Three Great Readalouds for Halloween: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and The Little Leftover Witch

Oct 30, 2015

(This is also, "What I Read During My Break, Part 3," but I opted for the other title since they grouped themselves together so nicely. Plus, we just read The Little Leftover Witch this week (which means it wasn't actually one of the ones we read during my break).)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling book review
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Have I ever told you about my history with Harry Potter? I was thirteen when the first book came out (in the U.S.). Growing up in a little, rural town in Colorado (and being homeschooled on top of that), I don't know when I would have heard about it enough to take notice of it if not for my grandma who enjoyed it immensely and told my family to read it. So I did, and I remember loving every minute of it.

By the time I read the first, I think the second one was already out, so I devoured it as well. And then I waited with great anticipation for the third. If I remember correctly, I think I even had to put my name on a waiting list at our little library (which I don't think I'd ever had to do before). It was about that time that my mom began to get a little worried that the series seemed to be getting darker with each book. She was concerned about where it was going to end up. And so, after I read the third, I took a break and never returned to the series. To this day, I've still only read the first three. Some of you are probably wondering how I could leave it so easily, but fantasy has never been my favorite genre and each book was more heavily saturated with fantasy elements, and so it wasn't that hard for me to just move onto other books.

Anyway, for years, I've meant to read the entire series, but it seemed like such a huge time commitment (those of you who have read the series at least a dozen times are probably balking at the notion that I would have to "force" myself to read them). I finally just decided to begin back at the beginning and read the first one aloud to Aaron and Maxwell. Almost all of Aaron's friends at school have read at least the first one, and I thought he might be missing out on some cultural references by not being familiar with Harry Potter jargon.

However bland my motives for reading it may have been, I can tell you this: it is one of the best readalouds we've read. The pull of the story that I remember so well from my own childhood was still there, and I don't think we ever closed it for the night actually wanting a break from it.

I know you don't need a summary (at age 11, orphan Harry Potter is summoned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He finally learns the truth about what happened to his parents and bravely attempts to protect a life-giving stone that is being hidden at the school), so I'll just cut right to our impressions of it: we loved it, loved it, loved it.

Maxwell was so funny when I first pulled it out and said that it would be our next readaloud. "No way," he said. "I don't want to listen to it." And he actually left the room to go listen to what Mike was reading to Bradley. But after a little cajoling, I convinced him to listen to the first chapter, and then he was hooked. At the end of every chapter, he would beg, "Just one more! How about one more page? Or one more word?" He laughed every time he remembered how he almost missed out on one of his favorite books ever (I can't even count the number of times he's listened to the audio in the last three weeks).

But the last two chapters were the best. We read them on a blissfully uncluttered afternoon. You remember how the second-to-last chapter ends, right? "There was already someone there--but it wasn't Snape. It wasn't even Voldemort." My kids burst out with, "WHAT?! Who was it?!" I said, "Well, that's the end of the chapter" and began to close the book. There was a major protest, and I was so glad we were reading it at a time when we actually could go on, right then, and have our curiosity satisfied. But before we turned the page, we all took guesses about who was really in the room. And of course, neither of them even gave a thought to Quirrell, which made the turning of the page that much more exciting. Then of course there was the thrill of watching Harry defeat Quirrell and the final wrap-up of the first year at Hogwarts (my personal favorite part was when Neville was awarded ten points, and it was those ten points that tipped the scale in Gryffindor's favor--I'd totally forgotten about that). It really was such a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

2. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

My mom has been telling me to read this book for years. It's one that I never heard growing up, but she read it to my younger siblings, and they all loved it. I've always had it in my head that it would make a good October read (and although it is winter for most of the book, the Gothic ambiance definitely makes it feel like it belongs to this time of year), and so it was on the short list for this month.

Bonnie Green is the only child of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. They make their home at Willoughby Chase, an imposing and very comfortable estate (in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by starving wolves--not exactly its best selling points). Lady Green's health is poor, and so she and Sir Willoughby are leaving for a warmer climate for a few months, but Bonnie is staying behind. She doesn't mind; her cousin, Sylvia, is coming to stay with her, and her father has asked his distant cousin, Miss Slighcarp, to come be their governess while they are away.

But they are no more than a day's journey out of sight before things begin to go drastically wrong. Miss Slighcarp has no intention of being the girls' governess and instead has plans to take over the estate. She soon realizes Bonnie and Sylvia are in the way too much and sends them to live at Mrs. Brisket's boarding school (more like a prison than a school). Bonnie and Sylvia are miserable there, but Bonnie's spunky spirit is indomitable, and she soon thinks up a plan of escape.

The book reminded me a lot of Nancy and Plum, which we read last year, and which also features two little girls who are under the jurisdiction of an evil headmistress. I'd say this one is for slightly older children. The language is more complex (in the first chapter alone, we encountered the words "portmanteau," "goffering," "fowling piece," "hoydenish," "chatelaine," "oubliette," and "pelisse"), and the setting is a little more dismal and dire. I thought my kids might get tripped up by all the unfamiliar words (I certainly was tripping over them in my attempts to pronounce them), but the thing I'm quickly discovering as we read more and more challenging books is that they really don't focus on what they don't know (most of the words could be discerned from the context, and for the other ones, it was easy to stop and take a moment to define them) but on the story overall.

On the whole, we loved the book. There's just something about outwitting an evil governess that totally makes your day. This is exactly the kind of book I would have adored as a little girl. Bonnie and Sylvia are great counterparts to each other (brave and impetuous vs. cautious and attentive), and both of them are so kind to each other (although Bonnie does come off as a trifle spoiled).

