Review x 2: The Whipping Boy and Basil of Baker Street

Jan 19, 2017

A few weeks before Christmas, I planned out which books I wanted to give to my kids. This is usually one of my favorite activities because, honestly, it's kind of like giving books to myself. It was fairly easy to select books for Aaron, Bradley, and Clark, but you can probably already guess that I struggled with gift ideas for Max.

He loves nonfiction, and I already had the 2017 TIME for Kids Almanac because the publisher had sent me a copy, so I knew that would be perfect, but I also wanted to give him some fiction. When it comes to fiction, we often have daily battles because he asks me for suggestions but then always turns down every. single. recommendation. I think it's kind of a game with him: How many ways can I reject Mom's ideas? So I knew I was doomed from the start.

In the end, I chose two books that I already had sitting in my Amazon cart: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman and Basil of Baker Street (the first book in The Great Mouse Detective series) by Eve Titus.

And sure enough, on Christmas Day, he opened up the three books and cheerfully exclaimed over the almanac and instantly turned down the other two: "I don't like the movie so I know I won't like the book. It doesn't look interesting. I think it will be scary."

So I did what any good mom would do. When it came time to pick our next readaloud, I opened up The Whipping Boy and started reading. And then, a week later, after we'd finished that one, I picked up Basil of Baker Street and read it aloud too.

And he eagerly listened to both of them. Aren't I a clever mom?

1. The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
We fell in love with Sid Fleischman over the summer when we read By the Great Horn Spoon, and this one was no less of a fast-paced, thrilling adventure (and out of the two, it's probably more well-known because of that shiny gold sticker on the front).

Jemmy is unfortunate enough to hold one of the worst positions in the palace--that of royal whipping boy. In some palaces, with nice, well-mannered princes who never get into trouble, it might not be such a bad job. But Prince Brat, as his name implies, is not that kind of prince, and Jemmy finds himself receiving proxy whippings almost daily. But Jemmy takes them all in stride and never cries out, which irks the prince something fierce.

Jemmy is just making plans to run away when the prince beats him to it, and of course he expects Jemmy to come along and serve as his manservant. Their plans quickly go awry, however, when they're kidnapped by a pair of cutthroats: Hold-Your-Nose Billy and Cutwater. Looking at the saddle of the horse the boys were on, the bandits realize they've laid hands on more than just your average passerby--a fact which, if handled correctly, could lead to a small (or perhaps very large) fortune.

With a synopsis like that, is it any wonder my kids loved this book? At every turn, there was more excitement, more danger, more tricks, and a great deal of outwitting on Jemmy's part. The chapters are very short, and each one ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, so it's almost impossible to stop once you start.

The funny thing is that, for all Maxwell's complaining and being sure he wouldn't like it, what did he do as soon as we were done? Turned right around and read it again.

(But P.S., I will say that, even though he ended up loving it, I don't regret reading it aloud first--and not just because I loved it too. I actually think he would have had a little trouble understanding the dialogue if he'd tried to read it on his own first, but after he'd already heard it once and knew what was being said, it was easy and enjoyable for him to read again. So maybe he knew best after all...but don't tell him I said that.)

2. Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus
I grew up watching Disney's The Great Mouse Detective but didn't realize until a few months ago that it was based on a series of books written by Eve Titus in the 1950's and 60's. Unable to get the first book from our library, I put it in my Amazon cart and waited for the right moment to buy it (although, at less than four dollars, I think I could have justified an impulse purchase).

With a nod to the great super sleuth himself, Basil the mouse shares many characteristics with his idol, Mr. Sherlock Holmes: he has a loyal sidekick and friend, who also happens to be a doctor ("my dear Dawson"); he has a keen eye for detail; he's slightly eccentric; and he lives on Baker Street (where he can keep a close eye on Mr. Holmes and learn from him).

When twins Angela and Agatha go missing, Basil knows there's more to this kidnapping than meets the eye, but it's not until the ransom note turns up that he finds out exactly what that is. He and Dawson don't have a lot of time if they want to save not only the twins but also their entire mouse village, but the kidnappers obviously didn't take into account Basil's quick wit and brilliant disguises.

Although they're not the same stories, if you're familiar with the Disney version, you'll see the obvious influence of the book on the movie. However, I found the book much more charming. Also, there's a level of sophistication there that isn't found in most children's mysteries: the writing isn't formulaic, the dialogue is distinctly British, and the plot keeps its suspense to the very end. Plus, the characters are enough like their human counterparts to make the resemblances unmistakable, but they're still unique in their own way so that it doesn't feel contrived.

Something tells me the next book (or two) might be showing up at our house for Valentine's Day . . .

(Oh, also, in case you didn't notice, both of these books have better-than-average (actually, truly exceptional) illustrators. The Whipping Boy was illustrated by Peter Sis and Basil of Baker Street was illustrated by Paul Galdone, which basically means you're in for a treat all the way around.)

How do you deal with stubborn kids who turn down perfectly good books without a good reason? Also, which readalouds have been a success for you lately?

Reading Goals 2017

Jan 12, 2017

I've been brainstorming, compiling, adding, deleting, and narrowing down my reading goals for 2017 for awhile now. It's hard to find the perfect balance. Last year, I felt pretty good about my content-specific goals, but my numbers goal, as I've already mentioned, was stressful. I want to be pushed but not panicked, stretched but not stressed. Is that too much to ask?

Taking those feelings into account, I'm setting a similar number of content goals, but lowering my numbers goal to 48. Given my reading habits during the last five years, that number might seem so low that it shouldn't even be a "goal." Of course I'm going to read 48 books! The last time I read fewer than 48 books in a year was before I had kids. But I think I'm setting it low this year because I don't want the numbers to be my focus (but the Type A part of me still loves seeing that little tracker tick off the books, so I have to set some sort of goal). I'm also interested to see if I take a more relaxed approach to the numbers if I'll only squeak by with the bare minimum because I'm not as focused or if I'll surpass it by a lot. (Suzanne and I talked a little about the pros and cons of setting a numbers goal in Episode 3 of The Book Blab, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this conundrum.)

