Friday, September 30, 2011

Sweet Sanctuary by Sheila Walsh and Cindy Martinusen-Coloma

I’ve been driving for years and years (just how many will remain a secret), and I actually learned to drive on an old stick shift farm truck without any of the gears marked, very different than driving a comfortable mini-van or sedan with a backup camera and all the newest gadgets.  But both of these experiences would be totally different than driving a semi-truck loaded to its limits.  These unique forms of driving draw a strong analogy between the steps and methods of writing fiction versus nonfiction.  Knowing that nonfiction has the background of facts and truth (let’s hope), I can understand how two authors can work together to present those facts to a reading audience.  Perhaps one does more of the research and outlining, while the other puts the ideas into organized, readable prose. However, I have never been able to understand how two authors can collaborate to write one complete story, and actually you don’t see that happening too often.  I did read about two Christian authors who alternated writing chapters once they had the main characters decided upon.  The resulting book was a surprise for both of them.  I’m not sure how Sheila Walsh and Cindy Martinusen-Coloma divided their writing tasks when compiling Sweet Sanctuary, but the result is a warm contemporary story that will appeal to fans of Karen Kingsbury and other authors of family stories.  Sheila Walsh is known for being part of the Women of Faith ministry and has authored other books.  Cindy Martinusen-Coloma has been writing since the late 90s and has made a name  writing Christian YA novels with strong female characters.  This dual effort is probably just the first of many because I could easily see the village of Cottage Cove “birthing” some additional stories and romance.  In fact this story of Wren and her young, musically endowed son Charles ends with signs that more could follow.
As the story begins, Wren has settled into life at Cottage Cove in the keeper’s cottage at the old beach house her mother owns.  A single mother, Wren loves her life as one of the town’s librarians, but is contemplating another move if Charles is accepted at an elite Boston music school.  Very quickly four other significant crises come Wren’s way: 1. She learns that somehow her son and her ex-husband, who abandoned them when Charlie was three months old, have made contact. 2.  Her 90 year old grandmother arrives unexpectedly; demanding a birthday bash which Wren’s siblings will be expected to attend – siblings that have been estranged for years. 3. The library, like libraries everywhere, is struggling with the realities of budget cuts and technological changes.  How can Wren adapt? 4.  The last problem?  Of course, it will be romance, despite Wren's claims that she is happy in her single life.
This title offers no surprises in plot or romance; they will develop as expected.  However, the side stories  make time spent with this book worthwhile.  Charles, who just last year was the new kid, wonders how he can become part of the larger, more popular fifth grade crowd without hurting the feelings of his first friend, a young boy with a sensory disorder (somewhat like autism).  This side story adds depth and sensitivity to the whole book, as does the arrival of Wren’s 15 year old defiant, authority resenting nephew.  I immediately loved Charles and could sense the strong parent-child bond there, but it was also so clear how easily a young child can come under negative influences without a parent recognizing it.   Sweet Sanctuary could be dismissed as  a light, fast read, but you really should stop along the way and consider the consequences that silence, guilt, and secrets caused in this story.  Walsh and Martinusen-Coloma would want you to, at the same time you witness the great power of forgiveness, change, and new beginnings.

I received a digital advanced copy of this book, but I was not required or expected to write a positive review.  The thoughts expressed are my own.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

We've just returned from a few days in the north woods.  Colors are not at peak yet and the weather was rainy, so we missed those glowing scenes with rays of glimmering light bouncing off the oranges and scarlet red leaves.  But still, it was a relaxing trip and we savored what color there was.  I was able to read a couple books which was encouraging because last week it took me five or six whole days to read one novel.  I was in the midst of some sewing projects and my eyes and the small print of the book just would not cooperate.  I will be so, so happy when all has healed from my tear duct surgery and I can figure out if I need new glasses or what!

On many levels, modern novels are frequently about communication or the lack of it.  Stories with secrets really are about the lack of communication, whether intentional or by accident.  Relationship stories often include a break down in communication or some level of misunderstanding.  In light "chick lit" or romance stories the miscommunication threatens any hope of a happy ending, but then you know, just know, things will unravel and all with be well.

