Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Scrap Therapy:Cut the scraps by Joan Ford

I consider myself a wannabe quilter.  Although I have been sewing since I was 10 years old and used to make almost all my own clothes (even my wedding dress), I never advance past novice in the world of quilting.  I crank out table runners or toppers, doll quilts, and baby or lap quilts, but haven't pushed myself to do a full sized quilt.  That remains on my to-do list.  Despite my occasional errors and my inability to master the absolute precisness needed for quality quilting, I continue my endeavors. 

Luckily the modern world of quilting offers a myriad of styles and skill levels.  I've found some patterns that I am comfortable making and continue the hunt for new ideas.  Talk to any quilter and they will talk about their stash of materials and patterns.  Once you start to love cotton fabrics, you cannot ignore that beautiful new line that has just hit the store.  You need to have some of it, even if it is just a "fat quarter' or a stack of "charms."  And you NEVER, NEVER throw away scraps, which means carefully planned sewing rooms quickly morphed into chaotic piles of unorganized scraps.  Enter Joan Ford and other masters of scrap control. I had the opportunity to preview a e-version of her book Scrap Therapy: Cut the Scraps which features twenty quilting projects made primarily from scraps 5 inch squares or smaller.

I loved her philosophy that we should spend time mastering our scraps so they can be easily used when we want to.  She took a pile of scraps to a quilting retreat and spend time cutting them into 5 inch, 3.5 inch, and 2 inch squares.  Then they were sorted by color and neatly stored ready for projects.  The patterns in the book for full-sized quilts, table runners, and even a couple tote bags all use these sized pieces.  I like to pick up fabric remnants at rummage sales and such to use for donation table runners, wall hangings, and baby quilts, so I definitely need to follow her advice about trimming the scraps into useable sizes.  That makes storage so much easier.  (Lesson learned, but not yet accomplished.)

I found her quilt designs to be beautiful, but they focused on traditional squares built on many, many triangles from the two inch squares.  Much as I like sewing and quilting, I am just not going to make something that focuses on over fifty 2 inch squares.  So I recommend this book for advanced quilters looking to diminish your scrap pile.  For me, I will take away the knowledge that I need to
control the chaos in my sewing room, but I will looking for simpler projects.  And every quilter knows that looking at someone else's finished quilts is an addictive form of "eye candy" and for that, this book was no disappointment!
Scrap Therapy Cut the Scraps!: 7 Steps to Quilting Your Way Through Your Stash


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Murder Talks Turkey by Deb Baker

 If you live in the Midwest, you know the terms UP and Yoopers refer to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and its people; and if you've read my blog entries you know that I like to visit the UP, so when I saw that Deb Baker writes a mystery series set in the UP with a female character OVER the age of 60, I decided I needed to give the series a try.  With titles like Murder Talks Turkey, Murder Passes the Buck, and Murder Grins and Bears It, I expected some humor - probably tongue in cheek.
What I got was a wild story with way too much law breaking, very little character development for the bad guys, but with just enough "yooper personna" in main characters Gertie Johnson. son Blaze, and boyfriend George to make the book a worthwhile light read.  At only 204 pages, I certainly didn't feel disappointed that I had read it, but I am not sure if I will follow the series.

I did learn a little about turkeys as I read, as well as a little UP history, but I didn't feel I was transported to the land above the bridge.  If I compared this to Victoria Houston's fishing/mystery series set in Northern Wisconsin, I would definitely select another of Houston's books before another
Gertie Johnson story --- Sorry, Gertie. Houston's stories make clear that she knows both fishing and northern Wisconsin and that gives her series an authentic feel.

But maybe, just maybe I may succumb to trying just one more
Gertie story to see how that romance is going or if Gertie and Granny have settled their kitchen disputes.
Honestly, for those readers who devour mystery series and like your stories short, sweet, and a little off kilter, then give Deb Baker's writing a chance.  If you expect in-depth mysteries that will challenge your own sleuthing skills, then stick to your present favorite PIs.  I also see that Deb Baker writes the Queen Bee mystery series set in small town Wisconsin under the pen name Hannah Reed.  Has anyone read these?  Are they serious or also with a humorous vein?  Let me know.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Under the Mesquite Cover  One of the highlights of my job as a school library media specialist was finding out what all the American Library Association awards winners were each January.  I was always delighted when I found out that I had already purchased a Newbery, Caldecot, Belpre, Schneider, or Seuss winner or honor book.  In the past few years, librarians and booksellers have been able to watch the announcement of the winners through a webcast.  So this Monday, I couldn't resist the pull to watch that webcast even though I no longer have any responsibility purchasing quality titles for kids.  I will always love quality reading for kids, and I haven't been doing any of it lately, so I needed this push.

