December 30, 2016

2016 Reading Goals: How Did I Do?

This year has gone by so fast!  Yet here we are, ready for The Accounting. Hoo boy! Let's get to it!

Reading Goals for 2016:

1. Finish the last 3 classics from last year's goal, which was to read one classic/month.
I did it! (Phew! It would be a bit embarrassing to have to carry this goal on into 2017.)
Here's what I read:

* The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo (February)
* A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter (March)
* The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim (April)
  What do you know? I actually didn't review it on this blog at all, only on Goodreads.
Here's the quick version: 4 stars: A quick, sweet read, reminiscent of L.M. Montgomery's books. The beautiful setting just helps everything right along!
* Keeper of the Bees, by Gene Stratton Porter (April)
Another only reviewed on Goodreads! It's a bit longer, so I won't reprint it, but you can go here to read it if you like.
* Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
   Although this one was more contemporary than the others, I saw several comments about it being a "Modern Classic." I'll take it!

Hey hey, better than I expected, thanks to Book Club (#'s 2 & 3) and Gene Stratton Porter!

2. Read 1 biography or memoir per month.

I was doing great up until this last quarter. In the past 3 months I haven't read a single one. However, I read plenty of extras in the first 3/4 of the year, so it balances out. I'm calling it complete!
I kept up on reporting this one throughout the year, so these links go to each quarter's recap, with reviews. In case you're interested, I've listed what's covered in each post.

January to March (5 titles)
* Life with Father, by Clarence Day
* Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy's Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard, by Mawi Asgedom
* Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, by Misty Copeland
* The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, by Parley P. Pratt
* If a Pirate I Must Be: The True Story of Black Bart, "King of the Caribbean Pirates," by Richard Sanders

April to June (5 titles: the first 2 reviewed separately)
* The Last Season, by Eric Blehm
* Fearless, by Eric Blehm
* Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, by Anthony Doerr
* Emma and Joseph: Their Divine Mission, by Gracia Jones
* The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore

July to September (4 titles)
* Escape, by Carolyn Jessup
* Triumph, by Carolyn Jessup
* The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea, by Hyeonseo Lee
* Follow the River, by James Alexander Thom

3. Last but not least, review every book I read in 2016.
I am behind on this one, but I will get it may just be finished in January 2017, is all. I'm actually mostly caught up, except for what I read in December. It has taken me awhile to figure out the balance between reviewing everything here on the blog vs. reviewing on Goodreads, cross-posting, etc. I think I'm coming to a good place with that, though. So, here's to forging ahead with reviews!

* * * * *
I'm making my way up. Last year I was at 50% complete on my goals, and this year I'm at 66%. Improvement is good. Plus, I think I'm booting #3 off the list for next year. These aren't goals for reviewing books, after all. Getting that done will still be a priority, but it does not need to be a goal. So there. :)

Did you make any reading goals last year? How did you do?

December 29, 2016

This Year's Vegetable & Herb Garden

Just like every year, my vegetable garden is as much "learning experience" as it is bountiful harvest.
A few notes on what I did and what I want to do differently next time:

Spring Veggies

This year I got my spring vegetables in nice and early (3/26!) which was a big improvement from 2015. The kiddos planted their patches at the same time.
We put in lettuce, peas, spinach, beets, carrots, onions, and pototaes.

The peas were delicious!
We ate them by the handfuls in June.
The pruned plum tree branches as "pea sticks" (pea vine supports) were perfect.
(Pea sticks for ever and ever!)
Of the 3 varieties I put in, I couldn't tell you which was the best.
We gobbled them all up.
Every year I decide I should plant more peas and every year it is true.

We did plant copious amounts of butter lettuce (the seed package spilled...more than once).
So, as it turns out, I don't really like butter lettuce.
The kids would nibble at it from time to time, but mostly it just grew and grew until it bolted.

Exhibit A: I don't think lettuce is supposed to be this tall!
If we are going to grow lettuce again, I need to find a different kind that has more crunch.

Spinach and beets were a disappointment this year.
Something got to the leaves making the spinach virtually inedible.
I harvested some beets at the end of the summer, but have yet to use them.
I threw away one bag the other day and the second may be on its heels soon.
Better luck next time!

Onions, late July.

Onions weren't terrible, but didn't get nearly as big as last year's.
[Small onions make me grumpy.]
I picked more as I went along this summer and liked using them fresh.

Carrots were slow to germinate, as always, but I had enough patches scattered around that I ended up with a decent harvest when all was said and done.
As with the onions, I harvested these more as I went along this year, instead of all at once to preserve.
The flavor was fantastic, even eliciting a comment from my oldest about how vegetables you grow yourself always taste better than store-bought.
YES! Another gardener in the making!

Last but not least, let's talk about potatoes.
I put in 'Yukon Gold,' which are my favorite, along with 'Viking Purple.'
I planted them later in the spring this year--more towards the end of May--and didn't find any rotten hills at harvest. I'm counting that a minor success.
However, the harvest was small--really just a few potatoes per hill.
After a few years of trying the method of just planting the whole seed potato--1 per hill--I'm going back to what I used to do, which was to cut up the seed potatoes and put 4-5 pieces with growing eyes in each spot. 
Part of the smaller harvest could have been due to the soil up on the top terrace, since it hasn't been amended as much, so next year I will be rotating those to a different spot, as well.

We had eaten up the garden potatoes by late October, probably.

