now, I've had one big boy and two "little" boys. That's just how it felt. I know I've been guilty of lumping the two younger ones together. Who wouldn't? They're just two years apart and, for the most part, have gotten along splendidly.

But something shifted a few months after my middle son turned nine. He began to attempt to individuate himself from his little brother. It started subtly. It bothered him when the waiter brought both Trevor and Sean the Styrofoam kid cups. He wanted the grown-up glass. He didn't want to order from the kid's menu, insisting he's not a kid anymore. He began to hang out in his older brother's room more often, watching programs Bryce is allowed to watch but Trevor is not (things like South Park and Family Guy).

Then he began to distance himself from Sean by refusing to share things in common. He didn't want to share the same toothpaste tube. He threw a fit if he discovered that Sean happened to select the same color of socks he was wearing. He refused to allow him to make the same Rainbow Loom bracelets he made. He didn't want Sean playing the same video games. He complained about having to take the same bus and tried to be late so that I would have to drive him to school separately.

It has since morphed into something far more painful. He is often outright rude to Sean, a guy who has the sweetest disposition I've ever known. He has taken to making fun of him, something we simply will not allow. We are in daily battles to keep their interactions respectful and friendly.

The thing which bothers me most is watching Sean suffer through what is clearly just a stage of growth for Trevor. Sean has internalized it and taken to thinking his brother doesn't like him anymore. We try to explain to Sean that Trevor is merely asserting himself as a bigger kid than he was before and that it is just the age he is trying to distance himself from rather than the person, but, alas, it still feels like the person is being attacked. It grieves us to see Sean hurting like this.

After giving it much thought and discussion, we attempted to curb the negativity by upping Trevor's responsibilities in exchange for a half an hour more time at bedtime. His 8 o'clock bedtime has long been a source of contention for Trevor as he insists that none of his classmates have to go to bed so early. As long as he follows through on the few additional chores, he is allowed to stay up until 8:30, with the caveat that the bedtime will go back to 8 p.m. if he cannot treat his brother with respect. Sadly, he's lost the extra half hour quite a few times.

Thursday night, I thought that rather than punishing the bad behavior, I would try to encourage the good behavior, so I informed them (as they both went to bed at 7:30 because of the afternoon's endless squabbling) that I would be taking boys who treat the other one with kindness and respect out for an ice cream Friday night.  It did help. They were bending over backwards to be nice to one another for a day. Whether this will help when a shake is not in the picture remains to be seen.

We have an honors banquet coming up next week for Bryce. He is being honored for being one of the top ranked students in his senior class. Trevor will be going to his friend Jonas' house and Sean will go to his friend Carter's house. I'm grateful for the two families who are willing to take them because goodness knows they would have been horrible at one house together.

It can't hurt for them to have their own space and time (although we still have to force them to share a room). Indeed, I'm kind of relieved that Sean has decided he doesn't want to go to CBLI, our annual Bible camp, this summer (I think he is fearful he will get another awful, life-threatening eye infection like last year - click here for the horrifying photos). He wants to spend the week with Grandma and she is willing to have him (he's the easiest one of the bunch). So Trevor and I will travel to Wisconsin and share the 9 day encampment together. He is excited about it because, for the first time, I am telling him he will be able to go off on his own during the afternoon free times. In the past, I've always accompanied the boys (they were 6 and 8 last summer) for whatever they wanted to do during free time. I'm excited because I'll actually have the free time to myself to nap, read, write or join the band, if I so desire. A win-win for everyone.

But, I'm not so sure we are out of the woods on this issue. I think it is certainly a stage we're going to have to get through. Thankfully, I know it is just a stage. This too shall pass. I'm very hopeful that they will go back to being good friends once Bryce heads off to college and Trevor establishes himself as the older of the two. That is what I want for them - a good friendship between brothers. After all, "a brother is born for adversity." (Prov. 17:17) The whole reason we had Sean and moved to this house was to give Trevor a closer sibling than his much bigger brother (an 8 year gap). Today, he cannot seem to recognize his blessings, but I hope he will be able to see them in the future.

