Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book Review: A Brief History of Montmaray

This book could be compared to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. Indeed, one of the endorsements on the back does just that, even venturing to assert that A Brief History of Montmaray is "even better than that much-adored book." Since I didn't give Smith's book a very favorable review, I will have to agree and say that this book is better. At the beginning it was feeling whiny and tiresome, another tale of poverty-stricken landed gentry, but by the end, I was feeling more charitable toward the story and even got caught up in the climax (a nail-biting ending, to be sure).

In October of 1936, Sophie FitzOsborne receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday and determines to set down her own account of her family's lives in their castle on the island of Montmaray. Although they are presented as royalty, they live a hard-scrabble life miles from conveniences and modernity. Her older brother is away at school, leaving Sophie in the ramshackle castle with her mad uncle, King John, her cousin, Veronica, and her younger sister, Henry (short for Henrietta, although if I had a daughter named Henrietta, I'd never allow it to be shortened to Henry, just sayin').

There were several exciting bits: two German soldiers land on the island and a terrifying chain of events unfolds, the housekeeper's loyalty is revealed as something more than it appears, and planes soar overhead (both friendly and not-so-friendly). I kept waiting for something significant to happen for Sophie, but in the end, she is merely a chronicler of sorted events. She never takes up with her love interest (the housekeeper's son, Simon, whom Veronica loathes). Many of the resolutions seemed simultaneously too tidy and meant to shock or amaze. It was better than Smith's book, but then, Smith's book wasn't my cup of tea, either. I won't seek out the rest of the Montmaray Journals series.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Review: The One-in-a-Million Boy

After I finished this book, I was determined to figure out where I had heard about it. I finally found a recent New on the Stack post at Sheila's blog, The Deliberate Reader. It seems she was hearing about it everywhere so she placed it on her stack. I'm so glad she did and that I followed suit. It was a moving and emotionally stirring read, one I will not soon forget. As I read, I found myself sighing and repeatedly saying, "Ohhh," in an "aww" kind of way.

The One-in-a-Million Boy tells the story of the boy's mostly absent father, Quinn Porter, a musician hot on the trail of gig after gig. It begins, upon the boy's unexpected death, when Quinn decides to atone for his lack of involvement by completing his son's Boy Scout commitment to work for an old immigrant woman named Ona Vitkus. At one hundred and four years old, Ona took quite a liking to the young boy and was eagerly helping him try to earn a place for her in the Guinness Book of World Records. By visiting with Ona, Quinn begins to feel more connected than he ever had to his odd, obsessive son.

My heart ached for Quinn, his ex-wife, and Ona. Despite being full of sadness, their stories were bursting with the potential for connection and healing. I sat on the edge of my seat wondering whether Ona would live long enough to make her goals and wondering whether Quinn would come to terms with his son's death. The emotions evoked were powerful and true. If you are looking for a light-hearted read, don't bother looking for this book. But, if you are willing to brave the sadness, your heart will be inspired by the resilience and importance of human connection and love.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Review: Book Scavenger - Highly Recommend

If you are a fan of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, then you will probably enjoy this book. Author Jennifer Chambliss Bertman has created a story full of puzzles, books, and danger. In Book Scavenger, you get a healthy dose of codes to crack, puzzles to solve, and characters to love.

The book opens with an introduction to a special game called Book Scavenger. It follows the principles of geocaching and involves hiding and finding books, similar to Book Crossing, an actual site where you can label and track books you send forth into the wider world. Emily is a twelve year old player who is determined to reach the rank of Auguste Dupin, the second highest ranking in the game. Even though she is moving with her family to San Francisco, she knows that she can play the game anywhere her crazy family decides to move. They are, indeed, a family of movers as Emily's parents write a blog about their quest to live in fifty states. This constant moving has taken a toll on Emily and her brother, Matthew, and Emily just wants to make some new friends who are as crazy about book scavenging as she is.

Several events take place to propel the story in motion. Garrison Griswold, the creator of the Book Scavenger game is attacked on a San Francisco BART station. Emily and her new friend, James, happen upon a book they are sure is the start of Griswold's newest game, a game he was meant to unveil on the day of his attack. Some suspicious men are also after the book and the clues that Emily and James are uncovering. Will the kids unravel the mystery before they meet the same fate as Garrison Griswold?

