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A Draw of Kings, by Patrick W. Carr

Fantasy isn’t usually my thing, but I’m trying to build a nice library of books for my son to read when he becomes a teenager. So that’s why I cracked open A Draw of Kings by Patrick W. Carr.  It’s the conclusion to  “The Staff and the Sword”, trilogy.

See my immediate problem? I should have read the first two books first!  Ooops… That’s probably why it took me a good twenty pages to figure out what the heck was going on. Luckily, Carr is a very competent storyteller and manages world building quite well. You can tell that his brain is half math, because his story structure is organized, there are systems in place, and things make sense.

For readers who are new to “The Staff and the Sword”, there are two major concepts: 1) the will of “Deas” is able to be determined by casting lots, and 2) the evil spirit of Malus can overtake living creatures and turn them into monsters. So a panther is just a panther unless it’s been corrupted by Malus, in which case it’s a MONSTER panther. If church people cast enough stones, they’ll be able to figure out whom that panther will strike next.

Not only was the premise clever, but I’d like to give Carr bonus points for including strong female characters that didn’t seem cartoonish.

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

All Things Hidden, by Tracie Peterson and Kimberley Woodhouse

Full confession: I was going to give All Things Hidden by Tracie Peterson and Kimberley Woodhouse a 5 on Amazon because it is everything a historical fiction book should be. But then I read the true story of Kimberley’s experience as a mom, fighting to help her daughter Kayla battle a rare illness, and now I wish I could give this book at 10. Holy Toledo! How does Kimberley Woodhouse find time to write? Wow. I am seriously impressed.

Don’t let the cover fool you; All Things Hidden is not necessarily a historical romance. It’s told from multiple points of view including a mix of genders. It’s also a “clean read”, meaning I’ll be saving it for my own teenage daughter someday. I’d have to destroy the cover to get my son to read it.  😉

It’s not just the quality writing that makes All Things Hidden a good book. There is an exceptional amount of historical detail in the pages too. Peterson and Woodhouse tell the story of Gwyn Hillerman and her father Harold who are (at first) the only medical personnel in the Matanuska Valley, Alaska Territory, circa 1935. The Hillermans are fictional characters in a real life adventure story. As part of the New Deal, FDR sent 200 families to homestead the valley. The families got 40 acres, a house, a $300 loan, and a commitment to live in Alaska for 30 years. (More information here.)

What I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE about All Things Hidden, is that the authors clearly spell out which characters in the book are historical, and which are fictional. They also share links to find more information about the Matanuska Colonization project. I felt like I learned a lot while I was being entertained.

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

Prepared for a Purpose, by Anotoinette Tuff

I seriously have got chills. I just finished reading  Prepared for a Purpose: The Inspiring True Story of How One Woman Saved an Atlanta School Under Siege. I read it start to finish in one day. That’s how good it was.

This book is by Antoinette Tuff with Alex Tresniowski. It tells the true story of how Antoinette interacted with a mentally disabled gunman at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, and talked him out of going on a shooting rampage.

I used to be a public school teacher and I send my son to public schools every day. So believe me, when I was reading this book, I paid attention.

But the story of the tragedy averted is only one half of this book. The other is the autobiography of Antoinette herself; how she grew up in the home of a single parent,  spent time being homeless, lived on food stamps, had a baby out of wedlock, got married, suffered divorce, and raised two of the darn finest kids you’ll ever meet.

That second half of the book is equally as inspiring as the first.

Prepared for a Purpose is published by Bethany House and has a strong Christian frame. I liked that about it, but was also a little bit sad because it means the book would be unsuitable for school districts to pass around for their employees to read. I think anyone who worked in a school would benefit from reading Antoinette’s story of cool thinking during lock down.

A final point is this book was also written by Alex Tresniowski. This is a guess, I’m assuming it was Tresniowski’s decision to structure the book the way he did. The mix of McNair and biography is brilliant, fast passed, and kept me turning pages as fast as possible. Nicely done!

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

Create a Cozy Reading Nook

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Don’t get your hopes up. This isn’t one of those fabulous ideas you find on Pinterest where people have turned a closet into an amazing, built-in bookshelf bonanza.

This post is about a $30 chair from IKEA, an old baby blanket and a box.

That’s all you need to create a special area in your house that’s just for kids, and just for reading.

