Monday, May 25, 2015

What's On My Nightstand - June

What's On Your NightstandOk! I'm "in" with a Nightstand post this month! I remembered! *fist pump* I keep forgetting until I decide that it's really too late to jump in and participate but this month I (sort of) have my act together.

The last time I participated was in February and I had a few goals in mind then:

I feel like I've been reading a bit too much non-fiction of late and am rather eager to dive into some fun fiction. I also really feel like I've been lacking re-reads in my diet of late. I like hearing new stories, of course, but I also miss visiting with some of my old friends and I'd like to catch up with them and soon!

Instead of creating a reading plan to follow for this coming month, I'll create a reading wish list. It is roughly the same thing and it would include the following:

The complete Anne of Green Gables series. Yes, all of them. In a row.

And that would probably fill up my entire reading month in a nice and tidy way. I just really miss Anne and would love a visit!!

I did, however, accept three books for review which I will be getting to and which will distract me from Anne:

1. The first is Hutterite Diaries: Wisdom from My Prairie Community. I'm just too curious.

2. The second is Melanie Dobson's newest title, Shadows of Ladenbrooke Manor. I've read two other titles by Dobson and enjoyed them both so when I was offered a chance at this one, I leapt on it. We shall see!

(Other Dobson titles reviewed HERE and HERE.)

3. The third is likely to raise eyebrows and that is: The Accidental Feminist: Restoring Our Delight in God's Good Design. I just have to.

The above three titles will be read and we'll just see how much Anne I can squeeze in. The urge grows stronger to fellowship with her every day.

Many thanks to the nice ladies at 5 Minutes for Books for hosting What's On Your Nightstand each and every month. Visit 5 Minutes for Books to link up your own nightstand posts and also to see what others are planning to read.

Fairy Tales (and real life)

Last week was a hard week in many respects. Part of that was due to some rather shocking news which came out about a very public Christian family. Frankly, this news was hard to hear. I am still grappling through my thoughts on it and will likely share some of my conclusions before the week is out. (Why? Because I kind of want to write my thoughts out of me on that one.)

I'm also getting tired of thinking about that particular piece of bad news and wanted to create something beautiful to enjoy. With that goal in mind, last night my daughter and I went outside in our yard to take some photos of her. She loves dressing up and making pretty photos which is extremely convenient when you have photographers for parents. (Ha!) The photos had a distinctly fairytale feel to them and I can't help but want to share a few with you. I hope you enjoy.


Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from 
everything you touch.”
― Hans Christian Andersen

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. - C.S. Lewis

A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest. ― C.S. Lewis

Life is a faerytale written by God's hand. ― Hans Christian Andersen

Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. ― C.S. Lewis

The whole world is a series of miracles, but we're so used to them we call them ordinary things. ― Hans Christian Andersen

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

I wish to be abundantly clear that I did not read Strength in What Remains because it's a New York Times Bestseller or because Oprah likes it, although both of those things are (admittedly) true. I read it because it was selected by the ladies in my local book club. We meet tonight to discuss it so any of the thoughts I share below are subject to change. (I'll add an addendum if that proves the case.)

Strength in What Remains is the true story of a man named Deogratias (Deo) who flees his home country of Burundi in search of a better life in America. Burundi is sandwiched in between Rwanda, the Congo, and Tanzania. Both Rwanda and Burundi were in the midst of a civil war (between the Hutus and the Tusis) at the time Deo left for the states. (Rawanda's civil war was shorter in duration than what was experienced in Burundi.)

Deo left violence and bloodshed behind him which is described in enough detail in this book as to make your stomach churn a bit. It is no wonder that Deo himself suffers from a nervous stomach much of his life! In this book we see how he arrived in New York City only to live homeless in Central Park. We track with him as he learns English and ultimately applies for Columbia University Medical School. His is really a rather amazing story and a curious one to hear. Deogratias is a man to be admired if hard work and determination mean anything.

The first half of the book flips back and forth between Deo's previous life in, and escape from, Burundi and his ensuing life in America. Author Tracy Kidder gives you a good sense of the fear and uncertainty Deo must have faced in coming to a foreign country. Then, too, he makes you to rejoice when Deo leaps almost insurmountable hurdles to find his place in his new world. We the readers grapple with Deo's thought processes as he deals with the both the differences between Burundi and American cultures and also the unique and horrifying reality of his past.

