Sunday, August 31, 2014


When I get into a book series, I like to look up the author's website, join their Facebook page, and read interviews with them.  I like exploring the characters in a way closer to how the author really sees them.  I enjoy back stories.  It's my understanding, from reading these interviews, that an author generally these characters living with them all the time, kicking around in their heads, taking charge of a scene without the author really controlling the actions and motivations of these make-believe people.  This fascinates me.  I've written many stories and pieces, but it's all been non-fiction or stories based on real people.  I've tried writing fiction, but I don't have all these characters dancing around in my head.  I enjoy other people's characters, but I don't have any of my own.  I have a lot of respect for a storyteller's ability to spin a tale and create a world.

So is it any surprise that, given Amazon money for my birthday, I jumped at the chance to grab up Four by Veronica Roth?

I've already reviewed the Divergent series.  I'm a fan.  No, it's not Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield or anything, but not everything has to be high literature.  Wal-Mart shelf fiction is  good too, especially when it's clean and allows you to ponder truths of life.  (Confession: David Copperfield is actually one of two books I "Cliff-noted" in my English 12 AP class.  It was assigned summer reading and I ran out of time.  But I spent so much time the night before the test reviewing the Cliffs Notes that I failed to review the books I HAD read and failed the test anyway.  Ah, lessons learned.)  Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant were fast paced, fun reads.  I enjoyed them all, although Allegiant kinda wandered around.  And the end was...well, let's just say I think she could have made all her points without doing what she did. 

But I digress.

Four is a collection of stories from the world of Divergent, but they are all told from the perspective of Tobias instead of Tris.  The first three stories happen before the events of Divergent while the fourth one overlaps with Tris's experience.  According to the introduction, the Divergent series was actually birthed in Roth's mind through the eyes of Tobias, not Tris.  Over time, Tobias didn't have quite the right tone she wanted, and eventually the right narrator of the story came along in the form of Tris.  However, Tobias's story was always very important to Roth and her development of the story she wanted to tell, so once the trilogy was complete, she went back and told pieces of the story from Tobias's voice. 

First, let me say this.  Read Divergent first.  The whole series. Four will be a much more meaningful experience if you already know what's going on.  I fear that future generations will look at the series and do what they did to the Narnia series and "put them in order."  Yeeech.  Sometimes things are written out of order for a reason.  (Someday I'm sure I will use my blog space for a published-order argument for the Narnia series.  Because doing the other way is STUPID.)  Four is meant to be read after you've finished the trilogy.

However, if you've read the trilogy and enjoyed it, you will absolutely love Four.

One of the draws of the Divergent world is the character development.  If you enjoy the series, you love Tris and Four.  (The same cannot be said for The Hunger Games.  I enjoyed that series for the action, but I spent a lot of time wanting to smack Katniss.)  Tris and Four are one of the best couples I've read.  They are like a younger version of Claire and Jaime for you fellow Outlander fans.  Seeing the events you've read and enjoyed through Tris's eyes turned around and seen through Four's is a lovely literary experience.  Suddenly the experience of reading Divergent becomes richer.  You become much closer to the story.  It feels like you are there in the midst of it all because you know more of the ins and outs.  You begin to see the story the way Veronica Roth see it - intricate and complicated.  One character only gives you a straightforward, 2-D perspective.  Adding another major character's point of view turns it into a 3-D experience.  It's well written, and Tobias's traits and motivations are well explored.  It was a highly satisfying experience.

I enjoy the world of Divergent.  If you enjoy it too, you need to read Four to round out your journey with the factions of dystopian Chicago.  It won't take you long - the book's pretty short - and you'll feel thoroughly satisfied once you've finished, like finishing the dessert of a good meal.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Stolen Crown

Sorry about the absence last week, folks - I had a kid in the hospital.  With PNEUMONIA.  Who the heck gets pneumonia in August?  My 8 year old, that's who.  So that's how we spent our last week of summer - sitting in a hospital room watching an IV drip drugs and fluid into my kiddo.  Not so much fun. 

But he is healing and I am back!


Did Richard III kill his nephews in order to seize the throne?
Why did the Duke of Buckingham rebel - unsuccessfully - against Richard?
Was Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville legitimate or bigamy?
Am I a total and complete history geek? 

(The answer to that last one is yes, and I am ok with that.)

If you are an average American, you have never once pondered the top three questions.  However, if you are an Anglophile who reads books about the Wars of the Roses for fun, like me, then they are questions you have seriously wondered about.  This period of English history is a particularly controversial one.  There was so much intrigue at the time that it is hard to determine what was fact and what was slander. 

This makes it a great era for historical fiction writers to take apart and examine. What really happened and why did people do what they did?  We know some things for certain, but the rest is up to which theory you believe.  What really happened before, during, and after the reign of Edward IV in the England of the 15th century?

The Stolen Crown  by Susan Higginbotham takes us back to this period and explores the events of the time through the eyes of two real-life characters - Katherine Woodville Stafford, Duchess of Buckingham, and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.  Katherine was the youngest daughter of Elizabeth Woodville, whose secret marriage to Edward IV rocked his government and was the source of yet another rebellion during a time when the crown bounced back and forth between two feuding branches of the same family.  Katherine was married off to Henry at the age of eight, and the two were raised in King Edward's household.  They eventually had four children together, and the Duke went on to be a key member of King Richard III's government after Edward's death.  However, in one of those moments of history that historians cannot agree about, the Duke suddenly turned on Richard and led a rebellion trying to put Henry Tudor on the throne.  The rebellion failed and the Duke was executed...and in an ironic twist of history, Henry Tudor went on to mount another sucessful rebellion and became King Henry VII. 