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Here are the four essentials:

  1. Something to sit on (chair, beanbag, pillow, sleeping bag)
  2. A warm blanket
  3. A listening audience of stuffed animals
  4. A box with super easy books

How easy should the books be? That depends on your child. You want the books to be ones that your son or daughter can easily read independently. In my daughter’s case, we add Homemade Books and Bob Books that she’s already mastered.

On a personal note, this is the first time in four years that our reading nook has had a chair in it, instead of only a pillow. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture, but our nook is up in a landing, which would be otherwise unusable space. For years I’ve been afraid of kids falling over the banister. I didn’t want anything up there they could climb.

But (knock on wood), I think it’s safe now. Jenna’s almost four-and-a-half years old. It’s hard to believe! Time goes by so fast…

An Elegant Solution, by Paul Robertson

Murder, mystery, and math? That’s the premise behind An Elegant Solution by Paul Robertson which delves into the history of Leonhard Euler and the Bernoulli family in Basel, Switzerland.

This book was a complex and challenging read. It took me about eighty pages to really get into it, but once I had mastered the premise, I was hooked. Then later when I was looking up the real-life history on Wikipedia, I felt like I was reading about people I actually knew.

Robertson writes in a poetic, lyrical style. The back of the book says “History Suspense” but I wouldn’t describe it as genre. I found it to be more akin to a literary novel. For example, There’s a Faustian theme that I didn’t quite grasp until the end, that completely blew me away.

Part of what made An Elegant Solution so challenging is Robertson’s excellent use of world building. It’s almost like reading a fantasy book by Tolkien because Euler’s world was entirely different than our own. There were different customs, traditions, educational systems, and diction. After reading this book, I feel like I’ve got a good grasp on what life was like in 1700s Basel.

If you’re looking for a good beach novel, this isn’t it. But if you have the fortitude to handle James Michener, than you might really like Paul Robertson.

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

The Daniel Cure, by Susan Gregory and Dr. Richard J. Bloomer

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Last week I read The Daniel Cure: The Daniel Fast Way to Vibrant Health by Susan Gregory and Dr. Richard J. Bloomer. I’ve been telling people about it every since.

The concept of the book is rooted in Daniel 1:11-13 and Daniel 10:2-3 when Daniel fasts, prays, and eats food from seeds. Susan Gregory came up with the idea of a 21 day modified fast based on these verses, where you eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds,and healthy fats. She called it “The Daniel Fast” and blogged about it here.

The Daniel Cure follows up with lots of science, sound nutritional information, recipes, a 21 day devotional, and some great charts to monitor your vitals.

None of this was new information to me, a green-smoothie-gluten-free- sometimes-vegan-regular exerciser, but I was impressed by how it was all laid out.

Basically, this is a book about following a bleeding heart liberal diet, written for the GOP. I could see a church lady in Texas reading this book and loving it, when maybe she never would have bought a book about being vegan. Brilliant!

Three weeks of clean eating combined with prayer and self-examination also sounds like a win-win idea.

It would be hard to follow the Daniel Fast and also be gluten-free, but the authors do talk about making modifications for people with allergies, food intolerances, and for women who are pregnant or nursing (p28).

I am definitely planning to try a 21 day Daniel Fast in the future. First I need to wean off of coffee. That’s easier said than done…

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

I review for BookSneeze®

A Talent for Trouble, by Jen Turano

I just finished up the frothy and highly entertaining historical romance A Talent for Trouble, by Jen Turano. Like it’s predecessor, A Most Peculiar Circumstance, this book follows the adventures of a twentyish socialite living in turn-of-the century New York. This time it’s Felicia Murdock who gets entangled with a former opium trafficker.

I think both books are really fun, tame reading for high school girls on up. I appreciate the message of female empowerment that Jen Turano so skillfully captures.

I do still have a nagging wish that the books were more historically accurate. In A Talent for Trouble, the heroine Felicia Murdock does a lot of things that would get her kicked out of high society faster than you could say “The Age of Innocence”. But I did like the plotline surrounding the opium trade.

I would LOVE for Jen Turano to include some tidbits of the historical research she did to write her books on her website Jen Turano.com. That would make my day!

P.S. I got a free copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

Sweet Olive, by Judy Christie

Sweet Olive, by Judy Christie, is as close to “a Mitford” book as I’ve ever read that wasn’t written by Jan Karon.  Christie manages to capture a cozy, small town feel, but she sets her story in Louisiana and includes more young people.

The hook of Sweet Olive is that a community of artists is fighting to protect the history and charm of their town from an oil company that wants to put up wells everywhere. Camille Gardner, the landman for the oil company, gets caught in the middle.