Slender Thread by Katherine Davis is a very different "communication' story.  Margot expects to spend a Thanksgiving much like other holidays with her sister Lacey's family while Margot's boyfriend Oliver visits his adult daughter.  Within minutes of being picked up at the station, Margot knows this holiday and the coming year will not be like any other.  Older sister Lacey, just 50, confides that she has been diagnosed with a form of early onset dementia which will take away her ability to speak.  Already she is beginning to have trouble transfering her thoughts to actual words, but she is compensating so well that her twin teen daughters have not noticed anything (or so she thinks).  Margot, scarred from their dysfunctional upbringing and her failed first marriage, has always seen Lacey as her rock of stability.
Can she reverse the role as Lacey's family pulls Margot further into their deepening problems?  And how will her relationship with Oliver adjust?  From the first paragraphs and Lacey's revelation of her condition, I expected this to be Lacey's story, but interestingly enough, Lacey's thoughts remained locked away from her family and from the reader for much of the book.  Oliver paints, Lacey weaves, and Margot works in a gallery, but rediscovers her passion for painting during the year.  Artists will tell you that art is a form of communication, and these artisits need their art as a way to communicate their emotional distress -- but as you will discover, in close human relationships, art is not enough.  True feelings must be shared and expressed.  It is a slender thread that prevents that honest communication, or maybe it is a slender thread that finally allows it.  Katherine Davis has written a family story with depth and sensitivity. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Decision Points -George W. Bush looks back at his presidency

Earlier this summer both Russ and I began listening to an audio version of former President George W. Bush's memoir Decision Points (an abridged version, I think), narrated by the president himself.  I've already said that I believe audio versions of memoirs should be narrated by the author for authenticity, and I am sure that this book would not have been successfull without Bush's distinctive Texan accent and speech pattern.  The book chapters are arranged around signicant decisions in his life, beginning with his decision to leave behind the bad boy drinking days of his youth and to become a man that his whole family could be proud of.  The book does not, however, follow a chronological order, and that may bother some readers/listeners. 

I tend to keep my political views to myself.  Well, that's not completely true.  Let's say I am usually skeptical of all politicians and have not been a whole hearted supporter of any elected official in an extremely longggggggg time.  Therefore, I had no particular agenda in reading this book.  I wasn't reading it to find fault with his recollections or decisions, nor was I reading this as one of his fond supporters.  I do like reading memoirs to see if I can feel the real person behind the words, and I feel for the most part, this book delivered. Occasional humor and personality emerge, especially as he relates conversations with his mother and shares glimpses into life with Laura and the twins. Of course, 9/11, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economy are covered and I believe he shed some insight, at least for a somewhat informed person who isn't a political junky.  I felt the chapters about immigration issues and stem cell research showed more of his personal views and the inner "nonworkings" of our governmental system.  Having worked in education for more than a decade under Bush's No Child Left Behind, I was very interested in his chapter on education.  To be truthful, his words only illustrated that much can be said in generalities and a sincere desire to make improvements does not mean that one plan will help all.  Sadly I believe that is still true with much that our government tries to fix.

The years ahead will determine the effectiveness of George W. Bush's presidency, but I feel this book shows he was a leader willing to listen to the cabinet and aides he had selected as advisors.  I also feel he led with a patriotic hand, but not with a power seeking sense.  I doubt that the book would change anyone's view of the man totally, especially since most people are polarized at one end or the other, but
I still feel that hearing his story is a smart thing for a citizen to do.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Made from scratch

I've known about Sandra Lee's presence on Food Network for years, but never watched her show for more than a few episodes.  She always struck me as extremely attractive and poised, but her food style just never grabbed me.  I'm not a big Food Network fan anyhow, but it is usually nighttime if I do watch.  But a few years ago I happened to see a biography about Lee which really intrigued me, especially her years in the LaCrosse, Wisconsin area when she was a teenager. 

When checking out WPLC (Wisconsin Public Library Consortium) for available audiobooks to download on my MP3 player, I found Sandra Lee's biography Made From Scratch read by Sandra herself.  I feel that audio formats of memoirs should be narrated by the writer, not an actor for authenticity.  MFS details briefly Sandra's unsettled childhood in which her California grandmother provides the only stability for Sandra and her sister. Part of that stability is time in the kitchen preparing meals together.  Her mother is in and out of her life, first abadoning Sandra at age 4, then returning to reclaim her.  Mom clearly suffers from mental illness and vindictively shuts grandma out of their lives.  Lee is very frank about the abusive situations she encountered as she shuttled from another attempt at life with her mother and stepfather to a stint in Wisconsin with her father who is a complete stranger to her. While the time in the LaCrosse area was a painful time for Lee, it was one of the most interesting parts of the book to me.  She describes trying to adjust to a small town Wisconsin school, actually living on her own at age 17 when the home situation with her father does not work out, and then her days at UW-LaCrosse. 

