The Book Blab Episode 8: The Pros and Cons of Book Ratings Plus Two 5-Star Books

Aug 29, 2016

Surprise! Suzanne and I recorded another episode of The Book Blab last week. We usually give a little heads up to those of you who like to catch it live, but the blab platform officially died earlier this month (making our name a little obsolete, but no matter), and so we had to try something else instead. We weren't sure how, or even if, it was going to work, so we kept it on the down-low, but aside from cutting off the first few seconds of the video and flipping back and forth between screens (sorry!), it worked out great. So here it is, along with the show notes, and we hope you enjoy it and share your thoughts on the controversial subject of book ratings!

0:17 - Suzanne is having a girl!
1:33 - Today's topic: book ratings
2:20 - The two sides of the book ratings issue: do I judge books by their ratings? and how do I rate books?
3:18 - First issue: using ratings to judge books
  • 3:42 - Amy's opinion
  • 4:45 - Suzanne's opinion
6:30 - The value of an actual review vs. just a starred rating
7:30 - Are there certain types of books that are more prone to 5-star ratings?
8:40 - Second issue: How Suzanne personally rates a book
10:40 - How the passage of time can change a rating (either higher or lower)
11:50 - How Amy personally rates a book
  • 12:55 - Is it the best in its genre? (in which Amy defends giving children's books five stars)
  • 15:05 - Was it personally significant and meaningful?
  • 16:25 -Was it an immersive reading experience? Was it pure pleasure?
18:00 - Why rating a book can induce anxiety
19:20 - Different rating scales: 5 stars vs. 10 stars
21:45 - Beyond the starred rating (other rating systems we've seen)
24:18 - Buying a book warrants a 5+-star rating
26:25 - Two 5-star recommendation
  • 27:02 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 28:36 - Amy's recommendation
30:54 - Conclusion

Books and links mentioned in the show:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Amy's review)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Suzanne's review; Book Blab episode)
Book Riot: Buy, Borrow, Bypass
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Suzanne's review; Amy's review)
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (Amy's review)

How do you feel about book ratings? Do you rate books? Do you find other readers' ratings helpful? What's your system? Oooh, and what is one of YOUR 5-star books?!

LibraryPages: A Mini-Tour of the Public Library in Stuttgart, Germany

Aug 25, 2016

Months and months before our Europe trip, and well before we started to plan out an actual itinerary or even purchased flights, @welovebookworms posted a picture on Instagram of the inside of the library in Stuttgart, Germany. I was completely mesmerized and immediately looked at a map to see how close Stuttgart was to Frankfurt (two hours south, so not next door, but also not outside the realm of possibility). I took a screen shot of the picture and mentally filed it away on my bucket list.

It wasn't until we were actually in Frankfurt that we sat down with Rachel and Micah and made a plan for our five days of touring in Germany. Mike, being the nerd that he is, took all suggestions and put them in a spreadsheet. Then we each got a chance to secretly rank each item: three meant it was a top priority for us, two meant we didn't have a strong preference, and one meant we absolutely, positively did not want to go there. After we had all had taken a turn voting, Mike did some fancy calculation that gave each destination its own score and ranked them. (Trust me, after eleven years of marriage, I'm used to such nerdiness now.)

The Stuttgart library wasn't ranked the highest, but no one actually gave it a one, so it was sitting squarely in the middle of the pack. We took the highest ranked items first (the Rhine River boat tour and the medieval castle, Burg Eltz) and put them into the schedule, and then slowly filled in the schedule with the lower-ranked items. Everyone knew that the Stuttgart library was the one thing I really wanted to see and so they were generous enough to give it a spot on the agenda. (Of course, since we were traveling two hours one way, we wanted something else to do besides just see the library. The Mercedes-Benz museum also happens to be in Stuttgart, and so that satisfied the boys' interests.)

On the drive to Stuttgart, I was actually really nervous because I felt personally responsible to insure that this library really was awesome. What if we went and the general public wasn't allowed in? Or what if the photo was deceiving and it didn't really look like that? (Of course, we had looked it up ahead of time and it seemed like it was open to the public, and it had won an award for best library, which seemed like a good sign.)

But then, we walked into the library, and this is what it looked like. Not exactly my visions of open grandeur.

Trying to stay optimistic, we walked through various sections around the perimeter of the library, looking for some secret passage or something that would lead us to the view we were envisioning. Finally Mike said, "It kind of looks like they closed everything in. Maybe it was a safety concern or something." I had to admit he might be right. We could go into the middle of the building, which was an open, cavernous space, and look up several floors, and there wasn't even a hint of the bright, light, open space I'd seen in the picture. And no sign either, saying, "This way to the cool part of the library."

