February 26, 2016

Pruning the Raspberries


The weather was just perfect today for one of my most favorite gardening chores:
pruning the raspberries.
No, I'm not kidding. I have been known to ask friends if I can do theirs, once mine are finished.
Home-grown raspberries are their own reward. It's hard to beat the sun-ripened flavor, and you don't have to pay $4 per pint for them.
Last year we harvested enough to make one (yup, just one!) batch of freezer jam. 
(I was actually impressed we had that much, with all the snacking that went on.)
Last fall I added 5 more plants: 1 'Fall Gold' bush, and 4 black raspberry bushes.
I can hardly wait for all that goodness!
Maybe this year we'll make it up to 2 batches of jam!
Before all that glorious berry-picking goes on, however, you've got to do some pruning.
To understand why and what to prune, you need to understand a raspberry's growth cycle.
While the roots can live for years and years, the tops, or canes, only live for 2 years.
Year 1: They're called primocanes. Primocanes grow tall, even put on leaves usually, but do not produce any fruit. They do form fruiting buds, though.
Year 2: Now they're called floricanes. These are the money-makers! These are the canes that will flower and produce fruit. After the floricanes are finished, they die off completely.
Once you have an established patch going, you'll have some of each kind every year.
Pruning out the dead and weak canes gives this year's fruit the sunlight and air movement (for ripening and disease control) that it needs.
Late winter or early spring is a good time to do it, before the leaves unfurl.
It's approximately 10 times harder to do it after the leaves come on.
Trust me on this.
If you've never pruned a raspberry patch before, it's easy.
You can do this!
Here's what my patch looked like this afternoon, pre-pruning:

 Basically, it was a hot mess.
So what are we waiting for?!
Let's get in there and start pruning!
 How do you know which ones to chop?
There are couple of things to look for: 
1. Color
The dead canes will be whitish-gray. Often the bark will be peeling off.
The new canes will be reddish-brown, with bark intact.
2. Leaf buds
The canes that are going to keep growing this year will have leaf buds forming.
This is a cane to leave alone.
Can you see the brown color and the leaf buds?
Choose a place to start, and cut down every dead cane right to the ground.
Pull it out and put it aside.
By the way, you're going to want to have some gloves on, and maybe long sleeves--those canes are prickly!
 There is just something deeply satisfying about pruning out all those dead canes.
Can I come do yours?
Now you're left with this:
Much better, but you're not done yet!
If you want to really increase your berry production, make a second pass through and cut down to the ground any weak or spindly canes, or any that are super short.
I would also cut down any canes that are going to make it hard for you to harvest. For me, that's any that are growing right along the fence. My kids like to slip back there and pick in the "tunnel," so those outliers need to go. I had some coming up in the grass outside of the bed that got chopped as well.
Finally, cut off the tips of all the canes left.
If you can, find a bud and cut at an angle just above the bud.
(If you forget, it'll be okay--raspberries are pretty forgiving.)
Cutting off the tip redirects the plant's energy. Instead of spending all of its energy on growing taller, it will now form more sideshoots. The sideshoots are what produce the berries, so the more the merrier!
 Congratulations! You did it!
That wasn't so bad, was it?

These probably need to be thinned even more.
The patch should look drastically, way-too-sparse when you're done.
Most sources recommend only 3-5 strong, healthy canes per linear foot.
Don't worry, they will fill in!
While you're out there enjoying the sunshine, go ahead and figure out the supports you're going to use, as well, and tie the remaining canes to the supports.
If you are new to this part of it, there are many methods of staking raspberries.
Google it, choose one, and go for it!
Then rest easy, knowing that your berry patch is ready for summer.
Bring on the berries!
Yum yum yum.

February 24, 2016

Girls in Old Castles

We just got back from a lovely little trip to see family in Utah. As expected, I had quite a bit of time to read in the evenings. Now I need to get caught up on my reviews!

One of the books I read on our trip, A Brief History of Montmaray, was all about some girls living in an old, derelict castle. It sparked a memory of other books I have read with similar settings. When I got home, I looked them up on Goodreads. Sure enough, the settings were remarkably similar. Do 3 books constitute a genre? If so, I give you the "Girls in Old Castles" genre.  Enjoy!

A Brief History of Montmaray (The Montmaray Journals, #1), by Michelle Cooper

4 stars: Great setting with engaging characters. A bit slow to get started, but by the end I couldn't put it down! 

Sophie FitzOsborne is a princess, in a manner of speaking. Her family's kingdom, the Island of Montmaray, is a tiny speck out in the middle of the Bay of Biscay; 200 miles from Spain or Portugal. At the moment, she lives in the castle with her cousin Veronica, her mad uncle (the King), the surly housekeeper Rebecca, and younger sister Henry. The villagers have all but left completely. Currently, there are 4. Her older brother Toby--the crown prince--is off in England at school, paid for by wealthy Aunt Charlotte.

While they are not beggars yet, things have certainly been better for the FitzOsborne family. The castle is crumbling, and they spend a surprising amount of time finding things to eat. Veronica is busy writing the royal history, so when Sophie receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, (this is 1936), she decides to keep a history of her own.

