November 30, 2016

Fixing My Christmas Music Problem

Every year for several years now, I have gotten out our stack of Christmas CD's (yes, I'm old-school and still listen to CD's) with a sigh. While there are a few gems among them, most of them are not my favorite for one reason or another. Each year I think I'm going to listen to them all and take out the ones I don't like. Each year I don't take the time. So then I have this hit-or-miss Christmas music experience. I know the ones I really like, but most are just kind of mediocre. I put one in and cross my fingers.

Also, it seems my collection is rather heavy on the instrumental and slow ballad side. Sometimes that's what I'm in the mood for, but sometimes I want some catchy tunes and WORDS!

Well, no more! This is the year folks. In fact, today is the day. Snow is falling outside, I'm home alone (strangely enough), and I have time. Let's do this!

* * * * * * *
Okay, you ready for this? No, I didn't listen to them all straight through, by the way.
Here are my keepers, newly categorized!

Music to Calm the Wild Beasts

George Winston's December.
Piano music to soothe your soul. I could listen to this on repeat all day. Actually, on one of our many 12-hour drives to see family, we did just that. It's good music for pondering, adding a little peace to your crazy holiday season, or just watching the miles fly by out your window.
Favorite tracks: Carol of the Bells or Joy.

A Carol to My King, by John Canaan
Perfect for a mellow afternoon or as lullabies under the glow of twinkly tree lights.  Understated accompaniment complements Canaan's smooth vocals to a T.
Favorite track: Candle Light

Music to Get You Through the Christmas Card Stack

Holiday Treasures Series: Celtic Christmas (Various Artists)
Upbeat instrumentals that will make you want to dance a jig, with a few slower selections towards the end to change things up a bit. Plenty of flute. No words, so you won't find yourself writing a song lyric to Great-Aunt Lucy accidentally, but fast-paced and toe-tapping without being too distracting.  Hey--if you take a whirl around the room in the name of a "stretch break," that's your business.
Favorite track: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Music to Have on in the Background

Lorie Line: Home for the Holidays
Another instrumental CD (I told you I had a lot of them!), this one is nice middle ground. It's not so sleepy/deep-thinking as the first 2, or quite as chipper as the Celtic one. Just--you know--good background music that will let you think about other things, but still have a little Christmas flavor in your subconscious.

Noel, by Josh Groban
Any Josh Groban fans out there? Easy listening, with a range of accompaniments, including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the London Symphony Orchestra. A handful of the songs are duets. This isn't one I just sit and listen to (or sing along with), but it makes for some fine holiday cheer as you go about your business.

Music That Your Kids Will Like More Than You

Disney's Christmas Collection II
This is an interesting mix. Some of the songs are adult mixed chorus, some have cameos by Disney characters, and a few are solos by children. It's tolerable. The best part is that it's only 25 minutes long.
Favorite Track: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Mickey, Goofy, and the rest of the gang is the one they seem to enjoy the most.

Kidz Bop Christmas
Okay, this isn't terrible. If the kids put it on I don't turn it right back off. (How's that for a ringing endorsement? Ha!)
Favorite track: I think they like Frosty the Snowman.

Music for Your Inner Pavarotti

Handel's Messiah
The CD linked isn't exactly the same version I have, but it has the same main artists: Huddersfield Choral Society, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent. It will be pretty close.
So put this on and belt it out!
Favorite Track: For Unto Us a Child is Born

Music to Bring Back Days of Yore

Christmas with Bing and Frank
It sounds like a recording of a show--there's some chit-chat back and forth between songs and such. Only 12 songs long, but some good 'uns.
(The link is the one I've got, as near as I can tell.)

Manheim Steamroller: A Fresh Aire Christmas (by Chip Davis)
This was a favorite in our house when I was growing up. I still really like it! A mix of synth, traditional instruments, and vocals.
Favorite track: Veni Veni (O Come O Come Emmanuel)

Fresh Voices

All is Bright: A Mercy River Christmas
Gorgeous harmonies, vocal trio. I bought this one last year in an attempt to expand my Christmas music. So pretty.
Favorite tracks: Sleigh Ride and Still, Still, Still

[UPDATE: FOUND IT!! Yay! It had slipped down sideways between the wall and the cd player stand. Not even scratched. Happiness.]

Single Tracks
I have a few CD's that were mixed by friends, then given as a gift. They're a bit hit-or-miss, but here are a few I liked:

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings, by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan
I love this version of these 2 songs! I want to just keep singing it.

Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song) by Amy Grant
There are some neat YouTube videos with this as the background, and clips from different movies.
Here's one with clips from The Nativity Story:

Christmas Canon by Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Ethereal and so beautiful.

Plus, Cloverton's A Hallelujah Christmas. I've only been able to find this one YouTube, and the links often go down. Here's one working currently:

* * * * *
Please, help me out! What is your favorite Christmas album?

November 28, 2016

First Snowfall--Finally!

The kids were thrilled to wake up to snow on the ground this morning!
They jumped up and hurried out for a quick pre-breakfast romp.

It was already warming up to slush by 7:30am, when these pictures were taken.

They wasted no time in making a slush man, complete with a forgotten carrot scavenged from the garden wall. My husband even got the bikes put away so I could park in the garage tonight.
That's love.

[Looking across the street.]