I had hoped to read the book aloud to Sean, but he is knee-deep in his own reading right now (reading 45 minutes to an hour daily in order to meet some reading goal for his fourth grade class). I was gobsmacked when he brought home copies of Great Expectations and The Hunger Games. For a nine-year-old, he's blowing me away. Makes a reading mother's heart burst. Perhaps he'll stumble onto a copy of this excellent book at his school library. It is definitely a five star book and an outstanding debut novel!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

New Small Group

After growing weary of the half hour commute to participate in the Threshold Singers, I began to hope I could find something a bit closer to home. I decided to join a small group of women from my Salvation Army corps. They meet once a month, in members' homes and share a meal and some fellowship (with a time of serious discussion). I had such a good time at the July meeting that I offered up my house to be the location for our August meeting.

The day was miserable. Wet and stormy. Indeed, there were tornadoes whipping through the county while the women were attempting to make their way to my house. Bryce left to go to his friend's house and almost ran straight into a tornado. He said he came to a clear area near the soccer fields, not more than a mile from our house, and saw a huge cloud swirling debris. He told us later that he did a u-turn right there in the road and sped away. Here are some photos one woman snapped while on the way to my house:

A tornado touched down and did damage to a neighborhood a little over a mile away from us. Thankfully, all the women made it to my house safely and we had a wonderful time around our big table. We were able to fit all 14 of us around it!

After the meal (following a breakfast-for-dinner theme), we retired to our back porch and had our discussion time. I think everyone had a great time and really enjoyed sharing our little bit of space here.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book Review: The Red Blazer Girls

After a few less-than-stellar audio book picks (returned after a few minutes of listening because of excessive language), I decided to head to the tween section for my next audio book. This one, The Red Blazer Girls, by Michael D. Beil, was both clean (although some reviewers mentioned bad language at the beginning, it must have slipped right by me) and engaging. Here is an abridged version of the blurb on the back cover of the book:

"Three unexpected sleuths-in-school-uniforms come to the aid of a strange old lady, and find themselves tackling a scavenger hunt set up decades ago, to search for a legendary ring reputed to grant wishes.... [They are] just three mostly regular girls (like you?), who are surprised to find themselves hiding under tables, trying to solve puzzles and equations, and prowling through moldy storage rooms. Anything else you should know about? Oh, yeah. There's a boy involved. Who complicates things. As boys often do.

"This very first Red Blazer Girls adventure offers a fun, twisty whodunit?, where-is-it? for those who love mysteries, math (c'mon, admit it!), and more than a modest measure of mayhem."

Gotta love the alliteration in the final enticing line! I'm also thrilled to know that my library already owns another episode of this series (although I suspect the puzzles would be easier to solve if you approached them in a hard-copy book instead of in audio). I will be on the look-out for more.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: The Gene - Highly Recommend

I have been eagerly awaiting my turn on the hold list for this book, The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, for several reasons. In a recent newspaper article in The Indianapolis Star, the author is noted for his ability to make science "humorous and approachable." Moreover, I knew the subject matter was fairly seminal to the topic of my most recently written YA novel, The Probability Code. Ever since I began researching for the process of writing that novel, I have been fixated on things like eugenics and the future of genetic testing and treatment.

This book was absolutely fascinating, moderately foreboding, and thoroughly accessible. I thought the book was structured well. Framed by the story of Mukherjee's own family experience with mental illness, the author presents a history of our understanding of the gene. I wasn't aware that eugenic ideas went all the way back to Plato. Apparently, in his book The Republic, "Plato argued that if children were the arithmetic derivatives of their parents, then, at least in principle, the formula could be hacked: perfect children could be derived from perfect combinations of parents breeding at perfectly calibrated times." Of course, Mukherjee noted many other names I was already familiar with, names like William Bateson, Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Gregor Mendel, and Charles Darwin. But he moved on from those names and introduced many further key figures in the development of our understanding of the human gene.

