Friday, August 30, 2013

Kids' Books

Earlier this week I did a blog on children's books.  Today I want to move into a little older category - kids' books.  Most libraries will call it "young adult," but that is such a broad category.  To me, young adult is more like middle school/high school books, like The Hunger Games.  I'll get to those books too.  Today, though, my goal is to talk about chapter books for grade school kids. 

These are books I recommend for either grade school kids reading on their own or parents reading to their kids.  Again, I CANNOT emphasis enough the importance of reading to your kids.  The benefits are endless.  It brings families closer together.  It helps your child be better prepared for school.  It instills a lifelong love of reading that benefits their worldview as well as their academic progress.  It better prepares them for the world ahead of them.  AND IT'S FUN!

These have been some of my favorite grade-school age books over the years.  And many of them are series - even more fun!

In no particular order...

1. The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Who wouldn't want to go live in the woods with no grown-ups?   This lovely series is about a family of orphaned children who, believing the grandfather with whom they are supposed to go live is mean, decides to move into an abandoned boxcar in the forest.  The children are super polite and nothing ever too terrible happens to them.  It's just a nice, fun read, and the vocabulary level makes it great for beginning chapter book readers.

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series by C.S. Lewis

My dad read these to us growing up.  Then, when I was in sixth grade, my teacher encouraged me to read them again on my own.  I love it when books mean different things to you at different ages.  Each time I pick up one of the books from the Narnia series, it speaks to me in a different way.  These are a must read.  And, if you will allow me a rant...READ THEM IN PUBLICATION ORDER.  NOT CHRONOLOGICAL.  (I will restrain myself from that fight here.  Comment if you want to continue to argument.  But beware, I will win it, for I have right on my side.)  

3. The Ramona series, The Mouse and the Motorcycle series, Henry and Ribsy, and pretty much everything else by Beverly Cleary.

Beverly Cleary's books have stood the test of time.  Recently my seven year old has gotten into them, and I am amazed at how timeless they are!  Written decades ago,  they are still pretty relevant to today.  Everyone loves Ramona Quimby and relates to her on some level.  These are marvelous books for young readers, and there's something for everyone.  I personally also love Dear Mr. Henshaw.  Such good, solid reading.

4. A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels by Madeline L'Engle

This might be for slightly older young readers - 5th grade and up.  These marvelous books weave space travel, science, theology, history and fantasy into fantastic tales of the Murray family's adventures over time and space.  A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters are all worth your time, and I am sure the others in the extended series are as well.  These are the kinds of books that really make you think.  They capture the imagination of the reader in unique ways.  Wonderful books for young readers reaching  for more. 

5. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

I have already written an entire post about the importance of Number the Stars.  I think everyone should read it.  It is a great story of choosing to do what's right in the face of terrible wrong. It also tells about an terribly important time in history and introduces kids to some of the awful truths of history while showing them true heroism. Beautiful book. 

6. Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar

Want something hilarious that makes you feel like you are standing on your head to read it?  Pick up Sideways Stories from Wayside School and prepare to have everything you know about school turned upside down.  This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and it always keeps you guessing.  Nothing is ever as it seems, whether it's a dead rat trying to pass itself off as a student, a mean teacher that gets turned into an apple, or the mysteriousness of the 13th floor.  What can you expect from a school that was built 30 stories high, one classroom on top of another?  Also fantastic is the sequel, Wayside School is Falling Down.  The quirkiness abounds. 

7. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Maybe it's just that the thought of living at Metropolitan Museum of Art sounds utterly fantastic to me.  Maybe it's the historical mystery.  Maybe it's the identification of a young girl feeling out of place in the world and needing to be a part of something important.  Whatever it is, I love this book about two young siblings who run away to live at the museum and become embroiled in a centuries-old mystery.  I can't wait to read this one to my daughter Anna one day.  I think she and Claudia will be good friends. 

8. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

I am trying desperately to keep this post from being all girl books, I really am.  Although the main character of this book is a heroine, I truly think it can be enjoyed by boys and girls alike.  Charlotte's perilous, treacherous journey is enough to capture the imagination of any kid who has ever dreamed of high adventure or running off to join a band of pirates.   Read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and play "what would you have done?" 