We stayed up late one evening to finish it (a decision I definitely regretted the next morning in the face of irrational children), but it was such a dramatic conclusion, there was no way we could stop in the middle of it.

This is apparently the first book in a long series. My mom said they tried a couple of the following ones and weren't as enamored with them. Has anyone else gone on with the series? Thoughts? Opinions?

3. The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin

I found this book waiting for me on my hold shelf at the library one afternoon, and it baffled me because I hadn't the faintest recollection of requesting it. I think I must have heard about it on Instagram and asked for it right away and then had to wait for it for a couple of weeks, which gave me plenty of time to forget about it. Still, it's just a little eerie to go the library and find a totally unfamiliar book with your name on it. Especially when that book is about a little witch who practices some small magic (like perhaps reserving her book for an unsuspecting (but very regular) library visitor?).

Anyway, unfamiliar or not, it looked like a cute little book, so we read it. And I'm glad we did. It was short, very sweet, and even Bradley listened in on the entire thing.

It is Halloween night. Lucinda has taken off her ghost costume and crawled into bed. She's already asleep when she's woken by a strange noise. She finds a little bedraggled witch whose broom broke as she was flying home. All of the other witches have gone, and she must get home before midnight or she'll be stuck there until next Halloween.

Lucinda tries to help (even offering the vacuum cleaner), but the little witch just doesn't know enough magic yet to make it happen. And so Lucinda tells her she can stay with her family.

The little witch (whose name is Felina) is rude and uncooperative and only does the things she's supposed to when Lucinda's dad says, "that's an order." But Lucinda and her parents quickly grow to love her strange little ways, and gradually, she warms up to the family as well. As her heart softens, she knows she will do anything to stay with them forever.

This was first published in 1960 (and then came back into print in 2013). There are little references here and there which date it (like when Lucinda's mother receives a record player for Christmas), but overall, it's just a great little story that seems to have lost none of its charm in the last fifty-five years.

I will say that you do have to read between the lines a bit at the end of the book. If taken the way it was intended, then Felina is a lonely little girl who happily finds a family who adores her and wants to keep her forever. If taken the wrong way, it looks a little like she gives up her identity to conform to the Doon's expectations of what "normal" is. (Plus, there is a witch searching the skies for her towards the end of the book, but no one points this out to Felina, and a part of me wondered if there was a family on the other other side who wanted her back.) By all indications, Felina seems to have never experienced love or acceptance before living with the Doons, but I think you could interpret this story either way. I'm choosing to go with the way the author imagined it, but I can see some other readers taking fault with that aspect of the story.

Overall though, it was just a really cute, imaginative little story. It would be the perfect thing for curling up with after you get home from trick-or-treating.

What have you been reading to your kids this month?

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Oct 28, 2015

This review was supposed to be in another group of three. But once I started writing, I couldn't condense what I wanted to say in 500 words, so here you go.

I've had this book on my October to-read list for at least three years, but I finally made it a priority this year (thanks to it being our book club read for the month). In many ways, it was exactly what I was expecting: spooky, creepy, with just a touch of the bizarre. But in other ways, I was in for a thrilling adventure, the creativity of which I was not expecting.

It is a retelling of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and opens with a chilling scene: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." The man has already murdered the mother, father, and young daughter and is on his way up the stairs to find the final member of the family . . . a toddler boy. Seriously, if you can make it past that first scene, you'll be okay (although not incredibly descriptive, if you're a mom, it will give you have nightmares).

When the man reaches the baby's crib, he is surprised to find it empty. Completely unaware of the danger he was in, the little boy climbed out, scooted down the many flights of stairs, and toddled off up the street to the nearby graveyard. There he is rescued by Mistress and Master Owens, who have been dead for hundreds of years. They agree to raise the boy (who they name Nobody Owens, or Bod for short) as their own with Silas, a Friend of the Graveyard, volunteering to be the boy's guardian.

The reader watches Bod's unorthodox upbringing, all while knowing that there is someone out there who wants to kill him.

Before I say anything else, I want you to know that I enjoyed this book tremendously. It was clever and gripping and left my heart pounding. I loved Bod in his little winding sheet. He was quiet and curious and adventurous. Growing up in a graveyard gave him a unique perspective on death (in fact, when Silas warns him about the danger that lies outside the graveyard, Bod replies, "So? It's only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead").

But sometimes, it's easier for me to articulate what I didn't like about a particular book more than what I did, and I feel like that's the case with this one. I was disappointed with three things, and I'll try to share those as concisely as possible. Also, I tried to write about it without spoilers, but I couldn't do it. So this is probably more for those of you have already read it than for those of you who haven't. Just consider yourself warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!

One of the things that bothered me the most was all of the secrecy surrounding Jack (the villain) and his motive for trying to kill Bod. There were little hints given infrequently throughout the book, but these did more to confuse than enlighten me. Usually I love this type of foreshadowing as I try to put the pieces together before the final reveal, but this time, I truly felt like I was grasping at something insubstantial.

And then, when I finally, finally learned the what and the why behind Jack, I was disappointed.
It was still vague, first of all, but also, just pretty lame. There was a lot going on behind the scenes (a pretty intense battle, as a matter of fact) that, although fairly significant, was merely alluded to. I guess I just felt like it would not have hurt the story at all if certain things had been revealed earlier in the story, and I think it would have actually helped everything else get fleshed out a little more, particularly in the area of the prophecy surrounding Bod (which I didn't understand at all).

