Book Review: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

2017Sep2

My personal rating:  4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis:  As the daughter of a Scottish duke, Georgie is genuine British royalty with a title (Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie) and no money (her brother cut off her allowance). Rather than being saddled with an arranged marriage to a miserable Romanian prince, Georgie strikes out on her own in London, searching for a suitable way to support herself. She hadn’t planned on becoming a private investigator, but when the body of an unsavory Frenchman with a claim on her family’s estate is discovered in her London townhouse, she doesn’t have much of a choice if she wants to keep her brother out of jail and her name out of the tabloids.

The first morsel of prose:  There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal. First, one is expected to behave as befits a member of the ruling family without being given the means to do so. One is expected to kiss babies, open fetes, put in an appearance at Balmoral (suitably kilted), and carry trains at weddings. One is not, for example, allowed to work at the cosmetics counter at Harrods, as I was about to find out.

The reason I chose this book:  We were going to spend the weekend visiting relatives and I wanted a book that was interesting without being too demanding so that I could easily pop in and out of the story between conversations and other activities with family members. Her Royal Spyness fit that criteria perfectly!

My experience with this book: In a word–fun! The mystery was well plotted. The clues were all there and you got them at the same time our heroine did so you could figure it out for yourself. (No waiting for a final assembly of the suspects so that a super-sleuth can enlighten everyone–including you, the reader–about some obscure detail on which the whole case hinges.) Georgie was a resourceful heroine and I loved rooting for her. To top it all off, the humor was spot on for me.

What this book is about:  Navigating family expectations and obligations while building a life for yourself; pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and discovering what you value most.

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Book Review: Dogsong by Gary Paulsen

2017Jun25

My personal rating: 5 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: Russel is painfully unhappy with himself and his life with his father, but he can’t figure out why. His father sends him to the last Eskimo in the village who lives in the traditional way without any modern tools or technology, and Oogruk teaches Russel everything he can remember from before the white men came. Consequently, Russel takes Oogruk’s challenge to leave the village with the sled and the dog team, live off the land, and become what the dogs could help him to be–a man with a dog song.

The first morsel of prose: Russel Susskit rolled out of the bunk and put his feet on the floor and listened in the darkness to the sounds of morning. They were the same sounds he had always heard, sounds he used to listen for. Now in the small government house–sixteen by twenty–they grated like the ends of a bone.

The reason I chose this book: My friend had given me Gary Paulsen’s book My Life in Dog Years and I was delighted with it, so she loaned me Dogsong, as it is another one of her favorites by Paulsen.

My experience with this book: The voice of this book immediately impressed me. From the first page, it conveyed to me (a White Anglo-Saxon Person) that Russel is not like me and the place he lives in is so different from anything I have experienced it might as well be Middle Earth or some other fantasy realm. At the same time, I completely sympathized with his predicament; I, too, have struggled to find a way of living that is truly satisfying or meaningful. I found Russel’s journey compelling and profound. I was totally enthralled by this book!

What this book is about: Accepting challenges, facing fears, persevering, and learning to be the person that you are.

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Book Review: The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette

2017Jun3

My personal rating:  4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis:  A spaceship lands outside of a small town in rural Massachusetts and for three years does nothing–or does it? Government specialist Edgar Somerville is convinced that the lack of change in Sorrow Falls indicates the spaceship is having an effect on the town beyond making it a hot spot for UFO enthusiasts. Although he initially rebuffs 16 year-old Annie Collins’ offer to act as his translator (“If you want to get good answers instead of the usual answers, you need someone to call bullcrap on them when they say it,” Annie asserts), Ed discovers Annie is the key to finding out why the spaceship is here.

The first morsel of prose:  The spaceship landed on a cool night in August, in a field that wasn’t being used for anything in particular. Like most remarkable things, nobody realized it was remarkable as it happened. The ship lit up the sky above Sorrow Falls when entering the atmosphere, but that was only slightly unusual in the way that a meteor could be slightly unusual.

Later, eyewitness accounts would describe the evening as becoming “as bright as daytime” in that moment, but this was a profound exaggeration. The truth was, while the object flashed brightly, an observer had to already be looking skyward to see it. If one were instead looking at the road, or the television, or the ceiling, the craft would have gone unnoticed as it traveled toward that field on the edge of town.

The reason I chose this book:  One evening I can home from work tired and wanted to get lost in a story that didn’t demand a high level of concentration or critical thought. This sci-fi novel fit the bill.