Anyway, while I'm not sure how I'm feeling about a numbers goal this year, I'm very excited about my content-specific goals. These goals always help me tackle genres I've been avoiding, read books that I've been wanting to read for forever, and just generally help give some direction and structure to my reading life. I always consider just participating in a pre-made challenge (Anne Bogel has two excellent challenges to choose from this year), but I always go back to just setting my own goals because I want to stretch myself while still reading the things that are actually important and interesting to me. So without further ado, I present you with my reading goals for 2017:

1. Read two books about childbirth
I think the reason behind this goal is fairly obvious (hello, baby!). I just really find birth stories incredibly motivating and inspiring, and so one of the best ways for me to prepare for the birth of our new baby is by reading about the births of other babies. I already have two books picked out for this goal: Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent and The Gift of Giving Life by Felice Austin, but I'm definitely up for other suggestions if you have one that you love. This goal does have a bit of a time constraint on it (beyond the general year deadline). I'm due April 24th, and as much as I love reading about birth, I don't think it's going to be as helpful if I wait until after the baby comes.

2. Read three books with Maxwell and three books with Aaron
One of my favorite goals from last year was reading some of the same books as Aaron (not to him--he would read on his own, and I would do the same). Not only did it strengthen our relationship (because shared books really do make you feel more connected), but it also helped me explore some books for that age group that I might not have otherwise and gave me some great titles to recommend. This year, I'm adding Maxwell to the mix, and I can already tell you it's going to be a much different experience. Aaron was basically on board with any book I threw at him, and consequently, I did all of the choosing. Max is not going to be such an easy sell. In fact, it will probably end up being him who does the choosing and me who does the following--which might mean I'm in for some . . . interesting . . . books.

3. Read Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Sometimes I prefer a more general goal to give me greater flexibility, but sometimes there are certain books I'm set on reading, and I know it won't happen without a goal. Such is the case with this goal. Last year, I read Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott, and a couple of you told me, "Eight Cousins is good, but Rose in Bloom is better." Recognizing that I have a dismal track record for reading sequels in a timely manner, I really want to get to Rose in Bloom before I forget all of the characters from Eight Cousins. Hence the goal. And The Blue Castle? It's there because every year I think I'm going to make time to read it, and I'm tired of letting other books get in the way.

4. Read a book about slow, conscientious living
I'm a homebody at heart. My favorite days are usually quiet, unscheduled, and filled with cozy activities like reading or knitting. I've been embracing that part of myself more this winter, and consequently have been really interested in reading books such as The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner, or Breaking Busy by Ali Worthington. I might save this goal for the fall, so there's plenty of time for you to add your own recommendations for books on this subject if you're so inclined.

5. Start a new mystery series and read another mystery by Agatha Christie
I actually enjoy mysteries quite a bit, but I don't read them too often (in 2016, I think I read a whopping zero, which shows the kind of priority I put on them). However, sometimes they're the perfect little reset when reading has begun to feel tedious. I've had my eye on a couple of series that I want to try (the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny or the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series by Anne Perry). Also, every year I think, I want to read something else by Agatha Christie because the two mysteries of hers that I have read were so well-crafted and intriguing, so I'm finally going to read another one this year. This goal, as you can probably tell, is purely for fun. I love fun goals.

6. Read Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson throughout the year
I was really excited about this goal when I thought it up a couple months ago and put it on my "tentative 2017 goals" list. Anne Bogel has called Home Comforts the "best book you've never heard of on housekeeping," and I feel like I'm always searching for the best way to keep my house clean and my sanity in check, so it seemed like something I had to read. But in the interim, my enthusiasm waned a bit (possibly related to the behemoth 900-page size of this book--how could anyone have that much to say on keeping house?!). However, I already purchased it for my kindle, and I think I will feel a bit of guilt if I don't follow through with it. I am anticipating this book being a part of all of 2017.

7. Read a parenting book
It sounds like I'm being all nice and vague with this goal, but really I'm not. The only book I have in mind, and really the only one I want to read, is The Collapse of Parenting by Leonard Sax. You can try to persuade me to something else, but I'm pretty much set on it. I've heard such good things about it (including from my own mother), and Boys Adrift, an earlier book by Leonard Sax, is one of my favorite parenting books of all time, and this seems like a good follow-up.

8. Read two Young Adult books
This goal was prompted by Mike's cousin (who also happens to be one of my best friends) who happened to say a couple of weeks ago, "I notice that you have a lot of children's literature and adult books on your blog, but you don't seem to read very much YA." It was an accurate observation. And it's actually a problem because people will ask me for YA recommendations, and it's like this gaping hole in my literary repertoire. It's not that I haven't read any YA, but out of the ones I have read, there are very few I actually feel like recommending. I like the idea of YA, but the books always leave me feeling annoyed and depressed: the content often shocks me while at the same time feeling so immature (maybe I just don't like teenagers?). So I have a (perhaps impossible) request for all of you, my dear readers: Please recommend your favorite young adult books. But here's the catch: I'm looking for clean, well-written, realistic fiction--not fantasy or fairy tales. Why? Because most of the YA books I already recommend are fantasy (they tend to be quite a bit cleaner), but I actually prefer realistic fiction--I just can't find any that I like. It's a tall order, I know, but please tell me it's out there.

9. Read the 2017 Newbery winner
I have no idea what this book will be, but I'll find out on January 23rd. On the slight chance that I've actually read the winner, I'll read one of the honors instead.

10. Read Glimpses into the Life and Heart of Marjorie Pay Hinckley
This one is directly tied to one of my personal goals and also my theme for 2017, which I'll hopefully share more about in a later post. But basically, I adore Marjorie Hinckley and am so inspired by her life and words. I can't wait to read and highlight and make notes in this book and, most of all, apply what I learn.

I have so many more books I want to read this year, and so there's a part of me that wants to keep adding more goals (I had to delete so many other possibilities!). But I've set these yearly reading goals enough to know that I will be stretching and challenging myself as is. Looking back over these new goals makes me excited, and I think I've settled on the ones that are truly important (or truly fun) for me. Plus, I want to still leave time for myself to read on a whim. Reading for me is all about structure, flexibility, and balance, and hopefully I've achieved that with these goals.

What reading goals have you made for yourself this year? And, equally important, what books should I read to fulfill my goals?

