Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

This book kept jumping off the shelf at me. I stumbled across it three times, in two different libraries, in two different states, and finally decided it must be meant for me. I started flipping through it when I got home, and became very excited when I saw it was illustrated with vintage photography, much like Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which I loved.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds is set in 1918, after America entered WWI, and at the height of the Spanish flu epidemic that killed anywhere from three to six percent of world’s population. Mary Shelley Black is sent to San Diego to live with her aunt, and is pulled into the world of spiritualism and séances that so pervaded society at that time. Desperate, grief-stricken people were looking for answers anywhere they could find them, and became the perfect prey for frauds and shysters.

When Mary’s childhood sweetheart’s brother begins capturing photographs of supposed spirits, she assumes they’re also fakes. But when someone close to her dies suddenly, and begins appearing in photos of her and even whispering in her ear from “somewhere beyond,” she has to rethink everything. All she wants to do is make sure this person can find rest. But as things escalate she realizes she may be in over her head.

The first few chapters were slow-moving, and the writing felt a little stiff, but by the fourth chapter I was interested, and by the sixth I was completely hooked. I wouldn’t exactly classify this book as horror, but there were certainly points that gave me cold chills. Reading it after midnight might not have been the best idea, but once I got past the first half-dozen chapter I absolutely could not put it down. It’s been a long time since a book had me that tightly in its clutches. Just hang in there long enough, and I think the stiff writing becomes a non-issue.

The dark, slightly morbid historical setting was perfect for this story. Every now and then though, some turn of phrase would jar me and I’d be thinking, “That is NOT how they’d talk in 1918.” But the plot was so gripping and fast-moving it didn’t bother me too much. The author does an amazing job of seamlessly working in both the devastating effects of the flu pandemic, and the horror of the worst war the world had ever seen, into the very personal story of Mary and her aunt. And most important of all, it had a satisfying ending.

There was a little bit of physical romance between Mary and her sweetheart in two scenes – what sometimes is termed “necking,” but it was far from graphic and in both instances was over quickly. As far as cursing goes, I only remember two instances of profanity, both of which almost made sense in context – one coming from a shell-shocked soldier, and the other from the villain. I may be forgetting a third instance, but either way it certainly wasn’t pervasive. A warning though, if you’re very sensitive to suspenseful and/or scary novels, this may not be the best choice. I have pretty high tolerance, and I got creeped out once or twice.
As soon as I finished the book, I went online to see what else Cat Winters has written, and to read up on the Spanish Influenza pandemic, which was fascinating to me. I haven’t enjoyed a YA novel this much in a very long time, and I fully intend to buy it, reread it, read more by this author, and pray for a sequel… Please, Ms. Winters? I’ll buy it, I promise.

Some of my favorite quotes:

What type of world are we living in if we're destroying books?

Surely, though, I must have stolen into the future and landed in an H.G. Wells-style world - a horrific, fantastic society in which people's faces contained only eyes, millions of healthy young adults and children dropped dead from the flu, boys got transported out of the country to be blown to bits, and the government arrested citizens for speaking the wrong words. Such a place couldn't be real. And it couldn't be the United States of America, "the land of the free and the home of the brave." But it was. I was on a train in my own country, in a year the devil designed. 1918.

We live in a world so horrifying it frightens even the dead.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Manic Monday II

This week, in light of certain recent political happenings, I’m afraid it has been a lot harder for me to be thankful or look on the bright side of anything. I thought about skipping this week’s post at first, and doing it every other week instead. But simply giving up so easily? Right after I’ve started? And this week more than ever is a time to try to find the Light in the darkness. It just means I had to look a little deeper.

Readers: Sometimes it really makes me sad how many children today hate reading. It’s something I can’t really wrap my head around. I’m like Liesel in The Book Thief. When life goes wrong, I look for a book. Words are everything. They’re away to visit places you’ll never actually see. I’ve felt convicted about encouraging the love of words in children who are just beginning to find them. This weekend I let a couple children from church into my library to borrow any book they wanted. When the young boy saw my piles of mysteries and his eyes started to light up, I knew I had found a reader. And it just about made my day.