Through the great wonders of interlibrary loan I was able to get copies of two award winners between Monday and Wednesday afternoon. Yeah!  Middle school and young adult books are usually fast reads, so I promise young library patrons in the Winnefox system, I will have my copies returned within a flash.

Under the Mesquite is Guadalupe Garcia McCall's (a middle school teacher) first published book and received a Wm C. Morris First Time Author Honor recognition for that.  The book also received the Belpre Award for a work written by a Latino author.  Written in touching, lyrical free verse, Under the Mesquite tells Lupita's story as she and her seven younger siblings balance life on both sides of the border.  Central to the story is the loving relationship between Lupita and her mother as they build dreams for Lupita to be the first college graduate in the family and then be a famous actress --- maybe even as famous as the ones on Mami's favorite soap opera.  But then Mami is diagnosed with uterine cancer and all the education money set aside by the most loving and dedicated parents is needed for hosptial bills. 

I don't think I have read a young adult novel with such parent-child relationship that rang as positive and yet so authentic as this one. I loved that this family had two loving parents who worked together to build a better life for their children.  McCall's words, written as Lupita's thoughts are eloquent and mature - sometimes humorous, other times poignant.  Yet readers will totally believe they are the words and feelings of a teen.  Like the roses in Mami's garden, there is beauty throughout this book, at the same time there is a "mesquite tree" of strength and honesty that cannot be destroyed.

I really will miss the thrill of booktalking this to a junior high class or getting it into the hands of a special reader who'd devour like I did.  Keep writing Guadalupe Garcia McCall - You have the talent and you know the hidden hearts of adolescents.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

This Thursday our book club meets to discuss Kate Morton's Forgotten Garden, and I am anxious to hear everyone's reaction to the 500+ page novel of family mystery which takes almost a century to unravel.  I have read this book twice and both times I felt myself transported to the Cornish coast as Nell (in 1975) and then her granddaughter Cassandre (in 2005) try to unravel the mystery of how Nell, a four year old in 1913 came to unboard a ship in Australia, without parents and totally without any recollections of who she was, except some connection to the Authoress, a English woman who wrote fairy tales.  Nell's story will come to life, fragment by fragment as the reader becomes drawn into the complicated story of the Mountrachet family and Blackhurst Manor with its detached cottage sitting on top a coastal cliff. 

When the story plunges back to 1913 and earlier, I almost felt as it Charles Dickens had taken over the stor to describe the crowded streets, greedy shopkeeper, and tragedies of Eliza's childhood.  Her experiences weave their way into her fairy tales, as do her days at Blackhurst Manor where she is never good enough for her aunt, adored by her sickly cousin, and stalked by her uncle.  I loved the challenge of keeping all the people and details straight as the book moved incessantly from one time period to another.  Even the three fairy tales interspersed within the story provide strong clues to the final pieces of Nell's identity.

British estates and even   modest homes are known for their gardens.  At Blackhurst Manor there is a maze that connects the manor to a small hidden garden off the cottage.  That maze itself is a character in the book, playing different significant roles in key people's lives.  When we visited Anne Boleyn's castle back in the 1990's, our twelve year old son ventured much farther into that castle's maze than I did, for indeed shrubbery trimmed into walls over six feet tall winding around and around can create different atmospheres -- for me, it was a little too claustrophobic and unknown, but for my son it was a challenging adventure.  I recognized both reactions as the Mountrachet family walks its paths.

