Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Like Moonlight at Low Tide by Nicole Quigley

You know we’re friends when I’m willing to (cautiously) break my self-imposed reading rules for you. One of these rules, and the one I most stick to, is no Christian fiction, and for pity’s sake no Christian YA fiction. I am a Christian but that doesn’t mean I will lower my literary standards for Christian authors, and it also doesn’t mean I enjoy being beaten over the head with a (generally poor) Gospel sermon every time I pick up my book to relax. I have had never yet read a well-written Christian fiction novel, let alone the double-whammy of a Christian YA novel.

Well, I’ve made a new friend the last few months, and I broke my rule, and I’m very happy I did so. Like Moonlight at Low Tide is everything I didn’t think Christian YA fiction could ever be, and everything I think it should be.

When high school junior Melissa Keiser returns to her hometown of Anna Maria Island, Florida, she has one goal: hide from the bullies who had convinced her she was the ugliest girl in school. But when she is caught sneaking into a neighbor's pool at night, everything changes. Something is different now that Melissa is sixteen, and the guys and popular girls who once made her life miserable have taken notice. When Melissa gets the chance to escape life in a house ruled by her mom's latest boyfriend, she must choose where her loyalties lie between a long-time crush, a new friend, and her surfer brother who makes it impossible to forget her roots. Just as Melissa seems to achieve everything she ever wanted, she loses a loved one to suicide. Melissa must not only grieve for her loss, she must find the truth about the three boys who loved her and discover that joy sometimes comes from the most unexpected place of all.

On the surface it sounds like a fairly run-of-the-mill YA novel. But as I started reading it, I was pleasantly surprised. Missy is fighting to keep her head above water in the one place she’d hoped never to return to. But nothing is what she’d expected. She is forced to confront elements of her past that she’d rather forget about, and deal with a painful present. Add to that the three boys in her life that all love her different ways – her popular long-time crush, the new friend that gives her a haven away from her home, and her brother, desperately pursuing his dream to one day escape. She calls them “the boy who loved me, the one who couldn’t, and the one who didn’t know how.” It’s part of the mystery of this story as you try to figure out which boy falls into which category.

My primary problems with Christian YA are threefold. They tend to be poorly written and overly preachy, as I said above. But also, they seem to have the exact opposite problem secular YA has – they’re too squeaky-clean and overly sanitized. Now I know that may seem like an odd complaint, but it’s not the fact that they’re “clean” that I take issue with. It’s the unrealistically, perfect Christian girl trope…the oh-so-saccharine, evangelical Mary Sue. I have no interest in having a fantastically ideal inhuman Christian thrown in my face. It’s not helpful for me, and only serves to aggravate me with useless comparisons, or disgust at such an outlandish character. Christianity is not neat and tidy. It’s a messy, difficult, painful journey – there’s a reason it’s compared to warfare in the Bible. And no Christian novels seem to effectively capture this for me.

But in Like Moonlight, it’s not about portraying a perfect Christian. It’s about showing how faith heals broken people. Missy’s life is broken, her family is broken, and she is broken. There’s nowhere for her to turn, and the harder she tries to find an answer, the more she realizes how lost she really is. She’s no perfect Mary Sue. She’s a perfectly human human.

This is not a squeaky-clean book (thank heavens), but neither is it full of profligacy and foul language. Quigley does not go out of her way to show sin and ugliness in full-color detail, nor does she dwell on it unduly. She simply shows that it is there, and how it affects people. Again, that’s how life is. We are surrounded by sin and ugliness, and while we may not want to dwell on that, we cannot close our eyes to it. Quigley balances things well. Overall, this is a generally well-written novel. The setting lives and breathes and the characters are fairly well-developed. I look forward to reading it again.

Four stars out of five, and I highly recommend this book to all Christian young adults, and any Christian fiction skeptics, who are willing to give it a try.

What about you? Have you read this one? What did you think of it?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo: The Dark Side

Previously, I wrote about The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Everything I said in that first part was wholeheartedly true. I admitted there were problems with the KonMari method, but talked more about the good I derived from it. As much as I loved it though, there were several significant problems that a reader should know about before getting into this book.

