Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos

Jun 30, 2015

Alternate titles: Why You Should Never Spend Time Alone With Your Sister's Husband; or, Happily Ever After Never Seemed So Unbelievable; or, A Convenient Love Story.

This was one of those books I should have done a little more looking into before actually reading it. But it was on Modern Mrs. Darcy's minimalist summer reading list (she narrowed down the full-length summer reading guide to just five must-reads), and when I took a brief glance at Goodreads, a couple of people I follow had given it five stars.

All those things made it seem promising. But ugh. Ugh, bleh, meh.

I disliked this book on so many levels and for so many different reasons.

Cornelia works in a cafe in Philadelphia. She's short and spunky and likes old movies. She is content with her life and doesn't feel much ambition to change anything. But then, one day a Cary Grant lookalike walks through the door of the cafe, and Cornelia's whole world changes. (All of the old movie references were one of the few things I actually liked about this book, although I can't stand The Philadelphia Story, so maybe that should have given me some clue about how much I'd like the book.)

Meanwhile 10-year-old Clare is very concerned about her mother, who is doing really strange things like buying every color of towel in the store or cooking up a feast in the middle of the night or walking outside in December in a summer dress. Clare doesn't know what to do. She tries to call her father, but he and her mother divorced many years ago, and he's never taken much interest in her life. That doesn't change even when she informs him about her mother's erratic behavior.

In case you haven't figured it out, Clare's father turns out to be the same person as the Cary Grant lookalike. Cornelia starts dating him without even realizing that he has an ex-wife and a daughter.

But things become complicated when Clare's mother drives away and abandons her. Clare is forced to go to her father, and he is forced to take her in. And Cornelia is the only reason this situation works out. She and Clare hit it off immediately, and Clare stays at Cornelia's apartment while they try to find her mother. In the midst of all this, Teo Sandoval, Cornelia's childhood friend and now brother-in-law, shows up rather unexpectedly. He brings stability to the situation and together they figure out what they should do to help Clare.

I usually try to make my reviews a healthy mix of criticism and praise, but unfortunately, I have very little to praise about this book. Sure, I liked Cornelia, Clare, and Teo. And the writing was actually fine (it's told from two points of view: first person Cornelia and third person Clare). But everything (yes, I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say everything) about the plot didn't work out for me.

For one thing, it was totally unrealistic--not just Clare's complete trust in Cornelia (given the trauma she'd just been through, maybe it was natural for her to find someone stable to latch on to), but also Cornelia's instant love for Clare. She was a nice little girl, that's true, but relationships of love and trust take time. After a mere two weeks, Cornelia already puts her love for Clare on the same level as Clare's own mother, and there's just no way that two weeks can match nearly eleven years, and it irritated me that the author would try to pass this off as realistic.

Speaking of the author, she also ignored all of the troublesome or difficult characters. We only ever know Martin Grace (Clare's father) or Viviana (Clare's mother) on very superficial levels. But the one omission that is so glaring as to make it unforgiveable is that of Ollie (Cornelia's sister and Teo's wife). She is there for drama's sake and not much else. We know so little about her that it is easy to brush past her feelings as unimportant to the story. She is conveniently distant, cool, and, most importantly, absent. That's not only poor writing, it's cowardly (and yes, that sounds dramatic, but in my opinion you'd only ignore the sister/wife if you were afraid to humanize her).

And then there were all of the things that, oh wow, rather conveniently happened in order for things to work out just perfectly. I won't tell you what they were in case any of you want to read the book (which, I'm sure after this glowing review, many of you will). But just know that the author stops at nothing--deaths, divorces, inheritances--to give her characters the things they apparently deserve.

I'm not much of a chick-lit reader, so maybe plots that border on the ridiculous are the norm for this genre, and I just had the wrong sort of expectations. I almost stopped reading a half dozen times but kept talking myself back into it, thinking that it was going to redeem itself, but it didn't.

If you've read it, I would most definitely be interested in your opinion, especially if you liked it. Maybe you saw something I didn't.

Content note: Maybe it goes without saying given the rest of my feelings for the book, but there's a fair bit of language and sex in this one.

Lessons From Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott

Jun 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy wrote about the ten item wardrobe. Her ideas came from the book, Lessons From Madame Chic. Having just been through a KonMari clothing purge (but with a closet with still many more than ten items in it), I was intrigued and immediately checked out the book.

