The Black Count

Oct 2, 2015

Guest Post by Mike

I hope Amy eventually gets around to reading this book and doing a proper review at some point because it deserves the attention. But I need to recommend it to you in the meantime.  

This is a historical account of the life and adventures of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas.  It can be summed up in three syllables:  A-MA-ZING!

There are three reasons to get obsessed with this book:

1) The Biography.  The story of Thomas-Alexandre's life is unreal.  There are times when you think you must be reading fiction, because it is unbelievable that a real person could experience so much.  I came away awestruck, wondering how I'd never heard of this incredible person before.

2) The History.  It has been a long time since I've read or studied much about the French Revolution. This story spans most of the important events and was a great refresher.  It was riveting to follow a high profile participant as he navigated the perils of the times (sometimes successfully, sometimes not).

3) The Literature.  The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite books since high school. I had no idea that it was inspired by a real person: Dumas' own father, no less!  There's nothing like the story behind the story to make you love a story even more.  

The Black Count deserves the many accolades it has received.


Hiatus Haiku

Sep 30, 2015

Guest Poem by Mike

Amy takes a break
I fill in and post a bit
No bright side for you

Go-To Author #2: Jeff Shaara

Sep 28, 2015

Guest Post by Mike

My second go-to author is Jeff Shaara.  His novels are historical fiction that give first hand accounts of wars or battles.  I will note that I consider his books as more history than fiction.  They are well researched, and all characters and events described are true to history.  The fiction comes in the form of added dialogues and character musings that were not recorded.  They are included to give the stories more flow, heart, and interest.  Shaara takes care to make sure everything he writes would be in line with what is likely to have been said or thought based on what we do know of the people involved. 

These books are so good for helping you understand what happened in the conflict and why.  The cast of characters almost always includes high ranking officers and lowly foot-soldier types from both sides.  That way you get to see the overall flow of the battle, and how it felt to be fighting in it.  Shaara found a pattern that works, and he applies it repeatedly to help us understand American history through the wars we have fought

Here are a few of my favorites:

The Killer Angels.  I'm starting my list off with this one, even though it wasn't written by Jeff Shaara.  It was written by his father, Michael Shaara, and was the original novel that began the Shaara legacy.  It is an account of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, and was the basis for the 1993 film "Gettysburg."  This book is touching, enlightening, educational, and inspiring, and it is one of my top ten books of all time.  I even bet Jeff would agree with me that his father's work is the true masterpiece of the genre.

To the Last Man.  Loved this book!  I grew up loving histories and movies about World War II, but I hadn't studied much about World War I.  To the Last Man brought the Great War to life for me.  There is one story line in the novel that especially astounded me.  Shaara follows a French-American flying ace (Raoul Lufbery) whom I had never heard of before.  It is tragic that more people don't know his heroic story.   Please read this book and help turn that around!

The Rising Tide.  Like I said, I've always loved learning about WWII.  This is the first in a three book series that describes the war in Europe.  All three are very good, but I'm only listing the first one to get you started.  The top brass characters are Erwin Rommel (amazing!) and Eisenhower.  The enlisted men are great too.  I also highly recommend the audiobooks of this series.  Very well done.

Admittedly, I'm a war buff, but I think anyone who likes a good story will enjoy these works.

Go-To Author #1: Brandon Sanderson

Sep 23, 2015

Guest Post by Mike

I need to make sure you know about my favorite author, Brandon Sanderson. If I'm ever in a pinch and need to find a book fast that I know I'm going to enjoy, he's my go-to guy. I have yet to find something he's written that I didn't love. (With the possible exception of Elantris, which I did like a lot, but it wasn't to the point of love, but it was very interesting, and it was his first novel, so I'll lean his way on that one too).

A selection of Brandon Sanderson books.   The top three are the original Mistborn series.  
I actually haven't read Warbreaker yet.  I can't keep up with him!