That same disappointment also surfaced in regards to Scarlett, a little (very much alive) friend of Bod's when he's five years old. After several months, she moves away, but she moves back at the end of the book when they're both in their teens. I was so excited to have her back and thought she was going to help Bod with his transition into the real world. Instead, they reconnect, defeat the villainous Jacks of All Trade, and then her memory is erased. While I admit that everything she saw and did probably would have been very traumatic, I was so sad that after so many years, their friendship could not be preserved. There were just lots of little details about the ending that seemed poorly planned and poorly executed. When a story has set everything up so well, and it has so much potential, it makes a disappointing ending even more so.

But the very hardest thing for me to accept about the story was Silas' confession at the end (and again, I'm still in spoiler mode . . . ). Silas plays the part of Bod's mentor. He's not alive and he's not dead but seems to be somewhat trapped between the two. He is wise and kind and brave, and he was my favorite character. But at then end, he told Bod something that made me cringe. He said, "I have not always done the right thing. When I was younger . . . I did worse things than Jack. Worse than any of them. I was the monster, then, Bod, and worse than any monster." I think there was a part of me that suspected something like this about Silas since it seemed like his existence was a sort of punishment and that he would never feel the peace of death, but hearing him say those words really hurt. The man Jack is a terribly evil man, and it was hard to accept that Silas could have been worse than him. It's not that I didn't believe such a change was possible, but it was still sickening to know that the person I felt was the most noble could have also been the most despicable. Betrayals are always hard for me, and even though Silas didn't really betray Bod, I still felt like he wasn't quite as honorable as I had hoped.

But now that I have all those things off my brain, I feel like I'm free to say that this book was an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a few days in October. The setting was one of the things I loved about this book. It left a very vivid picture in my mind, and I can still easily transport myself right back to the tall, skinny home at the bottom of the hill or the mausoleum with its long flight of dark steps or the Potter's Field where Liza (my second favorite character) resided. This book had so many things going for it, and I've already been recommending it, flaws and all, to readers 12 and up.  

KidPages: Four Favorite Picture Books About Ghosts

Oct 26, 2015

If there’s one thing I hope is evident on this blog, it’s that I try to be very forthright with my book reviews. In fact, when it comes to picture books, it’s my policy not to even review books that I would not want to own myself. Because of that, this will never be a place to come if you’re looking for extensive roundups. My goal is not to pull together every single picture book I can find on a particular subject and present it to you, but rather, to curate a small group of books that I feel comfortable giving my hearty stamp of approval.
Today I want to share a few favorite ghost books with you. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of ghost picture books that are out there. There are, of course, many that we haven’t read, but of the ones we have read, these are some of our favorites.

1. Georgie by Robert Bright
The other books on this list are fairly new (published within the last ten years or so), but not this one. It’s been around since 1944, and now that it is no longer in print, it’s a true treasure. Luckily our library had a copy, but I’m thinking I’ll try to snag a used copy for us. It’s that fantastic.

Georgie lives in the attic of Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker’s house. He’s a very useful ghost to have around because every night he makes the loose board on the stairs give a creak and the parlor door give a little squeak, and then Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker know that it’s time for bed. But one day, Mr. Whittaker (being the good husband that he is) decides to tighten up the board on the stairs and oil the hinge of the door, and then they don’t creak or squeak anymore. Georgie is out of a job, and Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker no longer know when to go to bed and so suffer the consequences.

The illustrations are done in pen and ink which give them a detailed and well-defined look. The text doesn’t try to explain too much or get in the way of the illustrations, but the words that are there are quaint and sweet. (I love the part where Georgie is feeling frustrated, about not having anything to do, and it says, “That was a fine how-do-you-do.”)

This was our first Halloween season with Georgie, but I’ve noticed that there are more picture books in this series. I don’t know how they compare to the original (we’re waiting on one from the library), but if you’ve read any of them, I’d love to know how you liked them.

2. Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett, illus. Christian Robinson
With such a dynamic author/illustrator team, I had high (might I say, very high) hopes for this book, and they were not disappointed. Leo is a little ghost. He has lived by himself in a quiet house for many years. But one day, a family buys the house and moves in. Leo is a gracious host and brings in mint tea and honey toast for the family to enjoy while unpacking. Unfortunately, the family is anything but pleased to find a ghost residing in their house.

So Leo goes away. Eventually, he meets a little girl named Jane who immediately embraces Leo as her friend. Her parents are convinced he is just an imaginary friend, and Leo worries that’s how Jane thinks of him, too. Then one night, everything changes, and Leo and Jane’s friendship switches instantly from imaginary to real.

This is one of those rare books where the charm of the text matches the charm of the illustrations perfectly. The dialogue is candid and humorous. (One of my favorite exchanges happens right after Leo meets Jane. She wants to play Knights of the Round Table with him, and he asks, “Who is the king?” Jane replies, “I am! That’s why I’m wearing this crown on my head.” But . . . Jane isn’t actually wearing a crown on her head.) The illustrations use a limited color palette (blues and gray and black), and Leo is just an outline who takes on the color of whatever is around him.

Both text and illustrations have a timeless, classic quality to them. In fact, it reminds me a great deal of the first book I mentioned, Georgie, and also another one from my childhood, Gus Was a Friendly Ghost (a book I tried desperately to find this season and couldn’t, or I might have featured it today, too.) I have a feeling this book, although brand new this year, will be around for a long time.

3. Boo Cow by Patricia Baehr, illus. Margot Apple
Who doesn't love a good mystery? And what if it's combined with a ghost story? And what if the ghost is a cow? That just takes the cake, doesn't it?