By far my biggest problem with the entire book was (ironically) her section on “tidying” (translation: purging) books. It was extreme in the extreme, heartless, atrocious, and as one of my friends put it “not to be used.” Well, perhaps I’m being just a tad dramatic, but that doesn’t change the fact that I happily ignored 85% of her content on books. I knew I was in for a rough time of it as soon as she started with rereading books.

The most common reason for not discarding a book is “I might read it again.” Take a moment to count the number of favorite books that you have actually read more than once. How many are there? For some it may be as few as five while for some exceptional readers it may be as many as one hundred. People who reread that many, however, are usually people in specific profession, such as scholars and authors. Very rarely will you find ordinary people like me who read so many books.

Well then, I suppose I must not be “ordinary people.”

Let’s face it. In the end you are going to read very few of your books again …we need to stop and think about what purpose these books serve. Books are essentially paper – sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves. You read books for the experience of reading.

Amen. Books are not mere shelf ornaments or decorations. They matter for their content. That is what sparks joy.

…take them in your hand one by one and decide whether you want to keep or discard each one. The criterion is, of course, whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it. Remember, I said when you touch it. Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading it clouds your judgment. Instead of asking yourself what you feel, you’ll start asking whether you need that book or not.

Wait…what? I thought the content that mattered, that books are meant to be read, and it is that that gives them meaning.

The honest truth is, the entire section on books felt like it was written by a person who does not truly love reading. Oh, I’m sure she reads, but does she truly love reading? Do books mean something to her, in her very heart and soul? I’m not so sure. As for myself, I am constantly rereading my books. I rarely buy books I am not positive that I will love enough to read multiple times. Every time you reread a book, you are revisiting an entire universe, taking a vacation and experiencing a new life. How can you not reread your favorite books?

Another statement I took issue with was when she discussed books you own and have not read yet. “Sometime means never.” While I try only to buy books I know I love or am relatively positive I will love, I do have a few I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. And you know what? For me, sometime does not mean never. Sometime means sometime. It means that I will get to a place where I have nothing new, and am not in the mood to reread and that “sometime” book will have its time. I do not buy books I don’t intend to read. And I do not have books that remain unread for terribly long.

All the same, I went through my books using her “sparks joy” method, and, rebel that I am, I even skim-read a few of them to decide. Are you properly shocked? And skimming the contents, did not make me feel like I had to keep a book. On the contrary, skimming helped me get rid of more than I would have otherwise. Granted when everything was over with I only got rid of one small box of books – a miniscule amount compared to what other categories of belongings produced. But even she admitted that every person is going to have a different number that will be their “enough.” One woman may have six pairs of shoes, while a shoe-love may have two dozen, and both may have the perfect number for them. I have my perfect number of books, and if it is more than “ordinary people” may consider normal, I’m okay with that.

Book lovers, be warned.

While this section offended my bookish sensibilities and had me ranting to anyone that would listen to me, it was not the most problematic area of this book. That title fell to the sections covering her Zen philosophy. From praying to your house and greeting it when you get home from work, to thanking your possessions for their service before getting rid of them and not rolling your socks because it hurts their feeling and they cannot rest, it read like a something out of Wonderland. She believes that if you ask your house to help you during the tidying process, everything will go more smoothly, and the house will aid with organization. And when she talks about getting rid of these semi-sentient possessions she goes on an amusing little sideline.

Everything you own wants to be of use to you. Even if you throw it away or burn it, it will only leave behind the energy of wanting to be of service. Freed from its physical form, it will move about your world as energy, letting other things know that you are a special person, and come back to you as the thing that will be of most use to who you are now, the thing that will bring you the most happiness. A piece of clothing might come back as a new and beautiful outfit, or it may reappear as information or a new connection. I promise you: whatever you let go will come back in exactly the same amount, but only when it feels the desire to return to you.

