February 27, 2017

Series Spotlight: The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson

I started this series back in November. I had purchased the first as an ebook quite a long time ago and never gotten around to reading it. I finally did, then luckily our library had the other three as well. The last 2 I ended up listening to over many nights in December (9 and 12 hours, respectively.) I often would fall asleep listening to them, actually, so then I would have to go back to where I last remembered--which sometimes was quite a ways back.

An epic saga retelling the timeless story of good vs. evil, with plenty of action, near misses and near saves, and a family determined to give their all for each other and for the kingdom. Peterson weaves Christian themes through the series, which made it all the better.

I would put the age range at 10+. The books are clean as far as language and sex, but they do have some battle violence and intense situations.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (Wingfeather Saga #1),

3 stars: A bit of a slow starter for me, but by the end I was ready to go on to the next in the series.

Janner Igiby is the oldest brother and despite his chafing against it, he is often held responsible for his younger brother Tink's activities and whereabouts. They live with their mother Nia, younger sister Leeli, and grandpa Podo, who used to be a pirate. Their little village of Glipwood, like all of Skree is ruled by the Fangs of Dang: Komodo-like creatures who walk upright and talk, with venomous fangs and dispositions to match. It has been this way ever since the Great War, and the defeat of the High King of Anneira across the Dark Sea of Darkness.

There is little joy to find in their daily lives, but they take it where they can and are content, for the most part. Until the day of the Glipwood Dragon Festival. Janner discovers a map tucked away in a old book, while on the job at the bookstore. It's a treasure map, leading to a place called AnkleJelly Manor. Of course he and Tink will check it out.

They'll have to be careful, though. Toothy cows abound in the woods, and the Fangs slither through town. People of all ages disappear into the terrifying Black Carriage, which comes in the middle of the night, and are never seen again.

If that weren't enough, it is said that Gnag the Nameless searches for the Jewels of Anneira, and he won't rest until he finds them.

* * * * *
It took me awhile to get into this first book. There were a great many ironic asides that had me rolling my eyes instead of grinning, and the world-building seemed a bit clunky, with some creatures close enough to Earth life that I kept thinking--why bother with a new name for this one? Like "hog-pigs," for example. Or names that seemed over-the-top, like--well--The Dark Sea of Darkness. 

The family dynamics were well-written, particularly the give and take between Janner and Tink. Enough action to keep the story moving. Character development was strong. There was a lot of potential there, and I decided to keep reading to find out what happened.

(Finished reading Nov. 24, 2016)

North! Or be Eaten (Wingfeather Saga #2)

4 stars: This second book really got me invested in the series. After reading this one, I had to keep going!

The Igiby family must flee to the North countries, after learning of their true heritage. They are hoping the cold will keep them safe, as the lizardlike Fangs of Dang cannot stand the cold. Their journey is not a tranquil one. They are constantly pursued, must cross perilous bridges and valleys hiding terrible monsters. They must seek help from (and survive) the Stranders--a fierce group of outlaw people living in the forest of East Bend.

Then they get separated, and each group or person has to make their own way the best they can. The decisions made now will form the basis of what they have to deal with from here on out. Choose wisely, Igibys! And go swiftly!

* * * * *
 I felt like Peterson settled into his story a bit more with this second book. Or perhaps, I was more used to the world he had created and so didn't get pulled out of the story nearly as much by some of the descriptions or creatures. In any case, this one was more enjoyable for me and a quicker pace.

The desperate race away from danger, only to encounter more and new dangers, made for an exciting read. Once again, the biggest strength of the book was the family relationships. Janner was a good character to choose as the main one to follow, as he probably had some of the most complexities to work out with his place in the family, and the expectations of him. Other family relationships came into play as well, that contrasted nicely with the Igibys.

I enjoyed seeing Janner begin to come into his own as a leader and protector of others. The mistakes and poor choices made by some characters were painful but seemed true to character. Once I finished this one, there was no question that I would go on to read the rest!

(Finished reading Dec. 2, 2016)

The Monster in the Hollows (Wingfeather Saga #3)

4 stars: A strong 3rd book: continued character development, and the stakes kept getting higher and higher for the last installment.

After barely escaping the North country with their lives, the Igibys/Wingfeathers are desperate to find a safe place to land. They decide to go back to Podo (and Nia's) homeland: the Green Hollows. Hollows folk are known to be mighty warriors--in fact, their land is the one place that has yet to be overrun by Gnag's minions.

It's not all going to be smooth sailing, however. Tink, who goes by his real name Kalmar now, looks like a Fang--one of the new wolf-like furry Fangs. The Hollows folk are not going to accept him easily or lightly. The family settles at the old homestead and the children actually begin school. So not only are they the new kids, one of them has a tail. It would be hard enough to fit in without that.

Janner continues to struggle with his role as Throne Warden (protector and keeper of the High King, which would be Kalmar.) It seems his desires are always getting pushed to the back, while he must sacrifice over and over again for his brother. He's not entirely certain how much human is even left in his brother. There are times when Kal's eyes go this yellow color... Meanwhile, Leeli is in 7th heaven, working with dogs all day long.

Then there are reports of Cloven coming into the village. Cloven are terrifyingly awful beasts--mixtures of several different animals, but all twisted and wrong. Even worse, one Cloven in particular is drawn to the Wingfeathers. Their safe place may not end up being so safe after all.

* * * * *
I appreciated the change of pace in this book. After an entire book of running and fighting and narrow escapes, it was nice to see how the children fared with more normal challenges: starting a new school, standing up to bullies, etc. As in real life, they got a break from some things but had new and different stuff to deal with at the same time. I liked keeping up with what was going on back at the Fork Factory, too, with Sarah Cobbler and Arthum.

Then there were a couple of fantastic twists. I thought I knew who or what the "monster" was, but it was more complex than I thought. More of an essay answer rather than a multiple choice. Well done.