9. The Indian in the Cupboard series by Lynne Reid Banks

What if you could suddenly make your toys come to life?  Not like in Toy Story - I mean really come to life, with a back story and a real past?  This magical series tells the story of Omri, a young boy who stumbles upon a cupboard that, when he places his toy Indian inside and turns the key, discovers that his toy has now become Little Bear, a real Native American from the American past.   The books is part one of a trilogy, and the entire series is a source of wonder and delight for young readers. 

10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Let me make two things clear: 1) Roald Dahl is WEIRD, and 2) I absolutely hate the 1971 movie, so much so that I never had any desire to see the remake.  (Although Johnny Depp is also quite weird, so he was probably a good fit for Dahl's world.)  Having said that, I have always enjoyed this book, weird as it is.  Roald Dahl tells odd stories about odd characters, but he does so in a captivating way.  Many of other Dahl's books are also great stories - personally, I like Matilda even better than this one, but again, I was trying to list books that would appeal to both genders.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a classic, and for a good reason.  Great book for young readers.

I am making myself stop at 10, but there are SO MANY MORE GOOD BOOKS out there for young readers.  If none of these appeal to you, go to your local library and speak with the librarian in the children's section.  I guarantee you they can find something you and your young reader can enjoy together.  Reading is such an important, exciting part of life.  Start engaging your young reader now - I promise, you will never regret it.

And now - off to continue with The Chaperone! 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Children's Books

As I am finishing two books this week, Austenland and The Chaperone, I thought it would be fun to take the opportunity to talk about other kinds of books I have read and enjoyed. Today's list will be my favorite Children's Books.  These are books that I have enjoyed reading to my kids over the years - not young adult books (that's a later list), but the little kid stuff.  I have read to my kids since before they were born.  Reading to your children is one of the best things you can do to make them lifelong readers and develop reading skills.  It also fosters bonding and healthy relationships with your kids.  To top it all off, it's FUN!

If you've been wondering what sorts of books to read to your toddlers and young children, check out some of these titles!

In no particular top ten children's books:

1. The Belly Button Book by Sandra Boynton

WE LOVE THE BELLY BUTTON BOOK.  Sandra Boynton is one of my favorite children's authors.  She writes short board books that are hilarious and catchy.  Kids love them, even as babies.  The Belly Button Book has been read so many times in my house I have it memorized.  "This tiny hippopotamus has something small to say, and if we're very quiet now he'll say it right away, listen: BEE BO!"  And so on.  So much fun. 

2. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak 

A classic. Who doesn't love Where the Wild Things Are?  Who doesn't love Max?  Who among us has not been sent to our room for being brat and imagined leaving it all behind for the jungle?  My youngest, Matthew, particularly likes this one.  If you knew Matthew, this would not be a surprise.  

3. A Snoodle's Tale by Phil Vischer

This book by Phil Vischer is based upon the Veggie Tales video, also written by Vischer.  It is a beautiful story of how God really sees us.  I cry every time I read it to the kids.  Joshua loved it as a baby because it rhymes - it had a great calming rhythm to it.  And a beautiful, powerful message that is never to early to communicate to your kids.

4. Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late by Mo Willems

Mo Wilems has become one of my favorite children's authors.  We love all the Pigeon books.  The pigeon tends to remind me of some kids I know...anyway, these are hilarious and oh so fun to read out loud!

5. There is a Bird on Your Head! (An Elephant and Piggie book) by Mo Willems

More Mo Wilems.  Elephant and Piggie are hilarious friends.  They have several books together.  Also very fun to read out loud.  You can put so much into it!

6. Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell

"I love Clifford, the big red dog!"  Ok, that's  from the TV show.  But everyone loves Clifford the big red dog!  And he always has some great lesson to share.  And he's big!  And red!  And cuddly!

7. The Jesus Storybook

There are many good children's Bibles out there.  This is simply one of my favorites.  It teaches kids that the Bible is not a collection of stories, it is One Big Story, a beautiful tapestry of God's love.  It brings every single story back to Jesus.  And there's a CD that reads it out loud as well.  Highly recommend this one.  Makes a great baby gift!

8. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff

...he's going to ask for some milk to go with it.  And thus begins a tale of cause and effect like none other.  There is a whole series of books in this vein - If You Give a Pig a Pancake, If you Give a Moose a Muffin, etc.  Not a bum one in the lot.  Worth buying the whole set!

9. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle

This is one of the first books that my kids learned to read on their own due to how many times I read it to them.  It's great for learning  colors, animals, and reading.  There are several others in the series.