It details some of the things Jennifer Scott learns as a foreign exchange student in Paris, France. Her host family is the refined and sophisticated Famille Chic (not their real name, obviously), and Jennifer quickly realizes that life in this home is far different from her home back in California. They don't snack in between meals, Madame Chic wears very light makeup, and they don't save their best possessions for some elusive future day. They live life fully and passionately.

When I first picked up the book, I thought it was going to focus mainly on clothing and fashion. But while that is an aspect of the book (and the aforementioned ten item wardrobe does get its own chapter), it's more well-rounded than that and highlights various observations made by Jennifer during her stay.

Even though I enjoyed the book and it was a quick read, it's not going to be one that I tell people to rush out and grab a copy of and read right now. This book is an expanded version of a series Jennifer Brown did on her blog (in fact, some of the material is word-for-word, exactly the same). I'm not opposed to taking a good idea and developing it into a book, but this felt more like a cut-and-paste kind of job.

She tells lots of personal stories from her time in France, which I loved, but scattered in between these were sentences that felt silly and trite. For example, when Jennifer first arrives and goes into her bedroom, she finds a small, freestanding wardrobe. She wonders if this is where she is supposed to store all her clothes (two large suitcases worth). She says, "I was in denial at the time, but the answer to that question was undeniably oui!" Or like when she keeps describing Madame Bohemian's style as, well, bohemian (just like that, several times--as if she just thought of it even though she's already said it before).

Last year, I read Notes From a Blue Bike, which, similar to this book, was also written by a popular blogger, but I found the writing style very different. You might recall that it was actually one of my favorite books from last year--partly because I resonated with the idea of simple living but also because Tsh Oxenreider's writing style was fresh and engaging.

Overall, I agreed with most of what I found in this book (I definitely already employ le no-makeup look, so now I feel quite validated that this can actually be defined as a style and not just attributed to laziness and inexperience). I appreciated the ten item wardrobe chapter (and should clarify that it's ten core items and doesn't include T-shirts, pajamas, scarves, accessories, coats, or any off-season clothing, so, you know, it's not really ten items at all). I've been thinking about trying some form of this myself--even if I can't whittle it down to ten items exactly, it would still be nice to have my basic items that could be easily interchanged and mixed and matched with each other.

Changing topics, I was confused about why you should never ask someone what they do for a living (this was discussed in the chapter, "Cultivate an Air of Mystery"). Of course I would never ask someone about their salary, but why is it bad to find out what they do for work? This gives them the opportunity to talk about something that they are (hopefully) passionate about, helps you make connections, and expands your view. Even with the random stranger sitting next to you on the airplane or the casual acquaintance at the park, this seems like a fairly innocent question. Have I unknowingly offended dozens of people over the years by asking them what they do for a living?

I saw that there are two more Madame Chic books (one out last year and another one coming out in October this year). Maybe it's unfair, but knowing that made this book seem less reputable and interesting and more like a gimmick (in a similar vein to Chicken Soup for the[Fill in the Blank] Soul.) I'm not saying don't pick it up. Just know that there isn't going to be anything too deep or profound in it and even those topics that could have gone that way are going to feel somewhat superficial.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

Jun 28, 2015

One of my reading goals for 2015 is to "read something of a religious nature." There were so many books I could have read for this goal, but I ended up not even considering most of my options but settled almost immediately on this book, which I've wanted to read for many years.

C.S. Lewis has always been a favorite of mine, and not just because he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. I like him because he almost sounds like he could have been a member of my faith, but he wasn't. His ideas about God's grand plan for each of His children resonates deep within me as something that's true and echoes the foundational doctrines of my church.

I also like him because he has a very similar style to Elder Neal A. Maxwell, one of my favorite Apostles who passed away in 2004. Both of them knew exactly how to turn a phrase for maximum impact and also came up with some deeply clarifying analogies.

Before beginning this book, I didn't realize that it is actually more of a transcribed talk than a book. C.S. Lewis gave it over the air in the 1940's and changed very little of it when it was published in this format. Consequently, it has a very conversational and casual tone to it. He addresses the reader (or, when he gave it, listener) frequently, and it makes what he says feel very personal and applicable.

