Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Fudge Cupcake Murder

The fifth book in the Hannah Swensen mystery series, Fudge Cupcake Murder, is everything readers have come to expect from Joanne Fluke's trademark style. Pairing delectable baked good recipes with tales of murder and mystery, this book continues the story of Hannah's life with predictable flair. Lake Eden, Minnesota, must be grateful for the baking expertise and intuitive crime-solving abilities of The Cookie Jar owner, Hannah.

Hannah is hard at work compiling a group of recipes for a Lake Eden cookbook and trying to determine the mystery ingredient for a special fudge cupcake recipe. She happens upon the body of Sheriff Grant in a dumpster and must ferret through the evidence to determine who has offed the disliked sheriff. Of course, there is danger the closer she gets to finding the killer.

Hannah still can't seem to decide between her dual love interests, Norman and Mike. Her sister is close to having her second child. Moreover, her mother is being pursued by an unknown man, whom they fear is a con man. I find the advancing story line of her life equally fascinating as the murder mystery elements. I will happily seek out the next installment in this series. While they are not very literary fare, they are entertaining, whimsical and light-hearted fun.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review: Dancing with My Father

Being a mother of boys, I have subscribed to the posts provided by the MOB Society (about mothering boys within a Christian framework). I often see Sally Clarkson's contributions. Thus, when my mother-in-law passed on a pile of books to sell to the Half-Price Bookstore, I quietly pulled out this book by Clarkson to read for myself. It wasn't a book I sought out. Just one I happened upon.

I will admit that I really skimmed this book. I read it in the space of one day and didn't take time to answer the interactive questions presented at the end of every chapter. The subtitle tells the intent of the book: How God Leads Us into a Life of Grace and Joy. Really, joy was at the heart of this book. And who couldn't use more joy? Sally Clarkson went on a mission to live a more joy-filled life throughout her Christian walk. She realized that often the daily grind of being a Christian in a fallen world takes its toll and leaves a person merely coasting along, doing what seems to be required. All of us would want to strive for something more than that, no doubt.

Clarkson shares personal stories (my favorite part of the book) of her journey towards a more joy-filled life. She outlines things which can stand in the way of living with joy. While it didn't provide any startling discoveries for me, it was a good book to digest in a short amount of time. It would be a perfect read for someone who is feeling empty in their Christian walk and longing for more of the joy of the Lord to translate into their daily existence.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book Review: Speaking From Among the Bones

I made the mistake of picking up the sixth installment of the Flavia de Luce novels at the library before securing this fifth installment, Speaking From Among the Bones. Even though I intended to read them in order, I couldn't help but peek at the description on the back cover for the sixth book. In doing so, I rendered the most suspenseful and shocking part of this fifth book null and void. What a shame! Thus, I will try to share some details of this book without giving away the big shocker at the end. Suffice it to say, the cliff-hanger ending will leave devoted readers of the Flavia de Luce novels anxious to get their hands on the sixth.

Once again, Flavia de Luce is knee-deep in murder and determined to investigate right alongside the trained detectives. Her keen powers of observation take her along the road to solving the murder long before the detectives have pieced together the puzzle. This time around, Flavia finds the body of Mr. Collicutt, the church organist. The community is abuzz with the news of the intended opening of St. Tancred's tomb, in celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of his death. No one expects to find a different body, shrouded with a gas mask, on top of the sarcophagus. Flavia goes to desperate lengths, even crawling along a tunnel from one grave into the underside of the church, to unearth bits of evidence. As she racks up one clue after the next, she is also dealing with the engagement of her sister, Ophelia, and the possible loss of her cherished home, Buckshaw.

Author Alan Bradley has come up with a quite likeable character in eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. With her love of chemistry, and specifically poisons, and her intrepid manner of scouting out the clues, she is sure to dazzle the reader with her spunk and intelligence. These novels are entertaining and delightful. The chase is on to solve the crime and you know already that Flavia will have a tremendous hand in ferreting it all out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Bit Down Despite the Anticipation of Good Things

I am looking forward to leaving for Central Bible & Leadership Institute this weekend. I am! But, I'm feeling a bit down about it as well. We had planned to drop Sean off at his grandma's house and then Trevor and I would drive on to DeKalb for a brief visit with our good friends, the Olsen family, before heading to the camp on Saturday morning. Now, plans have changed and I'm feeling depressed about the whole thing.

