Saturday, December 31, 2016

16 Best Reads of 2016

Click on any title for a link to my review of these favorite books in 2016:

Favorite Fiction:

Favorite Non-Fiction:

Favorite Faith Reads:

Favorite Writing Reads:

Favorite Middle Grade:

Favorite Young Adult:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall

The tween audio book section of the library is always good for a short, clean listen. This book, The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, met my need for a brief read that could be completed in three days of treadmill walking prior to our departure for the holidays. With hints of the flavor of The Secret Garden and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, this book tells a simple ghost story.

Twelve-year-old Florence arrives at her uncle's manor house glad to think that her life in the London orphanage is over. But, what awaits her there is a cold-hearted aunt, devoted to the memory of Florence's recently deceased cousin, Sophia. In the aunt's eyes, Florence doesn't hold a candle to Sophia. But, as Sophia manifests to her brother, James, and cousin, Florence, it is clear that Sophia wasn't the gem her aunt believed her to be. Intent to recreate the scene of her death, with the hopes of killing her brother, the ghost interferes with their lives at Crutchfield Hall.

While the story was interesting and the writing good, the ending just sort of fizzled out. I kept thinking something more would occur, but the last few chapters whimpered to a close without any further revelations. While the back cover proclaims that Hahn pays homage to Poe and Dickens, her story is not on the level of these greats. It is a simple story with fairly interesting story development. I suppose it would appeal to the tween set, but didn't really satisfy my grown-up tastes. I would give it three stars.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sister Secret Santa Sock Exchange

I have joined a women's group from my church that meets once a month for a themed dinner and time of discussion. This month, to celebrate Christmas, we decided to hold a Sister Secret Santa Sock Exchange. It was a white elephant sort of affair. We each brought a pair of Christmas socks stuffed with goodies. I, of course, brought a Reader's Delight gift - I tucked a Half Price Book gift card into a pair of penguin socks, along with a metal book mark, and two different chocolate bars.

Here is what I came home with:

(Lindt chocolate truffles and a raspberry scented Krispy Kreme candle) Funnily enough, Trevor loved the fox socks when he saw them and said he would have taken them for himself if they had been a bit bigger to fit his feet - ha! I did see something in one of the other socks that made me think of him, although I'm resisting the urge to go purchase it for his stocking. It was a roll of toilet paper with a paper label that read: "In case you get CRAP for Christmas." This made me think of him, and chuckle, because he insisted that I not begin my Christmas shopping until he produced a list, because he said, "you always buy things I didn't necessarily want." Hee-hee!

Here's a photo of our legs revealing the socks received:

Merry Christmas, and may your own feet be toasty warm and your heart filled with friendship and fun!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: Sweet Tomorrows

This is the final episode in Debbie Macomber's Rose Harbor series. I was grateful to have the time to listen to it before Christmas, since I have left off writing for a spell (and it is certainly too cold to be walking the high school track). Sweet Tomorrows was a fun book to listen to and filled my treadmill time nicely.

Mark Taylor left Cedar Cove almost a year ago to complete a reconnaissance mission for the military. Once again, inn owner Jo Marie Rose finds herself waiting in limbo. At his insistence that she move on, Jo Marie begins dating again. She also takes in a more permanent guest, when she welcomes Emily Gaffney as a temporary boarder (Emily is taking on a teaching position and needs a place to stay while she searches for the right house). Despite two broken engagements, brought on in part by her infertility, Emily is determined to find a house and fill it with foster children. The owner of the house she has her eye on comes across as very gruff (because of his own grief and brokenness) and her hopes seem thin. But once again, as in previous books, the inn works its healing magic and hearts are filled with new hope and love.

Debbie Macomber has the ability to make her characters feel real, like friends you simply haven't met yet. She creates an enticing environment in Cedar Cove and peoples it with conflicting relationships and life problems. But, there is always redemption and healing waiting in the wings. I'd love to take a lesson from her on how to make that work out to such reader satisfaction. I'm sad to see the series end and will miss the characters. Perhaps she will reprise them again in the distant future.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Christmas Wish

The Christmas Wish may be my only token Christmas read of the year. I have to confess, I picked it up on a quick trip into the library for a video for my youngest and selected it because it was on display and looked like a quick and easy read. The book did not disappoint in that sense. I polished it off in a few days. While I don't rank it up there with Karen Kingsbury's Red Glove series, it did put me in a Christmasy mood.