Christie did an exceptionally good job balancing  “liberal versus conservative” debate about oil drilling, with concern for God’s creation.

This was a gentle and enjoyable story.  It was also a book that was solidly rooted in the South.

I could tell that Christie was coming from a “red” state, but at no point did she ever offend my “blue” state sensibilities.  She threw in a quick quip about a silent cathedral in Seattle, but I thought that was funny.  (Although, side note to Christie, come to Edmonds United Methodist Church and we’ll show you a packed house right here in the Pacific Northwest!)

I wish more people could talk about big things like God, art, oil, the environment, and money in the kind and measured way that Judy Christie writes.  She makes me think “Louisiana?  I really want to go there!”

P.S. I got a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for my honest options and review.

I review for BookSneeze®

Chasing Hope, by Kathryn Cushman

This past week I read a book which I absolutely love called Chasing Hope by Kathryn Cushman.  It’s a very clean read for teens or adults, and one that would make for a great mother-daughter book club from church.

The hook is:  After being diagnosed with a debilitating illness, college senior Sabrina thinks her competitive running days are over.  Then Sabrina meets Brandy, a running prodigy with a troubled past who really needs help.

Okay, now I’m totally veering away from a normal book review here, but the debilitating illness Sabrina has is something that my cousin-in-laws deals with.  I don’t want to name it, because that would be a spoiler.

But my cousin-in-law has been tremendously helped by sticking to a vegan diet.  He’s even been able to go off of a lot of his meds! There are even research studies proving that  veganism helps this particular disease.

So when I was reading “Chasing Hope” and came across scenes where Sabrina was eating pizza, I kept wanting to shake the book and tell her about my cousin!  “There’s still hope!  There’s still hope!”

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest opinions and review.

God in my Everything, by Ken Shigematsu

This week was my son’s first days of third grade.  The rhythm of Fall and the routine of life is picking up again.  So it was fitting that I’ve been reading God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God, by Ken Shigematsu.

Before ever reading one word, I was intrigued by this book for two reasons.  #1) The pastor of my church has just returned from a summer long sabbatical studying Celtic Christianity. #2) Shigematsu lives in Vancouver, and I love reading books by Pacific Northwest authors. (I live near Seattle.)

Shigematsu’s concept is to build rules and routines into your daily life that support your walk with God.  Patterns of behavior can become a strong trellis to help people thrive.

There was less Celtic “stuff” in this book than I was initially hoping for, but Shigematsu filled the pages richly, contemplating traditions and spiritual practices from all over the world.  (As a United Methodist, I especially appreciated the shout-out to John Wesley and his practice of proportionate giving.)

I also like how Shigematsu suggests starting small, and changing your routine for better over time.  For me, this means turning the chimes on my clock and remembering to take a deep breath every time I hear them sound.  That seems like a good place to start.

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

I review for BookSneeze®

Using Incentivites (aka bribes)

At the end of the third box of Bob Books, we are going to the AG store!

At the end of the third box of Bob Books, we are going to the AG store!

Sometimes early readers just need a little push.  No, that doesn’t make you a tiger mom.  I know from experience that this happens with teachers in Kindergarten classrooms too.  Sometimes early readers need a push.

They’ve got the skills.  They know phonics.  They can sound out words.  But it’s still a bit hard.

That’s why it’s helpful to make it worth their while.  The more practice kids get, the easier it will be to read.  The easier it will be to read, the more they will enjoy reading.  The more they enjoy reading, the faster they will develop advanced skills.

Incentives, bribery, whatever.  I don’t care what you want to call it.  But I know it works.

With my son Bruce I offered a new Star Wars book for every 6 Bob Books he read.  But it’s been harder to find an equally attractive book incentive for Jenna(4).  So finally we paged through the American Girl catalogue and looked for something exciting.  Hence our new chart featuring Rebecca Rubin.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but I used a dot stamper to represent each Bob Book twice.  The chart includes all of the books from sets one, two and three.  So once Jenna has read every Bob Book in sets one, two and three twice, she’ll earn Rebecca. I’m crossing them out as we go along.

Getting through the third set of Bob Books would mean having first grade reading skills.  To me, that’s worth $110!

Rules of Murder by Julianna Deering

Rules of Murder (A Drew Farthering Mystery) by Julianna Deering is a highly entertaining mystery set in 1930’s England.  It feels like you are reading a film noir movie, from the golden age of Hollywood.

