February 27, 2018

The Indifferent Stars Above, by Daniel James Brown

This was a good one to read in the middle of winter. My sympathy for these poor people became even more acute with the wind and snow howling around my door. Not an easy read, by any means, but one that I learned a great deal from. 

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party, by Daniel James Brown

4 stars: The depths of human suffering, vividly and compassionately told.

I loved The Boys in the Boat when I read it, and I was highly interested in reading this one. He did not disappoint. Due to the nature of the story, this one was a much harder read than his first, but just as well written.

Brown follows the story of Sarah Graves Fosdick, a young newly-married woman going west with her husband and her family. She was the oldest of 8, and when the rest of them decided to leave malaria-ridden Missouri for the wonders of California, it was breaking Sarah's heart. She had just become engaged, and it looked like she was going to have choose between her marriage and seeing her family ever again. Then fortune smiled upon her--it seemed--and she and her sweetheart Jay were married prior to the trip. They determined to go along and drove their own wagon.

The first big problem they encountered was bad information. An author and scoundrel named Lansing Hastings wrote a travel guide for emigrants heading out west to Oregon and California. Some of the information in the book was okay, but one key piece was not: Hastings claimed there was a shortcut through the Sierra Nevada mountains, fully passable by wagons, that would shave several hundred miles off the journey to California.

He had never himself taken the supposed shortcut until after the publication of his book. When he did take it, even though it became obvious that it was highly unsuitable and downright dangerous, he continued to promote it to the oncoming wagon trains. The Graves and Fosdick families, along with the Donner/Reed party they had joined, determined to take Hastings at his word, rather than take the established trail. Everything that came after stemmed from this one decision.

* * * * *
I learned much I didn't know about the ill-fated Donner Expedition through this book. For instance, I didn't realize that there were so many children along, including 3 infants. Other than the fact that cannibalism was a part of it, I didn't know any of the particulars. It was heart-wrenching to read of the mothers, trapped by snow in the High Sierras for months, in makeshift cabins trying to keep their kids alive, and the brave fathers, brothers, and sisters, determined to forge a way out and get help.

They were just 100 miles or so from their final destination at that point, but the snow was 20-30 feet high in places. They made some snowshoes, which helped, but they were already run down, exhausted, and in the early stages of starvation from their long journey. The crew that went for help took a wrong turn at a critical point that added several days on to the journey. Time that they didn't have to spend. Things just spiraled down and down for them and for those they left back in the mountains.

Interestingly enough, the women out-survived the men by 2x as much. The first 14 members of the Expedition to die were all men. Of the 87 members of the party, only 40 survived the ordeal, a relatively high percentage of them children. Single unattached men had the worst survival rates; of the 15 in the group, only 3 survived.

The descriptions of cannibalism were not glossed over. If you have a weak stomach, do not read this book. Awfulness. Also, the way the decision to eat the dead affected the minds of those who did it was fascinating and disturbing. More than one went crazy and still others began contemplating murdering their companions for the meat. It seemed that once that line was crossed, other moral taboos shattered as well. All of them experienced PTSD in years to come, though of course it wasn't known as such back then.

Sarah was one of those that survived, but like all the survivors of the ordeal, at great personal cost.

The other part that I found fascinating was the description of getting their wagons through the Wasatch mountains. Weber Canyon, to be precise, which hey--what do you know?--is right in my neck of the woods these days. I've gone hiking pretty close to where they were trying to come through, I think. I could vividly picture those passages and how excruciatingly hard it must have been to get through. Meanwhile, I was feeling grateful for the freeway that runs through here now. We get through the canyon in 45 minutes and hardly think about it. Unfortunately for the Donner party, Weber Canyon was just the beginning of their troubles.

Content: Murder; starving and cannibalism described in detail. For adults.

p.s. Due to the content, this is one I haven't even mentioned to my kids. I generally like to share what I learn from the nonfiction books I've read. Not this time. Too grisly.


* * * * *
What books make you most glad to have a roof over your head? 

February 26, 2018

Find a New Favorite Clean Romance Author

Yes, I know that Valentine's Day is already behind us, but we can celebrate love the entire month of February, can't we? Our library here has a whole section for LDS (i.e. Mormon)/Christian fiction. As I discovered when browsing through it earlier in the month, a sizeable proportion of it is romance. Most of the authors were new to me. So, if you're on the hunt for a new clean romance writer, check out this list!  Many of them are series, or the author has written several stand alone books.

Chances Are, by Traci Hunter Abramson

2.5 stars: Rather predictable.

As a teenager, Maya Gupta fled to America with her grandmother, in order to escape an unwanted pre-arranged marriage. She's a survivor, and has managed to find success and happiness, even though her grandmother passed away a few years after they arrived. Then in college, she finds out she has cancer. It seems pretty hopeless; not just because of the disease itself, but because without family support, she is chronically low of funds.

Her tumor is inoperable, and she only has about a year to live. Her only chance of survival at this point (barring a miracle) is to participate in a clinical trial in Washington D.C. However, in order to do that, she will need a place to live and food to eat while on the drug regimen. Rides to and from the hospital would be nice--even necessary--as she grows weaker.

Enter Maya's friend, Kara. Well, enter Kara's brother, actually. He's a baseball player who's recently made into the Major Leagues, and just happens to have an apartment in D.C. that sits empty most of the year. Kara is certain that her brother won't mind if Maya uses his apartment for a few months. It's not like he is using it. Plus, she is a very responsible and trustworthy person.