Will Martin has returned to his childhood home (where he grew up with his grandparents after his parents died in a car accident when he was four) to put in order his grandfather's business. His grandmother has only one wish for Christmas. Ever since the grandfather's death, Will's grandmother has been reading her husband's journals. With little to go on, Will must search for the clues behind his grandfather's yearly secret visits (every Christmas Eve) with a woman named Lillian. In the process, Will learns far more about his grandfather than he ever knew while the man was still alive.

I found Will's original girlfriend choice to be quite abrasive and irritating. Then, when he finally sees the light and exits that scene, he immediately latches onto another woman and by the end of the book (just days later) is unbelievably proposing to her. That was a bit far-fetched. Plus, I'd have to say that I guessed the ending quite soon in the story. Still, I didn't put it down and the author capably kept me reading. Not my favorite Christmas novel, but passing fair (perhaps 3 stars). Apparently, there's a movie version starring Neil Patrick Harris. I won't seek it out.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Book Review: Neighbor as Yourself

It was like Christmas came early! I opened the front door to find a much welcomed package waiting for me:

Bedecked with my friend Kyle's classic artwork even:

I always buy myself at least one gift for Christmas (here's my gift from two Christmases ago). This year it was a no-brainer. As soon as I learned that my old writer's group friend, Kyle White, had published another book, I wanted to buy the book as my Christmas present to myself - ha! Kyle was kind enough to send an autographed copy.

Like its predecessor Wisconsin River of Grace, this little book entitled Neighbor as Yourself is a collection of Midwest personal essays and poems. Kyle's writing always gets the reader thinking and contemplating life's deeper questions - questions of faith and purpose and God's grace. The first book focused more on his love of Wisconsin, his original home. In this book, he has made peace with his transplantation to Sycamore, Illinois, and recognizes God's blessing can fall no matter where you are located (even Indiana, Kyle, even Indiana).

I loved the pages of introduction with these two telling quotes:

"The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world ... The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us." - G.K.Chesterton

And - "Our unity is constituted by our inability to tell our stories without one another's stories." - Stanley Hauerwas.

I don't know who Stanley is, but he certainly shares my love of storytelling and attributes accurately the interdependence of story in our lives.

Kyle's humor shines through, like in his little piece called "Quotidian Meeting of Insomnia Committee." Who among us cannot relate to the middle of the night important (or less-than-important) business cogitation? In "The Scandalous Truth about You and Cold Weather," Kyle once again makes me laugh about our relationship to the seasons (reminiscent of his letter of recommendation, titled "To Whom it May Concern," on behalf of autumn for the position left vacant by summer, found in the last book). There are a few essays about facial hair and disastrous haircuts, and one about mothers waving at the bus stop like people do when they're drowning ... like people do when they're about to be rescued from drowning - ha!

But, there are serious things to contemplate, as well. One of the first essays in the book tells of an experience when Kyle happened upon the aftermath of a horrific accident on the day after Christmas. In reading about it, I felt as if it happened to me. That essay, along with others, caused me to reflect on death. This dose of deep reflection, flavored with bits of laughter, sums up Kyle's books nicely. As he declares in a heartfelt prayer on the back cover - "For our thinking that everything lasts forever: grant us mercy. And, one more day of 45% relative humidity. Amen."

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Giving Up - Well, Sort of

So ... I started the second half of the novel over again, this time with the main character encountering a young runaway girl who billed herself as living with an elderly ill grandmother. She breaks into their shed to steal a horse blanket and begs off a couple bananas another day with the story that they were making banana bread and when they opened their perfectly yellow bananas found that they were too bruised up to use (and they didn't want to throw out the already mixed ingredients). At this point the girl is doing some light labor in the garden for the woman and the woman gives her a few bucks here and there for her trouble. She has gone on two garden field trips with the family (she said she is home schooled). She is burrowing into their hearts.

And then, I get to the part where the rubber hits the road and I feel stuck all over again. It is like I'm trying to write outside of my element (which is true, since I'm a YA writer attempting a women's novel). I need to research what would truly happen if a family provided shelter for a runaway (even if they did not understand her true dilemma) and I cannot seem to find knowledgeable individuals ready to share their information with me. I had written to a CPS worker when the character was a younger abused child and was curtly told that "As a practitioner, such a request cannot be honored."

In other research, I've found the most common response is "policy dictates that we are not able to respond to something along these lines." It is frustrating. I am trying to write about something I have no experience with and am having trouble envisioning it all on my own, yet research is like attempting some kind of covert mission for the CIA. I guess what I really need is friends in high places and I don't have such friends.