After they went to school, we had some really huge clumps of snow coming down.
My youngest wanted to show me which snowflakes he had seen, so we ran down to his brother's room and found our book: The Secret Life of a Snowflake, by Kenneth Libbrecht.
It turns out in his 5 minutes of looking out the window he had seen almost all the kinds of snowflakes! :)
For some great picture books about snowy days, check out this book list!
The review of the snowflake book mentioned above is about halfway down the list.

I guess it's officially time to put away all the pumpkin decorations!
My daughter's birthday is coming up this week, so we usually hold off on Christmas until after her birthday. That means Saturday, though, we're off to get a tree. Woohoo!

As of this evening most of the snow has melted off already, but there's supposed to be more coming this week. The kids are excited!
Do you have snow right now?
This is way late for us--our first snowfall is usually in the first week of November.

November 23, 2016

Reading with My 8-Year Old: The Castle in the Attic books

As my oldest has gotten more and more into reading his own books, there are not nearly as many times when he is willing to sit down and just listen to a book I'm reading aloud to everyone else. Car trips are one exception (captive audience!), but usually he is reading his own book while sort of listening in to what I'm reading at the same time.

So I'm trying to do better about noticing what he is reading and--at least every now and then--picking it up myself. I even skimmed a few of the Hardy Boys he's been reading lately, but with those you read one and you've basically read them all. [He just protested that statement. Ha! I stand by it.]

His 3rd-grade teacher read this first book to the class, and he came home wanting to discuss it with me. It had been so long since I had read it that I couldn't remember much. We owned a copy--a thrift-store find--so I quickly remedied that situation. Then I was able to find the second book at the library. He was excited, because he said there was a long waiting list in his class for it. (Public library, for the win!)

The Castle in the Attic, by Elizabeth Winthrop

4 stars: Solid storytelling, with a hook that's hard to resist: toys coming to life!

William's housekeeper is leaving the family. She has been his best friend, cheerleader, and confidant for the past 10 years, and he can't accept the fact that she's really going. His parents aren't awful or anyting, they're just busy, and not very connected with his life.

Before she leaves, she gives William an amazing gift--a large play castle. Yes, it's in the attic. (How did you guess?) He has always been fascinated by the castle and now it's his to keep and play with! He should be more excited. It's just that, no castle can replace her. Then she also gives him something else--a silver knight just the right size for the castle.

When William holds the knight something amazing happens--the little man comes alive! He tells William the story of an evil wizard who must be defeated in order for Sir Simon to reclaim his kingdom. It's not until later that William realizes he will have a role to play in this quest. By then, it's too late to back out.

* * * * *
William was small for his age, but he's strong, thanks to his gymnastics. However, it was not his physical size or strength that mattered in the end, but what was inside his heart. The quest itself, including the big showdown with the wizard, wasn't overly long or suspenseful. The ending was quite satisfying.

Right on point for this age group. Ultimately, this was a story of redemption and growth for William. There's something he wanted so badly that he was willing to risk hurting someone he loved to achieve that end. The resulting consequences, however, were more serious than he anticipated. He was sorry for what he had done at that point, but "sorry" didn't change what had happened. Fortunately, there was a way to redeem himself: the quest. He became just as determined to succeed and make things right as he was to get his own way earlier.

Considered a children's fantasy classic. I want to read it to my younger 2--I'm sure they would both enjoy it, as well.

The Battle for the Castle, by Elizabeth Winthrop

3.5 stars: Kids will be happy to return to this world for another adventure.

In this second installment, William is now 12, but still short and small for his age. His friend Jason has grown several inches lately, and has gotten really into biking. He is constantly talking about training and working out. William still does gymnastics, but is thinking about quitting. It's becoming harder and harder to find common ground with Jason.

A rite-of-passage for boys in their town is "jumping the trains;" essentially, climbing onto a train car as it slows down close to town, then going up and over the other side and jumping off before the train gets going too fast. It's dangerous and the very thought makes William's stomach curl, but he feels like he has to do it to be accepted by Jason and their other friends.

Then for his birthday, his former housekeeper sends him a magical token that can take him back to the world of the Castle. Speaking of the Castle, he still has it upstairs, but hasn't really played with it very much lately. This time he decides to tell Jason about the token, the magic, and the Castle. Skeptical at first, Jason soon becomes eager to experience it all for himself.

The two friends re-enter the magical world of the Castle, only to find that a different threat hangs over Sir Simon's kingdom--one that Sir Simon himself refuses to even acknowledge. It will be up to the boys, and a girl named Gudrin, to defeat the plague that is poised to descend upon the Castle, destroying everything and everyone in its path.

* * * * *
This one was as much about William becoming confident in himself--despite what he saw as flaws--as it was about another adventure in the Castle. William came to recognize his own leadership abilities when the chips were down. He also realized that physical prowess was not the only helpful attribute in hard situations. His ability to think under pressure was just as useful as big muscles, if not more so.

My one quibble was with the ending. After building up some good suspense, the solution itself was a bit anti-climatic. After they won, I thought--"Wait, that was it? That's all it took?" I don't think kids will mind, though. The creepiness of the rats in the first place may make the quick resolution a relief.

One of my favorite parts of the book, from a parent's perspective, was William's realization at the end about jumping the trains, and Jason's respect for him in that moment.

If you've read the first, this one must follow!

* * * * * *
Have you read either of these? Which one was your favorite?

