Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review: The Vanishing Violin

While waiting for my turn for the audio version of Truly, Madly, Guilty (by Liane Moriarty), I checked out this second book in the Red Blazer Girls series, The Vanishing Violin, by Michael D. Beil. Since Moriarty's audio book will be hefty, at 14 CDs (17 hours), it was nice to listen to a quick and easy tween book. Beil does an excellent job of peppering his books with puzzles and clues until finally the mystery is solved.

The back cover entices with an alliterative sentence: "Friendship and forensics form a fun and fast-paced mix as the girl detectives find, figure and finagle their way through another mystery." The mystery involves a stolen violin. While the girls seek to help the violin shop owner reclaim his stolen merchandise, they are also sent a mysterious set of clues to unravel, are set-up by a devious classmate (and seek their revenge), and are enticed into new relationships. In addition, the girls decide to form a band and perform an original number.

While the clues would certainly be easier to ferret out if I were able to look at them instead of simply hear them, I still enjoy listening to these light-hearted mysteries. The characters are delightful. The plot moves quickly and logically. Moreover, the mysteries are always tied up nicely at the end. I didn't notice any foul language this time around, so those naysayers from the first book should give this second one a try. Tweens who love mysteries will certainly enjoy these prep-school sleuths.   I'll have to read the third book on my own, since our library doesn't have any more audio books for this series. I even noticed that the author has written a mystery with apparent boy-appeal called Lantern Sam and the Blue-Streak Bandits. I plan to search that out, as well.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: Life After Life

Sorry to say, this book didn't live up to the hype, in my humble opinion. Gillian Flynn labels it "one of the best novels I've read this century." The back cover is ablaze with endorsements: "extraordinary," "brilliant," "powerful," "splendid," and "lovely." While the concept was clever and innovative (the idea that one could repeatedly restart life and do it better each time), the actual execution left a lot to be desired (a hodge-podge of recycled lives that never resonated or concluded with intriguing insights).

I'm confused at the appeal (even my bookish friend, Amy, raved about it). I found it to be perplexing and tedious. There were long passages that left me wondering where the novel was going and when I would finally be done with it all and get to wherever it was heading. Then again, the ending was foretold in the first chapter. Even if I thought that ending was thought-provoking, the process of getting to that point took 529 plodding pages.

Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910, only to die when the umbilical cord wraps around her neck. But Ursula's life isn't truly over, for soon it is the same night and she is born a second time and survives. She goes on like this, living "life after life" in an attempt to get it right in the end somehow. Each life leaves ripples of dejavu in her other lives. Sometimes she takes the knowledge learned in a life (a boy who takes advantage in an isolated stairwell) and alters her existence so that she will not make the same mistake again. Sometimes not. The end goal is to right a wrong (infectious illness leading to death, murder, abusive marriage, etc.) and "practice makes perfect" until the ultimate wrong is righted through Ursula's actions.

It was hard to keep track of all the time-frames, the various lives lived, and the responses of others. It seemed like a shape-shifting novel throughout. You knew the main character would end up dying and starting life over again, but to what end? While philosophical arguments were raised (about concepts of time, the importance of individual moments, and the chance to make a difference with your life), they never left me with a sufficient take-away. I agree with Amazon reviewer, Maris Williams, who wrote: "the experience for the reader is much like The Funhouse of Mirrors, where everything warps and stretches every time you move." Another reviewer wondered if the author had written the story and then simply tossed the pages in the air and compiled them as they fell (it was truly that disjointed). If I had it to do over again (this was a book club selection that I had voted for, because of the murmurs of greatness I had been hearing), I would have saved the hours spent devouring this tiresome tale.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review: Colors of Goodbye

I didn't go searching for a memoir on loss, but this book found it's way into my hands when the cover and title entranced me. Colors of Goodbye: A Memoir of Holding On, Letting Go, and Reclaiming Joy in the Wake of Loss, tells the story of a mother devastated by the loss of her nineteen-year-old daughter, Katie. September Vaudrey pours out her pain and her hope in this story of love and loss, and of living in the midst of both. (If you click on the book link above, you can listen to the first minutes of Shauna Niequist's foreward to the book - an enticing snippet of the audio version.)

I did weep buckets of tears. How could one read of the loss of a beautiful, artistic, vibrant young woman without shedding a tear? But, as gut-wrenching as the pain of losing one's child might be, this book focuses equally on the process of going through that experience and gleaning God's good despite the bad of death and loss. I loved how each section began with a definition of a color word (seven different unique colors like vermillion, indigo, burnt sienna, and cerulean blue) and a couple key quotes. The inclusion of examples of Katie's art added an important personal touch. You felt like you got to know the daughter more through her magnificent works of art. It was truly devastating to think of the talent she displayed from such a young age and the further works she might have been able to produce if God had allowed her to remain on earth a bit longer. But, the book doesn't leave with a feeling of disappointment or despair. You weep when the family weeps and you laugh when the family finds the strength to laugh.