Grandma called on Sunday night to say that she didn't think she could keep Sean after all. Her knee (which is in sore need of a further replacement surgery) has been excruciatingly painful of late. She came over to see her Indiana doctor concerning it, but he couldn't get her in for surgery until September. I feel bad for her that she is in pain and I fully understand her backing out, but I am reeling with sadness over the loss of my vision of what this CBLI would have been like. Since it was supposed to only be Trevor and me, I was going to be able to leave him for his free time and have the entire afternoons to myself (allowing me to be in the brass band for the first time and allowing me to read and write to my heart's content every afternoon). Yes, my feelings are based in complete selfishness.

Thankfully, the camp is willing to allow Sean to join us after all. They couldn't alter the housing arrangements, so he will be sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag (I think he thinks he's going to climb in the twin bed with me). Plus, we weren't given the housing assignment we requested (things were very tight this year and there must be a huge number coming), so we are in a small private room with shared bath facilities. This means that the boys will have to go down the hall and use the men's room by themselves for their showers and other bathroom needs. I'm a bit worried that Sean, at seven, will not be able to fully handle that.

Still, I'm relieved that the boys have taken the changes so well. I was worried Sean would be upset about going and, equally worried, that Trevor would be very upset because it was no longer his private little experience with Mom. They both seem to have adjusted to the idea. It is only me dragging my heels and feeling discouraged. They are excited because the annual field trip for the Jr. CBLI track is going to be to a trampoline park this year (yikes - now I'm worried about injury).

My sadness is also streaming up from another place within. One of my friends in The Salvation Army, Steve, just lost his battle with cancer and has gone to be with the Lord. If you could see all the messages, condolences and remembrances, photos and stories, being posted on the Facebook feed, you would know just how vast an impact he made during his forty-some years on this earth. He was a humble man and always there with a good word. He poured his life into drawing people closer to the Lord. He ministered in Haiti, where he married a Haitian woman and went on to have one son, who is now about six years old (how I pray for his wife and son as they go on without him). I was able to hear him preach during the CMI alumni event five years ago and I remember his message stirring my soul. We are all (those of us in the Central Territory of The Salvation Army, who knew him) reeling with the loss of this fine, effective young man. God used his life in a mighty way, but for reasons unknown to us decided to call him home.

When I was in college, his parents blessed me immensely by taking me into their home every Sunday. I would catch a ride to the corps with a professor from Wheaton College and then go home with the Diaz family for lunch and to spend an afternoon studying. They then gave me dinner and returned me to the corps for the evening meeting, where I caught a ride with the same professor back to campus again. His parents were such godly, generous people. I smile when I think about the fact that Steve is being reunited with his parents (who have both already passed away) and being embraced by the arms of God. So, here again, even though there is good (what could be better than grasping eternity with the Saviour) it is mingled with sadness for the loss we feel here on earth.

Seeing all the accolades and expressions of grief has also caused me to take a step back and look at my own life. It causes one to ask whether the life you are living is making as big an impact as this other life has. How would I be remembered when I pass on? So, there is a sense of frustration that my life has such little impact in the face of things. Here I sit at my little kitchen table with a keyboard and very little else to show for my time (apart from the raising of some feisty boys). I don't know how to remedy that, only that I wish my life counted for even half as much as Steve's. I suppose the thing is to give it back to the Lord and ask Him to make of my life what he wishes. After all, He is the one who has led me into this isolated existence here in Indiana, and He is the only one who could take whatever I have to offer and turn it into anything of value. As I've said before, my job is just to show up.