This book addresses the related questions, "What does it mean to be a Christian?" and "What does a Christian look like?" It doesn't focus on any particular religion but instead discusses Christianity in a very broad, non-denominational way. It is for anyone who either identifies himself as a Christian (and as a Mormon, I do) or is curious about what goes into being a Christian.

I'm going to do something I don't normally do in reviews and just hand out a few of my very favorite quotes from the book. I hope you'll indulge me. These are the one that made me stop and think. These are the ones I especially don't want to forget.

"Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have."

"Enemy-occupied territory--that is what this world is."

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else  he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse . . . But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

"They are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? The answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, 'If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?' When you have found the answer, go and do it."

"And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor's shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life."

"When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others--not because He has favorites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favorites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as a clean one."

"I find I must borrow yet another parable from George MaDonald. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and son on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of--throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself."

Sorry. Very quote-heavy, I know. Just be grateful I didn't quote more because there is actually very little in the book that isn't quote-worthy.

I loved this book. It deepened and strengthened my faith. It helped me look at some of my doubts and struggles in a new, illuminating light. It buoyed me up and made me grateful for the foundation of my religion.

My search for knowledge is far from over, and as I continue to read and study and pray, I am comforted by this thought from Lewis: "When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall." I think in many ways I am still one of the ones in the hall. There are many things I am uncertain about, and I have many unanswered questions. But I have the faith to keep moving forward, exploring rooms one by one, with the bright hope that one day my faith will be secure and unshaking.

In the meantime, I will do my best to live the life of a Christian and follow the example of my dear Savior.

Summer Goals for Kids: 2015 Edition

Jun 26, 2015

Want to make summer goals with your kids? Here are some age-appropriate suggestions!

A few weeks ago on Instagram, I posted a picture of our summer goals. You might recall that last year my kids also made some goals. It sounds silly to say, but the making and accomplishing and rewarding of those goals turned out to be one of the highlights of the summer.

Several of you asked to see this year's lists, and I'm happy to oblige. (But first, if you haven't read the post from last year, I recommend that you do so before reading any more here. In that one, I talk a lot about how to make goals with your kids. In this one, I'm going to stick mainly with the goals themselves.)

As with last year, our goals can be broken down into three categories: educational, practical, and fun. The main difference from last year to this year is that the lists grew significantly in length. That's my fault. I think I was so happy with how successful we were last year that I may or may not have went a little overboard when suggesting goals for them to work on. Only time will tell . . .

Without further explanation, here are Aaron's, Maxwell's, and Bradley's goals, broken down by category. (Some of the goals are family, rather than individual, goals, so you'll notice some overlap.)

Aaron, age 6 (almost 7)
  • Educational
    • Finish Piano Adventures Level 1
    • Learn multiplication facts
    • Finish math workbook
    • Read one nonfiction book per week
    • Read Story of the World with Mom
    • Memorize five scriptures
  • Practical
    • Make phone calls and answer the phone
    • Learn to clean the bathroom
    • Follow a recipe and make blueberry muffins
  • Fun
    • Memorize five poems
    • Catch a ball
    • Write in journal once a week
    • Complete ten chess lessons
    • Read Redwall and Prince Caspian with Dad
    • Swim across the deep end of the pool
Maxwell, age 5
  • Educational
    • Finish Piano Adventures Level A and Start Level B
    • Identify three new bug species
    • Memorize five scriptures
    • Read Story of the World with Mom
  • Practical
    • Tie shoes
    • Pour liquids
    • Turn on bath water
    • Vacuum 
  • Fun
    • Memorize five poems
    • Catch a ball
    • Write in journal once a week
    • Complete ten chess lessons
    • Read Redwall and Prince Caspian with Dad
    • Read a Magic Treehouse book
Bradley, age 3.5
  • Educational
    • Practice writing
    • Learn 25 sight words
    • Go through 25 pages in reading book
    • Identify three new bug species 
    • Memorize five scriptures
  • Practical
    • Memorize address
    • Memorize phone number
    • Wash bowls, plates, and utensils
    • Wipe the kitchen table
  • Fun
    • Catch a ball
    • Put together five new puzzles
    • Memorize five poems
There is definitely some overlap between categories (swimming across the deep end of the pool is fun, practical, and even educational). Each goal is broken down so they can mark their progress as they master a skill or complete a task.