Before giving up completely though, we decided to ride the elevator all the way to the top, just to see. The doors opened, and we saw this:

Cue the angels. It was like walking into a fairyland. It was such a stark contrast to the drab space below, and even though it was exactly like what I had seen in the photo, it was such a delightful surprise because I'd started resigning myself to its nonexistence. Walking out of that elevator was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip.


There it was: four floors of stairways, railings, sunlight, seating, and shelf upon glorious shelf of books (in a language I couldn't read, but that's beside the point).

The doors on the fifth, sixth, and seventh floors led to additional sections of the library (like the children's section!) and from there you could go outside onto a balcony that encircled each floor of the building. On the eighth floor, there was a darling café, and you could also gain access to the outdoor walkway and the stairs leading up to the roof of the building.

 (lest you be confused, Rachel and Micah's baby, not mine)

 (view from the roof)

After I'd had my fill of the open space (and everyone was very patient with me and let me take my time), I explored the children's section and had fun finding many familiar titles in a not so familiar language--even Calvin and Hobbes, which we had to take a picture of since we knew Aaron and Maxwell would appreciate it.

 Walking around the Stuttgart Library was a highlight of our trip for me. It was so different from anything else we did, and I'm glad we took a chance and went.

Which amazing libraries or bookstores have YOU been to? Tell me, so I can add them to my future travel bucket list!

Six of Bradley's Favorite Easy Readers

Aug 22, 2016

I'm far enough into this parenting gig that I can look back and admit a few things, such as: I pushed Aaron to learn how to read. And also, I pushed Maxwell to learn how to read. For the longest time, I made myself believe that I just encouraged and aided the interest that was already there. And while it's true that they both caught on quickly, if I hadn't been behind it, I'm sure they would have been content to wait until kindergarten.

I can admit to all of this now because I did not push Bradley. Since he has a September birthday (and so still has one more year until kindergarten), I knew I should curb my enthusiasm or else we were going to be sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for kindergarten to finally get here. But last summer, he begged to start reading lessons, and so I agreed, but figured when he lost interest (which I was sure he would), we would just take a break until he was ready to pick it up again. But I had no idea the kind of dedication I was up against. He was unrelenting in his desire to read and suddenly the tables were reversed and he was pushing me. He followed me around with his reading book, begging to do one more page.  He asked me about words on cereal boxes and storefronts. He wanted to practice all the time.  That kid came with his own tank of motivation. I saw his experience in stark contrast to Aaron's and Maxwell's and realized: This is what learning to read is supposed to be like.

This summer, that magical phase of reading happened, the one I love so much where everything finally came together and he wasn't just reading but reading fluently. And now, I can't keep him in books. It's a fun problem to have.

He's at the perfect stage for the easy reader section of the library. (Side note: Am I the only one who thinks "easy reader" is a deceptive label? Shouldn't a brand new, emerging reader be able to read something that's an "easy" reader? But it takes a lot of phonics readers (sometimes called "beginning readers") to get up to the easy reader stage of reading (for a few recommendations of really simple books that won't want to make you poke out your eyes, check out this post).

But anyway, Bradley is now at the point where he is perfectly comfortable with the easy reader books. He's sitting right around a second grade reading level and loves being able to pick anything off the shelves in that section of the library and be able to read it with ease. Many of his favorites are on this list I wrote up several years ago, but here are six more he's currently gobbling up (and bonus, all of these books are part of a series, so if like any on this list, there are more where they came from).

1. Good Night, Good Knight by Shelley Moore Thomas
Bradley loves knights and dragons, which made this series an instant win for him. It stars the Good Knight, a valiant character, who invariably has to come to the rescue and get his three dragon friends out of various scrapes. The books follow a specific pattern: three mishaps that include a few lines of repeating text, followed by the resolution and happy ending. The repeating text usually includes a few rhyming words, such as, "crumbly tumbly tower" or "shimmery, glimmery sword." The books have a good amount of text on each page, which can seem daunting for new readers, but this is countered by the repeating words and phrases. Getting through the first rescue is sometimes a bit of a struggle, but then the reader picks up speed as he sees words he has just seen. This increase in pace as the book progresses is a real confidence booster, and it's one of the reasons I love these books. There are a total of six books in the series, but only three of them are easy readers. I'm not sure how the three picture books compare in terms of length and word choice, but we can heartily endorse the easy readers.

2. Morris the Moose Goes to School by B. Wiseman
The first book in the Morris series was published in 1958 with additional titles added in the 1970's and 1980's, so this is not a new series. In fact, the stories, word choice, and illustrations all remind me of Syd Hoff's books (Danny and the Dinosaur, etc.), which were published during similar years. As far as Morris the Moose himself, he's a little like an animal version of Amelia Bedelia: he's a bit simpleminded, misunderstanding instructions and taking the literal meaning of words, but he's just so funny and loveable. Currently, only three of the original twelve books are still in publication: Morris the Moose, Morris the Moose Goes to School, and Morris and Boris at the Circus. I really would love to get my hands on a few of the out-of-print stories as well.