Lee does not finish college and ends up back in California where her business career starts with an unlikely product.  Remember those puffy curtain toppers from the 80's?  Sandra Lee developed a plastic template that made creating the perfect pouf easy, easy!!  Someone talked her into marketing them and she hit the tradeshow, fleamarket scene.  QVC followed and she became a success.  Listen to her story and you will find how the road from interior design led to cooking show diva.  It is clear from her story that finanical success was not instant, consistant, or even rewarding.
Despite a life of foreign travel, riches, and celebrity status, she faced loneliness, a failed marriage, and ill health.  And it is ironic and yet redeeming that Sandra's success comes from creating "perfect meals and tablescapes (her name for table decorations and settings)" that provide a backdrop for quality family time.

The memoir was written a few years ago and I wonder what she would add to the story today.  Currently she is the unofficial first lady of New York since her partner  Andrew Cuomo was elected governor.  I would recommend this book who enjoys stories of hard earned success and determinedness, or to someone who is a Food Network foodie.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reading continues to be a chore for me right now as the print seems blurred at times and my left eye continues to water just as it did before the surgery.  Sure hope things improve.  Luckily, my mid range vision is adequate so I have been sewing and doing some reading on the computer.  I’d love to spend more time outside but I am worried about pollen issues affecting my recovery.  “No nose blowing for two weeks” orders and fall pollen do not make a compatible match.

So today’s blog is an audio book.  I am beginning to appreciate this form of literature more and more.  I can listen while I do housework, sew, or even walk.  About six weeks ago I listened to These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf.  I remembered placing a interlibrary request for this title earlier in the year, but when I got the pick-up notice from our library, I honestly couldn’t remember anything about the book.  I listened to the cds while I tried to master my newly acquired machine quilting frame.  End result – got drawn into the book, but only made a little progress in mastering machine quilting.  That I have decided will take many more audio books and many more quilts.
The story begins as Allison Glenn, now 20 or 21, is released on parole to a halfway house after spending five years in prison for such a heinous crime that even the other halfway house residents want nothing to do with her.  Allison, who once was the perfect daughter, destined to be valedictorian and a shoo-in to an elite college, now has been completely abandoned by her parents.  Her younger sister Brynn refuses to talk to her. Brynn has been forced to flee their hometown and begin life again at her grandmother’s.  The months immediately after Allison’s imprisonment were too cruel for this sensitive, younger sibling.  Now that Allison is free, Brynn protects herself by refusing Allison’s calls.  And I guarantee that you will be reluctant to develop any bond or sympathy with the young parolee.  Then she gets a job at a nearby bookstore where owner Claire is willing to give Allison a chance, knowing only that she has been recently released from prison.  At the bookstore, Allison meets Claire’s adopted son Joshua.  By this point in the story you will know more about Allison’s past and this introduction to Joshua will add a dark twist.  The narration for this audio version was done by two women – one voice for Allison and another voice for sister Brynn, bookstore owner Claire, and nursing student Charm who has some intriguing interest in Joshua.  I am not sure what my reaction would have been if I had read the story, but listening to it was compelling.  This is a psychological thriller (nothing warm and fuzzy in this title), although you will suspect some of the subplot connections before they are revealed.  Although I described it as a psychological thriller, it does not more at the frantic pace that the genre typically does, whether in book or move format.  To me, that adds a more realistic edge. 
Last year I read Gudenkauf’s other title, Weight of Silence, another mysterious contemporary offering.  Obviously secretive family stories are her forte.  I liked her writing enough that I will be interested in future titles.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What famous house sits on eighteen acres?

Answer to the above question is the White House of course and political commentator Nicolle Wallace has titled her new novel about the inner workings of the White House Eighteen Acres.  Action revolves around three strong female characters:  Melanie Kingston, the White House Chief of Staff; Dale Smith, White House correspondent; and Charlotte Kramer, President of the United States.  In her late thirties, Melanie has already served three administrations and must decide if she is “on board” for Kramer’s re-election campaign.  Dale Smith has earned her Washington correspondent and weekend anchor positions, but it may be her secret relationship with a married man will be her demise.  President Kramer fits the stereotype of a woman who made it to the presidency – she is tough and thrives on challenges.  Has she lost touch with her family and does it matter to her?  What will happen to her administration and re-election hopes when her National Security Advisor makes a rash decision that jeopardizes civilian lives?  Author Wallace has been a Washington insider for 13 years and has worked in the White House for over five years.  Since she worked on the McCain/Palin campaign, she may have a special interest in how the country would change if women were in charge.  Because most political intrigue books I’ve read have some dark villian who has abandoned all moral codes for a power grab I find those books to be too unbelievable.  This story is plausible, but with that, I think it lacks excitement.  The book is much more interesting in the first half than the last half.  And I kept wondering what happened to all the men in Washington because it seemed that the most powerful in all parties were women – not a bad idea, just not likely. I received this title as an advanced readers copy and the review is completely my opinion.  I am not sure who the target audience is.  For those truly intrigued by politics, I think the political workings are too vague and superficial.  There is romance, but it really doesn't take center-stage.  And the book is definitely too slow paced for mystery readers.  Yet the premise was interesting. 