Good Movie Adaptations: I have a rule, but it’s a rule I am willing to break very rarely. If I read the book, and loved the book, I will not watch the movie afterward. I’ve been disappointed too badly, too many times, mainly because I may or may not take things too seriously. (*cough* Harry potter *cough*). This week I decided to break my rule for “The Book Thief.” The more time that went by after reading it, the more potent the story seemed. It really stuck with me for some reason. With much trepidation, I picked up the film. I am delighted to say I loved it. In the whole film, there was only one change that really bothered me, and overall it was just excellent. One I will rewatch, and maybe even buy.

Healthy Tomatoes: I hate when my plants die. I love gardening, but when a plant dies I tend to get depressed about it. Unfortunately in this drought, it’s now a normal fact of life. I could see one of my tomatoes days away from drying up and cremating itself, and didn’t know what to do about it. And then I had a ‘facepalm’ moment. The ground was so dry that all the water was running off. I built up wall of dirt around the roots of tomato to hold the water while it soaked in, and suddenly my tomato is back! I learned my lesson, the only drawback being I felt like an idiot for days.

Comfort: Sometimes when life goes really wrong, it can be almost impossible to feel optimistic. The last few days have been like that. But instead of turning to ‘words,’ the only thing that’s been helping me at all has been ‘The Word.’ So often we are given the exact Word we need to be comforted, and reminded that “God’s in his heaven, and all is right.” Mine was Isaiah 60:2 (emphasis added).

For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,

And deep darkness the people;

But the Lord will arise over you,

And His glory will be seen upon you.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I remembered watching this movie with Brother #1 and really enjoying it, but unfortunately after ten years, all the specifics I remembered was 'forty-two'. I didn't even remember what it meant - just that it was crucial. My library had a beautiful anniversary copy of the novel, and I decided it was time I refreshed my memory.

I don’t really know how to describe this book, other than as a very logical Alice in Wonderland in space. It is absolute nonsense, but somehow it makes complete sense when you think about it. Even with the parts that at first seem to be nothing but confusing, if you hang in there, it finally comes together.

When Earth is destroyed to make way for a new interstellar freeway, Arthur Dent is saved by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who unbeknownst to him is an intergalactic hitchhiker. Picked up by the aliens who have destroyed his planet, Dent is swept up into a cosmic adventure. Ford and Dent eventually meet up with Ford’s cousin, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is fleeing from the police in a stolen technologically groundbreaking spaceship, and searching for a legendary lost planet.

There are many twists and turns, and ‘convenient coincidences,’ resulting in one of my favorite quotes ever:

'Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?'

It’s complex, witty, and just a straight up well-written space adventure. I hadn’t realized that Hitchhiker is an entire series, so when I reached the end I was kind of annoyed because I wasn’t prepared for it to come so suddenly. Now, though, knowing there are many more books picking up where this one ended, I think it was the perfect ending. Not too ‘cliffhanger-y’ but enough to leave you wanting the next one.

And from now on, when anyone asks me a question I don’t want to answer, I’m simply going to reply, “Forty-Two.” After all, that is the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The first time I tried to read this book I was disappointed. Not because it was a disappointing book itself exactly, but because my expectations and ideas of what it was were all wrong. I got distracted with another book, and set it aside for when I would be in a better frame of mind. But it was recommended to me by someone who has earned my trust with books (looking at you, Carrie), and she also said it took her two tries. Because of this, and because I didn’t dislike it, I was just surprised by it, I decided to give it another try.

It sounds interesting enough. Here’s the cover description, for anyone who may not know this book.

Narrated by Death, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she discovers something she can’t resist – books. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever they are to be found. With the help of her accordion playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. Markus Zusak…has crafted an unforgettable novel about the ability of books to feed the soul.

And after two back-to-back disappointing, DNF’s (did-not-finish) from my reading list, I was absolutely determined I would finish this story. I couldn’t be happier I did. If I may corrupt a quote from another book, I fell in love with The Book Thief slowly, and then all at once.