My experience with this book:  This book was so much fun for me! It’s written in third person and a lot of the humor comes through the commentary in the narration. This isn’t science fiction that uses human interaction with aliens to explore important philosophical themes (although that is a pleasure in it’s own right); this is science fiction that uses human interaction with aliens to have an adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits of the humans and aliens in Sorrow Falls.

Having said that, I must clarify that if your idea of a sci-fi adventure is non-stop action or suspense that compels you to read until 2:00 a.m., then this story may be too pedestrian for your taste. The story takes place three years after the spaceship lands and you spend the first part of the novel getting a feel for the new normal that has developed in Sorrow Falls as the characters go about their daily lives. Given that I found the novel’s narrative voice amusing, I was quite entertained during this section, despite the lack of action.

It also helped that the novel centers around Annie Collins, the character who charmed me completely. The rest of the characters ranged from cliched, to adequate, to above average. The only one I thought was a little too on-the-nose was Una, but that opinion may be unduly influenced by the audiobook narrator.

I listened to this novel through Audible, and the narrator, Steve Carlson, delivered the dry humor of the novel’s narration pitch perfect, but I found his performance of the dialog merely adequate. Even with that criticism, I have no regrets about purchasing this audiobook, and I anticipate listening to it again.

The story went places that I didn’t expect, but the developments didn’t seem out of place. My only quibble with the plot (in hindsight) regards Annie’s escape from the Washington bureaucrats. I guess I’m getting cynical, but I think in real life she would have died in an assassination made to look like an accident. But that wouldn’t have fit the tone of this story at all, so it’s not a big problem for me. Besides, I really liked Annie and wanted to see her succeed in the end, which she did in admirable fashion.

What this book is about:  Expectations; how extraordinary things can become normal and how ordinary things can be amazing; and the power of ideas.

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Book Review: Mouse Guard Fall 1152 by David Petersen

2017Apr24

My personal rating:  4 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis:  After vanquishing a Weasel Warlord in the winter war of 1149 and securing peace for the mouse territories, the Mouse Guard no longer serves as soldiers but pathfinders, weather watchers, and body guards for mice traveling through the territories. When three Guard Mice are dispatched to locate a missing merchant and his grain shipment, they find evidence a plot destroy the Mouse Guard. Liam, Kenzie, and Saxon try to uncover who has betrayed Lockhaven, why someone wants to bring down the Guard, and what the rumors about the legendary hero, the Black Axe, mean.

The first morel of prose:

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From Mouse Guard Fall 1152 by David Petersen. Photo by Jennifer Kay.

Let me tell ye about the guard. We mice have little chance in this world considering all the critters that eats us. We know to build our cities hidden and protected: deep within rock outcroppings, in tangled root, and beneath loamy soil. We survive.

The reason I chose this book: I decided to get this as birthday present for my nephew C.J. who will be 9 years old soon. My husband had read it before, but I had not. I bought it on the strength of his recommendation and I wanted to read it myself before giving it away.

My experience with this book: I read it straight through in one evening; it took me roughly two hours. Mouse Guard Fall 1152 is a gorgeous graphic novel and I hope C.J. likes it. The two things that kept me from giving it five stars are (1) the lettering in the Epilogue is difficult to read–not impossible or illegible, but my reading pace slowed considerably which makes me a little concerned with how C.J. will manage it; and (2) a few of the panels were unclear–I couldn’t tell what was going on in two of them. Despite that, I had no trouble following the story and I keep seeing scenes from the book in my mind. I want to read it again, although in order to do that I will have to get my own copy now or ask to borrow C.J.’s copy later. After I finished the book, I couldn’t help comparing it to Redwall by Brian Jacques. At first I would have said I liked Redwall better, that it was a more robust story more masterfully told. Now I’m not so sure. David Petersen’s pictures keep drawing me back to Mouse Guard, and if you’re telling your story in a graphic novel, that’s a master stroke.

What this book is about: The camaraderie of those who serve, work, and fight together, and the question of what is an army’s purpose, especially in times of peace.

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The Same Yet Different

It’s fascinating how things come back around in our lives, undulating like ocean waves. I read a lot of books in 2016 and I was having trouble keeping track of them all. Originally, part of the purpose of this blog was to provide a catalog of what I read, but that only works if you take the time to write reviews of those books (which I obviously didn’t last year). So I decided to buy a journal and keep a book log in it. But then I remembered a set of blank books that I bought years ago and pulled this volume off the shelf to see if I had used it.