Note to my blog readers:  Thanks for all the support and those of you who've made kind comments. The last few posts I wrote in early September and then posted them at appropriate times.  Last week I had surgery to reconstruct my tear ducts and for a few days reading was not possible. Although I am back on the computer and sewing machines, that little type in books is still a stretch.  I will keep posting about books I've already finished, but I am also going to need some quality reading time once my eyes are back in focus.  Plus I've got to take time to enjoy the fall color when it starts appearing.  Please keep checking for new reviews, but be patient if there are a few days without reviews.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Love in the driest season - adoption and survival in Africa

 Love in the driest season by Neely Tucker
In 1997, Neely Tucker and his wife Vita left the United States for a journalist post in Zimbabwe. His book, Love in the Driest Season, chronicles his assignments and discoveries made as they witness political unrest, rampant poverty, and worst of all the devastating effect AIDS had on the children of Zimbabwe.  Soon after arriving, Neely, a white man who escaped the poverty of America’s south, and his African-American wife, Vita, decide to volunteer at one of the countries overcrowded, understaffed orphanages.  Their desire was to possibly take some of the children home with them on weekends, offering a kind of respite care.  But immediately Zita becomes attached to Chipo, a newborn girl who had been abandoned in the tall grasses of a rural village.  The sickly infant has almost a zero survival chance with the limited resources of the orphanage, so Zita and Neely take over her care.  Next comes the decision to adopt her and all the problems that accompany that decision.  We all probably have some understanding of the complicated steps adoptive parents must go through, but you will not be prepared for the challenges this family faces.  Neely and Vita are suspect immediately because they are a bi-racial couple.  Some Zimbabwe officials have strong anti-American sentiments and see Neely as the ugly American who has come to straighten out their bureaucracy.  This is definitely a story of cultures in conflict, with the well-being of a child at stake.  Adding to the adoption story are the political insights Tucker shares as he is sent throughout Africa from his Zimbabwe post - AIDS epicdemics, Sierre Leone violence and blood diamonds, and the aftermath of Rhwanda.  I was not surprised to read that at least one college has made this an all-school read for freshmen; Tucker takes us out of our comfortable world into life as it is lived and negotiated in parts of the third world.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

An invisible red thread connects all meant to be family

When I read Jennifer Grant’s reference to a red thread connecting her to their then unknown adoptive child, I immediately remembered this book I read two years ago.  Red Thread, named after the Chinese belief that we are tied by an invisible thread to all who will become important in our lives, is Ann Hood’s novel centers around an adoption agency which specializes in Chinese adoptions.  Six adoptive families seek Maya Lange and her Red Thread Agency’s expertise in successful overseas adoptions.  Chapters alternate between revelations about what has brought each couple to their decisions to adopt and emotional glimpses into the lives of six Chinese birth mothers.  The differences between cultures will at time be jarring, even upsetting, but I guarantee you will better understand the painful decisions made by each mother.  And for the six babies in this book, new opportunities to be loved and cherished await them.  And as the day approaches when each family will be “born,” you will learn more about Maya Lange and her secret heartache. 
                I have to confess that although I remembered this book instantly when I reread the phrase “red thread” in Jennifer Grant’s memoir, I did not recall too many details about the story.  I did remember a strong emotional reaction to the book,  a better understanding of reasons foreign children might be abandoned, and a strong woman who told the story.  But in fact, I could not remember whether the story was fiction or nonfiction.  In a way I believe that is a compliment to author Ann Hood; two years after reading her book I still had such an emotional response that I thought momentarily that Maya Lange was a real person.  I am a strong proponent that well written fiction can help us examine some of our most serious topics and The Red Thread is that kind of fiction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Love you more