A really good memoir allows you to walk a mile in the writer's shoes and feel each sentiment alongside them. September Vaudrey is an excellent writer (the book received five star reviews across the board). You get inside her head and her heart. You experience the sadness and the recognition of subtle challenges (like trying to avoid making the lost child such a centerpiece that the other children seem insignificant in the post-loss life or wearing the loss as a badge - things that do, in fact, happen in the lives of families who have lost a child). I was sucked into the story of their difficult experience, but I came away with a sense of hope and inspiration. Katie declared as a fifteen-year-old: "I want to leave ripples in the lives I leave behind." Her life truly did leave ripples and this memoir will continue to send the ripples of that life out into the world for Christ's sake (for rather than questioning faith, the story affirms faith).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book Review: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly - Highly Recommend

I first encountered Jennifer Donnelly's writing when my young adult book club read her novel, A Northern Light. I loved that book. I wrote in my review, "Kudos to this author for creating such an enduring character who intersects with a historical moment, yet manages to come alive all on her own." Well, Donnelly has done it again! She has created a character (this time a modern one) who intersects with a historical moment that manages to spur her on to a fresher life in the here-and-now.

Andi Alpers is a grieving teenager trying to cope with life after watching her younger brother, Truman, die on the streets of Brooklyn where she lives. Her mother has fallen apart. Her father, worried about the danger of expulsion if Andi doesn't complete her senior thesis, decides to take Andi to Paris for her winter break from school. In Paris, Andi encounters a fresh music scene of her own (and a handsome love interest), a quest for the identity of a preserved heart from the days of Revolutionary France, and a guitar case holding an antique guitar and a hidden compartment with a diary from a young girl, Alexandrine Paradis. The deeper Andi is pulled into Alexandrine's story, the deeper her despair grows along with her desire to discover the ending to the girl's story. As Alex and Andi intersect in the novel, great truths about life are uncovered. The novel holds so many intense topics: guilt, grief, justice, suicidal thoughts, revolution, love, transcendence and comfort. In the end, the riveting story comes full circle to a redemptive close, with fitting lessons gleaned from the diary, the heart, and the relationships fostered along the way.

I think Revolution is, perhaps, my favorite young adult novel I've read this year. Once again, as with A Northern Light, I fell in love with the main character. Her intense emotional fragility and her deep love of music highlighted the power of music to heal the heart and the importance of the fight against oppression. Deep emotional truths came to light through the story. I loved the girl's timidity in her relationship with the boy. I loved the dark, mysterious Virgil (I'm so glad I listened to this in audio format because I would have pronounced the name in my mine as Ver-jill instead of the very romantic French pronunciation Veer-jeel). This novel holds appeal for teenagers and adults looking for excellent historical fiction.

Jennifer Donnelly has another YA historical fiction title, These Shallow Graves. I will have to seek it out. Plus, she's written two grown-up titles I might pursue. I'm hoping she continues to work on young adult manuscripts, however, because she does such a fantastic job of blending realistic teen characters with history that transforms their understanding of the world.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Book Review: Skeleton Creek

I checked out this Scholastic book, Skeleton Creek, once before and promptly returned it to the library after consuming only a handful of pages. It didn't draw me. It didn't appeal. However, when Trevor selected this as a book to read for an assignment for school, I decided I would check the book out again and finish it this time, so that I could assist Trevor if he needed help working on his report. While he enjoyed the book fairly well (for a kid who doesn't really like reading), I found the book entirely tiresome.

Here's the book's official summary: "Although housebound following an eerie accident, teenaged Ryan continues to investigate the strange occurrences in his hometown of Skeleton Creek, recording his findings in a journal and viewing e-mail video clips sent by fellow detective Sarah. The reader may view Sarah's videos on a website by using links and passwords found in the text."

For whatever reason, Trevor didn't realize he was supposed to be interacting with the book by searching up the videos on-line. He only began viewing them after I told him how lame they were. They were reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, a movie meant to appear as a documentary of some scary activity in the woods. The videos accompanying this book were annoying and created multiple interruptions to the reading process. The actress portraying Sarah has this habit of hesitancy in everything and it was quite exasperating. Moreover, the videos were so artificial and contrived, not scary in the slightest. I could not abide them and groaned every time I was directed to yet another one. The only thing I found interesting were the alchemy symbols used in the mystery.

