Monday, June 29, 2015

Another Blast at Music Camp

This was my fourth year on faculty at The Salvation Army's Indiana Music Camp. Once again, I led the junior choir and had a blast with the kids and other faculty members. Due to the upcoming Boundless Congress being held in London, England to celebrate the Army's 150th year, our music camp was shortened from eight days to six. Even though it was shorter, we had so much fun this year!

One of the new elements was a time of music and dancing on the patio each evening (after the evening program and before Call to the Cross time), hosted by Captain Alex Norton (shown below in the funky Mohawk hat). He set up a light display which corresponded to the music and played songs (both Christian and secular) the kids recognized (I can't say I recognized all of them, but the kids were singing along faithfully). They did the Cupid Shuffle and the Cha Cha Slide. He DJ-ed from the balcony of the dining hall, overlooking the patio, and threw down candy and glow sticks to the kids some of the nights.

Our special guest was Captain Peter Mount. He did a fabulous job of presenting a solid theme and reinforcing the lesson of our theme verse, Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.") He played intense games of Simon Says with the kids. Plus, he snagged their attention fully with his illustration of the goldfish in the blender (to teach about choices we make - he promised the staff ahead of time that no harm would come to the goldfish - the cord wasn't plugged in).

He also led the faculty in a few faculty band pieces and a number for the faculty choir (difficult music, but he was so gracious when we made mistakes - some of us only pick up our horns a few times a year, whereas the division he is from has solid banding year-round). We played a fun version of "Happy" and another piece paired with guitar called "Here Comes the Sun."

The evening programs were fun. One night we played a game of Heroes and Villains (a glorified version of hide and seek) where we faculty members had to hide as citizens and be captured by the villains (campers) and rescued by the heroes (played by camp staff young adults). I hid behind the archery targets and was captured twice (once by a group of boys who exclaimed, "We found the old lady citizen." - hmph!).

Another night, they held a lip-sync battle. Each of the cabins prepared a number. The winning cabin dressed half of their boys as girls and sang Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to the other half of the boys from their cabin. It was absolutely hilarious! We were rolling on the floor laughing.

For Thursday night's program, my own corps officer and I put together a Musical Minute-to-Win-It program. I made a giant set of foam board music dominoes, a terminology matching game, and a bean bag toss rhythm matching game. We had other stations like boom-whacker music playing, sculpting rests out of play-dough, Name That Tune, and a musical version of the telephone game. I think the kids enjoyed it. I know the rotations went quickly and before I knew it, it was time to clean up and head to the patio.

Because of the shortened week, we eliminated several things. The only faculty-led electives were drama, praise team, and the camp newsletter. There just wasn't time to present an elective performance program. We only heard the solo contest winners during their whole camp level of competition (instead of hearing the winners perform again during the final concert). But, I felt like the streamlining of things made the camp less stressful and more fun.

The faculty continued the annual tradition of our trip to Steak-n-Shake after the Thursday evening activities. We laughed so hard I almost couldn't breathe. I hope the other customers weren't offended by the boisterous, good time we were having. It is always one of my favorite parts of the camp week.

My junior choir did a fine job in their final performance at the Saturday concert. They sang one fast and catchy song, "Seventy-Times-Seven," and one slower, worshipful piece, "Heavenly Father, I Appreciate You." I think we all had fun learning the music and absorbing the daily lessons.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: Bizarre World

It has been a while since I've tickled my funny bone by reading some Bill Bryson, so I decided to see what Bryson books were available at our library. I stumbled upon a hilarious little volume of truly bizarre vignettes called Bizarre World. It was quite entertaining, providing a few chuckles I could share with my kids (like the moronic criminal who robbed a bank, requesting the money be placed in his checking account, or the individual who attempted to commit suicide four different ways and ended up dying of exposure, or the person hit by lightning three different times while living and whose headstone was struck by lightning in death) and a few I couldn't share aloud because they were a bit risque. While not typical Bryson fare, it still turned out to be a funny little read.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat - Highly Recommend

I'm not much of a sports enthusiast. I don't follow teams. I don't even really watch the Olympics (although I do remember watching avidly one summer in my teens when the gymnastics teams were especially good-looking and other friends were following their advances, as well). Thus, I really thought I wouldn't be interested in this book, about an Olympic rowing team, at all. Several reliable book critics had recommended it, yet I remained skeptical of my interest level. The thing is, I remember being enthralled by the storytelling of this particular author, Daniel James Brown, when I read his book, Under a Flaming Sky, about a tragic fire in a small Minnesota town. He is a master at setting a scene and bringing historical characters and times to life for the reader. He has done it again, brilliantly, in this book, one of my favorite reads so far this year.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, tells a fascinating tale of the humble, ordinary men who melded together to form a team with the guts, stamina, and drive to overcome obstacles and win an Olympic gold medal. A majority of the book focuses on one individual, Joe Rantz. What a troubled upbringing Rantz endured, losing his mother early in life, gaining a disapproving step-mother, being abandoned by his family, and taking it upon himself to advance to and pay for college at the University of Washington. But it also weaves in the stories of George Yoeman Pocock, builder of the vessels these rowers relied on for the win, and of the coaches who pushed the boys to victory.