Love you more: the divine surprise of adopting my daughter by Jennifer Grant
                Journalist Jennifer Grant allows us an inside look into her family path to adopt a Guatemalan toddler.  Already parents of three children under the age of six, Jennifer and her husband believe their family will only be complete when they add an adopted child.  Grant spends time explaining how they came to chose Guatemala, in the end sharing her belief that she and young Mia have been chosen by God for each other.  I’ve read other books about adoption and have enjoyed them (will be blogging about them also), but I admire the great sensitivity Grant has as she explains the conflicting viewpoints that surround world adoptions.   As a result, I think I better understand the decisions some countries such as China and South Korea have taken to end or slow the American race to adopt their children.  Throughout the book, Grant’s humor, especially when aimed at her own parenting style, keeps the book lively and interesting.   Whether it’s her unspoken responses to curious bystanders who feel they must point out that one of her children doesn’t match the others or the special book she creates to help Mia understand her journey  from birth to America, you will admire Jennifer’s sensitivity and wit.  Once and awhile a book, even a short one like this, will have a golden story or quote --- something you will take with you and make part of your own language.  This book had such a story for me.  I am not going to share it, but for anyone who decides to read the book, be ready for the story about oreo cookies, a three year old, and the line, “Are these always available?”  It is my new one liner for anything that is superb or delectable!!

If you google Jennifer Grant you will find her website and blog.  There you will find pictures of Mia, Jennifer and the rest of the family.  At this point, I have only skimmed it, already I see posts that I want to read in depth.  I noticed that she is currently writing another book, again a memoir that will focus on parenting.  I am sure she has many more stories about her energetic family to share.  I plan to read her blog on a regular basis.
I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from BookSneeze.   The review reflects my opinions.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Healing by Wanda Brunstetter

Enter any Christian bookstore or the Christian fiction section of any other bookstore and you will certainly be treated to a variety of book covers depicting demure bonneted young ladies, members of the Plain people.  Whether centered around Amish or Mennonite families, set in the past or present, these novels make up a strong market in Christian fiction.  I actually listened to a webinar about this genre last spring, and as I had suspected, there is a wide range in writing quality.  Maybe because of that, I tend not to read Amish focused fiction.  It may also be because we live in a community with a strong Amish presence, I want accurate, factual information about them, not romanticized fiction.  I am curious that readers who in their daily lives cannot separate themselves from technology, sports, and Hollywood for even a few minutes would make Amish fiction such a success.  Maybe we do really want a simple life; we just don’t know how to achieve it.  Or maybe reading about their simplicity and strong values is just enough to assuage our conscious.
Even though I was disappointed in the last two Amish fiction titles I read, I decided to request an advanced reader’s copy of Wanda Brunstetter’s newest addition to her Brothers of Kentucky series.  Brunstetter is among the strongest writers in this genre so I was curious if her plot and characters would rise above the mediocre multitude.  The Healing begins with grief-stricken Samuel Fischer trying to adjust to life after his pregnant wife’s death due to a fall.  Unable to face daily life in the home they had built together, Samuel leaves behind parents and extended family in Pennsylvania to join his single brother Titus in Kentucky.  Samuel is able to find work there, but still struggles with his empty heart.  And he seems totally inept in dealing with his three young children.   Although I was not surprised by any developments in this story, I did enjoy it and would recommend the book.  I especially liked that the main character was male, and since this is a series, there are other strong male characters who will likely be the “lead” in future books.  I also liked that there was a presence of “English” neighbors in the book who were truly friends, not sources of worldly temptation or simple add-ons.  Bonnie Taylor is one of those friends and her side story is a strong one.   I also liked that Esther Beiler, the young Amish woman who takes care of Samuel’s children, is independent.  She is even living alone as her parents have moved closer to an ill son.  I know many of my Christian fiction reading friends have read many, many of Wanda Brunstetter’s books, and I believe I will continue to follow this series.
I received this title as an advanced reader’s copy from NetGalley.   The review reflects my own thoughts.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Heaven is for real

The majority of people who read this blog are probably already familiar with this book and the Burpo family story.  Many of you may have read it and I'd enjoy to hear your reactions.  After I received several recommendations to read the book, I decided in early summer to request a copy of the book from the library system.  Of course there were numerous holds ahead of me, so I also tried to reserve an audio version from WPLC (Wisconsin Public Library Consortium) which I could download on my MP3 player.  I figured whatever version came through first would be my mode of "reading."  It was the audio version and I am so glad because it included a radio interview with author, pastor, and father Todd Burpo in which he updates listeners on son Colton who is now 11.