Did you follow all that?  Probably not.  I had to read, like, eight books on the Wars of the Roses before things started to make sense, and I still get confused.  It doesn't help that every male is named Richard, Henry or Edward, and every female is named Elizabeth, Anne, or Katherine.  It also doesn't help that, due to titles, everyone has about three different names.   

But I digress.

The Stolen Crown was interesting to me because Higginbotham took me to a perspective I'd never read before, that of the Staffords.  I didn't know much about them before reading this book.  The Duke of Buckingham is usually presented in novels about this period as a true bad guy - evil and scheming and such.  This story presented an entirely different perspective on who Henry Stafford might have been.  Since there is no way of knowing, it's fun to read novels that speculate, and this gave an entirely different viewpoint than that I have read before.

I also enjoyed the back-and-forth perspective between Katherine and Henry.  Higginbotham refers to the same event seen through both sets of eyes, and this makes for a fascinating read.  It keeps the story moving and gives the reader much to think about as they read.  It allows for different perspectives on history to be shared and different theories to be offered.

Along those lines, I will say that I do not agree with Ms. Higginbotham's stance that Richard III killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.  After doing my own research, I came to my own conclusion years ago that he was innocent of that crime.  This did not, however, keep me from enjoying this novel immensely.  I like reading perspectives that differ from my own.  It's good to challenge your own ideas, even if it's just theories on 15th century mysteries.  It's a good thing for your mind and character to take your own ideas out for a walk and see how they hold up to others.  It can solidify your own stance or help you see things in a new way. 

The Stolen Crown was a good, fun, quick read, a great little break from the non-fiction I have been tackling lately.  For anyone who is a fan of this genre - and really, even if you've never tried it - it's a good solid venture into the tumultuous Wars of the Roses and a fun, different perspective on the lives of the people of those times. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Current Reads

I seem to have hit one of those periods where I have many, many books going at once. I can't seem to settle down into one.  So rather than my usual quick 5 TBR list, I thought I would take a moment to discuss all the books I have going at the moment.  I often read more than one book at once.  Other bookworms will understand.

Here's what I've got going on at the moment:

1. The Civil War, A Narrative, Volume 1 by Shelby Foote.  I recently watched Ken Burns' epic documentary The Civil War and, being the geek that I am, I wanted to find out more about Shelby Foote, the author that is interviewed throughout the series.  I discovered he had written a three volume narrative on The American Civil War, so I checked it out from my library.  And I LOVE IT.  Very easy to read, not at all dry, written in narrative form, it is incredibly intriguing.  Mr. Foote certainly did his research.  I don't know how long it's going to take me to finish it, but I will, eventually.  (It's very, very long.  The Prologue, which I just finished, is 72 pages.)  And then  I will move on to Volume II.

2. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Apparently I am on a Civil War kick.  I have started this one so many times, and it is fascinating, I don't know why I can't finish the thing.  But it's coming along, and it's a nice complement to Shelby Foote's narrative.  I'm going to be quite the Civil War expert when I am all done.

3. The Stolen Crown  by Susan Higginbotham.  This is a historical fiction I found in Kindle form for $2.99.  The author is one recommended on the Sharon Kay Penman FB fan page (yes, I follow it, don't judge), so I am giving her a try.  It's about Edward IV's secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.  So far it's very good.

4. The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  This is actually several books in one, and currently I am working my way though The Return of Sherlock Holmes.  I do love Sherlock, and these are great short stories, which makes for good reads.  They are great for reading in line at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart.  This is another one I am reading on my Kindle.  (I told you I was slowly coming around to the ebook craze.)

5. Lost in Translation by John Klein and Adam Spears.  This book examines the Bible from a Hebrew perspective - which was, after all, how it was actually written in the first place, for the most part.  Absolutely fascinating, and it's shaking up my 33 years of Western Civilation-y interpretation of the Bible.  Which is an EXCELLENT idea, I highly recommend it.  God loves to shake up our preconceived ideas!

6. The Prime Minister's Secret Agent by Susan MacNeal.  This is the next Maggie Hope novel.  It just came out in paperback.  I splurged and ordered it from Amazon.  Should be here this afternoon.  I bet I have it finished in three days.

7. Four Blood Moons by John Hagee.  I actually don't know much about this one, but it has been recommended to me by multiple Christian brothers and sisters that I respect, so I'm reading it soon, it's on the short list.

8.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer.  This is a YA book that I am trying to read because I like to keep up with the books my students are reading.  The premise is intriguing - it's a futuristic telling of Cinderella where Cinderella turns out to be a cyborg.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to get into it.  I'll get through it soon, it's sitting on my nightstand, but I seem to be easily distracted from it by all these other reads.

9. Written in my Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon.  This is book 8 in the Outlander series.  I love the Outlander series.  I have waited for this book for three years.  I am totally pumped to read it...but I keep getting interrupted, and it was annoying me, so I put it down for a bit.  I have a vacation weekend coming up, that will probably be a good time to get going on it.

So there's my to-be-read list.  No wonder my to-be-folded laundry pile is so high...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

In Case You Didn't Notice...

...I quit rating the books by stars.


Well, to tell the truth...I kind of forgot.