We've already had some surprises. For example, I think Aaron's piano goal is going to be really difficult to accomplish unless he significantly increases his daily practice time. That might be a good thing, but it also might not be very realistic The most surprising goal for me is how much I've loved reading The Story of the World to my kids. We look forward to it each day, and we're learning so much (me included).

And of course, like last year, we have the incentive of monthly rewards if they're making reasonable progress on their goals. We'll go see Inside Out in June, Mike will take them camping in July, and we'll go to the planetarium in August.

The intent of this post is not (I repeat, NOT) to guilt-trip you into making summer goals with your kids. You have to understand: goals are my love language. When we spend the morning following a routine and crossing items off our list, I am in my happy place. If you can relate, then this post is probably for you, so feel free to adapt our lists to your own child's age and personality. But if you look at this post and just feel overwhelmed and sick to your stomach, then disregard it completely. I mean that. Forget about it! There are a thousand ways to enjoy summer. Rather than feel like you have to do X, X, and X to make it a successful and memorable summer, I would instead encourage you to think about what makes you and your kids happy and satisfied and then make those things a priority.

Want to make summer goals with your kids? Here are some age-appropriate suggestions!

P.S. If you have any questions about any of our goals, please ask. I'll do my best to answer them!

Review x 2: Poppy and Poppy & Rye by Avi

Jun 24, 2015

Writing a combined review of these books seemed like a great idea until I put their titles side by side. But in case you're confused, I'm talking about two separate books here. The first one is Poppy. The second one is Poppy and Rye. But yes, the Poppy referred to is the same Poppy.

These two books are part of the Dimwood Forest series. If you look them up, you will see that there's another book, Ragweed, that comes before this one chronologically, but we opted to start with Poppy for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, even though Ragweed's story happens first, his story was not written first. It was written third. And, as with The Chronicles of Narnia, I'm a stickler for reading books in the order they were written in. If that means they fall out of order chronologically, then so be it.

It many cases, reading them in the order of publication sheds some added insight into the stories that would be lost if you read them in the forced chronological order, and that's definitely the case with these books. Ragweed starts out as a character in Poppy, but within the first chapter, he gets eaten by the evil owl, Mr. Ocax. We'd hardly become acquainted with Ragweed and so, although his death was sad, it didn't traumatize any of us. We didn't know Ragweed well enough to be traumatized.

But can you imagine what my boys' reaction would have been if we'd started with Ragweed's story, been on an adventure with him, and then he was gobbled up in the first chapter of Poppy? It would have been so devastating. As it is, we've gotten to know Ragweed first through the eyes of Poppy and Ragweed's family. Our curiosity has been piqued about this strong-willed, independent little mouse. We know what the final outcome will be, but that only makes Ragweed's story more alluring. By beginning with Poppy, we're seeing the series as it unfolded for Avi, and that's worth something. If you read these to your kids, I'd recommend doing it the same way.

Anyway, back to the two books at hand.

Poppy's story begins on a beautiful summer evening on Bannock Hill. Poppy, a deer mouse, and her boyfriend, Ragweed, are on top of it without permission from Mr. Ocax, the owl who rules Dimwood Forest. Ragweed laughs in the face of rules. He will do whatever he pleases without asking permission from anybody, including and especially Mr. Ocax. But he underestimates Mr. Ocax's need for power, and, as I told you before, Mr. Ocax swoops in and gobbles him up.

While the reader might not be devastated (but surprised and a little shocked, yes), Poppy most certainly is. Her journey back to her family's home at Gray House is dangerous. Mr. Ocax is out to get her. It is not acceptable that any mouse who defied his orders should live. When she gets home, she doesn't find any respite. Her parents' little family, as mice are apt to do, has multiplied rapidly and have totally outgrown Gray House. Lungwort, Poppy's father, has found a new place to live, New House, but moving there will require permission from Mr. Ocax.

It's permission that he won't grant, and he claims that it's because of Poppy's disobedience, but Poppy gets the feeling that there's something about New House that Mr. Ocax doesn't want them to know. Boldly, she sets out alone to find out for herself. Along the way, she meets Ereth, a porcupine with a colorful tongue and a penchant for salt, and does things she never dreamed she was capable of.