I took four pages of notes from the book (mostly comments I felt reinforced the plausibility of my novel - since several writer friends have questioned whether such a world is realistic or believable). Sadly, if we are not headed for the actual world I have envisioned, then we are certainly playing with a similar set of matches. The author's commentary on these moral issues fell fully in line with my own sentiments and questions. For example, in thinking about the possibility of eliminating schizophrenia or bipolar disease, the author highlights the very realistic dilemma that such action might equally eliminate certain abilities and intensities that come with the darkness of disease. He wonders aloud whether we can truly eliminate mental illness without, in the process, eliminating creative impulses. Mukherjee writes of a young girl, named Erika, who suffers from an incurable disease. He aptly observes, "We might eliminate Erika's mutation from the human gene pool - but we would eliminate Erika as well." The possible losses in a world devoid of mutations is staggering to consider. As they say, "Into every life a little rain must fall." Without the rain would we truly be able to appreciate the rose?

He sums it up well toward the end of the book, when he writes, "Illness might progressively vanish, but so might identity. Grief might be diminished, but so might tenderness. Traumas might be erased, but so might history. Mutants would be eliminated but so would human variation. Infirmities might disappear, but so would vulnerability. Chance would become mitigated, but so, inevitably, would choice." The technologies are rapidly falling into place to not only create genetically modified organisms in the fields, but genetically modified humans in our houses. Is this a triumph or a tragedy? Time will tell.

I'm thankful to Siddhartha Mukherjee for painting the picture in such a way that the reader can visualize what impact the gene can have on our existence and our future. While I didn't share his firm belief in evolution, I found much to agree with in this lengthy (500 page) treatise. It was a fascinating read and I couldn't help but share whole passages with my family as I stumbled upon page after page of intriguing documentation and commentary. I suppose now I must search out his previous masterpiece, The Emporer of All Maladies. He has certainly proven his power with a pen. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, August 12, 2016

CBLI 2016 Re-cap

This was our eighteenth consecutive year in attendance at The Salvation Army's Central Bible and Leadership Institute. Despite obstacles and setbacks, we were determined to attend (most significantly on Trevor's behalf because he was anticipating his first year in the tween track). When we discovered our school year was set to begin right smack in the middle of camp, I made it an urgent matter of prayer and finally decided we would simply sacrifice two and a half days at camp and one day of school in order to still attend our favorite annual event.

The first half of camp literally flew by. We were blessed with accommodations in the lodge (I believe it was on a first-come/first-serve basis this year and we did get our registration and paperwork in almost as soon as it was available). Trevor's first night was extra fun because the tween track held a glow party afterglow. While I didn't get any pictures of the afterglow, I did scavenge the Jr. High CBLI Facebook page for a few shots of Trevor in his track:

They had an 80's theme and at the end of camp, Trevor was allowed to bring one of the giant Rubik's cube decorations home. Here he is in worship and in his small group with two of his friends, Justin and Emmett:

Since the boys are older now, I am able to play in the brass band. It was much more organized this year and our rehearsals and performances were fun. We felt especially blessed this year because my brother, David, and his wife Miriam, were on staff for CBLI this year. Thus, we were able to spend a fair amount of time with them in conversation over meals.

Before we knew it, Tuesday afternoon was upon us and we headed back home so the boys could attend the first two days of school. When John went out to check the van over prior to our return to camp, he discovered an unsightly crack in one of the tires. I ended up driving his burly truck back to camp, but was grateful I didn't drive the van and experience a blowout on the busy highways.

One afternoon, during free time, we made a trek into Antioch, Illinois, to visit the boys' favorite gag gift and costume shop, J.J. Blinkers. Trevor was thrilled to find a magnetic tube of Butterfinger flavored lip balm (it will stick to his locker at school). Sean insisted on purchasing a humorous gag gift for his dad:

I had a hard time settling on an elective class. With the added wrinkle of two missed days, I ended up visiting three different classes over a four day span (Ephesians, Women in Leadership, and Faith-filled Families). However, Linda Himes's daily Bible sessions were a big hit. She traced the theme of the kinsman-redeemer from Genesis to Revelation. It was a powerful lesson and I was grateful to have benefited from her previous study of the book of Ruth (another year) to make up for the missed days of class.