3. The Statue of Liberty (Wonders of America) by Marion Dane Bauer
I've slowly started introducing some nonfiction to Bradley. It's been a little discouraging for him because he's become a pretty strong reader, but when he reads a nonfiction book, it's like he's back at square one and needs help with a lot of words. That's because nonfiction books are filled with names, dates, definitions, places, and other terms that rarely come up in fictional stories. Recently he started reading the Wonders of America series, and we really like them. For fiction, Bradley's well beyond Level 1, but for nonfiction, it's just right: large print and only a sentence or two per page. It introduces him to a lot of new words without making him get frustrated. Plus, he's learning quick and interesting facts about some of America's greatest landmarks: the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, Yellowstone, etc.

4. Splish, Splash, ZooBorns! by Andrew Bleiman and Chris Eastland
Another nonfiction series we've been enjoying is ZooBorns. Bradley loves animal facts, and each page shares a couple of sentences about a different baby animal. The text is fairly sparse, and yet, he's encountering words he's never seen before like "pygmy" or names like Nunavik. In terms of length, these ones are the shortest books on this list, but that's countered with the more difficult or less well-known words. We also love the National Geographic easy readers series, and the ZooBorns series seems to be a good lead-in to those, which are generally just a little bit more difficult.

5. Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, illus. Garth William
It has been one of my parental missions to get my kids hooked on Frances. I only remember one of the books from when I was a kid (Bedtime for Frances), but as an adult I've fallen in love with these sweet and inventive stories. Unfortunately, neither Aaron nor Max cared much for her, but persistence pays off because Bradley has enjoyed every single one he's read so far and is begging me to check out the rest from the library. He gets a kick out of Frances' little songs, he relates to her childhood frustrations, and he's usually amused by the solutions she comes up with. Whether she's hiding under the kitchen sink or asking for bread and jam at every meal, she's just a loveable little badger (and Garth Williams' illustrations enhance the stories beautifully).

6. The Talent Show: A Mr. and Mrs. Green Adventure by Keith Baker
Bradley has only read four stories in this series so far (Gumballs, Cookies, Camping, and The Talent Show), but he's enjoyed each one. They're not too long, and the adventures (and mishaps) of this alligator couple are always funny and surprising.  I think this is one of those easy reader series (like Frances) that didn't start out as easy readers. Originally, they were published as a collection of stories, but someone decided that if they were broken apart into individual adventures and labeled as being Level 2, they would work as easy readers. And they totally do. And the great thing about them is that since they didn't start out as easy readers, their simplicity feels natural and not like they were trying to fit into a pre-determined category.

I didn't have time or space in this post to mention all of the books Bradley's currently enjoying, so stay tuned for more book recommendations soon. And if you have any favorite easy readers, please share--keeping Bradley in books right now is a full time job, and I can use all the recommendations you're willing to give!

A Summer Reading Program You Can Do At Home

Aug 17, 2016

I have the fondest memories of the summer reading program as a child. My teeny tiny hometown had an equally teeny tiny library, and consequently, the book selection was somewhat limited (but our awesome librarian would basically inter-library loan anything we wanted, so it didn't matter), but the summer reading program was amazing. I loved to read anyway, but because of that program, I definitely dedicated a large percentage of my summer logging away more time.

I didn't even realize what a lucky kid I was until I signed up little Aaron for his first summer reading program. Of course, having only my own experience to reference, I was filled with eager anticipation, but it wasn't anything like what I was used to: kids could earn a total of four prizes (no matter how much they read) and each prize was pre-assigned. I guess it maybe motivated kids who weren't already readers to keep up their habit of 20-minutes of school reading (but maybe not--the prizes were rather lame), but it certainly didn't push kids who were already strong readers to read more. It was one of those moments where I realized growing up in a teeny tiny town definitely had its perks.

As the years went by and my own kids got older, I grew increasingly frustrated with the library's summer reading program. It almost didn't seem worth the hassle of filling out a chart and remembering to take it in for what basically seemed like a consolation prize. I kept thinking, If you don't like it, why don't you just do your own?

And finally this summer, I decided to do just that.

(And as it turned out, the library must have had another budget cut because the reading program this year was the most pathetic one yet: kids didn't even have to read for it to count. They could also play outside, learn something new, or help a younger child--all good things, of course, but it kind of took the reading out of the summer reading program. Also, there were no prizes along the way, just one final one, which ended up being their choice of a really nice, high quality book, so there was one redeeming thing that came out of it. But at any rate, I'm sure you can guess that I was very glad I'd already put my own program into place before I discovered what the library had done to theirs in the name of "simplifying.")