I was riveted to the audio version of this book and ended up extending my listening time well past my treadmill time for each CD. With 12 CDs total, it was a lengthy, but captivating story. I was compelled to jot down a few of the quotes because they contained such nuggets of truth:

"It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment. But that very water is what supports you. And that very enemy is your friend. So is life. The very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them." - George Yoeman Pocock

"Where's the spiritual value of rowing? The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole." - George Yoeman Pocock

There was an especially poignant passage on the 7th disc which I couldn't help but take a moment to copy down. Pocock is showing Joe Rantz the various types of wood used in making the shell of the boat. He "talked about the unique properties of each and how it took all of them contributing their individual qualities to make a shell that would come to life in the water." Later, Pocock goes on to speak of the rings in the wood which reveal all the hardships and benefits the tree has experienced. "'The wood', Pocock murmured, 'taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity, but it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place, something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves, about the reasons we were all here. Sure, I can make a boat,' he said, and then added quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, 'but only God can make a tree.'"

The author quotes Pocock further: "'The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, to accomodate', he said, 'was sometimes a source of strength in men, as well as in wood, so long as it was helmed by inner resolve and by principle.'" The level of Pocock's commitment was clear. "He said, for him, the craft of building a boat was like a religion. It wasn't enough to master the technical details of it, you had to give yourself up to it spiritually. You had to surrender yourself absolutely to it. When you were done and walked away from the boat, you had to feel that you had left a piece of yourself behind in it forever, a bit of your heart. 'Rowing,' he said, 'is like that and a lot of life is like that, too, the parts that really matter anyway.'"

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this book. I felt like I was standing alongside these young men as they made their way to a sanitized Germany for the 1936 Olympic games. I groaned when they were assigned the very worst possible lane, when their key rower was so sick they thought he might not manage the intense rowing, and when the German crowds cheers drowned out the instructions of the coxswain in the American boat. It was a glorious story, with a victorious ending and so much life-application. Even if you have no interest in athletics or rowing, you will glean something powerful from the experience of reading this book. History comes to life in full-color at the pen of Daniel James Brown.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Terupt Falls Again

My stack of books checked out from the library is quite huge at the moment (almost 20), but I'm relegated to reading whichever book is due next. I really didn't think I was in the mood for a kid's book (since I'm in the process of reading two other ones to the boys) and thought about simply returning this one and checking it out again later. Like Rob Buyea's first book, Because of Mr. Terupt, this book, Mr. Terupt Falls Again, was a sweet, touching story narrated by seven different kids who are in Mr. Terupt's sixth grade class. It is full of contemporary issues kids face, while offering up hope and encouragement to readers.

Buyea does an excellent job of juggling the seven narrators and making each individual shine with their own personal side of the story. Peter is attempting to fail sixth grade so his parents won't be able to send him to the private boarding school they have selected for the following year. Lexie is drawn to a rough crowd of older kids in an attempt to be more grown-up. Danielle, whose faith sustains her, is fearful for a family secret they refuse to share. Jeffrey is wondering when his family will ever be whole again after the loss of his brother. Jessica uses her love of screenwriting to embellish her side of the tale. Anna is in search of information about her absent father and Luke is determined to be a detective and ferret out the truth about Mr. Terupt's strange behavior (dizziness and stuttering spells).

I think this would make an excellent read-aloud book for fifth and sixth grade students, with some qualifications. Teachers would have to realize that the book delves into subjects like bra-stuffing, periods, kissing, and drug use, which might be uncomfortable to present to the class as a whole. Still, it covers such a wide range of emotions that every reader will be able to draw connections to the tale (indeed Mr. Terupt encourages his own students to make connections with the books they read during the school year - I loved this inclusion of familiar titles and stories). I even cried in a few places.

I was especially grateful to the author for including the faith of one of the characters. He does so with grace, neither pounding a gavel or wandering into generalities. Danielle simply addresses each situation with a reliance upon the Lord to help her figure things out and learn lessons from her experiences.

I can't wait for more from this author. He displays a key ability to get inside the heads of kids and also to portray classroom situations with genuine understanding and creativity. I would love to have had Mr. Terupt as a teacher when I was growing up. I have enjoyed sneaking a peek into his classroom and getting to know his students and their classroom activities through these two books. Plus, it looks like there is a third book coming out in July called Saving Mr. Terupt.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: The Five People You Meet In Heaven

My book club selected Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven for our June book club meeting. For me, it was a re-read and one I was perfectly happy to indulge in. At one point, I had even listed this book as a must-read when I was interviewed by a fellow blogger many years ago. I appreciate Albom's ability to weave stories of inspiration and meaning. For me, his stories give me something to reflect upon and take away from about life in general.