And then, once I remembered, I realized it was kind of stupid anyway.  Our society loves ranking things.  We live by it.  But it's not really necessary.  How can I really  compare one book to another?  Books are written for different purposes and mean different things to different people.  How can I say one's a two-star and one's a four-star?

They are works of art.  They aren't meant to be ranked.  They are meant to be pondered and discussed.

So...that's why I quit.  Maybe I'll start back up.  But in the meantime, I prefer to just discuss.

The Divergent Series

I was glancing over previous posts of mine, and I suddenly realized I had never written a review of a book series that consumed most of my reading time this semester: The Divergent series!  How could I have let this one slip by!  Probably because of the crazy spring semester I had.  Well, time to right the wrong.  The movie came out just a few months ago, so the series is very hot and popular right now.  A good time to put in my two cents.

I picked up Divergent off the bargain shelf at Wal-Mart because I needed a hospital book to read while sitting with my mom in the ICU.  It was a good pick - it's a fast read, keeps the reader enthralled, but it doesn't require too much brainpower to keep up with the story line.  It's pretty straightforward, as are its sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant.  It's definitely the kind of series that kept me up all night reading and calling friends desperate to borrow the next one.  It's that kind of exciting series.

The Divergent series tells the story of Tris, a teenager living in post-apocalyptic Chicago whose society had created a unique way to keep the peace.  When you reach a certain age, you choose which "faction" to belong to, according your aptitude and desire. Your choices are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Dauntless.   There is a sort of virtual reality test given to indicate which faction you would fit into the best, and the idea is that you live out the rest of your life within this faction, happy to have your place in society.  Each faction contributes in some way to their society, and everyone just lives happily along, locked into the life they have chosen.  That is, of course, unless you wash out of your faction and get rejected, in which case you wind up living with the Factionless, and you are an outcast for life, living on the streets and off the charity of others.    And everyone gets along.  Right?

Well, of course not.  This is dystopian young adult fiction, after all.  There are no happy endings.

Divergent introduces you to Tris's world and the world of the Dauntless, the faction Tris chooses against her family's expectations as they are from Abnegation.  From then on, Tris's life is on a breathless fast-track through danger, suspense, backstabbing (sometimes literally), and love that thankfully manages to be passionate without being explicit.  The story ends in a major cliffhanger, and the next book, Insurgent, picks right up where Divergent left off - and then turns everything upside down.  You begin to realize that nothing you thought you knew was true.  Then Allegiant starts - and you realize that NOTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW WAS TRUE.   It twists, it turns, loyalties are challenged, the factions are blown apart - and Tris ultimately learns the truth about her society.

Honestly, it's all very exciting up to this point.  I liked to storyline better than The Hunger Games trilogy, and I like Tris much better than Katniss.  (I'm not sure you're really supposed to like Katniss.)  Tris is unendingly brave and loyal - to a fault, really.  She is stubborn and independent and willing to do what it takes to save the people she loves.   She's hard, but she's good, and I liked her.

The story itself is good too - it messes with your head and makes you play "what if?" a lot.  What if everything you knew to be true was wrong?  What if all the authority in your society was really about something else?  What's really going on behind the scenes?  Every time you think you are comfortable with how things are progressing, you find out what you thought you knew was wrong.  It kept things very exciting.

However, like most dystopian literature, the ending left me feeling...bereft.  I needed more closure.  It feels like most dystopian novelists write themselves into a corner and then don't know what to do.  So...they just kind of end things.  That's how I felt at the end of The Hunger Games and Matched series, and the feeling was repeated again when I finished Allegiant.  It was highly unsatisfying, and I think the author could have made some of the points about bravery and loyalty without some of the plot turns she chose.  I also wanted to know more about what happened to each character and about what was going on in the rest of the world.  This is an aggravating aspect of most dystopian books today - they tend to focus solely on the United States.  What about the rest of the world?  I live in a very global community.  Why is the future suddenly so only-us focused?

That being said, Divergent is not a bad read at all.  The series goes fast, stays interesting, and gives you a lot to think about while not being too taxiing on the brain.  It's fun and not too draining. the interest of total honesty...Four, Tris's love we say...Smokin'.  Hot.  It is not easy to create a character this hot without a visual.  But...yeah.  Veronica Roth pulled it off.

These would make a great summer read.  If this is the genre that interests you, you will enjoy Divergent.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Some Thoughts on Rereading

"If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he re-reads." - Francois Mauriac 

I love to own books.  My poor husband knew this when when he married me, but I am not sure he knew the extension of my book-owning frenzy.  Do not mistake me - I adore our local library and avail myself of it on a weekly basis.  However, I truly do love owning books.  I love the sight of my full bookshelves and the feeling of my books my in hands.  I love being able to fold the pages if need be, or write notes in the margin.  But my favorite part of owning my own books is a phenomenon known among most hopeless bookworms: rereading!

I am a chronic re-reader.  I read the same books over and over again.  This may seem strange to some readers, but many will know what I am talking about.  To me, the ability to reread a book is the ability to, at any given moment, meet up with a dear old friend and know their deep companionship all over again.  You know the feeling of getting together with one of your dearest friends for coffee and catching up?  That's what picking up an already read book is like.  It's a marvelously comforting thing to be able to do. 