If you are ready for a story that will not be easily figured out, with continents of vibrant minor characters who add essential pieces to the decades old mystery of who one solitary person really is, you will like this book.  It has the feel of a Gothic story or a Dickens-type tale but with a modern heroine.  I loved the feel that stories not explained or not told carry secrets into the future and affect those who come after.  Try
The Forgotten Garden.  This story has so much to offer that I may post about it again after bookclub.
I know others will have nuggets of insight to share!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mine is the Night by Liz Curtis Higgs

It was a joy to read the second installment of Liz Curtis Higgs' retelling of the story of Ruth and Naomi just days after finishing the first novel Here Burns My Candle. Everything was fresh in my mind and the two books flowed together so well.  Set in 18th Century Scotland, book one ends and book two begins as Lady Marjory Kerr has lost everything - her two sons, her wealth, her home, and her title after foolishly aligning with Bonnie Prince Charles against the King.  With nothing but a few coins, she intends to return to her home village and seek shelter with a distant relative, Anne whom Marjory had neglected for years.  Marjory has released both her daughter-in-laws to return to their Highland homes, but Elisabeth refuses to abandon her mother-in-law.  Together the two women arrive at Anne Kerr's simple home unannounced and unwelcomed.  But forgiveness is in Anne's heart and the three women piece together a simple plan of survival.  Marjory who has always lived a life of luxary begins to accept the responsiblity of caring for herself and others as she teaches herself to cook and keep house.  Anne continues to earn a meager living as a lace maker, and Elisabeth seeks work as a tailor's assistant and dressmaker.

While it might seem earning a living as a dressmaker is not a strong parallel to the gleaning work done by Ruth in the Bible, the story becomes very believable when the Boaz counterpart, Admiral Lord Buchanan, offers Elisabeth not only work, but respect and a chance at love.  Without the Ruth, Naomi, Boaz parallel, this story would have been a successful historical story laced with romance, but Higgs has made it a much deeper story.  We see the great power of forgiveness through Anne, the village minister, and the villagers.  We see, of course, the strength of Elisabeth (Ruth) and her love for her mother-in-law, but we also see the great transformation of Marjory (Naomi) as she puts asunder her society-dominated past and seeks an authentic life pleasing to God.  And most impressive is the wide reaching blessings that come from Lord Buchanan, a man who does not see his wealth as gain earned by his years in the King's navy. Instead he handles all he has as if he is dispensing God's gifts as God wants.

As in the first book, Higgs' purposeful research into Scotland's customs, foods, dress, and even their holidays make this first rate historical fiction.  As I read, I could feel the glooming (twilight) approach, the mist fall, and the call for a warm fire and a bowl of hot broth, with perhaps a bannock or two. 

Customs change, history changes (which one of us can readily explain the War of Roses?), yet important things do not.  God still provides the example of loyality, love, and forgivenss.  The Living God of Naomi is the God that Ruth came to love, and he is the same Living God that Marjory and Elisabeth embraced, and He is the same God that Liz Curtis Higgs and other Christian fiction authors hope readers will meet and know.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jane Eyre movie with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender

I've just finished a book that I've decided not to blog about and have just begun another read, so I would have to think back on past reads for any book review postings.  Instead, I've decided to write a little about the new movie version of Jane Eyre I watched this weekend.  Like many others, I have seen mulitple productions of this classic story and a few elements can elevate this story to great heights or lower it to a disappointing waste of time.  I would rate this newest retelling as high middle ground.

First what I liked.  Jane, played by Mia Wasikowska has the right looks and correct demeanor.  She is attractive, but it is clear that she is NOT the beauty that Miss Ingraham is.  She has that governess look that would make her susceptible to Rochester's attention, yet she has a definite independent streak.  Her vulnerability and strength are both believable.  Also well executed, is the setting - all aspects of it, from the aunt's estate and the boarding school, to Thornfield and then the small village of the missionary - will take the viewer out of the twenty-first century to another time.  Shadows and light are an integral part of the story told without words.  Naturally candlelight was the mode of artifical light in that time period, but its use throughout the film underscores the secrets at Thornfield and the coming fire.  A good attempt by the director.

But not all in the movie is excellent.  Although I found the "literate" dialogue fit the concept of Jane
Eyre, the romance between Rochester and Jane was never totally believable for me.  I have seen Rochester portrayed as "tortured" and as "weary," but this time he just seemed ornery and unlikeable.  Despite liking the physical setting and the predominance of candle light, the actual scenes foreshadowing Betha's existence just fell flat, as did Bertha herself.  No way did I see or sense madness, and that burden of her madness must be believed if the viewer is going to accept Rochester as a hero.