Now before I give you all the details, I want to address one other thing, call it a justification, if you will. A few weeks ago, I read this line on Janssen's blog: "We don't want kids to read to get a donut or a free pizza. The reward for reading is more reading." It stood out to me because, at that very moment, tucked away in a couple of boxes in our storage room and also placed out of reach on a shelf in my bedroom closet, were literally dozens of prizes . . . for reading. But instead of feeling offended or like I'd just ruined my kids' chances of ever enjoying reading for reading's sake, I just laughed because honestly? This summer reading program has been one of the highlights of our summer, and I wouldn't change a thing about it. I'll get into the details below, and you can judge for yourself (and of course, leave your own opinion in the comments). Of course it's not going to work for everyone, but we are very much a family of charts and graphs and goals and external rewards, and so it was just the thing to kick up our summer a notch.

The Basic Idea
Because I was trying to recreate my childhood, I patterned our program after the one my library did when I was growing up, and the basic idea is this: for every two hours of reading, you earn a prize. When you hit twenty hours, you earn a book. (For Bradley, who is a fairly new reader, we cut it down to one hour for a prize and ten hours for a book.)

Tracking/Logging Time
I had Mike make a simple chart for each boy, containing several rows of stars. Every time one of them hit two hours of reading (or one, in Bradley's case), they colored in a star. This required them to  keep track of how long they were reading. Bradley and Aaron both wear watches (this one), and so they used the stopwatch feature to time themselves. Maxwell can't handle wearing a watch, so he kept track of his time on an iPod. Aaron was already a pro at this, having timed himself all year for school, but it took some effort to train Bradley and Max. Many times they either forgot to start their time, or they accidentally cleared it before they got to two hours. But eventually, they got the hang of it, and it's been smooth sailing ever since.

For the two-hour prizes, I wasn't interested in cheap toys that would break in the first two seconds. Rather, I wanted things that could either be eaten (I can still remember having a snack stash of summer reading prizes) or would inspire creativity or fun play. Here are some of the things I came up with:
  • Sculpey clay (one brick=one prize)
  • Flashlights
  • Diving rings
  • Plastic lacing cord (for making beaded creations; one skein=one prize)
  • Fineliner pens (My kids' loved using these for their own comic books; one pen=one prize)
  • Perler bead pegboards (This is one of Bradley's favorite quiet time activities; one board=one prize)
  • Star Wars cups (not the kind of thing I normally buy, and I think my kids were appropriately surprised)
  • Sketchbooks
  • Diving squids (these turned out to be my kids' favorite water toys at the pool)
  • Embroidery floss (I passed on my friendship bracelet skills this summer, and my kids stocked up on colors; one skein=one prize)
  • Stamp set (one stamp=one prize)
  • Gel pens (one pen=one prize)
  • Single-serving bags of chips, crackers, cookies, fruit snacks, etc.
  • Candy
  • Juice boxes, small cans of soda, etc.
  • Gum (this was probably my kids' most consistently favorite prize, which kind of cracked me up) 
If you're not into physical prizes, you could always reward with screen time, outings, one-on-one time, etc. The great thing about doing it yourself is that you only offer the kinds of prizes you want your kids to have. Many of the above prizes were things I might have bought anyway to fend off summer boredom, but this way, I got to reward them with it instead of just handing it to them. And I know some parents won't agree with the food, but I was okay with it because it was a treat, and my kids usually saved what they got and slowly rationed it to themselves throughout the week.

Cashing in reading time
Once a week, usually on Fridays, I set out all the prizes on the kitchen table. My kids came in with their charts. We started with Bradley, and he chose his first prize; then it went to Maxwell, then Aaron, then back to Bradley until they'd received all their prizes. Then I initialed on the last star they filled in for the week so we would know where to pick up on the next week.

For every twenty hours my kids read, they earned a book, and you can probably guess that I kind of enjoyed having an excuse to buy more books. Some of these came from the thrift store, some from Amazon, and some from ThriftBooks. Here are the books I got for each boy (they didn't read enough to earn all of these, so now I'll just save them for birthdays or other rewards).

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Peter and the Starcatchers by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry
On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck
Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
Dominic by William Steig
The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull

Animal Atlas
Polar Animals
Farm Animals
Polar Animals
Wild Animals
Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies
Muggie Maggie by Beverly Cleary (kind of the anomaly in this list, and, surprise surprise, he never chose it)

Mr. Putter and Tabby Paint the Porch by Cynthia Rylant
Mr. Putter and Tabby Catch the Cold by Cynthia Rylant
The Thank You Book by Mo Willems
George and Martha: Full of Surprises by James Marshall
Lizards by Nic Bishop
The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron

Expanding reading tastes
I've mentioned this on Instagram, but Aaron and Max were on a major Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield kick for most of the summer. I was okay with it but didn't want it to make up all of their reading time, so in addition to their reading charts, I also printed off Carolyn's Reading Hopscotch Challenge, which had ten different categories to fill in (for example, a nonfiction book or a book published before you were born). For every category my kids filled in, they earned a bonus prize.

