Saturday, December 31, 2016

End of year reading tally

I end this year with 103 books on my Books Read List.  I did not blog about all of them, as I keep
the blog mainly for inspirational and gentle reads.  I am sure that I forgot to put a couple books on the completed list, but I am quite sure I recorded most.  There have been years when I've read more, but I am quite satisfied with this year's totals and books.

What will 2017 be like?  I have a multitude of e-books on my wish list through WPLC (Wisconsin Public Library Consortium)/Overdrive, plus an even longer wish list on the Winnefox Library System catalog, and enough pending holds to last the whole year.  I think that means I will chose to be less active on Litfuse, Netgalley, and Revell Reads.  Of course, I thought that in 2016, too, and then I was always being attracted to new-to-be released titles and they took up much of my reading time.  Balance, balance, balance -- a goal for the new year.

I also hope there will be new reads from favorite authors such Jane Kirkpatrick and Marie Bostwick.
Also want to read more inspirational memoirs and historical books.  I find encouragement from them and also learn a lot. 

If you run across any reading challenge lists for 2017, send them my way.  I may not undertake the challenge, but love seeing what makes the lists. Maybe I will create my own personal challenge list. Happy New Year to all!

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Friend Like Henry by Nuala Gardner and The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg

I thought I had finished my book review for 2016 but the after-Christmas reading bug bit me, so I may as well share my thoughts on them.  First, Fannie Flagg's new book THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING shows again that she is a queen bee at creating a sense of setting.  Her creation of Elmwood Springs, MO is so delightful that I kept thinking I should check on GOOGLEMAPS to see how far it was from Branson! LOL  Then her storylines, brief little connecting stories from every decade from the town founding in 1889 until 2020 (that's right the book dips into the future), manage to capture the essence of what was happening historically, socially, and culturally.  Always told with a mix of wit, humor, and heart, Flagg's stories kept me wanting to both stop and soak in the time period, while at the same time wanting to rush ahead and see who/what would appear next.  When the author introduced the readers to Still Meadows, the lovely cemetery on the hills and its every growing community of residents, I felt like I was reading a newer version of OUR TOWN. I see from the book's cover blurb that others have been making the same comparison.  While the book sounds all nostalgic and cuddly, I must set things straight.  Like every real village and town, there are misfits, villains, and people who have just plain messed up their lives. And true fans of Fannie Flagg know she is always going to have some quirkiness to her tales or should I say something outlandish? Can't and won't share, except to say it IS a surprise ending!! Maybe the biggest surprise ending I encountered in a very, very long time!!

american_coverFinishing THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING in a day and a half was a major read-fest, so I could have easily skipped reading yesterday.  But with not much of interest on television last night, I started A FRIEND LIKE HENRY by Nuala Gardner, a book my daughter gave me several months ago.  This book documents Gardner's autistic son's childhood through the 1990's and early 2000's in Scotland.  Fearing that their son Dale will never communicate or connect with them, Nuala and her husband decide to buy a golden retriever puppy after seeing that Dale responded a tiny bit to playing fetch with a cousin's dog.  How the puppy Henry begins to positively affect Dale's life and how the family uses the dog as a conduit to making Dale's world bigger is a wonderful story.  I was a mix of joy over their accomplishments and deep sorrow over the labels, red tape, and educational challenges his diagnosis brought.  Add in Nuala's struggle to have a second child, and this true life memoir is densely packed with emotional highs and lows.  To think that every parent of an autistic child faces similar day by day struggles and I realize that my parenting was really just a vacation with kids.   I highly recommend this book.  While we remain a petless couple since our children have grown, this books joins several others I have recently read that reminds that pets can be lifesavers in so many ways.  Here is a link to
so you can learn more about the author, her family, and autism.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Fruitcake Challenge by Carrie Fancett Pagels


Northern Michigan and especially the Upper Peninsula of Michigan share much with Northern Wisconsin.  Travelers today head to these locations for recreation, especially the quiet variety -- kayaking, a few hours  fishing, or maybe a hike through dense, lush forests.  Eagles fly overhead and loons dot the lakes.  If you happen to scare up a deer or an elk, it is easy to do a bit of time traveling of the mind, wondering what it was like when the lumber camps abounded across these lands.  Knowing that her ancestors ran one of those Michigan lumber camps, Carrie Fancett Pagels has researched what those times were like and has discovered a tidbit that few of us know -- some of the camps were actually family camps.  That means the workers were not just single men.  Wives accompanied their spouses and worked as laundrywomen, cooks, etc.  If there were enough children within a camp, schools might be started.  That knowledge led Pagel to consider what a young woman might experience if she had been raised in the camps, moving from one virgin stand of pines to another.