My book club's reaction was not entirely there. Most of them didn't like the book. They found it to be too syrupy saccharine, too full of Hallmarkesque sentimentality. Several mentioned that this wasn't consistent with their own views of heaven and didn't like how heaven was presented in such a person-centric way. They felt it was full of murky spirituality. While it was a quick and easy read, and a nice change from the deeper, more difficult reads we had been indulging in for the club, it was, for them, too shallow. For me, I enjoyed the book and took encouragement from it. I guess I simply overlooked the syrupy sentimentality and considered the presentation of heaven to be a hypothetical one for the purpose of life-reflection. The story evolves slowly to reveal a composite whole perspective on life and death. The reader is sucked in immediately and walks the road of discovery with the main character, pulling in all the wisdom the main character gleans.

Mitch Albom's opening paragraph is a fine example of the perfect hook for a story:

"This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time."

Eddie is a maintenance man at an amusement park (glad I read this after our visit to Cedar Point instead of before). When he dies attempting to save a girl from a dislodged cart crashing to the ground from above, he enters a form of heaven where there are five individuals waiting to meet with him and reveal some important truth about his life and life in general. Each individual he encounters is a bit of a surprise and full of wisdom for Eddie to digest.

I felt the book lifted me out of myself and into a higher plane. I felt it had a message I needed to hear in this very moment. Like Eddie, lately I've been feeling that my life (all 50 years of it) simply hasn't counted for enough. I fully embraced Eddie's sentiments when he said, "I was sad because I didn't do anything with my life. I was nothing. I accomplished nothing. I was lost. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there." But, with Eddie, I took a moment to reconsider and think about the lessons the five people in heaven shared. Every life is significant and touches others.  We all have a story and that story's meaning is universal to all men. This book couldn't have come into my hands at a better moment in time. It was an encouragement to my heart and soul.

I recently read an article in The New Yorker about how reading can make you happier. It told of two women who have what for me would be the dream-job, a role as bibliotherapist, selecting books to feed a particular need within individual clients. If I were a bibliotherapist, I would suggest this book to people who are struggling with finding purpose and meaning in their life. It would be a good choice for someone who is questioning whether their own inconsequential story matters in the grand scheme of things. It would also be healing to someone who is several years out from the loss of a loved one (as mentioned in our book club discussion, it might be too painful a reassurance if the loss is fresh), reminding them that lost love is simply love in a different form. The loved one is no longer with you, but you carry them and continue to love despite the absence of the object of adoration.

While this book won't be for everyone and some readers might find it too sentimental, it's answers to life too pat, I believe the author's purpose in writing the book was fulfilled. He managed to convey several thoughts about life and death within the story of one man's life story. Moreover, he reminded readers that "each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Review: Maeve's Times

As soon as I noticed this book on the recent acquisitions shelf at the library I snatched it up. I have been so sad since Maeve Binchy's death, in July of 2012, to think that we will never receive another dose of her fine writing. Thus, I eagerly plunged into this collection of pieces she had written for The Irish Times over the years.

While some of them were of no interest to me (the political pieces especially), they were all well-written and full of Binchy flair. Each piece created a tiny microcosm of a world and then concluded with a statement about that microcosm or thought. I laughed out loud a time or two and generally enjoyed the time spent with another Binchy book (even though it is quite different from reading her novels - which would be my preferred fare). Several of the pieces were vignettes of characters or individuals she had met. I think those were my favorite of the brief essays compiled in this book.

If you've never read anything by Maeve Binchy before, please start with one of the novels (like Tara Road). But, if you are already a Binchy fan, then you will probably enjoy this non-fiction book of her pieces. As far as I'm concerned, you can't go wrong with Maeve Binchy's writing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Despite Setbacks, a Good Time Was Had By All

I'm not a skilled photographer. Moreover, this post is primarily to assist in retaining the memories of our vacation. It won't be a polished product, but it will hold moments, as in a jar, to be pulled out and viewed in later times.

The thing that amazes me most about this vacation was that it was fully initiated and orchestrated by my husband. He is not a traveler. He loathes the departure from the routine of daily life, the endless hours of driving, and the possibilities of potential problems. He certainly doesn't have an ounce of wanderlust in him. Yet, he came up with the idea for us to take the boys to see Niagara Falls. He had been promising Bryce a trip to Cedar Point amusement park for years. Thus, he began to plot and plan and scheme and schedule our first official lengthy family vacation. He secured the hotels, printed out driving directions, assisted in procuring the necessary passports to see the Falls from the Canadian side, and scheduled our itinerary at Cedar Point. I stand in awe and appreciation of his efforts.

We set off with the younger boys on a Friday afternoon with a prayer for safety and good memories. When we reached Elyria, Ohio, the site of our first night's stay, we were thoroughly frustrated and flummoxed by the pervasive construction. It must have taken us twenty or thirty minutes to figure out how to get to our hotel and then, once established, how to cross the street (blocked by construction) to eat at the Denny's restaurant within view of the hotel. When we finally arrived at the Denny's, weary and travel-worn, a man approached us near the door saying that they were just getting ready to re-open after a period of remodeling and asking if we could simply wait ten more minutes. While a strange request, we're so glad we sat tight, because the meal was fantastic and the service first-rate (indeed, the food on our whole trip was superb).