In addition, rereading books is not really reading the same book over and over again.  My sixth grade teacher taught me this.  We were given a choice of two different books to read for a class assignment, and one of the book options was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  (One of my favorite rereads.)  My father had read this to me when I was about six, so I was going to read the other one, but my teacher - who was very intentional about knowing her students - strongly suggested that I reread it, telling me it would mean something completely different to me know.  She was right.  As a young child, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is just a fantasy story - but if you reread it again and again as you get older, you start to see other themes and messages emerge, and you begin to appreciate the message C.S. Lewis was really trying to communicate.  I never forgot this lesson, and I am eternally grateful to my sixth grade teacher for it.    We change as we grow older.  As we change, the meaning of books change as well.  Although I may know the story line of a book, I see it from a different perspective each time I read it. I am married with children now; that mean one of my favorite books, Up a Family Tree, is far more meaningful now than it was when I first read it as a teenager.  (See my previous review here.)  This phenomenon of books changing as we change happens every time I reread a book.

I reread different books for different reasons.  For example, I probably reread Gone With the Wind two or three times a year.  This book, which I have reviewed here, has been a perennial favorite of mine since middle school.  I know it so well that I can pick up any one of my multiple copies - yes, I have multiple copies - drop it open to any given page, and I am back with my old pals Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and that Captain of All Wimps, Ashley.  This is a book I like to reread and play out scenarios in my head.  I can see each scene clearly as if they were being played out on stage in front of me.  Then I like to imagine how I would have reacted in those scenes and how I would really like to sit down all four main characters and knock some sense into their heads.  Rereading Gone With The Wind is a very active experience for me, and it allows the imagination to run wild.

The Mitford series, on the other hand, is a series I reread when I need something soothing.  It is just about as perfect a series as you can possibly find.  There are nine books, which means there is plenty to revisit, but each book (unlike Gone With the Wind) is a manageable size.  You can pick up any of the nine novels and simply pick up the story line.  Father Tim, Cynthia, and the citizens of Mitford are deal old friends of mine.  I don't really play out scenarios or rerun scenes in my mind from this series - each scene is perfect within itself.  You just soak in Mitford.  It isn't controversial and it doesn't get me blood going.  It's just...relaxing.  

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie is a book that I have not yet reviewed, but I plan to soon.  It is another perennial reread of mine.  This may be the absolute most perfect mystery book ever conceived.  There is nothing to change, nothing to alter.  The plot is something beyond genius.  It is a literary masterpiece.    I can figure out most mystery novels that I read before I get to the end, and then once I finish it, there's not much to revisit, so I don't reread them.  Why reread  a mystery when you know the solution?  Somehow, though, And Then There Were None draws me back again and again.  There are so many details that I forget things from year to year, so there are always surprises.  The summation in the next-to-last chapter, and the grand solution in the end, are my favorite parts, and they are so intricate that it continues to be exciting every time I read it - and I have been reading it since my teen years.  My copy is quite bedraggled.  But it never ceases to be fascinating.

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom is another book I revisit on a regular basis.  This tells the story of Corrie Ten Boom's family in the Netherlands during World War II.  This Christian family risked torture and death under the Nazi regime in order to hide Jews in their home.  Eventually they were caught, and Corrie and her sister were sent to a concentration camp.  This is one of those books I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives.  Corrie's courage and faith is both inspiring and humbling.  Her life is an example of that kind of life I want to have - not necessarily requiring a trip to a concentration camp, but unswerving faith in the face of great horror.  She is one of my heroes, and God has used her story in my life numerous time to teach me lessons about His love for His people.  It is not an easy book to read, but it is a necessary one, and one for which I have a special place in my heart.

There are many, many more books out there that I love to pick up and read again and again, all for different reasons - to live the adventure, to soak in the goodness, to experience a great story, for great inspiration, and more.  This is just a small snapshot of my rereading habits, and this is why my bookshelves are overflowing and only continue to grow.  (Sorry, husband!)  Rereading allows me to meet with the same thrills over and over again.  So my confession for the day is: rereading is one of my favorite pastimes.  If you've never tried revisiting a favorite book, give it a shot.  You will find that your favorites will renew themselves and give you a new meaning all over again.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles

I am slowly accepting the arrival of the ebook.  I have nothing against them, I just don't prefer them over actual, physical books.  One of the things I like best about books is being able to flip through pages, start here or there, and go hither and yonder among the chapters (if I've read the book already, that is).  I love picking up books off shelves and opening them to any page and re-reading them.  It's like meeting an old friend for coffee.  You  can't do that with an ebook.  When I'm reading a  book for the first time, I like glancing towards the back with satisfaction as to how much I have left.  There just isn't the same amount of satisfaction to be had in that little "46%" in the corner of the screen.  I also love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell of it, the texture of the pages.  It's all part of the reading experience for me. 

I am coming around, however, to reading the occasional book on my Kindle.  I have a Kindle Fire, not so much for reading, but for tablet purposes. I do, however, occasionally download a book onto it, especially if the book is free.  (I also resent paying for books I can't actually see.)  And I will say this - reading on my Kindle has solved my lifelong problem of how to read while cooking.  It is easier to prop up a Kindle and read it while stirring than it is to hold open a book.  I will give you that. 

So I will confess that my most recently finished book, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was read on my Kindle.  I have the complete set of Sherlock Holmes on my Kindle, and I am working my way through them with great enjoyment.  I still would love to have a hard copy on my shelves.  A lovely leather, or even fake leather, edition of the complete works.  And hey, I have a birthday coming up.  I mean, I'm just putting facts out there in the universe...who knows where they may land...