At first there's not much to write about: her pathetic obsession (could it be love?!!) with Simon, the housekeeper's son. Problems with Henry, who will be obstinate, never listens, and is half-feral. Her recurring nightmare. The weather. The rest of the villagers leaving the island.

Then a boat lands on their shore, and two men get out. They are German. Though isolated, the girls have heard about the political tensions brewing in Europe. They know that this landing does not bode well. One of the men acts very suspiciously; the other is more friendly. They come to realize that at least one of the men is an German SS agent. Then something horrible happens. With no help available until they can flag down a passing ship, Sophie and Veronica realize that they will have to get through this by themselves. Somehow.  What they don't realize is the repercussions their choices will have for themselves and their entire [tiny] kingdom.

The setting drew me in right away. I could just picture the lonely little island, with its craggy shores, windswept grasses, and big, nearly-empty castle. The story dragged somewhat in the beginning, but it kept gathering steam for an exciting, tense climax. Even in the slower parts, I was intrigued by the facets of the plot: the challenges of keeping a dying kingdom alive, mixed with teenage girl angst, mixed with WWII.  I'm anxious to see if our library has #2! (There are 3 all together.)  

Of the 3 books reviewed here, this one was my favorite.

Content clean, for the most part. I actually can't remember if there were language problems or not, so if there were it must have been few and far between. A bit of homosexual innuendo between Simon and Toby, with Sophie wondering about it, but it doesn't go any further than that. Also, some off-screen violence and blood.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

3 stars: Quirky family + castle + romance. Good overall, but the ending was not my favorite.

(Reviewed in July 2012)

Cassandra and her family are poverty-stricken, mostly due to their father's depression and subsequent inability to write another bestseller. They live in a castle, rented when times were flush. Then a new family moves in (happens to be the landlords of the castle), with not one, but two eligible bachelors. There may be light at the end of the tunnel after all!

Finally got around to reading this one. It's only been several months since we discussed it in book club. I enjoyed the writing style and the story overall. For all the build up and description of Cassandra's romance, it seemed the ending was a bit abrupt. I could see how it would be possible for her to have matured to the point where she could do what she did at the end, but there's not much support for it in the story.

p.s. The scene where they went swimming in the moat at night--kind of gave me the willies just thinking about it, if you want to know the truth. Pond-scummy water with who knows what lurking about in the depths and it's night so you can't see it anyway. Yuck. I think it was supposed to be romantic--night swimming scenes generally are--but I couldn't get past the setting.

Content: This one does have some language.

Keeping the Castle, by Patrice Kindl

3 stars: A different take on Cinderella, with a bit of Pride and Prejudice thrown in as well.  

(Reviewed in July 2014)

Althea is 17 and has always known that her job is to marry into money. They live in a derelict castle built by her eccentric grandfather, who unfortunately, used most of the family fortune to finance his folly. Her father is dead and gone, as is her stepfather. Her stepsisters can occasionally be prevailed upon to dip into their own inheritances for the family good, as long as "family good" is shorthand for "fixing something that annoys them personally."

So when Lord Boring, a handsome {rich!} elegible bachelor moves back to his family's estate, Althea feels certain that her hour has come. Of course, her stepsisters also want him...details, details. He has also brought along his friend and business manager, Mr. Fredericks, who happens to be insufferably rude (most of the time) and clueless to social conventions (all of the time.)

I think you can probably see where this is heading. Although predictable, the journey along the way was enjoyable. Loosely based on the Cinderella story.

Content: clean

Have you read any of these? Can you think of any more that would fit my new genre? :)

February 19, 2016

On Finishing What You Start

I'm here to admit that I'm a quitter.
[A book quitter, that is....]

photo from morguefile.com

I just put down a book that has been on my "to-read" list for a couple of years now. I finally got it, finally started in, and I'm just not very into it. It's not a content-related problem, like some books that I choose not to finish. It's just slow and I'm getting antsy.

According to my e-reader, I'm 25% of the way through it. I could skim it to find out what happens, but actually, I don't even care enough about the characters to do that. I'll find a review with a spoiler and call it a day. Or not.

I used to have this compulsion to finish any book I started. I even remember as a librarian telling people: "Give it 50 pages, and if you're not into it by then, put it down and find something else." However, I didn't really follow my own advice on that point. Well, obviously, I've gotten over that!

I think it has to do with 3 or 4 main factors.

1. My reading time is quite precious.
Three kids, and lots going on with school, sports, church, etc., means that I take time where I can find it. I get grumpy if I feel like I'm wasting that time.

2. So much to choose from!
I think my extra long "to-read" list on Goodreads is as much responsible as anything. Back when it was a longer process to figure out what to read next, I was a bit more invested from the start. Now, if the book I'm reading just isn't cutting it for whatever reason, there's 250+ more that are waiting for me.

3. I know what I like....and don't like.
I don't know that my tastes have matured, per se, (since I still read a whole lot of middle grade and young adult fiction), but they have become more pronounced over time. Certain things are almost automatic skim-reads: sappy, predictable romances being one of them. Every so often I make an effort to break out of my favorite genres, but if I'm hating it or bored, I see no need to finish the book (see #1).

4. There's no book police.
In other words--you can't make me!! Ha!  It's rather freeing to realize that I really can read whatever I want. If I decide not to finish something--great! More time for other pursuits. [Like gardening, perhaps.]

photo from morguefile.com
This is not my statue, but I kind of wish it was.