Saturday's drive was a bit shorter and we managed to arrive at our hotel in Niagara Falls, New York, by late afternoon. The boys decided to swim in the deserted hotel pool. While in the pool, Trevor hit upon a new way to extend his ability to hold his breath under water. Basically, he would breathe in and out quickly for a full minute to hyperventilate and then suck in the biggest breath he could manage. He was holding his breath for two minutes at a time and did this a dozen times. This could explain what happened later that evening.

After the pool, we headed to the local Ponderosa for dinner. All of us got the buffet except for Trevor, who said he wasn't very hungry (so unusual for that boy that it was our first inkling of danger). He nibbled at his steak, baked potato, and carrots and drank three full glasses of milk. Towards the end of the meal, he began to look a bit unsettled. Just as we were leaving the restaurant, the milk and carrots decided to reappear. We apologized profusely to the approaching customers and assured them the food was well worth side-stepping our poor son's unfortunate series of events. Although it was unpleasant and required a trip to a laundry facility, we survived this little bump in the road.

We were terrified that it was the flu and he would have to remain in the room with me while John and Sean went to see the Falls. However, he seemed to rally once his stomach was purged and was completely fine the next morning, so we took a chance and set off for our adventure. We are so glad we were able to experience this together, even though it was a thoroughly exhausting day.

The Falls were absolutely stunning. John was so bowled over that he took about five or six different videos of the Falls so that he could share the experience with Bryce later. When we first arrived at the park facilities (near the nature center and the aquarium), we discovered an unlocked door which led to an elevator taking us to the ground level of the falls (further down, not directly by the falls). It provided interesting views and a pleasant little excursion, but we still had no idea of the magnitude of the sight we were about to behold.

After walking over to the American Falls, we took the Maid of the Mist boat tour. I worried about the devices because I knew Trevor would insist on taking photos from his I-pod. He was careful and even though we did get wet (especially our legs and feet, where the provided ponchos failed to extend) we enjoyed both the boat trip and the walk up the side of the falls, where the spray practically drenched us in mist.

We took the trolley to Goat Island and from that vantage point, John took his numerous videos of the gigantic plunging waters.

John wanted to visit the Cave in the Winds, but the boys were eager to head over to Canada. Unfortunately, we had left the passports back in the hotel, so we had to make a quick trek back. But, it was fortunate in a way, because I asked the front desk clerk what we should be sure to see on the Canadian side. She explained that it was like a carnival over there, with tons of things to do and see. She also suggested that it would be easier to park on the New York side (where the parking was free) and walk across the Rainbow Bridge into Canada. We're so glad we followed her advice because the parking we saw was all quite expensive and traffic looked frightful.

With no line at all, we quickly handed over our passports and were ushered into Canada. We stopped at the Duty Free to exchange some money, then walked over to the walls to view the Falls from the Canadian side (I had heard that this was the better view, but I'm not so sure. I think the view from Goat Island was more impressive than seeing it from further away on the Canadian side). What was truly majestic, was viewing the Falls from aboard a giant Ferris wheel. I think that was my favorite part of our venture into Canada.

The boys also went through a haunted house with John, but that seemed like a bit of a rip-off. The boys both purchased a t-shirt souvenir and then (after a birthday dinner for John) Trevor purchased a small statue and Sean a candy bar in the Duty Free shop before we walked back over to the American side and back to our vehicle. We probably logged in four or five miles of walking for the long day, but it was well worth it and we all had a wonderful time. Trevor had another episode of queasiness during the middle of the night and then Sean felt queasy during the drive back to Ohio, but neither one succumbed to the nausea.

The next day we were scheduled to meet up with Bryce and his girlfriend, Madisyn, at the Breakers Hotel, right on the Cedar Point Amusement Park grounds. I'm so glad we stayed right on the property because during the episodes of rain, we were able to return to the room and wait out the storms while the boys watched television. Sadly, at times watching television was all the boys wanted to do (instead of walking around trying to find rides which might still be running).

The hotel provided us with an entry to the park after four on the first day of our arrival. Madisyn and Bryce were eager to head over right away, but we took the boys to dinner and didn't really manage to get to the park until later in the evening. The boys went with Dad to ride the Magnum XL roller coaster, but I stayed back because we had just eaten. Next we headed for Top Thrill Dragster, a roller coaster I resolutely refused to try. It goes from zero to 120 mph in the space of 3 seconds and then races up an incline of several hundred feet, pausing at the top and then plunging down again. Sean wanted to wait and ride it with his big brother, so Trevor and John went to get in line. They had just been strapped in the car, when the ride was shut down because of an incoming storm. We headed back to the room grateful that we had Fast Passes for the next two days.