November 22, 2016

Plant File: Rhus typhina (Staghorn Sumac)

So what do you plant if you:
a) want brilliant fall color and
b) are avoiding the burning bush, which can be very invasive?

the staghorn sumac!

We happen to have an abundance of these around town.
I'm glad I got some pictures this year.
Seeing those brilliant reds and oranges just makes my heart sing!
(Although by this point, most of those leaves have fallen.)

Scientific name: Rhus typhina
Common name: staghorn sumac
Cold Hardiness: USDA zones 3-8
Native to Eastern North America. Yeah!
Full sun (for best fall color) to part shade.

*Yes, they are related to the poison sumac (Rhus vernix), but staghorn sumacs are not at all poisonous.
In fact, they're edible! (see below) *

The fuzzy-looking red part is the seedhead.
You can actually dry & crush the berries for a tart-flavored spice, or make a red lemonade out of the berries! Serious Eats has a post all about harvesting the sumac and using it in cooking.
Also, I just learned from that post that the poison sumacs have white clusters instead of red.
Now you know.
So go forth to forage, and don't get them mixed up!

p.s. If you aren't inclined to eat the berries, local wildlife will take care of it for you!

I also just learned from another site that the roots and inner bark can be used for dye.
All kinds of goodness here!

This one is still quite young, based on size.
These tend to spread horizontally more than vertically.
Opinions vary on height and width, (don't they always?!), but the average is 10'-15' tall x 15'-25' wide.
I will say though, it's fairly slow growing, so it may take it several years to reach its full height and width.
 It spreads from root suckers, so don't plant it if you don't have room for it to do its thing.
Otherwise, you'll be stuck removing the new little shrubs popping up from those roots forever and ever amen.

Check out this purple-red one!

I love these shrubs for their hardiness.
Not much seems to faze them.
They adapt to a variety of soil and are drought tolerant once established.
The one we had growing our back slope (in straight clay soil) survived 3 construction projects going on around it, before it finally succumbed to an early demise.
That was a sad day.

Bi-color. So cool!

The "staghorn" part of their name comes from the way the new branches are fuzzy, kind of like new antlers. So fun!

These have been around awhile.
They're down around one of our fire stations.
Grouped like this they are quite striking!

We just planted 3 more of them at the top of our slope this summer.
Oh yeah--they're good at holding up slopes, too.
Fibrous roots that spread out, and all that.

Here's hoping I have many more of these beauties in my future!

November 18, 2016

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

I actually read this one, thinking it would go on my Middle Grade Halloweenish Books list, but it was quite a bit more scary than anything else on there, so it got booted to its own post. Also, I had a few more things to say about it, so I guess that worked out.

The Night Gardener: A Scary Story, by Jonathan Auxier

3 stars: Not my usual fare, but I liked it. Not going to read it to my kids at this point, though.

Molly and Kip are two orphan children, on their way to a new home. Molly has finangled her way into a place as maid and cook at Windsor manor house on its own little island.

However, once they get there (after many people have warned them away or refused to give them directions), they find that they're not really wanted. Molly will not let that deter her, though. This job was their last hope. She talks her way into it, with a few responsibilities on the side that Kip can manage, even with his crippled leg.

There's a huge tree that has roots and branches infiltrating right through the walls of the house, and she has seen a tall skinny man who looks like he's tending to the tree, but he only comes out at night. One frightening day she discovers that many of what she thought were branches sticking out of the trunk of the tree are actually the handles of weapons--swords, axes, and the like. Things just keep getting more strange.

They haven't been working there for long, when they notice some other odd things happening in the house. For one, not one of the family is well. They are all sickly and seem to be getting more so as time goes on. Also, something comes into the house at night. This... thing goes into every room, stops by every bed. Locked doors don't stop it. Pretty creepy.

Speaking of locked doors, there is one that Molly has been forbidden to open. The thing is, she finds a key that fits the lock. Before she really knows it, she too has been drawn into the thrall of the Tree. Like the others, what she receives is not free. The only question is--will any of them survive long enough to break away?

* * * * *
So you can see how creepy the cover is--perfect for the book, I would say. Black, twisty-branched tree with a shadowy figure interposed on it. Yikes! In this book, the tree is basically its own entity--The Tree. It is an Evil Tree, no doubt about that. The home that it has corrupted is not a cozy, safe place of pleasant dreams. Oh no. It is a place of nightmares and a slow leaching of a person's vitality and life (and interestingly enough, hair color.)

Auxier does a good job of building suspense, often by little revelations that turn something the children have never noticed before into something sinister and dark. There are plenty of heart-pounding moments, feeling trapped in various ways, being chased by the Night Gardener, and of course, a big climax. I appreciated the writing, particularly as it wove in the power of stories and storytelling to this narrative of the cursed Tree. I liked Molly and Kip, too. It was very well done.

That being said, this is not one I'm going to read to my kids right now. I am 90% sure it would give them nightmares. I think it would have freaked me out at their age. We don't read scary books at all, really. Suspenseful books sometimes, but not creepy, spine-tingling, don't look behind you! types like this one. Although, I recently read a quote to the effect that you should read your kids books like this, to present darkness in a more manageable form, and to show them that they can defeat the darkness.