School begins this week (today actually), but I'm going to continue to do the program through the end of the month. We'll see how my kids feel about reading after the incentives are removed, but I'm not worried. I have seen benefits all around: Because Aaron was reading for several hours a day, he was no longer so intimidated by big, thick books. Because Maxwell got rewarded for reading something besides animal books, he became more of an adventurous reader (he read the entire Captain Awesome series, and even though they're not high quality books, they were so different from his usual fare that I was very pleased). Because Bradley read on his own every day, he transformed from struggling to fluent reader.

I have no doubt that we'll do something similar next summer (or maybe exactly the same--at this point, I can't think of a single thing I'd change). From the way my kids have enjoyed it and talked about it, I know they're creating the same fun memories I did when I was a kid, and that makes me really happy.

So tell me: Would you do something like this with your kids, or do you think reading should always be its own reward? How would you adapt something like this for your family?

Europe Top Ten, Part Three

Aug 15, 2016

Soon after Mike and I began dating, I was at his parents' house one evening during family scripture study. Each person took a turn reading a few verses, and when it got to be Mike's dad's turn, something was . . . different. He was reading slowly and stumbling a little and even though the general message of the verse was right, the words and phrases and sentences were not exactly the same. I was baffled, until Mike told me his dad was reading from a Norwegian Book of Mormon and translating it into English as he went along.

That was one of my first clues that for Mike's dad, Norway was a big deal.

He served a church mission to Oslo when he was nineteen years old and has always claimed that Norway is the most beautiful country in the world. In the last twenty years, he has traveled extensively all around the world and seen many beautiful and wondrous places but has still maintained that deep and abiding love for Norway and its people.

When Mike and I were planning our trip to Europe, Norway was not on the original agenda. It was expensive and not as convenient to get to as some of the other countries. But then things shifted. Mike's sister, Anne, and her husband were coming to Europe immediately after us, and it just so happened that Mike's parents had a rare week off of church assignments. Anne approached them about a possible Norway trip, and when they said it just might work, Mike and I did the only sensible thing and invited ourselves along.

Even once we made it to Europe though, the Norway plan was still a little up in the air. We knew there was a possibility that Mike's parents' plans would change at the last minute and they wouldn't be able to go with us. And then, after ten days of traveling to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany, the truth was, Mike and I were tired and missing our kids something fierce. We kind of just wanted to go home. When we arrived at the Frankfurt airport to catch our flight to Oslo, we found the place a literal zoo. Mike's parents said they had never seen it like that: Swarms of people and twisty long lines and chaos. (Apparently, a bunch of flights had been cancelled the night before, and all those extra people were still trying to leave.) Even though we'd given ourselves a cushion of time, the chances of making our flight looked bleak. Mike turned to me and said, "If we miss this flight, we're just going to go home."

But fate must have been on our side. Our flights happened to be business class (we've never flown business before, but when we bought our tickets, they were the only seats available), and so our line was shorter--not by much, but it was enough. We arrived at our gate with about five minutes to spare and arrived in Oslo without incident.

I'm telling you all of this because sometimes I feel a little sick when I think back to how close we were to abandoning this part of our trip. Norway was an absolute dream--a constantly changing landscape, and all of it drop dead gorgeous. We kept joking, "I hope we finally get to see something pretty on this trip!" We traveled from Oslo up to Geiranger down to Flåm and ended in Bergen, and the entire trip was a feast for the eyes.

I have only two regrets: that I couldn't capture its full beauty in photos and that, even as inadequate as they were, I didn't take more of them. I want to remember this place forever. Here are a few highlights (but it was really hard to narrow it down, and you'll see that I cheated just a little bit):

1. Our eight-passenger van

When we were planning how to get around Norway, we decided driving would be the most ideal because it would offer us the greatest flexibility and freedom. The problem? There were six of us, and all the car rental places didn't have any vehicle big enough for us and our luggage. Mike's dad tried again and again, calling various places and talking to numerous people. In the end, we decided we'd have to just rent two cars, but it was such a disappointing compromise. The fun of a road trip comes from talking and laughing and experiencing new things with other people, and I just knew if we couldn't all be together, we'd be missing out on a lot of great memories. When we went to pick up the car, my father-in-law asked one final time, "You don't happen to have something that would fit six people, do you?" "Actually," said the receptionist, "we just got an eight-passenger van. It's never been out before. Would that work for you?" Oh my goodness, we loved that van so much (except on the narrow, twisting mountain roads), and even though the views would have still been pretty if we'd had two little cars instead, the memories wouldn't have been the same. One of the great things about driving rather than traveling another way is that we could pull off anytime we wanted to for pictures or a longer look. And believe me, we took advantage of that, sometimes stopping as frequently as every five minutes because we just couldn't help ourselves.