I'm pretty sure my blog will fall into dead air for the next week or so while I'm gone. I haven't been reading as much lately and I don't know what kind of reception for wifi I will have when I am at camp. If my only reception is during meetings and classes, then that really doesn't help at all. Know that I intend to resume regular posting once I return in early August. I pray that it will be a spiritually enriching experience for both myself and my boys. I pray that all the glitches will work themselves out smoothly and that my own emotions will allow for enjoyment. We are blessed to have this opportunity, no matter what form it comes in.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Slated

What if the government were able to erase your memory of who you are and attempt to make you into a peaceable, law-abiding citizen by placing a controlling device on your wrist which monitors your emotions and threatens death if you allow it to fall into the danger zone? What if, somehow, the erasure wasn't entirely successful  and the device fails to respond to dangerous emotions like anger? What if you discovered a past you didn't remember having and had to determine whether you should attempt to get back the past or run from it? These are the premises driving the Slated trilogy by author Teri Terry.

While these ideas were interesting to contemplate, I wasn't entirely sucked into the story. I'm not sure why, but it seemed off at arm's length throughout my entire reading. I didn't fall in love with any of the characters. The love interest angle didn't really grip me. The evil, while menacing, didn't make me shake in my boots. Perhaps I'm just not that into dystopian novels. It received plenty of positive reviews from others. Now I have to decide for myself whether I will continue to pursue these books (my library only has the second, but not the third, available). I'm just not sure. The first book did end with a cliff-hanger, making the reader want to know what happened to Kyla's love interest, Ben. Even still, I'm not sure I'm hooked enough to seek out the rest of the trilogy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book Review: Tallgrass

Sandra Dallas' book, Tallgrass, is the story of a young girl whose life is turned upside down by the influx of Japanese Americans shipped to an internment camp not far from her during World War II. It is a historical novel, telling of a time when racism against the perceived enemy was rampant. By nature of their background, the Japanese Americans are viewed with skepticism and considered possible spies, despite being every bit as American as the next guy.

Thirteen year old Rennie Stroud is proud of her father, who willingly hires Japanese boys from the internment camp to help work his beet farm while his son is off fighting in the war, but doesn't know quite what to make of the racial tensions. In a town never very familiar with crime, Rennie's quiet, crippled friend is raped and murdered. Suspicions naturally fall upon the newcomers, the Japanese. As the story unfolds, Rennie learns that things are not always cut and dry and secrets linger which alter perceptions of reality.

I enjoyed listening to this book in audio form. It was an interesting tale, full of both good and bad-natured individuals. I loved Rennie's family and their interactions with the town folk (her mother with "the Jolly Stitchers," her quilting circle, and the father both with his hired hands and with others in the town who were unsympathetic to his position towards the Japanese). I appreciated the exploration of human nature. I loved that the tale was told from the perspective of a young girl desperate to feel more grown up. I grew to love the characters and wanted to know how things were going to turn out for all of them. I was also pleased to be able to listen to a brief interview with the author at the end of the audio presentation. I would recommend this book if you are interested in historical fiction about racism during World War II or if you are merely interested in a human interest tale of family life in a troubled world where things grow more complicated.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dirty Car Artist

Scott Wade takes his skills to the backs of cars. I was surprised to learn that he actually cleans the cars first, so that the dirt will be even when it is applied. He has some amazing masterpieces. You can visit his website here or view this You Tube video of his work in action:

Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review: Two Kisses for Maddy

I want to say I liked this book more than I did. To be honest, I think the thing which stood in the way the most was the constant (and I don't mean occasional, I mean CONSTANT) barrage of foul language. Sad to say, but true. Perhaps if I had physically read the book instead of listening to it, I might have been able to skip past the language. But, I listened to this one while on the treadmill and winced every time one of my young boys came into the room and I had to hop off to quickly hit the off button. I understand that the author wanted to remain consistent with his personality and personal sense of self-expression, but it was ridiculous. Almost every other word a curse word. Every expression with any oomph to it had to be emphasized with something foul.

Two Kisses for Maddy sounds like a tribute book for a young daughter. In some ways, it was. In other ways, it ended up being a long treatise on the unfortunate death of Maddie's mother just a day after her birth. While Maddie was a focus, as the one thing helping the author get through the chasm of grief left in the wake of her mother's death, she was only a secondary focus (I think I would have liked the book more had she been the primary focus). Instead, the book focused on how difficult it is to get through the act of going on when the death of a dearly beloved spouse shatters your world and leaves you in the throes of inexpressible (expressible only through foul language, that is) grief.