The next day, we entered the Fast Pass lane for the Millennium Force roller coaster and just as we were getting to the entry lanes, the ride broke down and after ten minutes of waiting we left the line to get some lunch. They attempted to ride Top Thrill Dragster again, but the wait was almost two hours long, so again, they ditched the line. In all, they tried four times to ride it, but never managed to get on.

We did enjoy the rides we were able to ride and I managed to ride several roller coasters I wouldn't have touched if the boys hadn't begged (Magnum XL, Iron Dragon, The Corkscrew, Raptor, Gemini, Mean Streak, and Wicked Twister). They rode several without me either because I couldn't bear it or I stayed below to hold stuff (Gatekeeper, Millennium Force, and Rougarou). We loved Max Air and Pipe Scream. Sean especially loved Skyhawk (running back to get on it again and again with his Fast Pass). Trevor and John rode two rides where they were thoroughly soaked with water. I thought I would lose it on Wind Seeker (think swings but 400 feet in the air) and the Giant Wheel (only terrifying because it held us for five or ten minutes at the very top while loading other riders and the wind was seriously battering the metal structure). I did enjoy the Sky Ride and Witch's Wheel.

The boys also begged to ride the Slingshot. They looked so small getting into the two-seater ride and being flung up into the air. Because they weren't very heavy, they spun more than the adults we had watched ride it before them. They said they loved it. You couldn't get me on that ride!

The final day at the amusement park was a bit of a bummer because the weather impeded our enjoyment. It seemed like the rides were either down because of mechanical error or down because of weather for a majority of our visit. We spent a lot of time simply walking the park looking for something to be running. They ended the day with a ride on the Power Tower and went back for a second shot but were pitched from the line when lightning was sighted.

Bryce and Madisyn had much better luck than us. They rode more rides and really loved Maverick (spending two hours sitting on the ground in line for that during a torrential downpour on Wednesday - thankfully they were under a canopy and had phones to occupy them). They had an interesting experience which led to their favorite moment of the trip. They boarded Gemini (a coaster where two cars race each other along the tracks) and were seated on the red coaster. About two-thirds of the way up the initial incline (125.3 feet), the blue car passed them and their car got stuck. A worker came up and told all the riders that they had to walk down from the car, down a narrow wooden walkway next to the tracks. There was a seven year old boy near them and they said they were really afraid for him but he seemed unaffected by it all. They said it was especially scary stepping from the car to the walkway and holding onto the railing the whole way down.

                                               (Photo from

For their little misadventure, they were awarded two Fast Pass Plus tickets. On the very last day, after hours of inactivity because of winds and scattered showers, Bryce looked up and saw them doing a test run of Top Thrill Dragster, so they sprinted to a locker to secure their backpack and phones and sprinted to the ride just in time to use their passes to get in line. Bryce said it was absolutely amazing and even though Madisyn is afraid of heights, she loved the view from the top and the plunge back down. Within twenty minutes the ride was shut down again. It was like a window opened up for them and they snatched the coveted ride that John and the boys were desperate to experience. Sean actually cried when he found out that Bryce and Madisyn had ridden Top Thrill Dragster. He was crushed that he didn't get to ride it with his big brother like he had hoped.

So, despite episodes of illness and frustration with malfunctioning or closed rides, we had a wonderful vacation and made loads of memories at both Niagara Falls and the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. We finished our last morning there with a delicious meal at Perkins and then walked the beach near the hotel for a while. I'm so grateful to John for organizing it all and forcing me out of my comfort zone on the rides so that we could enjoy them together.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book Review: All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is such a sad book. I finished it on the last night of our stay at Cedar Point and it made me so sad. I didn't know, going into it, that it would break my heart. Alas, it did.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet up on the ledge of a high tower on their high school building. They both manage to save each other from falling to certain death. Thus begins a unique and strangely endearing relationship between two wounded individuals. Violet is still reeling from the death of her older sister, a death she feels responsible for because she was the one to suggest they take the bridge home that icy night. Theodore silently suffers from mental illness and the typical bullying of a boy who marches to the beat of a different drum. Although they would not normally fall together, the situation creates a bond which pulls them to each other. They exchange quotes from Virginia Woolf and begin to feel like, finally, someone gets them.

The two teens pair up for a class assignment to explore the unknown places of Indiana. Thus, the book is full of trivia bits about unusual spots in our fine state. I enjoyed those bits immensely. I enjoyed watching their relationship bloom. Finch's fascination with the history of various forms of suicide, while morbid, was nonetheless interesting. I was a bit disappointed that the book included a sexual relationship between the two teens, but that seems to be par for the course these days in YA fiction. It wasn't my favorite YA book this year (perhaps because of the heaviness of the subject matter), but I enjoyed reading it and imagine it will appeal to teens, since it deals with familiar issues. I did read that it is being made into a movie starring Elle Fanning, so I will keep my eye out for it.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Book Review: Book Proposals That Sell

I'm still quite a newbie to this whole publishing game. Indeed, I feel like I'm still standing at the box wondering if there will be a game piece available to me so that I can even play (I'd even be willing to be the iron ... I don't have to go as far or as fast as the car ... I just want to get the work done). I suppose if I'm fair about it, I have been around the board a few times; I just haven't managed to snag any properties, establish any monopolies, or buy any houses. I've had limited interactions with agents and publishers. I've had manuscripts requested and even book proposals requested. It simply didn't net the response I was hoping for.