So Kara gets Maya set up in Ben's apartment...without actually telling him about Maya. She figures Maya will be done with the treatment and gone before Ben would even think to check in on the place, and also, he might say no--which would be a death sentence for Maya. Unfortunately, after a breakup, Ben decides a relocation to D.C. will clear his head and help him get focused on preparing for the upcoming baseball season. Imagine his surprise to find a woman he barely knows living in his apartment.

* * * * *
I liked seeing the way Maya and Ben slowly came together, as far as acceptance and then tolerance, then helping each other out here and there, and finally friendship, then love. That part was well done. The description of Maya's cancer and treatment added a level of interest there, as well.

It just seemed like many of the major plot elements were rehashed stereotypes. Ben's girlfriend in CA just wanted him for his money, was jealous and controlling; Maya's almost fiancé from India was much the same; miscommunication caused the whole thing and could have been cleared up with one phone call, and so on.

It was okay, just not my favorite of hers.

Content: clean


Becoming Lady Lockwood, by Jennifer Moore

3.5 stars: A fun, light read.

Amelia Beckett is newly a widow, and honestly, feels a freedom she never had before. Her father forced to marry a business associate of his by proxy. She shuddered to think what type of man her husband would be, if he was a friend of her father's, but there was no way out of the deal, so she did it. She signed her name to the document and dreaded her husband's return. Except that he never did return. She inherited her mother's Jamaican sugar plantation and is quite happy to settle down there and run it for the forseeable future.

Than Captain Sir William Drake walks into her parlor. Amelia's late husband was his brother, and Drake is certain that the whole marriage was a sham just to get her hands on some of his family's estate. He has come all the way to Jamaica to bring her back to England and to court, to prove that the marriage was all a fraud. She goes, albeit unwillingly.

While on the ship, Amelia is surprised to find friends amongst the crew, and even learns how to repair sails and does some cooking. In fact, she lends a hand in all sorts of unusual places, including the ship's surgery. As the Captain and Amelia get to know one another better, a friendship reluctantly sparks to life, which over time may deepen into something more. Unfortunately, neither one of them can afford to forget the court date looming over them once they get to England. In fact, the ruling becomes more important than ever, but for entirely different reasons than either would have guessed at the beginning of the voyage.

* * * * *
Like many in this genre, this one was a bit predictable. OF COURSE Amelia and the good Captain Drake were going to fall for each other. How could it be any different? Seeing their friendship and then relationship develop was enjoyable, though.

Content: Clean.


The Sheriffs of Savage Wells, by Sarah M. Eden

4 stars: Different, in a good way.

Paisley Bell loves being sheriff in her tiny western town. It's too bad she's only the "fill-in" sheriff. The other one left town and since she had been his deputy, she naturally stepped in to fill the position. Savage Wells has more than it's share of eccentrics, but she knows all their quirks and just how to handle their "emergencies."

The only problem is that the Town Council has decided that a sheriff's badge truly only belongs on the shirt of a man. So they advertise for a new sheriff. Cade O' Brien is one that shows up for his shot at the position. Not that he has any doubt he'll get it, and that's not because he's arrogant. He has just seen far more than his share of bloody battles, brought in more criminals than he cares to remember, and put many more 6 feet under. He's ready to be done with all of that. All he wants is a quiet little town with emergencies that don't require a revolver. Savage Wells is certainly that.

However, Paisley isn't about to just roll over and give up this job that seems made for her to someone else. Not only does she love what she does, she needs the money. Her father's health and mind have been failing for some time and she is their sole support. So much to the surprise of the town, she throws her hat into the ring of applicants as well.

Paisley and Cade aren't the only two who want the job, but let's be honest--they're the only two who matter. It's really too bad that they find each other so darn attractive. Gets in the way of taking care of business. When that business turns ugly, they're both going to need all their attention to take care of their town.

* * * * *
Quite a break from Eden's Regency romances; this one was a lot of fun. The characters in the town were great! From the ribbon lady who has taken over the jail to the PTSD war veteran who spends his time up in a tree, there were many side characters that I was rooting for just as much as the stars of the show. The contests were a hoot. Believable? Eh, maybe not so much, but fun anyway.

I especially liked the way Cade was willing to learn how to best help the town residents, and the way his different perspective was able to bring some of them around that Paisley's tough-edged kindness couldn't.

There's definitely sparks flying between our two sheriff contestants, but Eden keeps it clean. I was interested to see how she was going to resolve the plot, while keeping within the social conventions of the time. She did a good job of it.

Content: clean.


Don't You Marry The Mormon Boys, by Janet Kay Jensen

3 stars: Can this couple overcome their differing religious beliefs?

Andy McBride and Louisa Martin meet in medical school. Over exams, study sessions, and sanity-saving breaks from studying, they fall in love. There's really only obstacle to them riding off into the sunset, but it's a big one: Louisa is from a fundamentalist polygamist sect, while Andy has been raised in the mainstream Mormon church his whole life.

Louisa has been allowed to attend medical school, but always with the understanding that she will return home afterword, get married, and take her place in the community. She insists that it's not as bad as it has been made out to be, and that the abuses so publicized from other groups don't happen in the one she was raised in. In any case, Andy is strong in his faith too. Neither one is willing to bend far enough to be together.

So they separate, with broken hearts on either side. However, as they're apart, they both have some eye-opening experiences that make them more ready to overcome the challenges that have kept them apart.