Once I got past my shock at this paragraph, I had to set the book down because I was laughing so hard. The image of old underwear-energy floating through my plane of existence, whispering to my stuffed animals about what a wonderful person I am, just tickled me to death.

I’m sorry. I don’t believe my socks feelings are hurt. I don’t believe my house is sentient (and if I ever am lead to believe it is, I’ll be holding an exorcism). I don’t believe discarded possessions are reincarnated as outfits, information, or anything else.

In reading a few other bloggers on this subject though, I found another way to take her beliefs in this area. Her point in thanking items for their services, is to be mindful and grateful for what you have – not merely focused on trashing things. These other Christian bloggers took her instructions and twisted them just a hair. Instead of thanking your items for their service, maybe we should be thanking God for putting these things in our lives, for giving us good things when we need them, and helping us to see when we don’t. And thanking him for giving us our home, not thanking our home for being there.

While her beliefs about sentience and energy were a little…um…wacko for my taste, they were few and far between enough that I could poke fun or ignore them. They did not in any way ruin the overall method for me, but I do think you should go into this book knowing it’s there. “Forewarned is forearmed,” and other such clich├ęs.

It would be easy to take the few things I disagreed with, and use them to attack the overall book, disarming it of any helpfulness, but I don’t think that would be doing justice to thought and care Kondo has put into it. And if I only enjoyed books that I agreed with 100%, there would be much fewer books on my shelves. Don’t let the quirkiness put you off from giving the KonMari method a fair shot.

What do you think? Have you done the method yet? Did you talk to your socks?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo: KonMari and Me

I think at this point pretty much everybody has heard something about Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and the “KonMari Method,” named after the author. Pretty much every time I went on Pinterest I would find little references to it, and I spent an hour one afternoon reading reviews on Goodreads. After several months, the hubbub still had not died down, and I figured I needed to decide what I thought of it.

From the reviews I found and the opinions of many different people I  knew that pretty much all readers fall into two camps – either you love the method, take it and apply it to your life, or you hate it, think it’s insane, and spend large amounts of time and word-space mocking it. Knowing myself, and how much of a scoffer I am when it comes to fads like this, I assumed I would fall into this second group, and I was already plotting what pompous, sarcastic way I would shred her method. Alas and alack, it was not meant to be.

I read it at first skeptically, but after just a few pages, before I even knew how she’d done it, Kondo had somehow forced my mind to stay open. I read it suspending judgment, and sincerely trying to give her a chance to explain her entire method and the “whys and wherefores” of it, and I truly believe that reading it this way you cannot hate it. You may disagree with it and choose a different way, but if you actually listen to what she’s trying to say, there’s nothing you can truly hate her (or her method) for.

A little background on what “tidiness” (or the lack of it) looks like in my life. I love things. I love clothes that make me feel elegant, quirky, stylish, relaxed, or any other mood. I love craft paper – the scraps, the shreds, salvaged paper, found paper – and the things I dream of doing with it. I love fabric the same way – every little piece of it, whether I have a plan on using the scraps or not. But beyond loving my things, I am also a creature of guilt. I’ve practically turned it into an art form. “I can’t get rid of that. So-and-so gave it to me. I spent too much money on it. I have too many memories associated with it. I may use it.” And if I dare to try to ignore those voices, they smack me with extreme guilt and shame.

I do not consider myself a hoarder. I like to get rid of things. I’m not terribly disorganized. I’m just OCD enough that I love spending a day organizing. But where I fail is in getting rid of things in spite of guilt. I fail to ignore the guilt, ignore the I’ll-use-it-later lie and ignore misplaced sentimentality. The KonMari method got me through all of that. And I can say that, because I used it, it worked, and I’m happier for it.

Kondo explains that even though she does this professionally, it is not something she can “do” for her clients. She teaches them, guides them through it, and it gets done, but she is not the one deciding what they need or do not need. She states (and I truly believe this) that it is not something anyone can do for you. Only you know your life and your heart, and only you can decide what does or doesn’t belong in your life. She only teaches you how to recognize and successfully choose what to keep or dispose of.