But I digress.  Back to Sherlock Holmes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the best-known Holmes story.  It is quintessential Sherlock.  it has been adapted for the stage, for TV, and for film numerous times in numerous languages.  Pieces of it are well-known parts of the Sherlock canon.  It is here that the hardcore Sherlock fan finds the Vatican Cameos reference, among others.  It is a timeless story that defines the characters of Holmes and Watson. 

When you read the novel, you realize why. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles is mystery and suspense at its finest.  Intrigue, mistaken identities, false clues, mysterious noises, villains, heroes - all there.  It is suspenseful without being gory or weirdly supernatural, something with which today's writers seem to struggle.  It leads the reader down one path and then expertly pulls them down the other.  The mystery of the unfortunate death of Sir Charles Baskerville, and the fate of his heir Sir Henry, grabs the attention of the reader and does not let it go until the last line.  At the same time, it is a fabulous portrait of Holmes at his finest.  Everything you love about Sherlock is there, and everything you love about his faithful companion Watson is there.  The two of them take on the case with a singular energy and apply both of their skill sets towards sorting it all out - though Holmes, of course, always has the upper hand...being Holmes, after all.

I read The Hound of the Baskervilles in about 48 hours.  It would have taken me less time had I not fallen asleep this afternoon for a much needed nap.  It's a fast read because you can't put it down.  Written over 100 years ago, and yet the modern 21st century reader can't put it down.  That's the sign of true genius in writing.  That's the genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and that's what makes it timeless.  (Incidentally, it originally appeared as a serial story in a magazine, stretching from August 1901 to April 1902.  Can you imagine have to wait months and months for the conclusion to your favorite can't-put-it-down novel?  It's like the early 20th century form of torture that Moffat and Gatniss, today's Sherlock creators, are putting us fans through now!)

If you've never read any classic Holmes, check out The Hound of the Baskervilles and experience what read literary genius is like! 

TBR update:
I am still reading Written in my Own Heart's Blood, but it has taken a slight backseat because I am trying to complete my local library's adult reading challenge.  They have a list of 12 genres, and if you read books in six of those genres, you get a prize and you get put in a drawing for the grand prize.  You can enter up to three times.  I am trying to complete the thing by the end of the summer, so I haven't been able to attack Diana Gabaldon with quite the fierceness that I would like.  I have one entry completed and I am halfway through my second entry.  So here are my current TBR, other than her book:

1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
2. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
3. Maise Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
4. Lost in Translation by Adam Spears and John Kline
5. And...other books.  I need to find a Romance, a Western, an Inspirational Fiction, or a book about Kansas.  Or any mixture of the above.  And I am open to suggestions! 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Me, Myself, and Bob

Anyone who was involved in American ministry in the 1990s is familiar with that all-important children's video series, Veggie Tales.  Doesn't matter if you didn't do children's ministry.  EVERYONE knew about VeggieTales, and most people - myself included - LOVED them.  Bob and Larry were a refreshing change from most children's video series.  Instead of goofy or campy names and songs and so-sweet storylines that adults were left gagging, Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber brought humor, Monty Python references, French Peas, and songs about water buffaloes.  While kids were learning that God made them special and loved them very much, adults were rolling and asking their kids of they could watch it again.  My own mother sat in a Christian bookstore and watched an entire episode without any of her children around, she was so caught up in the hilarity.  The creators, Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, were legends of the Christian publishing world.  Their website proclaimed their goal of being in the top 5 children's production companies in the country.  Yay for Big Idea!  Yay for Veggie Tales!  Go God!

Funny how we have one perception of reality when the truth of what's going on is so very different.

A few years ago, I found a book called Me, Myself, and Bob by Phil Vischer, telling his story of the rapid rise - and then, unknown to me, destruction - of Big Idea studios.  While I had noticed that VeggieTales had undergone some changes in recent years, I had no idea of the behind-the-scenes story.  Phil's story - testimony, really - filled my heart with both joy and pain and gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to follow your dreams.

Me, Myself, and Bob is Phil's story of a man with a dream to be the next big thing in Christian media.  His goal was literally to become the next Walt Disney.  Phil had a passion for storytelling, a passion for teaching kids about the Bible, and a passion for humor.  These all came together in the phenomenon of VeggieTales, which worked wonderfully for a time.  However, as time wore on, Phil failed to do something key: keep his dreams before the Lord and have Him guide the way.  As a result, the vision of Big Idea became blurred, people were hired that did not have the same passions as Phil, and things came apart at the seams.   The result was the implosion of a company, the laying off of hundreds of employees, and the death of a dream - a dream that turned out to be killing Phil, his friendships, his family, and his company, because he kept trying to do it all on his own and cling to closely to what he thought was supposed to happen.  It was only when it all came crashing down that he began to learn what God was really telling him all along and how to pursue his dreams in the way God intended.

It's good to have dreams.  It's good to have ambitions.  God places desires in our hearts and He wants us to pursue them with passion - but success comes when we pursue them with HIS passion and direction, not our own.  That's the story of Phil and his band of veggies.  Phil doesn't even have rights to his own characters anymore.  Legal and financial issues tore them away.  But in the tearing down came the building up of his own faith and the ability to let God take over.