I am not sure what a viewer who has never read the novel or who has never seen another version would take away from this movie.  I guess I would encourage them to see (or read) at least two versions within a short time period.  Perhaps multiple interpretations would help build a strong personal sense of this classic.

Product Details

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel

9780143119951_MagicofOrdin_CVF.jpgDo you find magic in ordinary days?  Sometimes I do.  There are some days that the minutae of ordinary tasks like doing the laundry, cooking a simple meal, or working in my sewing room or garden are too beautiful for words.  Perhaps that is why the title of this book has always intrigued me.  When I first watched the Hallmark interpretation of this work a few years ago, I enjoyed it, but gave it no further thought.
But this holiday season it reran and I decided to watch it without realizing that I had already seen it.  Within minutes, I knew I had seen it before, but I was ready for an evening of television watching and decided to stick with ordinary days. As the story unfolded I began to think more about the concept of ordinary days; and when I caught that the movie was based on the novel, I decided to search out the book.

What I found out was that Ann Howard Creel is predominately a young adult and children's author.  The Magic of Ordinary Days,  first published in 2001, is her only adult novel.  Its popularity is so strong that a new release of the book took place in late 2011.  The setting is rural Colorado during World War II.
Olivia Dunne, who always believed her destiny was to study ancient civilizations and travel the world, finds herself no longer studying for her masters, but instead, banished to this lonely rural area to marry a man she has never met.  Her minister father has hastily made these arrangements to hide his daughter's pregnancy, and Olivia has no choice, but to follow his wishes.  Ray, the husband, is a soft-souled man whose exterior demeanor has been hardened by the loss of his parents and brother.  The simple routines of his farm provide the stable life he wants, but its dullness is inhibiting to Olivia.  All of this is apparent in the well done movie, but I knew that a good writer would have crafted descriptions that captured more of the essence of each person and their building relationship.  I was not disappointed.  The book builds a much more tenuous relationship between the two and focuses more on Livvie's desire to see the world and do great things
Listen as she tells Ray her feelings, "Ray, I wasn't supposed to come here. I had dreams far different form this.  I thought I had a destiny, but it wasn't this one.    There asre so many things I planned on doing, places I dreamed of going.  What you know of me is simply the outside shell.  You don't know what creature lives inside me yet."   Yet Olivia knows that Ray loves her and she cannot understand why.  In the same conversation, she asks,"Do you love me just because I came here?" to which Ray answers, "I love you because you came here to me."

Other characters play a vital role in this story which is so much more than a simple romance.  Ray's sister and nieces add depth and realism, as do the church congregation, but the most interesting and well developed secondary characters are Rose and Loreli, two young Japanese American who are interned near the farm and who work as day laborers in the fields.  As they teach Olivia to notice the many distinct butterfly species, a special friendship grows.  That they have left behind dreams, education, and a secure home because the government feels all Japanese Americans may be a threat, in a way, echoes Olivia's banishment from her previous life.  Olivia's grasp of "ordinary days" and their specialness comes in part from witnessing the life Rose, Loreli, and their parents have forged in the internment camp  But it will be the rash actions of those two young women that will force Olivia to see reality.

I would definitely like to see Creel write some more adult fiction.  On her website she has indicated that Hallmark has in the works a sequel for the movie.  That is great; I would like to see what happened to Olivia and Ray as their love grows, but I am more interested in delving into the rich details of another Creel story. 

By the way, I got my copy of this book from our library system.  With so many cuts around the country (and the world) to libraries, I want to keep shouting out to everyone, "Learn to use your library. Save yourself some money and use resources that are already there." 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Middle school novel Countdown by Deborah Wiles

 For all of you under the age of 50, that is a 45 rpm record on the cover of the book Countdown.  A 45 would usually have two songs recorded on it, the best one on the A side and another on the flip side.  Sometimes a really good artists like Elvis, the Beach Boys, or the Beetles would score two hits on the same 45.  Why did Deborah Wiles and her editors select a 45 for the cover of her sixties documentary novel?  I don't know for sure, but you will find the music of October, 1962 mentioned throughout the book.  In fact, you can find a I-tunes playlist of all those songs on Wiles' website. 