The narration by Death, is not at all depressing or overpowering. He is tired, jaded, a bit self-righteous and snarky at times, but his moments of tenderness are what stuck in my mind. And this isn’t really Death’s story anyway. He’s simply telling the story of one of the humans whose life continually intersected with his in WWII-era Germany.

Liesel has lost so much by the time she comes to her foster parents. They take in a scared and traumatized little girl, and slowly she learns the feeling of love again. Her foster father was an incredibly powerful character. The time and love he spent on that little girl was touching. She truly was his daughter. And even her harsh and demanding foster mother constantly showed her love through her actions to Liesel.

I was about a third of the way into the book before I finally got truly hooked. The adventures and crises that she goes through with the boy next door helped break some of the tension of the war and the persecution of the Jews. From street soccer and track meets, to running with a gang of thieves, they have moments of joy and even at times the semblance of a normal childhood.

But after finishing this book, it didn’t seem to me that this book was even really about Liesel as a character. Not in the way a book like Anne of Green Gables, is truly about Anne. In some ways it seemed more like the story of a time and a way of life, an entire group of people, and the struggles the war brought to Germany. Liesel was living in a story. But the story was more than Liesel. It was more than falling in love with a main character and caring about what happens to them, or simply following behind them as they live their story. It was living her life with her. You walk in Liesel's shoes, and live her life as she lived it.

The writing was excellent. I know some people feel that Zusak’s prose was too flowery and metaphors and descriptions at times made no sense, but it worked for me. It didn’t feel forced, and at times it lent extra drama to the setting, at times it softened it. The only thing that was hard for me, was frequently throughout the story, Zusak stops the normal narration flow, and adds a comment/fact/list in the middle of the page IN BIG BOLD LETTERS, before returning to the story.


1. This was very jarring to me.

2. It felt completely unnecessary.

3. I liked the book anyway.

 But thankfully by the time I was about a third of the way into it, they were fewer and farther in between, and I had kind of learned to tune them out. Maybe it’s just me, but it felt like being shouted at, or having a neon sign flashed in my face. Still, it wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment.

I have to say, this book is definitely not for children. It’s YA and up, simply because of the violence and gore, the language (which was more than I like), and the subject matters dealt with (thievery, concentration camps, persecution, death, etc.).

I can’t assume everyone will like this book, but I have to say I think it’s definitely one you should at least try. It’s a perspective on the war that I’d never read before (and when I say this I mean the perspective of a young German girl – not Death) and never even really thought about. And beyond that, it’s just a darn good story, with an excellent, though somewhat sad ending.

There were many quotes I loved in this book. Here are just a few.

When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything.

She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.

Sometimes she sat against the wall, longing for the warm finger of paint to wander just once more down the side of her nose, or to watch the sandpaper texture of her papa’s hands. If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread out on top of it. It was the best time of her life.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Did Not Finish

I can't not finish a story once I've started it. Yes, I may take an entire month to read a hundred pages, but somehow I will finish that sucker. Something about finishing a job started, or some sense of loyalty to the characters...I don't know. I HAVE to finish it, even if maybe it's not that great of a book.

But I do have exceptions. Books that are actually offensive I won't bother finishing. Sometimes there's something in the writing style or characterizations that I just can't deal with. Or if it's just plain stupid. These books are few and far between though, and that's why in the last year I've only had three "did not finish" books - that is, books I didn't finish for a good reason and never will. And in my opinion, three is too many.

The Recue by Nicholas Sparks

I tried. I honestly did. I’ve heard Nicholas Sparks raved about by so many people, and it seems like every year brings a new movie based on one of his books. When even Brother #4 read one and loved it, I knew I was in for a treat. But I only got 50 pages before I caught myself constantly rolling my eyes. And then I did something I never NEVER do. I started skimming. That’s how I know a book has gotten bad – if I have to skim. And my skimming proved to me that nothing changed.