A pastor in a small Nebraska church, Todd supplemented his income by running a garage door installation business, but the year his son was three was a struggle financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  During a community baseball game, Todd broke his leg and ankle.  Doctor bills mounted and he could not work.
A visit to the doctor revealed that the lump below his nipple was a precursor to cancer and he needed a mastectomy (yes, men can get breast cancer).  His fellow pastors began to call him Pastor Job, but finally the family began to recover.  Then Colton got sick on a family trip to Colorado.  Misdiagnosed with the flu, the little boy got no better even after hospitalization.  Finally the family made the decision to take him to a larger facility hours away.  Soon after, tests confirmed that Colton had a ruptured appendix and infection had been spreading throughout his body for days.  Crying for his parents, the little boy was whisked away to surgery, leaving his father to a private rant at God for abandoning one of his own. Meanwhile Colton's mom is calling for family and church members to pray.  Setbacks follow the long surgery, but finally the little boy recovers and normalcy returns.  That is until Colton begins to share how the angels sang to him when he was sick, that he went with Jesus to heaven, and that heaven was awash in rainbow colors.  Visions of a terribly ill child? Many would say so and even his parents might have thought so, but then he shared things that he could not have imagined.  He told his parents exactly where he saw each of them in the hospital after he left his body and rose above the operating table.  He shared that he met his great grandfather whom his dad had called Pop.  Little Colton had never been told about Pop or the nickname because the man had died 30 years earlier when Todd himself was only 7.  It is the little boy's revelation to Mom Sonja that he met his other sister (a miscarriage that he knew nothing about) and that she is loved in heaven that will heal a hurt that Sonja has carried for years.

Todd maintains that his son has never been coached with scriptures describing heaven, yet his child-like words match biblical passages.  Other near death experiences have suggested glimpses into heaven,but to me this boy's view combines two interesting scenarios -- first, there is all the comfort, love, and family a scared little boy would need and that God has provided on Jesus's comforting lap.  Second, there are descriptions and views of the heavenly city that compel readers to check their scriptures for accuracy.  Believers will not be disappointed with this read.  Skeptics and nonbelievers should have unanswerable questions.

Web surfing friends, check out this young woman, her story and her artwork - Arkaine Kramarik.
I understand her painting of Jesus is at the back of the printed copy of Heaven is for Real as Colton finds this picture closest to how he remembers Jesus.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dewey, the abandoned kitten who was left in the book drop of a small town Iowa library, has become a literary icon.  For close to twenty years he was a loved mascot and friend for library patrons and shortly after his death, Vicki Myron, library director of the Spencer, Iowa Public Library, wrote a book detailing the great impact Dewey had on his town and cat lovers around the world.  Dewey, the Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World is a warm, inspiring read possibly suitable for a general audience, although Vicki does go into quite a bit of personal information that would not interest children.  That is probably the reason for the children’s books that have followed.  I especially liked the simple picture book Dewey the Library Cat as it made a great read aloud and its story illustrated how Dewey won the hearts of the Spencer children.  Whenever I read that story to classes, I always had excited kids wanting to share their own pet stories.

Last fall I received an advanced reader’s copy of Vicki Myron’s follow up to the full length Dewey book.  I didn’t get a chance to read it until recently.  Called Dewey’s Nine Live, this book resulted from the hundreds of phone calls, emails, and letters Myron received after publication of the first book.  She and co-author Bret Witter have selected nine stories that reveal how strong the bond between pet and human can be.  In this mix are two more Dewey stories and seven  stories of different cats.  If you are a cat lover and feel sometimes (or always) that your cat understands your emotions and needs better than anyone else then this book is a must read.  If you’re a non-pet owner like allergic me, then understanding how deep the connection can be will be more difficult.  However, that said, I still enjoyed this touching book, often remembering the adorable kittens that I subjected to dress up and doll buggy rides many, many years ago (and pre-allergies).  Thinking ahead to December, if you have a cat lover on your Christmas list, one of these books might be a perfect gift, perhaps even in an audio version.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A visit to Grand Marais and author Ellen Airgood's Diner