2016 Reading: Second Half

Jan 9, 2017

In 2012, I made the goal to read 52 books, and I read 55. In 2013, my goal was 55 books, and I read 66. In 2014, I set out to read 60 books but ended up with 64. In 2015, that goal was 65, and I finished the year with 68.

So naturally, in 2016 I thought I could inch up that number just a little bit more because that's what I'd done for the last four years, so I made the goal to read 70 books.

And it just about killed me.

I may have slightly panicked when, early in November, I did the math and realized that I was still fourteen books away from my goal. Fourteen! It shouldn't have been a big deal. I shouldn't have even cared. But there was something about seeing the tracker on the side of Goodreads that made me go crazy. I couldn't handle its mocking tone, "You are seven books behind schedule." And I hated the thought of seeing a great big INCOMPLETE at the end of the year.

And so I did what any Upholder worth her salt would do and came up with a plan of attack: I mapped out all fourteen books--the audiobooks, the three I still needed for my reading goals, the novels I planned to read to my kids, the seasonal reads--and then I attacked them with a vengeance and dutifully checked them off one by one.

Some of them made the list because they were short, easy reads (desperate times and all that--this was no time to start The Count of Monte Cristo). I know some readers who don't count readalouds or children's novels or re-reads or even audiobooks among their final total, but I do and I don't feel any guilt about it, and here's why: All of those are books I want to read, and I know if I impose all these limiting rules on myself, I won't read them because if they can't count towards my numbers total, then I know I won't find the time to read them, and it actually feels really important for me to read them. So when I make my numbers goal at the beginning of the year, it's with the understanding that I'll be counting basically everything except picture books.

Whew, so with that lengthy explanation aside, here's what I ended up reading during the second half (if you missed the first half, you can find it here). Yes, I made it to 70 but just barely. All book titles are linked to my full reviews.

1. Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George, 6/10 (readaloud)
I think my expectations were too high for this one. In spite of its intriguing premise, it was quite a slow start. Luckily, it redeemed itself (some) in the end.

2. Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat, 8/10 (readaloud)
It had the same feel as Rascal (which we read during the first half of the year) but was shorter, faster-paced, and funnier overall. 

3. Lizzy and Jane by Katherine Reay, 6/10
My enthusiasm for this story gradually waned until I was quite thrilled when it was over.

4. Cinder by Marissa Meyer, 7/10
I almost quit two chapters in because it was just a little too strange for me, but I pushed through and ended up being really impressed with its creativity. That said, did I rush out to get the second book? Um, no.

5. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, 8/10
I'm a sucker for verse novels, so when you combine poetry with a subject I know very little about (the Vietnam War), it's a winner.

6. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, 7/10
This one gets points just because it was such a compelling read. I didn't love everything about it, but I couldn't put it down. 

7. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary, 8/10 (readaloud)
These are the Ramona stories I'm probably most familiar with from my own childhood, so I loved revisiting them.

8. The Twits by Roald Dahl, 8/10 (readaloud)
So, so, so strange. But we loved it.

9. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, 9/10
Ah, Eleanor. May I grow up to be you one day.

10. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel, 8/10 (audio)
Absolutely fascinating and added greater depth to some of the things we saw in Europe. I only wish it hadn't taken me three months to get through.

11. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, 10/10 (readaloud)
I will be sad when I run out of kids to read this one to.

12. Dory, Dory Black Sheep by Abby Hanlon, 7/10 (readaloud)
I'm a big fan of Dory, but I didn't love this one quite as much as the first two. 

13. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, 7/10
I can see why people compare this one to Jane Eyre, but really, there's no comparison.

14. Mathematicians Are People, Too by Luetta and Wilbert Reimer, 6/10 (readaloud)
I have to admit, I'd never even heard of some of these mathematicians, but I probably should have.

15. The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, 8/10
Quite original, I must say.

16. The Night Gardner by Jonathan Auxier, 8/10
That's about all the scary I can handle. Perfect for October though.

17. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, 9/10 (readaloud)
I'm starting to look forward to our annual progression in this series as much as my kids. So fun.

18. Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, 9/10 (audiobook)
I'm still thinking about this book. A perfect read for January, book club, or really any time of the year.

19. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, 7/10
One of those books that, ironically, grows more thought-provoking with age.

20. The Great Ghost Rescue by Eva Ibbotson, 3/10 (readaloud)
This book could not be over fast enough for me. I'm trying not to judge Eva Ibbotson too quickly.

21. Ribsy by Beverly Cleary, 10/10 (readaloud)
A perfect ending to a perfect series.

22. Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist, 6/10
I always love a good food book, but I expected to love this one a bit more than I actually did.

23. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, 8/10
Raw and emotional, this was a gorgeously crafted novel.

24. All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, 10/10 (readaloud)
I have no words for this book except I loved it.

25. Tumtum and Nutmeg: A Christmas Adventure, 6/10 (readaloud)
Short and cute but not much else worth mentioning.

26. Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson, 9/10
Turns out, I'm still a fan.

27. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott, 8/10 (audiobook)
Oh my goodness, all those boys! Of course I liked this book!

28. The Mistletoe Promise by Richard Paul Evans, 5/10
It was about what I was expecting, which wasn't much.

29. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, 10/10 (readaloud)
This book. It makes me laugh, and then cry.

30. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 10/10
I think this book will always hold up to another reading.

31. Smile by Raina Telgemeier, 8/10
Raina Telgemeier completely won me over. I can't wait to read more of her graphic novels.

32. The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, 9/10 (readaloud)
One word: delightful.

33. Pax by Sara Pennypacker, 7/10 (audiobook)
Melancholy and sad, but hopeful just the same.

34. The Lincoln Hypothesis by Timothy Ballard, 6/10
A lot of facts, a lot of truth, some speculation.

35. Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming, 10/10
If only all nonfiction was told in such a compelling way.

36. A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, 10/10
Said good-bye to 2016 with one of the best books I read all year.

I'd love to hear about some of YOUR favorite reads from 2016. Even though my to-read list is dauntingly long, I'm always looking to add to it. It's a problem. 

Review x 4: Creativity, Inc., Bread and Wine, The Lincoln Hypothesis, and A Time to Dance

Jan 6, 2017

These are the stragglers--the four books I read in 2016 that I still haven't reviewed. I'm ready to get on with 2017, so I'm just lumping these four, entirely random books together and making the reviews short and sweet.

1. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull
This was actually one of my favorite books of the year, so it's a pity this review was neglected until now (I finished it nearly three months ago). However, as a small consolation, I actually wrote up some early thoughts when I was still in the middle of the book and published them here, so at least there's that.

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar, and this memoir-of-sorts is a candid look at creativity--both in the workplace and individually. He examines what facilitates and hampers it and how creativity can be used to make a lasting difference.

I expected this book to be interesting (and it was), but I was surprised with how applicable it was to my own life (he talks quite a bit about effective ways to manage groups of people, but even this was amazingly applicable to my own position as manager of the home). Especially in this season of new beginnings and goals, I find myself thinking back on some of the things I learned, such as: action is better than motivational go-words; "always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening;" analyze the mistake, not the person; there's a difference between creation and discovery; stay flexible, even while forming a plan; but when you plan, break it down into measurable goals and processes.

Ed Catmull uses personal stories to back up everything he says, and he's quite honest about the mistakes Pixar made along the way and how they used those mistakes to make improvements to the company rather than letting them completely debilitate them. (The account of all of Toy Story 2 being accidentally deleted was definitely one of the most memorable. Yikes!)

Anyway, if you're looking to kick off the new year with some reading that will inspire you to tackle some of those personal projects you've been afraid of, this would be a great choice. 

2. Bread and Wine: Finding Community and Life Around the Table by Shauna Niequist
This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. I intended to read it in 2015 when one of my reading goals was, "read a food memoir." But sadly, neither of my libraries had it, so I had to make a last minute substitution. However, I did do two things to help it happen this year: I requested the library to buy a copy (which they did), and I purchased it for myself when the kindle edition went on sale.

I was saving it for November because I love reading food books prior to Thanksgiving, but then I was so swamped with other books, it looked like I was going to miss it for the second year in a row (and I even wailed about it a bit when Suzanne and I did our food book episode). But a little determination can go a long way, and I was absolutely set on reading it, so I squeezed it in.

But for all I'd been looking forward to it and for all of the rave reviews I'd heard about it, I have to admit that it was just a tiny bit of a letdown for me. Maybe it had just been hyped up a little too much, but I actually think the real reason I didn't absolutely love it is that it felt a bit too much like the sort of book Brené Brown would write if Brené Brown wrote about food.

How's that for cryptic? To clarify, Brené Brown (author of Daring Greatly, among others) talks a lot about vulnerability and accepting oneself, and, mixed in with the recipes and the personal anecdotes, that's what Shauna Niequist talked about, too. And sometimes, in spite of the true genuineness behind it, it felt a little forced to me, and I found myself racing through those essays about embracing your own body in a bathing suit so that I could get back to the actual stories from her own life and the food that went with them.

I usually love self-help books, but this one just didn't jive the way I wanted it to. In the realm of food memoirs, I still far prefer Ruth Reichl or Molly Wizenburg.

3. The Lincoln Hypothesis by Timothy Ballard
This book will probably be of little interest to those readers who are not of the same faith as me. But who knows? In light of current political and world events, the message felt very timely.

The basic premise of the book is that the tide of the Civil War did not turn to the Union's favor until President Abraham Lincoln renewed the national covenant with God (the national covenant = God will bless this land if the people are righteous and acknowledge His divine hand). The war did not begin as a means to end slavery, but after much personal study and prayer, Abraham Lincoln realized that the equal treatment of all human beings was at the heart of the nation's turmoil. He knew the nation at large needed to repent and abolish any practices that would persecute any of its people (this included African-Americans, of course, but also other smaller groups, such as the early Mormons who had been driven from their homes and tormented while their appeals to the government went unheeded). The Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, eventually came about because of Lincoln's realization (and soon, the entire Union was behind him).

The author speculates quite a bit about what led Lincoln to his decisions (for example, apparently Lincoln checked out a Book of Mormon from the Library of Congress right around the same time he was calling the nation to repentance), draws comparisons between Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Smith, and ties together prophecies in the scriptures with historical events, and although I found it all quite fascinating, I also tried to look at it honestly and candidly, with a healthy dose of skepticism.

However, speculations aside, much of the book rang with truth, and I felt a deepening love and respect for Abraham Lincoln as I learned more about his character and his leadership. (I was so impressed, I asked Mike if we could name our new baby "Lincoln," but he says it doesn't fit well with our last name.)

The author's writing  style was not my favorite (a bit too conversational), but overall, it was a very enlightening and beneficial read.

4. A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
In a fairly recent post, Anne Bogel mentioned A Time to Dance as a book her 11-year-old daughter was currently enjoying. I'm embarrassed to admit that it caught my interest because Anne said it was a verse novel, and I was on the hunt for faster reads since the end of the year was fast approaching and I was still a long way off from my numbers goal. I knew I could fly through a verse novel and quickly check off one more book, so I checked it out.

So maybe my motive for reading it was a little contrived (and, as it happened, it ended up being the final book I needed to reach my numbers goal, and I literally finished it at 3:00pm on New Year's Eve), but it ended up being one of the best books I read all year, and that is not something I say lightly.

Veda is an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer. She lives for dance and feels a thrill like no other when she's in front of an audience. But one evening, on the drive home after a competition, the bus she's on is in a terrible accident. Veda's foot is crushed and has to be amputated, and when she wakes up and discovers what has happened, her dreams quickly evaporate as well ("I want to tell the nurses no scale can measure / the pain of my dreams / dancing / beyond reach").

This was as near to a perfect novel as you can get for me. Veda's personal growth throughout the book was beautifully slow and steady. Of course, there's the growth you would expect: somehow Veda is going to dance again. But while that's all well and good, it's also a bit selfish and shallow. Luckily, there's so much more to Veda than just her accomplishments as a dancer, and as the story progresses and she overcomes challenges and grief and pain, she blossoms as a person. She becomes selfless and compassionate and encouraging. She faces doubts in her personal faith and comes away triumphant.

There was one scene that I especially loved where Veda is performing two parts in a play: one is an old, sick woman who visits Buddha and who represents "the pain of all humanity;" the second is Gautami, a woman who goes to Buddha in the hopes that he will bring her dead son back to life. Veda's teacher wants her to acknowledge her own deep emotions as she enacts her roles, but that forces Veda to go places she doesn't want to go. I loved the way the old woman and Gautami provided a framework for Veda's own healing and growth.