While I can see some validity to that statement, I disagree with it overall. Yes, there are hard things that kids will learn about, and learning them in a safe home environment with mom or dad to talk it over with is the ideal. However. There will always be plenty of darkness in this world that they will come up against. I certainly don't need to be the one introducing it!

Reading a book can be a very immersive experience. I am always open to discussing the scary or hard things, but I don't think they need to read about them--i.e., experience them--to be aware. At least, not until they are old enough to process them a bit more objectively. Also, I'm the one they wake up in the middle of the night when they've had a bad dream. So, there is that.

My theory is that if they are filled with light and goodness, they will be able to handle the darkness in all of its forms--including closing the book or turning off the movie if it's something that's making them feel frightened or uncomfortable. You can't defeat darkness with more darkness--and knowledge of it can only go so far.  It takes light to overcome darkness.

Anyway...tangent over.

Content: 2 murders (off-stage, but characters hear screaming and see the blood afterword). For ages 12+.

My friend Amy over at Sunlit Pages recently reviewed this one, as well! So for another opinion, head on over there!

* * * * *
Okay, I'm ready for your thoughts and opinions! Talk to me about trees (evil or otherwise), this book, and reading scary books to your children on purpose. Ready, go!

November 17, 2016

On the Goodness of Trees vs. The Haunted Wood

We just got back from a short trip to Olympic National Park and the Quinalt Rain Forest in Western Washington. We saw some incredible trees!

Check out this moss-covered behometh!

[They were almost all moss-covered over there.]

We also got to see the World's Largest Sitka Spruce tree, which they estimate to be around 1000 years old. That's hard for my finite brain to wrap itself around.
I touched a tree that has been alive for 10 centuries. Wow.

We hiked in to see the World's Largest Western RedCedar, only to discover that it had fallen down.
(The trail had not been maintained, with 2 other substantial trees fallen across it in places.
Guess that could have been a clue!)
Another hiker told us that half of it split off 2 years ago, then the rest went last year.
Even in pieces, it was magnificent.

That's my two oldest up there--they somehow picked their way through the wreckage to take a seat in the crevice.

I love trees.
It all goes back to my childhood.... (HA!) Well, actually, I think it does. 
I lived in Barrow, Alaska for about 7 years, from age 10 until I graduated from High School.
Barrow is the northernmost town in North America. It is far, far above the treeline.
In other words, it is too darn cold for trees to grow up there!
(Okay, for you scientific sticklers, there is a species of dwarf Arctic willow that grows on the tundra--flat against the ground, and only about 2 feet long. Doesn't count!!) 
Barrow is surrounded by miles of tundra on one side and the Arctic Ocean on the other.
Some jokester had nailed a sign to an old telephone pole that read "Barrow National Forest."
Yep, that was about right.

Anyway. No trees in my daily life for quite a long stretch.
I remember when we would fly down to Fairbanks, which is blanketed in trees, and it was such a feast for our sore eyes! I may or may not have hugged a tree outside the airport at one point.
This deprivation may have contributed to my current love of trees (and gardening, come to think of it--there wasn't much of that to be had either.)

We all learned in Biology class at some point all the goodness that comes from trees.
I'm sure you know all the things.
So, all this to say that I find it fascinating when trees are portrayed as evil.
Many, many books take this approach, including The Night Gardener (review coming tomorrow!)

Think of the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter, the terrifying corrupted Wood in Uprooted, and all of the thousands of books about the dark, haunted, or scary woods.
So, what's up with that?
Is it just the "otherness" of forest life, with its nocturnal creatures and toothy predators?
The deep, dark shadows under those branches?
Why is this such a theme in literature?
I will admit, at one point last weekend, we were driving past some pine woods, where the trees were all quite close together. It was pitch black under there! You couldn't see in more than about 5 feet.
I certainly did not want to get out and explore it.
So...maybe just the physical darkness leads to a perception of otherworldly darkness, as well?

In The Night Gardener, part of what made the tree so sinister was that it was very, very old--there were hints that perhaps it was the original Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, after the Fall.
There were also indications that many people had tried to cut down the tree and failed.
Again, in books it's usually the older part of the woods that is deemed unsafe.

So...great age = scary trees?

[Redwoods National park, 2015]

Again, completely opposite of my experiences.
As I mentioned in the beginning, old trees are particularly awe-inspiring to me.
Have you ever been to the Redwoods?
We went last year, to the Redwoods National Park in Northern California.
Amongst those giant trees, some of them hundreds of years old, there was a special--even sacred--feeling; even with all the manmade trails and such. 
I found myself getting emotional at times.
It was just amazing. I would go back in a heartbeat.

A tree planted in the wrong place might be annoying or even destructive, but that's not the tree's fault.
Wild trees....I just don't think they're scary.
I think they're awesome and interesting. 
What is your take on all of this?

November 16, 2016

The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

3 stars: I liked it, but it all unwound a bit slowly for me.

So this is the story of a 16-year-old girl named Laurel who has had an idyllic childhood, until one sunny day: a stranger walks up to their house, exchanges a few words with her mother, then is fatally stabbed by her mother. I know. Heavy stuff.

Fast forward 50 or 60 years. Laurel's mom, Dorothy, is nearing the end of her life. In some of her mental confusion, she has been asking for someone named Jimmy, and seems distressed about people or events that none of her children have any reference to. Laurel is finally ready to get to the bottom of the traumatic event she witnessed so long ago and try to reconcile the mother she's always known and loved with a woman who could do that.