2. Going to church

On Sunday morning, we went to church at one of the wards outside of Oslo. When we walked into the building, my father-in-law immediately recognized someone from when he was a missionary there 40 years before. She was so pleased and happy to see him. The meeting was in Norwegian (of course), but we had a couple of people translate for us. Mike's dad also gave a brief testimony in Norwegian. I loved seeing him in his element, sharing the Gospel with people he loves. And the members of the ward were just so incredibly kind and sweet and generous. I love the unity that is felt within the Church across oceans and countries and languages--the language of the Gospel is the same.

3. Red barns, grass roofs, and stave churches

Over and over again, I was amazed by the colors in Norway. The abundance of green in many different shades was the perfect backdrop for the red and brown and white and mustard-colored houses and barns. Driving through the countryside, they popped out, sharp and vibrant, on the hillsides. Many of the houses also still boast the traditional grass roofs that have been used for centuries. And the small churches, each with their own cemetery, anchor every village and town. The architecture was both quaint and striking.

4. Tunnels

I have never been in so many tunnels in my life. Mike and I often have the debate: Tunnels or bridges? I'm firmly on the bridge side, but Mike loves tunnels, so he was in heaven. Notable tunnels we went through were the Spiralen (which spiraled up to the top of the mountain and must have been the inspiration for Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King") and the Lærdalstunnelen (the longest tunnel in Norway--clocking in at 15.23 miles, I may have felt a little panicked when we got to the halfway point, especially when the guys decided we needed to pull over for pictures).

5. Waterfalls

I don't think we were ever out of sight of a waterfall (except when we were inside a tunnel). Some were the merest trickle, leaking out of the mountain while others were huge, rushing cascades. One of our favorites was Pollfoss (pictured above).

6. Fjords

We came to Norway specifically for the fjords, and they did not disappoint. We saw them both from above (the Geiranger fjord at the top of Dalsnibba--my fear of heights definitely kicked into high gear) and from sea level (we took a ferry from Geiranger to Hellesylt), and every angle was breathtaking. We worried that the weather was going to hinder some of the views, but it cooperated for almost the entire trip.

7. Fjord jumping

One evening, we drove past a diving platform, and Mike knew he would never forgive himself if he passed up an opportunity to jump into a fjord. That's not the kind of experience I regret missing, so I opted out, but Anne and Nate joined him. The water wasn't too cold, and after a couple of times jumping in, Mike grew overly confident and decided to run the length of the platform before jumping off. Unfortunately, he slipped at the edge of it and did a back flop instead of a jump, but it was still epic (and so were the red welts that followed). (If you want to see a picture of it, check out my Instagram feed.)

8. The fruit

The chocolate in Norway was good. So were the crab legs. And the jarlsberg cheese wasn't bad either. But the strawberries and raspberries blew me away. I have never never had strawberries and raspberries that tasted like that. I wish I could go back and have that first taste all over again because it was so startling. The strawberries were sweet and literally melted in my mouth--and not in a mushy, overripe way. The skin was firm, but as soon as I bit into it, it turned into juice and ran down my throat. Unbelievable. The raspberries gave us a little heads up for what we were in for just by their sheer size (as big as quarters), but man, each one of the those little pockets was filled to bursting and exploded when I bit into it. Yum, yum, yum.

9. The color of the water

I told you I was obsessed with the colors of Norway. We saw water that was a beautiful opaque turquoise and also the deepest darkest midnight blue. The pictures do an inadequate job of capturing it.

10. The Fløibanen

In this top ten post, the cities we went to have been woefully underrepresented. I could have done a top ten composed of just the fun things we did in Oslo and Bergen. Although I preferred the countryside, both cities were delightful (and very different from each other). When we got to Bergen, we rode the Fløibanen (a funicular) to the top and had an amazing view of the city (and the goats on the hillside kept us all entertained).

But I think the best thing for me about the whole trip was just seeing Mike's dad in his beloved Norway along with his wife and two of his kids. He has waited so long to share this with someone, and he couldn't have had a more appreciative audience.

What I Read on Our Trip: Cinder, Lizzy & Jane, Inside Out and Back Again, Where'd You Go Bernadette?

Aug 9, 2016

As we planned and packed for our Europe trip, one of my highest priorities was making sure I had enough books to read and enough variety that if something didn't fit my mood, I had more to choose from. As you might remember, Mike got me a kindle for Mother's Day specifically because of the upcoming trip, and I spent the weeks prior filling it up with titles from my to-read list. Although I'd done a little bit of destination-specific reading before we left, during the trip itself I just wanted books that were light and fun and that would strike the right balance between "easy to get lost in" but not "hard to pull away from." So no dense nonfiction but no gripping thrillers either.