First, let me give you a short plot introduction  and then I'll explain the term documentary novel.  It is October, 1962, and sixth grader Franny's life is not going smoothly.  Her college age sister is acting secretive and is spending all her time away from home.  Her best friend is not talking to Franny.And Franny is interested in the boy next door.  Will he notice her?
Then world politics enters all their lives.  President Kennedy announces that the Soviet Untion is sending nuclear missiles into Cuba.  Suddenly all those safety drills at school have more meaning and Franny's little brother can't seem to get "Duck and cover" out of his mind.  And their World War I vet great uncle seems to be reliving his war in the Chapman familiy's front yard.  But most worrisome to Franny is Dad's assignment as one of the air force pilots who protects the President's jet.

Deborah Wiles does a superb job on her website explaining her motivation in writing this book and also explains her style which she has termed a "documentary novel."  What she has done is pull all kinds of photos, cartoons, advertisments,and headlines from the early 60's, thus giving the reader a real immersion in the time.  For me it was a walk down memory lane, but I can see how the abudant inclusion of images will help take the younger reader to a time totally unkown to them.

This book came out in late 2010 and when I "booktalked" this to all my junior high classes right after we got copies of the book, I included music from the "playlist" and also showed Presdient Kennedy's speech telling the Russians to get out of Cuba.  It is this type of top notch writing for young adults and middle school readers that will miss now that I am retired.  I hope to keep abreast of what's new and whose work is the best, but I know it will be hard to do.

Wiles has done a commendable job of making history come alive, and at the same time tells a good story about growing up. I am happy to say this title is supposed to be part of a trilogy.   A little extra info -- Deborah Wiles' father was a pilot in 1962, assigned to protecting the president's jet.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Drunkard's Path: a Someday Quilts Mystery featuring Nell Fitzgerald by Clare O'Donohue

Genre: mystery series

Twenty six year-old Nell Fitzgerald has sought emotional and physical shelter at her grandmother's followed a failed romance.  Finally getting her footing (and taking advantage of the free rent), Nell has decided to take some art classes while she works part-time at her grandmother's quilt shop Someday Quilts.  The books begin with Nell being stood up as she tentatively enters the dating world again.
Maybe I shouldn't say tentatively because Nell doesn't just go home and sulk about her no-show date, Police Chief Jesse Dewalt.  Instead she seeks him at his office, only to learn that he is investigating a dead body found in the river.

As the reader will quickly learn, Nell can not stay out of a mystery and she is at the river bank within minutes.  So begins, The Drunkard's Path.  Add in a world famous artist who falls for Grandmother Eleanor, but whom Nell suspects might be connected to the first dead woman found in the river and also to the SECOND dead woman found just feet from Eleanor's yard.  To spice up things, Eleanor's quilt group takes on the challenge of helping Nell with an "unofficial investigation" into artist Oliver White and into a young student Kennette who has suddenly appeared in Archers Rest.  Of course, I was delighted that one member of the quilting group was a retired librarian who used her excellent information seeking skills to aid Nell.  This was a fast fun read that fits into the mystery series genre nicely, but doesn't offer anything out of the ordinary. 

As I have mentioned before, I like mystery series if the author "fleshes out" the main character and supporting characters as the series develops.  I can't say whether this happens with O'Donohue because this is the first Someday Quilt mystery I have read.  I was somewhat taken aback by the cavalier treatment given to all the laws that Nell broke as she tried to solve the case.  And one big stumbling block for me within all amateur sleuth stories, including television stories such as Murder She Wrote, is that dead bodies keep showing up by these people.  If I knew someone like Nell and murder seemed to follow her around, I would find a new friend!!  I might even ask her to leave town!