How about you? Have you dealt successfully with this issue? What things did you try to help the older sibling navigate the new waters of pre-adolescence without wounding the younger sibling? Goodness knows, I'll take all the parenting advice I can get!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Coming Clean

Kimberly Rae Miller's memoir, Coming Clean, is all that a memoir should be. As Jeannette Walls, author of the memoir, The Glass Castle, puts it:

“Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it. It’s honestly sharing what you think, feel, and have gone through. If you can do that effectively, then somebody gets the wisdom and benefit of your experience without having to live it.” (

By reading of Miller's experiences with growing up in a hoarding household, we get the chance to explore the ideas of how our backgrounds shape us, sometimes shame us, but ultimately force us to accept our shortcomings and love who we are regardless of where we may have come from. It is a story of the resilience of family relationships, despite personal neuroses, and a story of love in the midst of tragic squalor and embarrassment.

Miller's brilliant father suffers from hoarding, a pathological need to have endless papers surrounding him, while her mother suffers from a compulsive tendency to shop, an emotional tool for responding to the limitations her diseased body has placed on her. Yet, as a devoted daughter, Kimberly never gives up on her parents, even when their behaviors anger her and require her to somehow find a way to manage the family and keep them from the consequences of their tendencies. She tirelessly comes to their assistance to purge their dwellings from their interminable stuff. It isn't easy. Goodness knows, she resents being put in that position, but after all, these are her parents and she is able to see the good in them and their value, despite the illnesses that plague them.

The story was heart-tugging and real. It provided, as all good memoirs do, the chance to step into the author's shoes and walk around a little. I found myself wanting to do a purge of my own home. I recognize that I have my own hoarding tendencies - a desire to keep too many papers because they may come in handy someday or I may wish to revisit the words again, a thrill in finding a clearance bargain even if it is something I don't need at the moment, the inability to get rid of the over-abundance of clothes my sons have, when they tend to wear the same shirts and pants over and over again - tendencies which could and should be curbed. While my home doesn't present the squalor or floor-to-ceiling stacks of Miller's childhood, I do wish my home could be a more clutter-free zone for my children and spouse to live in. It almost made me want to join the 40 Bags in 40 Days campaign ... almost. I'm not there yet. I'd rather spend the time writing than whittling down my stuff. Ha!

But I still found much to take away from her story: A person can rise above the challenges placed before them and carve out a new life. The love we feel for our family won't be compromised by the emotional and mental baggage we carry. We can forgive our parents for mistakes they've made and still come out the other side to be productive, well-balanced individuals (a blessing, since I'm making my own share of parental mistakes, for sure).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: The Playdate

This was one of those psychological thrillers where the ground you're standing on continues to shift until the truth is finally revealed. Many Amazon reviewers gave it four and five stars, but I wasn't as impressed with it. It was an easy read, but the characters were hard to get behind. They shifted from good to bad and bad to good and were, in some cases, just weird. The premise was a good one: what if something were to happen to your child while on a playdate? (The hook on the cover: "You leave your kids with a friend. Everyone does it. Until the day it goes wrong.") The story was interesting, but in the end, the book was just okay.

Callie has a hard time making friends in her London neighborhood. The other mothers all seem to snub her, apart from one sort-of close friend. She's not really very close. Callie can tell the relationship is more one of convenience than true soul-sharing, but she continues to rely on her friend, Suzy, nonetheless. Suzy has a dashing, successful husband and three boys and wants to spend their newly established free time (because Callie's daughter, Rae, and Suzy's oldest son, Henry, are both in kindergarten and Suzy's younger twins are finally in nursery school) doing things together. Sadly, Callie is feeling the need to pull away and actually return to work, now that Rae is more established in school and her heart problems seem to be abating. Callie's return to work isn't going smoothly, but Suzy makes it clear that she is more than willing to help out getting Rae out of after-school care whenever Callie has to work late.