Summer Veggies

This year I put in tomatoes, yellow straight-neck squash, cucumbers, beans, and bell peppers.

With a very mild winter and spring this year, my tomatoes were planted extra early (5/14) and no, we were not surprised by a late frost. I could have put them in at the beginning of May, which is unheard of around here!

I did just 2 varieties this year: 'Cougar Red,' and 'Sun Sugar."
Not as prolific as some years--the summer was cool through July--but enough to make a few quarts of Roasted Garden Tomato Sauce to freeze, and some to eat fresh, too.
If I want to do salsa again, I'll probably need to plant twice as many.

Since the yellow beans are also pictured there above, I'll take a moment to talk about them.
I had grand plans to put them in anywhere I took out spring veggies, like I did last year.
Well, I got one patch planted and that was about it.
So our bean harvest was pretty minimal this year.
We enjoyed eating them fresh--I planted some each of 'Royal Burgundy,' 'Blue Lake Bush' (I think), and the Yellow Wax. We all liked the variety in colors, though I couldn't tell any difference in the flavor.

Yellow straight-neck squash.

One hill of squash was actually about right for how much we eat it--or don't, I suppose.
This little plant was prolific and didn't succumb to the powdery mildew problem of years past.
No real problems to speak of.

The 'Diva' cucumbers were great this year!
The kids and I couldn't get enough!
We ate them fresh nearly every day once they started coming on, sprinkled with salt and pepper.
It's the simple things.

Bell peppers were a disappointment. Again.
[Why do I keep letting my kids talk me into planting them? I know better!]
If we get a greenhouse someday, then I will attempt bell peppers.
Out in the garden, they didn't grow much at all and the 2 or 3 tiny peppers that did grow didn't ripen.
Just need to be done with those in this climate.


Pineapple sage grew like crazy!
I did not come close to using it up, though I did make some experimental Pineapple Sage Jelly.
As this one doesn't keep its flavor when dried or frozen, it will be an optional choice next year.
Fun for a child's garden, though, since the leaves really do smell and taste like pineapples.

This little oregano bush is the gift that keeps on giving.
I harvested it and dried it, but I still had so much from last year that I gave almost all of it away to friends. This picture shows it at the end of summer, fully recovered from harvesting and covered in blooms. Lately I've noticed that it looks pretty sticking up out of the snow, too.

Rosemary grew very well this year.
This picture shows it early on in the summer.
I did not get it harvested or dried like I had planned, but I did manage to use it fresh a few times.

The thyme at the bottom of the picture was from last year.
I did not get any of it dried, either.
Hmm...I'm noticing a theme here, sadly.
It flowered late spring, before I expected it to, and I did not get it harvested.
I supposed you could still dry it after it blooms, but I don't know.
I'll have to look that one up.
Particularly if it survives this cold, snowy winter this year.

* * * * * *
Overall, I was happy with the vegetable garden this year.
I didn't get an abundance of anything, really, but what we did get was eaten gladly.

Next year I may go crazy and devote an entire terrace to corn, or something.
My neighbor always planted corn and shared it with us, so I never saw a need to put in my own.
They moved this fall, though, (across town) so maybe 2017 will be the year of corn!

I'm thinking fewer varieties of spring veggies but greater quantities, as well.
For instance, garden onions are fine, but I don't love them.
That space could be used for peas!

The top terrace is wild and woolly, with strawberry runners going every which way, amongst herbs and even a volunteer tomato plant this year!
I will probably take the lazy way out and just let it do its thing again next summer, though I may pull out some of the parent strawberry plants if they're not producing much.

Even in a less stellar year, I still find the rewards of putting in a vegetable garden outweigh the effort and time it takes. As my son said, nothing beats homegrown for flavor!

December 26, 2016

Out With The Old in My "To-Read" List

Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! We had a great time with extended family. Now that New Year's is coming up, I've started thinking about resolutions and goals and those types of things.

Something I've tried to do the past couple of years is to go through my "to-read" list on Goodreads about this time of year. I specifically look at the books that have been on there for 2 years. I used to have books on there for 3 or more years at a time, but I decided that was a little ridiculous.

I mean really, if I haven't cared enough about it to get around to reading it in 3 years, then obviously it is not a high priority. So it's got to go. Fish or cut bait, you know?  I mentally put it into the category of "If I run across this at the library someday I'll pick it up," hit that delete button, and move on with my life. In a strange way, it can be a relief--releasing myself from that obligation.

So after a few years of this plan, I'm now looking at the books that have been on the list since 2014. In a few short days they'll have been on there for 3 years. It's time. There are 14 of them. (Next year I will have my work cut out for me, as the bulk of my *cough* 190! *cough* "to-read" items are from 2015. Oh dear!) 

Part of the reason I haven't read many of them is because I'm a cheapskate, basically. My library doesn't have them and I haven't wanted to fork over the cash to buy a copy--especially since I don't know how much I'll like any of them. I'm weird that way. If I'm going to pay full price for something, I want it to be a book I already know I like and will re-read.

All right, here are my decisions--since I am certain you are dying to know!

1. The Lincoln Hypothesis: A Modern-day Abolitionist Investigates the Possible Connection between Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon, and Abraham Lincoln, by Timothy Ballard

Available at the library? Sadly, no. Not that I expected it to be, since it is pretty Mormon-specific.
Amazon price: $12.99 (Kindle), $14.04 (Paperback)
Deseret Book Price: $11.99 (ebook) or both of Ballard's for $19.99

Decision: Off the list. While this title still sounds fascinating, there's a good chance that either my parents or in-laws already have it (or plan to purchase it), or one of my siblings. I'm all about borrowing books from family when I can! Or I may be able to find it on sale at some point on one of our Utah trips. I'm not going to forget I wanted to read this one. I'll pick up a copy when I get a chance.