When Mr. and Mrs. Noodleman park the moving truck in front of the old, dilapidated farm, they know they're in for a lot of work. But they get at it immediately and soon have a busy (if not yet, thriving) chicken farm (named Chicken Noodle Farm, which I adore). They are excited to start bringing in dozens of eggs every day and making some money, but day after day, they don't find any. Something seems a little suspicious, especially when one night they hear a thump and a creaaak and a clink-clunk and finally a long, low, supernatural Mooooooo!

They are convinced that this Boo Cow is the reason behind their lack of eggs. What kind of chickens would want to lay eggs with a ghost haunting their coop? Mr. and Mrs. Noodleman try all sorts of things to get rid of their unwanted visitor, but finally, as you probably have suspected by now, they get to the bottom of the missing eggs . . . and the culprit is not Boo Cow.

If the illustrations look familiar in this book, you probably recognize them from the Sheep in a Jeep series. They're the reason I was drawn to this book in the first place, but then the story won me over as well. It's not the same author as Sheep in a Jeep, so don't expect the same kind of limited, rhyming text. But if your kids can handle longer prose (probably ages 4 and up), I think you'll find this one to be a winner.

4. No Such Thing by Ella Bailey
I only just heard about this book myself a couple of weeks ago, but then I rushed to get my hands on a copy. I could just tell it was going to be exactly the kind of book I like. And I was right.

Strange things are happening at Georgia's house. There are mysterious drawings on the wall; a vase crashes to the floor; Georgia can't find any socks to wear. Some people might blame all of these unexplainable occurrences on ghosts . . . but not Georgia. She's too clever for that!

If I could only use one word to describe this book, it would be "subtle." The text rhymes, but I didn't even realize it until I was through the first three or four pages . . . and not because they were bad rhymes but because they just slipped off the tongue so effortlessly. The illustrations have a retro quality that is easy on the eyes. And then there are the ghosts, who you probably won't notice at first because they're so well-hidden (but despite what Georgia says, they're there).

I gave this book to Max to read on his own because I was curious to see when he would realize that there really were ghosts behind all of the mischief. After reading several pages, he stopped and made the observation: "He's the one who's been doing it all" while pointing to a little ghost hiding in a shirt that's hanging on the line to dry. I think that may have been the first one he spotted, but after that, he could suddenly see them everywhere. (Both Aaron and Max have been poring over the book this morning, trying to spot every single one.)

I loved this book on first sight, and I feel fairly confident in saying you won't need to read it more than once before you love it too.

What are YOUR favorite picture books about ghosts?

Secrets of Adulthood #2: I'd Rather Read Than Waste Time

Oct 23, 2015

Secrets of Adulthood: I'd Rather Read Than Waste Time

It's been a couple of months since I shared my first Secret of Adulthood, and today I'm finally getting around to sharing another. For those of you who are new here, the term "Secrets of Adulthood" was coined by Gretchen Rubin in her book, The Happiness Project, and it simply refers to those bits of advice that make your life so much better when you adhere to them.

Today's Secret of Adulthood is one I thought up years ago, and it is this:

I'd rather read than waste time.

On the surface, it seems so obvious. Who actually sets out to waste time? But you'd be surprised how often my hand is poised over my phone or the computer when a little whisper inside my head reminds me, "I'd rather read than waste time."

Life is full of little 5-15-minute stretches that seem perfect for wasting time in: in the car waiting to pick up a child from school or soccer practice; rocking a baby to sleep; waiting for a child to get done with a task so you can help him with his homework; taking a moment for a quick break in the middle of the day; going to bed at night.

Each moment presents a choice: should I use this time to mindlessly scroll through Facebook or spend it doing something that I actually enjoy? Even the very act of stopping and asking that question usually makes it easier to choose the latter.

Although I've been repeating it to myself for over three years, it wasn't until I took my break that I saw the full benefits of it. When Instagram and Facebook and blogs were no longer an option, I almost always chose to read during those small gifts of time. I felt so happy about it. And I got through so many books.

Since the end of my break, I've tried really hard to not have my phone with me at all times. The result has been that I'm more present with my kids and more present with my books.

One of the keys, of course, to making sure this adage is easy to follow is to make sure that whatever you're reading is readily accessible. Luckily, I have that part of it down and always seem to have reading material scattered (I mean, placed strategically) around the house.

Now some of you might be thinking, That's a great little mantra, but I don't really love to read in my free time. First of all, if you're saying that, then I better break the news to you right now: This blog's probably not for you. But second, this tip can easily adapted to varying interests, like so:

I'd rather _______ than waste time.

See? You can fill that in with whatever floats your boat: knitting or drawing or cleaning or gardening (although all of those things would be hard to do if you're rocking a baby to sleep--that's why reading is probably the ultimate pastime (wink, wink)). Sometimes we think five minutes isn't really enough time to do anything in (except scroll through Facebook), but I'm telling you, most hobbies can be adapted for little chunks of time.

What do you think? Is this advice you already follow? And if so, how do you avoid those other tempting options? What's one Secret of Adulthood you like to tell yourself? 

What I Read During My Break, Part 2: All the Light We Cannot See, Believing Christ, and Morality For Beautiful Girls

Oct 20, 2015

Sorry to overwhelm you with book reviews. There will be one more group after this, and then I'll be caught up.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr book review
1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is one of those books that, even if I wasn't interested in the subject matter, I might have been tempted to read anyway simply because of all the buzz it's been getting over the last eighteen months. But, as it happens, it's just the kind of book I like so I was happy to follow the crowd.