What I like most about his writing is his incredible imagination.  I often stop and ask myself, "How in the world did he think of that?"  The worlds in which his stories take place are truly fantastic, inspiring the reader just the right mix of childlike wonder at the magic and a more mature intelligence that underlies everything.

I somewhat agree with the criticism that fantasy can get a little tiring when new, more powerful spells and creatures keep appearing out of the blue to threaten or save the main characters in their hour of need.  It takes away the excitement and feeling of danger when you don't know the rules and the magic is unrestrained.   Brandon Sanderson doesn't work like that.  There are fanciful phenomena, but there are also clear boundaries. They are fun stories, but not fluff.  And he's not afraid to do some pretty stunning plot twists or even kill off beloved main characters. 

If you don't like hard core fantasy, you might want to try some of his lighter stuff, like the Alcatraz books.  They are geared to a younger audience and take place on earth... sort of.  It's an alternate earth where the oppressed people (such as America) are brainwashed under the oppressive hand of the evil librarians.  I've only read the first one, but was laughing out loud most of the way.  Very fun.

Perhaps the next step up is The Rithmatist.  It's another younger audience book. I found it so creative that it must have literally blown my mind since I can't think of anything else to say about it.  
But Sanderson is also a great destination for the serious fantasy lover. The original Mistborn trilogy is what got me hooked on him in the first place.  It is so well written, such a good story, great dynamic characters, and plot twists that will leave you reeling.  

He then takes the basic premise of the Mistborn books, and translates it to new time periods to create the Wax and Wayne series.  It's kind of a genius mix of steam punk and fantasy. Coincidentally, the latest of these books (Shadows of Self) comes out in a couple weeks.  I don't know how he turns out the volume of books that he does while continuing to change the game.  He has the production rate of a factory with the touch of an artisan. 

I need to sign off for now, so I will save talking about the Stormlight Archives series (probably my favorite of his so far) for another time.

But I think you got the point.  I'm a Brandon Sanderson Fan. 



What to Expect In Amy's Absence

Sep 21, 2015

Guest post by Mike

Amy has given me the keys to her blog while she takes her little hiatus.  I thought I should start out with a list of what kinds of things (good and bad) you are likely to see from me over the next few weeks. 

Book Genres
Most of my posts will be about books that Amy is not likely to read any time soon.  While a large part of what I read comes from Amy's recommendations, I also love a couple of genres that Amy is less interested in, specifically science fiction/fantasy and war history.  Branching out!

Review Content
Don't expect a lot of in depth analysis.  I read most of these books some time ago and might not remember much more than that I liked them.

It sounds like a lot of work to get relevant images to accompany posts.  I don't like a lot of work.  You'll be lucky to get a six month old picture of me in a lawn chair with a nerdy shirt.

I should let you know that I'm more stream of consciousness than Amy with less patience for proofreading.  So I mite even have sum more grammar errors then her. 

I'm planning to post some original poetry written specifically for this blog. We're talking World Premier! It might not be much more than a Haiku, but you'll want to stay tuned for that.

Amy is very structured and consistent.  I am not so much.  The spacing of my posts will likely be less predictable, even if I keep posting the entire time Amy is planning to be gone, which is not a sure thing.

Comment Moderation
I literally haven't checked my email since July, and I make no promises to respond to blog comments. 

With all that said, I think this is going to be a fun exercise for everyone. At the very least, we will all come out of this with more appreciation for the work Amy puts into having thoughtful, meaningful articles.

We'll talk soon.

Six month old picture of me in a lawn chair with a nerdy shirt.

Taking a Step Back

Sep 18, 2015

At least for me, motherhood has been a slowly expanding juggling act. After my oldest was born, I quit working full time and found myself with loads of time on my hands. Aaron was a fairly easy baby, and so I had these long stretches of nap time where I cleaned my (already clean) house, read, made dinner, watched our local morning show, or took a nap myself.  I didn't even have the internet to waste time on since Mike was in school at the time and took our laptop with him every day.

For an introvert like me, this was not a bad life. Many days, I just held Aaron for all of his naps because I couldn't get enough of him, and it wasn't like I had anything pressing to do. Sometimes I dream about those days. I didn't appreciate them enough.