My kids love a book with a classic villain, and Mr. Ocax is classic. He's mean and controlling but also manipulative and cowardly. He convinces Poppy's family that he is actually their protector from, wait for it, porcupines. I thought this speech from Poppy's father was quite telling of the brainwashing many dictators do in order to keep their subjects placid and obedient: "Mr. Ocax has always been most accommodating. Need I remind you that he protects us from porcupines . . . Have we seen so much as one porcupine in these parts for years? Not one! Proof enough that Mr. Ocax is holding up hi end of the bargain." Hmmm, as if the fact that they've never seen a porcupine witnesses to the reality of Mr. Ocax's protection.

By far though, my kids' favorite character was the porcupine, Ereth. He is grumpy, ornery, and can't speak without a string of namecalling. There's nothing to particularly like about him. He's not loyal. He's not kind. And the only protection he offers Poppy happens either accidentally or because it works out in his favor. But for all his prickliness (literally and figuratively), he is rather entertaining (and, in the next book, we learned some things that helped us understand and sympathize with his tough exterior a little more). Normally, I feel like I wouldn't appreciate Ereth's saucy mouth, but it's hard to say things like "bug's bathwater" or "frog flip" or "snake sweat" and not smile a little.

In Poppy and Rye, Poppy leaves her new home where her family is living happily and comfortably and sets out to find Ragweed's family. Ragweed was a golden mouse. The only thing Poppy really knows about his family is that they live on the banks of The Brook and that The Brook is on the other side of Dimwood Forest. She feels like it's her duty to find and tell them about Ragweed's untimely death. Somehow (by calling him "old," which insults him), she convinces Ereth to make the journey with her.

What Poppy doesn't know is that at the very moment she is making her way through Dimwood Forest, Ragweed's family is being forced out of their beloved home by a band of beavers who turned The Brook into a large pond. They are led by a beaver named Castor P. Canad (Cas for short). He has big ambitions. After the brook is dammed up, he and the other beavers start building lodges, which he names, "Canad's Cute Condos" (a name so catchy that I caught Bradley saying it to himself over and over again).

When Poppy arrives, the family has moved, but their new home is being threatened as well because Canad's Cute Condos are expanding. Poppy delivers her news but finds she can't just turn around and leave Ragweed's family. Something unexpected has happened to her: she has fallen in love with Ragweed's younger brother, Rye, and she knows she has to help him and his family reclaim their home.

If Mr. Ocax was a classic villain, Castor P. Canad is the opposite. On the surface, he seems nice. Full of motivational speeches, his motto is "Progress Without Pain." He pretends to stick to that, but really, he just wants to give the appearance of being a nice guy so that he can expand his business without any trouble.  

I have to say that even though we shouldn't have liked Mr. Canad, we couldn't help ourselves. His sections were some of our favorites because his speeches were so funny. His favorite expression is, "Well, bless my teeth and smooth my tail," and my boys laughed every time he said it. Mr. Canad has a habit of speaking in cliches (which furthers his disingenuous personality), and this speech (made to the other beavers to inspire and motivate them) was probably our favorite one of the book. At any rate, it's the one we memorized and have been repeating whenever we need a laugh:
"All right then. . . . Don't have to remind you, there's work to be done. I'll be by your side. Don't want to hear about any beaver who isn't busy. Hang in there. Be fresh as a daisy. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And finally, from the bottom of my heart, and from the top, as well as the sides and also the middle, I want to say to you all, and I mean this, really, I do, with all my soul, honestly, sincerely, have a nice day!"
 It helped that I landed upon the perfect voice for Mr. Canad, which made his speeches even more fun to read aloud. I love it when that happens. So yes, he's still a villain but very atypical, which makes the whole situation fresh and interesting.

I will say that this book has quite a bit of romance in it (first, Poppy mourns the love of her life, Ragweed, then meets the mysterious Rye whom she dances with before she even knows about his relation to Ragweed, and finally we find out Ereth is actually in love with Poppy, too). These chapters were probably my boys' least favorites (and there seemed to be a lot of them), but the action in between kept them going, and the final battle between the mice and beavers ("The Battle of the Boulder") was so thrilling and exciting, it made up for every boring love scene before it.

Speaking of the battle, that was one of my favorite parts of the book too, but not for the same reason as Aaron, Max, and Bradley. Early in the story, you get the impression that Clover and Valerian (Ragweed and Rye's parents) are unwilling to put their family at risk by resisting anything. Consequently, they're being pushed around like they're nobody. But finally, one night, something snaps and then clicks and they decide to stop giving in to Mr. Canad. They come up with an elaborate plan to destroy the dam, and they pull it off beautifully.