The writing was so poor I found myself getting pretty annoyed. For instance, towards the beginning, at a very dramatic climactic scene, the hero has a huge search party organized to go into the woods and search for a missing little boy. He has them gathered and is making a very dramatic speech about finding this boy. Does the author write the speech? No, he tells you from a third-person point of view, the content of the speech. Instead of, “We’re going to find this boy and bring him home,” he said, Sparks writes more like He told them that as the night deepened it was important that the find the boy soon, and return him home. He said the rain was coming in, and they only had so much time left. This may not seem like such a big deal, but the entire book was like that. Huge passages of dialogue, instead of being written as dialogue for you to read, were written as a description of the content of the dialogue. It may be nit-picky but it really grated on me after a while.

And in combination with a thin plot, weak characters, and generally cheesy writing, I just couldn’t do it. I have heard that this isn’t one of his best, so maybe I still haven’t given him a fair shot. I’m willing to try one more time with a different book, just for the sake of trying. Can any of you recommend which would be the best one to try?

Leverage by Matt Forbeck

I love this TV show. I can’t even put into words how great it is. Every episode makes me laugh out loud, and the characters have just become part of me after watching it so many times. The idea of the show is that a group of con artists, thieves, and grifters have come together to use their individual specialties to help victims of white collar crimes, loan sharks, etc., get justice where the law failed them. Yes, it’s vigilantism, but Batman is a vigilante, and I like him too. Watching these crooks using their talents to help average people, instead of for their own prosperity is just so different from anything I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, the show only has five seasons, and that’s just not enough. When I saw that there was a series of novels after the show, I admit, I may have become rather fangirlish. I shouldn’t have bothered. From the few chapters I read, about the only thing I can say is that it was as clean as the show. Other than that, though, there was nothing about it that I could appreciate. The dialogue was nothing like the show, and the whole thing was just very, again, cheesy. Facts that any show-watcher would know, were related over and over again. The characters were stiff and unnatural. I didn’t have to read very far to realize I should just stick with the show.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This one was simple to put down. About 50 pages in, suddenly every page had either gratuitous language or sexual references. The clinical scientific voice of the narrator, and the odd mismatching of him with a very…er, quirky woman already had me raising an eyebrow. By the time it became truly ‘adult’ in the foulest sense of the word, I had no trouble putting it down.

I don’t like having to put books away unfinished, but sometimes that’s the best choice. Thankfully there’s only three, but still I wish there weren’t that many. And hopefully it will be quite a while before I have enough to write another of these posts.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

When I picked this book up, I was pretty wary of it, once I realized what it was – an adult novelization of the children’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. For one thing, why was the novelization of a beloved children’s book shelved in the adult section? And for another thing, I LOVE the original. How much would the author mess with it? I never finished watching the movie, although what I saw was alright – not great but alright. Knowing that this was based on the screenplay I kind of knew what to expect.

I read some reviews to prepare myself, and saw other fans of the original ranting about it, giving it single star ratings, and berating Eggers for adding so much to one of their favorite childhood stories. But honestly, the original Where the Wild Things Are is all of three hundred and thirty-eight words long – shorter than this blog post. I really don’t see how Eggers could avoid adding to it.

But maybe going into it armed with the complaints of disappointed fans helped in the end. I liked it. Max in many ways is every child that has ever lived. The way he thinks, how seriously he takes life, his impulsiveness, unintentional destructiveness, and regret afterwards are all things I remember from being small myself, and have seen in other children countless times. From his snowball fight, to his terror over learning in a science class that the sun will die, Max embodies so much of childhood. He was very similar to Calvin from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. I loved him up until the night that ended with him fleeing to the island of The Wild Things.

Max of the original “made mischief of one kind and another” and ends by telling his mother “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” for which he is “sent to bed without eating anything.” I consider this a positive message. Max roughhouses, mouths off, and is disciplined. Max of this new story roughhouses, disobeys his mother, runs from her, yells at her, and then when she catches him, bites her. Does he get grounded? Disciplined in any way? No. Instead he panics and runs off into the night before she can do anything. This change really bothered me, not because it is a change from the original, but as a perfect example of what’s wrong with modern parenting – lack of discipline. Children no longer face consequences for their disobedience and bad behavior.