As the months, and then the years, went by, I added a ball here and there to the ones I was already juggling. I began teaching piano lessons; I had another baby (and then another and another); my children acquired their own activities: soccer, gymnastics, piano, school; my house didn't stay clean; the laundry pile exploded; and I started this blog.

These have all been good things, and I feel blessed that I've had the opportunity to fill my life with so many of the things I love.

But lately, it feels like I can't stay on top of it all--like maybe, just maybe, I'm trying to juggle one or two too many balls. I've tried lots of things to manage everything (schedules and routines and multi-tasking and delegating). I've tried cutting back (I whittled down by piano studio to twelve students; I didn't commit to as much volunteering this year at the school). I've tried to use the hours at the edges of the day productively (I shifted my blog writing to the early morning; I spent the evenings putting the house back in order).

And yet, with all of that, I still find myself feeling frayed and frazzled for most of the day. I'm tense with my kids. I'm frustrated with my house. I'm disappointed with myself.

For a long time, I've wondered if I should give up my blog because it takes up a lot of my time (and, I'll admit, sometimes adds to the tension I feel when I'm being interrupted for the dozenth time while writing a post). But it's also something that brings me a lot of joy and satisfaction outside of motherhood, and I think that's important.

I thought about just taking a break, but the word "break" scared me. I'd seen what happened on other blogs: "Just taking a short break while I find myself!". . . and then they never posted again.

But a few weeks ago , I was taking some much needed time to read my scriptures and ponder my situation. The word "break" again flitted across my brain, and this time, it didn't scare me. In fact, for the first time, I was excited by the prospect. \

I remembered an experience one of my friends had shared about her husband's business. He was working overtime, putting every possible minute into helping his business take off . . . but it wasn't working. He was frustrated. His family missed him. Finally, they just decided that, regardless of the consequences, they all needed a break. They pack up their camper and went into the mountains for a week. And while he was away from work, he could suddenly look at it very objectively from a distance, and he knew what was missing. He went home rejuvenated and with a new plan (and it worked).

I wondered if the same thing might happen with my blog. If I stopped thinking and worrying about it 24/7, if I simply put my focus on something else for a few weeks, maybe I'd be able to see things more clearly and figure out a solution. I decided it was worth a chance anyway. But definitely not without a plan.

I learned from Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before that stopping a habit can be disastrous. I know marathoners who immediately sign up for the next race as soon as they're done with one just so that they don't get into the habit of sleeping in. One of the stories Gretchen tells is about a yoga instructor who wouldn't let his clients "stop for the summer." Instead, he just cancelled the appointments during those months, but they still had their next appointment scheduled on the calendar, so it didn't feel like a big ordeal to start up again in the fall.

As I've been thinking about my break, I've planned it out very purposefully and strategically. It will be three weeks long (which I hope is long enough for me to make a clean break of it but not so long that I feel like I've completely abandoned ship). Gretchen Rubin said, "When faced with an unavoidable stopping point . . .  it helps to commit to a specific day to jump back into the habit." So I've done just that with my break. It will run from September 21st to October 11th (going over conference weekend, which is always a contemplative, reflective time for me).

This will be a break not only from the blog but the internet in general. That means no Instagram, no Facebook, no checking other people's blogs. I know. It's going to be tough. I am giving myself permission to check my email during that time just because I feel like that's necessary in order to be a responsible adult, so you can still get a hold of me that way.

All this might be coming as a shock to you, like it's something I've done on a whim, but it's been in the planning stages for weeks, and I have to say, I'm kind of excited for it. There have been some things I've shoved to the back of my life that I hope to give a little more attention to during the next few weeks: an online photography class I bought months ago, some non-blog writing, a little organizing. I also plan to keep track of how I'm spending my time and note my observations in my journal.