Because it is told in journal format, with inserted e-mail clips and, of course, the dreaded interactive video clips, it must be appealing to tween boys. Since this is a hard demographic to pull in, I'd have to say the book is successful even when it didn't appeal to me at all. If you have a tween boy interested in scary stories, with an active imagination and a willing sense of suspension of disbelief, you might wish to recommend this series to them (five books in all, to date). However, I didn't care for it at all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review: Burial Rites

When Sheila from The Deliberate Reader introduced a new on-line Facebook book club, I thought I would jump at the chance to join in the discussions. Sadly, I've only read one other book discussed by the group, Big, Little Lies. Finally, I managed to synchronize my reading schedule to the book club schedule and read this month's book, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. The topic sounded interesting and it seemed short enough to be a quick read. I was right on both counts.

This book is a fictional account of a real historical event in northern Iceland. Agnes Magnusdottir has been accused of the murder of two men, and is awaiting execution. One family has been chosen to house the woman until her official sentence can be communicated from the superiors. The family is fearful of her presence among them, but they soften as time goes on and as Agnes pours out to them and to her selected priest the dreadful story of her life.

Kent manages to keep the reader turning pages, unsure of whether Agnes is guilty or innocent, until the very end of the story. Knowing that the tale is based on fact (Agnes was the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland) and catching a glimmer of the atmosphere, language, and customs of the Icelandic culture enriched the telling immensely. I quickly devoured the book. I only wish I could have listened to the book in audio form (should have requested it by interlibrary loan in that format several weeks ago) so that I could have had a better handle on the pronunciations of words and names.

When I went to search for the image of the book cover to accompany my review, I found four different covers. The one above is the cover gracing the book I checked out from my local library. This second image is the most perplexing of all, to me, because I find that it neither entices nor explains anything about the book. The third image, is also confusing ... more feather imagery ... and I don't care for it either. Finally, I think this fourth image is my favorite because it conveys the barrenness and the desolation of both the area and the mood of the story. It is very stark and cold. I prefer it to the bold image of a woman in profile with the letters of the title covering over her image. But, to be honest, I don't think any of these covers would have caused me to pick up the book if I hadn't been participating in this on-line book club.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Book Review: The Space Between Sisters

I often wonder if sisters who are very similar get along better than sisters who are very different. For my own experience, I am very different from my younger sister and we haven't always gotten along well. Thus, I am drawn to books about the sister relationship. I suppose part of me wants clues for improving my relationship with my sister. Part of me is just curious to see how other sisters (and sister characters) relate to one another.

The Space Between Sisters, by Mary McNear, is a story of two very different sisters. Poppy, the older sister, is stunning and spontaneous, disorganized and directionless. Win, short for Winona, is the more mature of the two, staid and structured, dependable and deliberate. When Poppy loses her job at the start of summer, she decides to move in with her sister to live in their grandparent's cabin on Butternut Lake in Minnesota. Friction inevitably follows as the two sisters settle into a comfortable routine of living together. Poppy brings along her cat, Sasquatch, even though Win is allergic. Poppy cannot understand Win's inability to let go of the past or her constant constructions of shrines to her deceased husband. Win, in the meantime, is frustrated with Poppy's frivolous attitude toward responsibility, her casual and non-committed string of relationships with men, and her unwillingness to function as an adult.

It is clearly a case of each sibling being unable to see things from the other person's perspective. Poppy may have her shortcomings, but her past holds the key to many of these character flaws. Win may have trouble moving on, but her relationship with her husband was one of the few really good things in her life up to that point. What follows is a tender story of two dissimilar girls struggling to get along and to settle into their respective lives. Since the book takes place in the summer, it makes an appropriate vacation read. There are more books in the Butternut Lake series, but I don't think I was drawn enough by this easy, predictable read to seek them out.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Weekend Wedding in Wisconsin

My oldest brother and his wife have three children. They are each really special individuals. They are godly, good-looking, and great catches, all. Two of them, the girls, have recently been "caught." Both the oldest and youngest got engaged since last Christmas. It felt like a long time coming because they both were in serious relationships for many years. We couldn't be happier with their choices. Over Labor Day weekend, the oldest tied the knot at our favorite camp in Wisconsin (where we go every year for our annual Bible camp). Kirsten and Keith's wedding was a beautiful event and such a great opportunity to be reunited with family and friends from all over.

This was one of the two adorable flower girls (Wendy Joy) who dropped petals on the white runner before Kirsten's grand entrance.