It seems harsh to write critically of a man who is exposing his vulnerability sharing the story of the death of the love of his life. Somehow, I feel I should be able to connect with this man's sorrow and glean something positive from his story. But, in the end, all I felt was guilty for not having to experience the devastation he has encountered. I felt guilty for my many blessings, rather than ready to embrace them more fully. His sorrow is raw and constant. His focus never shifts from himself and who he is in his deep loss. I never really felt he managed to get to a point of redemption. Something bad happened in his life and even though good was in the midst of it, in the form of his sweet child, he never really got to the point of expressing, for anyone else in his shoes, a positive way to move forward or heal from the devastating event. I suppose I wanted him to learn and grow, to have something of real, lasting value to pass on to his daughter. Instead, it ended up being a book I wouldn't want any daughter of mine to read if she wanted to hear the story of her mother's valued life and death.

Yes, I cried in parts, and yes, I was moved for his loss and the incredible blessing of his daughter, but I wanted so much more from this book than it had to offer. I have a friend who is still struggling with the death of his wife. I would never in a million years suggest he read this book, even though he might relate to many of the moments of sorrow. I fear it would feel like a further assault, instead of a balm of comfort and encouragement. My friend has a spiritual source of comfort. That is something this author scorned so much that he boldly outlawed any religious expression from his wife's funeral, with no consideration for those who might have sought such a balm in the face of their perspective of the loss. When I encounter hard times, I certainly hope I can find some redemption to share with others, something to make the pain and loss valuable and constructive. Sadly, I don't think this book ever really got there.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead

It has been a long time since I've read a book so engrossing that I completely lost track of time. Those Who Wish Me Dead kept me on the edge of my seat and fully sucked in. I could. not. put. it. down! I looked up and realized it was 7 p.m. and I hadn't even fed my boys any dinner. As soon as their meal was on the table, I retreated to my bedroom again to resume my reading, much to my husband's chagrin. Although he likes to read, his choices are usually non-fiction, so he doesn't get that whole ... I can't do anything but read this book right now because I've just GOT TO FIND OUT HOW IT ENDS.

I'd love to say that I read bunches and bunches of accolades for this book, just so I could say "it certainly lives up to the hype." But, alas, it was merely one our library purchased and placed on the recent acquisitions e-mail list. If you're coming to this review because you've read loads of good things about this book, then ... well, it certainly lives up to the hype!

Fourteen year old Jace Wilson is swimming in the quarry when he happens upon a dead body in the water. Before he can leave to alert the authorities, two men who appear to be policemen show up and commit another murder. I never quite got how Jace evaded them the first time, but the chances of his evading them a second time seem slim to none. These are ruthless, assassin-type killers. Thus, Jace is given a new identity and sent to live with a wilderness preparedness program in the mountains of Montana.

I marveled at how well the author upped the ante over and over again. He added new wrinkles and twists expertly, with well-timed precision. When I went to lie down with the little boys, I expressed my desire to get back to the book. Trevor asked what was so great about the book, so I began to tell them the premise and the exact point I was at (where the wilderness instructor jumped from a cliff with one of the bad guys in tow). Trevor, who hates to read almost as much as his older brother, said it sounded like a book even he would want to read. With only a little bit of cursing, it is a book I would be willing to let him attempt in a few years time. The book is full of information about survival and firefighting techniques. These bits were fascinating without detracting at all from the plot-driven story.

I found myself envying the skill of this expert writer. I want to be able to suck a reader in to the point where they cannot do anything but return to the book for yet another page, yet another element of surprise. I want to learn how to pace a plot in such a way that the action moves seamlessly from one event to the next with the power and speed of a forest fire. What's more ... I want to head to Bloomington, Indiana, where Michael Koryta lives, to meet and talk to this highly-skilled author. I want to sit at his feet and soak in any lessons he might be willing to offer up. Instead, I'll just have to think long and hard about the elements which made this book a work of art and a story told to perfection.

If you are looking for a riveting thriller, this is definitely one of the best I've read. Although there are a few gruesome details of the killings and the perpetrators are evil incarnate, this book will make you root for the good guys and bite your nails hoping they triumph in the end. If you are a writer hoping to write the next blockbuster thriller, here's your instruction manual!