When I told Mike about my plan, he totally surprised me by saying, "I'll guest post for you during that time!" You have to understand, during the last three-and-a-half years, Mike has taken only a passing interest in my blog, so for him to actually volunteer to write on it? That's huge. You're in for a treat, that's all I can say.

So that's what Mike will be doing during the break. And I actually have something for you (yes you, dear readers) to do during the break as well. For a long time, I've had some questions bouncing around in my brain: How do people find my blog? What makes them stay (or better than that, come back)? What makes them leave? etc. I finally just decided it was time for Sunlit Pages' first ever reader survey.

I know. Everyone has a survey they want filled out. But this one will literally take you five minutes (or less) and will be so helpful to me in taking the pulse of this blog. And obviously, a response from one hundred of you will be vastly more informative than from just ten of you, so please, even if you haven't ever commented on this blog, please take a couple minutes to do this for me. Thank you so, so much. (It's embedded at the bottom of the post.)

Regardless of what happens during the next three weeks, it's a pretty sure bet that I won't just fade away into the internet abyss. You can expect me back on October 12th because it's written on the schedule, and I am nothing if not a strict adherer to schedules. See you in a few weeks!

(Also, let me know in the comments or by email if you have trouble taking the survey. Since this is my first one, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to get it to you.)

What My Kids Are Listening to Right Now (Nine of Our Current Favorites)

Sep 16, 2015

Last winter, I shared nine of our favorite children's music albums with you. I still stand behind that list 100%, but in the meantime, we've added some more favorites.

1. All Around Ralph's World

This one probably should have gone on the original list since we first listened to it years and years ago back when we only had two children instead of four. The first song we heard of his was "Wiggle Your La-Di-Dah" during library story time. I immediately tracked down the librarian afterward to find out the name of the album it came from. Several months later, we danced to "Drivin' in My Car" at our little music co-op. Both songs were instant hits because the words supply their own actions, and we've been pleased to discover that many of his other songs are just as dance- and action-worthy.

Favorite song: "Wiggle Your La-Di-Dah" with "Drivin' in My Car" following as a close second (it's on a different album, I believe)

2. The Little Mermaid Broadway soundtrack 

A few weeks ago, Mike and I saw The Little Mermaid at our favorite local theater. Neither of us would claim it as one of our favorite Disney movies, but we've always liked the music, and I was dying to see what the set would be like at this theater (it did not disappoint). Anyway, we ended up loving the play (who knew?) and decided to purchase the Broadway soundtrack.  As you might have guessed, our kids fell in love with it, too. I think they'd only seen the movie once and couldn't remember much of it, so it was entertaining to hear them try to piece together the details of the story based on the music. Within just a few short days, they had all the words memorized.

Favorite song: "She's in Love" (Maxwell put this one on repeat and probably listened to it twenty times in a row.) 

3. Up to Something Good by Sunshine Collective*

This is not a children's album per se; the songs aren't about the alphabet or going to school or playing outside. But I only had to put it on once for my kids before they were hooked on these light, carefree songs. In fact, a few days ago, Maxwell was begging for it, but he couldn't remember the name of it. It wasn't until I, lucky for him, coincidentally put it on a little while later that he exclaimed, "This is it! This is the one I wanted!" It's recorded by a husband and wife team, and I just really enjoy their style, and so do my kids.

Favorite song: I wish I could say "Up to Something Good" because parts of it really are my favorite, but it has this strange section in the middle that morphs into something reminiscent of Mission Impossible, and it just doesn't work for me (but now you're probably intrigued, huh?). So instead, how about "I Love You" because after Bradley heard it for the first time, he came up to me and said, "Mom, I do love you." 

4. Play! by Milkshake

Another amazing find from library story time (I'm telling you, it's worth the hassle of going). As I recall, the theme from that day was superheroes. The librarian had put together this fantastic playlist of superhero songs, and I begged her for her list afterwards. One of the albums was Play! by the group Milkshake. I checked it out, and my kids immediately fell in love with it. We happened to get it right before we went on our road trip to Nebraska this summer, and they put it on repeat and listened to it almost the entire way there and back (and by the end of it, Mike and I weren't pulling our hair out, so that's saying something). They're just a lively group of musicians who capture the fun of childhood. (I actually just purchased the album for Bradley's upcoming birthday, so there's another endorsement.)