We were overjoyed that Bryce agreed to come along for the trip up north. I think the cousins really had a lot of fun together. In between the wedding and reception (once our extended family photo was out of the way) there were games set up on the grass and the boys played several games of corn hole with their cousins. For the reception, there were assigned seats and Trevor was thrilled to have been assigned to the table with the older cousins (while Sean sat with us and my brother and his wife and three of their children). Apparently Trevor was quite a hoot, talking on and on about the cake and when were they going to be allowed to cut it and eat it. Plus, he kept dabbing (as evidenced in the last group shot here):

Here's a shot of my husband laughing as my younger brother, Tim, cut the cake at our table:

The photographers set up a photo booth and took photos throughout the time of the reception, so at one point all the cousins (minus the three in the wedding party and two who could not come because of school commitments) crowded in for a group shot:

Then, my sister wanted me and my siblings to pose for a photo with my parents (a bit of a side angle, but if it turns out I might purchase the straight on shot the photographers took):

By 8:30 (which was 9:30 to our Eastern time zone bodies), the boys were beat and wanted to go to our hotel, so we left before the final event, the sparkler send off (the father and mother of the bride):

What a blessing it was to participate in this holy ceremony. Best of blessings on the marriage of Kirsten and Keith:

Monday, September 5, 2016

Book Review: Counting by 7s

Want to tap the depths of human emotion? Plumb a subject like death and loss. From the outset of this book, I knew it was going to tug at my heart strings. Indeed, by the end I was sniffling and holding back tears. There is something so moving about a story of deep loss and the human connection that brings healing.

Willow Chance is an oddball. A twelve-year-old girl who doesn't fit in at her middle school. A genius charged with cheating when she aces a standardized exam in 17 minutes. A lover of plants, the color red, and the number seven. Willow Chance doesn't stand a chance in an ordinary middle school setting.

Therefore, it is no surprise when she is sent to visit a counselor to work on her social skills and address some of the missing spokes in her life. The counselor is, himself, a piece of work. Categorizing his clientele into groups of misfits, oddballs, lone wolfs, weirdos, geniuses, dictators, and mutants, Dell Duke doesn't really know how to meet the needs of these individuals or how to take care of himself, for that matter.

When Willow and Dell cross paths with Mai and her delinquent brother, Quang-ha, things begin to get interesting. When Willow's parents die in an accident, things begin to get hard. Mai, sensing the girl's need, urges her mother to take on temporary guardianship to keep Willow out of the foster system. But Mai and Quang-ha and their Vietnamese mother don't live an ordinary life. They live in a garage and use a bathroom in the mother's nail salon. But Willow is resilient and, despite being odd, she is also a very nurturing individual.

As Willow observes about the curse of labels, "In my opinion it's not really a great idea to see people as one thing. Every person has lots of ingredients to make them into what is always a one-of-a-kind creation. We are all imperfect genetic stew." Willow moves through her life in a daze, yet manages to not only bring people together, but also make those individuals better than they were.

Holly Goldberg Sloan has created a unique character and fleshed her out with a distinct voice. The supporting characters are equally interesting. The story moves steadily to a mostly-satisfying and redemptive conclusion.

My primary difficulty was with the shifting point of view. If it had been evenly structured, it would have felt smoother, but at times we are hearing from Willow's perspective and then, without warning or designation, we are above the story reading about the other characters' internal thoughts and feelings. So it was kind of a mix of first-person and third-person omniscient. Moreover, I wasn't thrilled with the simplified, too-tidy ending (happily-ever-after when money, unknown to this point, materializes, and relationships solidify to create the exact world Willow wants and needs). Still, these things didn't detract from the power of the story. I would still consider it a good book, worth the meager time investment it requires.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Book Review: Love You More

In my search for another audio book, I discovered Lisa Gardner's thriller, Love You More. I was so intrigued by the first several riveting chapters that I decided to search up the titles of this author's other books to see if I had read anything else by her.  It turned out that I hadn't, but in the process of checking, I discovered other books with these same characters, so I had a heads up that somewhat ruined the climax of the story for me. I will attempt to write this review without ruining it for any of my readers.

Love You More opens with state trooper Tessa Leoni faced with the simple question "who do you love?" and seconds later, her husband lies dead on the floor. Tessa's fingerprints are on the gun and she is a beaten-up, bruised mess. But the biggest question of all surrounds the whereabouts of her six-year-old daughter, Sophie. Detective D.D. Warren is determined to put all the pieces together and find the daughter or reclaim her body. Did Tessa shoot her husband in self-defense? Did she also murder her daughter and hide the remains? Can she race against time to reclaim what is hers and clear her name? Or is she a bad cop with a history of previous murder?

With twists and turns and unexpected trails, this first-rate thriller is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat wondering who exactly is the bad guy and whether or not that person will come to justice. Add in the tension Detective Warren feels because she has just discovered her own pregnancy and you get a feel for the emotional tug of the story. Parental love is a powerful force and Tessa Leoni refuses to go down quietly. I will happily seek out more thrillers from this author (although I will have to be careful when listening because it did contain a fair amount of foul language - but then, my library only has three other books in audio version of the ten books in the D.D. Warren series).