* * * * *
This one was a bit slower moving than some. The descriptions of the polygamist community were especially interesting for me, given some of the other reading I've done in the past few years. (In particular, Escape and Triumph, by Caroyln Jessup.) The plot seemed to just float along until the end, until all at once you realize that this lazy river you're on actually goes over a waterfall! Not too big of one, though, so hang on tight and you'll be fine.

Content: Clean.


The Heiress of Winterwood (Whispers on the Moors #1), by Sarah Ladd

2 stars: What will it take to keep her promise?

Amelia Barrett is determined to keep the deathbed promise made to her friend Katherine, no matter the cost. Amelia will raise baby Lucy; she will be a mother to the infant. The baby's father is a sea captain and was out on a voyage when Lucy was born and his wife passed away. Although Amelia is the heiress of her father's grand estate, she only inherits it on the condition of being married by the time she is 24. She will certainly need money to raise this little girl, and she is engaged to be married to one Edward Littleton.

Her plans have a run into a snag: Edward. He utterly refuses to allow Lucy to remain with them once they're married, insisting the she is her father's responsibility and will siphon away money that should be spent on their own family someday. Amelia was already beginning to have her doubts about Edward prior to this, but now she is really thinking the whole engagement is a mistake.

Okay, then: plan B. She will propose to the sea captain then--what was his name? Oh yes. Graham Stirling. Captain Stirling. It will be awful and humiliating, but she's not about to let sweet little Lucy grow up motherless; not when she promised her friend otherwise.

So she does. Propose to the Captain, as soon as he returns home on leave. It--er...doesn't go so well. Maybe she'll have to employ plan C: simply convince Edward (and the Captain) that Lucy must stay with her. Except that doesn't seem to be going so well either. Time is growing short! What is she going to do?

* * * * *
A bit on the melodramatic side. Nearly every character had their bit of drama and/or secret vices unveiled. I'm a little surprised no-one ended up dueling--not excluding Amelia! Interesting that even a wealthy woman back in those times usually had to be married to access her own wealth. That seemed to true to other things I've read.

Also, while I understood Amelia's utter determination to keep her promise to her friend, it did seem odd that she would insist on that even when the baby's father had returned, and had other ideas. Doesn't it seem like his ideas and plans for his own baby should take precedence over hers? I actually sympathized a bit with Edward in that regard. Not sending away the baby so she wouldn't use up the money--that part was a bit ridiculous and over the top (more drama) but his point that figuring out who should raise Lucy was really the Captain's concern, not Amelia's or Edward's, deathbed promises notwithstanding.

I wonder what the book would have been like if the Captain truly wanted nothing to do with Amelia, and yet she continued to insist on keeping Lucy and raising her. Then Amelia would have become the villainess, wouldn't she? Would she have kidnapped the baby and run away with her in the name of keeping her promise? We'll never know. It's just interesting that what was made out to be a virtue in this story could easily have gone the other way.

Along those lines, I was a bit put out with Amelia's stubborn ways (I believe back then the word was "headstrong"). As most bookish ladies tend to do, for instance, she insisted on going with the Captain on a certain journey, when her presence most certainly caused more problems for everyone--as he predicted it would. And yet, he loved her all the more for it. That's the part that made me wonder, because I think in real life, most men would stay far away from a woman who was so insistent on getting her own way that she put others and herself at risk to do so--but hey, what do I know?  It made for a more exciting ending, so there was that.

This was a Christian romance, so there were inserts of scripture here and there, and talk of faith and praying. I didn't mind it all. It was woven into the story well and not just straight up preaching at you.

Content: Clean


Sense and Second Chances, by Brittany Larsen

3 stars: Obstacles to love for 2 sisters.

Emily Carter suddenly finds herself in charge of her 18 year old sister Annie and 10 year old brother Bryce, when both their parents are killed in an airplane accident. Suddenly her life plans look drastically different. Between trying to keep her bipolar sister on her meds, and her little brother going to everything he needs to--like school, for instance--she doesn't have the time or desire for dating.

Then her stepbrother Jason drops a bombshell: he's getting married and they plan to move into the house that Emily and the other 2 are living in. He inherited it; and it's not like he's being a jerk about it, but still--they've got to now find a new place to live on top of everything else. His fiancée's brother Joel is a contractor, who comes over a few times to measure the kitchen for remodeling changes. Emily and Joel start to hit it off a little bit, but there are some serious obstacles in the way of their relationship. Namely, he's Jewish and she's Mormon, and both believe their religion to be true.

There is this ranch in Utah that Emily's dad had purchased awhile back. She was thinking of just selling it, rather than fixing it up and turning it into a high-end getaway lodge according to his plans, but now that they have nowhere else to go, it's looking better and better. Not only that, Annie's got a lead on a part. Her acting career has been in a downward spiral ever since she did some ads for the Stop Porn campaign, so this could be huge. The only trouble? She would have to move to Utah. Things seem to be falling into place.

Once they get out to Utah, however, they are going to have a whole new set of challenges to face. Emily has to decide how long she's willing to date Joel, even when it seems to be going nowhere fast, and Annie has a couple of guys showing interest in her--one of whom seems a bit shady to Emily. Since she's not the mom, and her sister is 18, what can she do about that?

* * * * *
It's always fun to see a modern twist on an old favorite. Satisfying growth in the characters, particularly with Annie.

Content: Clean.


A Match of Wits (Ladies of Distinction #4), by Jen Turano

3 stars: An entertaining story with lots of talking.