She teaches one criteria by which you must judge every item in your house – a criteria that has become its own catchphrase: does it spark joy? Before I read the book, I’d heard a lot of negative criticism of this criteria. People were complaining it was too vague, others that it was too specific. Some declared it was impossible to feel joy over a pair of socks or underwear, let alone less minutiae like paperclips or toothbrushes.

But for me at least, it worked. Don’t get me wrong. I experienced no overwhelming gush of ecstasy at any point during my sorting. But I could evaluate whether something gave me positive or negative feelings. The Google definition of joy is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” I don’t know about the “great” part, but I certainly could tell whether something brought me pleasure and happiness…yes even socks and paperclips.

For instance, I had more socks than any one human being needs, and not even just fun socks, but dingy gym socks. In evaluating my underwear drawer, I could tell having so many pairs of socks gumming up the works was an annoyance and unnecessary weight. I went through and kept the nicest of them, and yes, deciding which ones to keep brought me pleasure.

Kondo says, “…focusing solely on throwing things away can only bring unhappiness. Why? Because we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of…Pick [what you will keep] as if you were identifying items you loved from a showcase in your favorite store.”

The one claim she made that I had a very hard time swallowing was that, using her method, you will never rebound, never slip back into clutter again. That just didn’t make sense to me. Surely, as human beings, we will inevitably reaccumulate… But after working through her book, and listening to her logic for making such a claim, I understand how she can say it.

The entire method hangs on doing your entire home in a very short period. In reality, she allows six months, which seems generous to me. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be able to do everything in one weekend. The idea is that KonMari, done thoroughly and rapidly, brings about such a dramatic change so quickly that it alters the way you think about possessions. The difference is so stark that you never want to go back to the way things were before, and equipped with your new mindset and skills, you can keep from doing so. The claim isn’t that you will never need to get rid of anything, or never need to organize an area ever again. The claim is that it will never get out of control again, because you will be dealing with things much sooner and automatically. This I can vouch for. Instead of seeing something I know I don’t really want/need and making excuses to keep it, I immediately deal with it, keeping more from piling up.

It wasn’t always comfortable or easy. There were times I had to stop for a while and let my mind clear. There were times where I was filled with self-disgust at how much utter crap I had bought and saved. So many, “What was I thinking?” moments. So much frustration at the thought of money wasted. It was even painful at times, as I had to admit idiotic life decisions. But I was prepared for that.

“The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful. It forces us to confront out imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we made in the past. Many times when confronting my past during the tidying process, I have been so ashamed, I felt like my face was on fire…The things we own are real. They exist here and now as a result of choices made in the past by no one other than ourselves. It is dangerous to ignore them or to discard them indiscriminately as if denying the choices we made. This is why I am against both lettings pile up and dumping things indiscriminately.”

But even in spite of the painful moments, the overall effect was incredibly freeing. I filled a large trashcan with garbage, and I also filled the spacious trunk of our family car three times…from two rooms. It was truly shocking to see how much I had that I didn’t love, didn’t need, didn’t even want. I let go of I’ll-use-it-laters I had no intention of using. I let go of projects I would never finish, and sometimes never even start. I let go of gifts that people had given me I had kept for no other reason than that. I let go of clothes that I had kept simply because they were still good and I’d paid for them myself. I let go of pieces of my past I didn’t want to remember but was afraid to lose. And with every category of items “tidied” I was more determined to make it all the way to the end.

I’m fairly convinced after reading the book and reading many negative reviews and blog posts – and not only negative, but some positively venomous – that most of the true “haters,” have a basic misunderstanding of the method, or simply don’t want to do it. So they say that “joy” is stupid. Doing it quickly means a weekend (not what she claims – she says six months). She’s a childless spinster therefore it won’t work for anyone else (that’s just mean! – as well as ignoring the fact that she’s KonMari-ed clients with families). I have problems with the book, but none of these are them.