Note: Of the four, this is the first one I listened to. Our library had ebook copies of the first two, but then last two only on e-audio. Despite the length, I wish I had listened to them all! Read by the author, the brogue and expression brought it all to life. There were different voices for each character. All in all, it was a delightful experience. 

(Finished reading Dec. 8, 2016)

The Warden and the Wolf King (Wingfeather Saga #4)

3.5 stars: The final showdown!

The fourth and final book of the series finds each of the Wingfeather children facing their biggest challenges yet. Gnag has come to the Hollows, ready or not (um...somewhat ready? They had been preparing but were taken by surprise.) Meanwhile, Janner is lost out in the wilds, by himself, Kalmar has decided go after Gnag himself in the Deeps of Throg, and brave Leeli is playing her whistle-harp until her lips bleed to keep the Fangs at bay. Each has a part to play in the final showdown--even Grandpa Podo and even the dragons.

* * * * *
This book gave us the background of Gnag the Nameless. It tested each of the children to their limits. The great and terrible Last Battle came along and ended how it ended. Then there were still Things to Do. Not all was made right. There was hope, but there was a lot of suffering and despair still as well. I liked that the battle wasn't the end, because there's always an aftermath of the battle that is sometimes more important than the battle itself.

The ending surprised and touched me; it made me think. Always good.

A couple of things brought my rating down for this last book. The biggest was that some of the plot lines and characters sort of just dropped off the map. They were integral in books 2 & 3, then we heard nothing more about them. The loose ends there bothered me.

Secondly, after all the deeper, heavier stuff that had just happened, the Epilogue seemed almost flippant in tone, which didn't set well with me. I could understand what he was going for with it, but it just fell flat. Perhaps I would have had a different take on it if I had been reading it rather than listening to it--hard to say.

Still recommend it, though. Much to discuss and some heroic characters to cheer for!

(Finished reading Dec. 21, 2016)

* * * * *
Have you read this series? What did you think? Who was your favorite character?

February 24, 2017

Reading with my 9-year-old: Wimpy Kid Movie Diary & Vanished

My oldest boy just turned 9! Hard to believe I've got one almost a decade old. :)
I continue to try to keep a handle on what he's reading and interested in. While I certainly don't read everything he's reading, at least once a month or so, I make an effort to read a book that he has read and talk with him about it. Sometimes the "discussions" are very short. :) Even so, I feel like they give me an extra point of connection with him, which is valuable.

So let's talk about a couple that we've both read lately.

The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary, by Jeff Kinney

3.5 stars: Entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the popular movie, with photos and Kinney's signature illustrations.

If you've got a 3rd grader in your house, there's a good chance you already know all about The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. My son has probably read them all at least 3 times.

Although we have yet to see the movie, when he happened upon The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary at the library, he snatched it right up. Then I picked it up, too. It was hard not to! It was a fun, quick read.

Kinney describes several parts of movie-making, from the casting to special effects. He talks about the challenges of turning line-drawing illustrations into real characters. He introduces the actors and actresses and tells stories about good times on and off set. A good mix of illustrations and photos keeps the pace lively and the visual interest high.

A sure hit for Wimpy Kid fans!

(Finished reading Jan. 26)

Vanished: True Tales of Mysterious Disappearances, by Elizabeth MacLeod

4 stars: Who doesn't like a good true mystery story?

Six stories about people or things that disappeared and still have yet to be found again, written for a middle grade audience: the Roanoke Colony, the Gardner museum art heist, an Alcatraz prison break, and more. MacLeod goes into what is known about the disappearances, the methods used then and now in an attempt to solve the mysteries, plus the current best guess of what really happened.

* * * * *
I'm not surprised my son picked this one up! I've always had a fascination with unsolved true mysteries, myself. In fact, I did a Mini Theme last year on Missing Persons stories (for adults.)

This one was short, and included all kinds of sidebars and photos. Well done, and made for some good conversation afterword, as we talked about our own theories.

(Finished reading Feb. 1)

* * * * *
What have your kids been fascinated by lately?

February 23, 2017

Falling Free and The Screwtape Letters

I read a couple of Christian nonfiction titles in the past month that I've been storing up thoughts about. I am a Christian too. (Surprised? Yes, the Mormon religion centers around Jesus Christ.) These books both caused me to see some aspects of my life in a new light, and to think deeply about my relationship with God.

If you read either, let me know! Let's talk!

Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted, by Shannon Martin

4.5 stars: Made me think about my expectations of life, and how they might differ from what God expects me to do with my life.

I've been a reader of Shannon's blog for several years now. I appreciate her honesty, her wit, and the way she's figuring out what her walk with God should look like. She's got 4 adopted children of various ethnicities and ages. This is the story of how she and her husband thought they had made it--they were living The Dream. They had the farmhouse down a sunny lane, with room for the kids to roam, and a close-knit community of believers surrounding them.

Then, little by little, their dream was dismantled, and they realized that they were being called to live in the city, in the midst of poverty and crack houses. To send their kids to the local public school, rather than to a private Christian school. To invite their neighbors and their neighbor's kids into their lives, despite their own preferences for hanging back and introversion. It was a painful transition, but ultimately has been a redeeming one.

* * * * *
First things first: I don't think she's saying that everyone has to move to the 'hood to do God's work. Also, she's certainly not claiming to "save" her neighbors. On the contrary. If anything, she talks about how the people she associates with now have thrown her failings into sharp relief and inspired her to do better. Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way...

Though we don't share all the same ideas about God, I related to Shannon's struggles and triumphs. This book made me think very deeply about the things I take for granted. It inspired me to seek God's purpose for my life more deeply.

She raised several points that I'm still mulling over. How can we expect to do God's work if we are surrounded by people who look and think essentially the same way we do?  Feeling uncomfortable reaching out to our neighbors does not excuse us from doing it. If God has given me material or financial success, what am I doing to use it to His glory rather than my own?