Pagel's Christmas novella THE FRUITCAKE CHALLENGE gives us a peak into those Michigan woods and a busy lumbercamp. Being a lover of the northwoods, I was eager to see what Pagel envisioned as a true lumberjack experience.  New lumberjack Tom Jeffries has come north to make some good money fast; he's counting on a sum large enough to rescue his mom from her precarious finances, something he could never have accomplished on his pitiful teaching salary.  But within days of arriving at the camp, Tom finds his attentions are drawn to the young, attractive camp cook Jo Christy.  In a boastful moment, Tom challenges that he will marry whoever can make a fruitcake as good as his mother's.  That Jo is the logging camp's daughter (boss's daughter) and that other loggers join in the challenge turns the whole camp into a flurry of flour, sugar, and dried fruit.

A sweet story, sincere characters, and a glimpse into the workings of a camp.  Carrie Fancett Pagel has delivered on all accounts.  THE FRUITCAKE CHALLENGE is part of THE LUMBERJACK series.  I received a copy of this title for review purposes.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

End of the year reads

The tree and decorations are still up, but Christmas and its rush have already passed.  The push to find the perfect gifts and get them wrapped is gone, and thankfully so.  Next year has to be different, doesn't it??  I love the surprise on the little kids' faces and I enjoy giving to my family, but I do think it is time to make some changes.  Despite the busyness of concerts, church services, shopping, and get togethers, I did have time for some December reading.  What I've been reading has been a real mixed bag so I've decided to record my reactions all in one post, and then I will find something new to read this evening.  When the New Year arrives, I plan to evaluate what is happening with my blog and whether I want to continue beyond January and February, months in which I already have review commitments.

Haven't read any John Grisham books in several years, so when I was able to score an e-copy of his newest novel THE WHISTLER from WPLC (Wisconsin Public Library Consortium) Overdrive, I latched onto it.   Mid-level state government workers are assigned to investigate a possible "dirty" judge; their inquiries lead to a deadly accident, the disappearance of their link to the "whistler", and the discovering of a corrupt Florida Indian casino.  While I enjoyed reading this book, I did not have the elevated heart beat and rush to finish the book that I remember from past Grisham books.  What has changed?  I am not sure.  I still like this author enough that I plan to catch up on his works this coming year.  It appears I have missed several titles.

NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles illustrates that not all stories have been told, and there are new talented authors to be found.  It is 1870 Texas and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (fought in the Civil War, now an old man) is given the task to accompany a 10 year old girl back to her aunt and uncle after being "rescued" from the Kiowa Indians who kidnapped her four years earlier and killed her parents.  It doesn't take long for Kidd to realize that the young orphan remembers neither English nor the Swedish language her parents had spoken.  In all but hair color, she is Kiowan and her captors are the only family she knows. Slowly Kidd and the youngster forge a truce, and then begin to build trust.  Kidd, once a printer, now supports himself by reading national and international newspapers to people willing to drop in a few coins to hear what is happening far away from the Texan frontier.  I'm not sure what led me to this book, but I am glad I followed that lead, and I look forward to more works by Paulette Jiles.

TIDINGS OF PEACE was a collection of four World War II Christmas novellas by Tracie Peterson.  I enjoyed being able to sit down on four different Christmas week nights after the house settled down and then beginning and FINISHING a story all in one setting.  Sweet, nostalgic, and heart warming, each story reminded us that those who were young adults in the 1940's sacrificed much. Coming from childhoods of the Great Depression, these men and women gave much and never felt entitled.  Peterson, as always, superbly blends story, setting, and character.

CHRISTMAS IN HARMONY by Phillip Pulley.  A Christmas novella which takes readers back to the small town of Harmony, Pastor Sam Gardner, and his congregation as they prepare for Christmas Eve.

A GOOSE CREEK CHRISTMAS by Virginia Smith  When Al Richardson is forced to take early retirement, he fears telling his wife, partly he knows she will want to go ahead with her plans to open a B and B in their large home.  This is my first exposure to Virginia Smith and her lovely Goose Creek community.  Think I will be visiting with the Richardsons and their neighbors again soon.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Waves of Mercy by Lynn Austin

waves-of-mercy-cover-1Lynn Austin can always be counted on to write a spell binding story, to make faith an integral part of the story, and to integrate a historical period into the narrative.  She does not disappoint in her new novel WAVES OF MERCY.  I encourage anyone interested in Wisconsin or Michigan history to latch onto this book as 19th Century Lake Michigan is the setting; but in a way, it is also one of the major characters.  If you've ever visited greater Sheboygan, WI, you probably realize the area was settled by Dutch farmers, most who came to escape religious persecution.  What you may not know about is a disastrous shipwreck The Phoenix in 1847 in which many Dutch immigrants perished. Lynn Austin has used that shipwreck as the cause of a terrible mix-up which led to a marriage between Geesje and Maarten, when Geesje was really betrothed to another.  Then she uses two other historical events to further another story -- the events, the great fires of 1871 (Chicago, Peshtigo, but also Holland, MI) and another shipwreck, Ironsides in 1873.  The second story is Anna's story, a young Chicago socialite who has come to Holland, MI to heal her heart after a broken engagement.  When she begins having recurring nightmares about drowning and then dreams littered with Dutch phrases, Anna begins to believe she needs some answers from her adoptive parents about her birth. Perhaps then she will know why she's so drawn to the "castle church" and the engaging preacher Dr. Moody who both her former fiancee and her father find tedious.