The thing I love about the battle is that Poppy and Rye aren't even a part of it because they're trapped inside the Lodge at the time. Poppy still has many moments of bravery, but I just really loved seeing Rye's family step up and deliver instead of just being rescued by Poppy (although, if it hadn't been for her arrival, they never would have found the courage to make the first move).

I'm as bad at finishing series with my kids as I am with finishing them myself. We have our so many that we're in the middle of, and this just adds one more to the pile. Still though, we are looking forward to coming back to Dimwood Forest in a little while after we've read a few other books. In some ways, it's nice to not read all the books in one bang. It makes them last longer, and it's always fun to know we have tried and true friends we can return to.

The Most Marvelous and Exciting Father

Jun 21, 2015

We've always joked about my dad being the "fun killer" (not behind his back--he readily admits to it himself).

He can have a rather stern persona when he's not at home (okay, sometimes at home, too), and I think over the years most of the kids at church have been intimidated at one time or another by his glaring looks or curt words if they're caught running in the halls (or worse, the chapel) or drawing on the chalkboards or goofing off during Sunday School.

Growing up, I definitely remember some things being off limits (jumping on the couch, for example, or leaping over the back of it or even wedging our feet between the cushions). My mom was much more likely to let us take mattresses and go sledding down the stairs than my dad.

But personally, I think labeling him as the fun killer is much too harsh. Because for all his stern looks and disapproving glances, my dad definitely knows how to have fun. In fact, most of my memories growing up are of him participating in the fun with us instead of squashing it.

So today I'm going to set the record straight and give you just a few glimpses, out of hundreds and hundreds, of all the fun I've had over the years with my dad.

When I was still quite young, we read one of Mercer Mayer's Little Critter books called Just Me and My Dad. It inspired my dad to do one-on-one camping trips with all of us . . . in the backyard. For years, every summer I got my own turn going camping with my dad. We'd set up the tent, take out a giant stack of games or books, and enjoy each other's company by lantern light. In the morning, we would get up as quietly as we could, slowly unzip the tent, and sneak away in the chill morning air for breakfast at the local diner (the sneaking away part was very important). We christened these times "Just Me and My Dad Camp Outs."

Many times we'd have impromptu dances. We'd turn on some music, usually on the old record player, my dad would take my hand and spin me around the room. He taught me some of his old ballroom steps, my favorite being "the window" because he would turn me around until our arms formed a little rectangle we could look at each other through. My favorite song to dance to was an old Glenn Miller song, "In the Mood." It just kept going and going, and at the end we would twirl around at a feverish pace until we collapsed from dizziness. If we still had enough energy at the end, he would lower me into a dramatic dip.

My dad loves his garden. Every year he methodically plans it out and and then reaps a bounteous harvest during the summer months. My brothers probably have even more fond memories than I do of helping my dad in the garden. I think some good heart-to-hearts went on as they weeded side by side. But I have wonderful memories, too. My dad always let us help him plant, and I don't remember him ever getting impatient with us, even if we placed too many peas in one spot or soaked them too heavily. When I was a teenager, he mapped out this elaborate competition where we divided the garden into territories and got weekly points based on how well it was weeded. My brothers and I took this game very seriously, to the point of washing the rocks surrounding our plots so that they would look their best when my dad came around to judge.

I well remember The Monster Game. Probably most dads do some variation of it. It would usually begin when my dad was legitimately trying to take a little rest. We would sneak up on him and, without warning, his arm would shoot out and grab us by the leg. He'd reel us in with the menacing words, "Now you'll never get away from me! You'd better call for your mommy!" Somehow, by one magic word or another, we'd soothe him back to sleep. He would begin to snore convincingly, his grasp would loosen, and we'd begin to inch away. Just when we thought we were in the clear, his arm would shoot out again, and the game would begin again.