In the second half of the book we "meet" Tracy Kidder who introduces himself through his aquiaintanship with Deo. We know then that this story of Deo's life has been pieced together by Kidder as they have conversed with one another and spent time in each other's company. Kidder describes his observations about Deo as well as those of Burundi when the two men travel back together. With Kidder and Deo we retrace Deo's steps as he tried to escape from the bloody, war-torn Burundi of the mid-1990's. We also hear of Deo's plans to build a medical clinic in Burundi for the people.

Certainly Strength in What Remains is not an easy book to read. I have to confess that I was not excited about it to begin with but found it interesting enough that I devoured the first half in a single reading. Despite my reservations about what I might find in the story, I was drawn in to the tale of Deo and I wandered what has become of him since the writing of the book.

True confession time: I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half. The first is an interesting observation on what an immigrant might face when first coming to America. It is also a good study on how America differs from third world countries and it makes me consider how much we have "by right" here that people in other nations can't even begin to imagine. With few exceptions, we Americans have several changes of clothes, shoes on our feet and food in our bellies. I (once again) began thinking about the possessions I own and how so little is really required to feel perfectly satisfied. We Americans forget this, in our abundance of riches. I enjoyed the second half of the book less simply because it came across more as Kidder trying to prove the facts of Deo's story. While I agree that this is something that needed and had to be done (as dates and incidents can't be proven completely) it read off more like research than a story, and my interest waned a bit.

It would seem that Strength in What Remains has received quite a bit of positive press since it's release in 2010. I found this interviewed with Deogratias (Deo) online that is sort of interesting to read.

Here is a brief bio about Deo and also a picture:

Here is an interview/video with Deogratias who was a 2010 Voices of Courage Award honoree (which includes pictures of people in Burundi which are wonderful to get to see):

Below is an interview with author Tracy Kidder in which he explains why he wrote the book:

I couldn't resist looking up some pictures of the landscape of Burundi. This is one of them. Isn't it beautiful?!!

Photo Credit:

Strength in What Remains is not a book I would have picked up on my own but is one that I'm glad I was "forced" to read. This book proves the point of why it's great to be part of a book club because it will have you reading books that you wouldn't normally choose for yourself but might benefit from all the same. This is definitely a unique story and one that is likely to stick with me for some time.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Iceland: Picture Books

We're reading up on Iceland because our trip (later this year) to England takes us to Iceland first. (Crazy cool.)

Trying to find some books about Iceland proved a little bit more difficult than I would have thought. Maybe the task wasn't supposed to be as difficult as I found it to be, but it did take a significant amount of web browsing to collect the following titles. We thought we'd share them with others, just in case you too are planning a trip to Iceland, and/or are learning more about the country for a geography study, and/or because you want to know more about this land where Vikings made their home.


We have several of the Country Explorer books so it made sense to add the one on Iceland to our home collection. This book, like the others, give a great overview of any given country such that kids can understand and connect to the culture. The layout is almost scrapbook in nature, with a photograph or two per page with an accompanying paragraph of information.

This specific book on Iceland tells you about their folk beliefs, the religion found in the area, what they eat, notable wildlife and a short explanation of the language spoken. (There is no way on earth we'll be able to say a single word correctly in Icelandic. Check out this short Youtube video of a few common phrases. (Well, maybe we can at least say "hello" to people.)



Half a Kingdom: An Icelandic Folktale is a very fun book to read. It tells the story of a king who is in love with his wealth but who must face giving away up to half of his kingdom once his son, the prince, is discovered missing. He offers this reward to the person who can find his son and return him to him. Wise and strong men search far and wide for the missing prince. Signy, a poor peasant girl, figures that if everyone else has searched far and wide for the prince with no luck, she will try looking for him close and near.

As you might guess, it is she who finds the prince and helps to rescue him from his captures. It is a happily ever after sort of tale.



Puffling Patrol is a true story written by Caldecott Honor Winners, Ted and Betsy Lewin. Every April, the Westman Islands off the coast of Iceland become home to a vast number of puffins. In August it is time for the young Puffins to make their own way in the world, but some begin their travels by landing in town instead of flying out across the ocean. There is an organized group of children called The Puffling Patrol who search at night for lost baby puffins. They collect the pufflings and then take them back to the sea where they give them a hand taking off, this time in the right direction.

Bookworm1 hopes to catch a glimpse of puffins while on our travels. And yes, he is aware of the fact that Icelanders also eat puffins.

Here's a video explaining more about the Puffling Patrol:



Elfwyn's Saga, by David Wisniewski is no longer in print but you can still find used copies on Amazon. This story is drawn from Icelandic history and legends. We meet Elfwyn who is the recipient of a curse laid upon her family but a rival, Gorm the Grim. Although she is blind, the Hidden Folk have blessed her with the gift of "second sight" and allow her to see things that others cannot. As a result of her blindness, she avoids falling prey to Gorm the Grim and saves her family and the kingdom from complete destruction.