Spoiler alert: Here's where the story began to get more confusing. Callie calls Suzy to ask her to pick Rae up because she has to work late. Instead, Suzy asks the strange neighbor, Debs, (who has some mysterious background and hyper-alert sensitivities to noise) to walk the girl home because Debs is a teacher at the after-school care program. While on the walk home, the girl falls into the street in front of an oncoming cyclist. This is somehow a highly serious accident, despite it only being a scratch, because of her heart condition, although it turns out to be fine (and at this point, I'm wondering why the book is titled "The Playdate" when the incident happens on a trip home). Suddenly, suspicions focus more on Debs, but then it turns out it is Suzy who isn't really what she appears to be. In fact, all of the characters begin to shape-shift. It turns out that Debs is really just a concerned by-stander who is being tormented and set-up by Suzy, who ends up being the key nut-job. Callie's daughter, Rae, is revealed to be the product of an affair with Suzy's husband, Jez. Callie's ex-husband, Tom, who has seemed to be a bad guy, turns up with a renewed desire to protect Callie and Rae. Suzy takes Rae from a play-date (hence, the title, finally) with another little girl, Hannah, and attempts to kill her in a car accident while she is driving. Say what??? Really, it was all a bit too much to take in and seemed too sensational, as if the writer was just trying to come up with the key shock factors.

I think the author was successful in presenting the story by interweaving the narration from three perspectives (Callie's chapters told in first person, and Debs' and Suzy's chapters told in third-person). I also think her writing was smooth and easy to follow. The plotting was good. But, in the end, the characters shifted too much for me. Somehow I felt like I, as a reader, was being manipulated. Still, for a first novel, I'd say Millar did an outstanding job and has great potential for future psychological thrillers.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: Room

I've certainly heard the buzz about Emma Donahue's book, Room. I was thrilled to find it in audio form just as I was in need of a new book to begin while walking on the treadmill. My husband happened to be in the exercise room when I started and he gave me quite the look, since the narrator is a five-year-old boy ... highly expressive, but five-years-old nonetheless. I had to explain to him later about the book and the plot line.

Five year old Jack and his Ma live in an 11x11 foot room. It is all Jack has ever known. It is his fifth birthday and he is processing all the things about his special day. Slowly, his Ma begins to explain more about their life than he has ever heard before. He is under the impression that the things on TV are not real. Anything outside of the room is, to him, outer space. She begins to acknowledge that there is a real world outside the doors of their prison. She explains that she used to live with her own Ma in a house with a hammock out back, but when she was nineteen and headed to a class at college, a man tricked her into his truck by claiming to need some help with his dog. The man, someone Jack calls "Old Nick," brings them things they need and accepts their list of requests for "Sunday treat." Every night, Ma hides Jack away in Wardrobe so that he has very little association with "Old Nick." But she begins to realize they cannot survive in this way for very much longer. For one, Old Nick has lost his job, and for another, she cannot imagine keeping the boy safe from their captor for too much longer. Something has to change and they must come up with a plan to make it happen.

While this novel was intensely riveting (I could barely tear myself away from listening), it was also deeply disturbing (mostly because the story was entirely believable and based on things which have tragically happened in our world). I think the most clever aspect of this novel was its point of view. Telling the story from the perspective of the five-year-old was genius, even if it must have been difficult to communicate all that needed to be said. The chosen narrator was the unique angle which led to the book's success, in my opinion.

At first, I found the voice of the child to be a bit grating, but the deeper I got into the story, the more eager I was to glean his perspective and to approach the sad tale from the eyes of a child. I don't want to give away any significant bits of the story-line (a difficult task when there is really so much I could say about the midway point and the end of the tale). Several points in the book were truly terrifying as I wondered what would happen to this poor mother and child. It was also interesting to explore the nature of the mother-child bond, both for mothers in bondage and those in normal life. (The author actually admits that the germ of the story arose from her own experience with the sometimes suffocating nature of motherhood.) Suffice it to say, I would read it again and would recommend it to others as an engrossing read.

I did search for information about other books by this author and found that none of the rest of the books sound even slightly interesting to me. This may be the only book I will attempt from this author. Still, I'm glad to have read it and to have submerged myself in this maddening story, if for only a short while.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Reviews: The Phantom of the Post Office and Hollywood, Dead Ahead

I am a sucker for a punny book by Kate Klise, with the outstanding illustrations of M. Sarah Klise. I loved the first three books in this 43 Old Cemetery Road Series: Dying to Meet You, Over My Dead Body, and Till Death Do Us Bark. Like the Regarding Series, these books are full of characters with clever names, interesting story development told through letters, transcriptions and newspapers, and good educational fun.