Phil now writes and produces what I believe is the best children's series of all time, What's in the Bible?  This series is a 13 DVD journey that literally takes kids through the entire Bible and simply tells them what's in it.  No interpretations, not really a lot of commentary, and no translating stories into "softer" versions for kids.  This series has given Phil the ability to pursue the real dreams that God has placed in him and do things that VeggieTales never could let him do.  The series is wonderful, and I highly recommend it for adults as well as children.  But it is all the more wonderful for having read Me, Myself, and Bob and having a greater understanding for what God has done in Phil Vischer's life.

Me, Myself and Bob is a great story of letting go and letting God.  It is hilarious and heart wrenching and teaches some all-important life lessons.  If you are pursuing your dreams - or even if you're not there yet - I highly recommend it for your summer reading list.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Elephant and Piggie

I love taking my kids to the library.  We have a fantastic library in our little town, and it is chock-full of ways to help kids enjoy reading.  Great selection, huge play area with educational toys, busy reading summer reading program with incentives and story times and activities - it's just wonderful.  My kids love library day.

Wandering through the library with them one day, we stumbled upon Elephant and Piggie.  I can't remember the first Elephant and Piggie book we read because as soon as we read one of them, we checked out ALL of them from the library and read them ALL repeatedly.  Mo Willems, author of another set of children's books we love, the Pigeon books, has created two opposite, delightful characters that tell their stories through the use of dialogue balloons.  The two are best friends, but they often hilariously find themselves on opposite sides of an issue.  Gerald, the elephant, (yes his name is GERALD...that right there should tell you it is awesome) is the more cautious, nervous friend while Piggie is carefree and will try anything.  Their adventures include the great moral dilemma of whether or not to share your ice cream, the trepidation that comes with being invited to a party, the celebration of Pig Day, and the horror of discovering you might be allergic to your best friend.  Although silly, the core problem will usually be some basic issue, like breaking a new toy, that kids can identify with.  Some of their stories have moral lessons woven in...and some are just ridiculous, because, you know, not everything has to be a teachable moment.  Sometimes you just want to read a book about an elephant with a bird stuck on their head.  Or, as in my favorite, We Are in a Book!, sometimes you discover that you are actually the subject of a book - so NOW what do you do?!

This books are amazing to read out loud to kids.  I have read hundred, maybe thousands, of books out loud to my children.  Since this blog is called "confessions," here is a confession of mine: it gets old.  It seriously does.  By the 5th Berenstain Bears book or the 8th Dr. Seuss book, you can be totally worn out with reading out loud.  (As a kid, did you ever realize how freaking LONG Dr. Seuss's books are?!  Ai yi yi!)  Reading out loud to your kids is incredibly important - every study done anywhere on the issue says that it is a major contributor to kids' academic success later on.  It also builds memories and bonds between you and your children that you just can't get watching TV together.  It is an incredibly, indescribably important part of childhood and parenting.

It can also...get old.  Come on...admit it.  Sometimes it does.

This is part of the beauty of Gerald and Piggie - you don't get worn out reading them.  The voices are fun to do, the actions are fun to, and by the end of the book, I usually wind up wishing it was just a little longer.  It's the perfect break from Clifford.  Whom I love.  Truly.  Clifford, Curious George, Madeline, Fancy Nancy - love them all.  But sometimes you need something fun and funky and a break from everything else.  That's where Elephant and Piggie save the day. Kids love them, adults love them, and they are so super-fun that it's hard to put them down.  I have found myself flipping through them and laughing long after the kids go to bed.  Yes, more confessions.  That has happened.

If you have kids, are around kids, or are a kid at heart yourself, check out the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems.  But if you get in trouble  for laughing out loud standing in the library, don't say I didn't warn you! 

Some titles to get you started:

We Are in a Book!
Should I Share My Ice Cream?
A Big Guy Took My Ball!
There is a Bird on Your Head!
Elephants Cannot Dance!
I Am Invited to a Party! 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Literary Quotes

I have been attending literary workshops all week, so I don’t have a new review  for you. (Ironically, because I am attending classes on literacy, I have not been able to read as much.  Chew on that on.)  I do, however, have a “related to reading” post to share.  One of the presenters this week used this article as a prompt for a collaborative activity:

Obviously, this is a list that could be widely debated, although I do like their picks.  But it got me thinking about my own favorite literary quotes.  I do not pretend to have read everything, and I don’t have my mother’s or my brother’s memory to remember everything I ever read.  However, there are times when a sentence just really grabs you and sticks with you in a special way.  So I thought I would share with you some of my favorite quotes from literature.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it is not ranked.  These are just the ones I could come up with today.  It’s the kind of list that can easily shift and move with time.  Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments!

So without further adieu...these are a few of my favorite things:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.” - Daphne duMaurier, Rebecca

“Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four

“The ships hung in sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”
- Lord Tennyson, "Crossing the Bar"

“No pit is so deep that God is not deeper still.” - Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place

“I am a princess.  All girls are.  Even if they live in tiny old attics.  Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t  pretty, or smart, or young.  They’re still princesses.” - Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

“Time is an illusion.  Lunchtime doubly so.” - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“Do not go gently into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
- Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gently"

“She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” - Kate Chopin, The Awakening

“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned  to lookt at me, “of my last workds are not ‘I love you,’ you’ll ken it was because I didna have time.” - Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross

“Oh, this was the great ploy of Satan in that kingdom to his: to display such blatant evil one could almost believe one’s own secret sin didn’t matter.” - Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. - Gilbert K. Chesterton , What’s Wrong with the World

“All wars are sacred,to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and the fine words from stay-at-home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is ’save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!’ Sometimes it’s ’down with Popery!’ and sometimes ‘Liberty!’ and sometimes ‘Cotton, Slavery and States’ Rights!” - Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind


“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” - Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.” - William Shakespeare, Hamlet 
“Rosencrantz: I don't believe in it anyway.
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: England.
Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then? ” - Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

And for my final word for today...