I appreciated her ideas about supporting the places you are. For instance: pulling your kids out of the struggling public school to put them into a selective private school doesn't do anything to build your community. I also thought it was beautiful how she and her family have found the most acceptance and love they've ever known at the humble church right down the street.

Again, she's not saying that her choices should be your choices. I think what she's saying is that following the spirit of God can lead you to uncomfortable, hard, and unexpected places, but it will bring you right up close to Him. That other people--even other Christians--may not understand you or why you're doing what you're doing, but following Jesus is still the right choice. If you are living in a mostly like-minded community, what work does God have for you to do there? Don't be afraid to pursue it.

I highly recommend this book! She blogs at: www.shannanmartinwrites.com

(Finished reading Jan. 6)
* * * * *

This next one is a Christian classic. I'm glad I finally took the time to read it!

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

5 stars: So many insights into human nature and Christian living.

This was actually our book club pick for February, but I was sick that night and missed discussion. Boo! I'm sad, because there was a lot that I wanted to talk about. It's short--my copy is only 85 pages--but I want to read it again and underline things this time.

Screwtape is a senior devil, who writes these letters to a younger temptor named Wormwood, as a sort of mentor in the business of leading souls astray. The letters deal with various aspects of leading the Christian man or woman to the dark side, from doubt, to pride, to gluttony (of various forms), to lust, and so on.

The ideas he explored were so interesting. For instance, I really liked what he had to say about the cyclical nature of life. In other words, pretty much everything in life goes up and down--it waxes and wanes. Of course, Screwtape is advising Wormwood to use this knowledge to his advantage, because humans tend to forget it.

When we're on the downward slide, it can seem like everything is dark and won't ever be good again, and when we're on the top we tend to take all the credit for it, succumbing to cockiness or at least forgetfulness of our Maker. So, whether it's our marriage relationship, our finances, our health, the amount of free time we have--or whatever--expect the cycle and don't get all bent out of shape at the bottom, or gloat too much at the top. 

Also, there was a whole letter devoted to gluttony of different kinds, including the person who is so insistent on their particular diet being catered to, that they make everyone around them miserable. ("Just a little dry toast and a sip of tea for me. Anything else would upset my digestion.") It may not seem like gluttony, because the person is not overeating but rather undereating. However, the sin of gluttony is shown to be allowing the body's physical relationship with food to take center stage, to the detriment of everything--and everyone--else.

Man, I really wish I could have gone to the discussion! There is so much more, including justifying our gradual disillusionment from the church by the types of Christians we encounter there, justifying doubt by using "modern" terms of sophistication, and so on. Okay, I just need to read it again.

(Finished reading Jan. 25)

* * * * *
What are your thoughts? As I said, I am eager for more discussion on these two!
Also, do you have any others to recommend?

February 22, 2017

All I Want is Everything: Garden Catalogs

After a week or 10 days of rain, washing away most of the snow we had, it snowed again yesterday.
I have to admit it was beautiful: some of the biggest flakes I've ever seen.
They looked like white feathers dropping from the sky.

[Why is it so hard to take a good picture of falling snow?]

Unlike a month ago, I have hope that the inch covering everything up again will melt soon.
Plus--I have bulbs peeking up!
Just the green tips, and only about 1/2" tall, but they're coming!!

So, just for kicks I ordered the White Flower Farm Spring 2017 Garden Book.
I mean, it was free.
But oh, the eye candy!
Gorgeous full-color photographs of all kinds of flowers.
All for sale!
All or most that will work in my growing zone!
White Flower Farm is in Connecticut, so it has quite a wide selection for us northern gardeners.

Okay, okay, I don't really want everything.
Just...most things.
I could do without the highly poisonous plants--Lily of the Valley, I'm looking at you!
(Little children playing in the yard, you know.)

[Aww--look. They're lonely. They need some Echinacea friends.]

But the entire page of Echinacea varieties? Yes, I'll take a dozen of each, if you please.
Let's see, ditto that for the hydrangeas, the irises, the coreopsis, the daylilies...do you see my problem here?

If only I had all the money, and time, and space.
Maybe I should just live at White Flower Farm.
Do you think they would take me in as a boarder?

One other bonus with this catalog:
Each plant entry includes the scientific name plus pronunciation (YES!), along with the common name. A short paragraph describes the species in general before they list out the more specific varieties for sale.

They sell live plants rather than seeds, and their prices reflect that.
I have actually not ever purchased from them. Yet.
Mostly because it makes more sense and costs less to buy from my local nursery, rather than have the good flower farmers of Connecticut ship me things.
Oh so tempting, though.
Perhaps just 1 or 2 or 10 varieties...

Then just today the David Austen "Handbook of Roses 2017" showed up in my mailbox.
Oh my.

Stately 'Abraham Darby' in my back flowerbed.

Incidentally, I have ordered from this catalog before (my local nursery doesn't carry David Austen roses) and I was very pleased with the quality of plants I received, and the helpful instructions.
As far as I can tell, the ones I put in last year have all survived the winter.

I have never wanted a dedicated rose garden, but I like at least one rose bush in every flowerbed I design.
More, if more will fit.
I don't really have any more room for shrubs, unless I tear out some grass somewhere, but couldn't I just tear out a little grass somewhere? Surely it would be worth it for some of these beauties.

'William Shakespeare' rose in bloom last summer.

Roses. Roses to climb trellises, roses for hedges, roses for cutting.
Well, I do have that great big vegetable garden out back...
(Ha! Now you see how flowers slowly take over the space for veggies over time!)