In Phantom of the Post Office, I.B. Grumply, Olive C. Spence, and Seymour Hope are hard at work on their next installment of their serialized novel but are not sure how it will be distributed since the Ghastly Post Office is closing for good soon, to welcome in the advent of Vext-mail (video enhanced text messaging). Ghastly's postmaster, Sue Perstishus, is entirely against the development, but cannot convince the U.S. Postmaster General, Sal U. Tayshuns to back down on the idea. In the midst of this, Seymour finds himself in the hospital with the flu, where, through correspondence, he meets M. Balm's niece, Wynonna "Wy" Fye and discusses the classic book, The Phantom of the Opera. Wy is a reluctant participant in the correspondence department because she is addicted to her cell phone, which her uncle confiscates and passes along to I.B. Grumply for the duration of her month-long visit. Dr. Izzy Dedyet is hard on the case, trying to cure them of this phantom flu bug in time to save the post office.

In Hollywood, Dead Ahead, the writer/illustrator trio are welcomed to Hollywood when Moe Block Busters proposes to make their novel into a movie. Olive can't get any respect and Grumply and Hope are changing, and not for the better, because of their imminent stardom. Olive works with the new leading lady, Ivana Oscar, to remedy the bad contracts, murder plots, and altered story lines of the film. With characters like Luke Ahtmee and Mel O. Drama, you're sure to get another laugh.

These books, geared towards ages 9-12, are simply delightful. I was thrilled to learn that the Klise sisters are hard at work on a sixth installment, entitled Greetings from the Graveyard, where we are promised another mystery and more cleverly named characters, like the butler, T. Leeves. Keep up the great work, Klise sisters! I, for one, love your puns and clever story lines.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Book Review: Lost Lake

Sarah Addison Allen's novel, Lost Lake, is a novel full of nostalgia. It makes you hearken back to a time when life was really good and you almost let a good thing slip away. It makes you long for yesterday.

Eby Pim is getting ready to sell Lost Lake, a plot with lakeside cabins which she has run since she returned from her magical honeymoon in Paris to chase a dream of owning a small plot of resort property in Georgia. Her husband died long ago, and now all she can think about is travelling back to the places so filled with wonder when they were young and in love. So she is determined to do her inventory and close up the cabins. But several old faithful summer guests return for one last hurrah. Plus, her great-niece, Kate, shows up, with an eight year old daughter in tow, hoping to relive the magic of her twelfth summer spent fifteen years before at Lost Lake.

Kate is just coming to from a year of numbing grief after the loss of her husband and wants to show her daughter, Devin, the magical place of Lost Lake, where she cavorted with a wild boy named Wes and enjoyed the freedom of the summer. Kate has allowed her mother-in-law to call the shots for far too long and believes this spontaneous trip might make up for a year of not quite responding to her daughter's needs. It is indeed all she needs to bring her to her senses and remind her of what she really wants out of life.

I agree with Fannie Flagg's endorsement on the back cover: "You will love going to Lost Lake with Sarah Addison Allen and meeting all the fascinating characters who live there. This book is filled with mystery, magic, and wonderful surprises!" You will lose yourself in the tale of Lost Lake and all the many loves which weave in and out of the story. It was a sweet read. I would give it 4 stars.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Adorable, Creative Little Girl

You've probably already seen the buzz around this four year old fashionista, but I had to share because I'm just thrilled with the creativity and cuteness of this little girl. Not having girls, and not having any fashion-sense myself, I can't imagine how fun this must be. I love how Mayhem struts her stuff and insists on making new dresses almost daily.

(photos from FashionbyMayhem)

If you have time, take a moment to view this post, where they show the progression from the first paper dress made to the present day creations. The side-by-sides next to the celebrity dresses are awe-inspiring. Or visit Mayhem's mother's blog for even more pictures of Mayhem and her creative dresses at Amazing! Adorable!