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”   - C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Monday, June 16, 2014

The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion

Authors can be great for different reasons.  Some authors are thrilling and gripping.  Others write majestically with grace and beauty.  Other authors are great simply because they are, at heart, storytellers, and they can just plain tell a good story.

Fannie Flagg is among one of the greatest storytellers of our time.  You are probably most familiar with her work Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, although you may not have realized this was hers.  That's a great story that was turned into a great movie.  But she has so many other books, and I will warn you, once you start a Fannie Flagg novel, you won't stop till you're done.  (Fortunately, they are not as long as, say, Diana Gabaldon's, so you can finish them in a timely manner.)

Flagg's latest novel, The All Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, does not disappoint.  In is, as her other novels are, a great story.  It involves the stories of multiple women across generations that are tied together by a tightly kept secret.  It twists and turns and keeps the reader on their toes.  Every time I think I have a Fannie Flagg story all figured out, she jerks it in an entirely different direction.  It's like riding a roller coaster.  You just hang on and go with it, having fun along the way. 

It is also the telling of a true story, that of the WASP corps, the women Air Force pilots that flew domestic missions during WWII.  For decades this all-important piece of American history has been tucked away, kept under wraps by the military until the 1970s.  Now we are learning about these courageous women who contributed to the war effort and broke barriers for future women by taking on a job that many thought only belonged to men - flying military airplanes.  It's a remarkable part of our heritage, and the story needs to be told.  Flagg tells it masterfully in the context of her characters' lives, because one way or another, the WASP corp affected each and every characters' lives.

Characters are one of the best parts of a Flagg novel.  She creates people that are so real, you can hear them talk in your head and feel like you're sitting down to have coffee with them yourself.  This main character of this novel, Sookie, is someone you just want to hug and reassure that everything's going to be all right.  You find yourself deliciously and righteously angry with her mother Leonore, a mother you love to hate and love.  Fritzi, a tough WASP veteran who takes life by both hands and does everything her own way, will have you laughing and cheering all the way through, even when you don't agree with the choices she is making.  These are marvelous, lovable, flawed, real characters that draw you into their lives and invite you to stay a while.

All of Fannie Flagg's books take place in the South, and the culture of the South that she brings into her works have both charm and stark reality.   It is obvious that Flagg loves the South, but she is aware of its faults, and she boldly tells the truth where it needs to be told while also painting a magical background for the telling of her story.  The South itself is a character of her books. 

This is a lovely book.  Check it out for a great summer read.  You will not regret it!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Still reading Written in My Own Heart's Blood, but here are some links to other Fannie Flagg novels in case you get hooked:

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
I Still Dream About You
Standing in the Rainbow


Saturday, June 14, 2014

A King's Ransom

Oh, Sharon Kay Penman.  You have done it again. 

I will admit.  It is very difficult for me to review a book by SKP with any kind of objectivity because I LOVE HER SO MUCH.  Ever since the day I stumbled onto When Christ and His Saints Slept, I was completely hooked.  She is such a phenomenal writer, and she writes about a time period I love.  It's a literary match made in heaven. 

I'll try to keep my head screwed on straight for your sake, dear readers.  But it will be hard.  Because once again THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD.

A King's Ransom is Penman's final book in her Plantagenet series (or at least she claims it is).  It covers the second half of King Richard I's reign.  Her previous book about Richard, Lionheart, covered the crusade years.  My review of that one can be found here.  As Richard left the middle east and tried to come home to England (to stop his brother, Prince John of Robin Hood infamy, from taking over), he was kidnapped by the Duke of Austria and handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor.  It was years of treachery and whatnot before his mother managed to arrange for his release.  The book also includes his turbulent marriage with his Spanish princess, the double dealings of his brother Prince John, and the continuation of the life of my favorite woman from history, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the only woman in history to be queen of both England and France in the course of her life and whose descendants went on to rule most of Europe for centuries to come.

You can't make this stuff up.  History itself is much more exciting than fiction.

Once again, Penman keeps you turning every page - even though you already know what's going to happen.  The fact that I knew the outcome of Richard's life before I read the book was irrelevant.  I still couldn't put the book down.  Penman's brilliance as a historical novelist just keeps the reader coming back for more - and aching once the book is over. 

Her meticulous research also keeps me coming back.  I have mentioned this before, but she has ruined me for many other historical writers.  I am now a historical fiction snob.  If it's not well researched, or certain events are changed for no apparent reason, then I don't consider it worth my time.  Penman is passionate about being as factual as possible, and I love that about her.  Just makes me want to read her work all the more. 

I waited over two years for Ransom, and it was well worth the wait.  Come read this book and dive into the world of the Middle Ages.  The intrigue and drama found there is far more interesting than any soap opera you can find today. 

Rating out of 5 stars:  oh come on, like a book like this can be confined to 5 stars...
Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon.  That's pretty much it for a while.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

My father likes to take walks at night.  Around 10:00 pm at night, he will head out the door into the darkness and walk the entire neighborhood.  He likes the quiet and the coolness of the night.  He can ponder his day and clear his head while getting some great exercise.  Generally he does this alone, but I have been known to join him when I am in town visiting my parents.  It's a great time to have a long, uninterrupted talk with my dad, something that becomes increasingly difficult as schedules and kids get in the way. 