* * * * *
If all that weren't enough, Erin Benzakein, owner of Floret Flowers and a leader of the farmer-florist movement wrote a book, which is now available for pre-order. So I did.
She lives over on the West side of Washington state--in other words, the "easier to grow things on" side. I sort of feel like we're friends, but really, I just read her blog regularly and sigh over the all beauty going on over there.
So, a bonus if you pre-order the book:
you receive a pdf document containing several different Garden Planning worksheets.
It is all laid out for you: flower farming for beginners!
Bed width and depth, number of plants needed, spacing requirements, etc.
I am raring to go!
Wait a minute, summer baby. [Yay!]
Okay, NEXT summer!
As an aspiring farmer-florist, I am very impressed with the multiple streams of revenue she has going, in addition to the flowers themselves: seeds, tools, this book, calenders & postcards, workshops, etc.
I feel like I should be taking notes every time I go to the website.

* * * * *
I'm also getting emails from John Scheepers bulb and seed company.
I'll take a little of everything, if you please.
[Related: MUST carve out another flowerbed! Grass is truly overrated....]
I enjoy being on their email list, because they not only send notice of sales and such, they include great information about seed starting, bulb best practices, plant care, and recipes.

* * * * *
Do you have any favorite catalogs or vendors for flowers?
My veggie garden is small enough (and my house) that I decided a while back that it wasn't worth trying to start seeds for vegetables.

p.s. I am not getting paid to gush about these sites, but in case anyone from one of these websites is listening, I will gladly take a kickback in flowers or seeds!
[Don't worry. I will make room for them!]

February 20, 2017

A Handful of Fantasy + 1 Sci-Fi

Trying to get caught up on my reviews again! If you like fantasy, there's a bit of a range here. I don't read nearly as much science fiction--as this list represents so well. If you do, give me some of your favorites! It's a genre I wouldn't mind branching out into more.

Followed By Frost, by Charlie Holmsberg

3 stars: To be read in your coziest PJ's, with extra blankets on hand!

Smitha is the town's popular beauty queen, with attitude to match. She leads guys along for fun, then drops them like a rock (also for fun.) Then one day she stands up the wrong guy. It turns out he is a magician, and in his hurt and anger, he curses her to have the coldness of her heart be matched by the rest of her (I'm paraphrasing here.)

Smitha becomes the Snow Queen, essentially. I mean, blizzards gather wherever she goes, she can't touch anyone without freezing them, and she herself feels miserably frozen cold all the time. Her food freezes before she can get it to her mouth. Everything is just ice. Brrr...

It's not long before her family and home village ask her to leave, as the snow is piling up higher than anyone can ever remember--and it's supposed to be spring. She becomes a wanderer; hunted, chased, and feared wherever she goes. Until one day, when the person hunting her actually catches her--and offers her a chance for a new life.

* * * * *
This was a good book to read in January, when it was bitterly cold outside. I piled on the blankets and had at it! I don't enjoy being cold--at all--so all the descriptions of how cold Smitha was all the time were not my favorite part of the book.

However, Smitha did eventually make some satisfying personal growth (she had a long way to go), and I enjoyed the ending.

Content: clean

** You can read this one for free from Kindle Unlimited right now, if you get that!

(Finished reading Jan. 16)

Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet, by Charlie Holmsberg

1.5 stars: Unique concept, but it didn't work for me.

Maire has some big holes in her memory--specifically, anything that happened prior to a few years back, when she found herself beaten up on a rural road. Some kind strangers took her in and since then she has discovered a talent for baking. So she does that--infusing a little something extra into her confections to help her customers with their daily problems. She is content, except for nagging questions about her past that she can't come up with answers to.

Then one day raiders come to the village. Maire is captured, along with many others, and eventually bought by a man named Alleman. He is crazy and vicious and also a little bit magical. Maire survives physical abuse, bakes magical cake for a few different well-known fairy tale characters and tries to figure out who she is/was and what in the world is going on.

You see, Alleman has this strange connection to her. Also, there's a spirit-type guy named Fyel who comes around every so often to chat and give her completely unhelpful, vague clues. There's definitely something she should be remembering and figuring out, but in the meantime, she also must survive.

* * * * *
This book was really different. Most of the book was Maire trying to figure out what's going on and why, while she got beat up in various ways. Yeah. The connections to fairy tales were little glimmers of light, but they didn't last long. Then when she finally put all the pieces together, it was just... different. The conversations with Fyel were frustrating. A lot of the book was frustration and pain--for Maire and for me as a reader (okay, not so much physical pain for me, but mental WHY? type pain.) I don't know what else to say without spoiling it, but not my favorite. An extra half-star for the final resolution.

Content: Physical abuse, violence from the raiders. For adults.

** FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

(Finished reading Jan. 16)

Mechanica, by Betsy Cornwell

3.5 stars: Cinderella with a side of steampunk!

Ever since her brilliant mother passed away and the Steps came to live at their house, Nicolette has been little more than a servant. Until her 16th birthday, that is. That is when a letter from her mother prompts an investigation of the basement. With some clues from the letter, Nicolette finds the best birthday gift ever: her mother's workshop and studio, tucked away all this time behind hidden panels. She is so excited! She can hardly wait to get down there and check it all out. Of course, there are chores to be done. (Thank you, magical mechanical inventions that the Steps don't know about.)

As Nicolette explores her mother's workshop, and even begins to design and make some things of her own, she gains hope that there will be a way out of her situation. There's a Technological Exposition coming up, the first of its kind in the kingdom, and she is determined to enter and find a wealthy patron or two. If she could just earn her own income, she get leave the Steps forever and live and work on her own!

Slowly, her life begins to open up as she makes new friends, and begins to use her sharp mind for inventing; following in her mother's footsteps. As long as the Steps don't find out until it is already said and done.

* * * * *
I've got to say it: this is not the Cinder remake. It's unfortunate that they came out within a couple years of each other. While both retellings cast our heroine as a mechanic (what are the odds of that unique storyline being duplicated?), they are very different in tone, setting, and overall plot. Compared to Cinder, this one stays much closer to the original fairy tale.