When the story begins, it is 1944 and Saint-Malo, France is being bombed. One character, a girl, Marie-Laure, is in her uncle's house and trying to find safety. She is blind. Another character, a boy, Werner, is buried underneath the rubble of a hotel. He is a German soldier.

The story then recedes back in time to several years before when Marie-Laure and Werner are mere children (they don't know each other).  Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father who is the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. When she goes blind at the age of six, he builds an elaborate replica of their neighborhood so that Marie-Laure will be able to memorize every detail of the city before she tries to navigate it herself.

Werner is an orphan and lives with his sister, Jutta, in a small orphanage under the kind care of Frau Elena. Werner has a brilliant mind, and when he finds an old radio, he is able to fix it and listen to programs from all over the continent. When the German army finds out about his talent, he earns a place in an esteemed training academy and is later assigned to help with research and development.

There's one other important character in the story . . . a rare and precious diamond that has its home in the Museum of Natural History. It has a rich history with many legends associated with it, most notably that it contains supernatural powers which will keep its owner safe but bring misfortune to all his friends and family. While the fighting rages, one man, Reinhold von Rumpel, is desperate to find the diamond with the hope that it will save his life.

The story moves between time and characters, with the past inching ever closer to the present until the two collide (which also happens to be the moment when Marie-Laure's and Werner's paths finally cross as well).

The whole story is beautifully and artfully told. At one point, Jutta asks her brother, "Is it right to do something just because everyone else is doing it?" It's a question that I think all of us have to consider at some point in our lives, and it was quite touching to see Werner work through his own answer to it. He's never a bad kid. In fact, if Germany hadn't gone to war, he would have happily spent the rest of his life tinkering and experimenting and inventing. But at first, he's much more interested in self-preservation than in taking a stand. If he can just get through the war without rocking the boat or drawing attention to himself, he will be happy. But the more he sees, the more he realizes he can't do that. He answers Jutta's question through his heroic actions.

I will say that the ending left me a bit disappointed--probably because I prefer happier endings. But overall, this was a well-told story I'm glad to have read.

Believing Christ by Stephen E. Robinson book review
2. Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and Other Good News by Stephen E. Robinson

In the last twenty years, I have heard the parable of the bicycle at least a dozen times. It is one of those stories that is used in lessons and talks quite frequently because it explains the concept of grace in such an accessible way.

But I'd never read the actual source of the parable (this book), which is a little surprising since I went to BYU and I know this was assigned reading in many religion classes (but none that I took).

The parable of the bicycle is simply this: When Stephen Robinson's daughter was young, she really wanted a bike. He told her that if she saved all of her money, she would be able to buy one. For weeks, she worked and did extra jobs and collected every penny she could. When she went to her dad to ask if she had enough for a bike, he looked at the pitiful amount that she had saved (something like $1.50) and realized that at that rate, she would be grown before she got her bicycle. He said, "I'll tell you what: you give me everything you have, and I'll make up the difference."

It is the same with Jesus Christ. On our own, we could never be good enough to return to Him. In fact, our efforts look pretty pitiful. But the Savior says, "You give me everything you have, and I'll make up the difference." That's grace.

But this book was much more than just the parable of the bicycle, and actually, I had heard it so much prior to reading this that it didn't have the profound impact on me it once did. But other pieces of insight did.

For example, his explanation of perfection made me think about it in a completely new way. Matthew 5:48 issues the challenge, "Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect," but as anyone who has lived on this earth for longer than two minutes knows, it's impossible to be perfect. However, as Stephen Robinson puts it, we're asked to perform "at the limits of our ability" because that is how we grow the most. He relates it to someone lifting weights at a gym. A trainer will keep pushing and pushing you until you collapse because then he knows you've hit the ceiling of your ability . . . and in a few days, you'll be able to go even further.

But this is probably the quote from the book I've thought about the most since finishing it (this is talking about the Savior suffering for the sins of all mankind): "In the Garden of Gethsemane, the spirit withdrew from Jesus because he had taken the guilt of the whole world upon himself and the spirit of God couldn't be present." I've always assumed that the Spirit withdrew from the Savior during that critical moment so that He would know what it felt like to be utterly and completely alone and consequently be able to succor His people as no one else can. While I think that's part of it, it was also a natural consequence. He quite literally took our sins upon Himself, and as all of us know, the Spirit withdraws from us when we sin, so it withdrew from the Savior also.

This book definitely gave me new eyes for the Savior and His sacrifice and greater love for Him.

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith book review
3. Morality For Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

One of my reading goals for the year was to read two more books in series that I'd already started. I already read the fourth book in the Penderwicks series earlier this year, but I knew that for the other half of this goal, I really wanted to return to Zebra Drive and Mma Ramotswe.

In this installment, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is running into some financial difficulties: although they've had a steady run of cases, most of them aren't paying enough to keep them in the black (plus, Mma Ramotswe keeps giving Mma Makutsi promotions and raises, which doesn't really help the agency's financial state).

Mma Ramotswe consults Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and they decide that she should move the agency to the other half of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and rent out her building. With the move comes another promotion for Mma Makutsi--to that of assistant manager of the garage. Although such a position was not Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's idea, it seems like it was fortuitous. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is not himself. He doesn't want to work and cares very little about whether his two apprentices work or not, and Mma Makutsi keeps both businesses afloat.

Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe gets a case from an important man in the government who wants her to investigate the possible poisoning of his brother. While Mma Ramotswe's away, Mma Makutsi takes another case where she must determine if the beauty contestants are morally upright women or not.