I fell in love with my kindle on this trip. This is the first e-reader I've ever owned, and I guess I'm admitting that I didn't know what I was missing before. I have much more to say about e-readers in a future post . . .

I have to admit that one of the best parts of our trip was just being able to read, uninterrupted, for hours at a time. I can't remember the last time that happened (probably on our Australia trip). When people heard how long the flight was from Salt Lake City to Amsterdam (nine hours), they gave exclamations of sympathy, but I countered with, "Oh, no, I loved it. That was quiet, peaceful, dedicated reading time." (That was the flight out there; the flight home was more brutal because I just wanted to be home.)

I've compiled all the books I read into one post and tried to consolidate my reviews a bit so that this isn't too long. I'd love to hear your thoughts about any of these that you've read (or want to read)!

Cinder by Marissa Meyer
As Mike and I were sitting on the plane at the very beginning of our trip, waiting for takeoff, Mike looked over at me and asked what my book was about. "Well," I started, "you're probably not going to believe it, but it's a Cinderella retelling" (insert indifferent nodding), "and Cinderella is actually a mechanic . . ." (insert raised eyebrows), " . . . and a cyborg" (insert a surprised guffaw, followed by my own hysterical laughter).

That was Mike's reaction. When I presented the plot to my mother-in-law later on in the trip, her reaction was one of disbelief, disappointment, and sympathy. I think she couldn't believe I would waste my time on anything so ridiculous. And frankly, neither could I. In fact, during the first couple of chapters, I thought I was going to have to abandon it. I mean, did you hear what I said? It was about a cyborg-mechanic-Cinderella!!! You have to admit, that's a bit much.

But I forged ahead, and after awhile, all the references to hovercrafts, technological interfaces, androids, and moon (Lunar) people (oh yeah, did I mention that?) didn't jolt me as much. I became wrapped up in the story: Cinder (the cyborg mechanic) lives in the city of New Beijing (this takes place years in the future after WWIV) with her stepmother and two stepsisters. A deadly plague has been slowly infiltrating earth and reaches New Beijing soon after the story begins. It shows no respect of persons: the little baker's son gets it, so does Cinder's youngest sister, and so does the king. Prince Kai is desperate to find a cure, but meanwhile, he is also trying to fend off attempts by Queen Levana, the Lunar queen, to build an alliance (through marriage) between Earth and Luna.

Strange as I found it, I couldn't deny that the whole thing was extremely clever. The underlying fairy tale was always there, but it blended into the new story perfectly. And the characters were fresh and new if, at times, just a little stereotypical. Most of all, I appreciated that it was a young adult novel that I would actually feel comfortable giving to young adults. I hope the rest of the series stays as clean.

It felt good to finally check this book off my list because it's been on there since it first came out in 2012. That was long before people were talking about it and the series became so popular. What grabbed my attention back then wasn't the synopsis (I don't think I even knew what the story was about), but that shiny red stiletto on the cover. In the years since then, I've heard other people, most notably Anne Bogel, remark on the ugliness of the cover and how it was a major turnoff for them, but for me, it was the thing that made me continue to come back to it, even though it didn't sound like anything I would like. It was just so different, and so is the story, so they actually go together perfectly.

Lizzie and Jane by Katherine Reay
Katherine Reay's books have been mentioned several times on Modern Mrs. Darcy. They sounded like cute, clean, light books, so when this one came up as a kindle deal, I snagged it.

It's about two sisters, Lizzie and Jane (yes, their mother had a deep love affair with Jane Austen and named them after the two oldest Bennett sisters) who were never close but became even more estranged after their mother died of breast cancer. Fifteen years later, Lizzie (or Elizabeth as she prefers to be called) has her own restaurant in New York City, but it is floundering. Elizabeth just seems to have lost some of her creativity and drive, especially after she finds out that Jane has also been diagnosed with breast cancer. Hoping a break will help rekindle her passion for cooking, she flies out to Seattle to spend some time with her sister and help her as she undergoes treatments. Of course, when you've kept your distance from your sister most of your life, being forced to spend time together when you're both emotionally vulnerable is probably not the best idea, but that's what makes it interesting.

For the first few chapters of this book, I thought I'd found a new favorite author: the story was interesting, the characters complex, and the writing better than average. But the longer I was in it, the less I enjoyed it. Elizabeth especially started to get on my nerves, mostly because she talked about food and cooking all the time. It was supposed to be endearing, like, Look how passionate she is! She can't even have a normal conversation with someone because she gets totally immersed in the subject of food and doesn't even realize who she's talking to. Luckily, handsome Nick thought it was adorable, but I was just thoroughly annoyed (although maybe that's how I am when it comes to books, so my apologies everyone!).

