Monday, September 30, 2013

A Study in Scarlet

Sherlock Holmes.  One of the most recognizable names in literary history.  Even if you've never encountered one of his original stories, you are familiar with the idea of him.  He is the quintessential detective, the ideal of all sleuthdom.  He evokes thoughts of magnifying glasses and funny hats and brilliant deductions.  He has been the source of movies, plays, and last but not least - more than one TV series. 

I freely admit that I am an enormous fan of the BBC show Sherlock.  I have always enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, although until recently, I had never read one of the original novels or short stories.  When I was in grade school, I got hooked on a series of abridged Holmes novels, so I was familiar with the storylines, but I had never actually read the real thing.  One night while staying up late working on a project, I turned on PBS, and The Reichenbach Fall was playing.  A few minutes in and I was HOOKED.  Not only because of Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones either, although that didn't hurt.  It was so cleverly written, and the character of Sherlock Holmes captured me as it has captured millions of people since the nineteenth century when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first brought him into our lives and hearts.  As I researched my new favorite show (because that's what I do, I research for fun), I discovered that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatniss, the creators of the show, had desired to bring Sherlock to life in the modern era, using the same themes and concepts as the original stories but giving them a modern flavor.  Who would Sherlock Holmes be if he lived now instead of then?  And thus a phenomenal show was born. 

Still, as much I as loved the show, I hadn't read any of the books...and then I got a Kindle Fire for my birthday.

With free and 99 cent books. 

Including - wait for it - The Complete Sherlock Holmes

And now, as so many before me have been...I am hooked. 

My first venture into Sherlock Holmes was A Study in Scarlet, which is the first of four SH novels written by Doyle.  I have seen its counterpart, A Study in Pink, numerous times, and I was blown away by how loyal the writers of Sherlock were to the original story.   The writers of Sherlock are absolutely brilliant.

But not as brilliant as the man himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Doyle weaves a tale that gives you just enough information to keep you turning to the next page in desperation.  Halfway through the story, it veers completely away from the subject matter, and just about the time you are about to get bored and give up, there it is - the thread that winds two stories together to make it one fantastic story of murder, mystery, love and revenge.  I read the whole thing in about 3 hours.  I propped up my Kindle on the spice rack while I cooked - it's a miracle I didn't burn dinner! (Or break my Kindle.)   The next novel in my downloads is The Sign of the Four, and I can't wait to jump in and read away. 

One troubling problem did arise as I read the novel, and that was Doyle's depictions of certain people groups.  No, I do not condone the depiction of Mormonism in the book.  Nor did I appreciate his reference to his "Arabs."  As I go through these novels, I am sure I will find other antiquated opinions of people groups, things you would never find in a novel today.    I believe mature readers can look beyond the viewpoints people held over a century ago in another time and culture and cut through that to see the story for what it is - flawed, to be sure, with such references, but a timeless tale nonetheless, and one that can still be enjoyed.  Such opinions and views are a part of our history, and instead of pretending they never existed, let's accept how far we've come and allow for the fact that good literature can still be good literature, even if Doyle was using prejudices common in his day.  It doesn't make it all right, but it doesn't mean we have throw the whole book out the window either.

Sherlock Holmes is timeless.  The stories touch that part of us that longs for adventure and mystery.  Everyone loves a "a-ha!" moment, and Holmes lives his life depending on those moments like a drug.  Trying to keep up with Holmes' mind is like a great game, and for over 100 years, he has enthralled us with his cunning and deductions. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
What I'm reading now: The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Just got The Complete Novels of Jane Austen in the mail via
2. Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert
3. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George
4. Forgotten God by Francis Chan
5. Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Friday, September 27, 2013

Tune In Next Week

I apologize, folks, our computer fried and I haven't been able to update this week I will re-arrange my schedule to be able to get to a computer and post.  Until then, happy reading!!  (I started a Sherlock Holmes mystery today!)


Friday, September 20, 2013

The Mitford Series

Sometimes, when the world weighs you down, you need to go back to a place where there is love and warmth and joy, even in the midst of sadness and troubling life events.  Sometimes you need to visit a little town where everyone knows your name, where you can go get a cup of coffee at the local grill and watch the world go by.

And sometimes, you can find that place in a book.  Or a book series. 