2. Hope Springs (Longing for Home #2), by Sarah Eden

Okay, this one should really not have been on here for 2 years! I own an ebook copy! I just haven't gotten around to reading it, partly because the subject matter sounds heavy--feuding violence, among other things--and I have not been in the right frame of mind....or something.

Decision: Off the list already! I'll get to it when I get to it.

3. Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo, by Lawrence Anthony

Available at the library? Nope.
Amazon Price: $9.99 (Kindle), $12.77 (Paperback)

Decision: Tempting! What to do?

* * *
Okay, in the end, I'm taking it off the list. I'm sure I would enjoy it, but it's one I'll pick up if I run across it. I mean, 3 years on the list. That's a long time.

4. Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives--a Deck's Eye View of Cape Horn, by Dallas Murphy

Available at the library? No.
Amazon Price: $11.99 (Kindle), $12.47 (New Paperback), $4.98 (Used Paperback with Prime free shipping)

Decision: Off the list. Seeing that used copy really made it clear to me. Five dollars is well within my risk profile for purchasing an unknown book. When I still hesitated, I realized that while this sounds like it would right up my alley, I can certainly live without it for now. Done! Off it goes!

5. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes

Available at the library? Yes! Wait, what?! They have an ebook copy? Since when?

Decision: I have now placed a hold on the ebook copy, so I'm going to delete it off my Goodreads list. Another one down!

6. Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth's Last Dinosaur, by Carl Safina

Available at the library? No such luck.
Amazon Price: $9.99 (Kindle), $14.16 (Paperback)

Decision: I thought I remembered my sister-in-law had read this one. When I checked on Goodreads, she had, and she only gave it one star. I'm not going to pay $10 for a possible 1-star read. Off the list!

7. Twice Upon a Time (Half Upon a Time #2), by James Riley

Available at the library? Nope.
Amazon Price: $6.99 (Kindle), $7.99 (Paperback)

Decision: I read the first in this trilogy and really enjoyed it, then I actually found it at the thrift store! Score! So now do I get #2 (or 2 & 3--they're both the same price)?

* * *
Okay. I added them to my Amazon "Home Library Wishlist." Is that a copout? Yes, in a way.
I haven't given up hope of finding the other 2 more cheaply, but if I don't find them, I will suck it up and buy them at some point. Off the Goodreads list.

8. Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams

Available at the library? [Yawn.] No.
Amazon Price: $12.99 (Kindle), $17.28 (Hardcover)

Decision: Off the list. This is a book I would happily read for free, and it does still sound interesting, but I just can't bring myself to shell out $12 for a book about squid. So long, Kraken!

9. Dragon's Bait, by Vivian Vande Velde

Available at the library? No. (They only have 1 of her books! One! It's a disappointment.)
Amazon Price: $9.99 (Kindle), $13.95 (Paperback)

Decision: Off the list. I know that I like her books and this one looks good, but I'm not dying to read it. (Obviously! Since we're coming up on the 3-year mark!) I'll just keep an eye out for it. I'm sure I will snatch it up the next time I come across a cheap or free copy.

10. And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II, by Jacques Lusseyran

Available at the library? No.
Amazon Price: $9.23 (Kindle), $9.72 (Paperback)

Decision: Okay, I still really want to read this one! According to Amazon, this was chosen as one of the 100 Best Spiritual Books of the Twentieth Century. Oh, the choices!

* * *
I'm doing it. Paperback copy headed my way. Woohoo! (And hence, off the list!)

11. While Beauty Slept, by Elizabeth Blackwell

Available at the library? No, no it isn't.
Amazon Price: $7.99 (Kindle), $11.30 (Paperback)

Decision: Tough one! I enjoy fairy tale retellings and the price isn't bad. Thinking...

* * *
After reading several more reviews of this one, I'm going to pass. There's enough people who thought it was just mediocre that I'm not willing to buy it.

12. The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, by Shallee McArthur

Available at the library? No.
Amazon Price: $9.99 (Kindle), $9.48 (Hardcover), $9.99 (Paperback)

Decision: Off the list. Interesting premise, but I've read a lot of dystopian teen novels lately. I'm not ready to pay $10 for another that could be just run-of-the-mill.

13. The Deadly Dinner Party: and Other Medical Detective Stories, by Jonathan A. Edlow

Available at the library? No.
Amazon Price: $9.99 (Kindle), $16.00 (Paperback)

Decision: Off the list. I would read this for free in a heartbeat, but to pay $10 for it? Um, no thanks. I'll live without it, I guess. (We have discussed how I'm a cheapskate, right?) Besides, there's always #14 to decide on, too!

14. The Medical Detectives, by Berton Roueche

Available at the library? No.
Amazon Price: $11.98 (New), $6.77 (Used but with Amazon Prime shipping)

Decision: This looks so good! Can I justify the purchase?

* * *
Yep, I guess so, because I just bought this! (Last one, off the list. Yes!)