Our story starts off in 1883, with our heroine Agatha Watson, off to the Wild West on a newspaper assignment. She is a journalist--quite a good one, actually--and had to be sent out of New York City for her own safety. Let's just say some of her articles exposed criminals that didn't take kindly to the coverage. Multiple death threats later, here she is Colorado, male bodyguard and female traveling companion in tow.

While she's trying to find a story to report on in Colorado City, whom does she run across but her old flame, Zayne Beckett. My, but he has changed since they parted ways. He had gone to California to marry someone else, and Agatha had buried her broken heart in her work. Now she can be forgiven, perhaps, for having mistaken him for a mountain man. He is grizzled, apparently lame in one leg, and drinking. A lot.

Miss Watson does not know why her old friend would be in this state, but she is determined that he won't stay in it. She will get him back to the comforts of home and family in NYC however she can. As trouble tends to follow her, she will try to stay out of it for awhile--forthwith. Besides, she cannot be expected to take the blame for wild outlaws and dynamite mishaps, can she?

* * * * *
I've got to say, this book is around 75% "witty banter" and 15% action. Or maybe more like 90/10. You know you're an introvert when all the talking IN A BOOK wears you out. Every situation had to be discussed and sharp or amused retorts made back and forth over it. There were some funny, or exciting moments, then back to more talk, talk, talking. Then at least 2 or 3 attempts to make things right between Zayne and Agatha, but alas, the wrong words were said, so then more words had to come about from both parties. An abundance of words.

Other than all being on the loquacious end of the spectrum, the characters had their quirks and endearing qualities. The action that did happen was entertaining.

If you enjoy conversations, many of which were witty--I can grant it that--then you will adore this book. As for me, I may try some of her others, after I've recuperated from this one a bit.

By the way, I didn't realize this was 4th in a series until I looked it up on Goodreads. For the most part I was up to speed, though there were some family relationships that obviously had backstories I was missing out on.

Content: Clean.


Picture Perfect, by Beverly King

3 stars: A cozy little winter romance, just right for this time of year. 

Jillian Taylor is the big time model from tiny Quail Creek, Idaho. At least, she used to be. These days she drifts from party to party; the jobs have long since dried up, and so has the money. She's too embarrassed to admit that she's washed up, let alone return home or ask her dad for help. Then he dies, and she must go back for the funeral. She has to borrow money from a friend to even get a ticket back for that.

She is hurt by the hostility and resentment aimed toward her back home in Quail Creek. Apparently her dad had been sick for some time, though he had never told her as much in the their monthly phone conversations. Too add another huge shock, he didn't leave her any assets. She thought she would be able to sell the house, at the very least, but that has been put up for auction to pay off his debts. Now she really is at rock bottom. No parents, no house; she's not allowed to even save a few  mementos from growing up. She's not sure what she's going to do, but she is good at putting on a brave face, so she starts with that.

Her friend from high school days, Randy Prescott, seems like he would like to rekindle a romance with her, even though he is currently engaged. Meanwhile, Luke Prescott--Randy's older brother--is still his critical, distant self. It seems like every comment he makes to her has a barb hidden in it somewhere.

When her situation seems darkest, Jillian decides to go talk to the Bishop in her dad's ward. Maybe he can get her the money for a ticket back to New York, or something. Anything. What he suggests, however, is far beyond her comfort zone. It turns out that Luke has been taking care of his elderly housekeeper/nanny for some time, but really could use a hand. He's got so much to do running his 12,000 head sheep ranch, that he doesn't have the time he would like to be with Emma.

Jillian takes on the job out of sheer desperation. It comes with free room and board, plus weekly pay. She's determined to make this work; at least until she can earn money to move back to New York. She doesn't expect to love Emma, and certainly doesn't expect Emma's warmth and love in return. Perhaps everything her starving heart and life have needed can be found right here...in Luke Prescott's kitchen. If only she can put up with him in the bargain...

* * * * *
A bit formulaic, starring Luke as the brooding hero with hurt in his past, and Jillian as the beautiful but broken heroine.  Hey, you do get some good distinguishing details, and the romance develops slowly over time, which is the way I like it. Emma was a gem; a great example of how kindness and love will bring someone back to God much more quickly and effectively than accusations and anger. Amazing how that works, isn't it? :)

Content: Clean


Summer of the Midnight Sun (Alaskan Quest #1), by Tracie Peterson

3 stars: Love, intrigue, and faith, way up North.

Leah and her brother Jacob have lived in a tiny village in the Alaskan bush since they were children. Their father brought the family up for the Gold Rush, and though they never expected to stay, they have. They appreciate and are accepted by the native villagers, and run a one-room supply store, which they restock whenever Jacob is able to get over to Nome.

Leah's one regret is that she is getting older now--30 in fact--and there are zero prospects for marriage on the horizon. The natives aren't interested in marrying a white woman, and there are no single white men within miles (not counting her brother, of course.) She had a chance at love ten years before, but Jayce Kinkaid had turned her down flat. Worse, he had not even taken her seriously.

So when her brother returns from a trip to Nome, bringing along none other than Jayce Kinkaid, Leah is not only furious, she is afraid. She's spent the past decade mulling over what had happened between them, and now here is the man in the flesh. He doesn't even seem to know why she's so mad. She knows she should have gotten over it all long ago, but just hasn't. Maybe she would have if she had found someone else in the meantime.

Now Jacob wants to join Jayce on a polar expedition. Jacob knows everything about dogs and running sleds, and his help would be invaluable on the trip. At least that's what Jayce is saying. Leah is not too happy with the plans, but after all, they are both adults and can make their own decisions.