If you aren't up for the harrowing experience of this book, then be sure to catch the movie when it comes out, as the movie rights have been purchased by 20th Century Fox. It will, no doubt, be the ride of a lifetime. As John Hart, a New York Times bestselling author, says of this author's books, ""Reading Michael Koryta is like stepping into fast water. You don't know where the current will take you, only that it's strong and deep and likely to sweep you away. That's what the best fiction does, and Koryta does it better than just about anyone else."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

As the Summer Dwindles

It seems like it is racing by. The summer ... that is. My boys finished up school on May 23rd and yet we already find ourselves just weeks away from returning to school. How is that possible? (It feels like just yesterday I took this photo to place on a mug for a Father's Day gift.)

We've tried to fill it with fun things. We made a list at the beginning of summer of things we might like to do. Of course, half the list consisted of restaurants we want to eat out at ... something we rarely do since we tend to only eat out once every other week. Thus, this summer we've eaten out far more than usual. We've tried Five Guys for the first time (a man there could tell it was our first experience and brought us a basket of peanuts and then offered up his remaining fries for the boys), gone to the local Dairy Bar, and had Jack-in-the-Box shakes. We still have to get to Orange Leaf, Sonic and I-Hop.

The boys had their annual trip to Holiday World with Daddy while I was away at music camp and they are scheduled for a trip with him to Indiana Beach at the end of this month. We visited our local high school pool about six or seven times in June for their reasonable $1 open swim times. Plus, we drove all the way to the nearest community pool where there are slides and a lazy river (almost a half hour away, but well worth the trip). It is a far cry from the days when we lived in DeKalb and Bryce and I visited the community pool twice a day throughout the whole summer. We are no longer pool rats.

Of course, Bryce barely spends any time with us at all. He is busy with work at Papa Johns and also spends the majority of his time with his friend Madi (he assures me that although they like each other, they are not boyfriend-girlfriend because he is going off to school in the fall). I think John was a bit put off that Bryce would rather spend the entire day with Madi and her family instead of spending any time with his own family for the 4th of July. What can you do? He's a teenager and friends usually come first. It is like we already miss him and he hasn't even left for college yet.

My requirement for a half hour of daily reading seems to have gone by the wayside, what with my absence at camp. Although, I have read several chapter books to Sean, who begs to be read to, especially while he soaks in the bath. I did manage to read the first Harry Potter book to both Trevor and Sean and we watched the movie once we finished the book.

Last Sunday, I went to The Salvation Army because our local corps is welcoming new officers. It was great to greet them. I noticed in the bulletin that the deadline was coming up for registering for Adventure Club camp so we went to the Hidden Falls website to learn the dates. While perusing the camps, Trevor noticed a Bible camp which started on June 30th. Of course, he decided that he would far rather attend a Bible camp (which would be more like CBLI) than the Adventure camp (which would be more like a boy scouting camp, earning badges and the like). We called the corps on the morning of the 30th and the officer placed a call to the camp to see if we could send Trevor despite missing the registration deadline. They said yes and within a few hours, Trevor was packed and boarding a van with 15 other kids to go to the same camp I just returned from.

The camp ran from Monday to Friday and when I picked Trevor up, he said they were the longest five days of his life (he's never really been away from the family on his own). He only admitted to one day of homesickness, and apparently had a wonderful time. We relished the quiet house and Sean cracked us up when he said, "It's like a five day date with Mommy!" Sean and I went to see two movies. The first, Earth to Echo, was a bust. We both gave it two thumbs down. Thus, to redeem the experience, we went to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, the following day with much better results.

I was thrilled to discover that Trevor brought home everything he had taken (I promised him $5 if he returned with all of it). When I asked him what he learned he informed me that there is a story in the Bible where a donkey talks. He was stoked to learn that the Bible camp offers up scholarships to CBLI for a winning teen (I'm guessing he's going to make this Bible camp an annual tradition and hope for one of those scholarships).