With all of that, it has only been recently that I created a shelf in my Goodreads account for "Did Not Finish." Before that, I would just stop. [I know. Crazy.] Right now there are 5 books on that shelf. Two I stopped due to content, two from boredom, and one was a mix of objectionable content AND boredom. Obviously, those two things are the kiss of death in a book I'm reading! 

So where are you on this spectrum? What makes you decide to put down a book? Do you ever skim read, or just read the ending?

February 17, 2016

Semisweet: Books for Chocolate Lovers of All Ages

February seems made for chocolate, doesn't it? Whoever decided that Valentines should receive a box of chocolate was a genius! It makes for evenly-spaced candy consumption for most of the winter. Christmas is the big one, of course, then just as that candy's petering out, along comes Valentine's Day. Perfect! With a little self-control, you may even be able to last until Easter. Although, if you hit the after-Valentine's sales, the only self-control you'll need is the for the number of boxes that go in your cart.

If you like words with your chocolate, give some of these titles a try:

Picture Books:

Chocolate Moose, by Maggie Kneen

Moose really loves chocolate, so when he spies an ad in the bakery window for "One Mouse: to work 2 hours a day," he goes right in and asks for the job. [My kids were so delighted to correct him!] 
Unfortunately, it's a very small shop, and Moose is rather large. After wreaking havoc, but keeping the mouse babies well entertained, Mrs. Mouse has a better idea for a job for him.

Sweet and fun. Moose looks so cuddly, just like a favorite stuffed animal; too bad his efforts in the tiny shop only keep making things worse. This was a new one for us and we liked it.

Rattletrap Car, by Phyllis Root
Illustrated by Jill Barton

Junie, Jakie, and the baby are hot, hot, hot. What they all need is a day at the lake! However, their old rattletrap car may not be able to get them there. They pack up a picnic, including a big bucket of chocolate-marshmallow fudge delight, and they're off! At least, until the next thing on the car breaks. But never fear, they are nothing if not resourceful! Not to mention absolutely determined.

This is one of my all-time favorites to read-aloud! You can't beat the delightful pictures, the beach toys that just so happen to fix the car (with plenty of chocolate marsmallow fudge delight on hand), and all the noises on every page. So much fun! After a few readings, even my youngest can tell the story himself.

Cocoa Ice, by Diana Appelbaum
Illustrated by Holly Meade

Two little girls in vastly different climates talk about something they have in common: cocoa ice. One little girl is from Santo Domingo, where she picks the cacao bean pods and helps her family prepare them to sell. The other girl is from Maine, and her family harvests ice from the river in the winters.

This is a beautiful book. The cut paper and paint illustrations are vibrant and detailed. It would make a great starting point for a homeschool lesson, or even just a good discussion. Where do the things we take for granted come from?

This one is longer--more like a chapter book in picture book form, so keep that in mind. You'll want to set aside at least 20 minutes to read it.  Your preschoolers might just need a summary as they look at all the pictures. 

Chocolate: A Sweet History, by Sandra Markle
Illustrated by Charise Mericle Harper
J Nonfiction: 641.6

This was a great introduction to chocolate for my younger elementary-school aged kids. It goes into growth of the cacoa beans, production, history, and a bit about Milton Hershey. Photographs are interspersed with captioned drawings. Most pages have 1-2 paragraphs of text, which was just about right for my kids' attention spans.

Your library may not have this exact title, but they probably have something! Head on over to Dewey number 641.6 and see what you can dig up!

Juvenile: Middle Grade
Here we come to some of our favorite read-alouds ever!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl
Illustrated by Quentin Blake

I don't know that I need to say much about this one, other than we loved it! My kids were enthralled by the chocolate factory itself, felt nothing but sympathy for Charlie and his grandpa, and were completely satisfied with the consequences dished out to the awful kids.

They even liked the [older] version of the movie. This is a winner.

Chocolate Fever, by Robert Kimmel Smith

Henry Green loves chocolate more than anything else. In fact, that's pretty much all he eats for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Not only does it not give him a bellyache, it has never stunted his growth, made him fat, or even given him one cavity. It seems like he's got it made.
Until the day that he's at school and starts to break out in spots. Little brown spots all over, that make him smell like a candy bar. He is whisked off to the school nurse, when the spots become lumps. Before long, the doctor has
diagnosed him with Chocolate Fever, and more and more people come to poke and prod at him. He can't take it anymore. He runs!
A kindly trucker named Mac eventually picks him up, but then some hijackers enter the picture. How in the world is Henry going to get out of this mess?
A very quick read-aloud, with 1-2 pictures per chapter. My kids laughed out loud in several places--always a good sign! Mac and Henry have a good discussion about being proud of who you are and what you look like--no matter if you're black, white, or white with brown lumps. It was an unexpected bonus.