I'm convinced the story would not have had the same emotional impact if it had been told in prose rather than free verse. The poetry added a quiet depth that left me breathless, and I'm amazed again by how much can be said with so few words.

I finished it as we were driving to my parents' for some New Year's Eve festivities. As soon as we got there, I pushed it into my sister's hands and said, "You have to read this book." And she did, finishing it just after midnight. What a perfect way to end (or begin) the year.

Have you read any of these books? As always, I'd love it if you'd share your thoughts and opinions in the comments!

A Little of This and That in November and December

Jan 4, 2017

The holidays are over, the boys are back in school, and the only thing holding the inversion at bay is the frequent snowstorms. Yep, January is here. But on a happier note, here's a little taste of what we filled our November and December with:

Soaking . . . up the November weather. It was unseasonably warm, and believe me, we didn't take it for granted. 

Enduring . . . family pictures. I asked our good friend, James Gardner, if he'd take some family photos for us. I stressed about what we should all wear (believe me, I'm longing for the days where you could dress everyone in white shirts and jeans and look hip). And then, on the day of the actual pictures, Max's genuine smiles seemed to have been replaced by monster grimaces. Plus there was just the usual chaos of trying to get six people all looking fairly normal and at the camera at the same time. After the shoot, I wailed to Mike that we'd probably bombed the whole thing and hadn't gotten a single good image. But then, James sent us the photos, and there were dozens of good shots. I guess he's a miracle worker, that's the only logical explanation.

Loving . . . my Christmas present. Mid-November, we finally made some essential decisions about what we wanted to do with our living room wall. The original goal had been to have it finished by December 1st so that we could decorate for Christmas. Mike attacked the project with a new zeal and determination. He took off a couple of days from work and used the Thanksgiving holiday, and, by golly, he got it done. And . . . I was kind of floored by how it turned out. It takes our living room to a whole new level, and I spent the entire month admiring it. Merry Christmas to me.

Knitting . . . a new hat. I've had my eye on this hat pattern for over a year. After I finished the epic vest, I decided I better knit a practice hat before I tackled my dream pattern. The practice hat went quickly and easily (I gave it to my sister for Christmas), and then I bought the yarn for THE hat. So far, it's been so fun, and once again, I've been expanding my repertoire of skills. I've done some stitch variations and knitted cables for the first time. I've also been following a chart (which has slowed me down quite a bit). 

Carrying . . . our love of The Great British Baking Show to new heights. I think this is the third update in a row where I've mentioned The Great British Baking Show, but we've been a little obsessed. As we were nearing the end of the second season, we were talking to our equally-obsessed friends, the Gardners, and found out they were almost done with it as well. So we decided to watch the finale together and precede that with dinner made up of recipes from the show. We had Mary Berry's scones and clotted cream and jam, Richard's pesto pinwheel, and Becca's focaccia (plus Mike made up some bacon bites as his "signature dish"). It was probably one of the most fun dates Mike and I have ever been on.

Sending . . . out 160 Christmas cards. Every year I have to twist Mike's arm a little to get him to help me design the actual card, but after that I do all the stuffing, addressing (I love addressing), and stamping, so he shouldn't complain, right? And in return, I have a wall filled with Christmas cards from friends and loved ones. It was such fun to get the mail in December.

Finding . . . out that we're expecting our fifth boy. I wrote about the grand reveal here and divulged some of my complicated feelings here. But overall, we're just so thrilled and happy. My friend, Kathy, described it best: It's "like getting a Yahtzee!" Exactly. Bam.

Enjoying . . . Clark's sweetness. He loved everything about the holidays, and it was a delight seeing them through his eyes. He especially loved Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. He would search for them in books, play with them in our nativities, and talk about them constantly. We went to a live nativity early in the month, and it was magical for him (much more magical than seeing Santa Claus). He kept telling people, "I saw the Baby Jesus in a stable." That said, he also felt the thrill of Santa coming and bringing him presents. He repeated this mantra during the week leading up to Christmas, "When Santa comes, Christmas will come." And oh, the singing. Clark sings way more than any of my other kids anyway, but he just loved the Christmas songs, and it was so cute to hear his sweet little voice singing the words. I would have liked the season to go on and on just for him.

Sneaking . . . around doing the 12 Days of Christmas. Last year, someone did it for our family (we were never able to determine their identity for sure), and so this year, my kids really wanted to do it for someone else. We didn't do anything huge--just fun little gifts and treats--but the boys loved it. They took turns delivering and would ring the doorbell some nights, depending on how brave they felt. It was definitely one of the highlights of the month, and I think it brought a new level of excitement to gift-giving that they'd never felt before.

Participating . . . in old and new Christmas activities. I love a good mix of well-known, much-anticipated Christmas traditions and new adventures to spice things up and help us remember this specific Christmas. This year, we made ornaments and paper snowflakes and caramels (old) but also went to the Festival of Trees, took everyone to see a movie on Christmas Eve, and took Aaron to see A Christmas Carol (new). The month felt busy but not crazy, and I was proud of myself for letting some things go so we could relax and just enjoy the season.

Listening . . . to lots of Christmas music. I bought two new albums this year: Mercy River's All is Bright, which was one of our favorites last year, and JJ Heller's Unto Us. I'd never even heard of JJ Heller until one of my friends mentioned her on Instagram, but I became an instant fan. I love all of her songs, but there's something special about "Christmas is Here," and I couldn't stop listening to "This Year" on New Year's Eve. It's so fun to discover new artists.

Spoiling . . . our big Christmas surprise. We decided to get the boys a trampoline for Christmas. We bought it early in the month and then stored it at Mike's sister's house until the day before Christmas Eve. On the morning of Christmas Eve, we turned on a movie for the boys, and then Mike sneaked out to the backyard to assemble it. The boys were so preoccupied with their movie (one of the blessings of limiting their screen time) that they never once asked where Mike was. We figured we were safe because they hadn't been in the backyard in about a month (ever since the weather turned cold). Their bedrooms do look out on the backyard, but it is rare for them to open their blinds. Plus, we were going to be gone all afternoon at the movie theater, which would cut down even more on the possibility of them accidentally seeing it. But wouldn't you know it, not twenty minutes after Mike came inside, Maxwell was in his room and opened the blinds. Aaron was in the room, too, and quickly found Mike and asked, "Um, Dad, why's there a giant trampoline in our backyard?" And all Mike and I could do was look at each other and then say, "Merry Christmas, kids!" We then sent them outside to try it out, and in spite of the anti-climatic reveal, I was happy they'd found it early because the next day it was covered in snow.