Throughout the book, the narrative switches from current day Laurel to various episodes in the past. Most of the historical sections are based in WWII London. I thought the flashbacks were well done. I didn't have any problems keeping up with what was going on or when it was--primarily because once the characters got to London, that's pretty much where they stayed for those sections.

* * * * *
This is the second book by Kate Morton that I've read. It was very similar in style to the first, The Forgotten Garden, including a big twist at the end, but I liked this one better. I actually read it for Book Club this month--otherwise I doubt I would have picked it up. (I just realized that's exactly what I said in my review for her other one! Ha!)

I think my children's librarian bias shows most with books like this. I start to get a little whiny inside my head--are we there yet? Why does it have to be so LONG? C'mon woman, summarize! Anyway...

Taking it for what it was, there were many things I enjoyed. I have read many WWII books, but not very many describing the London Blitz, or what it would have been like to live through that. The history was fascinating to me. Particularly the way people lived their lives as normally as possible in a completely abnormal situation.

The premise was a natural hook, and I bit. The reason I stuck with it through ALL those pages was to figure out what really happened between Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy, and how that all factored in to the Awful Event. Morton is a master at giving all kinds of hints and clues that lead you to believe one thing, but mean something completely different after you get to the twist. So yes, that part was enjoyable.

Not very many at Book Club had actually read it, so our discussion as not as in depth as I had hoped it would be. However, this is a great one for discussing. Many different angles you could take on it. We discussed probably the most obvious angle--when is it okay to keep secrets from your family? Is it ever? Was Dorothy justified in what she did and keeping the secrets of her past?

Our group was pretty emphatic that secrets should not be kept between close family members. I don't know, though. I've seen it go both ways. I know someone who experienced abuse as a child, who finally as a happily married mother of 4 was coming to terms with it. Her husband hadn't known about it before their marriage and he was shell-shocked. They are now divorced. Should she have kept it a secret from him? 

On the other hand, someone else that I knew in college was engaged to be married, and she would often come into our apartment crowing about some thing she had purchased (that we were not to tell her fiancĂ© about), or some interaction with her future mother-in-law (ditto.) I mean, that's trouble, right there. They had dated for 2 years, so we all fervently hoped he knew what he was getting into. I didn't know either of them well enough to feel like it was my place to interfere, but maybe I should have.

I think secrets put a barrier in relationships--I mean, that's kind of the point of them, isn't it? "You may not cross beyond this point." I also believe that keeping a secret can delay healing or needed help. It can be deceitful, if you're trying to use it to cover up wrongdoing or sin. If it was something hard you experienced in the past, though, maybe it's just a sign that you're not ready to move on from that yet. In a relationship does everything need to be out there for the other person to see? I don't know.

Since Book Club didn't give me quite the discussion I wanted, let's chat here! What do you think? Is keeping a secret always dishonest on some level? What did you think of this book?

Content: I'm trying to remember...other than the stabbing, there were a handful of intimate scenes, but they were not graphically described at all. For adults.

(Finished reading Oct. 29)

November 15, 2016

November Bloom Day

Surprisingly enough, I do still have a few things blooming this month! We usually have had our first snowfall by this time, but so far all it's been doing outside this year is raining.

By the way, if you're new here--welcome!
I garden in Eastern Washington state, USA, zone 5b.

So here are the few things still hanging on:

1. Salvia

 2. Pink geraniums by the  mailbox.
[These have been blooming for months now!]

3. Purple verbena, also by the mailbox.

4. 'Rose Glow' barberry

This one isn't blooming, but the foliage color echoes the guillardia blooms right above it beautifully.

5. Guillardia

These hardy flowers just keep going and going!

Not so many, but hey--for November, I'll take whatever I can get!
I'm linking up with Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Head over there to see what other gardeners around the world have blooming!

What's alive in your garden right now?

November 11, 2016

Series Spotlight: the Meg Langslow Mysteries by Donna Andrews

Do I have any cozy mystery fans out there? If you like a lot of humor, with the murder and investigation more in the background, you would probably like this series. Meg Langslow is a sensible, level-headed, practical person in a family of crazies. Endearingly crazy, most of them, but still. In the first book she's single, but meets an interesting guy named Michael--who amazingly--isn't scared off by her family.

As you go through the series, Meg and Michael's relationship progresses as well. You don't have to read them in order. Within the first couple of pages you'll be caught up with where their relationship is currently, and then you can settle in and enjoy the hijinks for the rest of the book. In fact, the first one I picked up was #8. I liked it so much that every so often I find a few more.

One of my favorite parts about them is that they're mostly clean. Not squeaky, but close! Meg swears a handful of times in each one. Any intimacy between Michael and Meg is completely offstage--you may get a little bit of innuendo, but the most there's ever been in the books I've read is kissing. Inevitably, they get interrupted before anything can get too serious!

Murder with Peacocks (Meg Langslow #1)

4 stars: Zany and fun!--Oh, and there's a mystery to solve, too.

Meet Meg Langslow, a blacksmith with an...eccentric family. She the one sensible person in the clan, which is why she lives a couple of hours away. She's moving home to her tiny town for the summer, because she happens to be the Maid of Honor in 3--yes 3!--weddings. It's going to be a long summer.