Then Jayce gets in an accident with the dogs and must be taken to Nome to the doctor. Leah goes with Jacob, as she has had some experience with healing and if he doesn't stay stabilized, he could die. Once in Nome, they meet a woman with a secret, Ms. Helaina Beecham. None of them can quite figure out her angle, but they're sure she has one. She seems very keen on getting Jayce to Seattle, for some reason, and has even lied to them in her attempts to do it. Very odd.

* * * * *
I was drawn into this one by the Alaskan setting. I enjoyed reading about life in the village and coming across some of the words I grew up with: kuspuk, and mukluks, for example. This is set in 1915, so of course there were many differences from when I grew up there. For instance, I learned in school about the native people building sod huts, but by the time we were there, everyone lived in frame houses.

The mystery wasn't very urgent, but it kept things moving at a nice pace, when emotions, scripture, and romance alone were about to bog things down. I had a hard time relating to Leah. She wallowed a bit, when I wanted her to just buck up and be a little more--well, headstrong. Sure, she got mad from time to time, but it took her a really long time to have it out with Jayce. (I'm hard to please, aren't I? When the heroines are too feisty it bugs me and when they're not enough that bothers me too.)

Some of the characters struggle with faith in God, and others try to help them with it. Jacob and Helaina have many interesting conversations about justice and mercy. It was right on that line of being too much, but just managed to keep it all pertinent to the story.

It's not that I mind when stories have Christian themes--I am Christian, after all. I enjoy that and find it interesting, usually. I just don't like it when I'm completely pulled out of the story to read long passages of scripture that are only tangentially related to the plot or characters at hand. I like it much better when the characters are Christian and their religious practice is brought in simply as part of who they are and their normal daily life. So yes, if they turn to their scriptures or pray to help them gain insight for a particular problem, great! If they spend half a chapter quoting scripture; not my favorite.


This one does leave you with a cliffhanger ending, so be aware of that. Just check out number 2 at the same time, so you can avoid the letdown.

Content: Clean.


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Do you have a favorite clean romance author not listed here? Do tell!

February 22, 2018

El Deafo, by Cece Bell

Another Newberry book! Check it off! I have been enjoying the continuation of this goal so far. It's easy to get sidetracked into the slush pile of middle grade fiction. It has been refreshing to read these award winners and appreciate the genre all over again!

El Deafo, by Cece Bell
2015 Newberry Honor

3 stars: Life is full of ups and downs for Cece, many of which revolve around her hearing loss.

Cece loses her hearing after an illness, when she is little. After her kindergarten year, which was in a school for the deaf, she enters 1st grade in a mainstream elementary school. Even with a super-powerful hearing aid called "The Phonic Ear", she still has some trouble at school. A lot of her understanding depends on lip reading, which can be tricky.

Her other problems are with finding friends. Her first "best friend" Laura is okay, though mean and bossy at times. At least she doesn't seem to mind Cece's deafness. When Ginny comes along, Cece is relieved that she doesn't seem pushy. Cece has had about enough of Laura's brand of friendship by that point. Unfortunately, Ginny always makes a big deal out of Cece's deafness. She talks very slowly and loudly, even after Cece tells her to stop. That one doesn't last either. Then there's Martha. She's super nice, not at all bossy, and doesn't make a big deal out of Cece's deafness. They have a ton of fun together, until an accident happens while playing tag, and Martha gets a little freaked out by it, thinking Cece's injury was all her fault.

Through it all, Cece has to deal with being different than almost everyone else she knows--for better or worse.

* * * * *
I haven't read very many graphic novels; this was a good one. The use of speech bubbles really added to the story. For instance, when Cece found out she couldn't hear, all the speech bubbles were blank. Or, if someone talked softly, or her hearing aid batteries were running down, the typeface in the speech bubbles got lighter. A lot of nonsense words in speech bubbles were used throughout the book, to show what it might sound like for a deaf person in a hearing world, trying to make out what other people are saying.

The characters were all depicted as rabbits. Maybe this was because they have big ears, so it would be easy to see the hearing aids? :)

There was a lot that kids of all backgrounds could relate to. Who hasn't had friendship issues or been picked on for being different? Or worried that everyone is staring at you? With that common basis to start from, perhaps some greater empathy for those who don't fit in will follow.

I really liked how through Cece's narrative, kids can gain some understanding of how a deaf person may want to be treated. Or, at least, gain a better understanding what the potential barriers might be--to friendship, or other pursuits. I also liked how she added in teaching moments: signs that talked about how to read lips, or what made it hard to read lips, etc.

As far as it winning a Newberry goes, I think at times the award is given to books that highlight a particular problem, or give a unique perspective, that could benefit from greater exposure. I would guess that the committee members strive to be inclusive in their choices, which may mean paying particular attention to books written by or about minorities. I didn't think this was an amazing book. However, I can see why it won an Newberry Honor: it was an appealing, well-written account of what it feels like to grow up deaf in a hearing world. I would imagine there aren't many of those that come along. Winning a Newberry Honor probably gave it the push it needed to get into many more kids' hands.

I think it would appeal to elementary school aged kids, though I've had it checked out from the library now for a couple of weeks, and I haven't seen either of my older two pick it up yet. Maybe if I give them a little nudge...

Content: One mention of a swear word; Cece mishears something her boy crush says, and thinks "Did you say 'breast?'

* * * * *
Have you read this one? What did you think?

February 19, 2018

Why I Won't Put in a Water Feature

There's a big trend in gardening right now to put in a pond, or stream, or water feature of some sort. 
The main idea is that it will attract wildlife, but the sound of running water is also supposed to be very soothing and give the feeling of being in an oasis. I think.