10.  Curious George by H.A.and Margret Rey

Oh Curious George, you sill monkey with your even sillier human.  I mean, who lets a monkey loose in New York and tells him not to get into trouble?  But then again, how fun is it to imagine a monkey running around the city, learning stuff and getting into trouble?

In the end, what's important is to READ TO YOUR KIDS.  Take any of these books or find some of your own - but reading to your children will bring great benefit to your family life and your kids' growth.  Think of the books you loved as a kid and read those them.  Share the joy of reading with your kids and start a lifelong love of learning and adventure.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Everyone Worth Knowing

A young twenty-something girl trying to start her career life in New York finds herself taking a job that drops her in the middle of NY's social elite.  She is soon overwhelmed with the glamour and privilege of that world, but the is the price she pays - her privacy, dignity and self-respect - really worth being a part of this world?

"Wait a second," you might be saying, "didn't she already review The Devil Wears Prada?  What is she talking about?"

I am talking about another one of Lauren Weisberger's books, Everyone Worth Knowing, which bears quite a few similarities to Prada, with the addition of more sex, drugs, and sliminess. 

Bette Robinson is a twenty-seven years old college graduate working 80 hours a week in a banking job that she hates - mostly because, as far as I can tell, Weisberger's female characters are never happy or satisfied in their lives.  She quits that job and winds up working for Kelly & Company, an event planning firm that strives to be with the "in"crowd of New York.  Soon Bette finds her life consumed with showing up and the "right" places, being at the "right" events, and even set up in a fake relationship with the "right" boy.  Slowly this new glamorous lifestyle chips away at Bette's soul until she finally realizes she has become a glorified prostitute and has to decide what she really wants in her life. 

About two-thirds of the way through the book - right around a trip to Istanbul which basically became a week-long orgy of sex and drinking - I realized this book was possibly eating away at MY soul and was the literary equivalent of a Big Mac. But I kept reading hoping that it would get better - it kept hinting at giving Bette a decent relationship, and as her life got more and more outrageous, I kept thinking "surely we are coming to the climactic scene where Bette walks away from all this."  It always seemed just out of my grasp.  When the inevitable showdown scene finally arrived, it had been dragged on so long that it had lost all its power.  Its sister scene in Prada was at least timed well.  This time, I was so OD'ed on a chick-lit that I no longer cared...then I woke up the next day feeling the same way you feel the morning after pigging out on pizza and Twizzlers.  I find myself this morning in some serious need of literary filtered water and celery sticks.  

I also realized around the same place in the book that linguistically the book was pretty weak.  All the characters sound exactly the same - no one has a distinct voice.  I couldn't "see" the scenes play out in my head because the dialogue was so canned.  And there is more than enough profanity to go around, which just got tiresome.

So did the content.  All the characters felt they were much more important than they were.  Even Bette, our heroine, was awfully self-involved - and, as mentioned above, there seems to be some sort of rule about these characters ever feeling fulfilled in their lives.  I don't understand why this twenty-something in New York thing is so attractive - it's not just in Weisberger's books, it's an epidemic.  For a woman to be strong, apparently she has to be in New York, working a corporate job, and utterly miserable.  For Pete's sake, New York is not the only place to have a life, go out and make something of yourself!   I wanted to scream at Bette most of the time to quit whining, have some self-respect, be truthful to herself and her friends, and get a life.  Which is probably one of the points the author was trying to make...but having to wade through all the drinking, clubbing, sex, and general debauchery made me too tired by the end to care what happened to these people. 

Ultimately, the book was depressing.  Depressing to think that this IS really the life some people strive to live.  Depressing to realize that although this is a work of fiction, the club/elite/superstar life is real, and that as I read the covers of magazines while standing in Wal-Mart to buy my milk and bread, many of the people on those covers live this kind of life.  And where does it get them?  Are any of these people happy?  More than that - are they joyful?  Fulfilled?  Even at the end, when Bette has finally gotten her head screwed on straight and walked away, she was still moping around her apartment, wallowing in reality TV and alcohol.  It just all seems so sad. 

So to sum up: these people need Jesus, and you don't need this Big Mac. 

Rating: 1 1/2 stars out of 5
What I'm reading now: Austenland by Shannon Hale (waiting for me at the library!)
1. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
2. Crazy Love by Francis Chan
3. The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
4. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII  by Margaret George

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sister Emily's Lightship

Sometimes you walk away from a book loving it.  Sometimes you walk away from a book hating it.

Then there are the times you walk away from a book completely unsure what your reaction is.