I began seeing promotions for this book early this fall, and again I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy through our library system.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray by Dorothy Love

lee_and_grayThe American Literature anthology our school district used when I was teaching English has some interesting primary source nonfiction pieces.  Among them was a letter written by Robert E. Lee explaining his decision to resign his United States military post to return to Virginia, the state of his birth, and join the Southern side of the coming Civil War.  When I read trailers to Dorothy Love's new historical fiction book MRS. LEE AND MRS. GRAY and learned that Robert E. Lee's wife Mary Anna, a great granddaughter of Martha Washington, was committed to the eventual freeing of all her father's slaves, I knew the relationship between husband and wife was an interesting one., one that merited further investigation. Immediately I wondered what she felt about her husband's choice to join the Southern effort. That Mrs. Lee was well educated, and with her mother, taught many of their slaves to read and write when it was unlawful also intrigued me. As I started the book, I also learned that she actively supported the movement to help freed blacks' immigration to the newly formed Liberia on the African continent.  Certainly not the image I had of a Southern general's wife.

But most intriguing to me was the fifty year plus friendship that developed between the young Mary Anna Curtis, soon to be Mrs. Lee, and one of her slave students, Selina Gray.  As Mary becomes a dutiful wife and mother, leaving Virginia behind to accompany Robert to his rough military postings, Selena is chosen to become a household maid of Arlington House, the Curtis estate.  Through the years, the two grow closer, as Mary returns for the birth of each of her children and for extended holidays.  When the Civil War hits, and Mary and family must abandon Arlington House for safer lodgings, it is Selena who Mary puts in charge of the many George Washington personal belongings that the Curtis family kept.

As I always do when I am reading historical fiction, I look to the author's notes to learn just how much research has gone into the book.  What has been imagined, what is documented guides my reading and responses to the work.  How may primary sources have been used is of great importance to me.  I was impressed with the extensive research and documentation behind Love's novel.  Even the few letters written by Selena to Mary that have survived serve as backbone of this well written work, which covers over 50 years of the women's lives.  Every time I read a Civil War novel, I think it may be the last one I read, that I have experienced the struggles and strife from all viewpoints.  Then another book surfaces that presents yet another viewpoint, and I learn so much more.  MRS. LEE AND MRS. GRAY is one of those books, letting the readers inside the personal turmoil and conflicts of both women.  I obtained a copy of this book from our library system and heartily recommend it to those who love historical fiction.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Scripture Doodles by April Knight

Image result for april knight scripture doodleEven in my wildest dreams, I am not an artist.  No one has ever called me that, and I doubt that anyone ever will.  That gene and the musical one did not make into my genetic map!! Still, I am a doodler and evidence of that could be found across all my high school, college, and grad school notebooks, if I still had them, that is!  Agendas from decades of teachers' meetings would show the same, but alas those have been long tossed.  And I have been known to keep tiny grandkids amused with my renderings of silly animals and outrageous bald headed men.  Then last year, I jumped on the adult coloring craze which I find most relaxing, but really don't allow myself to do very often.
And for the longest time, my thoughts would flow most readily when writing in long hand, not on the computer.  Often those thoughts began as a sentence or two (or even a few fragments) on a scrap piece of paper, and ended up morphing into the assigned paper.

Why all that personal sharing?  I wanted to set the stage for why I was attracted to April Knight's two new devotional books: Scripture Doodles, God's Promises and Scripture Doodles, a Six Week Devotional Experience. Both begin with several pages of basic instruction on how to use a visual devotional book. Really there is no right or wrong way; those instruction pages are really encouragement and creativity driven.  The rest of the books are set up with a devotional page including key Bible verses and directions (creative prompts) for the following doodling page.  The devotional page and the doodling page always have April Knight's own art to start the creative juices flowing.   These devotional journals provide an opportunity to connect with God's word through your own drawing, coloring, and written words.  Just as God does not expect a literary masterpiece when we pray, he is not expecting that we fill the pages with Renaissance-quality art, but that we take the time to express our feelings and move closer to understanding his will for our lives.

I received copies of these two books from Litfuse for my honest review.  I plan to gift at least one of them to a daughter in law so she can share it with a nine year old granddaughter who I spied doodling the other day.  They may not have the time for these devotions 90 days consecutively, but over the year I think they will find using the book together very meaningful.