Drinking . . . lots of Trader Joe's wassail. I do not like eggnog at all (I even tried Mel's homemade version last year, and, while definitely an upgrade from the kind that comes in a carton from the grocery store, I still couldn't tolerate it), so wassail is my go-to holiday drink. That said, in the past, it hasn't been in heavy rotation in December simply because I never make it myself so it had to be at someone else's holiday party if I was going to enjoy it. But this year, I discovered Trader Joe's version, and once it's heated, it tastes as good as the real thing. Game changer. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) Clark and I are the only ones who like it, so we've been drinking a lot of it.

Performing . . . Christmas songs. First up, I held a Christmas piano recital with my students. I usually have a recital in the spring, but with the baby due in April, I don't know if it's going to happen this year, so I decided we should have a Christmas recital, just in case. It was great. Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley performed (it was Bradley's first recital) as well as my other students. Aaron and Maxwell played a duet of "I Saw Three Ships." It was a lot of work to get them to practice together, but the results were so rewarding. Later in the month, my mom organized a Christmas music party where anyone in the family who could play a musical instrument could perform. She also did a couple of games and then treats afterwards, and my kids thought it was basically the best thing ever. Besides both of the those events, I also had several opportunities to perform in church, including an organ arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard on High," which let me pull out all the stops.

Getting . . . our first real snowfall on Christmas Day. Up to that point, we'd had an inch or two or sometimes a little skiff here and there, but after the kids went to bed on Christmas Eve, it began to snow, and when we woke up, we had eleven inches on the ground! It was magical.

Basking . . . in a wonderful Christmas Day. Aaron and Max woke up at 6:00, but Clark had had a bit of a rough night, so I told them to go back to bed, which they did quite willingly, and I didn't hear another peep from them until 7:00, at which point everyone was awake. Everyone loved their presents. We took a break from things to go to church at 9:00 (and I was so grateful that, in spite of the heavy snow, it wasn't cancelled). It felt so good to be in church, singing jubilant praises, on that holy day. When we got home, the boys opened more presents and played all of their new games, and then we went to my parents' house for dinner. It was just a perfect Christmas.

Reading . . . and reading and reading. I was determined to reach my reading goal of 70 books, but that meant I really had to push myself in December (and read some shorter books!). I made it though, but just barely--I finished my seventieth book on the afternoon of New Year's Eve.

Hosting . . . some of our favorite people. Mike's cousin, Rachel, and her family were in Utah for Rachel's sister's wedding, and we were extremely lucky to get to host them at our house for a couple of nights. We loved it. Rachel and I always have so many books to talk about (among other things), and we might have accidentally spent three hours (!) at the bookstore (oops!).

Installing . . . a radon pump. We've known ever since we moved into our home almost three years ago that we had high levels of radon in our basement. We weren't in a huge hurry to fix it because none of us actually sleep in the basement (and we had other home projects we preferred to spend our money on). But with the new baby coming, it's only a matter of time before someone gets booted down there, so it needed to happen. Not the most fun way to spend $1400, but at least we've lowered our risk of lung cancer.

Ringing . . . in the New Year. Bradley was determined to stay up until midnight (last year, he only made it until 10:30), and I was surprised with how cheerful he stayed right up until the stroke of twelve. I think he was worried that if we heard the tiniest whine from him, we'd send him straight to bed. However, immediately after throwing confetti and shouting "Happy New Year!" he crawled into bed and fell promptly asleep, so he was obviously tired.

And now, it's back to real life. What were the highlights of your holiday season?

2016 Reading Goals: The Final Report

Dec 29, 2016

This is one of my favorite posts of the year to write. There's something so satisfying in saying, "Here's what I set out to do . . . and I did it!" Then again, if I didn't complete all my goals, I probably would just hang my head in shame and disappointment instead of writing about it because where's the fun in admitting defeat?  But since I'm writing a post, I guess you know it all turned out okay. Here's what I read to complete each goal (book titles are linked to the full reviews):

1. Read a book I put on my to-read list in 2011
I always think this goal is going to help me knock out a bunch of books that have been languishing on my to-read list for a long time, and then I usually just squeak by with the bare minimum of one or, if I'm really in an overachieving mood, two. This year was no different. My to-read list from 2011 is only one book shorter, and the book that won the honor of being removed from it was Tuesdays at the Castle (July 2016) by Jessica Day George (which I added to my to-read list in October 2011).

2. Read a female author I've been meaning to read
I read two books for this goal. The first was Cinder (July 2016) by Marissa Meyer, and the second was The Great Ghost Rescue (October 2016) by Eva Ibbotson. The ironic thing is I've been wanting to read something by Eva Ibbotson for forever, and out of all the books she's written, I probably picked the book I was least likely to like. The other ironic thing is I really wanted to read a book by Susanna Kearsley for this goal, and it just never happened even though I had the best of intentions (I had The Winter Sea checked out at least once, maybe twice, from the library without ever even starting it).

3. Read a male author I've been meaning to read
I read Crossing to Safety (April 2016) by Wallace Stegner during the first half of the year, and it's still one of my favorite reads of 2016: Quiet, poignant, and meaningful with characters so real I would recognize them if I saw them walking down the street. (And, as a fun side note, my blogging friend, Carrie, also read Crossing to Safety this year but didn't have the same reaction to it. So when she saw that I loved it, she mailed me her copy of the book. Wasn't that so sweet of her?)

4. Read (don't listen) to something by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens
I was so scared of this goal because classics are usually so much easier for me to listen to than read, but it ended up not being bad at all (in part because listening just wasn't as easy for me to do in 2016 as it has been in past years, so I think reading it actually turned out to be the faster route). I read Sense and Sensibility (September 2016) by Jane Austen and enjoyed it immensely.