Do I think the method is infallible? No. Is it for everyone? Probably not. As a matter of fact, I take major issue with three or four points in Kondo’s book. I spent an entire day railing to anyone who would listen about how awful a few points were. But I do think everyone, if they tried, could get something amazing out of this book. Every single claim, every rule, and every plea is thoroughly explained and backed up with logic. She doesn’t go the path of the minimalists and lecture the reader like a child, or force you to follow lists of what to keep and what to get rid of, telling you what you need like she’s your mother. She gives you reasons for what she said, and makes you understand why you should at least hear her out. She is encouraging, and warns you of emotions that may make it all more difficult (for me, it was guilt), and then helps you continue in spite of that.

Like I said, my “sparks joy” experience as I went through everything was no overwhelming feeling of ecstasy. But I could tell that the amount of possessions I had, was an unpleasant weight. As I weeded through, judging whether I felt positively or negatively about something, choosing what I really loved and needed in my life, piece by piece that weight gradually lifted. Once you’ve gotten rid of what you don’t need, don’t want you can truly see and enjoy what you have. The clothes that are hanging in my closet are all clothes I love now – that means anytime I pick an outfit, I can’t really lose. I already love all of it. I can look at my shelves and be happy with how it looks, instead of frustrated and embarrassed by the mess. That’s when I felt joy much more strongly.

Again, I did have several problems with points of the KonMari method, and I plan on doing a separate post next week addressing those. Here I simply wanted to give a book review and talk about my experience putting it into action, and that took long enough. I honestly cannot encourage you enough to at least give this book a try. If you’re anything like me, it may be exactly what you need.

Part II can be read over here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hollow City & Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs

I decided to review the last two books of the Miss Peregrine series together, because otherwise I will most likely let slip too many spoilers – an unforgiveable act anytime, but especially with this series. Unfortunately, to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read the first book yet, I can’t even share the “official” summaries. That’s how many twists and turns this story takes.

Hollow City picks up at the exact point Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children leaves us. Jacob and his new friends embark on a manhunt, and the fate of all mankind hangs on their success. They face great danger, find both friends and foes in unexpected places, and each child must find the strength to do things they never imagined themselves doing. Library of Souls also picks up at the exact point Hollow City ends, and I can say all the same things about that book.

But there’s so much more to this series than that. Yes, it’s your great adventure, with a save-the-world plotline, danger, mystery, intrigue, everything you expect. It’s also very dark at times. Friends are lost, families separated, lines crossed. Not everything can be tied up in neat and tidy packages, and you can’t always protect each other from hurt. Jacob and his friends aren’t only children, they’re soldiers fighting for all they’ve known and love.

Something that really struck me was how you can actually see their journey taking a physical toll on them. So often in adventure stories the characters traverse entire countries like it’s next to nothing. But for Jacob and his friends every day is hard, exhausting, fraught with danger. They run on adrenaline but eventually it runs out and they’re left cold, tired, and with no warm and easy rest for the night. When they fight it’s not easy, where you’re not in the least worried about them winning at no great cost. There’s always a cost.

But through all the darkness they go through, there’s warmth, because they go through it together. Jacob’s friends are his ”found” family. They support each other, hold on to each other, and care for each other along the way – the way a true family does – even though none of them are actually related by blood.

The quality of the writing and storytelling stayed good through the entire series, and if anything improved. The settings always seemed to live and breathe, but weren’t described in such detail it made me want to skim them. The characters all stayed true to what you expected from them – no sudden changes in direction or personality like I’ve seen in other stories. A few characters in particular really gripped me, and made me care deeply about them. And the nearly seamless flow of each book into the next made it an easy series to stick with.

In each book, the plot expanded more than I ever expected, leading the series to an incredible climax. At times, I didn’t think there was any way all the plotlines could connect cleanly and leave me feeling satisfied and they absolutely did. Loose ends were tied up, and as far as I can tell, no plotline was forgotten. The ending was almost perfect – not exactly what I had dreamed of, but close enough to leave me very happy and contented. Where’s the fun in getting what you expect, anyway? But it did not leave me contented enough that I don’t want more books. Mr. Riggs, any way we can get a few more peculiar tales?