More about April Knight and her works"

about ScriptureDoodle God’s Promises}

ScriptureDoodle God’s Promises: A Six-Week Devotional Experience (David C. Cook, December 2016)
Some of the most incredible stories in the Bible are of God’s promises and faithfulness to His children.
ScriptureDoodle God’s Promises refreshes believers who are feeling burned out or stuck in a rut in their relationship with God. Each of the creative worship prompts in this interactive guide includes biblical encouragement and ideas for worship through art. Artist April Knight includes creative lettering tips, color ideas, and completed examples to inspire readers to respond to promises in Scripture related to trust, faith, and the power of God’s Word in all circumstances.
This unique blend of Bible study and creative expression provides the opportunity to connect with God as Creator in a new, life-changing way.
Learn more and purchase a copy.
April Knight

{More About April Knight}

April Knight is a worship artist based in Asheville, North Carolina. Knight’s work includes live worship painting and leading ScriptureDoodle workshops online and at conferences and retreats around the country and internationally. Her family of four is her greatest joy, along with serving alongside her husband at their local church.
Find out more about April at

For your entertainment, a video clip about the devotional. If you look quickly you can get an idea of the layout of the books.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Restoring Christmas by Cynthia Ruchti

 Image result for cynthia ruchti restoring christmas

It was while reading Cynthia Ruchti's AS WATERS GONE BY, set on Madeline Island just off Bayfield, WI, that I first learned that Ruchti resided in Wisconsin.  A new to me Wisconsin author? One who wrote multi-layered hopeful, yet realistic contemporary stories set in places that I adore?  What more could I ask for?  How about characters that spanned the generations and Christian themes?  How about quality writing?  Could I have possibly found an author who delivered on all these points?  I quickly searched out previous titles and have followed her new releases ever since and I can confidently say that Cynthia Ruchti delivers on all counts.  (Check out my review of SONGS OF SILENCE here for my perspective on that novel.  )

So when I read early this summer that Ruchti was working on a Christmas novella, I had hopes that the story would rise above the sweet, but not profound quality of most holiday works.  For her story RESTORING CHRISTMAS, Ruchti travels to Lake Michigan's western shore and the small town of Algoma just south of Door County and Green Bay.  Once a hardy fishing village (I believe there are still some commercial fishermen who leave from this area and there are definitely fishing charters for the sports fishermen), Algoma today is a bit of a quiet tourist area.  As the book opens, Alexis Blake, a struggling Chicago interior designer, has just arrived in town for what may be the job that will thrust her into national recognition and her own Heart and Home television show (think HGTV channel crossed with Hallmark).  Her task is to remodel a stone country home, decorate it for the holidays, and end the filming with a "homespun"get together with the owner and her family.  Immediately, two huge obstacles stand in the young designer's way.  First, the videographer she has hired is a no-show and Alexis is not sure if George Langley's son Gabe is an able replacement.  Second is the homeowner herself, Elsie Raymond.  Quiet and reclusive, Elsie never entered the contest that selected her home for a remodel.  Thanks to a neighbor, she has won and now must put up with a work crew tramping across her yard and into her home. But that does not mean she has to like what is happening and she certainly does not have to be cordial.

Every aspect of this house transformation is a struggle, but with Gabe's help, Alexis learns that restoration is not just a term for house design, but can also applies to the brokenness of human life.
And we all have our own tales of brokenness.  In this season when we remember the greatest healer, the one who came to restore each of us, it was a joy to read this hopeful, gentle novel. I loved that we got to experience Elsie's gruff manner and mysterious ways without a bit of explanation until the end, so that we could come to care for her despite her rough edges, just as Gabe and Alexis do.  I loved that the book, like Ruchti's other writings, provide characters of many ages.  While twenties and thirties will like this book, so will other ages of readers, even an oldie like me.  This book would be a great stocking stuffer for the readers in your family, book club gift exchange, or a Sunday School teacher.  I received a copy of this book from Worthy Publishers for review purposes.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Christmas reading 2016

Anyone who is an avid reader has one --- a tbr (to be read) pile.  In my case, that usually means two tbr piles.  One is the noticeable pile, the physical books -- usually checked out from the library-- stacked up on a shelf in the great room.  The other pile, hidden away from view, is the electronic pile -- the books downloaded on my nook, many free or almost free, deals too good to pass up and certainly good reads for the future.  An avid reader must always have back up reads for those emergencies when a library is not nearby. 

This early morning is close to being one of those emergencies.  I finished a book last night right before bed.  I actually do NOT have any more library books checked out at the moment, although I do have a Christmas novella in print version I need to start reading, but I am saving that for later this weekend.  So now that it's been an hour and half since I awoke at 4:00 am and a return to sleep seems unlikely, I can either start a sewing project or start one of almost 200 books on my Nook.  But before I do that I think I should confess that I've been taking time in this busy season to read  Christmas stories.  Most are stories I downloaded last season but never found time to read then. Many Christmas books are classified as novellas because they are shorter; often between 150 and 200 pages, they fit an evening's reading perfectly (okay more like an evening and a bit more, unless I stay up late).

Here's my record of what I've read so far this season ---

From A CHRISTMAS TREASURY OF YULETIDE STORIES AND POEMS, edited by James Charlton and Barbara Gilson, I read "Is there a Santa Claus," the full letter that appeared in the New York Sun in 1897.  Next in the book was a British tale called "The Water Bus" and then my favorite was "Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus" excerpted from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. On a more serious note was a description of Washington's troops and their frigid Christmas at Valley Forge.  My daughter gave me a used, but almost pristine copy of this treasury last year knowing that I always try to find time for holiday reading.  Perhaps I will find a few moments for more reading from this volume before it returns to the family room bookshelves.  The variety of stories and authors in the anthology is wide, so something appealing is likely.