Whitefish Point
On Wednesday of our trip, August 31, we traveled to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point of Lake Superior.  Russ has wanted to see this museum for many years, ever since the Edmund Fitzgerald ship’s bell was placed here.  The Edmund Fitzgerald went down in this section of Lake Superior, an area known for its dangerous storms and many shipwrecks.  I was surprised to learn that several of the shipwrecks in the late 1800s were actually the result of collisions.  It seems that the Great Lakes were very busy then and ships ran into each other quite often!  Over the years we have visited multiple lighthouses but this one is unique.  Lincoln was president when it was built and the lighthouse records show Lincoln's specifications as to how the lighthouse should be built   Also the lighthouse keeper’s house that is attached is actually a duplex meant to house the keeper’s family as well as the assistant keeper’s family.  Both have been restored according to detailed written records left by one woman whose father was the keeper for many years.  We were able to tour the duplex, but the tower was closed for sandblasting.  Whitefish Point is a beautiful window onto an equally beautiful, but deadly, section of Lake Superior.  After viewing the museum and grounds, we left to find Grand Marais, the small community on the edge of Lake Superior’s Pictured Rock shoreline.  Our gazetteer indicated a “major connector” road between Deer Park and Grand Marais, perhaps twenty five miles.  Yooper translation, this road is a washboard rough gravel road with no clear indication that civilization is nearby.  We were sure we had wandered off H58 onto something else, but we finally met a truck and asked the driver if we were on the road to Grand Marais.  He laughed, told us to make sure we had a full tank of gas and to enjoy the view, that we would eventually make it to the town.  Not a mile later, we turned a corner onto the most scenic views of Lake Superior just a few feet from the road.  We parked our van, took a short walk down to the beach edge and then took pictures of our filthy car.
Our dusty car with Lake Superior beyond the trees

  A mile or so later, we saw some wonderful campsites right on the shores.  What lucky campers those families were.  And finally the road  became paved and we finally descended into the harbor of Grand Marais.  Tourism appears to be the mainstay of this weather beaten little town.  Although we got to town well after six pm, the grocery/hardware store was still open, as was the gas station, local brewery pub, and the West Bay Diner Deli.  We found a room at one of the three motels which I guess was a good thing since we were tired of driving.  All I’ll say is that the room made me wish we still had a camper or a tent and that we were one of those lucky families roughing it along Lake Superior.   Our supper at the diner was superb, the biggest fish sandwiches of fresh LS whitefish I’ve ever seen, and before we’d finished our meal, author and diner owner Ellen Airgood came into the diner to start her baking for the next morning.  I blogged a couple weeks ago about her book and I actually got a chance to talk to her.  Nervous me, I completely forgot to tell her that I’d blogged about her book and had also reviewed it on Barnes and Noble.  She was very down to earth, probably a reason why the book resonates with warmth.  Her fictional small town on the shores of Lake Superior is probably more entertaining than the real Grand Marais, but it does make one wonder what stories are hidden in the store fronts, living rooms, and backyards of all our communities.   After our meal, Russ and I walked around the marina where we saw a small recreational boat being towed back in by another boat.  On the disabled boat (engine trouble) was a mom, dad, two young kids, and the family dog.  Glad to say that their story had a safe ending.  Russ talked to a guy who was moored at the marina on his 30 ft, two-masted sailboat.  This guy travels alone.  According to Russ really needs a crew of three people to sail easily, but this guy is living on it alone for the summer and is sailing it around.  Not a young guy, either!!

Standing outside the diner in Grand Marais

All in all, this was a great vacation day filled with small experiences enjoyed together.  Who could ask for more?  Oh yeah, there was a stop in Paradise (another small town) for a fish chowder lunch and a visit to one of the only quilt shops in the UP. 
Ellen's diner had stacks of books for people to read and buy, and of course, she had copies of her new novel for sale.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Barcelona Calling is a surprise offering

Jane Kirkpatrick's historical fiction takes you out of the present back to authentically portrayed time periods with determined women who struggle against environment and circumstances.  Her plots go beyond the ordinary and she has often used real events and people as the backdrop for her well-crafted stories.  When I was given the opportunity to read an advanced reader's copy of her new book (Thanks, NetGalley), I was surprised to see that Barcelona Calling has a contemporary setting.  Still I expected realistic Christian fiction which would transport me to Spain and perhaps a romantic setting.

Surprise! Surprise!  Kirkpatrick has not written a travel-centered romance, but instead a humorous, implausible chick lit novel, set in Milwaukee and Chicago.  It is her main character, Annie Shaw, who has written the Spanish romance novel, and now she must take action to ensure its publication.  Annie's successful first novel, loosely based on her own romance with sports writer husband, remains a readers' favorite.  That apparent success is tarnished by her recent divorce, the complete failure of her second book, and the lack luster sales record of her current title.  When her new editor demands major revisions on Annie's fourth book based on a recent trip to Spain, Annie is consumed with self doubt.  Enter the ring of best friends and one out-spoken sister who demand that the young writer take action to get herself noticed by Oprah.  What follows is a Three Stooges comedy of castrophes which will have you shaking your head at the same time you are stifling chuckles. Will the young policeman Annie left behind in Barcelona follow her to Chicago?  Does she want him to come?  What if his presence ensures a successful book and a spot on Oprah?  What appears to be a light humorous read has some surprise thoughts about finding oneself and accepting that life.  Give Barcelona Calling a try and the next time you want some historical fiction with depth, check out Kirkpatrick's other offerings.