I found Sister Emily's Lightship while looking for another book by Jane Yolen.  Ms. Yolen puts the PRO in prolific.  She has published over one hundred fifty books.  (I'm still trying to finish just one!)  She has written everything from children's books to science fiction to historical to fantasy.  She has been published in anthologies and collections.  This woman WRITES.

Sister Emily's Lightship is a collection of her short stories.  There is no real theme among them - her explanations in the author's note point to the idea that she just had several short stories written over the years that wound up in this collection one way or another.  The title refers to the final story, which won the 1998 Nebula award for short fiction.  It is a fictionalized tale of Emily Dickinson encountering a space alien.  Yes, that is as odd as it sounds, and this may give you an idea of what the book is like.

First, the writing.  Ms. Yolen is a wonderful storyteller.  She uses a variety of writing styles, flowing along with whatever story she happens to be writing at the time.  Very versatile.  Her choice of language is beautiful.  I love it when storytellers actually have a vocabulary.  She phrases her ideas beautifully, and her stories are a joy to read, even if you don't like the actual story.  She has the ability to bring you right into the scene and carry you along.

She also writes intelligently.  Many of her stories start in the middle of a scene or an idea.  You have no idea what is going on because you weren't there for the beginning, but she assumes you are smart enough and patient enough to hang in there, because if you are, all shall be rewarded.  She assumes her readers have brains and imaginations and don't need everything spelled out for them.  I enjoy that very much.

And then we come to content.  I truly enjoyed many of the stories.  She writes several redactions of fairy tales - telling the story in a different way to see it from another perspective. (What if Peter Pan is really the bad guy and Hook has been trying to rescue the Lost Boys?  What if Rumpelstiltskin was actually a Ukrainian Jewish man whose good name has been smeared?)  I love those stories.  They make you THINK.  She also writes several stories about fairy folk, which are fun and enjoyable.  She has some science fiction in there, which I enjoy.  She also has some strange, dark tales that made me very uncomfortable.  Some of the stories take very dark twists.  Some of them end abruptly and ironically.  Some of the stories made me sick to my stomach, while others made me go "huh?"  There is an alien story of space travelers that salvage and digest ideas in order to survive.  There is a story about a small town creepy outcast guy.  (Really didn't like that one.)  There's one that is, quite frankly, a raunchy double entendre, all the way through.  Others seem to be Native American tales or stories from other cultures.  There's one that turned out kinda vampire-y, and I could have done without that. She beats up on Creationists at one point, which annoyed me because I have no platform for rebuttal with her.  Really, she gets her ideas  from anywhere, and she writes them down as they come.

Sister Emily's Lightship gave me much to ponder.  It expanded my mind and made me see the world in a new perspective, which is exactly what it's supposed to do.  We can't just avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable or we will never grow.   So, overall, did I like the book?  I'm not sure.  Do I recommend the book?  I'm not sure.  Will I read the book again?  Probably not.  Do I regret reading the book?  No, not at all. 

Sometimes you read a book and it's just a different experience altogether.  And that's not a terrible thing.

Rating: Ummm...I don't know.  Some books are not designed for a rating scale.

What I'm reading now: Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger 
Top Five TBR:
1. Austenland by Shannon Hale
2. Becoming Myself by Stasi Eldredge
3. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
4. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
5. Crazy Love by Francis Chan 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Laugh Book

This seems to be my week for talking about old, out-of-print books that I have loved since childhood.  If you're looking for this week's books and can't find them...I'm sorry!  But maybe my tales of finding book treasures will inspire you to go find your own rare jewel.

I have known The Laugh Book, compiled by Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson, since I was about six years old.  It's a collection of funny...things.  There are jokes, riddles, tongue twisters, funny poems, tricks and puzzles, and funny stories.  They are not originals by Cole or Calmenson - the book is instead a collection of items drawn from other sources. It's designed for children of all ages, which is why I have loved it for so long.

The book starts with jokes and one-liners - very corny, and things I absolutely loved as a 6, 7, and 8 year old. "Where do cows go on dates?  To the moo-vies."  I pretty much ignored the back of the book, which is comprised of chapters out of other books (like Pippi Longstocking and Mary Poppins) and short stories.  It wasn't until later (when I was a better reader and could comprehend more) that I came to appreciate these lengthier pieces, and then it was like discovering a whole new book! 