At Home in Mitford is the first of a series of books by Jan Karon.  The series centers on the character of Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest in a little town in North Carolina called Mitford.  As the series opens, Father Tim is just getting along in his little parish, ministering to the people, making meatloaf, and living a fairly uneventful life.  Enter in a new neighbor that keeps popping through the hedge, a teenage  boy who gets literally dropped on his doorstep, a diabetes diagnosis, and an enormous black lab that only responds in obedience when Father Tim shouts Scripture at it.  From there nine full novels are written chronicling the adventures of Father Tim, Cynthia, Miss Sadie, Dooley, and all the lovable (and some not-so-lovable!) characters of this little mountain village. 

These stories are wonderful.  They are a soothing balm.  They're like going out for coffee with an old friend when I pick them up.  I've read them so many times that I can pick any of the nine books up, flip open to any page, and know exactly what's going on.  And yet they never grow old or stale.  Jan Karon has created a beautiful little world of people that you can't help but love and want to spend time with. 

One of the things I like best is that not everything always goes perfectly for these characters.   Believe me, they are fun, and hilarity abounds.  You'll laugh till tears run down your face sometimes. These books are heart-warming, but they aren't cheesy or unrealistic.  Real life happens.  People die, abuse occurs, betrayal, pain, all the things that happen to people.  There is a creek community nearby the village where poverty reigns, and the people of the town - in particular Father Tim - are forced to come to terms with what their response will be.  But even through the dark times, they persevere together, leaning on friendships, family, and ultimately faith to get them through. 

Yes, faith is a key component to these books.  Scripture is quoted regularly, and Father Time ministers to anyone who comes across his path.  However, unlike much of Christian fiction, these books are extraordinarily well written.  Ms. Karon does not try to beat her readers over the head with the Gospel.  Nor are these books written with any kind of hidden agenda.  She simply creates a place and a people for whom their belief in Christ is at the heart of how they live their lives.  It's really an exquisite job on weaving faith and story together.  She is writing the tale of a group of people, and that group of people happen to have relationships with God, and therefore it is evident in their life.  It's quite refreshing and very uplifiting. 

And you know how I love a series...there are NINE BOOKS!  Plus a spin-off series involving more stories about Father Tim and Cynthia outside of their life in Mitford.  Enough to keep you reading for weeks and months!

Check out At Home in Mitford and feel like you are coming home again.  It's a journey you won't regret. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars...for the whole series.  There isn't a bum one in the lot!

And my TBR has changed quite a bit because I had to take books back to the library before I had to take out a loan to pay my fines.  So new list:

What I'm Reading Now: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George
Top 5 TBR:
1. Crazy Love by Francis Chan
2. Forgotten God by Francis Chan (I really need to finish these Chan books, they are fabulous)
3. Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert (One of those " BY GOLLY I AM GOING TO FINISH THIS" books)
4. Becoming Myself by Stasi Eldredge, once I get a copy!  So excited for a new Eldredge book!
5. Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride by Sandra Bricker (once I feel like I can show my face at the library again...)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Chaperone

You don’t have to agree with the life choices of the characters in a book to appreciate it as a book.

That is the feeling I had as I finished reading The Chaperone.  
The Chaperone is an historical fiction starting in the 1920s and following the characters on for decades after.  The premise centers around Louise Brooks, silent screen starlet, who sets out for New York when she is 15 to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional dancer and stage actress.  Her parents send along Cora Carlisle, a housewife from their native town of Wichita, KS, to keep an eye on Louise and make things more “proper.”  Cora has her own hidden reasons for heading to New York with Louise, and the weeks the two spend together change the course of their lives.  The story of their time in New York takes up about half the book; the years following their New York adventure are covered in the other half, right up until Cora’s death several decades later.

That summary is not really more than what you would get from reading the book flap, but the book is written in such a way that I don’t want to give you more than that.  It would spoil the quality of the experience.  Secrets are revealed, background stories unfolded, and things are not always as they seem.  Laura Moriarty does a brilliant job of making sure the reader has the sense from the first few pages that there is more going on than meets the eye, and then she sets up reveals that are perfectly timed throughout the narrative.  It is an interesting, enjoyable, well-written read that is not just about somebody famous but also spanning over decades of American history, watched from the perspective of the characters as they experience it.  I was unaware of Louise Brooks, so finding out there was a famous silent era movie star from Kansas was fun, and I enjoyed finding out more about her life and career.  I also love anything that covers a long historical span - books that place characters in the midst of real events are the kind I like the best.  