There were some sweet sentiments about dealing with trials and pursuing your dreams, but in the end, I just couldn't make myself believe this story could have actually happened . . . and it wasn't even that unbelievable of a story, it was more just that I didn't connect with it. Still, it definitely kept my interest and was a great book for reading while traveling. Like Suzanne said in our most recent Book Blab, it wasn't so good that I was tempted to read it instead of watch the views out the window, but it was good enough that I was happy to pick it up when we had down time. So take that for what it's worth.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
I have yet to read a verse novel I didn't pretty much just swoon over. Whether that means I've been lucky enough to only read stellar ones so far or just that I actually don't what is good poetry and not, I don't know, but I'm adding this one to my ever-growing list of verse novels that I love.

Although technically a novel, it is based on the author's own memories of growing up in war-torn Vietnam and making the decision to come to America with her family. The Vietnam War is not one I've read a lot about. In fact, I paused in the middle of reading to ask Mike, "So . . . why did we lose the Vietnam War?" After so much WWII history on our trip, I think I was just baffled that America could lose anything. It was a completely different war though, fighting against a different kind of enemy, and it's no wonder that tensions were so high because of it.

Reading about Hà's experiences fleeing a country she truly loved and having to adjust to a totally new culture just made my heart ache. Refugees give up so much for the hope of a better life, and I am amazed by their bravery and tenacity.

Hà and her family basically had one chance to get out of the country after the fall of Saigon, and thousands of other people had the same idea. As everyone crammed onto the ship and it threatened to sink because of the weight of so many, Hà said,

But no one
is heartless enough
to say
because what if
they had been
before their turn?

And it's true. How could you possibly refuse passage to someone when you know if they stay, their future will be doomed?

The poetry makes the raw emotion of the story stand out in a sharp and vivid way. Like when Hà's mother decides she must sell her amethyst ring their father gave her because she needs the money. That ring is their last tangible link to their home:

"Brother Quang says,
What's the point of
new shirts and sandals
if you lose the last
tangible remnant of love?

I don't understand
what he said
but I agree."

One of my favorite poems was called "Confessions" because it brought together so many elements of the story together. Hà says,

"It's time to tell Mother
why misery
keeps pouncing on me."

She confesses to buying less pork so she could have a little money left over for fried dough. She confesses to making a little girl cry at school. She confesses to being the first one to touch the floor on Tết (an honor reserved for the oldest son). These were all events that had been introduced earlier, but now being reminded about them, especially in light of the taunting and insecurities she was facing at her new American school, made them seem especially pitiful and forlorn. "My child," says her mother, "how you shoulder the world."

I think this ended up being my favorite book I read on the trip. The other books were fun to be in the middle of, but this one actually made a lasting impression on me. It was sweet and poignant and made me see things in a new way.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
I didn't know what to expect from this book. When I first heard about it a couple of years ago, I thought it must be a funny book. Then, more recently, someone else was talking about it, and it sounded more like a serious book. But here's what I found: the plot line itself is rather heavy (Bee's mother, Bernadette, is psychologically unstable and something of a recluse; when things fall apart, she disappears), but the writing itself (witty, smart, funny) kept everything light. So depending on how you look at it, it could be either . . . or both.

When the novel opens, we know Bernadette is gone, but we don't know why. Told through 15-year-old Bee's eyes, as well as email exchanges, report cards, invoices, school notices, and doctor's bills, the evidence gradually stacks up and we're able to form a clearer picture of why Bernadette bolted, where she might have gone, and who she really is.

I don't know if I've ever shared the Goodreads plot summary in one of my reviews (I kind of pride myself on writing my own), but its description of Bernadette is just so perfect that I can't help myself: "Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom."

Even though this didn't end up being my favorite book from the trip, it was definitely the one that captivated my interest the most. In fact, on the flight home, Mike asked me if I wanted to watch a movie with him, and I somewhat sheepishly admitted that I didn't know if I could pull myself away from my book.

This had to do, in large part, with the writing (as mentioned before, it's just so sharp and smart) and the way the book was set up (I love it when the story moves from the end back to the beginning, and I have to put the pieces together), but also, it was because of Bernadette. As you can probably tell from the above quote, she was just an absolutely fascinating character.

Unfortunately, the ending got just a bit melodramatic for me. I wasn't unhappy with the way it ended, but getting there felt a little crazy (but then, the whole book is actually a little on the crazy side, so I shouldn't have been surprised).

It would be remiss of me not to give you a little taste of Maria Semple's writing, so I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages, a description of icebergs (Antarctica plays a big part in the story): "White, yes, but blue, too, every blue on the color wheel, deep like a navy blazer, incandescent like a neon sign, royal like a Frenchman's shirt, powder like Peter Rabbit's cloth coat, these icy monsters roaming the forbidding black."

This book is one that really can't be replaced by a summary or a book review. It's very much about the journey, and the only way to get there is by reading it.

Content note: swearing, including the f-word, and a brief, non-descriptive affair

Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear your opinion!
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