In addition, Cornwell brings up ideas of true friendship, plus class and race differences. Worth your time for the awesome mechanical bugs and the little horse.

(Finished reading Jan. 13)

I've had a hard time settling into books over the past few months--especially longer books. I look through my options, even read a chapter or two, then put it down or scroll to the next on my Kindle. I don't know why I've been so antsy. Usually I know exactly the type of book I'm in the mood for at any given time.

So, these last two at least pulled me in enough from the beginning to get past that initial apathy. Green Rider, especially, sucked me in and I couldn't put it down. The other was...less compelling as time went on, but I did manage to finish it.

Green Rider (Green Rider #1), by Kristen Britain

4 stars: Action packed!

Karigan G'ladheon has been kicked out of school after a fight with the wrong person--the school bully, who happens to be very rich. She's defiantly trudging along, thinking only about she will break the news to her father, when she stumbles upon a dying man in the forest. His back is full of black arrows, and he wears all green. He is a king's messenger--a Green Rider--and he pleads with her to take over his mission and get this message to the king. The message is of the utmost importance. 

Karigan takes on the charge--including the Rider's horse--and off she goes to meet her destiny. Though she has been training with the arms master at school (and has proven to be a quick study), she doesn't know much about true battle. A battle it will be, too. She's got all kinds of people after her, including he of the black arrows, determined to see her die before her message gets through to the king. She also discovers a few unique powers of her own that may tip the balance slightly more in her favor. She will need all the help she can get if she is to survive.

* * * * *
Karigan's switch from schoolgirl to Green Rider happened gradually enough to be believable. I mean obviously, some of it happened right away--she grabbed the messenger bag, jumped on the horse, and took off--but her thoughts and feelings about it took longer to settle.

It was fast-paced and exciting! There was always a new fight or challenge to win or race away from. She was saved in the nick of time enough to stretch credibility a bit, but hey--we were already suspending our disbelief, right?

After the breathless pace to deliver the message, the political intrigue at the castle added another layer to the story. Britain managed to tie the two together in a way that made it work, even with the plot slowing down quite a bit.

There were hints of a romance to come that I didn't like the looks of much. If she ends up with who I think she will, it said something like he was only 10 or 15 years older than her. She's 18. That's a huge age/maturity difference. If they were 45 and 60, okay fine. I'm going to be grumpy if I'm right. It was all just barely beginning, though, so I could be wrong. (I hope.)

Content: Violence--Karigan spends a good deal of the book fighting for her life. A near-rape, plus battle scenes. For older teens and adults.

(Finished reading Jan. 27)

The Cerulean's Secret, by Dennis Meredith

2 stars: I nearly stopped reading more than once, then picked it back up again. Maybe it was that cover!

Set in a not-so-distant future where a couple of big companies have made big money from genetically engineering mutant animals. The most common, of course, being the cogs and dats, but other stuff too, even unicorns and dragons. They make most of their money off of wealthy patrons eager for an exotic showpiece pet, private collectors, and those with commercial interests in the animals.

The most talked about creation so far is the Cerulean cat--a gorgeous animal with blue fur and golden eyes. Just as the cat is about to make its debut at a cat show, it is kidnapped.

Timothy Boatwright is a New York cabbie who is in the wrong place at the right time. Little knowing how his whole life is about to be upended, he picks up a nervous man carrying a large box. Though the ride is pretty much business as usual, Timothy catches a glimpse of a blue-furred tail poking out of the box just as the man leaves the cab.

Later it becomes clear that he is the only witness to the kidnapping suspect. However, when he goes to the police with his information, he immediately gets treated like a suspect himself. Before he quite knows what's happening, it's not safe to go home anymore, he's picked up a couple of allies (a cat lady named Callie with some mad skills--and her daughter Lulu), and he's racking up the people who want to kill him.

* * * * *
One of those stories where one thread becomes loose, but when that thread gets pulled, everything starts to unravel.

The author used an interesting plotting device, where the story started in the present, then about 2/3 was told in retrospect until we caught back up to the present. Then it finished out from there. I suppose it added a little suspense, but I don't think it was really necessary.

The story itself had plenty of twists and turns up until the very end. I guess that's what kept me picking it back up. To be honest, I'm not sure it was worth it.

Content: Violence, with plenty of accompanying blood and gore. Also, quite a bit language throughout. "Lovemaking" mentioned several times but not ever described. For adults.

** Get this for free on Kindle Unlimited--now that I've talked you into it! Ha!

(Finished reading Feb. 2)

* * * * *
Do you ever go through times where you just can't choose your next book?
It doesn't happen very often to me, and it is somewhat unsettling.

I know what would help--gardening! That always seems to help me sort out my thoughts.
Oh wait. There is still a foot of snow on the ground. Sigh....

February 17, 2017

Tales of Mermaids: Sea Spell & Merrow

I was browsing in the Teen section of my library the other day, when--what do you know? I came across not only the last book in the Waterfire Saga, but right next to it, another book about mermaids. Clearly, it was time to do some reading about fishy folk who live under the sea.

By the way, this first one completes a series, which was one of my Reading Goals for this year. That was unexpectedly easy! I wasn't even thinking of this series when I made the goal, though, and in fact there are still a few others I want to complete. So that goal may become expanded!

Sea Spell (Waterfire Saga #4), by Jennifer Donnelly

3 stars: It's time for the big showdown!

Challenging times for the Mer people. Ava must navigate the treacherous swamp waters of the Mississippi to find her talisman, with Death Riders on her tail. Astrid will come face-to-face with her immortal ancestor Orfeo (the one behind all this trouble in the first place) and must somehow best him without any magic to speak of. Meanwhile, Sera and the rest of the gang are dealing with the headaches of training goblin troops in preparation for either the attack on Abbadon or retaking Sera's home city and fighting her Uncle Vallerio. On top of that, there's a spy in the camp wreaking havoc and costing lives.