I wore my copy of The Laugh Book out over the years, and then it was lost as I moved from place to place.  It wasn't until the past few years that I found a used edition in the  marketplace and was rewarded for my long search with a nice, clean, complete copy.  I have enjoyed it all over again, and I can pass the laughter and joy onto the next generation.  Tonight I read out of it to my own children, and as they start to read, I hope they find as much joy in it as I have. 

Sometimes books just stick with you.  My recent posts are an evidence of that.  I want to encourage you readers out there - explore books you've never heard of.  Find that rare book in a used bookstore or at a random library sale.  Mull over titles that aren't on the New York Bestsellers list.  There are unheard treasures out there - unsung heroes of the book world that can change your perspective and stay with you throughout your life.  The Laugh Book is something that I have carried with me, whether physically or in my heart, since I was a small child. Now I have the opportunity to pass along the joy I have experienced with it to my own children. 

And that is a precious gift. 

Rating:  I dunno, how do you rate a book that's been important to you for 26 years? 
What I'm reading now: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George  
Top Five TBR:
1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Sister Emily's Lightship by Jane Yolen
3. Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger
4. The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
5. Crazy Love by Francis Chan 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ellie's Inheritance

Sometimes you find some of your favorite books in life on a random bookseller's shelf for 10 cents.

When I was in about 7th grade, I went to a book sale in a local mall.  It was one of those purges that libraries do every so often, and you could buy books for around 10 cents a piece or something ridiculous like that.  Yeah, pretty sure I bought 20 books that day.  The funny thing is, there's only one I can remember buying, and it is one that has become precious to me throughout my life since the age of 13.

Ellie's Inheritance  is an out-of-print book by Hila Colman.  It follows the young adulthood of Ellie Levine, a Jewish girl in New York that was raised in wealth and privilege but whose father lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash.  Now she and her father live in a ratty "hotel" room on the opposite side of Manhattan, and Ellie finds herself having to find jobs and support her father, who is of another world and generation.  Living in the shadow of the memory of her larger-than-life ambitious mother Rachel, Ellie must find her own way in the world, recognizing the unseen - but certainly felt - influence on her life while also breaking free of the expectations she feels weighing on her shoulders.  As a young Jewish woman in the 1930s, she must also face the rapidly changing world as she encounters Communism, Fascism, the upper class, the working class, immigrants and refugees in the melting pot of New York.  She also encounters love along the way, but it's a love that forces her to make choices she never thought she would have to make.

This is the kind of story that could have been written in an incredible sappy, lovesick kind of way.  It could have been written to read like a lame period piece movie script.  It's not.  Colman writes as though she is pouring out her own heart and story - or perhaps the stories of those who have gone before her - and instead of being predictable, the story invites you into Ellie's world.  You see New York from her eyes, you feel the pain of the changes in her life, you begin to cheer a little inside when she starts to raise her head from the sand and really see the world around her.  At the same time, Colman paints a brilliant picture of life in New York prior to World War II.  It was a time when everything was changing.  The Great War had changed the face of the earth - both literally and politically.  Immigration to the U.S. surged as families sought new and better lives for themselves.  Political convictions ran from waaaay left to waaaaay right - and Ellie is placed right in the middle of this struggle.   On top of that, she is haunted by the memory of a mother she can barely remember but whose legacy lives on in the family.  Rachel Levine came to this country with her mother and sisters and nothing else, and the strength of their family combined with her fierce determination to succeed raised them from the ashes to places of privilege beyond their dreams.  And then, as was the case with so many, it all came apart in 1929, and Ellie was left to pick up the pieces of her shattered life without the strength of her father or the physical presence of her mother - but she had the strength of her mother's family and her inherited strength of will of her mother to not just survive, but thrive.  Ellie just has to learn how to live that out in her own way, apart from the memory of her mother, and find her place in the world.

I love Ellie's story.  She is one of those book characters that I carry with me all the time.  She pops into my head at the most random times - I will notice a loose thread on the hem of my shirt, and suddenly I am back in Ellie's room as she designs and sews her own party dress.  I will look at my husband in love and think of the great loves of Ellie's life and how they shaped her.  Although Ellie was older than I was when I first read that book, it was still the story of a young woman searching for who she was - and that spoke deeply to me as a 13 year old girl.  It still does.  I sometimes wonder what would have happened to Ellie had Colman continued the story.  Ellie's Inheritance is, in fact, a sequel itself.  I read it first when I was 13 and had been looking for the first book, Rachel's Legacy, ever since...but it wasn't until about two years ago that I found a copy on  Finding that book was like finding buried treasure.  It filled in all the holes I had wondered about for years.  I was so excited, I think I read it in 24 hours flat.