But on to the Nook titles -- First is Vanetta Chapman's CHRISTMAS AT PEBBLE CREEK. This follows the Pebble Creek Amish novels and is really a sweet, simple short story.  Then came my favorite, THE CHRISTMAS CAT by Melody Carlson.  As stated by a fellow blogger, all Melody Carlson books would make good Hallmark movies, and this one definitely fits.  Garrison, 30ish and single, receives news right before Christmas that his grandmother who had helped raise him has died. Since Garrison had been overseas engineering wells in Africa for a decade, he really had not seen her in quite awhile.  But one thing he knew for certain; in his absence, she had befriended a few cats and they now needed new homes.  Being highly allergic to the furry bundles, he dreaded even traveling to the home to meet with the lawyer.  When he finds out that his grandmother wanted him to personally find a home for each cat, and then do "home visits" to assure that the new owners are really worthy cat people, Garrison begins to wonder whether his grandmother loved the four footed children better than her only grandchild. Sneezing aside, this is a delightful quick read, complete with the expected bit of romantic comedy.

I recently downloaded a lengthy compilation of Christmas stories called ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS which was put together as a diabetes research fund raiser.  It includes stories by Debbie Macomber and more than 10 other authors.  While I am sure there are some good stories in here, the ones I've read so far have not been great.  For one thing, some of these authors are predominately romance authors -- heavy on the "romance", if you get my thought. Guess I needed to do more research before I hit that "buy" button.  I have not read Macomber's story yet and I am sure I will enjoy that one at least, but I am not sure how many other stories in this collection will get read.  This time of year, I especially need stories with an evident message and the spirit of Christ's love, and I which stories here will deliver.

More to my taste was Melissa Tagg's light-hearted tale ONE ENCHANTED CHRISTMAS about a first time author who believes she has fallen in love with the model who posed for the cover of her book.  In her mind she equates Colin Renwycke with the heroic leading man of her debut novel and a year after meeting Colin (and sharing a romantic sleigh ride), she still holds hope that she will hear from him again.

A member of a Facebook group I recently joined who is a widely read Christian book review blogger asked others what their Christmas readings were this year.  I pose the same question,
"What are you reading right now?  Anything seasonal?"

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Saffire by Sigmund Brouwer

Image result for saffire by sigmund brouwerHave you ever watched a suspense move (think James Bond) and find that you never quite get a good grip of whether a character is a "good guy" or a "bad guy"?  In fact, you find that neither you or the protagonist can get a handle on what is happening around him?  That is how I felt when reading Sigmund Brouwer's new novel SAFFIRE.  Having read and loved Brouwer's Christy Award novel THIEF OF GLORY, I knew that staying with this book until the pieces fell into place would pay off, and it did!  Set in 1909, the novel opens as James Holt, a South Dakota cowboy, is sent secretly by outgoing President Teddy Roosevelt to the American Zone of the Panama Canal for a secret errand.
James does not want to leave behind his young daughter, but knows that he cannot turn down Roosevelt.  Plus there is a payment which could save his ranch from foreclosure. History buffs will like the political intrigue and the descriptions of one of the world's greatest engineering feats.  Suspense readers will not be disappointed as what seems as an unlikely task of helping an orphaned girl plunges Holt into a world of intrigue, deceit, danger, and possible revolution.  I received a copy of this title from Blogging for Books for review purposes.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Image result for ace collins the most wonderful time of the yearAce Collins, author of more than 60 books, has written a countdown book which delivers 31 short devotionals, each accompanied by the story of a Christmas carol and a simple craft or food gift. Pampering those you love is the theme behind each gift idea, and the stories behind the hymns are ones you probably do not know, but the strongest section are the uplifting and encouraging devotionals.  Most of us, especially moms, are so busy during the Christmas season that any new task can be a burden. Don't look at Collins' book as one more thing to get done; instead see it as a well deserved break.  Read it while having a cup of tea or cocoa.  Share the message by reading it out loud with an older child, or savor the quiet time alone. I guarantee Collin's thoughts and observations will
help you see this Christmas season in the right light, and that might just make the next few weeks go more smoothly.  Even the tiresome task of Christmas cards could have new meaning after you read the December 13th entry.  Collins encourages us to revive the card habit, but instead of sending that accompanying "family brag" letter, he suggests that we follow Paul's example and take time to thank each recipient for what they have meant in our life.  What a powerful, simple gift. Whether you make one or all or none of the homemade gift ideas in this book, whether you sing any or all of the songs mentioned, you will be glad you spent time with Ace Collins; THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR.
I received a copy of this book from Litfuse.  All opinions are mine.