So, as we approach the days where the boys will be home full time and the holidays will disrupt writing mojo, I've decided to set the whole thing aside. It breaks my heart because my old pattern (prior to the Nanowrimo experience) was always to start and then set aside. In the last eight years, I've never failed to complete a manuscript and I don't really want to do that. However, it is quite possible that the story line simply needs some time to simmer in my brain. I need to come up with a solution that still provides intense redemptive possibilities without veering into the "off-limits" territory of child abuse policy. What is clear is that the secondary character in Part Two needs some form of help from the primary character and the help that she provides will bring healing both to her own soul and to the heart and soul of the secondary character. Those are big shoes to fill. God does it all the time. Sadly, I'm not him.

For now, my plan is to ruminate on the obstacles and possibilities for a few weeks and then pick the writing back up in January with the same fervor of a Nanowrimo month. When I spoke with my parents this weekend, they expressed concern that I had given up on my most recent YA novel (the one I believe is my best effort yet). I haven't. Even despite setbacks and discouragement and the rejection of a pursued agent, I will get back to marketing that book. But here again, I need some time off. So, I'm giving up to spend time focused on the holidays.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Book Review: Paperboy

I had noticed this book a few times before, but when my middle school son came home saying he had to read it, I decided to read it with him (to help him when it came time for him to write up his book report). Paperboy tells the story of a young boy in the 1950s who lives in the South and deals with a stuttering problem. Amazon lists this Newbery Honor book as "perfect for fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, The King's Speech, and The Help."

After hitting his best friend Rat in the mouth with a baseball, Victor feels obligated to take over Rat's paper route when Rat has to go visit his grandparents for the month of July. Because of his love of baseball, the throwing part thrills him. Because of his stutter, the collections part terrifies him. The book is full of interesting characters. My favorites were Mam, the boy's African American caretaker (similar to Aibileen in The Help) and Mr. Spiro, an educated man who gives the boy clues to help him discover his true identity (my son loved the image of the offered corners of the dollar bill with S-words on them so much that he used it for his book report's visual aid - sadly the teacher scorned his offering and said it showed "little creativity").

While the book is about identity and resilience, it is primarily about individual story. Once again, we all have a story to tell. As this book puts it, "it matters more what you say than how you say it." Toward the end of the book, Victor declares "my soul doesn't s-s-s-stutter." An excellent selection for any young reader who doubts their worth or struggles with their identity because of a disability (heads up - it does portray some intense social ills like alcoholism, domestic violence, and racial tension, and hints at the inappropriate affections of an adult neighbor).

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Book Review: Finding God in the Ruins

There couldn't have been a better book for me to read while working on a novel about redemption than this book by Matt Bays, Finding God in the Ruins. Subtitled "How God Redeems Pain," this book is a brief contemplation on the quest to understand how and why God uses pain and suffering in our lives. The author chooses to look the most devastating moments of life squarely in the eye and not shy away from the story or the pain. I devoured this book in one sitting. Apart from an uncomfortable passage where Bays talks of giving God the middle finger, I'd count this a five star book for its honesty and encouragement.

Before he even begins to share his transparent story of a life filled with sexual abuse and familial dysfunction, Bays caught me with these three paragraphs:

"For many years in my own search for redemption, I needed others to be the hands of God to me - to let me know that if things didn't work out, they would stand with me, even if I stopped believing.

"Most of my spiritual mentors never said the words I was desperate to hear: 'I'm sorry for all you are going through. You are going to make it, and I'm going to be there for you if you need me. You don't need to be anything other than what you are in this moment.' Instead, I heard only this substandard spiritual remedy: 'God has a plan, and one day he will use this for his glory, so get on with it.'

"My brokenness for God's glory. It felt like a slap in the face. I could not bear the responsibility for making sure my pain would eventually be turned into something that would make God look good. What I really needed to know was that in spite of my pain, I would be okay, even if things never got turned around."

And that is the blessed takeaway from this book. You can, indeed, find God in the ruins of your life. He is working on making something useful of your pain. Moreover, you don't have to sanitize your life and make it acceptable. You can tell God exactly how you feel about your circumstances. As two chapter subtitles put it, "God Wants You to Tell the Truth - The Uncensored Version of Your Story." Bays recognizes the importance of the stories our lives tell, especially the messy ones that many Christians want to silence. Toward the end of the book, he writes, "Each of us has a calling that comes from the core ache within us - a calling to write with our lives the beautiful stories of God's redemption. To remind others that all of our pain has been regulated. So when hopelessness seems to have had the last word, the love of God instead, which has been written on our hearts, will set God's redemption loose in the enemy's pawnshop."