My dad loves music. He plays the piano and guitar, as well as several brass instruments. He wanted all of his kids to play some kind of portable instrument so that we could do some non-traditional Christmas caroling every year in December. He taught me how to play the trombone, and besides the Christmas carols, we also spent many evenings playing duets together. Our favorite to play was "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Every 4th of July we had an intense water fight. We divided the family into two teams. One team had an empty wading pool, the other team had a larger one full of water. The object of the game was for the first team to steal water from the second until their pool was full (or until they gave up). My dad was always in the pool guarding the water. The rest of us ran around frantically and haphazardly dumped our buckets or squirted our water guns in order to help protect or steal the water. But my dad was always calm and methodical and consequently, his attacks packed the maximum punch.

Does this sound like a dad who would be known as the fun killer? I think not. At the end of Danny the Champion of the World, Danny perfectly summed up the way I feel about my dad.
"Because what I am trying to tell you . . . What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any [girl] ever had."
I love you, my most marvelous and exciting father. Happy Father's Day.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

Jun 19, 2015

[Please excuse the look of Sunlit Pages as it undergoes some layout and design changes. Thanks!]

This review is timely in light of my recent request for clean, well-written, realistic young adult novels.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before scored a 2 out of 3. It was well-written. It was realistic. But it was not clean. It had quite a bit of language (including the F-word) and plenty of mention about sex (even though none of it was explicit and the main character herself doesn't engage in anything).

I guess maybe my expectations are what are not realistic. Is this kind of language and behavior really so prevalent in real-life high school as to be unavoidable in a book about high school? I think I'm in denial.

I'll finish up my thoughts on this in a minute, but it will make more sense if I tell you a little bit about the story first:

Lara Jean is the second daughter of three. Margot, the oldest, has just graduated from high school and is on her way to far away Scotland for college. Before leaving though, she breaks up with her longtime boyfriend, Josh, who's been a part of the family for pretty much forever. Lara Jean and Margot have always been close, but especially since the death of their mother six years earlier. Since then, they have been the ones to protect and nurture their nine-year-old sister, Kitty.

But while Lara Jean has always had a hand in Kitty's upbringing, it can't be denied that Margot has been the unwavering foundation of the family. She's capable and organized and always thinks of everything (she keeps a little notebook by the fridge so that everyone else will know all the important information as well). Their dad is pretty rock solid himself, but he is a single dad raising three daughters, so, you know, he has his limitations. After Margot leaves, the family dynamics shift a little bit as they all try to identify their new roles and responsibilities.

In the midst of the upheaval, some things happen, most notably five boys get love letters from Lara Jean (but she most definitely did not send them). You see, Lara Jean has always dealt with her crushes by writing good-bye love letters to the boys in question. She pours out her feelings, seals the letters, addresses them, and puts them in her turquoise hatbox (a gift from her mother) for safekeeping. Once the letter is written, it provides closure, and Lara Jean can move forward with her life.

Except that now, all five boys have those letters. Especially awkward is the fact that one of those boys happens to be Josh, Margot's ex-boyfriend and, rather unfortunately, the boy Lara Jean still happens to like . . . a lot. In an attempt to get herself out of this nightmarish situation, Lara Jean fakes a relationship with Peter, one of the other ill-fated recipients. And of course, that just makes things even more complicated.

So you can see, it has all the elements of a YA romance (oh, and I forgot to mention Peter's popular and controlling ex-girlfriend, but that probably went without saying), but it really didn't feel cliche to me. Lara Jean is such a likeable character. She is naive and kind and loves to knit and cook and scrapbook. What's more, in spite of all the casual talk about and references toward sex (seriously, I can't believe teenagers are engaged in this kind of thing all the time), Lara Jean herself is actually pretty honorable. She is very clear from the beginning about what she will or will not do, and she sticks to it. And that is so encouraging.

This is going to sound like I'm justifying this book's content, and I guess I am, but I've been thinking about it, and if this kind of behavior really is so commonplace in high school now, then it really is remarkable to have a character hold to a moral code. Lara Jean and Margot made a promise several years earlier about their standards, and they also knew what their dad expected of them. Those two things (deciding before they had to decide and having a good relationship with their dad) are really important takeaway messages for teens.

This all makes it sound like I think the author had some kind of an agenda: set up a realistic scenario and then have the main character conquer temptation. But it doesn't come across that way at all (and that's a good thing), and I honestly don't think that was her intent anyway. A sequel just came out this year, and I'm dying to read it (this one ended with a lot of things unfinished, plus, it hinted at a relationship opening up with another one of the love letter recipients). I'm not holding my breath that Lara Jean will continue to uphold her standards (she's already discovered that Margot broke their agreement), and I have a sad suspicion that's what most readers will expect of the story.