I liked this story quite a bit but I don't think the kids were as "into it" as I was.



The childrens' favorite books were the one immediately above and below. They really enjoyed The Problem With Chickens and How the Ladies Stopped the Wind.


It should be noted that these books are written by an American author but they are set in Iceland. They are illustrated by famed Icelandic artist, Gunnella.

In the first title we meet the ladies from Iceland who are having a difficult time collecting eggs for them to use use. They try collecting from the birds on the cliff but that proves rather problematic.  So the ladies decide to bring chickens to the island to keep them well supplied with convenient eggs. The problem arises when the chickens begin thinking that they are humans and fail to lay. The ladies have to get a little crafty to get the hens laying again.

In the second title the ladies are back with their chickens, both being blown about by the wind which sweeps over Iceland. The ladies decide that they need to plant trees to help block the wind. The problem this time is that the sheep are eating up all of the saplings and eventually the ladies have to settle for trees growing up in town but not in the countryside.

My kids absolutely loved these two titles. They giggled and laughed throughout the reading of both, leaving me with these words to say unto you: highly recommended.

If any of you out there have some additional titles to recommend on or about Iceland that you have found particularly enjoyable, well, I'm all ears! Do share your suggestions in the comment section below.

Other posts of interest:

*Viking Picture Books and Resources

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Death by Darjeeling, by Laura Childs

A few weeks back we went on an extended weekend vacation. I was kind of feeling in the mood for a mystery and vacations call for light reading. (Why exactly are "mysteries" and "light reading" frequently joined at the hip? And why is murder a pleasant subject while on a vacation? .... No, I don't know either.)

I can't remember which blogger mentioned Death by Darjeeling but it both caught my attention and piqued my interest for a multitude of reasons. Chiefly, it was a mystery integrating the subject of tea. I figured it would be hard to go wrong.

Death by Darjeeling is the first in a series of Tea Shop Mysteries written by Laura Childs. According to my copy of the book, Laura Childs is a New York Times Bestselling Author. My paperback copy lists thirteen titles in this series and a few notes from reviewers who say that "Murder Suits Laura Childs to a Tea." (Nice.) I'll give it marks for being "diverting" and "entertaining." Death by Darjeeling didn't strain my brain and it kept me occupied which is really all I asked of it. I guess that qualifies me as being a satisfied customer in certain respects.

Theodosia Browning is the main protagonist and chief amateur sleuth of this series. She owns a tea shop in downtown historic Charleston, South Carolina and has a dog named Earl Gray. (To my friend who loves tea and Charleston, yes, I was indeed thinking of you while reading this book.) She is a single gal, and capable business owner who is open to romance if it should come along. In this particular story she finds herself stumbling across a murder during a Lamplighter Tour hosted by the local Historical Society. The victim is found dead alongside (gasp!) a cup of tea, a specialty brew created for the celebration. Theodosia and one of her employees is being investigated for foul play and she is eager to vindicate them both. Thus begins her sleuthing career.

Truthfully, I have to tell you that I was not wow-ed by this book. Yes, it hit on several of my loves: history, beautiful settings, and tea. The problem for me is just that I found the book to be "ok" and not much more than that. To my reading audience who enjoys a light mystery and these same themes in books, do be aware that there are about half a dozen foul words scattered throughout this book. They are not concentrated in an any particular area but sort of creep up on you. I wish Childs would have kept her language entirely clean, for if she had I could recommend this book without hesitation.

My other problem with Laura Childs comes about as no real fault of her own. The last mystery I read was by Dorothy Sayers and I was simply blown away by Sayers' ability to weave intellectual arguments amid her mystery. My impression of the Tea Shop Mysteries (and so many other modern mystery series) is that the authors wish to peddle stories out quickly and pigeon hole into a genre that can be easily digested by modern readers. There was not a lot of suspense involved in Death by Darjeeling and no terribly deep thoughts. I know that's being a bit harsh and unkind and I don't necessarily mean to be either. I just don't feel that Childs writes as craftily as, say, Du Maurier or Sayers. If I'm going to read a mystery I want it to be a really good one. If I want a light mystery I tend towards watching sitcoms and that gives me my "mystery quick fix." (I've long been a fan of shows like Matlock, Murder She Wrote and, more recently, Monk or Castle.) If I want to read a mystery, I favor those that are complex and thought provoking.