When Max runs away, he finds a boat and sails away until he comes to the island of The Wild Things. Each of The Wild Things have a name and a personality of their own, and pretty quickly you realize each one embodies a different aspect of Max’s personality – his loneliness, his insecurity, his destructiveness, etc. I felt like the creatures were really close to the spirit of the original. They were each unique and interesting in their own right. At times, it was terrifying to see a child’s recklessness in a huge, powerful being. It reminded me of what my uncle has always said: if that child throwing a tantrum there was six-foot tall and two hundred pounds, he would kill you. The Wild Things perfectly demonstrate that.

The beginning of the island sequence as Max begins to get to know them and assumes kingship, was really fun to read…at first. My enjoyment went downhill rapidly. At first he enjoys spending time with creatures even wilder than he is, but over and over things go horribly wrong, people end up hurt, and Max is back in his pattern of destruction. He blames himself, says wherever he goes he ruins things, and wants to go back home. So he does. And when he does his mother has left dinner in the kitchen for him and fallen asleep on the couch where she was waiting.

See any problems with this?

Not only is there NO discipline, he’s rewarded for his behavior. That was really hard for me to take. But there was something that bothered me even more than that – bothered me so much I kept rereading the last fifty pages over and over, praying I had missed something.

Max starts out the book impulsive and accidentally destructive. He constantly acts before he thinks, not realizing the consequences of his actions. He never sees beyond the present moment. Things that seem like a good idea “at the time,” continually come back to bite him. And he hates it. He wants so badly to be good, but he keeps messing up. He knows he’s destructive, calls himself that, wants to be better, but can’t be. And then on the island it keeps happening that way again. He is confronted openly with his thoughtlessness and the price he must pay for it.

But he never has a moment of redemption. He leaves the island with the same mindset he came with. “I’m destructive. I want to be better. But everything always goes wrong when I’m around. I want to be better. Why can’t I be better?” He never has a moment of hope or of realization that he can change and break the pattern. And that was very sad to me. It’s just another example of the hopelessness of the secular worldview. It left the book feel pretty unresolved, and that is a pet peeve of mine. I need an ending. And I spent hours rereading, searching for my ending, my resolution. It just wasn’t there.

All the same, I liked Max when I was supposed to, felt bad for him when I was supposed to, and hated him when he was at his most selfish (which I think I was supposed to). The book was well-written, and while the broken-family setting feels pretty cliché to me, it didn’t bother me too much in this one. It will never be a setting I particularly like, but I’ll ignore it if I like the story. The creatures became my friends for the course of the book, and I was sorry when Max had to leave them. Overall, even with my problems with it, it’s still one I would reread.

I think I figured out why it’s shelved in the adult section. It’s written with a very nostalgic feel, like an old man remembering his childhood. And when Max is on the island, it is quite violent. Not gory, but violent. The monsters rock-fight, roll boulders on each other, and threaten to eat each other and Max, among other things. It’s violent enough that it could be disturbing to some children. Other than that though, there was only one curse word in the entire book, and I would consider it appropriate YA fiction, as well as adult.

If you go into it with an open mind, knowing it’s different than the picture book, but still in the spirit of it, and are willing to look past the lack of punishment for Max’s disobedience, it’s worth a read, simply because it’s well-written, has good characters, and is just a fun, if occasionally dark adventure.

My favorite passage of the book is towards the end:

Max ran his fastest until he was a few houses away, when he slowed down to a jog, the a walk. Why did he slow down? It confused Max, too. Perhaps it was the very weight of being home again. He’d been gone so long. Years, it seemed. And now he was back, and he was different. Would his mother recognize him? Would Claire? In some ways he felt too big for this house. But he also felt newly able to fit within it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Manic Monday: Introduction

Mondays can be tough. Coming off the weekend, getting back to work and school, reminding yourself that not every day is for relaxation, rest, and fun…well, things can feel a bit crazy. I’ve gotten a bit like Garfield, lurching out of bed muttering hatred against Mondays – not the best attitude to start my week with.