I have yet to put one in.
At least, not a permanent installment of the kind I see all over the internet.
I had a birdbath in Washington, that I was happy to keep filled in the summer.
Robins often took a bath in it and mourning doves got a daily drink.
It was enjoyable and made me feel good.
I felt like I was doing my bit to keep suburban bird populations thriving.
I didn't have room for a pond, which was okay by me.
I had little ones and a pond was a safety hazard I wasn't ready to navigate.

So now here we are in a more rural community in Utah.
I have even less desire to make a fake pond in my backyard.
I do actually have room here, but it's not going to happen.
You see, there's water all over the place around here!

We have a river across the street, running through our neighbor's back yards.
Most of the fields and several of the lawns around here are still flood irrigated.
This means there are canals full of water very close by.
[Not ours, mind you. The canal along the far edge of our property had only about 2 inches in it on one day last summer; the rest of the time it was bone dry.]
The one right across the road in the horse pen, though, had 3-4 feet of water all summer long.
There are more canals all along the east side of the field behind our property, again running 4-6 feet deep, all summer long.

I brought along our birdbath, and had it set up out front last summer, but even when I remembered to fill it, I never once saw a bird using it. Why should they? There's water all over the place!
Water that stays cool and even has a slight current.

That's the main reason.
There are others.
One of the bigger ones is that I'm just too lazy to do it.
Putting in a fake pond or stream is quite an investment of time and money and sweat.
Then you have to maintain the blasted thing. Regularly.
Otherwise it becomes more of a swamp, complete with funky smell and mosquitos.

Another one new to me: Utah is a desert.
Water is a Big Deal here, as I have been learning since we moved.
(I know, it seems to contradict what I just said about water being everywhere, but even with the water resources we have in our little valley, drought and water usage always loom large in the public consciousness here. The condition of the snowpack in the mountains--or lack thereof--is reported on daily in the weather news.)
It seems rather extravagant to use precious water just to make a pretty noise in your backyard.
I realize that most of these systems have pumps that recycle the water, but the air is so dry here I'm sure you would lose a significant amount to evaporation.
Even if I had one, I would probably feel too guilty to run it.

And...I still have the safety concern.
Before my baby was born, this one wouldn't have been as big an issue, since the next youngest is 5, but even so--water draws kids like a magnet.
Not only would I not want the older kids playing in it, but in the case of a pond or stream, I would worry about my baby girl ever being out in the back yard without direct supervision.

The one water feature I still consider from time to time is a bubbler-type fountain, the kind you can make in a large pot. Lately, though, I've considered it less and less. I just don't see the point.
I KNOW the kids would constantly be playing in it.
Probably neighbor kids too.
It's not a relaxing garden element if you're constantly battling your children over staying out of it.
Put on the sprinklers and let them have some good old-fashioned fun that way.
At least the grass would get watered.

Do you have a water feature in your garden?
Go ahead; give me all the reasons why I need to add one in mine!
(Or tell me all your horror stories. Ha!)

February 17, 2018

3 Winter Gardens

What is it about a winter garden that stirs the imagination? Perhaps it is the sense of buried hope and possibilities, or the stark beauty of things as they are. Perhaps it is the surprise of finding the soft, bright little face of a blossom, when all else is cold and gray.

[West side apple tree.]

In the winter, forms are exposed; structure laid bare. It's ideal for pruning most things, because you can see precisely what needs to go. There are no leaves or flowers to distract the eye or get in the way.

For a gardener, it takes work and a different perspective than the norm to design a winter garden. Instead of thinking about leaf form and colors and bloom times of blossoms, you must instead think about colorful stems, evergreens, structures and lines that would be accentuated by a covering of snow. Even hardscaping comes into play--how would a path or the gate lend itself to adding interest in the winter?

[Echinacea, or purple coneflowers, with a touch of frost.]

[Beautiful red stems of 'Arctic Fire' dogwood, or cornus.]

So it's intriguing to me that so many authors have taken this idea and incorporated into books. I don't just mean nonfiction to help gardeners incorporate winter interest into their landscape, either, but pages of novels listed on Goodreads with similar versions of this title. Here are two of them.

The Winter Garden, by Johanna Verweerd

3.5 stars: A thoughtful portrait of a woman coming to terms with her past.

When Ika Boerema receives a letter from her sister, to tell her that their mother is dying, she hardly knows what to do about it. She has distanced herself from her family for the past 15 years. Why on earth would Nelly expect her to come home now? And yet.... and yet. What if her mother had actually been the one asking for her to come? Even after all these years, she can't help but hope for some glimmer of love and acceptance from her mother.

She thought she had put her painful childhood behind her, but this letter brings it all back. She was the older sister, and always the scapegoat for every harsh word, stern rebuke, and raised hand. Her father couldn't stand the sight of her, it always seemed, and her mother's affections wavered greatly. Nelly was always the favorite--of them all, including Ika. She swore she would protect her little sister from whatever their dysfunctional family could throw at her. Somehow, though, it wasn't sweet Nelly that needed protecting, but Ika, and there wasn't anyone around to protect her most of the time.

So now. The letter. What to do? She finally decides she must return home, to deal with the pieces of her past the best she can and attempt a reconciliation with Nelly. In order to keep herself grounded in the present, in the life she has painstakingly created for herself over the years, she brings her current work project: designing a Winter Garden for the Plaza Hotel. She hopes it will be life preserver enough to keep her from drowning in the ocean of hurtful memories that will certainly surface as she returns.