Whatever happens, the battle with the monster Abbadon is imminent, and its outcome will determine the fate of all peoples.

* * * * *
All our loose ends were tied up, which is always good. Of necessity, this one bounced around a bit between characters, which made it harder for me to get into the story. The friends of the blood bind grew individually and as a group. On the villain side--that Lucia chick--she was one scary gal! Orfeo was one of the more nuanced villains. It was interesting to see another side of him when Astrid visited his lair.

The ending was fitting, without too many surprises. It's hard to talk much about without giving away spoilers, seeing how it is the 4th book. In the end, I wasn't amazed, but I was satisfied.

Find my reviews for the first 3 books in the series here: Series Spotlight: Waterfire Saga.

Content: Some battle violence, but otherwise clean.

(Finished reading February 6)

Merrow, by Ananda Braxton-Smith

3.5 stars: Where does belief end and truth begin?

Neen, an orphan, lives with her Aunt Ushag on a small homestead next to the sea. Her father died before she was born and her mother left when she small and never returned. Stories abound about what happened to her mother, but the 2 main ones are that she drowned herself from grief, or that she went back to the sea to live with her people.

You see, Neen's family has had stories told about them for many long years now. They are touched by the Other. Some say one of the great-grandfathers married a Merrow--a sea girl--and the children she bore to him all had gifts...or curses, depending on your point of view. Neen believes the old stories. She has the Red Scale on her own arms in the summer, doesn't she?

Ushag refuses to believe. The bitterness of being left behind and left to raise Neen and care for the land all by herself has turned her into a sour old woman. The two of them rarely get along anymore--Neen pushing for answers and Ushag refusing to talk.

Then a couple of things happen: the two find a mostly-drowned man tangled up in the gill net (and take him home to save him) and Neen finds something in a sea cave that seems to confirm every story she's ever heard. If she can only get her aunt to see it, too, it might be the beginning of something better.

* * * * *
Steeped in the lore of coastal fairy tales: selkies, water horses, changeling babies, and the Other. This is, at its heart, a story of a girl growing up and figuring out for herself what to believe and how to frame it in her heart.

This could easily have veered into the realm of magical realism, but it managed to walk that line without ever quite stepping over it.

Well done and atmospheric.

Content: Clean. As Neen is 12 in the story, this will probably appeal most to the older middle grade crowd, or teenagers enough into mermaids to overlook the young protagonist. For ages 10 and up.

(Finished reading February 9)

* * * * *
Do you have a favorite mermaid tale to add to these?

February 13, 2017

January Read-Alouds: Dominic and The Royal Babysitters

We had some downtime in January (isn't the entire month basically downtime?), so we had a chance to read out loud some more!

Usually now the scene is me reading out loud to the younger two, while my oldest (nearly 9 years old), reads his own book and half listens in. I always count it a victory if I can get him interested enough to put his own book down! Hee hee.

Dominic, by William Steig

4 stars: Dominic is resourceful, brave, and kind. What a hero!

Dominic is a dog who decides to seek his fortune, so off he goes a-wandering. With no real timeline or plan in mind, it's amazing how quickly adventures find him! In particular, he has several run-ins with the Doomsday Gang, who have been terrorizing the countryside for some time. Dominic is not afraid of them and thwarts their schemes many times before a big final showdown.

* * * * *
We quite enjoyed this story of a courageous dog who helped all who crossed his path.

(Finished reading Jan. 2)

We ran across this next one at the library and picked it up on a whim. Unexpected hit!

The Royal Babysitters, by Clementine Beauvais

4 stars: Over the top silly. My kids loved it! I liked it. The rating is the average. :)

Anna and Holly are super bored. Also, they need money. There's an outer space vacation that sounds completely fabulous, if only they could afford it.

Meanwhile the King and Queen are all set to go on vacation, but they can't find anyone willing to babysit the royal offspring. Apparently, word has gotten out.

Double desperation works wonders! The girls get the highest-paid babysitting job ever and Their Highnesses get a vacation. Neither Holly nor Anna has much experience babysitting, but really, how hard could it be?

That's when they discover that there are actually 6 babies. Yup. Plus the older brother (okay, okay, Prince Pepino.) Not to mention an imminent invasion from King Alaspooryorick of Daneland (boo! hiss!). He got wind of the Royal Vacation and decided it would be a grand time to invade. Again.

It's up to the girls, the Prince, and some explosively stinky nappies (among other things) to save the day! Also, at some point they're going to have to find all the babies again, because they keep going missing!

* * * * *
I was going to just read part of this one afternoon, but it was so ridiculous and funny that we kept right on going until it was done. Very British humor. ALL the kids were into it, which was a definite plus. There are 2 more in the series if you like this one!

(Finished reading Jan. 15)

* * * * *
Have you run across any good read-alouds lately?
What about exploding diapers? (Actually, don't answer that.)

February 10, 2017

Plant Files: Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding Heart)

There is a lot to love about this old-fashioned favorite.
Every part has something to offer: the foliage has finely cut leaves, the stems are that purple-reddish color, and the flowers are so unique and beautiful!

I remember my grandma had one growing next to their back porch.
It was large and much taller than me as a youngster.
Fond flower memories.
Now I have one of my own, growing next to my front porch.
It's not as big and bushy as hers yet, but it has only had a few years to grow.
All in good time!

Scientific name: Dicentra spectabilis or Lamprocapnos spectabilis
Common name: Bleeding Heart
* Apparently the pure white variety is also called Dutchman's breeches.

Cold Hardiness: USDA zones 3-9
Usually 2-3 feet tall and wide. (I swear grandma's was twice that!) 
Blooms in April around here.
Prefers moist soil and shade to part-shade.