This book by W. Terry Whalin is an excellent work if you are a writer interested in preparing a non-fiction book proposal. It really doesn't provide much in the way of insights into a fiction proposal (I prepared two of those for a publishing house a few years ago), but offers up, as the sub-title indicates, "21 Secrets to Speed Your Success." The book is well-structured and easy to follow. After a few brief introductory chapters, 21 chapters are devoted to the secrets of proposal-writing-success. Some of them are obvious (things like "Never trust spell-checker," and "Never submit your first draft"). Some are essential ("Know the topic of your book," "Know the audience for your book," and "Know your competition"). Others cover aspects I may not have fully considered before ("Create a dynamic marketing plan," "Get high profile endorsements," "Build editor relationships," and "Submit your proposal simultaneously"). All the points are useful and important.

The book ends with a sample proposal which netted a six-figure advance. This is followed by several appendixes, including other sources of information on the subject, a piece by Michael Hyatt (former head of Thomas Nelson Publishers and author of the fiction proposal writing piece I purchased to guide my own book proposal presentation), and a link to an agent list. Although the book is ten years old, it remains a valuable guide for the process of creating book proposals worthy of an agent or editor's eye.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Of Age and Anxiety

I can remember my very first ride on a roller coaster. During my early teen years, I eagerly anticipated two annual camps every year: CMI (Central Music Institute) and CBLI (Central Bible & Leadership Institute). Both of these camps, back then, used to take the middle day of the ten day encampment (a Wednesday) and transport all the campers to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. For CMI, we would practice all week for our participation in a parade around Great America. In exchange for the parade performance, we were allowed to spend the rest of the day riding rides.

My friends, Patti and Lisa, spent a good long time talking me into riding The Demon roller coaster. It looked horrendous, full of loops and twists. I was quaking in my shoes as we patiently waited in the long line. They were right! Once I finally was on the darn thing, I was hooked. It was amazing, the feeling of flying, the wind through my hair, the exhilaration of speed. I loved every minute of it and became a roller coaster fan that day. I believe I was thirteen or fourteen at the time.

I couldn't wait for my oldest son to achieve the height requirement for those daredevil rides. Boy, was he ever game! I remember attending DeKalb's Corn Fest with him one day before John got out of work. Bryce simply couldn't wait for Daddy. He just had to ride the Zipper all by himself (he looked so tiny contained in the metal cage as it spun around and around and upside down).

For a while, when Bryce and I would attend CBLI every year, they continued to host the Wednesday trips to Great America. We always had a blast and John would often join us for the day to ride the rides. Sadly, some stuffed shirt decided that it was inappropriate for a Bible encampment to make a yearly trek to an amusement park (perhaps they felt it was a frivolous use of money - serious Bible scholars and evangelists don't pursue personal entertainment?) and they took the annual trip away, replacing it with a family day. (The first year was the hardest because they actually expected everyone to give up this family fun day to spend it working together doing service projects on the camp grounds. Now, I'm not against service projects, but try being the one to explain to your pre-teen son that instead of going to an amusement park as expected, they would be shoveling gravel onto a walkway in the heat that day.)

Of course, by that time, it was becoming difficult for me to ride the rides anyway, because I had two little ones to keep an eye on. Someone had to stay below with the little boys while John and Bryce went off to ride the big thrill rides. Then, time shifted again and Trevor was old enough to ride the roller coasters. Bryce would bring along a friend and Daddy would ride with Trevor while I remained below with Sean. Alas, eventually Sean, too, was tall enough to ride the rides, and like John and Bryce and Trevor, he was fully game. This was when the problem developed.

Now, Bryce would be off with his friend and it would leave John and the two boys ... an uneven number. So, they began to urge me to ride with them. I assumed this would be no big deal. Boy, howdy, was I ever wrong!

Suddenly, these rides were no longer exhilarating. They were downright terrifying. Age pulls a number on you. Somehow, in your late forties and early fifties, what once thrilled now terrorizes. Besides the fear I experience, there's the added factor of being jostled around. I don't think the jerking movements bother the younger set, but I feel every jolt. At Holiday World, they are forever begging me to ride the biggest coaster, The Voyage, with them. But, I find I have to ride it with my eyes closed and even still, it shakes me up so that I end up with a headache for the rest of the day.

I say all of this because we are, probably at this very moment, visiting Cedar Point for our vacation. Everything would be hunky-dory, if we were just going as a family. The three boys could ride all those terrifying rides with their father and there would be an even number waiting together in the lines. I would simply remain below and read a book or people-watch. Alas, Bryce is bringing his girlfriend for the trip. He assured Dad that she will ride these big rides, so John went ahead and purchased ALL of us fast passes for the rides for our two day visit (Wed. & Thur.). Now, with the uneven number and the money spent on a fast pass for me, it will be virtually impossible for me to remain behind when they board these roller coasters. Then, my sister made it even worse by telling me that the very biggest coaster at Cedar Point often gets stuck way up there at the top of the ride. She urged me not to ride it.