The Chocolate Touch, by Patrick Skene Catling

John Midas loves candy of all kinds, but especially chocolate. One day he finds a strange coin on the sidewalk. Even more strange--it's got his initials on it! He then finds a little shop he had never noticed before, selling delicious-looking chocolate. He spends the coin in the shop for one single piece of amazingly good chocolate.
Then he discovers that everything he puts in his mouth turns to chocolate! Awesome! He eats his whole tube of toothpaste! Then it extends to things that he touches, as well....which isn't so bad, actually. At least until all he wants is just a drink of nice cold water...oops. Watery chocolate. Or he wants to give his mom a hug. Oh no! Chocolate mom! When his new gift becomes a curse, he has to figure out how to break the spell and go back to normal. Soon! 
We loved this one! My kids thought it was hilarious.

Who Was Milton Hershey? by James Buckley Jr.
Illustrated by Ted Hammond
J Nonfiction: 920 Hershey
Tells the life story of Milton Hershey in 10 chapters. Features line-drawing pictures on nearly every page, larger type, with 1-3 chapters per page. I don't know that my kids would pick it up on their own, but my oldest read it when I brought it home from the library.My younger two may sit through it in a couple of chunks.
By all accounts, Hershey was a wonderful man, who spent his fortune to help others. This introduction to his life was on-target for 2nd grade and up.

Young Adult:
Sorcery & Cecilia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermeyer
Kate and Cecilia are cousins and best friends. They tell each other everything. Unfortunately, that has just gotten a little harder, as Kate is off to London for her first Season, leaving Cecy behind at Rushmore Manor. So they write letters--long and often. It's a good thing they do, too!
There's a mysterious old woman named Miranda who tried to poison Kate (by mistake) at the Royal College of Wizards, while Cecilia is having troubles of her own brought on by the return on her grumpy wizard neighbor, Sir Hilary Bedrick. There's also the Mysterious Marquis (Kate) and James Tarleton (Cecilia) to keep the girls baffled, amused, and entertained. Then the girls and guys team up to bring down the evil magicians. That's when the fun really begins!
Victorian age, but with magic--though not steampunk. The entire book is written in letter format. A little to slow to get going, perhaps, but then a solid, enjoyable read.
Content: clean
The Sweetest Spell, by Suzanne Selfors

Emmeline Thistle is a dirt-scratcher's daughter, which puts her on the very bottom rung of society. If that wasn't bad enough, she has a twisted foot that makes her even more of a village outcast. At least the cows understand her. Then two catastrophic events change her life forever: all the village men are called away to war, and a flood washes away her entire village.
Emmeline recovers downstream, in the home of a kind family that isn't afraid to do the right thing, no matter who she may be. Then a third event changes not only her life, but the entire country: she discovers a talent for churning cream into chocolate--a magical substance that has been lost for centuries.
Before Emmeline really knows what's happening she is the most sought-after girl in the country. All sorts of people, from all walks of life, want to use her gift for their own purposes. As a result, her world keeps expanding and contracting in unforeseen ways, when really what she wants is to get together with Owen Oak, the son of the family who took her in.  Meanwhile, the history she thought she knew gets revised again, and yet again. Perhaps at the end of all this, the truth will prevail...perhaps.
Content: clean


Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
Reviewed here. There were some things I liked about it and some things I didn't like at all. If you read it, let me know your thoughts!

The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, by Joel Glenn Brenner 

An absolutely fascinating look at the two biggest chocolate companies in the United States: their rivalry, business practices, founders, and what happens on the factory floor.

It was published in 2000, so obviously it's a bit dated. I may have read it in 2005....anyway, it was a long time ago. So I don't remember a lot of details. Here's what I do remember: I remember being so into this book that I talked about it to every person I knew. I remember going to the grocery store and checking out the candy bar displays, to see if my store was giving an edge to one or the other. Also, telling my husband at random moments in the store--"Hey! Did you know that Mars (or Hershey) actually owns [xyz brand]?" He put up with it admirably.

So take that for what it's worth.

What is your favorite kind of chocolate? Have you read anything with a sweet theme lately?

February 15, 2016

Weeding Your Collection: Board Books

Since it's a holiday and all, I'm letting you off easy this time!
Let's talk about weeding those board books. 

This is another category that is pretty straight forward, so it could be another good starting point.

Once again, I find it helpful to take all the books off the shelf you're working on and stack them on the floor, or a table.

1.     Throw away the trash. This includes any book that is ripped, stained, or chewed on beyond repair. If it has been loved into that state, do yourself a favor and get a new copy. Most board books are very reasonably priced—usually around $5 or $6. Otherwise, gone!

2.     Look for board books that were never meant to be board books in the first place. These are the ones that have enough text for a picture book, crammed into a board book format. My toddler will not sit still long enough for those, and my older kids don’t want to be seen reading a “baby book.” This format is meant for 1-3 year-olds (with some wiggle room at each end.) Make sure the text matches that attention span.

3.     Lastly, look for books that either you or your kids never really liked or read all that much. Some just don’t appeal as much, and that’s okay. Pass them on to someone else. (Chances are, these will be in the best shape anyway!)

Clean up and repair the keepers. Baby wipes will take most things off the shiny board book pages. (At the library we used the disinfecting wipes). Clear packing tape works well to put flaps back on or pages back in long enough for a few more rounds.
Group similar books together—going by height or size works well with these—and put them back on the shelf or back in the basket.

You're done!  Good work!
Is organizing your book shelf your idea of a good time on a holiday weekend? That's okay, you can admit it!  I have been known to tackle a few such projects myself.