Floral Design: I've read on several sites now that they make excellent cut flowers and will last a long time in the vase (one said up to 2 weeks!)
My flowers have not been that abundant yet, so I haven't cut very many, but perhaps this year I will! 

Provides great contrast with many of the larger-leaved shade plants, like hostas.
The foliage usually dies off completely by mid-summer, so plant it where it won't leave a hole.
Mine usually lasts until early fall, but it's planted close to the faucet, where it gets extra water from drips and leaky hoses.

These are tough plants under the right conditions.
They don't do well in clay soil, as I found out--much to my chagrin--when I had 2 or 3 of them succumb in the Shade Bed.
The one pictured here I dug up from someone's house who was giving away whatever you could dig up out of her yard (!!) By the time I got it home in the back of the truck and got it properly planted, it looked to be in sorry shape. It didn't help that I later realized it was going to be too close to the grass (and would get walked on), dug it up AGAIN and replanted it again. Poor thing.
Suffice it to say, I didn't have very high hopes for it to survive.
Lo and behold, the following spring it not only put forth all kinds of foliage, it even flowered!
I was delighted!

Lastly, this is a fun one to have around with kids, because you can tell stories with the blossoms!
Here's a link to the Cinderella story, as told by the parts of the flower.
More commonly, is this Japanese legend associated with the flower, which is native to Japan.
Or, you can just show them the outer-petal bunnies (pink bunnies for Easter--awww), pull out the sword (the hilt is the part hanging down from the heart), and the inner-petal dancing shoes/slippers.
Fun times!
Just be aware that you may lose quite a few blossoms to storytelling after that! :)

I'm getting excited to see this beauty again in a couple of months!

February 8, 2017

Mini Theme: On the Run

So this falls into the thriller sub-genre: "ordinary person is framed for heinous crimes and has to run for his or her life." I could make a separate bookshelf for them on Goodreads, but the name would be longer than the list itself! Most of them include an element of romance, which enters into the plot in varying degrees.

Incidentally, these are all written by LDS (i.e. Mormon) authors, which I prefer for this genre, as they tend to be much cleaner overall and less bloody during the violent scenes. As I was making this list I realized that a couple of them are very cheap on Amazon right now, if you get the Kindle edition! So if you want a low-risk way to check out the genre, now would be a great time! (Title links are affiliate links, just fyi.)

Run For Your Life,* by Jean Holbrook Matthews

3 stars: Reminded me a lot of The Pelican Brief, but cleaner and not as intense.

Mattie Mathis is a staffer for her Uncle Max, who is about to retire from being a congressman. She gets a strange call from her boyfriend Craig about some research related to an environmental lawsuit. The implications (detailed in a paper now on its way to her) could extend to federal judiciary nominees and beyond. Before they even have a chance to discuss it, he is dead. So is the law student who wrote the paper and his professor.

As the police force scrambles to put together the pieces, Mattie realizes with chilling certainty that she will be next. An officer named Jack Summers is put on the job to keep her safe. Unfortunately, he can't be with her every minute. After a few near misses, she decides to hide out on her own and figure out how to stop this madness that has taken over her life.

* * * * *
Run, Mattie, run!

Enjoyable and suspenseful. I appreciated that the romance moved VERY slowly, especially since Mattie was still mourning Craig. A bit scary to realize how easy it would be for the bad guys to find you, if they had a mind to do it--especially in our connected, digital age. She keeps saying, "How did they find me?" Well, a phone tap here and few clicks of the mouse there. Didn't take much. Yikes!

(Finished reading Feb. 5)

*From my home library!

So I went through my reviews on Goodreads to dig up a few more for you! Here's what I found:

All I Hold Dear, by Jennie Hansen

3 stars

After a broken engagement Courtney needs some time alone, so she heads to her family's cabin at the edge of their large ranch property. However, time alone is not in the cards. She has only been at the cabin for a short time when a man, almost frozen, stumbles through the door. It's obvious that he needs help, but she's also all alone in a remote cabin, and there's no telling what kind of man he is...or who may be after him. What becomes clear fairly soon is that not only is his life in danger, but hers is as well.

* * * * *

The suspense and romance are in about the right proportions for my taste, but the writing was much stronger on the suspense side. (Or perhaps I am just more critical of the smarmy romance stuff...?) Good enough that I'll try some of her others

(Originally reviewed Nov. 2009)

Chaos, by Jeff Downs

4 stars

Jason Harrington is a teacher. His life is pretty normal. That all changes one afternoon when he gets home to find that his apartment has been ripped apart, including a knife slammed into the headboard. Then he gets a phone call that puts him on the run: essentially, he's being framed for killing 4 cops and whoever really did it is going to take him down, as well.

The rest of the book is him eluding his attacker (or not, or nearly), while also rekindling a past romance with a girl named Kelly that he just happened to ask for a date before this all went down. It's lucky that he has her to help him, but either way it doesn't seem like he's going to last long. If he can just get to the bottom of it and figure out why he's been targeted, he might have something to go on.

* * * * *

This was a quick read, as I was racing through to see if and how he survives. There were a couple of unexpected twists near the end that upped the ante by quite a bit.

Well done. Jason and his choices were believable.

By the way, it looks like the Kindle edition is only $3.99 right now, if you're interested.

(Originally reviewed April 2015)

Hearts in Hiding, by Betsy Brannon Green

4 stars

When Kate finds out that her FBI agent husband is dead, and that her life is also in danger, she is immediately sent into hiding. With the help of the agency, she has a new name, a new home, and even a new "husband" (another agent). To top it all off, her baby is due in a few months. Meanwhile, the killers are still out there, and no disguise is fool-proof.

* * * * *
Suspenseful, with some humour and romance thrown in. The first book in the Haggerty mystery series. I recommend reading this one before delving into the rest of the series--I didn't, and it cleared up quite a few points I had been wondering about. Other than the dumb title, this is one of her best that I've read so far.