There's a lot going on in this book, and I don't know if it was because of that, but I thought some of side stories weren't as fleshed out as they could have been (particularly about the little boy who's found in the desert and smells like a lion--I expected that one to be more important, and, when it wasn't, it almost seemed like it could have been left out entirely).

The hero of this book was definitely Mma Makutsi. In the course of the book, she single-handedly organizes the garage's finances, whips the two lazy apprentices into shape, and solves an important case for the detective agency. She was by far my favorite part of this book. (There are some hints of some stresses of her own, however, and I wonder if those will factor more prominently into a future book.)

The pacing of these stories is slow and gentle with ample amounts of time for philosophizing. Sometimes I found these little tangents quite deep and tinged with humor (a few of my favorite discussions: whether it is moral to stay friends with someone who treats her maid badly, the danger of making false assumptions and hasty judgements, and the conclusion that sometimes we don't need, or even want, to know the answer to everything). Sometimes though, I felt like they went on too long, and I wanted the action to pick up a little.

However, I am loyally attached to these characters, and I'm very curious to find out how Mr. J.L.B Matekoni is doing in the next book.

Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear your own thoughts, insights, or impressions in the comments!

Who Reads Sunlit Pages? A Look at the Survey Responses

Oct 16, 2015

This post might not interest most of you, but I thought as long as I was looking over and analyzing the data from the recent Sunlit Pages survey, I might as well share it with you. Feel free to skip it if data is not your thing.

But first, can I just give you all a hearty thanks for taking the time to fill out the survey? It meant so much to me. I received 86 responses and, for a small blog like mine, that seems like a good sample size. It was especially fun to hear from those of you who have never commented on the blog before but who are loyal readers. I hope you continue to share your voice!

What follows are the pie charts of the responses I received followed by my thoughts. Feel free to chime in with your own analyses in the comments!

I added this question about two days into the survey, so I apologize to those of you who didn't see it. After the first few responses, I realized it would be helpful to know how long each person had been acquainted with the content on Sunlit Pages. The data was actually encouraging for me to see. Over half of you have been long-time readers (thank you!), but one of the highest responses was "less than six months." I was so happy to see that new people are discovering the blog. (And yes, I realize there's a grammatical mistake in the question above, but some things aren't worth the hassle of fixing.)

Mike looked at this chart and said, "If you want to increase your readership, it looks like you need to make some more friends." While I should probably feel flattered that so many of the people I know in real life take the time to read my blog, it's actually pretty intimidating. I hope I come across as myself in both settings. Also, even though 50% of you know me personally, 50% of you don't (or didn't when you found the blog). I'm so grateful you chose to stick around!

It makes sense that those of you who took the time to take the survey are probably also the ones who are consistent, dedicated readers of the blog. The responses here didn't surprise me, but I'm still happy that so many of you are checking in frequently.

The good news? 72% of you come to Sunlit Pages for the book reviews. Since this is, first and foremost, a book blog, I'm happy to see that one ranking the highest. "Family updates" followed close behind. I'm sure this was due in large part to the findings from the previous question (50% of you know me personally), but still, I'm glad to know that you're not being scared away by the personal stories about our family life. I read a lot of book blogs, and some of them can seem very impersonal. The ones I love the most always share bits and pieces of their real lives along with the books they're reading. I try to do the same on this blog.

I asked this question mainly just so I could see what the most popular ways of following are and hopefully make those ways more easily accessible for future guests.

This was maybe the most important question on the survey to me. One of my goals in the coming year is to encourage a real community of readers here on the blog where we can comment, interact with each other, and ask and answer questions. This is only possible if commenting is fast and simple. And right now, it isn't. Some of you have it figured out (and you have no idea how much I love reading your thoughts), but for others of you, I know it's frustrating because you take the time to write out a big, long comment and then it disappears when you post it. I'm looking into some other forums, but for right now, if you leave a comment (and please do!), always copy it before you post, so you can paste it back in if necessary. If you have any genius solutions to this problem, please share!

I love Instagram, I tolerate Facebook, and I don't like Twitter. It seems like most of you have similar feelings.

And then of course, there were the open-ended questions. Only about a third of you chose to write anything, and that's fine. I debated making these questions mandatory, but I knew that would scare some people off, and I really wanted as much feedback as I could get.

But for those of you who shared something, just know that I really appreciated your feedback. Because of things you said, Mike has agreed to guest post once a month, I may try to record a monthly video (eek!), and I'll try to share regular roundups of what Aaron and Maxwell are reading on their own.

Also, thank you for all your kind and supportive comments. I wish I could reach through the screen and give each of you a big hug. I tried to use my detective skills and figure out your identities, but for the most part, I couldn't do it (a couple of you signed your names, and that was a treat).

And that wraps up the first-ever Sunlit Pages survey! Thanks again for filling it out (can I say thank you any more in this post?!), and please, if you have any other suggestions or ideas, leave a comment or send an email.

What I Read During My Break, Part 1: The Secret Keeper, Primates of Park Avenue, and Mister Pip

Oct 14, 2015

As you might guess, I had more time to read while I was taking my break. I can't tell you how many times in the past I've sat down to read and thought, I just need to check a couple of things first. I pull out my phone, and before I even realize it's happening, twenty minutes have passed, my time is gone, and I didn't actually read anything.