As I read, I discovered that the author lives in Indianapolis, not far from me. How I want to contact him and say, "I'm working on a novel about this very topic. I'd love to meet you and talk about the writing process and the story I'm trying to tell." But then, fear holds me back and I tell myself, "Just get on with it. Maybe if you finish the manuscript, you can one day ask him to write an endorsement, if he's willing to take the time to read your writing." I have to argue with myself from Bays' own words and say "Your story is what God will use most of all." May that be true and may Bays' encouraging words spur me to keep on writing.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Back Up, Start Over

When I last wrote about my novel writing venture in November, things were going splendidly. I had completed Part One of the current novel and had entered into the waters of Part Two. I had met the Nanowrimo goal of 50,000 words for the one month time period. Everything was swimming along.

Then came Thanksgiving. I'm sure there are a myriad of reasons why a holiday can throw your writing mojo into the gutter. I wasn't even responsible for the meal, thanks to my hubby's willingness to do the cooking. I feel like I have no excuse, yet the writing started to creep along at a horrifying pace. First, I stopped meeting my 2000 word-a-day goal. Then, during the height of the holiday, I had four different zero word days (groan). Over the last two weeks, I've only squeaked out 14,576 words.

Even more concerning, it just felt like the second portion of the novel wasn't clear in my mind. The characters felt wrong. The agent for resolution was too complicated (led into territory where I couldn't really research the answers to questions on-line but would need more specialized knowledge). It makes sense that the first half was the easier section to write. It is far more challenging to write healing than it is to bleed pain onto the page. Still, I was growing quite disillusioned. I spent inordinate amounts of time researching location and setting details and while those are important, they were getting in the way of real writing.

Then, yesterday morning, as I was mulling over the difficulties again, I had a revelation of sorts. I had always envisioned the key secondary character in Part Two as a young girl named Dakota. When she appeared at all (and I wasn't seeing her very clearly), she had a widowed father in her life and the parent was getting in the way. As I thought about it more, I realized that perhaps she is not a young girl, but is rather a teenage runaway, named Savannah, that the main character believes to be a neighbor. This scenario provides its own challenges and again, I may be in over my head. But, even though I'm still a bit hazy on the details, I'm pretty sure that I need to back up and start over. I plan to scrap almost all of the work done in the past two weeks and begin again on Monday (when I can focus clearly on the writing without boys underfoot), rewriting Part Two.

If there is any consolation in all of this, it is that I am very pleased with the first half of the novel. It has set the stage for the second half quite well and established character, dilemma, conflict, and an even story arc. Sadly, the days are growing colder and my morning walks have become more difficult to accomplish. I work best when I have that time to ponder the characters and their individual needs. Plus, I use that time to pray and offer up my minimal talents to be used as the Lord sees fit (praying that He would multiply my loaves and fishes). So, as I plow into December and a new start to the second half of my novel, I'm hoping for two solid weeks of intense focus and productivity while the boys finish up their last full weeks of school before the winter break arrives. Goodbye Dakota. Hello Savannah.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Review: The Woman in Cabin 10

Even though I wasn't a huge fan of Ruth Ware's thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, I decided to give the author another shot when I read the premise behind this novel, The Woman in Cabin 10. The book is about a travel magazine journalist who is invited aboard a press junket voyage of an exclusive cruise ship. While on board, she believes she witnesses a woman being thrown overboard. She is frustrated when the security officer fails to believe her report and even more flummoxed when all the passengers are accounted for.

The book begins with the journalist, Laura Blacklock, experiencing a break-in in her London flat. Has that break-in caused her to be overly anxious or to feel undue fear while she is on board the ship? Did she really hear the splash and see the mark of blood on the neighboring veranda window or was it merely her imagination and nerves at play? Can she be trusted as a reliable narrator when she is on antidepressant medication for anxiety or when she drinks more than she should?

All of these questions stir within the reader as the story unfolds. I was gripped and entertained by the process of listening to the audio version of this book. I did enjoy this book, with its multiple twists and turns, far more than Ware's last offering. However, my chief complaint was with a formatting issue from the audio version. The tracks were unbearably long. One track went on for over 32 minutes. This would be all fine and dandy if I were listening on a device that would stop and restart wherever I had last been in the story. Sadly, the player I use by my treadmill only allows me to stop the track and restart from the beginning of each track. Thus, I would finish my workout and be six minutes into a track, never knowing whether I would require another two minutes or another thirty minutes to finish the track. Groan! Why, oh why, couldn't they have provided three to five minute tracking?

My only other complaint was that you end up absolutely hating Blacklock. She is a whiny, drunken, neurotic narrator and you know from the start to be suspicious of her version of things. Still, if you can get past the annoyance with her character, she does live through a riveting story.