Her one saving grace might be Michael, the gorgeous (single) guy who is taking over his mother's wedding dress shop for the summer...except that he's gay. Oh well, she could really use a good friend at the moment, too.

In the midst of all the wedding craziness, someone is murdered. Forensic pathology being a pet hobby of her dad's (retired physician), he immediately jumps in to "help" the local policeman. Meg gets drawn into the case as well, as hard as she tries to extricate herself from it. After another person dies under suspicious circumstances, Meg's dad is even more sure it's homicide. Of course, he has some theories he wants Meg to help him test. Of course she will! It's not like she's busy or anything!

* * * * *
This book cracked me up! Meg's family is just so exuberantly odd. One of her cousins owns a gorilla suit--just because--and wears it often. They all love parties, which tend to become a public stage for some of their eccentricities. Meg does a little bit of amateur sleuthing, while planning 3 weddings, fending off clumsy matchmaking attempts from her best friend and several relatives, herding peacocks, and generally getting things done.

Content: There are a few swear words here and there in dialogue.

(Finished reading Oct. 24)

Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos (Meg Langslow #3)

3 stars: Not as funny as the first, but still enjoyable.

Meg is working at a craft fair which is part of a reenactment of the siege of Yorktown. Her boyfriend Michael's mother is in charge of it--much to everyone else's chagrin. Not only has Mrs. Waterson insisted on every craftsperson dressing according to the period, she has organized a "Town Watch" to catch and fine any caught with anachronisms. Meg has her hands full running interference, running her booth, and running away from a serious talk with Michael about their relationship. When she discovers a body in her booth, her weekend gets even more crazy.

* * * * *
The indomitable Meg is back, with Michael in tow. As mentioned in my rating, this one was not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of her others, but it had the same mix of personal and familial chaos along with the murder investigation. In this case, Meg is trying to get along with her [possible] future mother-in-law, while also trying to keep the craft fair together. This one had less of her mother and father in it, who are two of my favorite characters, so that could be contributing to my lower rating as well.

Content: A bit of innuendo. An implied intimate relationship between Michael and Meg, as they share a tent and during one scene Michael walks in on Meg as she's changing. As with most of them, a handful of cuss words throughout.

(Finished reading Nov. 9)

No Nest for the Wicket (Meg Langslow #7)

4 stars: Rollicking, crazy, and always entertaining.

Meg and her long-suffering fiancé Michael have bought a house and are in the midst of renovations. Her father, supposedly in charge of said renovations, is also in charge of a bunch of ducks, which keeps him a bit distracted, to say the least. Meanwhile, Meg finds a murder victim in the middle of playing Extreme Croquet. Again?! If she can keep it together and maybe do a little sleuthing here and there, it could be a miracle.

* * * * *
This book had me at Extreme Croquet. Sounds like something my brothers would come up with. (Oh wait--they did, sort of. They called it Tundra Golf. Yeah, those were good times.)

(Originally reviewed August 2014.)

The Penguin Who Knew Too Much (Meg Langslow #8)

4 stars: The first one I read--I burst out laughing more than once!

Meg comes home one evening to penguins in the basement--well actually, not anymore, now that the body has been discovered. With a whole crowd of relatives coming any day now, not to mention various displaced zoo animals being dropped off (Meg's father volunteered to take care of them after the local zoo closed), Meg's life IS a zoo. Before long the police chief has set up headquarters in her parlor, and Meg is determined to figure out whodunnit, so she can happily elope as planned--hopefully with people and animals all taken care of someplace other than her house and grounds.

* * * * *
Unpredictable situations and zany characters add to the fun of trying to figure out who the guilty party is. I'll have to find more by this author. This one cracked me up!

(Originally reviewed November 2011.)

Swan for the Money (Meg Langslow #11)

4 stars: You thought craft fairs had some odd characters, welcome to the rose show!

Meg has her hands full running the local rose show, in which both of her parents have entries. The logistics aren't the half of it. The bigger difficulty may be staying sane while trying to keep a crowd of exacting, demanding, slightly deranged rosarians happy. Not to mention, she might be pregnant, but Michael is gone to NYC, and every time she has a chance to ask him to bring back a pregnancy test for her, someone comes walking by. Added to this already chaotic mix, is a murder. Meg knows she should just stay out of it, but that may impossible to do.

* * * * *
These are great fun! I laugh at the absurdities and cheer Meg on!

(Originally reviewed August 2014)

There are at least 2 others that I've read and didn't take the time to review, back in the day. Anyway, let me know if you give these a try! I'd love to know what you think!

November 10, 2016

Front Porch Updates

My in-laws came to visit last week and we got some great projects done! The most visible is our newly spiffy front porch. It has definitely been a bit of a process, but after all the effort, it finally looks finished. I'm so happy with it.

Here's the progression, over several years:

When we first moved in, August of 2010:


Kind of a slanted view, but pretty basic: wooden & blue, with space between steps and house.
Dirt underneath.

We kept that original porch for 5 1/2 years, but by then it was really in need of some help.
A couple of the railings were broken, the paint was peeling badly--it was time.

So, during last year's surprisingly mild January, we hired a builder to redo it.
We put the same decking for all the boards with foot traffic as we used on the back deck.
(It was either Trex or something like it--synthetic, very low maintenance, lasts forever.)
The rest was still wood.
We also gave up on any sort of landscaping choices in the dry strip between the porch and the house, and just filled it in with platforms for pots or planters.