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Captain’s Log from ChainThree.WordPress.com

Lo and behold, I had used it–briefly–in the summer of 1993 as a book log! In addition to the introduction, there were only three entries. The first book I still don’t remember even after reading my thoughts on it. I recognized the title of the second book and remember reading it, but can’t tell you the plot. I remember scenes from the third book and even though it resonated deeply with me, I’d completely forgotten the title and author of it. I was thrilled to find those lost details here. I loved reading my younger self’s thoughts about these books, which often told me more about myself than about the books. It’s also intriguing to see how we are the same yet different.

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My younger self and I both love books. The idea that “Books fall open, you fall in” is just as true for me today as it was 20 years ago. Neither of us can resist an extended metaphor; I am confident that if I had found this book blank, my 2017 introduction would contain phrases similar to if not the exact sentences of the one I wrote in 1993. While it has been inconsistently acted upon, the desire to leave some kind of written record of my life’s experiences has been constant through the years. And I still tend to decorate my handwritten words with some type of design.

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But the designs are different. My younger self strove for precise symmetry and uniformity in my designs. When I looked at my 1993 graphic for inspiration to decorate my 2017 heading, I thought, “It would be exhausting replicate that! Let’s try to make something balanced, but a little more free-flowing.” The handwriting has changed a bit, too. The earlier script is so tiny and careful! My letters now are larger, faster, and I dare say, bolder.

I think these stylistic expressions reflect the broader differences of who I was then and who I am now. I held myself in, so careful, so afraid of making mistakes of any kind when I was younger. Perfectly executed plans and performances were the goal. Strict conformity to rigid ideals was the focus of my thoughts and actions. In 1993 I hadn’t even realized that my perfectionism was a problem yet.

Now, I’m a recovering perfectionist. Failure is still scary, but not terrifying the way it was back then; I move on from my mistakes faster and offer gentle encouragement instead of mentally berating myself. My goal is better balance and more graceful flexibility now. And while I am still cautious and reserved in some situations, I am more confident of who I am and more willing to go after what I want. I’m less rigid in my judgements, too.

I am so grateful for this window into my past! I’m encouraged to see that I really have made progress, because sometimes it seems like I’m either treading water or swimming laps in the same pool. And I am proud of my younger self for doing the best I could with what I understood at the time. Good things were accomplished and beautiful things were created. I’m proud of myself now for the same reason.

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Now or On the Other Side

“She’ll have an incredible testimony when she’s on the other side of this.”

I was eating dinner with some friends who had attended a Christian women’s event, and they were sharing about the tremendous impact it had on all of them. They spoke of a mutual friend (I’ll call her “Jane”) who also attended the event. Jane was doing the difficult work of recovery at that time and was dealing with issues the recovery process brought to light. Reflecting on the inspiring testimonies they heard that weekend, my friends looked forward to the day when Jane would be able to inspire others at future events with her testimony of victory, healing, and hope.

Does she not have a testimony now? I thought to myself. Is her work only valid or worthwhile if she gets to ‘the other side of this’? What if she doesn’t make it to the other side? Or she gets to the other side, lives an inspiring life in her personal Promised Land, but finds herself traveling the road of recovery again? Are God’s help, provision, love, and redemption only worth celebrating if a person’s journey ends where we want it to?

*      *      *

Have you ever thought that you knew where God was leading you, only to find yourself in a completely unexpected place—a place you wouldn’t have chosen if you had any say in the matter? It’s confusing, bewildering, and disorienting. It can be painful. Jesus’ first disciples found themselves in this predicament as they shared their final Passover feast with Jesus in Jerusalem.

I don’t know what their expectations were when they first began traveling with this rabbi from Galilee; it seems that the longer they listened to Jesus’ teachings and experienced the power of his miracles, the more clearly they saw their path with Jesus leading to a place where Jesus would be crowned king of David’s re-established dynasty. They would live as court officials in this new Golden Age of Israel. And this was an understandable belief given the prophesies about the Messiah and the wisdom and power that Jesus demonstrated. But after Peter’s bold declaration that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son the living God,” Jesus made an abrupt departure from the expected path by saying he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things at the hands of the Jewish leaders, die, and on the third day be raised to life. Despite a triumphal entry into Jerusalem with massive crowds of Passover pilgrims all but proclaiming Jesus as their king, the disciples found themselves sitting in stunned silence one evening as Jesus announced that one of them would betray him to death.

In the aftermath of this bombshell, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31). Now? In the midst of the tension and confusion of this night? Now? In the pain and horror of the coming day? It’s easy to see how God is glorified “on the other side of this”, but how is God glorified in the painful, messy middle of it all? Apparently it’s in our obedience to him and our love for one another (John 13:33-34).