I won’t describe any of the plot because there’s too much risk of giving clues away. But I will say that one thing I especially appreciated about this book was how clever it was.

I’m not a mystery buff so I didn’t understand at first, but Derering was playing around with Father Knox’s Decalogue, the “Ten Commandments for Mystery writers“, the entire book.  She intentionally broke as many rules as possible, just for sport.

Now that I know that, it makes me want to read the book again, start to finish, so I can look for the broken Decalogue.  Very cool!

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

Why Ian Morgan Cron will knock your socks off

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron had me laughing, crying and thinking for days. The only thing that’s bugging me is I can’t decide which of Cron’s books I like better.  A couple of weeks ago, I read and reviewed Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, and it has stuck with me too.

“Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir…of Sorts” tells the story of what it was like for Cron to grow up the son of an alcoholic.  It’s also a look back at life Greenwich, Connecticut a generation ago, and how times have changed.

Cron’s remembrances of life as an altar boy had me in stiches.  The kindness and wisdom of Father Durcan had me in tears.

In many ways, Cron reminds me John Shelby Spong, (but I hope I don’t tick anyone off by saying that.)  Cron isn’t afraid to ask deep questions.  He’s not afraid to think.  He’s not intent on pegging God down and boxing God up into a neat and tidy definition.  (But I might be wrong…)

I got this book for free from Booksneeze in exchange for my honest opinions and review.  I look forward to reading many more books by Cron in the future.

I review for BookSneeze®

“Homeless at Harvard”, a book you gotta read

If you are a fan of Black Like Me or Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, then I have a book that you will love.  It’s called Homeless at Harvard: Finding Faith and Friendship on the Streets of Harvard Square  and it’s by John Christopher Frame.

While Frame was a divinity  student at Harvard, he spent a summer living with the homeless community of Harvard Square, so that he could better understand  their circumstances.  Unlike John Howard Griffin or Barbara Ehrenreich, Frame was upfront about his identity.  He didn’t try to trick anyone.  (Although I totally give Griffin and Ehrenreich a pass for their deceptions.)

“Homeless at Harvard” is a small book and very readable.  Moms and Dads, you can find time to read this.  It would also be a great piece of literature to discuss with your teens.

Frame addresses all the big issues you think about when you consider homelessness: addiction, abuse, gender issues, religion, mental health, and learned helplessness.  Frame doesn’t offer any definitive answers.  There’s nothing neat and tidy about the ending.

While reading this book I found myself really thinking a lot about Ayn Rand.  I don’t like Objectivism at all.  (I even wrote a column about it.)  I think that Jesus stands for everything Ayn Rand is against.

But…if giving a panhandler money means helping them feed their cocaine addiction, then that’s not what I want to do.  But how do you help?  How do you know whom to help?

Near the end of “Homeless Harvard” Frame talks about relationships.  You can offer a homeless person your smile and conversation.  You can acknowledge their personhood.  That’s important too.  Frame really made me think about that in a new way.

After I finished “Homeless at Harvard” I found the author’s website.  I feel like I know every person pictured.  John Christopher Frame should be commended for giving them a voice.

P.S. I received a free copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

I review for BookSneeze®

Dragonwitch, by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

I’m a little groggy this morning because I stayed up late last night finishing Dragonwitch (Tales of Goldstone Wood), by Anne Elisabeth Stengl.

When I first started reading Dragonwitch I was really confused.  Stengl throws so many other-worldly terms at you that it’s easy for your mind to shut down.

So I skipped the prologue and started fresh on Chapter One, which was a lot easier to manage.  Then later when my brain was accustomed to all of the fantasy terms, I looped back and read the prologue again and it all made sense.  By the time I was halfway into the novel, I was hooked!

Dragonwitch is complex in the way that Tolkien is complex.  Every character has two, three, or even four different names.  The narrative arc cuts across different worlds and different histories.

But Stengl manages to pull it all off.

I should note too, that Dragonwitch isn’t the first book in her series.  So perhaps if I had first read Heartless (Tales of Goldstone Wood), I would have jumped into the storyline quicker.

What is that storyline you ask?  Whoa… that’s a difficult question.  But if I was to try to write an elevator pitch for Dragonwitch it would be this:  “When a faerie queen’s love gets rejected, she smolders an entire world.  Only the unlikeliest of heroes and his hodgepodge of brethren can stop her.”

P.S.  I received a free copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest opinions and review.