So, if you could take a moment and whisper a tiny prayer for my safety, my sanity, and my stability (in the face of those jolts), I would be most appreciative! I promise to provide a full account of the terrors when ... and if ... I return. Turning fifty has its benefits (I even get a discount at Goodwill now), but it certainly sucked the thrill out of riding roller coasters.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review: Mosquitoland

Despite loving the cover, I almost gave up on this book. For the first 75 pages, I wasn't sure I should continue or not. It was the voice of the narrator. I just didn't like it. I didn't like the main character and that doesn't bode well for a reading experience. But, I didn't give up. I plowed on, regardless. My final verdict? This was a fairly well-done first novel. The author, David Arnold, managed to present a unique character, a coherent, driving plot-line, and a bit of a twist in the ending. I never did fully get behind the voice of the main character, but it was an okay read and I did come to feel for the poor girl's predicament.

Mary Iris Malone,otherwise known as Mim, (whose full name is emphasized a gazillion times in the book ... again, part of the voice I didn't care for) is on a thousand mile journey back to her mother. Her parents divorced and her father forced her to move, along with his new wife, to Mississippi (dubbed "Mosquitoland" by Mim). When called to the principal's office, in the opening pages, Mim overhears the principal speaking to her father and stepmother about Mim's ailing mother back in Cleveland. Mim immediately ditches school, steals her stepmother's tin of emergency money, and heads off to Cleveland to be with her possibly dying mother. Along the way, she encounters plenty of characters and dilemmas. She is courageous and determined. She will get to her mother, no matter what the cost.

These two comments from the inside flap drew me in but fell flat compared to what I was expecting:

"Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic voice (yes, it was too kaleidoscopic for my tastes), Mosquitoland is a modern American odyssey,as hilarious as it is heartbreaking."

"David Arnold's writing is both heartfelt and hilarious. You will fall in love with Mim, even as her grand journey will keep you guessing." - Ruta Sepetys, author of Out of the Easy

Although I didn't especially care for Mim, she was, indeed, unforgettable. Here's the character dilemma in her own words:

"I am Mary Iris Malone. and I am not okay.... I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange."

Strange, indeed.

The book is aimed at an audience of kids twelve and up. However, I did fully agree with one reviewer on Amazon who stated that the book should be fully billed as YA fare and not directed at children below the age of 16. This reviewer (S.B. Cincinnati) comments on the language, the portrayal of a teen going cold-turkey off prescribed medication, the unrealistic safety of the runaway girl, and the questionable relationship between a sixteen-year-old runaway and a stray twenty-one-year-old male. Besides this extensive list of reasons, she writes: "This book touches a lot of heavy subject matter, including: suicide, mental-illness, adultery, divorce, sexual assault, the rape of a child, homosexuality, death, treatment of those with mental challenges.... I think this book is more appropriate for a much older audience."

Friday, June 5, 2015

Book Review: Revolution

This is the second book in Deborah Wiles' Sixties Trilogy. While Countdown told of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, this book, Revolution, focuses on 1964 and "The Freedom Summer," a time when black and white agitators gathered in Mississippi to assist in registering black voters. While the older sister from Countdown plays a role in this book, this is really a stand-alone book (not series fiction where order plays any role or importance, unless you are interested in tackling the books in chronological order to maintain a chronological feel).

Once again Wiles has done an incredible job of creating a kid-friendly story which fully parallels the significant events highlighted from history. It is part documentary (chock full of sound bites from the times and news stories, biographies of pertinent individuals and song lyrics), part historical fiction. I loved how events in the main character's life fit so perfectly into what was happening in the background of her story, so that she encounters imprisonment (a grounding), hunger (a hunger strike), and inequality (the inability to attend her beloved pool when it closes for the summer simply so that blacks will not be allowed admission as a result of the new laws). While I will say that Wiles is a master at presenting very serious topics on a child's level, at times it seemed like there was really too much background information for kids to fully digest (the book is over 500 pages long). The fictional story doesn't even begin until page 41, while Wiles sets the stage with the documentary information. (I did listen to this in audio form, but checked out the book as well, since I had read that the experience is more vivid when paired with the illustrations - photos from the times - so I would listen to a stretch, then flip through the book to see, visually, what I missed during the listening.)

While Sunny's town of Greenwood, Mississippi, is being invaded by "the agitators," it feels like her life is being invaded by her new step-mother and step-siblings. Everything is changing around her and she just wants the ground to be stable again and to know where she fits in the big picture. The story opens with Sunny and her step-brother, Gillette, trespassing in the town pool at night and encountering a fleeing black boy in high-top sneakers. Dubbed "High-Top," the boy weaves in and out of their story as life grows more and more complicated in a town torn by racial tension. The story sucks you in fully and the historical bits are interesting and well-done.