February 12, 2016

Out with the Old: Garden Cleanup

After weeks and weeks (and weeks) of rain or snow, with cloudy skies, we have had some glorious late winter sunshine!

With spring just around the corner, that means it's time to finish cleaning up the flowerbeds and garden. I leave many dead flowers and stems to overwinter, to give the wildlife--including bugs--a little extra shelter. Now that it's warming up a little bit, it's time to finish pulling out or cutting back all the dead foliage.
This is the oregano in the vegetable garden.
It is in desperate need of a haircut!
[Bonus: those dried stems smell amazing as you snip your way through.]

Ah, much better.
This is now the 4th winter that the oregano has survived.
I even hacked off several large bits of it and gave them away 2 years ago, and it's still going strong.
Love it! 

This is the sedum from my back flowerbed.
The best part is that you can see the new shoots at the bottom.
The promise of spring! The hope of new life!
By the way, if you need a tough plant for a dry sunny spot, sedum is great!
The fleshy leaves hold in moisture, so they don't need very much water at all.
I got these as starts from a neighbor. 
Being right there by the house, they don't get any rain, and only as much water as I remember to give them....which isn't much.
They still thrive and bloom; and are usually one of the last spots of color in the fall.
I like the look of the dried seedheads throughout the winter, as well.
Now it's all cleaned up and ready for a new season!
I went ahead and got the rest of the back flowerbed cleaned up while I was out there.
I am sad to report that my 'Yellow Topaz' rose did not make it.
It was already ailing at the end of the summer last year, but I had hopes it would rally.
No such luck.
The branches were lying flat on the ground and broke off at the base when I tried to pull them upright again. Darn! I'll have to dig out the stump and figure out what else to put there.
On the bright side, I have daffodils and tulips peeking up! 
Come on spring!
[What spring fever?]
Look! We have a visitor:
I wish I knew what kind of cocoon this was.
It's just stuck to the house, about 3 feet off the ground back there.
If the weather holds over the next few days, I'll get the other flowerbeds done as well.
 I did quite a bit of clearing out last fall, more so than usual, so the job should be fairly quick this time around.  I could wait longer to do it, but the smaller the new shoots are, the easier it is. 
Besides, it gives me a reason to soak up some more sunshine!
I've also got some pruning to do, but I'll put that in its own post.
Do you get spring fever? What is enticing you outdoors right now (if anything)?

February 11, 2016

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

3 stars: Beautifully written, but tragic and depressing.

Do you know the basic story? I did not know much going in, beyond my fuzzy recollections of the old Disney version (which I only watched once, I think, because of the creepy priest.)

So there's a deformed hunchback named Quasimodo, who rings the bells of Notre Dame and is the ward of the archdeacon there. The archdeacon is Claude Frollo--more on him later. There is a beautiful, graceful, young, gypsy girl named Esmerelda, who dances and sings like an angel in the square down below. There's a poet and playwright named Gringoire who continually just escapes the noose, and Claude's younger brother Jehan, who is a thoroughly likeable scoundrel. We can't leave out Phoebus, the handsome, womanizing dirt-clod soldier. Did I forget anyone?  Oh yes. Crazy lady in the Rat-Hole. I can't remember her name at the moment. Plus a host of lesser characters.

Let's talk about Claude for a moment. Do you remember how scary he was in that animated film? Yikes! Times that by ten, and you'll have about how creepy he is in the book. He starts off well (before the book begins), by taking care of his younger brother once they become orphans, and later on adopting Quasimodo as a squalling foundling laid on the church bench. But as Hugo explains, over time he has grown bitter, disillusioned, and severe. Then he sets eyes on the enchanting Esmerelda and he is forever lost. It's a singularly unhealthy fixation. He stalks her, attempts to kidnap her (with Quasimodo's help), and just lurks. Then does something nasty and laughs about it. Yes, that really happens multiple times. Then he throws himself at her and when she refuses him, he goes even further off the deep end.

Understandably, Esmerelda is terrified of him. Plus she loves handsome Phoebus, who saved her from the kidnapping attempt. Claude finds out about this one-sided affection--it is simply a dalliance to Phoebus, who is engaged to be married--and determines to destroy them both.

There's a little incident with an enormous spider catching a bewildered fly that seems to sum up the entire story. Claude is convinced that he is the fly and Esmerelda the spider, while we all know that really those roles are reversed. Poor innocent Esmerelda, caught in the web of evil Claude Frollo.

The web first catches Esmerelda when the priest pays for Phoebus to rent a room for a tryst with Esmerelda. Then Claude hides (with Phoebus' knowledge) up in the attic space and watches what happens. (What?!) Things don't get too far, however, before he simply can't take it anymore and throws a knife at Phoebus, hitting him in the neck and nearly killing him. Unforutnately for Esmerelda, Phoebus certainly seems dead when the policemen come, and since she's the only other one there, and also is covered in blood, she's arrested for murder. The archdeacon is long gone by that point (of course). Well, it all goes downhill from there. Way, way down. Just when you think you've hit the bottom of the pit, it all slides just a bit more for good measure.