* * * * *

So, in the end, I purchased #10: And There Was Light, and #14: The Medical Detectives. Amazon had a promotion running to take $5 off a $15 book purchase. I also had a $10 Amazon gift card. Using both of those, my total was a little over $7 for 2 books I have wanted to read for 3 years now.
YES! I feel like a winner! :) 

* * * * *

What is your process for clearing out the old books on your "to-read" list? Do you even think about it? For some reason it helps my sanity to not have too many lingering on there forever and ever.

December 21, 2016

Cutting Garden Awards

It's time once again to look back at the growing season and figure out the best, the worst, what I would change and how I got lucky.
In other words, it's time to hand out some awards!

Most Prolific:

For the flowers that exceeded my every expectation: popping up in every part of the garden, and blooming like crazy. Thanks to the cosmos, I never had to worry if I would have enough blooms for a bouquet. There were always more than enough, with even more waiting in the wings.
Way to go, cosmos! You earned this.

The Royal Imposter Award:
Blooming Carrot

(that I first thought was Queen Anne's lace)
They are related and look a lot alike, but this one was still attached to the carrot.
Ha! Gotcha!

Barely There Award:
Bachelor's Buttons

If you parted the sea of cosmos and got down on your hands and knees, you might find a bachelor button...or two. If you looked in just the right spot.

Empty Vase Award:
California Poppies

These little poppies were so pretty, but somehow, I never cut them to put in a vase.
They were all that was blooming in the cutting garden at the time and I was enjoying the splash of color every time I looked up there. Also, their stems were very short!

No-Show Award
Here's looking at you, bunny tails grass, scarlet flax, and cut flower seed mix!
(Probably others I've forgotten about, too. I kept trying to fill in the empty spots, to no avail.)

That about wraps it up for the official cutting garden.
Of course, we cut flowers from the perennial beds, too, but they don't get special recognition.
Not a spectacular year (except for the cosmos), but a good learning experience. :)

What I've Learned for Next Year
I'm finding--once again--that I need an abundance of blooms to overcome my reluctance to cut them from the garden. When I know they'll last maybe 4 or 5 days inside, but possibly weeks outside, it's hard to mentally justify making the snip if there are just a few.
So, next year I plan to plant fewer varieties, but a greater quantity of each one.

Also, must not stop thinning those cosmos!!

* * * * *
Have you been successful growing a cutting garden?
Any tips for me?

December 19, 2016

Crossing to Safety, The World According To Us, & The Miniaturist

I'm trying to get caught up on my reviews before the end of the year! These are 3 adult fiction novels that I read all on my own. I mean, not even for book club or anything. Whoa, weird!
Let's go from what I liked most to what I liked least, shall we?

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

4 stars: Generous and insightful profile of enduring marriage and friendship.

Larry and Sally are young, poor, and in love. He's starting his first "real job" as a creative writing professor. It's a temporary position with the possibility of becoming more permanent. He's also writing a book on the side. Sid and Charity have 2 children, and Sid is also in the English department--not tenured yet, but hoping to be soon. The two couples immediately hit it off and become best of friends. Charity and Sally both become pregnant, so they have that to bond over, as well. While Sid and Charity have quite a bit of money and influential family connections, the disparity in their circumstances doesn't ever make them shy away from Larry and Sally. Their friendship spans more than 50 years.

They spend many happy summers at Charity's family's lake house together, doing projects, going on hikes, swimming (and night swimming), and writing. The book begins and end at the lake house, as Sally and Larry have come back one last time to be with Sid and Charity, while her battle with cancer comes to a close.

* * * * *
This is not a flashy story. There's a fair amount of trouble and angst, though not over the types of things you tend to find in other such stories: affairs, betrayal, big secrets that come to light, etc. It's just two couples muddling through the best that they can. None of the four are perfect, though Charity's flaws probably have the brightest light shined on them, but still their marriages and their friendships endure.

One part of the book I still think about actually didn't have to do with either couple. It's the way Charity's mother ran summers at the lake house in Charity's youth. I loved how she didn't care what the children were doing, as long as they were doing something purposeful. If they wanted to swim all day, that was great! Same for coming up with projects to do, or hikes, or reading, or playing games.

She just couldn't stand them hanging about, or wandering aimlessly, or worst of all, complaining of boredom. Then, when they had come to a stopping point, or needed a little extra guidance, she would gather up whoever was around to the front porch and teach them French or discuss literature with them.  Maybe I could take some hints for patterning our summer after that! Have some learning opportunities or outings in reserve, but as long as the kids are purposefully doing their own things, let them go at it!

My rating of this one has grown in hindsight. When I first read it, I was probably at a 3: I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. As I'm thinking back on it, though, I'm remembering more and more scenes from it that impacted me--big and small--and it makes me want to sit down and discuss it with someone. (Maybe I can get my book club to read this one!)

Perhaps it could be written about any 2 couples. We all have personality conflicts in marriage that we have to work through or work around if the marriage is going to endure. My husband and I also have a few really close friends that I expect (hope) will still be our friends when we're old and gray. I am sure they have seen our flaws up close more than once, but it hasn't changed their regard--at least, not that we can tell. Ha!

Maybe that's the genius of this book. It's hard to believe it's fiction, because it feels like these people are all real. Almost like you might know them if you passed by them on the street.

Content: There are mentions of marital sex, and a few other intimate moments, but it's not the focus or graphically described in any way.

Recommended for adults. I don't know that most teens would be interested, anyway!
(I think I would have been bored stiff reading this as a teenager! Now that I've been married for awhile, though, I appreciate new perspectives on how other couples have made it work over a long period of time.)