On one of these walks, Dad told me one of his favorite "character" stories that he uses as a scout leader with his young troops.  The story is about a World War II bomber pilot named Charlie Brown who was shot up while flying a B-17 bomber over Germany.  As he was struggling to get his plane back to England, a German fighter pilot flew up by his side.  The two enemy pilots stared at each other while Charlie waited for him to finish him off, but instead of killing an already wounded crew, the German pilot escorted the American pilot out of Germany to the North Sea.  The German pilot then saluted the American pilot and then veered off.  Neither pilot was entirely sure of what happened, but it was clear that the German pilot had made a choice not to include that particular plane in his kill list that day.  Dad uses the story with his scouts to talk about character, honor, choices, etc. 

Adam Makos, who wrote the original story for a magazine (where Dad first saw it), has researched and expanded the story into an entire book, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II.  The book tells the story of two men, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler, fighting opposite sides of a war but finding themselves in a moment of history on December 20, 1943, that would go on to become one of the greatest military stories ever told.  Eventually, decades later, the two men find each other, and a friendship is formed that defies our prejudices about what the enemies of that war were supposed to be.

We like to think of World War II as the simple war.  Ask the average person on the street about World War I, and they will likely give you a blank stare.  That one's hard to understand, although there is a hilarious-yet-accurate description of the conflict here.  But World War II?  Oh, that one's easy.  Japanese - they attacked us.  Bad.  And in Europe?  Please.  Nazis are bad.  All Germans were Nazis.  Therefore all Germans were the bad guys.  We fought on the sides of the angels. And we won.  Because we were right.  On to the Cold War.

However, war is never simple, and it is never easy. 

A Higher Call, while telling both men's stories, really focuses on the story of the German pilot, Franz Stigler, a commercial pilot who never wanted to be in the war in the first place and who certainly was not on the side of the Nazis.  Did you know the National Socialist Party only won 44% of the vote when they came to power?  The majority of Germany voted against them.  However, they still won the most votes over the other 11 parties vying for power in the 1930s, so in they came.  Many, if not most, of the armed forces in Germany in World War II were not defending the Nazis.  They were fighting for the survival of their country, and many, like Franz Stigler, found themselves stuck between the enemy to the West and the enemy within their own borders.  In an army where telling a joke about Hitler could put you in front of the firing squad, loyalties are often fuzzy, and the struggle to be faithful to your country while hanging onto your humanity becomes a life or death situation.  The winners get to write the history books, and it is easy to paint the Germany of the 1940s with the same paintbrush.  The truth is far more complicated. 

This book gave me a fresh perspective on multiple sides of a war I previously thought of as a black-and-white issue, and it left me weeping at the end at the strength of mercy and friendship in the face of war.  I would highly recommend it as a quality way to spend your reading time.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars (just because I didn't always follow the technical stuff)

Umm...I just received Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon...that's right, book 8 of the Outlander series...814 pages of that's pretty much my TBR list for the next little bit.  I hope I remember to eat something...

Monday, June 9, 2014

Revenge Wears Prada

By rights, I shouldn't actually call this a review.  I didn't actually finish the book.  So let me say right off the bat that I am not "rating" the book.  However, the truth must be shared so that future readers may be warned...

I have previously reviewed The Devil Wears Prada.  It was an ok book that made a better movie.  But it was still an ok book.  When I saw that Laura Weisberger had written a sequel, Revenge Wears Prada, I was interested enough to check it out from the library and attempt to read it.

I tried.  I really did.


As far as I can tell, Andy, the main character, has not grown up at all.  In fact, I think she may have regressed a little.  She seems to have become everything she hated in the first book.  Still, somehow, she manages to start a successful publication of her own and find what appears to be the perfect husband.  On her wedding day, she finds a note from her future mother-in-law to her husband-to-be begging him not to marry Andy.  This understandably shakes Andy up.  The story is ok up to this point - which is, like, page 6 or something.

Then Andy proceeds to marry the husband but go for PAGES AND PAGES AND PAGES of agony before she actually talks to him - and when she does, she acts like a two year old and stomps off.

Somewhere in there she gets tested for STDs, but it turns out she's just pregnant.  Because, you know, those two things are hard to tell apart. 

Have you noticed yet that there is no "revenge" that the title has promised us?  No appearance of the villain we all love to hate, Miranda Priestly?  For all that revenge might wear Prada (a title that actually makes no sense, when you think about it), there doesn't seem to be a lot of revenge going on, just Andy acting like an idiot. 

I got about 30 pages in and then got on Goodreads to see if I was the only one with this reaction.  What I found was that almost every reader on there who had tried to read the book had the same experience I did.  Ah, so it's not just me.

I decided that life was too short for bad books and took the thing back to the library.  The next book I picked up was The All-Girls Filling Station's Last Reunion, and it redeemed my faith in the written word.  (Review to come!)

So my advice to you all...please don't read this book.  Just like you shouldn't waste calories on bad chocolate, you should not waste precious reading time on bad literature.  And this is bad, bad, BAD literature. 
Reading now: A Higher Call by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander
1. The Queen's Man by Sharon Kay Penman
2. Follow the River by James Alexander
3. Lost in Translation Volume 1 by John Klein and Adam Spears
4. Four Blood Moons by John Hagee
5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George