Now, to my original statement.  I enjoyed how well written the book was and the historical nature of the story.  I loved how the characters were developed and how the author kept me intrigued.  The main characters in the story, however, were making choices throughout the book that I did not enjoy.  In many cases, I believed their actions were not the best, and even downright wrong.   I suppose this would make this a great book to discuss: how do you feel about the life choices of the characters in question?  Do you think things worked out for the best for them?  What kinds of choices would you have made in the same situation?  The book makes you ponder all these questions, and pondering is a good thing.  Books should make you THINK.  They should make you imagine and reason out and draw conclusions. They should stretch you, challenge your opinions and assumptions, and even solidify your own beliefs by presenting opposite ideas.  The Chaperone did all those things for me.  Just because I disagreed with the path most of the characters chose to walk did not mean I couldn’t appreciate the book for the quality literature it was.  

The Chaperone is an interesting, well-written read that paints a broad picture of history while presenting challenging ideas on life choices and ideals.  I enjoyed the experience.  And, as a bonus, if you live in the Pittsburg area, the author is coming to visit the public library THIS SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 22 at 2:00 PM!  If you have read the book, or if you are simply intrigued by the idea, come by the library and meet Laura Moriarty herself!  

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
What I'm reading now: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
1. Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride by Sandra Bricker
Crazy Love by Francis Chan
The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII  by Margaret George  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Preposterous Papa

I recently went to my local library's book sale.  Such fun!  Especially at the end when they did fill a bag for $2.  I filled five bags.  My classroom library just got a huge boost.  Yay!

As I was looking over books, I found this treasure:

Preposterous Papa is one of my favorite books, and this one is signed by the author!  This inspired me to review Preposterous Papa this week.  Because it is delightful and you should know about it.

Ever heard of Sapulpa, Oklahoma?  I've seen signs for it on my way to Tulsa.  One of these days I am going to stop and check it out, and the reason is this book.

Preposterous Papa is a memoir of Lewis Meyer, a Sapulpa native whose father moved there from Texas with his new bride in the early days of Oklahoma statehood.  The story of Max Meyer and his larger-than-life antics will keep any reader laughing and crying all the way from Max's plan to sell 6,000 muddy yellow collarless shirts clear till his attempt to physically remove a newly bought house from one end of town to the other.    He was a farmer, a merchant, a town philanthropist, and a benefactor of the days when oil ruled Oklahoma.  The oil wells made it possible for him to build a ranch, tenant houses, a motel, two gas stations, a flagpole, an in-town house, and much more.  In between all he did are his hilarious stories.  Whether he is cracking the code to his father-in-law's safe or bottling explosive hot sauce, Max's laugh is one comedic tale after another. 

This book is not that easy to find - it's out of print now, although it's had a couple of reprints. It is probably easier to find in the Midwest area, and in Oklahoma, the Meyer family is much better known and the books are more common.  It's a little known book, but it's the story of thousands of immigrants and pioneers throughout American history who have worked hard to make their way in the world.  They had dreams, they moved west, and they made their dreams happen.  They were strong and innovative and built a life for themselves.  Max Meyer's story is hilarious and touching, but it's also a brilliant picture of a certain time and place in American history.  Max is the embodiment of the pioneer spirit - for him, the sky is the limit in all things, and everything he puts his mind to is big, extravagant, and inevitably a reality.

If you can find a copy of Preposterous Papa, it's a quick read and will make your heart smile.  max Meyer was a much-loved character in the little booming town.  Everyone knew - and everyone loved - Max.  He made the town better, and his story is worth telling - and reading. 

P.S.  I have finished The Chaperone, but I will post my review of it next week in support of the author's visit to the Pittsburg Public Library! 

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
What I'm reading now: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
1. Always the Wedding Planner, Never the Bride by Sandra Bricker
2. Crazy Love by Francis Chan
3. The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser
4. Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII  by Margaret George 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Books for Teens

I am a special education teacher for grades 5, 8, and 9, and one of the things I am often asked by my students is recommendations for reading.  Many times they are allowed to choose their own books to earn points in the Accelerated Reader program, but they are not always sure what to pick. Since I've done children's a kids' books, I thought it was time to talk about some of my favorite books for teens. 

Teenagers are very particular about the kinds of books they like.  It's hard to find something for them to like because they often have a very particular idea in their head of what they like and don't like.  They like books that make them think about the world around them because they are still trying to figure out their own worlds.  At the same time, they also like books that are pure fun and silly because, hey - who wants to work so hard all the time?  

I will admit, not everyone is  going to fall in love with reading the way I have.  Not everyone has to be a Hopeless Bookworm.  However, when I hear someone say "I HATE reading!"  I think to myself "you just haven't found the right book yet!"  There are too many types of books out there for a person not to be able to find even ONE they can tolerate.  There is something for everyone out there, and that's what I try to tell my students.  You don't have to love reading, but you don't have to hate it either!