Favorite song: "Superhero" (Even though we like all the songs, we've listened to this one the most. I give it two thumbs up because they mention reading as a superpower.)

5. Brains On!

This is not a music album. It's a podcast. And my kids are addicted to it. It's kind of like Bill Nye the Science Guy in podcast form. Each episode explores a different science topic. We've learned about lightning and thunder, cuttlefish, volcanoes in space, cats, bridges and tunnels, and underwater breathing. They interview scientists in the field and let kids ask questions and explain the topics in a way that's easy to understand. Just a warning: sometimes they get a little silly and ridiculous (again, think Bill Nye), but my kids don't seem to mind one bit. Highly recommend.

Favorite episode: Bridges vs. Tunnels (because we had such a good family debate about it--I'm in the bridge camp myself. How about you?)

6. Imagination by Play Date

This is another husband and wife team, but unlike Sunshine Collective where only of them sings and the other accompanies, Play Date is very much a joint effort with both of them playing and singing. Their music is fun with a good bounce and beat, and their voices complement each other really well. I often catch myself singing along while we're driving in the car. This is the group's first album. Their second album was recently released, and sadly, I was disappointed. Maybe I haven't given it enough of a chance, but it didn't even sound like the same group to me. So just a heads up there.

Favorite song: "XYZ" (we love it when they start singing through the alphabet super duper fast)

7. Classics For Kids 

This is another non-music-album recommendation (although I have seen that you can purchase a collection of the episodes in CD-format if you wish). In each segment, Naomi Lewin highlights a composer (or genre). The episodes are short, informative, and filled with the music of the composers being featured. I'd heard it at random times on our classical radio station, but it wasn't until recently that I realized you could access all of the past episodes on their website (which is another absolutely fabulous resource, by the way). Each one is about five minutes in length, which is the exact amount of time it takes us to drive Aaron to school. So we've been listening to one each morning, and my kids are now insistent on it. It has become part of our routine, and they won't let me forget. If you want to work a little classical music and history into your day without overwhelming your kids, this is the perfect solution.

Favorite segment (so far): John Philip Sousa--American Military Bands (there's just something about those marches that gets you feeling all proud and patriotic.)

8. The Kerplunks

This Canadian music group has a very eclectic style. The first song on this album is reminiscent of the big band era, but the more we listened, the more I realized their songs touch on a wide range of genres. This group is fun and silly and teeters right on the edge between wacky and bizarre (two of the songs--"Ooligan" and "Dog Toy"--definitely fall off into the bizarre range for me). But without fail, we turn this on and immediately want to dance and sing along.

Favorite song: I'd have to go with "Ants Dance" because I love its subtle nod to Glenn Miller, but my kids would probably say "Gumboots." (Although maybe we all should just settle on "Rutabaga"--that song cracks us up every time and is so fun to sing along to.)

9. Get on Board by Alex and the Kaleidoscope*

As I come to the end of this list, I'm noticing a trend with most of the music on it. I keep wanting to use the same words to describe each one: lively, upbeat, fun. And this one is no exception. As soon as we heard the first song on the album, I knew it was going to fit our requirements. The songs highlight some of my kids'  favorite things--bugs, dinosaurs, being outside--and do it with catchy melodies, a strong beat, and lots of percussion. I will say that there was one song on this album that surprised me. "Oh, Won't You Sit Down" has a strong Gospel feel to it. The rest of the album is not religious at all, so this one seemed a little out of place, but we still liked it.

Favorite song: "Get on Board" (great for driving in the car)

That's it for this time! Hopefully you've found a few new things to try, and, as always, please share your current favorites with us! We are always up for trying something new.

*I received complimentary copies of Up to Something Good and Get on Board and was happy to give them each an honest review because we liked them both so much.
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