I wish Ellie's Inheritance wasn't out of print.  I wish it wasn't so hard to find.  But perhaps it's elusiveness as a novel is a part of its identity.  Maybe that's part of what makes the book as marvelous as it is.  Whatever the case, Ellie's Inheritance has had a place of honor on my bookshelf and in my heart for the past 19 years, and if you can find a copy of it, I recommend you allow it a place in your heart as well. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What I'm reading now: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George  
Top Five TBR:
1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Sister Emily's Lightship by Jane Yolen
3. Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger
4. The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
5. Crazy Love by Francis Chan 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Always the Baker Never the Bride

I love my historical fiction.  And I love my biographies and stories of the past.  However, occasionally it is nice to put down all the heavy stuff and do a quick read of something in which no one dies.  I am still reading The Autobiography of Henry VIII, but I know old Henry's story pretty well, so it's kind of depressing to read about him falling head over heels in lust with Anne knowing that in a  few short years he's going to have her beheaded.  I am also still reading Team of Rivals, but we all know how THAT ends.  Sometimes when you are reading big thick project books, you have to put the meat aside for just 48 hours and have some cake.

Thus enters Always the Baker Never the Bride

I found this book after I went to a teacher in-service on reading and everyone was encouraged to recommend a book they were currently reading.  This, of course, made my wish list EXPLODE.   This was one of the books recommended, so I grabbed it at the local library over the weekend.  (My husband sent me there to print off a form "really quick."  Silly husband.  I was there for, like, an hour and came home with four books and a movie.) 

Always the Baker Never the Bride is a delightful little comical book about Emma Rae Travis, a diabetic baker who specializes in exquisite wedding cakes.  She is hired to be the pastry chef at a new exclusive destination wedding hotel by the dashingly handsome Jackson Drake.  From there, we meet Jackson's lovable and very involved sisters, Emma Rae's crazy family, and a whole cast of fun other characters along the way.  We follow Jackson and Emma along as they dance around the inevitable growing romantic chemistry between them while juggling both their new responsibilities to their careers and their old responsibilities to their families.  It's a crazy, laugh out loud ride from their first initial meeting - where they, of course, don't like each other - until the last chapter where they begin to let go and let God take them where they've wanted to go all along. 

As a structural device, each chapter is punctuated with baking tips, wedding tips, or a recipe.  There are fun little entries such as "Emma's Cashew Fudge Brownies" and "Unique Wedding Themes for the Discriminating Bride."  Occasionally something more applicable to the plot is included, such a program to the opening gala at The Tanglewood, the new hotel Jackson is opening.  It's a fun way to transition from chapter to chapter.

The book took me 24 hours to read.  The plot is fairly predictable and the writing is isn't Fitzgerald or anything.  But that's the fun of it.  Bricker creates beautiful characters in a beautiful, fun setting and places them in zany, hilarious situations while they also wrestle with important life questions, such as how to heal a marriage or how to move on from the death of a spouse.  There is a gentle balance of laughter and tears to the characters' lives.  And shockingly enough, everyone keeps their clothes on, keeps their mouths clean, and has a reasonably happy view of life.  Refreshing! 

The book also surprised me with its spiritual undertones.  I would not call it a "Christian novel" by any means, which is good, because most "Christian fiction" is, quite frankly, nauseating.  It's hard to find good fiction about believing people that doesn't make you want to gag.  Bricker weaves in her own beliefs about the healing power of God in a very subtle, loving manner, making it clear what she believes while allowing the reader to make up their own mind about God's restorative powers.  Again, very refreshing.

I was also delighted to discover that the book is the first in a SERIES! I love books in a series!  It means I can go get more and dig into these characters even more!  WHO-HOO!

Overall, Always the Baker Never the Bride was the perfect little reading break to end the summer, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to take a few days and just enjoy a little laughter in their lives.

Look for more from Sandra Bricker at

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
What I'm reading now: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George  
Top Five TBR:
1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Forgotten God by Francis Chan.
3. Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger
4. The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
5. Crazy Love
 by Francis Chan  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Devil Wears Prada

Sometimes I like to read a book before I see the movie.  Sometimes I see a movie and then decide to read the book.  98% of the time in both of these cases, the book is better than the movie.