I'd like to also mention on of my favorite book websites, The Ultra Manly Book Club.  A few years ago, my brother and some of his friends thought that reading was getting a bad reputation among men, and they decided to do something about it.  The result was The Ultra Manly Books Club, a website devoted solely to talking about good, solid books that appeal to boys and men.  I've used their Best Books for Young Men list before in recommending books to my students.  It's a fun website that can be a great resource and tool!

So, without further adieu, here are some of my favorite books for teens:

1. The Giver by Lois Lowry

This is actually a series, and I always love getting someone  hooked on a series, because it means there are more books to enjoy!  This series fits into the futuristic, dystopian society thing that seems to be so popular these days, but without quite as much gore and/or despair.  There is an element of hope.  Lois Lowry is one of the great storytellers of our time.  She's written everything from books about a young, silly teenage girl to books like this that explore the darker parts of our human nature.  What if society decided, in answer to world war, to just control every last aspect of life - down to our ability to procreate, choose our own destiny or even see color?  What if we decided the answer to everything was to eliminate emotion from our lives and erase all memories of the past, save through one person? The Giver, along with Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son (that one's newer, haven't read it yet) make the reader think about human nature, society, and themselves.  This is a good, thought-provoking series for teenage readers.

2.  Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes is one of those "a-ha!" books, because by the end, all these different threads and patterns that have emerged throughout the book suddenly come together and make sense.  And it's pretty fun along the way.  The book is both serious and hilarious, and the storyline of poor Stanley Yelnats, who suffers the fate of all poor Yelnats.  The story unfolds like an onion, and it keeps you hooked all the way till the last page. 

3. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Every time I read The Westing Game, I see some connection I didn't see before.  This murder-mystery tale keeps you on your toes and guessing all the way, and like Holes, you don't see it all come together until the end.  It is pure fun and an enjoyable read - and for you teachers out there, it's a great story to use in teaching about characters.  (But don't let that spoil it for you, teens - you should still read it just for enjoyment!)

4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

This was one of the  few books from my sophomore year of high school that I actually enjoyed.  (One of these days I will write a blog on books I DON'T like, and then you will discover my deep-seeded hatred for Lord of the Flies.)  Holden Caulfield is one of those literary characters that teens can connect with.  As we grow up, we discover that world is, in fact, full of "phonies," and we often find ourselves just trying to find someone to have an intelligent conversation with - because, after all, as teenagers, we know everything, right?  There's a reason Holden has held the attention of teens for a couple of decades now.  He speaks to teens where they are.  On top of that, it's hard to beat Salinger's writing.  Teens may be forced to read this one as part of their high school curriculum...but if you watch closely, you might find them enjoying it along the way.

5. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Another series!  And this one is a loooong one, so if you can get hooked on HGG, you will be set for a while!  Become a HG fan, and you'll be at some party someday, bored, and overhear someone make a reference to the number 42...and instantly you will find a kindred spirit.  HG fans have their own language.  These books are laugh-out-loud funny, and they refuse to allow you to take yourself too they are a good counterbalance to The Catcher in the Rye!  Grab The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and always remember to take your towel.

6. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

What's that you say?  You thought The Princess Bride was a hilarious, slightly parody-like movie?  Well, before that, it was a hilarious, slight parody-like book.  Except that the book is so much better - and I saw that as a person who can recite every line from the movie.  There is so much more here than in the movie, and it's so well-written, you start to wonder what's real and what's not.  Oh Princess Bride, you never grow old.

7. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Everyone needs to read some Ray Bradbury at some point in their lives.  It will open your eyes and turn your mind upside down.  It will make you examine your own life and the life of society.  What's more, you will read Fahrenheit 451 and realize, oh my goodness, we're already there!  This is a cautionary tale, so read this and wake up to the television-dominated world that could be. 

8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Yes, you will be forced to read this in high school.  There is a reasonTo Kill a Mockingbird is one of the greatest American novels ever written.  Lee's view of the Jim Crow South of the 1930s through the eyes of a little girl is captivating, heartbreaking, and life-changing.  This is one of those books you will remember and carry with you throughout your whole life.  Don't blow it off just because it's assigned.  Soak in the writing and the story and take time to understand what it's really about.  It will change your worldview.

9. Out of the Silent Planet (C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy) by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet is the first in C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, which is followed up with Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.  Part sci-fi, part theology, part futuristic, and all extremely well-written, this series will capture the imagination of young readers and make them stay up all night reading to find out what happens next.  Dr. Ransom's adventures are suspenseful, terrifying, and wonderful.   Great stories that will keep you coming back. These are also a great introduction to C.S. Lewis, who is one of my all-time favorite writers. 