Another side note of disappointment on my part -- In the story both Kennette and Nell who have never quilted before whip up a couple quilt tops in record time, with almost no effort.  From the viewpoint of someone who stills considers herself a beginning quilter, despite having sewn for over fifty years, I find those aspects unrealistic and detracting.  Even having Kennette select "drunkard's path," a somewhat complicated curved pattern, as her first quilt top was silly to me.  But then, these characters are artists so I guess their aptitudes outshine mine!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family and the Woman who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

book_image3"Brave young women complete heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness.  This was a chance to even the ledger; to share one small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed.  I wanted to pull the curtain back for readers on a place foreigners know more for its rocket attacks and roadside bombs than its countless quiet feats of courage.  And to introduce them to the young women like Kamila Sidiqi who will go on. No matter what."  (p.229)  So ends Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, an insightful look behind the closed gate of the Sidiqi home on the outskirts of Kabul during the Taliban years (l996 to 2001)

Kamila Sidiqi, one of 11 children, had just completed a two year teacher training course and had plans to continue her education.  Her father, a retired Afghan miitary officer, had served his country under multiple regimes including the Soviet rule.  He had seen the opportunities education offered and told his offspring that he looked on all of them with the same eye, meaning that his 9 daughters would have the same opportunities as his 2 sons.  But as Kamila proudly went home with her teaching certificate, there were already rumors that the Taliban would soon enter Kabul, and it did enter within days, bringing with it a totally different culture.   Women were not to leave their homes with a male escort and then must be fully covered.  A mere scarf covering the head would not be enough, an entire chadri with only a mere slit for the eyes must be worn.  And no women were to work outside the home.  Such a change was devasting for families and Kabul alike, as over 50 per cent of civil employees were women and about 40 per cent of private workers.
Rumors abounded about women confronted on the streets for improper dress or misbehavior.  Music and anything western was not outlawed.

In the Sidiqi family difficult decisions were made.  The oldest son left the country, hoping to find work in Pakistan or elsewhere and perhaps a chance to continue his education.  Because of father's former days in the military and despite no political alliance to any side, he felt the need to retreat to the north and former home.  However, he did not feel it was wise to try to travel with all the girls, son, and his wife -- too many people and an easy target for the Taliban, so he left alone.  Later his wife joined him, leaving the children under the care of Kamila, just 19.  Later her married sister and her family would join them in the Khair Khana home.  Over the next five years, Kamila and her family will survive, not because they chose to defy the Taliban, but because she found a way to live within their restraints and still take care of everyone.
She have her sister teach her how to sew, then seeks a customer at one of the small "stores" at the local market.  After that small success she finds other customers, has all her younger sisters (who can no longer attend school) sew with her, and then actually begins an in-home sewing school for neighboring girls.  Her efforts bring enough income to feed the family and to pay the other seamstresses for their work.

I have read other books about Pakistan and Afghan during this time period, but I found this to be most compelling,  Maybe it is because I sew, but I also think it was this family's story that was so strong.
Also author Lemmon, who first began meeting with Kamila, as part of the author's Harvard MBA program,
does a commendable job of explaining the whole Afghanistan political scenario for the past 40 years and the culture changes each regime brought.  If you've never quite understood all that, I would recommend this book even if you only read the introduction and first 50 pages.  I do believe that if you read that far, you will want to know the whole story. 

I was curious just what kind of dresses and pantsuits Kamila and her tailors were making so I "googled" her and the book.  If you do the same, you will find some interesting NPR interviews with the author and a
YOUTUBE trailor for the book.  That very short trailor shows a few of the dresses made and also video of the family.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Here Burns My Candle by Liz Curtis Higgs

Here Burns My Candle

Liz Curtis Higgs is not only a best selling (and award winning) author of Christian fiction and nonfiction, she is an inspirational speaker with over 1600 programs given.  A few years ago I was fortunate to hear her when she was the keynoter at the Wisconsin Rural Christian Women's Conference.  Wow, we were a group of several hundred women all laughing and crying at the same time as Liz shared her TaDa
speak about accepting our bodies as the vessels God has given us, and then moving on to living full lives honoring God.  Her humor and vision was so insightful that I did not want her time on stage to end even though I had a cold and the bleacher seats were uncomfortable. 

I had read both Thorn in My Heart and Fair in the Rose prior to hearing her speak.  These historical fiction books are set in 18th century Scotland and rich in period detail.  After seeing the author in person, I definitely finished the series with Christy Award winning Whence Came a Prince and then the final installment Grace in thine eyes, plus I read some of her nonfiction.  I admit I hadn't been keeping up with her work, so when I saw her books on a shelf in a Christian bookstore before Christmas, I needed to
read the back cover blurbs to see if I had read those particular titles or not.