5. Read six books with Aaron
This was such a fun goal and one that I'm planning on repeating in 2017. Aaron is so easygoing and was basically up for anything I handed to him, so it was great fun to branch out into a variety of genres. We read:

February 2016: Truce by Jim Murphy
March 2016: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
May 2016: One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale
June 2016: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier  
October 2016: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit  
December 2016: Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming December 2016: Smile by Raina Telgemeier (If you read my review, you'll know this one was unplanned, but we both read it, so I'm including it.)

Out of all of those, Aaron's favorite was Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, and mine was either that same one or Amelia Lost.

6. Read a book in preparation for Europe
Mike and I visited the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, and Norway in July, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the year. It was important to me to do some reading about some of the places we'd be traveling to because I learned a long time ago that those places take on much greater significance when I've read about the events that happened there and then see them for myself. So I read The Monuments Men (summer 2016) by Robert M. Edsel, which tells the true story of the men and women who helped save important pieces of art during WWII. Then I actually saw Michelangelo's Madonna and Child when we were in Belgium, and it was basically the coolest thing ever.

7. Read another book by Louisa May Alcott
After much debate, I read Eight Cousins (November 2016) by Louisa May Alcott, which was all well and good until I realized I really must follow it quickly with Rose in Bloom before I forget everything. So that's going on the agenda for 2017, which is not a bad thing because the more I read of Louisa May Alcott, the more I adore her.

8. Read five Newbery related books
I was purposely vague with this goal, but my hope was that I would read a good mix of past medal and honor winners, as well as a couple that had the potential to win in 2017. I think I achieved my objective:

March 2016: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (Newbery medal 1936)
May 2016: Rascal by Sterling North (Newbery honor 1964)
June 2016: Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Newbery honor 2011)
July 2016: Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai (Newbery honor 2012)
August 2016: Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (Newbery honor 1982)
September 2016: Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (Newbery honor 1953)
October 2016: The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (potential winner 2017)
December 2016: Pax by Sara Pennypacker (potential winner 2017)

9. Read a verse novel or poetry collection
I chose to read Inside Out and Back Again (July 2016), a verse memoir by Thannha Lai. You might notice that it's also on the list of Newbery books above, but I really read it for this goal and then just included it up there because it fit that category as well. I'm also in the middle of another verse novel right now, A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, and I'm hoping to have it done before January 1st.

10. Reread Edenbrooke and The Happiness Project
This goal was good for my soul. It was good for me to revisit two books that fill me up as a reader. I know I wouldn't have made time for them without this goal, and that makes me sad to think about because they were two of my favorite books this year. I don't consider myself much of a rereader (there are just so many good books to get to), but this goal helped me see that rereading really does have a valuable place in my life, and so it's important for me to consciously select books to read again. I read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin in February 2016 and Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson in December 2016.

How did you do with your goals (reading or otherwise) this year? Do you have grand plans for 2017, or do you think you'll scale back? Which book made the greatest impact on you during 2016?

Review x 3: Smile, Pax, and Amelia Lost

Dec 27, 2016

My goal this week: crank out the rest of my reviews. I'm getting close to being done with all of my 2016 reading. Here are three more:

1. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Several years ago, I made a goal to read a graphic novel. It was a goal that was truly outside my comfort zone, and although the end result wasn't bad (I read Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack), I distinctly remember saying that it would never be my "go-to genre of choice."

Well, I'm kind of taking back my own words. Although it's not like graphic novels are the only things I read these days, I have periods where I actually seek them out because they're just the kind of quick, entertaining read I need.

It also helps that the graphic novel genre is booming right now, and there are many high-quality, realistic stories to choose from. Authors/illustrators are really thinking outside the box and using this medium to share memoirs, classics, and even history in a new way. I've been quite impressed.

One of the graphic novels that has been on my list for a long time (and I think was even recommended to me when I made that goal four years ago) is Smile. I think this was one of the first "graphic novel memoirs" to be published, and Raina Telgemeier has been something of a pioneer when it comes to reinventing the genre.

When Raina was in sixth grade, she tripped and knocked out her two front teeth (one was knocked out onto the sidewalk, the other was knocked up into her gums). It turned out to be a pretty serious accident with a lot of damage to the roots and her jaw. Over the next three years, she experienced ordeal after painful ordeal as various "dontists" tried to reconstruct her teeth . . . and all of this during perhaps the most vulnerable time in a person's life: junior high.

Raina relates it all with a candidness and humor that won me over from the beginning. There's one scene where she and her mom are driving home and going over all of the events of the past year. Her mom says, "It's been a pretty strange year for you, hasn't it. You knocked out your two front teeth, you got braces, you got your ears pierced." Raina adds, "I survived a major earthquake . . . " (she and her family live in San Fransisco). "I guess in the grand scheme of things . . . losing a couple of teeth isn't the end of the world!" But in spite of her positive attitude, the next panel shows an anxious frown on her face as she stares out at the falling rain. A sigh escapes her lips. It was such a perfect representation of real life: for all that you can recognize your blessings and tell yourself that "little" things aren't that significant, in reality, those day-to-day insecurities and trials really do hurt and make a lasting impact.

I had this book checked out from the library for several weeks before I got around to reading it. During that time, Aaron spied it and snatched it up. He can't resist a graphic novel. I actually had no plans of letting him read it because I thought junior high was a little old for him, but he was halfway through before I even realized he had it, and by that time, it was too late. I was a little nervous about what I might find in it and have to explain to him after the fact, but it was very mild. There were some brief mentions of puberty, a little boy/girl drama, and some rocky, unhealthy friendships but nothing that I felt uncomfortable with him reading. So we dodged that one.

And for my part, I thought it was an absolutely fantastic story, and I'm anxious to read Raina Telgemeier's other books . . . even though graphic novels are not my "go-to genre of choice." Haha.

2. Pax by Sara Pennypacker
This seems to be a favorite to win some sort of recognition at the ALA Midwinter meeting next month. At least, I've seen it on a lot of prediction lists. I haven't read any other novels by Sara Pennypacker (although some of you might be familiar with her Clementine series), but this one definitely seems to have a more serious lean to it than most of her other work.

It's about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax. When the story opens, Peter and his father and the fox are driving deep into the woods. When they come to a stop, Peter throws one of Pax's favorite toys (a plastic soldier) as far as he can and then, while Pax runs off to get it, he and his father get back in the car and drive away.