January 2016

The flowerpot platforms worked beautifully!
(The white powder is ant poison--we had a real problem with carpenter ants this year.)

May 2016

That was the status quo until we had the rest of the house painted.
As the railings and under part of the porch were all still raw wood, we knew something needed to be done with them before winter.
So we had the railings painted white to match the house trim.

October 2016

I was happy with this look, but my husband felt like it still need something a little bit more to finish it off. So last week, he and his dad stained all the support boards, and added one more layer to the railings.


November 2016

I really like the wood on top--I didn't even know what I was missing until they put it on there, but now I love it!
You can also see all the rocks we used to fill in underneath the porch--a spring project.
(We did a layer of weed cloth under them first.)
Especially since this side of the porch is so open, I think the rocks went a long way toward making it look finished, as well.

Staining the support boards really helped them blend in, which was the hope.
(It will help protect them from the weather, too.)

Now--on to the next project!
(There's always a project of some kind going on around here.)

November 8, 2016

Picture Book Picks

Our library is currently closed as they replace the carpet, so these books have gotten read even more than they might have! Here are the few that have stood up to many re-readings over the past couple of weeks.

Hooway for Wodney Wat, by Helen Lester
Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

Rodney Rat has a big problem: he can't pronounce his r's. The other rodents at school tease and make fun of him, until the day comes that he becomes a hero!

* * * * *
I had forgotten about this little gem of a book. It's such a great story! Downtrodden Wodney saves the day and gains a little confidence. My kids really got the giggles at the Simon Says game. The illustrations are classic Munsinger, too: expressive and energetic.  Pretty much anything you can find from this duo is worth reading!

King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, by Audrey Wood
Illustrated by Don Wood
(Caldecott Honor 1986)

King Bidgood is determined to spend all day in the tub, foiling repeated attempts to get him out! Finally, the hard-working page boy succeeds where all else have failed.

* * * * *
This one has been around for a long time, but if you haven't come across it yet, do yourself a favor! My kids love the idea that it would be possible to do everything in the tub! Every time we read it, we pore over the illustrations to find all the little details: counting frogs in the fishing scene, finding the replica king in the bathtub at lunch, etc. The sopping, bedraggled people coming out of the tub are pretty funny-looking, too. (They all go in fully clothed.)

You just have to put out of your mind the actual weirdness of it--everybody climbing into the tub with the king in his birthday suit. If you can do that, it's all good fun.

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters, by K. G. Campbell

Lester is a list maker and a hair comber. When Cousin Clara (possibly not related) moves in with the family, he becomes something else--ugly sweater recipient. You see, Cousin Clara is a curiously speedy knitter. She also has curious taste.

These aren't just ugly sweaters. They're awful! Misshapen, dreadful colors, and little extras added on in odd places. Unfortunately, his parents make certain he graciously accepts each gift and wears it to school. Is poor Lester doomed to a life of dreadful sweaters?

* * * * *
This is such a funny, offbeat little story! The illustrations show the battle of yarn between Lester and Cousin Clara perfectly. Somehow each sweater mysteriously meets its end--rather quickly, in fact. Not to worry! Cousin Clara just keeps on knitting away. Satisfying resolution, too.

My favorite parts were the descriptions of the sweaters themselves, like: "Then there was the terribly turquoise one with several unexpected sleeves." Made me grin!

Water is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle, by Miranda Paul
Illustrations by Jason Chin

"Drip. Sip. Pour me a cup. Water is water unless...
it heats up.
Whirl. Swirl. Watch it curl by. Steam is steam unless..."

* * * * *
Gorgeous illustrations to go along with a deceptively simple, rhyming text. You'll hardly even realize all you're learning! Each page turn reveals a new stage of the water cycle. A section at the end gives more in-depth explanations and terms, but even that is very accessible for younger listeners. One paragraph per page of the book is all, each with a mini illustration.

I used this with my preschool-aged Joy School kids a couple of weeks ago, and they really liked it. Wow. I just cannot get enough of those illustrations! Highly recommended.

* * * * *

What have you come across at the library lately? Anything I should look for when it opens back up next week?

November 4, 2016

Garden Put to Bed (Last of the Fall Chores)

If this year's weather follows the same pattern as the last several years, we will get our first snowfall in the next couple of weeks.
For the first time, though, we are ready now!

Just today we had a sunny day (finally!) with weather up in the 60's.
Perfect to get those last few chores taken care of.

Here's what I've checked off in the last few weeks:

1. Dig out all the rest of the carrots.

There was one patch left behind the oregano. I was surprised by how many carrots were in there!

2. Fix the crowding issues in the front bottom terrace.

One reason I planted irises between these young shrubs, was that I knew they would be easy to move as the shrubs grew to fill in the space.

After 2 years, it was time to give the shrubs a little more elbow room!


Both of my English laurel bushes looked like this: irises crowding in on every side.

Above and below: The boxwoods needed a bit more room, as well.


After digging up and transplanting the irises these bushes finally have a little breathing room!

I  may regret not taking out that whole clump.
I just broke off the ones going into the bush.

Aah, better. Much better.

These should be all set for another couple of years now.