* * * * *
I had a hard time getting through the first 100 pages. There's several pages (chapters, even?) where Hugo describes the Paris of the time, building by building. It was excruciatingly tedious. Perhaps if I lived in Paris, or had ever visited, it would have been fascinating. As it was, it did nothing for me, except put me to sleep. (By comparison, I couldn't put it down for the last few hundred pages, just to find out what happened to everyone.)

Despite the downward spiral of the plot, there are glimmers of humor. Jehan, Claude's ne'er-do-well younger brother, provides a few of them, like this gem:
[Claude has just asked what he has come for.] "A little lecture on morality, of which I stand greatly in need," Jehan did not dare to add aloud, --"and a little money of which I am in still greater need." (Location 4430, Chapter 4 of Volume II.)
Hugo is a master of characterization. His characters are so finely drawn I feel sure I would recognize them on sight. Quasimodo, in particular, is a deeply-faceted character. Even with the abuse he has endured his whole life, he manages to love a few things deeply and even tenderly: the bells, Claude Frollo, and Esmerelda.  The fact that the only two people who have ever showed him compassion are such opposites is one of the great ironies of the book.

The part where Esmerelda has sanctuary in the cathedral and Quasimodo cares for her--even giving up his own pallet so she can lay on something soft, was really quite beautiful. A brief, much-needed reprieve before that train wreck of an ending. I was telling a friend about it last night, and she said, "You sound kind of traumatized." Yes, that describes it pretty well. Just don't get too attached to any of the main characters; that's all I'm saying.

Although the many tangents slowed the plot down considerably, I quite enjoyed one of them. Hugo talks at length about how cathedrals were the precursor to print. Prior to Gutenberg, he argues, the only outlet for artistic endeavors was architecture, specifically cathedrals--hence the sculptors made the gargoyles, the painters the murals, and the poet, the prayers. Then along came the printing press.
"All the life which is leaving architecture comes to it. In proportion as architecture ebbs, printing swells and grows. That capital of forces which human thought had been expending in edifices, it henceforth expends in books." (Location 3042 in my ebook copy, towards the end of the 5th Book.) [I miss page numbers.]
As a humanities major, this really caught my attention. I would like to delve into it further! I had never thought about architecture battling it out with print (and losing). Now we have the internet and social media, which may be the death of print at some point...as I type this for a blog post. What do you think?

Finally, I have to say it: Disney had no business making this into a children's animated movie!! It must have only a passing resemblance to the book, which included all kinds of kid-friendly ideas, such as:

racial and religious bigotry
murder and attempted murder
public executions
Battle of the cathedral (many, many deaths)
lustful imaginings (oh wait, they did put that in, didn't they!)

Need I go on?

I'm not sorry I read it, but I'm definitely ready to move on to some lighter fare. Have you read it? Let's chat! There's plenty more to talk about.

February 10, 2016

My Current "To-Read" Pile

Ever since I discovered Goodreads, I have not lacked for ideas of what to read next. When I see or hear about something that looks interesting, I click the "Want to Read" button and go on my merry way. Right now I have 270 titles on my "To Read" shelf, which--admittedly--is a bit excessive. For awhile I was trying to keep it under 100, but obviously that has gone straight out the window.

However, despite all those good ideas, I have found that my actual physical (or digital) "books to read" pile tends to fluctuate quite a bit. Part of that is because I'm a cheapskate, and also a librarian at heart. (Why buy when I can borrow?) My local library is quite small--it's just one building--and they only have so much to spend on new items. So I would say at least 60% of the books I want to read are not there.

When I'm in a dry spell, I usually start by perusing my own bookshelves for thrift store purchases I haven't gotten around to yet, or old favorites. I do still go to the library to browse, and generally come home with a stack of randoms. 

If I'm really desperate, I'll start going through my Goodreads "to-read" list and checking Amazon prices, to see if anything is cheap enough to spend actual money on. You see, I generally only buy books that I've read before and know that I like, so I have a hard time buying untried specimens. Anything under $5 I'm willing to take a chance on; $6.99--maybe, but kind of pushing it. Higher than that, I usually wait--unless I'm just dying to read it.

Then we come to this week. I have experienced a book downpour! (One of my favorite kinds!) At my last library visit, I found a sequel I had been waiting on for ages, plus 4 books straight off my "to read" list.

Then, when I got on Overdrive (digital lending library), no less than 23 of the books I've been wanting to read were suddenly available. Wait no, actually 33, because I maxed out my checkout and holds limits (5 books for each). The rest are patiently waiting on a wish list now. There must have been some recent purchases. AWESOME! 

If that weren't enough, a good friend heard that I wanted to read the last book in the Lunar Chronicles, had a copy, and actually dropped it off at my house. Yesterday. I've been on the library waiting list for that one for months!

So, preview of coming attractions! Here's what I've got lined up (in no particular order):

Winter, by Marissa Meyer
Sorcery & Cecelia OR The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Life in Motion: an unlikely ballerina, by Misty Copeland
Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley
Curse of the Thirteenth Fey, by Jane Yolen
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, by Karen Foxlee
Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale
Candy Bomber, by Michael Tunnell

Once I'm done with these, there's 25 more where they came from. It makes me want to ignore all of my life and just read for a few days...or weeks.

It's always good to have plenty to choose from.

What do you do when you get desperate for a good book?