 (Finished reading Nov. 5)

The Truth According to Us, by Annie Barrows

3 stars: A slow-paced, character-driven exploration of a southern town and its secrets.

Layla Beck is a spoiled rich girl, the daughter of a Senator. When she refuses to marry Daddy's choice, a rather dramatic spat ensues. The upshot is that she has been cut off from his money and must work for a living. Specifically, the Senator manages to get her a job on the Federal Writer's Project, writing the history of a small town in West Virginia. Layla has inherited her father's stubborn streak and will not back down, so off she goes to a humble boarding-house in Macedonia to begin interviewing townsfolk.

Meanwhile, the permanent residents of the boarding-house have their own troubles to deal with. Twelve-year-old Willa has recently discovered that the grownups around her don't always tell the truth--she suspected it of her fly-by-night Daddy, but even her Aunt Jottie has shown some signs of it. Willa is determined to get to the bottom of the mysteries in her life (why isn't Aunt Jottie married? for one) and develop her 2 favorite virtues: ferocity and devotion. She would looking after her younger sister Bird to that list, but Bird doesn't tend to need much looking after.

Most of the family mysteries revolve around a fire several years before, at the American Mill sock factory that Jottie's father managed, and which killed the man Jottie loved--who was also Felix's best friend. Felix has a host of secrets of his own. When Miss Beck starts in on her history, all the secrets are going to come out, for better or worse.

* * * * *
Written in alternating viewpoints, mostly between Jottie, Willa, and Layla. There are some letters to and from Layla interspersed as well, which add some humor and a different perspective to all that's happening.

Overall, I liked it, though not as much as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I enjoyed the writing, the characters with all their peculiarities, and the various townspeople all vying to get their version of history written. Willa was my favorite character, Felix my least favorite. It really bothered me that because of his charm and good looks, Felix never really had to face consequences for any of his bad choices (which were consistently the type he made.) Even Jottie, who knew him best of all, constantly made allowances for him in a way that was aggravating!  I thought the ending was fitting.

Content: A non-explicit love scene.

(Finished reading Nov. 15)

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

1.5 stars: Gritty historical fiction dealing with GLBTQ issues.

It is 1686, and 18-year-old country girl Petronella has somehow managed to secure a marriage with Johannes Brandt, one of Amsterdam's prominent businessmen. Soon after her marriage, she discovers all is not what it appears to be in the Brandt household. She encounters coldness and hostility right from the beginning, particularly from Johannes' sister Marin.

Not only that, much to Petronella's embarrassment and distress, Johannes has no interest in consummating their marriage. He treats her somewhat kindly, but holds her at a distance, too. When she walks in on him with another man, Petronella's ideas of the world take a sudden and dramatic shift. Little by little she gets to the bottom of all the secrets in this strange house and must figure out her role in it all.

* * * * *
I probably should have read a few more reviews before going into this one. Everything I read focused on the cabinet of miniatures and how that played in to the secrets being kept in the house. The cabinet was interesting, I suppose, but it was really more of a sidenote in the whole thing. I could see why the characters would find it a bit unsettling, but it certainly didn't predict anything that was going to happen, the way some of the reviews I read alluded to.

Instead, something traumatic would happen, or a secret would be revealed, and Petronella would later on discover that the evidence of those things was already part of the miniature people or furnishings of the cabinet. Okay. Weird, yes, but not like a horror movie sort of weird. Just strange, with an undercurrent of "Is someone stalking us or what?" Plus, there's never really a resolution for that part of the story, so what was the point of including it? Using the miniaturist in the title seems almost misleading after reading the book. I mean, the woman never even makes a physical appearance in the story!

I was really taken off-guard by the focus on gay issues. It was just not what I was expecting to encounter in this book. Once Petronella understood her husband better, she was able to make peace with who he was and what that meant for their relationship. Incidentally, I'm not sure that would have really happened in that time period, with her upbringing and inexperience, but okay I guess. There was one tender scene between them when he was in jail, where she just held his hand for a long time; to give him what comfort she could, and to show her support in all he was going through. That was probably the best scene of the whole book.

I can't say that I really liked any of the characters all that much. Petronella grew up pretty fast (she had to), and came into her own, but I never really related to her. Johannes was a weak man who let his big sister basically run his life and couldn't seem to control his sex life or even be careful about it. He had to know what was at stake, but that apparently didn't factor into his decisions at all. Also, for supposedly being this great businessman, he didn't seem to care that he had a warehouse full of sugar rotting out from under him. Why he couldn't just sell it was beyond me. Marin was a piece of work--completely hypocritical and mean for no reason. Since she orchestrated it, you'd think she would actually try to make Petronella's marriage work, but no, instead she consistently treated Petronella like trash, while acting self-righteous at the same time.

Sad ending. Pretty much a downer of a book all around. I did finish it, but I won't be recommending it to anyone, nor will I ever re-read it.

Content: There's a gay sex scene, a public execution, and graphically described childbirth. For adults.

(Finished reading Oct. 18)

December 16, 2016

5 Christmas Picture Books to Make You Laugh

I should be working on Christmas cards right about now (ALL the cards going out next week), but instead I thought it would be more fun to talk about Christmas books that are always good for a laugh. Especially after the last set of books that usually bring on the waterworks. Lighten up the mood with some of these gems.  They are all favorites!

The Bear's Christmas, by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Papa Bear takes Brother out to demonstrate how to use all his great new outdoor gear: skies, skates, and sleds. By the end of the day, Papa Bear has gotten into all kinds of mishaps and Brother Bear is ready to go!