There is, however, that rare moment when the movie is - gasp! - better than the book.

I addressed this issue in another review I did, Julie/Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, which is definitely better as a movie than a book.  In this case, however, the movie is only slightly better.  The contrast in today's review is not nearly as stark.  However, I must confess that I enjoyed the movie more.

The Devil Wears Prada is a fictional story about a small town girl that comes to the Big City (i.e. New York) with big dreams, big plans, and no apartment.  She somehow lands the job that "a million girls would die for," assistant to Miranda Priestly, editor of Runway magazine, THE fashion magazine of the fashion world.  The main character, Andrea Sachs, takes the job, despite knowing nothing about fashion because she wants to break into the world of magazines and writing.  Everyone tells her this is the opportunity of a lifetime, and if she can hang in there for a year, one phone call from Miranda will put her on the staff of virtually any magazine she wants in the world.  Unfortunately, Andrea rapidly finds out that ambition has its costs, and in her case her job begins to cost her her sanity, her time, her relationships, and her integrity.  In the end, Andrea has to decide what she really wants in her life and weigh whether or not a year working for one of the worst bosses in the world is worth it all. 

This was a case where I saw the movie first.  The movie is delightful.  Meryl Streep is amazing - because, after all, when is she not? - and Anne Hathaway is perfect as the na├»ve-small-town-girl turned evil-empress-in-training.  Emily Blunt is also wonderful as Andrea's partner at Runway.  The movie made me want to go find the book and read it right away.

And the book was...okay. 

The story is amusing, and it's pretty much what is seen in the movie, only more so.  The job is terrible, Miranda is awful, and Andrea is finds herself more and more in over her head.  Everything is worse than in the movie - it was softened a tad for the screen.  The characters are rougher around the edges - meaner, more cussing, more drama.  It's a little edgier than I was expecting, and while that was ok, it wasn't as much fun as I was hoping for.

I had a difficult time identifying with the character of Andrea and feeling the proper amount of pity for her.  The truth is, Andrea did not come off as a very nice person, and some of the stuff she pulled on Miranda just to make herself feel better - like purchasing random Starbucks coffees on the company's tab - just made her seem petty and vindictive.  What's more, I didn't see the moral conundrum that the author was trying to set up.  Andrea's roommate in the  book slips down a dark and destructive path, and somehow that was supposed to be Andrea's fault for not paying more attention.  Yeah, she was ignoring her friends and relationships - but the whole thing was temporary, and it wasn't like she was enjoying herself.

In addition, I kinda found myself wanting to punch Andrea's boyfriend in the face.  His do-gooder, holier-than-thou character was hard to swallow, and the fact that he couldn't put up with Andrea's dreams for the year she was trying to be in Miranda's employ did not endear him to me.  He knew she just had to hang in there for a year.  This wasn't permanent.  Why couldn't he just shut up and deal with it? Maybe it's because I have an AWESOME husband who supported me through the craziness of grad school because he knew it was my dream, but I finally ran out of patience with Alex.  (The boyfriend was MUCH more likeable in the movie.)

All of it seemed pretty empty, and maybe because the world of ambition and climbing higher and having "a career" isn't all that important to me.  I'm not a claw my way to the top person.  What's more, my life fulfillment is not found in my job.  Or my writing.  Or my children or my family, for that matter.  The one and only thing that makes my life worth getting up and greeting every morning is knowing that I am cherished as a daughter of God and follower of Christ - so the rest is just details, and details that would make me miserable don't really seem worth it in the face of what I just said.  I don't think Andrea and I would have a lot to talk about.

Lauren Weisberger writes in a very engaging way, and this was a book kept me going. (She does use some profanity.  It is appropriate for the age and lifestyle of her characters, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.) It was amusing enough that I want to read the sequel, Revenge Wears Prada.  That, actually, is what prompted me to write this review - I just found out there was a sequel and I want to read it soon.  In the meantime I have checked out another one of Weisberger's books, Everyone Worth Knowing.  So I am not saying DON'T read the book.  Weisberger is a fun author who writes fun, fairly entertaining stories that don't have a ton of substance but are a nice fun reading filler.  That's pretty much what The Devil Wears Prada is. 

But I still enjoyed the movie more. 

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars
What I'm reading now: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George  
Top Five TBR:
1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Forgotten God by Francis Chan.
3. Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger
4. The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
5. Crazy Love
 by Francis Chan