February 8, 2016

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris

2 stars: Whimsical and indulgent; yet I couldn't get past the message.

Vianne Rocher grew up a vagabond, constantly on the move with her mother, who was running from her own demons. Now that her mother's gone, she makes a life for her and her daughter through chocolate. Though they also tend to go where the wind blows, they tend to stay in each place a little longer, giving them more stability than she had growing up.

One day the wind blows them into the tiny French town of Lansquenet. Anouk (her daughter) really wants to stay. They find an empty storefront for rent and get to work. Soon they have a gleaming shop full of delicious chocolate of all kinds. Vianne has a gift for making confections, and for knowing exactly the type that each customer likes the best. She also seems to have a gift for helping folks with their troubles.

It is not all smooth sailing, however.  The local Catholic priest, Pere Reynaud, takes her warmth, her liberality, and her chocolate as a personal affront. As his parishioners begin to fall sway to her charms, he becomes more and more outspoken in his condemnation.

Then a group of gypsies moor their boats near town.  Vianne, as you might guess, treats them with compassion, even though Father Reynaud preaches against them at every turn. She even comes over for dinner down at the riverside, and Anouk runs wild with their children.  An act of arson eventually drives most of them away, but not before battle lines have been drawn even more clearly in the town.

Vianne's shop prospers, much to the priest's angry dismay. For Anouk's sake, Vianne would really like this to be their last stop, but she can't make any promises. For now, they'll just do the best they can. When she plans a big chocolate festival for Easter Sunday, that is really the last straw for Father Reynaud. Or is it?...

Written in alternating chapters, some from Vianne's viewpoint and some from Father Reynaud's.

There was a lot I liked about his book. The author plays with color in a way that was fascinating and fun to read. When Vianne first comes to this repressed little town, everyone and everything is drab and gray and worn-down. She and Anouk both wear and embody color. Little by little, their friendliness, delicious chocolate, and magic touch bring life and hope back into the townspeople....who then add color to their own lives. Bad situations get better, relationships are made or mended; it's like a corset has been loosed and everyone begins to breathe again.

The chocolate itself was described in a way that was simply mouth-watering. I dare you to read it without indulging in some yourself!

My favorite character was Armande--a feisty old woman who sees more than most, yet who remains vulnerable in some ways. She's a perfect foil for Vianne and adds sparkle to the story.

Okay. A couple of things really bothered me. First--nearly all the characters come across as one-dimensional. Vianne is everything good. She is the breath of fresh air this town needs. The priest is evil and darkness. The gypsies--though they are painted as thieves and worse by the priest--are all hard-working, fun-loving, and honest (at least the ones we get to see in the story.) All of them. A few of the townspeople have slightly more depth, but not by much.

Then, tying into that, the story itself strikes me as very anti-Christian. Vianne represents the very liberal, atheist view, and of course the priest is Catholic. They are enemies. The book makes no bones about that. They both acknowledge it to themselves.

As I have mentioned, when Vianne first comes along, the townspeople are under the thumb of the priest (and therefore, the rules of the church). Let's talk about Father Reynaud a bit more. He is angry, rigid, a hypocrite, severe, dark, and unhealthy. Definitely a "my way or the highway" type. The people of his flock mirror many of those same traits: repressed, angry, back-biting, narrow-minded rule followers. Vianne's shop opens on the first day of Lent, and the priest is enraged when so many of his church members stop by for chocolate in defiance of the Lenten season.

Vianne's believes that "being happy is the only important thing" (172). She is warm, friendly, open-minded, calm, and believes that every belief system has some beauty in it. Sounds good, right? Her whole plot line seems to be cheerfully breaking church rules, whether that means helping a friend leave her abusive husband (not that I disagree with that one, though the priest is beside himself), assisting another friend into a fatal diabetic coma, or having a one-night stand with one of the gypsies. As long as it makes someone happy (including herself), it's okay. Despite these and other morally questionable decisions, she is depicted as the savior of this town. 

**** SPOILER ALERT **** [though if you've seen the movie, you already know this]

Meanwhile the priests's job in the story is to make everyone as unhappy as possible while trying desperately to get them all to toe the line. It's only when he falls to his own inner temptations that the town is truly released and liberated; then everyone celebrates the chocolate festival instead of Easter. Um...hooray, I guess?

**** Okay, you're safe now! :) ****

Vianne says more than once to the priest something along the lines of "Isn't there room for us all?" which on the surface would seem to be theme of the book. However, the characterizations and plot answers that question with a definite "NO." If it were just Vianne and the priest that were drawn so starkly opposite, it would have come across as more of a portrayal of one town, or a showdown between these two personalities, rather than an indictment of religion.   But all the characters were either for or against Vianne. I can't think of one neutral (main) character in the whole book. If they followed the priest, they were awful. If they followed Vianne, they were sympathetic. That doesn't seem to me like it's leaving room for everyone.

Perhaps this depicts the author's own experience with Christianity? I don't know. I would have enjoyed it much more had the characters been more well-rounded. My own experience with religion has been that following Jesus Christ brings warmth, life, freedom, and lasting happiness. The very hope, kindness, and compassion that Vianne embodies, in fact. I've seen it in my life and in the lives of my family members.

Content note: There are a handful of cuss words, and one non-graphic love scene close to the end.