Four stars to the first two books, and five to the last.

Have you read The Peculiar Children series yet? If not, WHY not?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

This review may seem a little out of place now that we’re well past Christmas, but I read it the week of Christmas and only now have gotten to writing up the review. Generally, I try to write a review soon after reading the book, while all my ideas and feelings are still fresh, but this book was so utterly disappointing I didn’t really want to think about it for a while.

Skipping Christmas is the story that one of my very favorite Christmas movies – Christmas with the Kranks – is based on. It also one of those rare cases where the movie is infinitely better than the book. I recently watched the movie again, and wrote about it here. When I was looking for some new Christmas books this year, someone recommended this book, and I was very excited when I realized what it was. I shouldn’t have bothered.

If you’re familiar with Christmas with the Kranks, you know the concept. If you’re not here’s the back-of-the-book blurb:

Imagine a year without Christmas. No crowded shops, no corny office parties, no fruitcakes, no unwanted presents. That's just what Luther and Nora Krank have in mind when they decide that, just this once, they'll skip the holiday altogether. Theirs will be the only house on the street without a rooftop Frosty the snowman; they won't be hosting their annual Christmas Eve bash; they aren't even going to have a tree. They won't need one, because come December 25 they're setting sail on a Caribbean cruise. But, as this weary couple is about to discover, skipping Christmas brings enormous consequences - and isn't half as easy as they'd imagined.

This was a singularly frustrating and borderline depressing read. Luther is a selfish, self-absorbed Grinch, inflicting his ugly attitude upon his reluctant wife. He is rude to her, uncaring towards anyone around him, and constantly bringing a sourness and even anger into his circumstances. Nora goes along with the idea, more enthusiastically over time, but never once in the entire story did I feel like they were together on anything. The tension and outright unloving-ness between them really grated on me after just a few chapters. But the hardest part for me was Luther. After all the whole story is about him.

His character may not sound so different from the movie, but where Tim Allen brought humor and sympathy to the character, Luther in the book is so cold and harsh I never felt anything but pure dislike for him. “Movie Luther” had a kind of pitiful desperation about him that made him comically lovable. I also never once doubted that he and his wife loved each other. In the book, I never once believed they loved each other. And where the movie's ending was a sweet and believable message of redemption and mending fences, the book's ending was simple not convincing. I never believed Luther was a better or more likable person.

Apart from the characters, the writing style was not my most favorite either. Most of the story was narrated by an outside omniscient narrator telling you what’s going on, and I never really felt like I stepped inside the story’s world. The best writing makes you forget there’s a writer. This book couldn’t do that for me.

It could be that my biggest problem with this book is the fact that I can’t take it on its own. I keep comparing it to the film I loved so much. Maybe that’s one of the advantages to reading a book before watching the movie. But on this one, I’m very glad I saw the movie first, because the book most likely would’ve discouraged me from ever watching it. That said, it is a fast, clean, and light Christmas read, something to pad the empty corners of your holiday reading list if you’re looking for a new story. I don’t regret reading it, but neither would I read it again.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

L.M. Montgomery Reading Challenge

Happy belated New Year! 2016 has already started out with some good and some bad. It has kicked off with a nice little holiday vacation to see family and friends in the south, and now back home, I’m in the grip of a nasty cold. Such is the price of traveling. Once I’m feeling a bit better I hope to have a new batch of reviews and other bits and pieces.

For now my focus is on one of the good parts about the new year, and that is Carrie at Reading to Know’s L.M.Montgomery Reading Challenge. This will be my second year participating, but my first as a blogger. Here Carrie lays out the “rules” and details of the challenge.

I’m quite excited about this one, because I have two Montgomery books I’ve never read before. Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat. I already am sure I will love them. And hopefully if there’s time afterward and I don’t get sidetracked with a dozen other books, I’ll pick up the Anne series as well – it’s been a few years since I’ve visited Anne. Much too long, considering I used to read the whole series every year, if not multiple times a year.

Is anyone else going to read along?