Following Ace Collins' advice about Christmas cards, I want to stop and thank anyone and everyone who stops by this little site and reads my reviews.  I look at this endeavor as a way to keep my writing and thinking skills a bit sharper.  Writing (reports, essays, tests, graduate school papers, articles, reviews) was an important part of my job and so was teaching of writing.  Being able to continue to use those skills a bit is a joy.  That anyone would stop by and read what I write is unbelievable.  Thanks again!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Small Great Things by Jodi PicoultJodi Picoult, the author of more than 25 novels, most of which sparked some kind of controversy or made us look at issues that made us uncomfortable, has returned with a new novel SMALL GREAT THINGS, which the author herself believes is her most important book yet.  What elephant in the room does she tackle this time?  Racism and prejudice, and by the time I was done reading the book, I began to see the essential difference between the two. Before I give even the slightest summary, I want to clarify a few things which Picoult shared at the end of the book.  Number one,  Picoult is not Black and understands that many will criticize for trying to tell a story from a black point of view (as well as from a white supremacist).  Picoult points out that all authors take on characters, points of view, and roles that they have never lived; that is the definition of fiction.  But then she goes on to share the in-depth research she did including the case of a group of Afro-American nurses who sued a Detroit hospital for discrimination and interviews with a former white supremacist who know teaches tolerance.  Although I was often uneasy with the words and thoughts I read (truly, I could feel my skin begin to crawl when I read Tuck and his wife's thoughts), I never felt anything was portrayed inaccurately or exaggerated for fiction's sake.

Ruth Jefferson, a labor and delivery nurse of more than twenty years, arrives at work one morning and takes over the care of an infant boy born during the night.  As she examines the baby for the preliminary health report, she senses that both the mother and father are extremely tense.  Still she is taken aback when the father Turk shouts not to touch his wife and demands to see a superior.  Soon Ruth learns that Turk and his wife are white supremacists who demand that no black is to be involved in their son's care.  Since Ruth is the only black nurse in this small maternity ward, the restriction, which her supervisor agrees to, clearly means Ruth is NOT to touch the infant.  Ruth is called in a day later to cover for a sick colleague, and when all the other nurses are called away from the unit for an emergency C-section, Ruth finds herself watching the little boy who is recovering from a circumcision. When he begins to show respiratory distress, she must make a split-second decision that ultimately leads to a murder charge when she is "thrown under the bus" by the hospital.

The book's narration alternates between Ruth, who is trying to process how she who has always done everything right and has overachieved her entire life can suddenly come so low simply because she is black; Turk, whose grief transforms quickly to hatred and revenge; and Kennedy, the defense attorney who finds herself drawn into Ruth's saga.  Privilege, hard work, perceptions, hatred, and race all come under close scrutiny in this powerful novel.  Like most Picoult novel's, SMALL GREAT THINGS offers surprises and twists, producing a powerful and soul searching read.
This book just released in October and I was fortunate enough to score an e-copy through our state's library for digital books. 

BIRDS IN THE AIR by Frances O'Roark Dowell

When I selected BIRDS IN THE AIR as my next read, it was because the book's press had
promoted it as a warm, a  humorous books about discovering the world of quilting and fitting into a new community.  Naturally this wanna-be quilter was attracted, especially when I saw recommendations from a favorite television quilter.  It was not until I was almost done with the book that I really looked at the author blurb (Sorry, Frances) and realized Frances O'Roark Dowell is a children/tween author, most widely known for her books DOVEY COE, THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS, and CHICKEN BOYS -- all books I "booktalked" and promoted when I was a school librarian.  So it should be no surprise that this awarding winning queen of exploring the ins and outs of friendships and not fitting in for the tween reader would see fertile ground for exploring the same themes in an adult book.

Emma Byrd, her husband and their two children have just moved to Sweet Anne's Gap, a small mountain town.  Excited to have escaped the stressful pace of suburbia, Emma is sure she will be able to start writing her long-awaited novel --except she has no idea what to write.  As the children attempt to settle into school, 10 year old Sarah experiences the pains of being the new girl with no friends.  When the queen bee of her grade receives word from her mom that she should have nothing to do with Sarah (reason for this is part of the novel's small town plot so I won't spoil it), it appears the quiet newcomer will remain on the outside for a long, long time.  As Emma considers how to help her daughter, she experiences her own immersion into small town culture.  A next door neighbor, obviously a recluse, closes the door on Emma, but the lady's granddaughter shows up at Emma's soon after and encourages Emma to explore the old trunks hidden in the attic.  There they find a fragile quilt and a mysterious photo of a young woman.  A trip to the quilt store helps Emma identify the quilt's age and pattern (civil war BIRDS IN THE AIR), but more than that, the trip brings about Emma's own attempt to quilt and an avenue to meet new people.  But all is not smooth.  Not everyone is ready to accept a newbie, especially someone who just might consider herself better than the mountain folk that surround Sweet Anne's Gap, and who just might be in possession of a valuable, stolen quilt!