Have you read this one? What was your take on it? Talk to me!

February 5, 2016

Weeding Your Collection: Picture Books

Okay, I've given you a couple weeks for a break. Now it's time to dive into those picture books!

As you may recall, I am a children's librarian. Picture books are near and dear to my heart. As such, it can be hard to let them go. However, as we've mentioned, there are only so many bookshelves you can fit into one house! Also, as my kids get older and learn to read, the picture book shelf has not been frequented as often. [Sad face.]
When it comes to weeding them, as long as my favorites are safely in the "keeper" pile, I am content to let the kids decide on the rest. I've included a few different methods for having your kids help you sort at the end of the post.  

Let's get started! 

Questions to ask yourself for picture books:

What kind of shape is it in?
This is an easy one. Are there scribbles on crucial pages? Is the cover missing, or a chunk of pages falling out? Going along with that, is it fixable? If yes, is it worth your time to fix it?
Is it appropriate for the age and attention span-level of the children listening to it?
Some picture books are basically illustrated chapter books, with long detailed storylines and/or more mature themes. Many of Patricia Polacco's fall into this category. These can still be great books to keep--if your older kids will enjoy it and pick it up. Consider shelving it in a different spot for them to have easier access, so they don’t have to wade through the preschool-aged ones. Your little guys will also do better without the longer books cluttering up their shelf space.

Does the underlying message or the artwork make you cringe? Or, is it too scary or intense for your kids?  
Remember, your home collection will likely get read many times over and become a part of your child’s mental wiring. (No pressure!) You know your kids best. Don't be afraid to pull something out, even if it's famous, an award-winner, or your neighbor's absolute favorite.

A few examples from my own bookshelf:

At one point, we had a picture-book version of “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar.” The illustrations were well done and engaging, and of course that catchy rhyme was on nearly every page. It was my husband who asked, “Do we really want to be reading a book to our kids over and over that makes stealing something into a game?” When he put it in that context--um…right. No, no we didn’t.

Even though I personally quite like “Where the Wild Things Are,” it was too scary for my oldest son as a preschooler. It actually gave him nightmares, and unfortunately it took us several days to put together his garbled explanations with that particular book. When we finally figured it out, that book was donated. Many Halloween picture books fall into the same category for us: just not worth the long nights. 

Does it come with parts or pieces that won’t stay put or are lost?
We had a book one time where each spread included text on one page, and a puzzle on the facing page. That was all well and good, except that any time you turned the page, the puzzle you just finished would fall apart all over the floor! Yeah. That one did not last very long. My sanity has to count for something!

Do they still enjoy it even after many (many MANY) reads?
You know the ones. Notice I'm not asking if YOU enjoy it after reading it a million times. :)

Is it one you remember fondly, or was a favorite of yours as a kid?

So, you’ve gone through the rough sort and gotten rid of the obvious stuff. Also, your kids have probably pulled some out of the pile exclaiming, “Hey! I’ve been looking for this one!” Yep, those are keepers. What do you do with all the rest? I would definitely let the kids be involved. They have a stake in the outcome, after all!
Here are a couple of ideas:

The “Take-A-Vote” Method

Pile all the picture books onto a table. Get the kids to help right from the start!

Pull out all the favorites (including yours!) for the keeper pile. 

Now here's the fun part. Take one book at a time, and take a vote: thumbs up, thumbs down, or eh—don’t care either way.  Get them talking! They may talk each other into or out of certain books without your interference at all. With their favorites safe in the “must keep” pile, the rest should be less emotionally charged (in theory…)

Depending on the way your family works, you’ll have to decide your own rules about how many thumbs can veto the majority, or how to handle a tied vote.

If your family is not quite ready for the democratic process yet, or every book is someone’s “absolute favorite,” here’s another way to do it.

The “Convince Me” Method

You go through the picture books first (perhaps while kids are in bed?)
Make a keeper pile, a donation pile, and a “convince me” pile. The "convince me" pile are books that you wouldn't mind getting rid of, but are willing to listen to reasons for keeping. Then bring in the kids.
Here's the deal:
If some of their favorites ended up in the “convince me” pile, they are welcome to plead their case.
(I’m pretty much a pushover when it comes to this—if they feel passionate enough about the book to pluck it from the jaws of possible donation, there’s a good chance we’re going to keep it.)
If they want to rescue a book from the donation pile, however, they have to trade it for one of their choice from the “convince me” pile.
 Any “convince me’s” leftover at the end get added to the donation pile.

 The “It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later” Method

This is the kinder, gentler book sorting method--if you have the space, time, and patience for it.
Get out a bin or a box and have the kids help you fill it up. You could tell them each to grab 10 books, or something. Tape it closed or put on the lid, and put it away for 3-6 months.
Notice if the kids ask about any of the books or miss them during that time frame. When it comes time to bring the box down, notice which books are met with delight and which stay untouched in the bottom of the box. Give away the unloved books and start over.

Once my kids realized that I wasn’t out to give away their favorites, they've actually been happy to join in the sorting process. Last time we did it, we got rid of 15-20 books. It made so much difference! We could pull out a book without 3 more cascading down. 

Do you have a tried and true book sorting method? Do your kids help you decide what to get rid of? Please share in the comments!