* * * * *
Our copy of this book is old and falling apart--it was a garage sale find--but my kids think its hilarious. I don't like how Papa Bear is such a buffoon, but I overlook that for the sake of hearing them giggle together as they read it to each other.

The Christmas Blizzard, by Helen Ketteman
Illustrated by James Warhola

Maynard Jenkins recalls the blizzard of '22. The North Pole had gotten so hot that the elves stopped making toys. In fact, Santa moved the whole shebang right to Maynard's town, because it had been so cold that year. Still no snow, though. Something had to be done, quick! So young Maynard, with the help of a Miz Pendersnarf, took the weather in hand.....sort of. It was harder than it seemed to get everything just right.

* * * * *
A tall tale of crazy weather and saving Christmas. Best read with an old-timer's accent. Just do the best you can. Our favorite is part is when the clouds freeze solid and crash to the ground!

Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! by Doreen Cronin
Illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Farmer Brown's farm is getting ready for Christmas. Duck has a plan to beat Santa to the punch. Unfortunately, Duck gets stuck. So do several would-be rescuers. Who is going to save the day?

* * * * *
Another winner in this series. Expressive illustrations match fun-to-say phrases for a Christmas romp in Farmer Brown's...chimney? Oh dear!

Millie in the Snow, by Alexander Steffensmeier

Millie the cow used to love scaring the mailman--until the proud day she became a mail cow (in Millie Waits for the Mail). Now on Christmas, she is eager to help deliver packages to everyone on the route. Once they reach the end, there's still a box left. The mailman has made gifts for everyone on the farm. Unfortunately, Millie gets a bit turned around on the way home, and the gifts more than a little mixed up.

* * * * *
This one may not be as funny for the preschool crowd. Much of the humor is in the details, particularly who the gifts were originally intended for and how they ended up being used and by whom. My elementary school-aged kids think it's funny, though, and my 4-year-old enjoyed it and even got the joke with a little help. :)

Mooseltoe, by Margie Palitini

Moose is determined to have a "perfectly perfect" Christmas this year. So, he makes his to-do list and then gets busy, busy, busy! He's checking things off his list left and right, all the way up until Christmas Eve, when his family points out a glaring omission: the tree. Oh no! He forgot the tree! There are none to be found anywhere, so Moose comes up with a solution that everybody can help with: he does have that magnificent moosestache, after all!

* * * * *
This is one of my most favorite Christmas books ever! It is so fun to read out loud! All the checking off the list ("check, check, check, check, double check,") and rhyming phrases, ("Oh good golly, this moose was jolly!") The illustrations have funny little details--especially watch for things hanging off Moose's mustache--and the ending is just delightful. We love it! If you've never read it, grab a copy!

* * * * *
Which Christmas books make you laugh? We would love to add a few more!

December 15, 2016

December Bloom Day: Covered in White

Hello, and welcome to my snowy garden!
We have more than made up for our late start to winter this week.
It has snowed nearly every day of the past week.
It has been very cold the past few days, as well.
Today the high is just 25 degrees F, while tomorrow and Saturday the highs don't get above 15 degrees F. Brrr!! I guess all this snow is going to stick around awhile (much to the delight of my children.)

Let's start out front:

It's at least a foot deep out there.

A few dried hydrangea blooms with a frosting of snow.

This time last month we still had some hardy geraniums blooming around the base of the mailbox.
You can barely find the mailbox now, thanks to shoveling the driveway all these times!

These are the laurel bushes, here in front.
Also nearly completely covered over now.
The entire bottom terrace out front, in fact, has disappeared!

(Above and below): Echinacea seedpods with snowy hats on.

Bridal wreath spirea in the front porch bed.

Now to the back:
The vegetable garden terraces. 

The ornamental plum, outlined in white.
(I guess ice fog is good for something!) 

Pretty mockorange leaves.

Sedum seedheads next to snowy rose.
These are under the eave of the house, otherwise we might just see the tops peeking out!

I hope you enjoyed this quick tour of my garden!
(It had to be quick--my camera kept freezing up.)
Now, bring on the hot chocolate!

I'm linked up with Carol over at May Dreams Gardens today.
Do you still have actual blooms in your garden right now, or you buried under a snowdrift like me?

December 14, 2016

5 Christmas Picture Books to Inspire Acts of Service

There's nothing like a beautiful story to teach kids what their service can mean to someone else, whether that person is a member of their own family, a friend, or someone they don't even know in person. Just so you know, most of these are tearjerkers!

Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
Illustrated by Mark Buehner

A young boy wants to get his Dad the perfect Christmas present, but he doesn't have enough money to buy anything. Then he realizes that his Dad has never gotten to see he and his siblings open their presents on Christmas, because Dad has always been out doing the chores. Then he knows what his gift to his Dad can be.

* * * * *
We don't have this version, but I plan to get it! We just have the text in another compilation. This is one that makes me cry every. single. time. Er--um...I get a little something in my eye. Yeah. We lived on a big dairy farm in Idaho when I was little and I have vague memories of my Dad and older brothers going out super early on Christmas to get the cows milked before all the festivities. So I can picture every bit of this and how much the Dad would appreciate his son's gift. Okay. I'm getting a little teary just thinking about it. Moving on...