* * * * *
This one was slow-moving. Entire worlds of nuance were embedded in every look, sigh, silence, and conversation. Liberally sprinkled with flashbacks, we got to know Ika the daughter and older sister before we got to know the Ika the woman very much. It was all about the characters and finding out what made them tick--in the past, and present.

Ika's mother was an interesting character; hard to understand. The daughter of a prominent minister, she had to endure a lifetime of disgrace when she became pregnant out of wedlock. Perhaps the weight of that shame was too much to carry. (Ika's full name was "Ikabod" meaning "shame"--named by the Grandfather.) There were Christian themes interwoven throughout the story, along with scriptures.

It wasn't all heavy and depressing. There were bright spots here and there. Ika's friendship with her boss, Simone, was one, as were her growing relationships with her sister, and the brother-in-law and nephews she had never met.

If you like character-driven books, this one should be right up your alley.

Incidentally, Ika's plans for the Winter Garden sounded completely lovely.

Content: Emotional, verbal, and some physical abuse toward Ika as a child.


Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah

4 stars

Meredith and Nina grew up together, both seeking for their mother's love and approval, and each ultimately giving up the search. Anya was just too cold, too unreachable--except to their father. There was much they didn't understand about their mother, and it didn't help that she was never one to talk.

With their father's death, things were brought to a head emotionally in the family. His deathbed request, that the girls listen to their mother's Russian fairytale--all the way to the end this time--seemed foolish and pointless. But as their mother tells the story; haltingly, and just a bit at a time; a strange thing happens: it starts to heal their relationships. As the girls begin to finally understand their mother, it changes their whole outlook. And their understanding and forgiveness may finally be what thaws her frozen heart.

* * * * *
Parts of this book were painful to read--perhaps because they were brought to life so well. Like the sisters, I was drawn into the "fairy tale" more and more each time it was told. As a mother, I imagined myself having to make the kinds of choices the Russian mothers had to make and wondering how I would have done it. You see, Anya was a mother in WWII Leningrad, during the siege on the city that blocked any food or supplies from coming in.

One part that really stuck with me was when the young mother must leave her children, ages 4 and 2, locked in their apartment alone & crying, while she and her mother went to wait in line for food for an indefinite period of time. She told her mother that it was impossible--she couldn't do it. And her mother said, "You will have to do many impossible things now." And she did.
Then it got to the point that even survival seemed impossible, yet somehow, she did that too.

I was first going to give this one 3 stars, but as I think back on it more, I'm upgrading it to 4.

(Reviewed on Goodreads March 2016.)

* * * * *

I guess you could say this post actually includes 4 winter gardens, since all but the first photo above were taken in Washington. I am working hard to add all kinds of beautiful plants to our home here in Utah, but it is definitely a process that takes some time.

Today felt like spring, and my daughter and I were able to spend some time in the afternoon digging out a new flowerbed in back. It's going to be a big one, so even with the progress we made there is still far to go. It felt so good to be out in the sunshine, though, that it was totally worth it!

We're supposed to get 6 inches of snow tomorrow, so it may be awhile before we can get back to that project again.

February 13, 2018

Winter Sowing, Round 2

A quick update on the winter sowing project.

Packing tape is garbage for these. Don't use it!
I went out and bought some clear Gorilla Tape, which was painfully expensive, but has been working much better to hold the two halves of the jugs together.

You should see some condensation on the insides of your jugs.
If you don't then they're too dry, and either your tape isn't sticking, or the weather has warmed up enough that you need to give them a little drink.
Well, mine from the first round didn't have any condensation at all, except the candy bucket, which had so much I was worried about mold. The weather has been unseasonably warm, but not warm enough to dry out the jugs.
So before I started planting Round 2, I took all the useless packing tape off the original jugs, got them watered again using the spray bottle, and replaced the tape with my new fancy-schmancy tape. 
I also poked a few more air holes in the lid of the candy bucket.

Now for Round 2. 
These were done Feb. 7, using the same methods as before.

I've got some big plans involving violas for Mother's Day, so I planted 2 jugs of violas.
Unfortunately, the seed was very old--somewhere around 8 years old.
I sowed it thickly, and will be happy if any of them germinate.

Then I did one of Carnations 'Chabaude la France,' since they take longest to flower out of all my seed packets, and another of Iceland Poppies. 
You probably can't read the jug, but on that one I wrote "Iceland Poppies mostly." Ha!
I didn't get very many seeds in the packet for that one, plus I'm saving some seeds from each packet to start in the traditional way. Well, I had a bunch of loose seeds in the bottom of my seed box, which looked a lot like poppy seeds. They were small and black, anyway.
There's a fairly good chance that's what they are; I did collect poppy seed from my cutting garden 2 years ago in Washington.
So anyway, I sprinkled some of those in there as well.
We may get a surprise, if and when things come up.

I had a little helper to keep me company this time around.
She was very patient until right at the end. :)

I'm still eager to find out how well this method works!
Also, I'm still saving up milk jugs.
I may do one more round before switching over to the other method.

February 12, 2018

2013 Newberry Award Winners

This group of Newberry books were all very different in theme and mood. Although the winner wasn't my favorite, it may be just the thing for the mood you're in. There are some great reads here!

For a tender story about an intelligent gorilla:

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
2013 Newberry Award

3 stars: Liked it; didn't love it.