To end on a positive note, I think I would like Laura Childs in person. She loves to travel, she loves to read, and she loves to drink tea. Her husband is a professor and the two of them have spent a lot of time in Japan and China. She clearly knows a lot about Charleston and is a lover of beauty. I think she would be a fascinating and fun person to spend time with which is why I don't necessarily regret reading the book (although I probably wouldn't seek out any additional titles).

Now, I have a confession to make. I had never tried Darjeeling tea before this book and in the reading of it I felt a sense of guilt rising up. (I "do guilt" really well.) I determined to locate some and give it a try. Lo and behold, on our travels we ran across this downright amazing tea shop which I gushed about over here. I tried Darjeeling as a nod to the book (and enjoyed it). So thank you, Laura Childs, for coming along on my recent journey and for encouraging me to try something new. I appreciate that.

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony 
known as afternoon tea.”
― Henry James

Friday, May 08, 2015

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a relatively short (and incredibly odd) book but, nevertheless, it took us almost three weeks to read aloud together. That was mostly due to the fact that I'm still (still!) suffering effects from the cold I caught two months ago and reading is still a little bit difficult. (This cold is so. incredibly. ridiculous.) I think one of the things that I hate the most about getting sick is that it interrupts our reading habits for what feels like forever. (I know it's not forever. I'm exaggerating. On purpose. But three weeks with Alice? That's a bit much.)

This has to be one of the weirdest classics in all of history. Experts can't seem to agree why Lewis Carroll wrote this book, what his interests or driving passions were. If the experts don't know, I won't venture a guess. Maybe he just was writing for the fun of it, as something of an experiment. Why on earth it took off and became as well known as it is probably due in great part to Disney. (How on earth else?)

I've read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland before and I thought it was odd then. Reading it aloud to the kids was an even more interesting experience. My personal opinion is that this book works better as an individual read than as a read aloud. There are so many puns and jokes involved and in order to track with the story and get the most out of it I think you need to have a quick wit. My kids are funny and they can get and take a joke but a lot of Alice went right over their heads. They'll connect with it better (as much as anyone really can) when they are older.

I asked afterwards if they understood the story and they responded affirmatively. (Honestly I think that has to do a lot with Disney and not with Carroll.) They did all laugh out loud on a couple of occasions: once when they met the Duchess in the kitchen dealing with the baby, and then when the Mock Turtle sang his Beautiful Soup song.  The kids were also asked what their favorite part of the book was. They collectively agreed that the best part was the song about the soup. (I guess I pulled that off well.)

Of course, we read about Alice because of our upcoming trip to England. One of the places that we are staying is in Oxford and it would be almost embarrassing (well, I would be embarrassed) not to read Alice before we arrive. We have a list of "Alice-themed" places and activities that we wish to engage with during our time in country. Here is a cool blog post detailing some spots that one should visit. Wouldn't it be cool if we got to see the turtle shells on the kitchen wall in the Christ Church kitchen? I guess we'll have to see about that one but it doesn't stop one from dreaming.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is not one of my favorite books on the planet (in case my position has not been obvious). As it is a classic though, I won't shirk it. I'll probably even read it again someday! For the moment though, I'll consider the deed done. I'd rather watch the Disney cartoon version than read the book and we'll make a point of doing that before we leave on our trip later on this year.

Other posts of interest:

* Books Disney Films are Based On
* How the Heather Looks, by Joan Bodger
Children's Tea and Etiquette 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Vader's Secret Mission & other titles

We've been receiving a fair amount of book-filled boxes from Scholastic Books lately. Some of them come as surprises and others are ones that I was invited to review. I noted here a few weeks ago that I hadn't been reviewing much in the way of children's books recently and that's a reflection of the amount of time I've spent reading picture books with my kids. Now that the oldest child is eight, I find myself focusing more on chapter books and less on picture books. As my youngest is two though, I really need to make sure I'm still dabbling in picture books! I've been slacking! The kids are enjoying this refocused attention on shorter (and illustrated) stories and I will strive to keep it up.