The book was a really fast, entertaining read.  It was not until I started to write this review that I realized that there is a lot to think about in the themes of the book.  I commend O'Roark Dowell for entering the world of adult fiction and I felt laid the ground work for this story to continue in more books.  That said, I still wish this book had been a bit longer with more character development and depth.  I got the feeling that Emma was "colored in" but other characters never moved much beyond the pencil outline of who they were and how they affected the story.  I want to visit this town again, hear more of their stories, and perhaps watch Emma finally write her novel.  There are so many colors and layers the author could bring to Sweet Anne's Gap. I received an e-copy of this title from Netgalley.  All opinions are mine.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Kit Kat and Lucy: The Country Cats Who Changed a City Girl's World by Lonnie Hull DuPont

 Image result for kitkat and lucy

KIT KAT AND LUCY is a tender memoir about two cats who help Lonnie Hull DuPont (and her
husband) make the adjustment to a m ove from bustling San Fransisco to the quieter and more remote life in rural Michigan.  Lonnie had grown up in the same Michigan area, but had moved to larger cities for her career in the book industry. A later in life marriage led to a decision by the couple to move their careers back to Lonnie's home area, and eventually they moved into a rambling farm house not too far from her childhood home.  Just months after their arrival, Kit Kat, an adolescent gray cat, showed up on their steps. Since her husband was allergic to cats, Lonnie fed the cat, secured it in an outbuilding, and made arrangements for a family member to give it a home on a farm.  But Kit Kat (not named yet) had other ideas, and after she returned to Lonnie's yard, the couple knew they had a new family member and the need for some allergy medicine.

The book details how a second cat came to join the family and how they handled becoming a two cat family (something that is not always easy).  But more importantly, the author shares how the pets helped her deal with feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. She mixed in reminiscences of her childhood pets and how they helped her cope with the rough spots of growing up.  I learned a great deal about cat behavior ( perhaps I should say cat psychology) and enjoyed following the antics of these two furry friends.  At times I wished that I could eliminate my cat allergies like Lonnie's husband seemed to do, but I don't think I will be that lucky.  Clearly animals and humans can share bonds that are deeply meaningful, and anyone with a special feline in their lives would enjoy meeting Kit Kat and Lucy.  I received a copy of this book from Revell Reads.  All opinions are mine.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

North of the Tension Line and The Audacity of Goats by J. F. Riordan

Image result for north of the tension line bookOkay, I admit it.  Sometimes I listen to talk radio, especially when in the car.  This is partly because my husband is a news junkie and it has sort rubbed off on me.  But listening to Charlie Sykes on WTMJ a few weeks ago actually led to a productive, entertaining end.  Charlie mentioned an editorial piece that was going to run in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that shed a positive light on small towns (imagine that) and that the piece had been written by his wife.  Well, I never did see that opinion piece (but plan to search for it), but I did learn that his wife is a published novelist whose books are set in small town Wisconsin -- Door County's Washington Island.  I searched out the books, finding NORTH OF THE TENSION LINE as an ebook through Wisconsin Public Library Consortium and the second title THE AUDACITY OF GOATS through the Winnefox Library System

Both books feature the same cast of characters, centered around Fiona, a research writer, who following a dare, decides to purchase a dilapidated house on remote Washington Island and live there for at least a year.  In that time she makes friends with several island residents including Pali the ferry captain who is also an aspiring poet, but her presence is met with skepticism by some residents and outright fury by her next door neighbor Stella.  When her friend Roger, a quirky Door County coffee shop owner, gifts Fiona with a loud, obnoxious goat named Robert, Stella is determined to run both the animal and its owner off the island.  The story that begins in NORTH OF THE TENSION LINE continues in THE AUDACITY OF GOATS, although the second book could be read alone without too much trouble.
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Despite Stella's outrageous, open disdain for Fiona, these two books tell wonderful stories of finding one's place among your loved ones, your neighbors, and within yourself.  The allure of island living is balanced with the realities and isolation that it brings.  If you actually know someone who lives in Door County, you will know that the people there pride themselves on their individuality, their ability to withstand hardship,their tradtions, and their unique home on Wisconsin's landscape.  Riordan has captured all of that, although some of her characters might be a bit "tongue in cheek". She also handles the almost unnoticeable "creeping in" of the outside world through Roger's decision to buy an expensive, complicated Italian coffee maker and then his secret entry into the world of yoga to get closer to his feminine side to please his new wife.

I always like finding a new Wisconsin author, and I hope Riordan continues to make our special state the setting for future works.  I just found Riordan's blog and am happy to report that there is a third book coming featuring Washington Island.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Sister's Wish and An Amish Family Christmas by Shelley Shephard Gray

A Sister's WishAn Amish Family Christmas   -     By: Shelley Shepard Gray

Shelley Shepherd Gray completes her CHARMED AMISH LIFE series with two delightful, warm
stories.  A SISTER'S WISH focuses on Amelia, the youngest sister in the Kinsinger family featured throughout the series.  While all the other siblings are busy with either jobs and spouses or both, Amelia is left to tend the large house, made all the more empty by the death of both their parents.  Without telling her brother Lukas, Amelia has begun to see Simon Hochstetler, Lukas's boyhood friend.  But Simon has a troubled past and secrets from the years he left Charm, and when Lukas finds out his little sister has been seeing the prodigal Simon, Lukas wants it to stop.