Once again, I enjoyed the hymn sing and testimony time. The Singing Company accompanied the songs and provided us with a moving time of worship and praise:

Friday evening the Jr. CBLI track held a dress-up ball. Alas, we forgot to pack dress clothes the second time around, so Sean attended in his usual casual attire. The girls really were decked out for the festivities and Sean said they were glutted with pizza and candy. Here is a photo of the kids on the tram (the stretch-limo that took them back and forth to classes daily) heading to the ball and a few photos of Sean at the ball. The winter theme is in conjunction with the missions fundraiser of Share Your Christmas Joy (the camp raised enough to send money to over a hundred foreign children's homes to provide a Christmas experience for the children in the homes).

On the final Saturday, I leaned in for my annual selfie with my friend, Laura:

Then, the kids presented their performance:

We were pleasantly surprised when Sean was called forward to accept the award for Top Boy Camper in his Jr. CBLI track. He said the rest of the kids swarmed him afterward because they thought his armor was so cool:

On the last morning, I remembered to take a quick photo of Sean with his good friend, Jonas:

It was definitely worth making the extra effort to make it happen, but the arrangements certainly shortened the experience for us. Next year is still up in the air. We've heard talk of a shift in the CBLI calendar, moving the dates up a week, but this may not be enough since our school is determined to begin school in July of 2017. Groan! For now we will count our blessings and relish the memories we've made.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book Review: The Bard and the Bible

I recently took a walk down memory lane when I set about to purge our basement of some lingering papers from my college days. The papers were primarily notes: both my own written notes in notebooks and the mimeographed notebooks I purchased for particular classes (yes, I know my age is showing). I also tossed old blue book exams. What I couldn't part with were the papers I wrote for those classes (can a writer easily discard a work on which they have invested any amount of time or effort?). Seeing those old notebooks really took me back. I found myself wishing for a chance to study in such a way again without going back to school.

Then that opportunity presented itself in the form of this excellent devotional, The Bard and the Bible, written by Bob Hostetler. When I studied and traveled with the Wheaton-in-England group, I took a comprehensive course on Shakespeare. But those days are like a faint whisper. This book allowed me to soak in more about the famous bard and contemplate similar sentiments from Scripture alongside the lines from Shakespeare's plays and poetry. Because I was offered a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review, I tackled the devotional in a few separate doses instead of the daily readings it is set up to provide. I would happily go back and use this as a devotional some year in the future and can easily see myself purchasing this book as a gift for some literary friend.

In The Bard and the Bible: A Shakespeare Devotional, Hostetler provides small snippets of Shakespeare paired with verses from the Bible to create a daily dose of both the best playwright of all time and the most popular book of all time. The quotations are primarily arranged in the order the plays were written and the lines in the order of their appearance within the plays. Although each daily devotional is brief, the words present enough truth and trivia to lead to deeper contemplation.

Moreover, one usually doesn't anticipate humor in a devotional format. Hostetler manages to bring many a smile with his little quips interspersed throughout the text. At one point, I had to chuckle when the trivia blurb (at the bottom of each page) mentioned that The Two Gentlemen of Verona has a dog as a member of the cast and then observed that "it is not a speaking part." I laughed again when the longest word used in Shakespeare's works was identified as "honorificabilitudinitatibus." Now there's a mouthful worthy of a snicker or two.

I loved the closing question for each day. They often read like a writing prompt and opened up a whole realm to consider and weigh individually. For example, the question on October 30th was "What metaphors would describe your life?" I could easily see myself using this book to prompt a daily writing session in the morning to kick off whatever writing needs to be tackled for the day. The questions were perfect for writers, but would also appeal to any individual wishing to take the devotional thought and apply the concepts to life.

This year-long devotional is sure to appeal to writers, and eager literature students, to those in the mood for a chuckle, as well as those seeking serious contemplation, to readers with no knowledge of Shakespeare and to readers who have taken Shakespeare 101. The focus is unique. The passages are noteworthy. The concluding questions are thought-provoking. There is much to be gleaned in this volume. In the words of the playwright himself: "how far that little candle throws its beams!"