The disciples are further distressed when Jesus predicts that Peter will disown him before the night is over. Yet Jesus immediately says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1) So again, it’s not when they could see light at the end of the tunnel, but now. Now, when they are fumbling painfully in the dark, they are told to quell the fear rising in their hearts by confidently holding onto God and relying on Jesus.

*      *      *

Someone recently asked me, “Can a person be a prayer warrior and an alcoholic?”

“Yes,” I replied.

I think that earlier in my journey, I would have given a different answer. Back then I was results focused. I judged myself, other people, and my circumstances by the end results. I thought God was glorified in the results. But a few years ago, God extended an invitation, “Come with me to this new place.” I eagerly followed, but the path to get there became extremely difficult. The results of walking it did not seem good to me at all. Upon reaching the promised destination, I felt less elation to have reached the goal and more relief to have survived. I had a puzzled sense of “What was the point of all that?” I had reached “the other side”, but I wasn’t entirely sure it was worth it. I certainly didn’t know what my testimony about it was. Sometimes the end results don’t seem to be enough.

Maybe God is more glorified in us following him regardless of the results. Maybe God is most glorified when we love regardless of the results. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether we think the results are “good” or “bad”. (As the Woodcutter says in Max Lucado’s book In the Eye of the Storm, “Who can say whether what happened is good or bad? We can only say that it happened.”)

One of my favorite lines from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is “It will be alright in the end; if it is not alright, then it is not the end.” I have comforted myself with this thought at various times. But sometimes, merely waiting for the end is not sufficient, especially if it is not alright for a long time. In this season, I am drawn to what Jesus said can happen now. Now we can glorify God by loving one another. Now we can hold onto God and rely on Jesus to keep going whether we can see the end or not. I want to experience the freedom of letting go of the end results and focusing on Now.

2017April10

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Book review: Louisiana Longshot by Jana DeLeon

2017Mar26

My personal rating: 3 out of 5

My three sentence synopsis: When her cover gets blown, CIA operative Fortune Redding winds up with a $1 million price on her head and nowhere to hide since her boss has discovered that a leak at headquarters is the reason Fortune’s last operation went south. To her great dismay, Fortune must go completely off grid, posing as a former beauty queen and the niece of a recently deceased spinster in the tiny bayou town of Sinful, Louisiana. But the plan for Fortune to spend the summer quietly cataloging her “aunt’s” estate comes dangerously close to falling apart when the dog she inherited digs up a human bone and the two elderly ringleaders of the Sinful Ladies Society determine that Fortune is the one to help them solve the crime before the wrong person is arrested for murder.

The first morsel of prose: I stepped off the Learjet at the private airfield just before dawn. I’d been on the plane exactly seventeen hours, twenty-six minutes and fourteen seconds, wearing the same eight-hundred-dollar dress I’d worn when I killed a man twenty-five hours earlier.

The reason I chose this book: My mother-in-law said it was the best book she’d read in a long time, that she’d laughed out loud through the whole thing, and even read parts of it to my father-in-law, who found them just as funny as she did.

My experience with this book: I was thrilled that Mom enjoyed the book so much, in part because I’d given it to her for Christmas, but mostly because it was wonderful to see her so enthusiastically happy about something. With an endorsement like that and a fairly strong opening paragraph, I was surprised when my reading of the first few chapters was punctuated by eye rolls rather than belly laughs. Based on her performance in Sinful, Louisiana, I was mystified that Fortune’s boss believed someone else had blown her cover in the Middle East. It looked to me like the only things she did better than blowing her cover were sprinting and being snarky.

As I thought about my reaction to this rather arrogant yet incompetent operative, I wondered if reading too many “gritty” thrillers had compromised my ability to enjoy a lighter take on the genre. But I still love Dorothy Gilman’s series staring Mrs. Pollifax, who does her fair share of bumbling as well. However, Mrs. Pollifax’s foibles are usually due to her naivete rather than a fragile ego. Thus, I find Mrs. Pollifax charming and Miss Fortune annoying.

Like a lot of Michael Bay’s action movies, Louisiana Longshot is over-the-top and absurd. (There’s an idea: maybe a good cast and a capable director would have helped me find the humor in this story better than my internal narrator’s voice did.) I think disliking the main character made it more difficult for me to go along with her implausible escapades, but eventually I settled into the rhythm of this screwball comedy and it became a fun romp. I even chuckled–once. By the end, I’d become invested enough in the other characters to relish the take down of the villain and enjoy the closing celebration.

What this book is about: Friendship and honesty and how those things can make it easier to be who you really are and possible to do more of what you really want to do, which makes the craziness of life more bearable.

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