But when I was on my break, I didn't have anything like that to distract me, and so instead, I just read. Novel concept, I know. This has prompted me to make the goal that my phone and my book will not reside in the same room. If I'm reading, I'm reading. (I'm also lazy, so I know I can count on myself not to get up and find my phone if I'm already sitting down.)

Three weeks of not writing any book reviews plus more books actually read means that, even if I'm able to maintain my three posts per week schedule, I'll basically never get caught up with my reviews unless I combine some of them. This will also be a good exercise for me because I've been wanting to experiment with writing some shorter reviews. For each book, I'm going to cap it at 500 words. (To give you a point of reference, my reviews are generally between 1200 and 1800 words, although when I've combined reviews in the past, I can usually get that number down to about 700.) I think that will still give me plenty of space to say what I want to say without going overboard. So here goes.

1. The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I read The Forgotten Garden last year after hearing it raved about. It was a let down. Part of that was my fault; I was reading too many books at the time, and so it literally took me about five months to finish. But part of it was that the story itself just left me feeling sorely disappointed. I found the big twist at the end to be faintly repugnant instead of deeply noble.

So I wasn't necessarily in a hurry to get my hands on another Kate Morton novel. But when I heard several people say they liked The Secret Keeper more than The Forgotten Garden, and especially when my friend, Sarah, read and gushed over it, I decided to ignore my prejudices and check it out. After all, it wasn't Kate Morton's writing style that I disliked, so maybe a different plot and different characters would win me over.

And what do you know? They did.

The book opens on a summer scene in the 1960's. Sixteen-year-old Laurel is avoiding a family birthday party in favor of day dreaming in her tree house (and proving to her family that she doesn't have to bend to their every wish). She has just decided that maybe it's been long enough and that she'll join them when she sees a stranger coming up the path. Her mother has just run back into the house with her baby brother to retrieve the special cake-cutting knife. As she leaves the house, the man approaches her, they have a brief conversation, and then Laurel's mother kills the man.

Of course, Laurel is quite shocked by this. She is the only witness to it (besides her baby brother), and later, when the police come, the murder is attributed to self-defense. For fifty years, Laurel tries to forget what she saw, but eventually, as her mother is nearing the end of her life, Laurel knows she can't ignore it any longer. She has to know who the man was and what motive her mother would have had for doing such a thing. And so she dives into the past, and the story then flips back and forth between two time periods: London in the 1940's and Laurel's childhood home in 2011.

I can't even tell you how much more I liked this book than The Forgotten Garden. In fact, when the twist came this time (and I was completely unprepared for it), I had to stop listening and shout, "Are you kidding me? Is she saying what I think she's saying?!" It took me several minutes before I could wrap my brain around it, but eventually I did, and then all I could think was, Kate Morton is a storytelling genius.

Even now, as I'm writing this a month after finishing it, I'm still delighted by the way it all came together. The characters (Dorothy and Jimmy and Vivian and Henry Jenkins and Laurel and Jerry) were complicated and well-developed, the two settings were vibrant and real, and the mystery was tantalizing and satisfying.

Word count (for the benefit of your inner nerdiness and mine): 508

(Content note: a couple of mildly inappropriate, but not very descriptive, scenes.)

2. Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin

This was our book club pick for September. Because it's a new book (published in June of this year), I had to wait for a copy at the library and consequently didn't finish it in time. However, after the discussion, I felt compelled to read the rest of it. Now I'm wondering, Why?

Wednesday Martin and her husband are living in downtown Manhattan when their first son is born, but after September 11th, they decide to move to the Upper East Side. However, you don't just decide to move to the Upper East Side and do it. There are a lot of politics involved--it's who you know and who they know, etc.; it's making the right connections at the right time; and, of course, everything involves a lot of money.

Even once they've found a condo and settled in, Wednesday finds she can't break into the mom circle. These are women who take motherhood very seriously. They measure their own success through the success of their children, and consequently, children become something of a status symbol. For the most part, Wednesday finds them cold and calculating until her own world is shattered, and then the walls finally break down.

The first 100 pages were fascinating (and aggravating) (and disturbing). I was both repulsed and intrigued by the idea that someone would spend $10,000 (or more) on a handbag. This was a life I couldn't fathom yet could relate to . . . in an eerie sort of way. Some things don't change the more money you have, and I was surprised by how much Wednesday's account of trying to make friends on the Upper East Side resonated with my own experiences of making friends in the different areas we've lived (and particularly this year as we've navigated two different schools). It just takes time for other people to accept you and for you to feel comfortable.

So I appreciated that aspect of the book, and that's what made it an interesting discussion for book club (that, and there was a new person who had just moved here from the Upper West Side). But, two-thirds of the way through, I was sick of it. Details in her account weren't lining up (and with good reason--after the book was published, it came out that she only lived on the Upper East Side for three years instead of the six she claims). Plus, the whole thing started to feel repetitive, and her voice and attitude irritated me. It was like she was trying to cast herself above all the pettiness when really, she was just as affected by it as everyone else.

And the ending proved that. She finishes the book by telling about how her son possibly passed on a flu-like virus to a woman she refers to throughout the book as "the queen of the queen bees." She's so smug about it, and it was an amazingly shallow way to end the book.

Word count: 494

3. Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

I had never heard of this book, and then one evening, a friend in my neighborhood stopped by with it in hand. She said she had enjoyed it and thought maybe I would too. I wasn't necessarily in search of another book to read, but some people are hard to refuse, and so I gave it priority that maybe, in retrospect, it didn't deserve.