New legal thriller

Robert Whitlow, a lawyer turned author, writes contemporary Christian novels that have earned him a Christy award and the nickname “the Christian John Grisham.”  Two of his novels have been made into feature films and are available on DVD.  A visit to his website will give you a look at all his books as well as the chance to read the first chapters of his newest book Water’s Edge.  Young Tom Crane considers himself such a success that he anticipates his summons to his superior’s office will finally bring the next step in the corporate legal ladder – a partnership.   What he gets instead is a pink slip – with apologies and great references.   Of course, loss of such a prestigious job will have ramifications throughout his life, as his society girlfriend will prove.  Tom temporarily escapes the pressure of starting over as he makes a trip back to Bethel , GA, to close out his father’s small legal firm and make sense of his dad’s financial difficulties.  Just weeks earlier his father and another man drowned in a boating accident on the local fishing pond, but as Tom sorts through financial and legal records, talks to local people, and visits the pond, it seems that mystery surrounds that afternoon on the pond.   Was the relationship between the two men just a sporting friendship or had Addington drawn his father into illegal activity? 
Tom, who has been away from Bethel for years, definitely believes he has left behind the religion of his great uncle preacher and his father, but something happens as he sits at the water’s edge.   Then Addington’s daughter Rose enters his life and mysteries multiply.  This is a fast paced, suspenseful story with multiple twists, but with an underlying plot of Tom’s transformation.  When all is sorted out at the end of the book, all is not really sorted out.  A few questions of motives and actions are still left gray and perhaps that goes with the comment made by Uncle Elias that good people can deceive themselves into ignoring a dark corner of their soul and the actions that spring from that corner. 
Classify this as a Southern legal suspense novel with just a hint of romance.
I received an electronic galley of this book from NetGalley; this review reflects my personal opinions.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Firestorm at Peshtigo

                Our son-in-law grew up in Southern Door County and a few years ago he recommended Firestorm at Peshtigo, a new book about the Peshtigo fire.  Both Russ and I were  especially interested in the accounts of how the fire jumped across the bay to parts of Southern Door county, so we got the book through interlibrary loan and both read it.  The book is very well researched as survivors wrote and shared their stories over and over throughout the years.  While planning our end of August trip to Lake Superior and the UP, we decided a trip to the Peshtigo Fire Museum would be a worthwhile detour.  
Mass grave marker
 Obviously maintained by a community or local historical society, the museum and cemetery is quite informative.  Binders contain copies of letters written by survivors and these were obviously used by the author for her book.  Few remains survived the fire, but those that did were quite impressive.  A Bible was found near the city hotel where many people had run for safety, only to all die.  The charred Bible is a solid block – think large charcoal briquette- but through its blackness you can tell it was opened to Psalm 105-106.  Obviously someone was praying or reading scripture, possibly outloud to comfort others as the fire approached.  Much of the museum holds general artifacts from the late 1800s and early 1900s collected from the area.  Naturally I was interested in two old quilt frames, not the typical round ones for hand quilting or the room sized ones set up for quilting bees.  These frames had bars and gears similar to the frames used today for machine quilting.  Obviously, homemade they were quite inventive. 

One of the quilt frames

 I also found a quilt that had a direct connection to the fire.   Wrapped in a soaked quilt, tiny Carrie was saved from the smoke and heat of the fire.  Although that quilt is not part of the museum, she grew up to be a quilter and one of her quilts was donated by the grandniece who received it and lovingly used it over the years.  The growing up years of Carrie have been fictionalized in several children’s books including one book about  the fire.
Russ and I really enjoyed this side trip on this special vacation.  What made this vacation so special?  For one, it had several connections to books that I had enjoyed. Two, it had something special for Russ (shipwrecks), and three, it centered around Lake Superior, one of my favorite places.  The final reason -- this vacation happened on the last days of August and the first days of September, days that in the past I would have been sitting at school in-service meetings and then dealing with the first days of school.  Isn't retirement grand?