A Christmas Dress for Ellen, by Thomas S. Monson
Illustrated by Ben Sowards

A desperately poor, struggling family in Alberta, Canada will have nothing for Christmas this year. The mother, Mary Jeppson, has written to her family in Idaho, but though they have checked the post office (a several-hour horse ride away) several times, nothing has come in. They go to bed with sore hearts.

Meanwhile, the post master receives several large crates for the Jeppson family, late in the day on Christmas Eve. Though it is blizzard conditions outside and he is nearly blind, he and his son load up the crates and deliver them to the little family. It is a Christmas miracle.

* * * * *
This is one of my favorite Christmas stories, and to have it as a picture book, with the gorgeous illustrations by Ben Sowards, is just the icing on the cake. The best part is--it's a true story! I have to say though, this is one my children don't pick very often, probably because I cannot read this book without full-on crying. Not just a little misty-eyed. Oh no. Tears running down my face. They've stopped asking why. Consider yourself warned.

Christmas For a Dollar, by Gale Sears
Illustrated by Ben Sowards

The Kamp family has had a hard year, with their Mom passing away and little brother's polio treatments. They're not expecting much for Christmas. One day in December, their father comes home with a dollar for the children to use to buy gifts for each other. They draw names and each one gets to work to make or buy something special for their sibling. Though the gifts are not fancy, the love put into them makes it a wonderful Christmas.

* * * * *
We had this one as a short movie, but just recently received the book from my in-laws. I think Ben Sowards must be the go-to illustrator for these touching Christmas books. (Not that I'm complaining--his artwork is beautiful.) 

I like this one for talking about gratitude, first of all, and reminding our kids how blessed we are. Then secondly, to spark their ideas for presents of love or service they can make or do for each other.
Sweet story. On the crying scale, this is at the lower end for me. If anything, I may get a little misty-eyed.

Christmas Oranges, by Linda Bethers
Illustrated by Ben Sowards

You are probably familiar with this story: a little girl in an orphanage is about to receive her first orange--the one Christmas gift the children receive. Then she breaks a small rule and her punishment is severe. Not only does she not get the orange, but she has extra chores to do and doesn't get to even be with the other children all day.

Her friends at the orphanage feel very sorry for her, but then come up with a wonderful plan. Each saves a small piece of their orange to share with her at bedtime. The shared oranges are the sweetest they've ever had.

* * * * *
I used this one with my preschoolers last week, but I didn't try to read the whole thing. This particular retelling is beautiful, but quite long! So I just summarized as I showed them the pictures. Then we had oranges for our snack.

(The title link is to the paperback version. Amazon doesn't have the hardcover and the used options are outrageously expensive.)

The Carpenter's Gift: A Christmas Tale About the Rockefeller Center Tree, by David Rubel
Illustrated by Jim LaMarche

Told through the eyes of an older man, reminiscing about his boyhood in the Great Depression. His family was poverty-stricken, living in a ramshackle house without much to eat or wear. One Christmas his father decided to sell Christmas trees in New York City. At the end of the day, they end up giving a tree to a group of construction workers.

Well, guess who shows up the next day? It's the workers, with tools and supplies in hand to build this family a new house. Later on, a mighty evergreen that has grown next to the house is chosen as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Apparently, after Christmas is over, the tree is milled and the wood used to build a home for a family in need through Habitat for Humanity. So it all comes full circle.

* * * * *
This is a neat story that shows how we all are sometimes on the receiving end of kindness, then have the opportunity to be on the giving side of things at other times. Touching, but it doesn't make me cry. :)

* * * * *
What would you add to this list? Are you a crybaby like me when it comes to certain stories?

December 13, 2016

2 Read-Alouds: Freddy the Detective & A Mouse Called Wolf

Our read-aloud time has taken a serious dive since school started, partly because we don't have a set school-year routine for it. (Any tips?)  However, we have managed to read a couple, one on our recent trip. We've got another trip coming up this month, so I've got a few more lined up for that. Captive audiences and all that!

A Mouse Called Wolf, by Dick King-Smith

3 stars: A charming story, simply told.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mouse has always had a musical bent. His family lives in the walls at Mrs. Honeybee's house, and one of their mouse-holes is perfectly positioned for him to hear her playing the piano. Eventually, the lonely elderly woman and the little mouse become friends. Then one day, something magical happens: little Wolf opens his mouth and sings! Beautifully, too. Their friendship is cemented.  Later, when Mrs. Honeybee needs help, it will be up to Wolf to save her.

* * * * *
I read this to my two youngest (ages 6 and 4.) We all enjoyed it. It wasn't a spectacular hit, but it was warm, cozy, solid storytelling. So far I have liked everything of Dick King-Smith's that we've read. I'm beginning to think he can't go wrong!

(Finished reading Oct. 12)

Freddy the Detective (Freddy the Pig #3), by Walter R. Brooks

4 stars: Barnyard mysteries solved, plus one for the humans for good measure.

Freddy is quite the pig. (The other animals on Mr. Bean's farm are no slouches, either.) Now that they're back from their vacation to Florida, Freddy has been reading a lot of mysteries, specifically Sherlock Holmes. He decides to take up detective work amongst the animals.

His first case isn't long in coming. The Beans' little boy is missing a toy train, which apparently vanished without a trace. Detective Freddy knows better and sets out to investigate. When he finds out it was the rats, he is not at all surprised. Unfortunately, getting the train back to its owner is going to be a lot harder than he had anticipated, even with Jinx the Cat's help.