Saturday, August 6, 2016

When the Start of School Interrupts Your Favorite Camp

What's a mom to do when the start of school interrupts a favorite annual Bible camp? This was the dilemma many months back when we first learned that CBLI (Central Bible and Leadership Institute) ran from July 30th (it always begins on the final Saturday of the month, but this year that Saturday was very late in the month) to August 7th and school resumes on Wednesday, August 3rd. My initial response was simply to keep them out of the first three days of school, but alas it was Trevor's transition year to the middle school. I couldn't exactly expect him to return on Monday, the only confused and lost kid in a sea of students who had already learned the ropes the previous week. Thus, we landed on a compromise: the boys would miss one day of school and two and a half days of the camp.

So, last Saturday we drove up to the camp and began to settle in. When the settled in feeling just started to take root, we packed up and returned home. Thankfully, we discovered an easy route to the camp that takes us four and a half hours (this is better than our old ways of visiting Grandma for one meal and then taking a road closer to her house, making the trip almost six hours). Still, it's 4-1/2 hours! Groan!

Here are the boys, bright and early, awaiting the school bus on their first day back:

I enjoyed sitting on our wonderful, newly-refurbished porch to watch them wait for the bus. Hopefully, they will get off to a great start and do well in fourth and sixth grade. Praying also for a great end to our CBLI encampment (so glad we attended despite the obstacles and setbacks).

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Book Review: Life As We Knew It

The back cover of this audio book, Life As We Knew It, identifies Susan Beth Pfeffer as the author of more than seventy books for children and young adults, yet somehow I've never read any of her other books. I stumbled upon the third book in this series, the Last Survivors series, and realized that I wanted to read the books in order, so I returned the third book and checked out this audio version of the first book in the series. Having invested in the first book, I'm still not sure whether I will continue with the series.

Told in diary form, Miranda's story is riveting and terrifying. Her world implodes as a meteor collides with the moon and alters its position in the sky. Suddenly, life is no longer the same. The climate is permanently altered. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions threaten civilization. Resources become scarce. The daily hum of life is permanently altered as schools and businesses close down. Can Miranda and her family hope to survive this devastating turn of events? Great premise, no?

While the idea was enticing, the execution was less so. It is difficult to write a novel in epistolary form. You have to carefully develop characters and present plot points with a realistic flow. I believe the author did an okay job at this. For the most part, the novel came from a clearly teenage perspective and inserted information gently. But, the world still failed to be entirely realistic.

I believe if these events had really occurred, human nature would kick in. There would be far more chaos and crime than was presented in the novel. If Miranda's family managed to secure a hoard of food for themselves, someone who failed to do so would, in all probability, come and seize the food without thought for law or order. It seemed unrealistic that people would file through the stores purchasing what they needed at the outset of the disaster. Looting would seem inevitable. I wondered how the family could hole up in their house for a year without a single person attempting to unlawfully gain access to their food supply. When a neighbor finally approaches, it is simply with a request for medicine, politely executed. It was like a sanitized version of the end of the world.

My biggest complaint would be with the portrayal of Christian characters in the novel. It is clearly evident that the author is an agnostic with a venom for anyone who might choose to respond to crisis by clinging to faith in God. The main Christian character believes that God wants her to starve as a mark of her dedication to the Lord. She pleads with Miranda to accept Christ while there is still time. She bears a crush for her male minister and blindly follows him, while he accepts the food from his parishioners without concern for their well-being. It was nauseating. Moreover, I found it hard to believe that this supposed polite world, where no one loots or kills to survive, responds in such a favorable manner without any confidence or conscience toward a supreme being.

I desperately wanted to place myself in this alternate reality and entertain the what-ifs of such a situation, but much of it felt unrealistic and incredibly biased against the beliefs I hold dear. The writing was engaging. I never grew tired of the story or bored with it. In my final analysis, I would give the premise five stars but the presentation of the idea only three stars. I'm still not sure whether I will seek out the second book. After endless hopelessness and despair, the conclusion magically provided hope in the form of a government allotment of food supplies. Moreover, I've read that the second book is more a companion book, in that it doesn't move the plot along any further, but simply tells the same story in another location of the United States. Not sure I care enough about the characters to see them through this end-of-the-world-without-God scenario.