But what if Monday was something different? What if instead of dreading the grind of another week, I started out thinking about all the blessings of the past week? Every week, even the ones I expect to be difficult, bring sweet moments and special surprises. It’s a habit I’d like to try to develop. So each week, I’m going to try to take a few moments out of my ‘Manic Monday’ to be thankful for what the previous week brought.

Birthdays: June in our family brings birthdays and anniversaries galore. This past week my mother and Nephew #1 hit milestone birthdays. Mom would probably rather not have her age broadcasted, but let’s just say she and Disneyland share a birth year. And Nephew # 1 has now survived his first decade on Earth. Happy Birthday to these two very special people.

Book Shopping: Any week I go book shopping is a good week. Anyone who knows me, knows I hate paying full price. So I’ve learned how to work the system, using local used bookstores, and GoodWill bookstores. Am I the only one who didn’t know about GoodWill bookstores?! The prices are even better than the books in actual GoodWill stores! I found a few books I’ve been looking for, which always makes me happy, happy, happy.

Leaky Shower Heads: California is in a state-wide drought, and this means the state government is on our collective backs constantly now, about conserving water. We’re now on a 2-day-a-week watering schedule, and my tomatoes are not taking kindly to it. I never thought I’d be thankful for a leaky showerhead, but collecting the dripping water in a pitcher to use in the garden means my tomatoes get just that much more of a chance at survival. And that is always something to be thankful for.

Sunshine: Living in coastal Southern California has it advantages. Our legendary ‘June Gloom’ is not one of them. For about a month (which may or may not actually be June) every day opens with a thick, dark layer of low-lying cloud cover, that doesn’t burn off until about three in the afternoon. This week finally seemed to mark the end of our June Gloom. Every morning has been bright, sunny and warm, and it is officially summer in SoCal.

Close to Heart & Home: I spent the last week getting this blog running and formatted to my taste. It was quite a project, but incredibly fun, and I’m happy with how it has all come together. Of course, I’m still trying to figure some things out, but I don’t take this opportunity for granted.
Friends: As I was working on this blog, many of my friends and family offered me help and advice, for which I am always grateful. Birthdays also have brought many friends to mind as they’ve wished my mother well, or as I’ve thought of their own birthdays. So many people touch our lives, and even when we don’t see them as much as we would like, they are still a part of us. So thank you to everyone who is a part of my life.

Friday, June 19, 2015

More Than Just a Blog

I’ve thought about starting a blog for quite a while now. It took me months though to finally do it. I wanted to take the time to figure out what I wanted to do with it and what my purpose should be. What’s the point of a blog anyway? Is it a public diary? A way to become famous? Make money? None of this really sounded right to me, but that seems to be the way most people use blogs – for self-promotion. That’s not a world I really wanted to be drawn into.

But then something happened. I made a friend. A friend who has a blog, though she hesitates to call herself a blogger. I watched how she used it, as a way to share her life and bless other people. And I, as a reader, used it as a way to keep up with her. I came across a few other blogs that were similar – normal people with normal lives, sharing the beauty that can be found in normality. I found a conservative Christian blogger, writing about current events in a way I’d never seen before. I started reading my cousin’s blog, which I had shamefully neglected, and saw how she shares so much of her life with the people who truly care. And finally it clicked. Yes, a blog can become about self-promotion and notoriety. But it can also just be about friendship and life, sharing and talking about the things that really matter to us, seeking to bless others, while being blessed ourselves.

This is what I hope to do. This isn’t a public diary, or a way to seek fame and money. I may be unable to resist the urge to occasionally climb on top of my soapbox for certain subjects, but I’ll try to control myself, because this isn’t a platform for diatribes. What this really is, is a letter. Most of you are my friends, and this is a way to share with you. Maybe I’ll even make a few new friends along the way. I don’t really know where Close to Heart & Home is going to take me, but I hope I can make it mean as much as other blogs have meant to me.