Amelia and Simon's story actually continues a bit in AN AMISH FAMILY CHRISTMAS, but most of this Christmas novel features Levi Kinsinger, the brother who had left the family mill after the large fire that took their father's life.  Levi has decided to return to Charm and begin work at the mill again, but he can't make himself move back into the large family home.  Instead he rents a small, run down cottage near the mill.  Soon he notices the young woman and child who live across the street.  A newcomer to town, Julia tells everyone she is a widow, but that is not the truth.  When she and Levi become close, her lies, originally told to keep her daughter and herself safe, threaten to crush any hopes of happiness.

The scars of domestic abuse, the destructive powers of secrets and lies, and the even stronger power of forgiveness, truth, and new chances are the dominant themes of these entertaining novels.  For readers who have not started the series, I recommend getting all four books; you'll want to know all members of the Kinsinger family.  Plus they are quick reads; I read each book in just a few hours.  While I always have minor problems reconciling what the Amish characters do (and don't do) in Amish fiction with the strict behavior of our real life Old Order Amish neighbors, I thought Gray's books were well written and entertaining.  If you know someone who likes Amish fiction, this series would be a great Christmas gift.  The themes of forgiveness and starting over make them solid choices for church libraries.  I received copies of this novels from Litfuse.

Monday, October 31, 2016

40 Days to a Joyful Motherhood:Devotions and Coloring Book to Nourish Mom by Sarah Humphrey

Did you join the coloring craze last winter?  I did.  Like many libraries, our Mill Pond library held a mini-class for adults on this seemingly easy pastime.  I had always liked coloring, never even minded joining the granddaughters as they colored Strawberry Shortcake or Hello Kitty pages, so I was delighted to discover that whole books were being printed for adults.  I was even more overjoyed when I found that Christian publishers were putting together coloring books.  I liked the inspiring quotes and coordinating pictures to color much better than some of the psychedelic offerings at the big box stores.  So I was not surprised when a combination coloring book/devotion book came along.  Sarah Humphrey has written 40 encouraging devotions about topics dear to mothers' hearts: self-care, self-acceptance, generosity, forgiveness, and the challenges of family life.  Coupled with each devotion is a simple prayer and a full page image to color.  Some of the images include scripture or inspiring quotes, but not all do.  Many of the images are quite simple and will not require much time to color. Other pages offer space for simple journaling as well as coloring. I like to imagine a mother taking the time to read the devotion, then taking a few minutes to contemplate the devotion as she colors.  We really do process better when we are relaxed and coloring is supposed to enhance relaxation, so it makes sense to couple coloring with reflections about a daily devotion, then ending the brief quiet time with a simple prayer.  And we all know that mothers, if they ever get quiet time, have only a few moments of it!!

I received a copy of this devotional coloring book from Litfuse.  This review reflects my personal opinions.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Newton and Polly: A Novel of Amazing Grace by Jody Hedlund

Newton and Polly Almost all of us recognize John Newton's moving hymn AMAZING GRACE, and when we sing it or hear the lyrics, we are awed by the hymn's redemptive message.  Many of us know a bit about Newton's later-in-life decision to become a minister and that the hymn documents some details of his conversion and redemption.  We may even know that in his youth he worked on and commanded slave ships, but there still remains much we do not know about Newton.

Jody Hedlund's newest historical fiction NEWTON AND POLLY gives us the opportunity to learn more.  Newton, still a teenager himself, meets Polly, the daughter of his mother's cousin and falls instantly in love.  Being an impetuous, immature youth, Newton fails to make an appointment to start a job his father has arranged for him, instead staying extra days at Polly's home.  His failure to set sail on the appointed date and loss of an excellent marine opportunity deepens a chasm between father and son which started years before when Newton's mother died.   The Newton we see throughout most of this book is one who disappoints all around him.  He has an instant charm and humor which secures Polly's interest, but he quickly gives in to his own vices -- drinking, carousing, and gambling, causing Polly's father to banish him from their home.  At one point he is "impressed" or forced into naval service for the queen as the British prepare to fight the French.  While at sea, he continues to be obstinate and foolish, leading himself into deeper trouble and further away from any hope of winning Polly's affections, and definitely further away from a relationship with God.

Readers will be enthralled with the turn of events which change Newton's life -- a storm which should have killed him, a father who should have deserted him, and a woman who should have left him behind.  Like Hedlund's recent novel LUTHER AND KATHARINA, the author has imagined much about the interactions between Polly and John, but she does follow closely the actual life happenings of the two.  And historical details such as the prevalence of smugglers, Polly's father's job as a custom official, and the beginnings of anti-slavery sentiments among the Quakers make the book all the more authentic. I highly recommend this title for my historical fiction friends.  I received an e-copy of this title from NetGalley.  All opinions are mine.