The reason? War is coming; Peter's father has enlisted, and so Peter is being sent to live with his grandfather, which is no place for a fox. But the decision doesn't sit well with Peter, and within a day, he has decided that he has to go back and find Pax. He just feels like it's the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, he is now a couple hundred miles away from his home and not exactly well-equipped to travel such a long way, especially not after he breaks his foot just a short way into his journey. But he already abandoned Pax once, and he's not willing to let anything, not even a broken foot, abandon him again. It turns out that Peter has a lot more to prove than just his loyalty for Pax. For example, that he can be different from his father and his grandfather, that he can be where and who he needs to be, and that, most importantly, life matters.

The chapters alternate between Peter and Pax, and although I usually love getting more than one viewpoint, I have to admit that I felt like I mainly endured the Pax chapters just so I could get back to Peter's. Sara Pennypacker tried to be as accurate as possible with the patterns and behaviors and language of foxes, and while I appreciated the authenticity, I was also a little bit bored. That said, I feel like it was a good format for telling the story--I think it was important for the reader to see what was going on with Pax at the same time as Peter, so I don't know what or how it could have been changed. Maybe it was just one of those necessary things. (It could have also been that I listened to this book, and listening to anything has been taking me a long time lately. If I had gone through the story a little more quickly, I don't think those chapters would have been quite the same struggle.)

The other thing that confused me was the war itself. I actually kept going back and looking for an author's note or some other sort of explanation for this war. When I couldn't find anything, I wondered if I was just totally missing something or had completely forgotten about some war that happened on American soil fairly recently. (I don't think I would have overlooked such a thing.) At any rate, there is a war, and it's serious enough that it's causing many towns to evacuate, but it seems to be made up for the sake of the story.

I can definitely see why this book is generating a lot of attention. It doesn't sidestep important issues but faces them head on in a real and authentic way, which means that it doesn't necessarily have a "happy" ending, but it is completely appropriate and satisfying.

Oh, and have I let this whole review slip by without mentioning my favorite character? That would be Vola, a reclusive war veteran whose stern, no-nonsense attitude helps Peter get back on his feet and who wrestles with her own past as she helps Peter wrestle with his. The book could be read and enjoyed for Vola's character alone. She's that good.

3. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming
Can I just tell you that when I find gripping, well-written middle grade nonfiction I kind of feel like I've won the lottery? . . . Not that I actually know what it feels like to win the lottery, but honestly, it can't be better than this.

And Amelia Lost was one of those times when I won. I think I've always had a certain fascination with Amelia Earhart (who hasn't?), but this book took it to a whole new level. The writing is snappy and compelling without feeling overly dramatized or embellished. It's an honest, candid look at Amelia's life and the details behind what happened on her infamous around-the-world flight.

I think Amelia Earhart would have been well-known regardless of what happened on that fateful flight in 1937, but the fact that she disappeared has kept her in the news even as recently as two months ago. And after reading about who she was and what her personality was like, I can't help thinking that in some ways, she would have loved the mystery and intrigue that has surrounded her life (and death) for the last eighty years.

She and her husband, George Putnam, were always very aware of the publicity side of her career. They knew it was important to keep her in the spotlight if she was going to be able to continue to reach new goals, and they could both be rather ruthless and deceptive at times to make it happen. Candace Fleming wrote, "But no publicity scheme concocted by George Putnam could have enhanced Amelia's image more than her tragic accident. In life, she had been famous. But now--by vanishing--she became a legend."

If you had asked me what I knew about Amelia Earhart before reading this book, I would have said that she was one of the first female pilots who made several historic and record-breaking flights before disappearing at sea while trying to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

While that information is all true, what I didn't really realize was that even though she "disappeared," it wasn't like one minute she was communicating via radio and the next she was just gone, vanishing in thin air, which is what I kind of always assumed. In actuality, she was nearing the end of her journey, coming in for her second-to-last landing on Howland Island, a tiny speck of land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. She was well aware that this would be her hardest landing to make because navigation tools were so primitive in the 1930s, and she only had a short window between when she needed to find it and when she would run out of gas. There definitely were some radio signal issues which contributed to the disaster, but for several days after she failed to land on Howland Island, many people were still picking up radio communications from her. Unfortunately, they were never able to get an actual navigational bearing and so couldn't rescue her, but it's obvious that she landed somewhere and survived for who knows how long as a castaway. It's really kind of crazy.

And speaking of crazy, any of those early aviators, including Amelia Earhart, had to be blessed with a good dose of insanity to attempt what they did. Reading about all of their early escapades and daring expeditions might have been my favorite part of the book because it was just so unreal to me that anyone would put their lives at such obvious risk. For example, on Amelia's first solo trans-Atlantic flight, she experienced problems right from the get go: her altimeter failed a few hours into the flight (which meant she had no idea how far above the ocean she was flying, and don't worry, it was completely dark outside). Then, she smelled burning oil and looked out to see that one of the welds was broken and the hot exhaust that was pouring out had caught on fire. And if that wasn't enough, she then flew into a rainstorm that turned to ice and coated her entire plane which sent it into a spin. A few hours later, the plane began to shake (because of the broken weld), and she also discovered that her reserve fuel tank was leaking. But in spite of all that, she eventually made it down safely. (I had to laugh when, on a later flight, she flew over the ocean during the day, something she usually didn't do, and after seeing the wide expanse of water under her, decided it wasn't safe to fly her little, single-engine plane over so much water. Ya think?)

I actually read this book with Aaron, and he enjoyed it, too. I was a little concerned about some of the more mature content--Amelia's alcoholic father and George Putnam's affair with Amelia before his first wife divorced him--but it was all just addressed in such a frank, sparsely detailed way that I think it was fine for him to read.

That's actually the danger of reading about real life--human beings are not perfect; they make real, heartbreaking mistakes, and I was grateful that Candace Fleming didn't put Amelia Earhart on a pedestal but looked at who she really was, weaknesses and all. She definitely didn't dwell on the mistakes, but they were there, for the reader to assess and learn from on their own. Candace Fleming has said she likes writing about the puzzle of people's lives, and that is very much what this book is. I found it absolutely brilliant.
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