Kindle edition for  just $2.99.

(Originally reviewed Feb. 2009)

Undercurrents (Undercurrents #1), by Traci Hunter Abramson

4 stars

Shaye is an innocent girl who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She escaped with her life, but unfortunately, now she has to be in the Witness Protection Program. Her dreams of swimming at an Olympic level have to be put on hold indefinitely. With all of that, she's starting at a new university, and can't even admit that she's Mormon.

As she starts to settle into her new life a little bit, the past has a way of tripping her up, particularly once she meets a boy named Matt.

* * * * *

Now I want to find the rest in the series. This one was a cut above most of this genre I've read.

Kindle edition only $1.99!

(Originally reviewed Jan. 2015)

* * * * *

Have you read any of these? What would you add to this list? I know I've read more, but these are the only ones that I've actually reviewed...

February 3, 2017

2 Middle Grade Novels: The Wednesday Wars & The War That Saved My Life

I had some good middle grade reading in January! I quite enjoyed both of these Newberry Honor winners. Just a coincidence that both titles mention war. For those of you keeping track at home--the second book counts toward one of my Reading Goals this year. Woohoo!

The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt
Newberry Honor, 2008

4 stars: Holling is a boy to root for!

Holling Hoodhood is the only one in his 7th grade English class that doesn't have to go to church school on Wednesday afternoons. His teacher has decided to make him read Shakespeare's plays and write about them--a sure sign that she has it in for him.

He doesn't begin to suspect any differently until he actually gets hooked on The Tempest--particularly the creative cussing involved. As his 7th grade years unwinds, though, he's got bigger problems than his Wednesday afternoons. He's on the hook to provide cream puffs for his ENTIRE class (long story), he gets roped into being in a Shakespearean play (as a fairy wearing yellow tights), classroom rats get loose escape into the air ducts above the ceiling, and his sister runs away with a hippie.

That's not all, but you get the idea. Life is not a bowl of cherries for Holling on his best days, but this year seems to be combining best and worst days at a dizzying rate. If he makes it out with his sanity and reputation somewhat preserved, it will be a miracle.

* * * * *
Oh Holling. Good hearted, a bit vulnerable; somehow keeps getting into what L.M Montgomery would call "scrapes." His relationship with his sister was one of my favorite arcs in the whole story, as was his rather rocky friendship with Doug.

His parents were awful. His dad put his business first, to the extent that anything happening in Holling's life was evaluated through the prism of how it would affect the business. His mom was mostly just defeated, I think, or possibly depressed--or both. It's a good thing Holling and his sister did have each other, because neither parent could be depended on for support.

Gary Schmidt is one of my favorite authors. His characters live and breathe. Though most of his books are geared for a middle grade or young adult audience, he doesn't talk down to them. The writing is superb. Characters that seem flat at first, become more complex over time as Holling gets to know them better. Believable situations and solutions. Evocative descriptions. It's all there.

(Finished reading Jan. 11)

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Newberry Honor, 2016

4 stars: Many layered and satisfying.

Ada's entire world is a small apartment and what (or who) she can see out the window. Her mother is so ashamed of Ada's crippled foot that she never lets her out where anyone can see her. Despite constant verbal abuse and near-constant physical abuse, Ada does her best to take care of herself and her little brother Jamie; although, as Jamie has gotten older he has taken to running wild in the streets rather than stay in the apartment with her.

When children are shipped out of London ahead of the Blitz, Jamie is scheduled to go alone. Ada, however, is determined to join him--without their mother finding out. With fierce determination on her part and an iron will to ignore the pain of her foot and leg, she and her little brother make it to the departure point. This short, excruciating walk is the most freedom Ada has ever known.

Once they arrive in the country, there's not a family willing to take in the two scraggly children. So a single woman named Susan Smith is conscripted to care for them. While she makes it clear that she is not happy with the arrangement, she still provides better care for the siblings than they have ever known. It's a hard adjustment all around, eased somewhat by Susan's horse that Ada takes to immediately and learns to care for.

Over time the children begin to feel secure and even loved, but what will happen when Ada and Jamie's mother gets wind of their new situation?

* * * * *
I enjoyed this book on many levels. I'm always interested to learn more about WWII. With her choice of protagonists, Bradley showed a different side to the children's evacuation of London than I had thought about before: namely, kids who were glad to get away and definitely better off in their new situations. At the same time, she showed what (I hope) was the more typical situation as well, with parents and children finding it terribly difficult to be separated. I didn't realize that as time went on and the bombing didn't start, many children went back to the city again, adding to the later tragedy.

Ada and Jamie's story itself was compelling and well done within the broader context. Particularly the way Bradley portrayed their rather painful assimilation into a much broader world than they had ever known, and the feeling of being foreigners, even though everyone spoke the same language. I loved seeing Ada's growth, and the way her view of herself begin to change from what her mother had ingrained in her. It was so satisfying to see her begin to internalize that she was a person worthy of love and not defined by her disability.

As a former (and hopefully future) foster parent, I can also relate to and admire Susan. Even with all of her own issues to work through, she still provided for these kids. Several things about their interactions rang true to me. Doctor's appointments, where old assumptions were cast aside giving new hope and fear at the same time, unexpected reactions (from the children) to seemingly ordinary situations, a gradual gaining of trust and beginning to thrive in a different environment than the child had ever experienced, and so on. The Christmas scene was heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time: such a pivotal point in their relationships.

Content: Ada and Jamie's abusive home life was not glossed over. Also, there were several hints that Susan was lesbian, although it was never spelled out as such. I think kids unfamiliar with that lifestyle may not even pick up on it.

I would recommend it for ages 10 and up, with a trusted adult to discuss it with afterword.

(Finished reading Jan. 14)

* * * * *
Have you read either of these? What did you think?