Now we have three more weeks until Trevor and I leave for CBLI (Central Bible & Leadership Institute). Sean is supposed to stay with Grandma, but we're feeling a bit apprehensive since her knee has been really bothering her and she is scheduled for an appointment with her Indiana doctor over here (she lives in IL but comes here for her surgeries) on July 15th. We're somewhat worried the doctor will insist on immediate surgery and then she will have to recuperate here at our house, unable to tend to Sean. I'm guessing we would just take him along to CBLI after all, but I don't know how it will all turn out and we won't know anything until she goes for the doctor appointment.

After the ten-day CBLI, we will be home for two days before the boys head back to school on August 6th. So, like I said, I don't know how the time has slipped by so quickly but it feels like it is almost over. Hopefully, we'll pack more fun activities into the final three weeks of freedom. Then life will settle back down to routine. Bryce will head off to Purdue. Trevor will move into Bryce's room. I will get back to working on my writing on a daily basis. Routine is good, but the freedom of unscheduled time never seems long enough.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: We Were Liars

We Were Liars is a fairly quick and easy read. It is well written and beautifully executed. The characters are interesting and the plot delivers an unexpected twist. While it probably won't be one of my favorite YA reads for the year, I do think the story line will stick with me for a long while.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman belongs to an established family who summer on their private island off the coast of Massachusetts. They are well-to-do but with plenty of wrinkles. Grandfather Sinclair has three daughters, each of whom has been unable to manage to cling to marriages or provide for themselves. They are relying on the patriarch to fund their existence and the rivalry between daughters is typical of a family with money. But Cadence is the eldest grandchild. Surely she must get something for this grand position. Or will she?

Every summer for years, she hangs with her two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Johnny's mother's boyfriend's nephew, Gat. Cadence is in love with Gat. Gat is in love with Cadence, despite the clear indication that such a relationship is not acceptable but reminiscent of the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Together the four of them are called "the Liars."

Cadence is returning for summer eighteen on the island and is struggling to put together memories of a past she can't quite grasp. During summer fifteen, she sustained a traumatic head injury in the water and hasn't been the same since. As time goes by she begins to remember more and more of the fateful summer that changed her life forever.

I was deeply disturbed by the bickering among the grown daughters who are fighting over everything - grandmother's jewelry, statues, tablecloths, houses. It was thoroughly realistic and sickening. Money has such a way of reducing families to grabbing, self-interested, territorial behaviors. I would have been as disturbed as the liars were in this situation. The liars must learn to make their way in this tenuous, privileged world. It was worth the read, but not full of terribly endearing characters.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: Mini Shopaholic

When heading off to camp, I wanted to be sure to bring a book I would find engrossing and humorous. I knew that Sophie Kinsella would deliver, so I checked out the most recent book in her Shopaholic series. Whenever others asked what I was reading, they seemed unaware of the series, so I'm hoping I may have hooked some prospective readers for her books. I have to agree with the USA Today blurb on the back cover: "Hilarious ... hijinks worthy of classic I Love Lucy episodes ... too good to pass up."

Becky Bloomwood Brandon is, indeed, a strong, unique character like Lucy. The escapades she gets herself into are always amusing and consistent with her character, a character with an overly-strong love of shopping, a feisty determination to succeed, and a fantastic imagination which often leads her into daydreams of gigantic proportions. Becky is attempting to navigate the tricky waters of dealing with a high-spirited toddler. Many of her solutions are typical Becky Brandon moves, like providing her daughter with "pocket money" of 50 pence per week and allowing her to overdraw on her account in order to buy the toys she is claiming as "Miiiiine." I loved the scene where Becky decides to throw her own Santa list into the bucket and then gets chosen for her wishes to be read aloud and granted in the mall.

In addition to dealing with the tantrums and misadventures of life with a toddler, Becky is trying to manage a fourth housing fiasco which threatens to leave them living with her parents for yet another year. Plus, she is trying to organize a spectacular surprise birthday party for her husband while reduced to dealing with a budget. When a supernanny is called upon to diagnose the issues with the toddler's behavior, Becky's compulsive habits are identified for the first time as a shopping addiction. Instead of sending the child off to a boot camp experience to tame behavior, the nanny suggests Becky should attend a boot camp for her addictive behavior.

I was hoping that the hints at the end of the book meant a further episode was in the works. Indeed, a seventh installment is projected for Autumn of 2014. You can read about the story-line in Shopaholic to the Stars here.