Ivan the gorilla lives in a mall right off the freeway, where folks come and see him. There's also an old circus elephant named Stella who does a few tricks, and a few other animals. Bob the dog is a stray, but sleeps on Ivan's stomach most nights.

Ivan is not the fearsome animal his billboard makes him out to be. In fact, he is an artist. His owner, Mack, sells his paintings for $20 in the gift shop ($25 framed). Ivan is resigned to his life, with the short beginning and endless middle, until baby elephant Ruby joins the menagerie. Stella makes Ivan promise to protect Ruby and take care of her, once she is gone, and Ivan agrees.

As time goes on, things go badly for Mack. Numbers are dwindling, and Mack is getting desperate. None of the animals are being treated right, but especially baby Ruby is suffering. Ivan must figure out how to keep his promise and get Ruby out of there. If only the humans could understand his art. One special little girl named Julia may be just the person to make the connection.

* * * * *
I didn't love this as much as most other people. I don't know if I could even tell you why. It has some good messages in it, and the characters are each distinct and well-written. I guess I was having a hard time suspending my disbelief. It's strange, because that's usually not a problem for me. I read books with talking, thinking animals in them quite often, but for some reason, I didn't really get into it this time.

I just found out that it was based on a real gorilla named Ivan who lived in a mall, then eventually got moved to the Atlanta Zoo. (Yes, if you've read it, you probably already knew that.) That makes me like it a little more.

(Finished reading Aug. 21, 2017)

Grab a blanket and settle in for an atmospheric, redemptive tale:

Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz
2013 Newberry Honor

5 stars: This was great! Historical fiction with a hint of mystery and a dash of magic.

Grisini is a puppet master with a shadowy past, who works his trade on the streets of London, circa 1860. He has two foundlings that work with him and for him: Lizzie Rose, an orphan whose father was an actor; and Parsefall, a boy he "rescued" from the workhouse. The puppets are not the English Punch and Judy shows, but rather marionettes--or fantocinni, as Grisini calls them. Lizzie Rose plays the music and Parsefall has worked up to maneuvering some of the puppets. He also steals for Grisini from those watching the show.

When Clara, a girl from a wealthy family, sees the puppet show in the park one day, she is enthralled. She decides this is all she wants for her birthday--though of course it will not be all she gets. After much begging and even some tears, her father relents. Clara's other siblings all died of cholera some years back, and her parents still mourn their loss heavily. To Clara, they have become the Others, and she is sick of visiting the cemetery on every holiday (including her birthday) and constantly being reminded that they are gone while she is not. She is certain her 12th birthday will be the best ever.

One other player in this drama becomes increasingly important as time goes on: the old witch Cassandra. She has a fire opal which has given her magical strength over the years and allowed her to control those around her. Now in her old age, however, the opal is consuming her. She had a terrible argument with Grisini years ago concerning the opal. He had mentioned some way to get rid of it, but she had never let him finish before cruelly injuring him. (She thought she had killed him, but then her second sight tells her otherwise.) The unfinished sentence haunts her now. She must summon him to her bedside and learn what she can.

When Clara goes missing the night after the birthday party, police think she was kidnapped. They suspect Grisini, but can't find any evidence. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall also suspect Grisini; even more so as they begin to hear rumors and stories of other missing children over the years. They had gotten along quite well with the Clara, in the limited time before the puppet show started, and are determined to help her if they can. Then they make a terrible discovery.

* * * * *
This was great! Schlitz evokes the foggy, shadowy underworld of London quite well. I could picture every part of it, from the rope handrail on the stairs at the cheap boardinghouse where Grisini and children lived, to the cold mysterious tower that was Cassandra's home in Strachan Gyll.

The point of view switched every so often between characters, which added richness and depth to the story. There was a couple magical threads that wound their way through the narrative, but magic wasn't necessarily the focus of it. The puppets were what tied everything together.

Due to content and length, I would give this to older middle graders/younger teens on up--so probably 12+. I actually think this would be a great one for adult book clubs. There would be some interesting things to discuss. Including this one I've been thinking about since finishing it: who was the real puppet master and who were the puppets?

Content: Physical violence--some of it toward children, drinking mentioned many times, pickpocketing, a handful of swear words, intense scenes, deaths of a couple of the main characters.

(Read 02-01-18)

To lighten up a rainy day:

Three Times Lucky (Tupelo Landing #1), by Sheila Turnage
2013 Newberry Honor

4 stars: Funny and poignant, with a murder mystery to boot.

Mo LeBeau doesn't know who her real, "upstream" mother might be. All she knows is that she washed ashore in Tupelo Landing as a baby, same day as the Colonel. He can't remember his past, either. Luckily for them both, Miss Lana took them in and they have made a family of their own ever since.

But now there's a murder investigation going on, and their sleepy little town is getting all shook up over it. Mo is determined to help the investigators get to the bottom of it, dragging her best friend Dale right along with her.

Very enjoyable.

(Reviewed on Goodreads, Nov. 2013)

My review of the sequel to this book, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, can be found here. It's the 3rd review down.

For an on-the-edge-of-your-seat TRUE story:

Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin
2013 Newberry Honor
2013 Sibert Medal

5 stars: I loved it!

This was actually the 2nd time I checked this one out of the library. It had a lot of potential, but I just wasn't ready to do [what I thought would be] the work of reading it. Then I actually opened it and started reading. I was immediately sucked in, and couldn't put it down!

The first-person viewpoints, the photographs, the story itself; all of it was excellent and well-researched.

Awesome non-fiction for teens!

(Reviewed on Goodreads, June 2014)

* * * * *
Happy reading!