3. Empty out the rest of the flowerpots and store in shed.


4. Put the last of the hoses away.


5. Empty out compost tumblers onto garden.

I did not do this one last year, and wished I had.
The compost was too dry in the tumblers to break down all the way, so in spring when I needed them for all the spring cleanup, there was still half-finished compost filling them up.
So today we emptied them into a wheelbarrow and dumped all the partially finished compost onto the garden, where the winter weather will break it down the rest of the way (I hope!)
Then--bonus!--in the spring, it will be right where it's needed, ready for tilling.

6. Refill bird feeders.

DONE (for now)!

It feels good to get the last little chores done.
Are you ready for winter, or do you still have a few things to take care of?

November 3, 2016

Remembering Wholeness, by Carol Tuttle

I read this book a couple of months ago now, and I'm still processing it a bit.
There were many things I liked about it and some that made me deeply uncomfortable. However, even getting to this book has been a bit of a journey. So I guess you get to hear about that first. It's long. Consider yourself forewarned!

To understand part of my conflicting feelings about this book, I need to tell you my story of how I came to know of Carol Tuttle. Here's a link to her website, if you want to skip my chit-chat and learn about her on your own:

Carol Tuttle is an energy healer who also works with women on their appearance. Basically, you take a free mini-course to figure out which of 4 energy types you are, then you can purchase a full course to teach you how to "Dress Your Truth"--in other words, how to choose clothing, accessories, makeup, and hair styles that reflect your energy type. She also talks about parenting according to the 4 types, etc.

Anyway, I came to know Carol through the Dressing Your Truth side of things. I was hesitant at first. I thought I would just look into it, but I was pretty skeptical. I didn't want to be taken advantage of or sold something that wasn't really useful. I watched the mini-course on energy profiling, and pretty much immediately decided I was a Type 2, which in her system is a more introverted, yin, soft-spoken, subtle energy. I decided to buy the course. 

Well, that was over a year ago and I have never looked back since! After taking the course, I immediately went to my closet. It was like a light bulb went on in my head. All of a sudden, I knew why I had chosen the clothing I did. My favorite clothes were ALL Type 2 in design lines, color, fabrication, etc. Even the ones I never wore, I could pick out what I was drawn to in the first place--usually they had a couple elements that were Type 2, but were very wrong in color, or pattern, or some other area. I also figured out why I rarely wore jewelry and have since found jewelry that I enjoy wearing.

While I took the course to help me figure out a personal style, I was pleasantly surprised how much it helped me with my relationships. I pretty quickly figured out the types of my husband and children, and just knowing a little better how they relate to the world has helped me so much. In fact, looking back, some of my biggest arguments with my husband have been each of us approaching a certain problem from our own Type's frame of reference, without understanding why the other person wasn't "getting it."

Okay, so all 3 of you who are still with me after that explanation, let's talk about this book!

Remembering Wholeness, by Carol Tuttle

3 stars: Conflicted feelings on this one!

So, I knew about this book, and that it was about healing things from your childhood and moving forward in your adult energy. Carol talks a lot about clearing negative energy leftover from childhood experiences, and even generational energy imbalances. She is Mormon, and some of our doctrine comes into it, but there's a lot of it that is not doctrinal--in case you were wondering.

As Mormons, we do believe that our spirits lived with God before we came to this earth. We also believe we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother watching over us. I think those are the main two, but she touches on others as well. (You can find out more about what we believe here: Come Unto Christ.  Or just ask me! I'm always happy to talk about my religion!)

She talks a lot about how powerful our words are for creating the experiences we have, and how the angels assigned to watch over us are happy to be given tasks to make our lives easier, if invited to do so. If you say, "I always have a hard time finding a close parking space!" every time you're in a parking lot, that is the experience you are creating for yourself. So if you want to change your experiences, change your words and your expectations, invite angelic help, and be grateful for everything that begins to show up in your life.

She talks about how if you don't heal your emotional wounds from childhood, that negative energy will keep showing up in your life, amplifying each time, until you finally do something about it. I had a happy childhood overall, so at first I thought this part didn't apply to me, but it's not just about big traumatic events. It's about recognizing your triggers, for anger or sadness in particular, and how to figure out what caused that trigger to form in the first place. Healing that and moving on.

So these parts were all very fascinating to me. I am still processing them and how to apply them to my life. Very empowering. If you don't like how your life is or was, you have the power to change it! You can create a life of joy and ease, or a life of struggle and lack. It's your choice.

Where I became very uncomfortable was when she started talking about healing from abuse. (She is a survivor of abuse, herself.) Her idea is that before we born, we decided there were certain things we needed to learn--unconditional love, maybe, or forgiveness. Well, in order to learn those things, there had to be people to forgive. So basically, [she says] we asked certain people to take on those roles in this life so that we could learn what we needed to learn. So the abusers were basically fulfilling a promise made in the pre-earth life.

I just don't think that's correct. She's basically saying child abuse victims chose those experiences before they came to this earth. I can't believe that. It makes it seem like there are no true victims and almost that the abusers are let off the hook to some extent. I could see each of us being prepared, before we came to earth, for certain hard situations we would encounter--particularly abuse--but I can't buy in to the idea we chose that and even asked someone to be the perpetrator so we could learn something from it. I just...can't.

So anyway. I don't know what else to say. Like I said, I'm still mulling over a lot of what she talked about.

Any thoughts?

p.s. If you decide to try Dressing Your Truth, I would love to hear about your experiences with it!