Every box that arrives on our doorstep that says "Scholastic" produces great excitement and anticipation as we look to see what's inside. Here are some of the titles we've had a chance to look over recently:

First, I accepted for review a copy of Vader's Secret Missions. This is an early chapter book and I accepted it for no other reason than I knew my oldest would get a kick out of it. It is not fine literature by any stretch but it touches on two topics which are near and dear to his heart: LEGOs and Star Wars. I asked him to tell me what the book was about after he was done reading the story. In his own words, here's a synopsis:

This book is about Darth Vadar's missions and what happened before the original six movies. Before the six movies they were all good guys. Then some Jedi wanted more and more power and they turned against the other Jedi and were called "The Fallen Jedi." Right before the six movies there was a very long and bad battle and the fallen Jedi went to a new planet which had people called The Sith. The Sith who were very good at handling the force. The Fallen Jedi took control of the planet. The strongest Fallen Jedi became the first Dark Lord of the Sith.

A short Q & A with Mommy:

Q1: Did you like this book? Yes.

Q2: Why did you like it? I mostly liked the stories.

Q3: This is a LEGO Star Wars book, correct? Yes.

Q4: Were any of the illustrations scary or disturbing to you? No.

Q5: Was the book tense or scary at any point? Not really, no.

Q6: Is there anything that you would want me or other parents to know about this book? It is not scary. There are no bad parts.

Q7: How old would you say a kid should be before they read it? It isn't scary but it's kind of confusing in parts. Probably ages 7 or 8.

In our case, I think this book hit the mark. It was a fast read for my Bookworm but a curiously fun one and that was the point.


Next up, we received Side By Side, by Rachel bright and  Debi Gliori.

This story is told through rhyme. It opens:

Deep in the heart of Wintermouse Wood,
down in the grass where the autumn trees stood,
lived all kinds of creatures - some big and some small -
some spiky, some furry, some short, and some tall.

One such creature is a tiny, itty bitty little mouse who has a hard time keeping up with all of her older brothers and sisters. All she wants is a friend to share life with. Someone who will walk with her side-by-side. As you might imagine she eventually discovers such a friend who has been hiding about (on each page spread) all the while. This is a sweet story about loneliness and the satisfaction of finding a friend. I thought it was delightful.


Another title which captured imaginations in our house was Audrey's Tree House, by Jenny Hughes and Jonathan Bentley.

Audrey considers herself a big girl and tells her dad that she's just too big to share a house with him anymore. She suggests he'll need to build her another place to live and he appears in every way to be agreeable. He builds her quite the drool-over-this-treehouse with windy stairs, a lovely comfortable bed and all of the amenities one could imagine needing in such a fine treetop home. She loves the house and all but she wonders aloud what will happen to her if it gets to cold or too rainy. Her dad assures her that there is a nice, warm home where she will always be welcome and, in the end, she decides that maybe she's not too big for home after all.

Now, this is a cute story and it made me to want a tree house like Aubrey's. The pictures really get the imagination in gear. It's cute, it's imaginative, and it's fun. But I can't honestly tell you that I'm going to hang on to the book. It was fun reading once (maybe twice) but I didn't feel wholly attached to it. The concept of the book is great but (in my opinion) Audrey was a little demanding of her father. By taking a look at the tree house I can only imagine her in my mind's eye as something of a spoiled brat. I don't author Jenny Hughes necessarily meant to portray her that way, but that's how she reads off to me. Perhaps my opinions is harsh but it is my opinion and so this book won't be living with us in our home.

I still want a treehouse like Audrey's though because it's super cool.


Bookworm3, my four-year-old girl was SO excited to see Bob Books: First Stories in one of our Scholastic boxes. Why? Because her brothers read Bob Books and she. has. been. waiting. to start for herself.

My husband Jonathan is a saint among men. He has taken each of our children through the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons around the age of three years old. By four, everyone has been able to read Bob Books. She has spent the past many months learning to read with Daddy and so it was a reward of sorts (chuckle) to have her very own Bob Books arrive in the mail. (Such are the delights of childhood milestones.)

She read through half of the books in about two sittings. Anytime that anyone will agree to sit down and listen, she will read a Bob Book (or three or four) to them. The sentences in the first few books read easily:

"Sam and Mat. Mat ran. Can Sam?"

They are quite perfect for her at the present moment. She loves them; we love them. She can read! We all rejoice! Hoorah!

There are twelve books in the box, each one building upon the last. They increase in difficulty, Book 12 containing more complex sentences:

"Mat is glad the sun is up. Sam is glad to see the sun."

It is very true though that the more you read, the easier it becomes and she is just loving these books. Anything which sparks a desire to read and builds one's pride in this accomplishment is good by me. If you are looking for a set of beginning books with simple sentences for your youngster, check out this new series of Bob Books.

With that, we'll bring this post to a close.

Many thanks to Scholastic Books for sending the above titles my direction in order to facilitate the above reviews. I received no further compensation for this post and all opinions are decidedly my own.

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