To my delight, she had written two more historical novels set in 18th Century Scotland and I had NOT read them.  A request through my library system quickly brought Here Burns My Candle, book one in the two book series.  Lady Elizabeth Kerr is a rare beauty and rarer still is her climb from life as a commoner seamstress to the young wife of Lord Donald.  Known to her husband is Elizabeth's allegiance to Bonnie Prince Charlie and his rebel cause to reclaim the throne.  Unknown to him or his family is her ties to paganism, long practiced by her mother and maternal ancestors.  But as rebellion forces the Kerr family to choose the King on the throne or Prince Charles, Elizabeth finds strength and answers, not in the Nameless one, but in the Named One of the Bible. 

Higgs's books are not fast read.  They are rich with Scottish dialect and actual historical characters and events.  Plus readers are treated to the accurate tiny details of everyday life in that time period.  Did you know that many of their houses did not have central corridors and you actually needed to go through one bedroom to another? ( I'm sure glad that style of construction lost favor.) Her focus on detail may slow the reading, but the result will be an enhanced understanding of class and Scottish culture right down to the oat biscuits and haggish.

All of Higgs's fiction has as its basis a Biblical story.  This book has as its Biblical truth, the story of Ruth, a wife who leaves behind her heathen land and beliefs to follow Naomi her mother-in-law. 
Here Burns My Candle is only the beginning to retelling that story, but Beth has parallels to Ruth as she forges a relationship with the dowager Marjory.  That is another of Higgs's strengths as a writer; she takes the Biblical and shows in an entertaining way that these truths have played out over and over throughout the ages. I enourage you to read this tale. I already have a hold on the ebook version of Mine is the Night, the conclusion to this series.  I just checked WPLC and I am next on the list to receive this book.  Yeah, I will be able to continue the Elizabeth's journey before I forget too much!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Country Driving: a journey through China from farm to factory

Country Driving

Peter Hessler, a journalist for the New Yorker has written three lengthy nonfiction books about China as it entered the twenty-first century.  The third and final book Country Driving begins in 2001 as Hessler gets his Chinese driver's license and begins a journey through rural China, sometimes following the Great Wall, which will last seven years.  Actually foreigners are not permitted to drive outside the major cities, so each time Hessler took a trip in his rented vehicle he was taking a risk, but his risks have a big pay-off for readers interested in the world largest country.  The first third of the book focuses on the trips he took which followed different sections of the Great Wall.  The second third covers the years that Hessler and another American rented a home in the country.  Hessler becomes very close to his Chinese neighbors, and through their lives, he shares stories of small town party politics, government policies, healthcare, neighborhood dissonance, and the universal wish to move up in society.  The third section of the book takes the reader into a small scale factory.  Two partners secure an empty space, a machine which will make plastic rings, and a mechanic who knows the machine; then they hire a handful of employees. What are the plastic rings for?  Ladies, check your bra straps and you will know!  I guess I was most amazed that such a small item would be the sole product of a factory and that the owners could make a "go" of the endeavor.  Once they have the machine installed and running, they secure buyers for specific color rings (once, it was purple) and they do so well that they move the whole operation to a larger facility in another city before being in business one year.  This brief glance at one manufacturing set-up was completely different from anything I had imagined or previously read about.

Hessler provides amazing statistics such as the number of Chinese getting driver's licenses per day and the miles of roads being built.  Plus he gives us interesting and necessary background history, such as the fact that significant roads were built in the 1920's, even in rural areas, with the anticipation that the new wave of transportation of the western world would reach China.  But politics and war prevented that progress for almost 90 years.  In the end, what makes this book worth reading is Hessler himself.  Every sentence makes it apparent that he has come to care deeply about the people of China.  And because he does care, he writes with warmth, honesty, and hope.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Jacquelyn Mitchard - still a Wisconsin author

Today's blog will not feature a short biographic article, not a book.  Many of you may know Jacquelyn Mitchard author Deep End of the Ocean which was an early Oprah bookclub pick and then later was made into a movie.  Since then she has written several successful novels, a sequel to Deep End and has ventured into the world of young adult literature.  I've always been drawn to her novels because of her Wisconsin connection.  Mitchard came from Illinois to Madison, WI for a journalist job when she was right out of school.  She married here, started to raise a family, and then tragedy struck when her husband died at 45.  It was after that loss that she pushed herself to write.  The end result was Deep End of the Ocean and her life changed forever. 