10. Summer of My German Solider by Bette Green

Patty Bergen, a young Jewish girl in Arkansas during World War II, is presented with a choice: does she turn in an escaped German solider who just wants to go home, or does she help him at great risk to herself and her family?  Patty's world opens up to the reader, and you begin to realize that choices are not always black and white.  There is also a sequel to this one, Morning is a Long Time Coming, but I should give it a disclaimer that it comes with more adult themes.  Both, however, are long-standing favorites of mine that I heartily recommend.

It's really hard to end this list at 10.  There are so many good books out there to recommend.  On this list, there is everything from history to future to science fiction to fantasy to humor to romance.  Hopefully there is something here for everyone.  If you are trying to find a book for yourself or your teen and are having trouble, be sure to comment below or feel free to email me at, and I will be more than happy to help find a book that fit your needs.

Not everyone has to love reading...but there is something for everyone out there!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Hi, my name is Sara, and I love Jane Austen. 

I realize it's a total cliché for me to admit that, but I do.  Many, many women love Jane Austen.  Not all women, but enough to make the many editions of her books and the gazillion movie versions of her stories a multi-million (billion?) dollar business.  There are many reasons women love Austen.  For me, honestly, it's the writing.  Anyone who can take 29 words to say something that could have been said in 5 is just plain awesome in my book.  Also, the setting is captivating - 19th century England, in a time and place and station in life during which a women's main job was to look pretty and get herself married.  Austen lovers like myself imagine themselves in empire dresses, hair piled high upon their heads, corsets tightly hiding  any flaws in their figure, sitting around reading or doing embroidery or playing the pianoforte (never just the piano, mind you, the pianoforte), waiting for the suitors to call.  For women in 21st century America, with it's high-paced life and sweatpants, there is sometime terribly appealing about this setting.

And then, of course, there are the men of Austen, and no other character quite embodies the wonder of Austen men like Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.  What is it about this man that captures the imagination of the female reader?  In the beginning, after all, he is pretty much a jerk.  The reader is made to fall in love with him as Elizabeth Bennett does, so that when the climactic moment of their professed love finally comes, you have BECOME Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr. Darcy is, at last, "your" Mr. Darcy.  

Colin Firth's portrayal of him does not exactly hurt either.  

The female reader's love  for all things Austen - and Mr. Darcy in particular - sets the background for Austenland.  American single woman Jane Hayes has a serious Austen problem.  She constantly fails at love, and as her list of ex-boyfriends grows longer, so does the number of times she watches the BBC's version of Pride and Prejudice grow bigger and bigger.  As each relationship sinks in disaster, she compares every man she meets to her beloved Mr. Darcy, and she helplessly wonders if she will ever get out of the trap of Austen's Perfect Man.  Enter Austenland, also knows as Pembrook Park, a sort of fantasy camp for rich women with nothing better to do than go pretend they are in Austen's England for three weeks.  They are briefly schooled in 19th century ettiquette and rules, dressed in authentic Austen period clothing (right down to the undergarments!) and plopped down in the middle of an Austen-like drama, expected to stay in character and "fall in love" with the Mr. Darcy of their dreams.  Jane is left a pre-paid session to this bizarre Wonderland experience in the will of a well-meaning, understanding great aunt, and she decides to take on the challenge of facing her Austen mania so she can kick the habit for good and move on with her life.  Will Jane ever get over her obsession and be able to find the real flesh and blood man of her dreams, or is she doomed to live forever in the Austenland of her mind and heart?

With a premise like that, how can this silly book not be just pure, plain fun?  

And that's exactly what it is.  It is silly and fun.  Shannon Hale paints a beautiful yet hilarious picture of life at Pembrook Parl, where nothing is as it seems and everyone- except Jane - takes themselves far too seriously.  Jane finds herself swept up into the drama of the fantasy while struggling to remember that it is just that - fantasy.  The confusion she experiences is packaged for the reader with a rundown of her ill-fated love affairs, scattered throughout the story.  All the way along there is this sense that there is more going on than meets the eye, so that when it all comes together, and all the mystery is finally revealed, it's an absolutely delicious climactic scene - which then culminates in another absolutely perfect climactic scene, straight out of a modern-day Austen tale. 

This book is well-written, clean, funny, ends well, and speaks to the heart of any woman who has ever fallen completely head over heels in love with a book character, Austen-inspired or not.  This is solid chick lit.  Worth your time. 

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
What I'm reading now: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
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