The story takes place in 1993 on a little island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Although not a true story, the historical events surrounding it are based in fact. It involves a conflict known as the Bougainville Civil War, which lasted from 1988 to 1998. I don't really know any of the details of the war as it's never really explained in the book. What I do know is that the island on which Matilda and her mother reside is basically under siege. There is no government, although the rebels have some semblance of control over it, and the inhabitants are not allowed to leave. Cut off from the outside world (and remember, this is 1993), they live off the land, and the children attend school with the only remaining white person, Mr. Watts, as their teacher. His teaching style is unusual. He reads from Great Expectations and also invites the parents in as guest speakers to share whatever they know. He is a kind man and seems to have a certain amount of wisdom, although no one knows much about his past. He becomes something of a mentor to Matilda, along with Pip from Great Expectations, and eventually, the line sort of blurs between the two of them.

This book got off to a very rough start for me. Not being familiar with these historical events, or really, even this part of the world, I couldn't grasp what was going on (at first, I didn't even know if what I was reading about was based on truth or not). Thirty pages in, I went back to the beginning and started over. The second time through was better (a little internet research also proved very enlightening), and I think by the time I got to about page 85, I was finally not avoiding it anymore or staring at it in frustration, thinking, What is this even about?! I had a good 100-page run with the book, and then the story turned so brutal and horrific so quickly, I think I kind of went into a state of reader's shock and never recovered.

Although there were things about the narration that were certainly clever and profound (I particularly liked the way the plot and characters of Great Expectations crossed time and space and became something Matilda could apply to her own life), the defining quality of this author's style seemed to be vagueness. Even as time moved forward at the end and Matilda's own questions were answered and resolved, mine never really were. This will not be a book that I recommend, and, unfortunately, I will probably only remember it with distaste.

Word count: 507

(Some mature content: liberal use of the f-word in one scene as well as some very disturbing violence.)

What I Learned By Taking a Break

Oct 12, 2015

Hello, dear friends! Here I am, back from my three-week break. I hope most of you are back, too.

Thanks for reading Mike's posts while I was gone. Personally, I quite enjoyed seeing which books he chose to write about. We may have to give him a more regular spot on this blog so he can continue to share. He wanted to apologize for not writing at all last week. He was in California all week for work, and it was not a leisurely trip. He hardly had time to talk to me on the phone, and sorry, I take priority over the blog.

Also, I can't thank you enough for taking the survey. We're nearing one hundred responses, so if any of you were planning on taking it but forgot about it, you can still take it here. I'll leave it open for a couple more days and then share some of the data with you.

And now, let me share a little of what I learned from my three-week internet fast.

First, I learned that I can survive. Seriously, I was kind of surprised about that. Sure, I missed it, and for the first few days, I had to really quell the urge to pull out my phone and check Instagram, but by the end, I hardly gave it a thought.

One thing that revealed itself almost immediately was that I actually have plenty of time to stay on top of all my little tasks during the day if I don't have the option of falling down the rabbit hole. My house stayed a lot cleaner during these last three weeks (although it kind of felt like that's all I was doing). I realized that, for the most part, it wasn't the blog that was stealing my time from me; it was stuff I didn't actually care about. It was liberating to have that temptation basically eliminated from my life.

I learned what things I really care about online. I missed Instagram. I didn't miss Facebook. I missed reading my favorite blogs. I didn't miss mindlessly skimming through random blog posts or clicking on gimmicky links. I learned what I will be fine not going back to and what I want to add back into my life with some moderation.

But moderation . . . that's easier said than done. Gretchen Rubin divides people into two groups: abstainers and moderators. Abstainers find that it's easier to eliminate tempting things from their lives altogether. So they'll entirely cut out sugar or tv or online shopping. Once it's gone from their lives, they feel free rather than hindered. Moderators are just the opposite. If the choice is taken away from them, they feel stifled and resentful. They would rather by in charge of doling out the treats in small doses that not having them as an option.

From this three-week experience, I learned what I already suspected: I'm an abstainer. That doesn't mean that I'm necessarily willing to abstain from all my time-wasting activities. But I do find it fairly easy to abstain (whereas moderating is really difficult for me).

For example, the one thing I really allowed during my break was email communication. It was supposed to be just one time a day (and I actually found that I was very productive during that time and responded to all necessary emails rather than putting them off until I checked it again), but there was a day about two weeks into the break when I had to check it several times because I was waiting for a time-sensitive response from someone, and that broke down my resolve quickly and easily.

So I think that's been one of my biggest concerns with my three weeks coming to an end. Can I add back in some of the things I love without letting them take over again? I really wanted this experience to be a springboard to some real lifestyle changes, but those results are yet to be seen.

In spite of all the good things I discovered and learned about myself over the last three weeks, one of the things I was really hoping for didn't happen, and that is, I didn't suddenly find this untapped pocket of time perfect for writing blog posts. Nope, turns out, my life really is pretty full. There aren't any extra two-hour chunks just laying around. It's kind of a bummer but didn't really surprise me. If I want to write on this blog, then I'm going to have to make the time for it. I'm going to have to cut out other things I don't care about in order to have time for the things I do care about.

And one of the biggest revelations of the last three weeks is that I do care about this blog. I didn't heave a sigh of relief when it was gone. I missed it, and I was happy to return to it today. When I left it three weeks ago, I wasn't sure if that would be the case. I'm still wrestling with how to manage my time in order to fit it all in, but I learned that it's worth the wrestle in order to spend time on the things I care about.

The Black Count

Oct 2, 2015

Guest Post by Mike

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

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

There are three reasons to get obsessed with this book:

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

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

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

The Black Count deserves the many accolades it has received.

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