I will also say that although I really liked most of the characters (Lara Jean especially), I could never figure out why she was falling for Peter. I liked that their relationship was so bluntly open and honest, and I also liked that the friendship that was forming underneath their charade seemed both real and meaningful. But, I never really liked Peter. He was arrogant and self-centered, and I just couldn't see that as ever changing.

What I did like was Lara Jean's relationship with her dad and sisters (and okay, Josh too). They all had such an easy and comfortable way together. And what's more, they liked spending time with each other. Lara Jean is something of a homebody and has to be practically forced to go on the class ski trip and would much rather stay at home baking her six dozen cupcakes for the elementary school PTA than go to a party with Peter. I can relate to that kind of pull from family and the home, and I loved see the way they all supported and respected one another (for the most part).

So I don't know . . . me, personally, I would have enjoyed the story a lot more without all the aforementioned content, but I can't deny that I still did enjoy it. Unlike another book I'll be reviewing shortly (one that aggravated me to no end), this one was funny and interesting and believable.

(I'm still on the lookout though for YA that can meet all three expectations. I think it's out there . . . )

An Evening of Literature

Jun 17, 2015

We've been visiting my family for the last few days, and I didn't plan ahead by writing and scheduling posts, so . . . I just haven't posted. Hopefully all of you have been so busy swimming and playing and going on vacations of your own that you haven't noticed. But if you have noticed, first of all, thank you (it's so nice to be missed), and second, I have high hopes of working out a great summer routine that gives me plenty of time to write AND play with my kids. Is that unrealistic? We'll see . . .

The night before we left on our trip, I had the opportunity to do a little presentation of summer reading suggestions for the women at my church. I wanted to give them ideas for all ages and interests, so I divided 42 books into seven different categories. The seven categories were: board books, picture books, easy readers, readalouds, middle grade, young adult, and adult.

Within each category, I tried to showcase a variety of genres. That's why in the middle grade category, for example, you'll see fantasy, realistic fiction, a verse novel, nonfiction, and a graphic novel.

In case you're interested in the books I shared, here is the list (and if I've written a review of it, I've linked the title to it):

Board Books

Picture Books
Easy Readers
Great Read Alouds
Middle Grade

Young Adult

A few things you might be interested in:
  • I tried to keep the suggestions to five in each category, but you can see that with picture books and middle grade, I just couldn't help myself and stretched that number just a little bit.
  • It should be noted that while I love all of these books, just because they made it onto this list doesn't mean they're my favorite favorite favorite books of all time. Like I said, I was going for variety, and also, I was trying to choose books that would be enjoyable summer reads. That said, I will stand behind every single one of these books. They are among my favorites for sure.
  • For most of the categories, I had no trouble coming up with suggestions (rather, as mentioned above, my problem was paring the list down to five). But Young Adult was not so easy. I realized I actually don't read very many books that fall into that age range, and the books I do read often leave me feeling very dissatisfied. Either the content is so inappropriate, I would never feel comfortable recommending such a book in a church setting (the label of Young Adult does not guarantee that it's clean by any means), or it's so silly and poorly written that it would be painful to suggest it as something worthwhile. If anyone has any great, well-written, clean YA suggestions (preferably that are not fantasy), I'm all ears. I'm now on a mission to find more books that I'd feel comfortable recommending to an actual teenager.
  • Of all the books I recommended that night, A Girl Named Zippy was the surprising favorite. A couple of the women there had read it and gave it such glowing praises that I'm pretty sure everyone else rushed to check it out after the activity was over. I'm not complaining. It is a really good book.
  • In retrospect, the one book I'd swap out is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane from the Readaloud category. Don't get me wrong. I love that book. In fact, it's probably in my top ten favorites of all time, but it has not been our most successful readaloud. I think my kids were probably a little too young for it when we read it, so it might be a great readaloud now, but I still wish I'd traded it for another one of the books my kids have truly loved listening to: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Charlotte's Web. I think because it's one of my favorites, I was desperate to get it on the list somehow, but I should have just saved it for another time. 
  • I realized that I could have kept talking all night. Give me a captive audience and a table full of my favorite books, and I'm pretty much in heaven!
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