For years Mitchard wrote a syndicated column which I followed on Sundays, so I knew she had remarried and that the family had significantly grown.  I believe they had nine children of which some are adopted.  Her observations, some profound and some light-hearted, have often hit home.  I liked counting her as a Wisconsin author.  When I heard that the family had moved East, I was disappointed but thought perhaps she needed to be closer to publishers and such.

Yesterday, I spent some quiet reading time at one of our local libraries as I waited for my granddaughter's preschool session to end.  I don't like to waste gas driving home and then returning to pick her up two and a half hours later; as a result, I try to schedule errands and shopping on days I drive her to school.  When I run out of things to do, I spend time at the library which is actually in the same building as the preschool.
Jacuelyn Mitchard's name was highlighted on the cover to the February 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails, a DNR magazine.  What I read saddened me and yet made another author more real to me.  In the article Mitchard writes of her "dream life" with her second husband and their large family, then shares the painful news that in 2007 they had trusted an investor with their savings.  As she relates, he was basically a midwestern Bernie Madoff and they lost everything, including the beautiful homestead that her husband had built.  She writes about holding garage sales to sell everything possible and then the unwanted, but necessary move to Massachusetts where she owned a writer's retreat.  Reading this brought me back once again to the knowledge that no one has a perfect life.  What appears to be gilded and perfect has inner stories that we may not know. 

Just like Mitchard's newspaper column was marked with her distinctive voice and style, this article was pure Mitchard, bringing me to realize that I haven't read anything by her since I previewed Midnight Twins and Now We See Her, two novels for teenageers. A quick look at her website this morning brought some good news for me.  One, she has a new release Second Nature which has gotten strong reviews, and two, Mitchard has a blog on which she shares more personal insights into writing and her family.  Her blog is not one with daily posts, but I think I'll check it occasionally to see what is new with a Wisconsin writer.  I know I can keep calling her that, but as she says in her Wisconsin Trails article, Wisconsin will always be home.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Outlive your life: You were made to make a difference

Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make A Difference  -     
        By: Max Lucado
Since I mentioned this book in yesterday's blog, I decided to continue the same vein in my first post of 2012 and write more about this title. A year ago,  a group of teachers at the school district where I worked read this together and held discussions as we read.  Like many other Christian nonfiction books, it is set up with group discussion questions, but can easily be read by an individual.  Lucado brings us back to the age old saying that we can't take it with us.  No, we can't take our money with us when we die, and we certainly won't need it anyhow.  But we can be sure that should we have money leftover, we can make choices about its use that will have lasting results.  As the American population ages, those of us who have been blessed with abundance should be looking for ways that our abundance can positively impact others when we are no longer here (outlive your life). 

This book does not just focus on money.  Lucado, like Graham in Nearing Home, talks about using one's nonmonetary gifts to impact future generations.  Whether one's talents are teaching, singing, repairing cars, construction (the list is endless), we can use those talents in a "pay it forward" manner that will leave a legacy that lives past our earthly days.  And we are called by God to do that service in His name.  Lucado's book goes into many more details about the plight of others, especially children around the world, giving more facts about specific needs and specific projects than Graham's book.  Both titles will have the reader examining how they can help.  Some may be called to be part of mission trips to faraway places; some may get out yarn and work on a prayer shawl ministry, while yet another may decide to make weekly purchases for a food pantry. Others may be called to join a prayer chain for the first time. There is much to be done.

We all hope we will be remembered past our mortal lives.  Those of us who are interested in genealogy pour over old family photos and documents, but so often we can learn no more than simple facts. Have you ever thought of this?  Within each family, behind those facts, there is a heritage built by those who are now gone.  Was it a heritage that embraced God and taught that love to future generations?  Were tolerance, love, and generosity practiced on a daily basis?  Maybe in seventy-five or one hundred years, we will appear as no more than an entry on a family tree, but in realilty how we have lived our lives will likely replay itself in some way in our descendents.  God made us to be his children.  We have a purpose, and we have been called to make a difference.  Reading this book will give you a nudge to positive action.