Before long, his caseload is very busy. The animals decide to elect a judge, and even make a jail in the barn for those who need it. Even the humans come to him for help at one point, which Freddy is happy to give--as long as he gets the credit. The rats and the train remain an enduring problem, which one day comes to a head as his friend Jinx is accused of murdering a crow!

* * * * *
First of all--I picked this one up not knowing it was 3rd in the series. It was fine on its own, for the most part, though there were numerous references to a trip to Florida and its aftermath for the animals and Mr. Bean.

I thought the way Freddy interacted with humans was well-done. Though the farm animals talked amongst themselves, Freddy didn't speak English, or anything. Still, he managed to get his point across well enough.

Several of the animals had entertaining personalities. Charles the henpecked Rooster was pretty funny, and the rats were suitably insulting and outrageous. The friendship between Freddy and Jinx the Cat was not as well defined--they had a falling-out a few times. Maybe having read the earlier books would help that come into focus a little more.

We read this one in the car and it was great for that. The plot kept us interested, and was straightforward enough that we could still follow what was going on even with lots of interruptions. The kids put some of the mysteries together before Freddy did and it was fun to hear them talking about it.

Little did I know this is a series of 27! They were originally published starting in 1927. I had never heard of them before I found this one. Our library has a rather random assortment of them, but I did manage to find #1, Freddy Goes to Florida, for us to read next.

(Finished reading Nov. 13)

* * * * *

Have you read any of the Freddy series? Do you have a favorite to recommend?

December 8, 2016

5 Christmas Picture Books for Seekers & Puzzlers

Hello December! As much as I cut out of our schedule this year, it still feels like we're on the Holiday Carousel ride, going from one thing to the next. It has gotten worse since my oldest 2 have been in school all day. We still have the same regular stuff to do after school (chores, practicing instruments, making dinner, etc.), but this month we add to that shopping! And parties! And special events! This week is the busiest, with something going on every evening (and 2 things Saturday morning) through Sunday.

The poor little Advent calendars are hung at the end of the hallway, but have yet to even be filled with candy. I've told the kids it's their job to fill up their own calendars this year. When they were still preschoolers, I came up with super fun activities to do for each day. Unfortunately, that has gone by the wayside. I just don't know when we would squeeze one more thing in every day. So they get to put a piece of Halloween candy in each pocket and call it good....and even that hasn't happened yet.

All of that to say, this poor blog space has been a bit neglected this month, but I'm going to attempt to remedy that.

One of our favorite traditions each December is bringing out the Christmas book bins. We have 2 (so far). They are currently mostly picture books, with a handful of board books and a few chapter books too. They stay out all month, and nearly every day finds us reading through a big stack of Christmas books. We love it!

So I'm going to do a mini-series sharing some of our favorite Christmas picture books with you. I hope you'll return the favor, because we are always eager to find a new favorite!

I'm starting out with Seek-and-Find books. I taught Joy School this week for my 4-year-old (and 5 of his friends,) and during every bit of "free play time" we were all huddled around these books. At first I had all 6 kids trying to share the book I was holding. Then I realized we have several. Problem solved! 

The Best Christmas Hunt Ever, by John Spiers

A group of children are off to stay with their friends' grandparents in the country. Find the children, plus extra things, not to mention Santa's elves!

This would be a good starter puzzler book, as the scenes aren't nearly as packed as in some of the others. Plus, the last few pages of the book have the solutions!

Put out by Scholastic. Amazon only has this available from 3rd-party sellers (which is what the link above goes to.) One to look for second-hand.

Can You See What I See? Night Before Christmas, by Walter Wick

Where would our little puzzlers be without the incomparable Walter Wick? This one is more geared toward older kids, as the list of things to find (written in rhyme, as usual), is all in text. Or it's a great one for an older sibling to pair up with little brother or sister and work together.

Find Frosty as He Sings Christmas Carols (Look and Find Books), Illustrated by Jerry Tiritilli

This was a Goodwill find, and apparently there are 3 others in the series: Find the Gifts on the Twelve Days of Christmas, Find Santa Claus as He Brings Christmas Joy, and Find the Nutcracker in his Christmas Ballet. (The link in the title is an affiliate link to Amazon, but it's also to buy it used. This is another I would keep an eye out for at thrift stores, as this is an older series.)

This is another one that is great for younger kids, because the items or people you are supposed to find are drawn on the side. Frosty is in each picture, as well. Then, like many of these types of books, the back endpapers have an extra list of things to find for each page (just written out this time).

Humor abounds in the packed illustrations.

I Spy Christmas, by Jean Marzollo
Photographs by Walter Wick

Full 2-page spreads, with the strip of words at the very bottom telling you what to find. A classic!

Look-Alikes Christmas: The More You Look, the More You See! by Joan Steiner

Have you seen these books? They are a lot of fun. Rather than looking for specific objects in the illustrations, your job is to notice all the objects Steiner used to make something else in her miniature worlds. Crayon lampposts, sea-shell snow, and an eraser chimney are just a few noticeable look-alikes from the cover.

This is not one I own, but I just found it at the library. I had forgotten about this series! It's a fun twist on the usual seek-and-find genre.

A couple last hints for finding more of these at your library. On your library's online catalog, do a search using the term "picture puzzles." When I did that just now a list of 98 popped up. It makes me want to go check out a bunch more!

If you only want Christmas-related ones, though, it may be faster to just browse your library's holiday picture book collection instead.

You can also look in the J 741.5 section for a start. That's where my library has the Where's Waldo books.

Happy puzzling!