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?"