Sunny's conclusion is much like Franny's conclusion in the first Sixties book. She says, "Then the courthouse clock struck twelve and the mysterious Westminster chimes began to ring through me, and I felt how small I was in the big, confusing world, and yet how connected I was to everything vibrating around me, and somehow - I don't know how - that made me feel better." And again at the end of the story, she concludes:

"I'm connected to everything. That's what the Westminster chimes tell me in their ringing. Each of us is small, all by ourselves, but we are big, when we stick together. I am connected to everyone, even that boy in Baptist Town. And I do have talents. I am steady. I am brave. Annabelle told me so.... I am my greatest mystery, my finest discovery. Is there anything more amazing than that?"

Thus, the message is hammered home that each individual matters and has something to offer to the world. The struggle is worth it and, despite the confusion, even small people can make a difference. Equality is important and worth fighting for. Those were tremendously rocky times and many young people today would be hard-pressed to understand fully the dimensions of the conflict.

Having said that, I did feel a sense of pause while listening to the portrayal of this story. Rights come with responsibilities and the world we are living in is not necessarily a ringing endorsement for the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. Despite gaining the right to vote, blacks continue to struggle to find their place in the world. Moreover, I am opposed to all wrong-doing, whether it comes at the hands of blacks or whites. While it is not fair or right for whites to shoot and deny medical assistance to blacks, it is equally unfair when black individuals today seek out whites as targets for violence simply based on their skin color (indeed, racial tensions linger and the press tends to shy away from presenting black-on-white crime while highlighting white-on-black crime). While we have come a long way, peaceful co-existence still has not been achieved and perhaps never will be. Evil resides in the hearts of all mankind and can only be vanquished by good. As it says in the Bible,

"There is no one righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one." (Romans 3:10-12)

We're all seeking freedom's shores, but will probably only find them in the hereafter. As long as we are burdened with human bodies, hatred and prejudice will persist. Perhaps only an eternal perspective can present an unbiased presentation of the trials and joys of human relationship.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Needing a Good Laugh?

I've been in sore need of a good laugh lately and I'm happy to say I've found it. Someone on Facebook linked to an article about raising teenage boys. The article was written by a woman who is the mother to four boys (how well I can relate). I couldn't help but peruse more of her posts once I discovered her blog. I about fell off my chair reading her recent post for Mother's Day. I know it is almost Father's Day, but you mothers out there will get a gigantic chuckle out of Melissa's post aimed at fathers everywhere.

Then, because I love her sense of humor so much, I liked her on Facebook, which means I get to see what she posts and let me tell you, she is a laugh a minute. So she linked to a site where someone posts things found on Pinterest which are absolutely ludicrous. The site is called Pinterest You Are Drunk and I could. not. look. away. I must have viewed almost a hundred pages. The titles and tags are beyond perfect. I was laughing so hard at a few of them (deer butt doorbell with the tags "doorbells I won't be ringing," and "deer God, no"; knit skeleton, complete with entrails and innards; a useless crocheted umbrella; a wonder woman costume to make your head turn; a wedding dress made out of diapers; and an elderly couple made out of yarn with the tag "no nudes is good nudes") that my husband came over to see what was possessing me to snort so violently. You look at these things and you think ... really, just really?

So, if you're in need of a good laugh, fill your cup today. Yes, you're welcome. It did wonders for my disposition, too.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Book Review: Dead Wake

Sometimes you have to take alternate measures to rise in the hold list for particularly popular recent releases. This book has a tremendous hold line at our local library, but I was able to secure it within a few weeks because I requested the large print version. Sadly, I thought I could take off my reading glasses to read it, since the letters looked gargantuan. Alas, not so! I still needed them, which simply proves I am losing my eyesight in ways which terrify me (the thought of being unable to read - yikes).

Dead Wake is another historical treatise by Erik Larson (author of The Devil in the White City, which I loved), this time focusing on the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I. Larson skillfully weaves dual stories of the submarine responsible for the attack and the passengers aboard the Lusitania as they converge in one disastrous moment in history. It does seem horrid that a German submarine captain would sink so low as to strike a commercial vessel, but, in war, horrid things happen. Larson details the many factors which could have led to a different outcome, while supporting the dialogue with words and phrases taken directly from historical documents from various passengers. Part of the story focuses on the president of the United States and his particular emotional state during this time of war. Up until the sinking of the Lusitania, America remained neutral in regards to the war. These events called into question whether that neutrality should or would be maintained after the loss of these American lives ("Of the Lusitania's 1,959 passengers and crew, only 764 survived").

I found the story fascinating. It was one of those tragedies where you just cannot look away, but wish to absorb all the grim details in their entirety. I recognized anew my limited understanding of the dimensions of World War I. It is a subject which must, by nature of being further back in history, lose out to the numerous historical works dealing with World War II. Larson is a master at taking historical facts and blending them expertly to read like fiction. Regardless of whether you are drawn to learning more about this particular war, this story is engaging and well-executed.