Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Tuesdays at the Castle
Author: Jessica Day George
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 32

Ranking my favorites in the Youth Speculative category is going to be hard. Really hard. I've read four of the five books in the category already, and I like ALL of them. I know that choosing between good books is much better than the alternative, and I'm really pleased to see such a strong, competitive category, but man, this is going to be hard.

When I brought home Tuesdays at the Castle, two of my kids immediately commented on it. Annie, my ten-year-old, looked excited and said, "Mom, that's the book that we donated to the library for my birthday" (our elementary schools have a program where you can pay to have a book donated in your child's name for their birthday, and the school chooses something they think the child would like). She said that there was a waiting list for the book, and I told her that I'd read it quickly so she could read it before I returned it to the library. Then Isaac, my seven-year-old, grabbed the book off the counter and said, "There are a bunch of second-graders at school who are reading this." That, of course, made Annie (a fifth-grader) want to have nothing to do with it anymore.

But I'm going to make her read it anyway, because it's just so cute.

Tuesdays at the Castle is the story of Celie, an eleven-year-old princess living in an enchanted castle. At times, the castle will grow rooms or do other kinds of magical things to improve the lives of the royal family, and it seems to have a soft spot for Celie. When her parents go on a journey to a neighboring kingdom and end up missing and her fourteen-year-old brother takes the throne, a whole slew of lords and princes from the surrounding lands descend on the castle to form a council, or a puppet monarchy, at least until he's old enough to run the kingdom by himself (not that they plan to let him live that long). So Celie, Bram, and their older sister, Lilah, along with lots of help from the castle, come up with a plan to oust them and find their parents.

The book is well-written and fun, and reads really fast. George did a great job of making Celie's world feel believable, without spending too much time on the world-building aspects of the story. But I also think that Annie had a point-- this is the one book in the bunch that is for a middle-grade (or even younger) audience, while the other finalists are all firmly YA. As a middle grade novel, I think it's a success, but the fact that it is middle grade also means that it's shorter, with bigger type and a simpler storyline. I think it's does a great job doing what it sets out to do, but I'm not sure how well it will stack up against its more complicated competitors.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merrill (Whitney Finalist)

Title: The Evolution of Thomas Hall
Author: Kieth Merrill
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 31

Thomas Hall is a jerk. He's a hotshot painter who never visits his aging father, refuses to get into serious romantic relationships, fires his manager on a weekly basis, and needs huge commissions to keep up with his tastes for fast boats and even faster cars. He's also a serious talent, who seems to have sold out to the Man-- banking on huge mural projects painting showgirls on the walls of hotels in Las Vegas.

Hall ends up working simultaneously on two very different projects-- one an ode to Charles Darwin in the science museum in San Francisco, and one portraying Jesus performing acts of healing at a children's hospital across town. Hall initially feels more drawn to the science museum project-- he is an agnostic, after all, but museum politics interfere with the job and Thomas finds himself working for a guy who is an even bigger jerk than he is, a guy who won't stop at blackmail to get what he wants. Thomas feels unequal to the Jesus job-- he knows all about religious art, and he knows enough to know that he doesn't know Jesus enough to do his work credit, which is what the rich benefactor requires. But through the influence of his family, his manager, the kids at the hospital, and one very special hospital employee, he opens his heart.

In a lot of ways, The Evolution of Thomas Hall reminds me of the writing of The DaVinci Code, with a lot less fighting and hiding, and if Robert Langdon opened himself up for conversion. Both books real with the intersections between religion and art. Merrill's background as a filmmaker is evident-- this is a book that could be a film. It also reminds me of The DaVinci Code in the way that it's written-- it would be quick-paced if it weren't for all the details. However, there's a level of complexity to the plot and the narrative that's absent in the other General category finalists, as well as attention to detail in the editing process. This feels more professional than the other books I've read, if that makes sense.

A few more things-- The Evolution of Thomas Hall is not a Mormon book, despite being published by Shadown Mountain, a Deseret Book imprint. While many of the characters are religious, none is overtly LDS. The same is true of both The Walk: Miles to Go, and I presume it might be true of The Wedding Letters since last year's Jason Wright book was like this. As someone who writes Mormon characters and wants to make them accessible to a wider audience, I'm interested in reading works that sort of do the opposite-- Mormon authors who use non-Mormon characters for the purpose of inspiration.

The Goodreads summary of The Evolution of Thomas Hall says "he finds himself torn between illustrating a mural on the origins of man for a natural history museum--a tribute to Darwin--and illustrating the miracles of Jesus for a display inside a children's hospital called the Healing Place. A self-proclaimed agnostic, Thomas must dig deep within himself to believe beyond his doubts as he wrestles with that elusive something called faith. Then he meets a young, critically ill girl named Christina. Her haunting past and undeviating faith will test the very soul of Thomas and that of every reader." When I read that I sighed a great big sigh. I didn't want to read a book about the showdown between science and religion. I prefer to believe that my belief in both can comfortably co-exist. But I didn't find the portrayal to be as black and white as I expected (it is true, however, that the only truly bad guy in the book is the Darwinist). 

Finally, on page 419 (yes, this is a brick of a book), Thomas Hall says, "Words and pictures are very different things and art must speak for itself. For once in my life I sincerely hope what this art is about speaks louder than the art itself." I believe that Merrill feels that same way about The Evolution of Thomas Hall, and I think that it shows, both in the attention to detail the book has received and in the over message of inspiration he hopes to achieve.

A letter to Rose-- February 28th

Dear Rose,

Let's talk Mamas.

A year ago, you were growing in your first Mama's tummy. There's so much about her that we don't know-- her name, what she looked like, what hopes and wishes she had for you.

All that we know is that on the night of April 9th, you were found outside an apartment building, dressed in warm clothes and swaddled in a pink blanket.

The doctor who examined you that night thinks you were two days old.

We don't know why your first Mama couldn't keep you. We don't know if you have brothers or sisters. All we know is that we are so grateful that she carried you for nine months, delivered you safely, and had you put in a place where you would be found.

You experienced a major loss before most babies here in the United States are even released from the hospital.

I know I'll never be able to entirely make up for that loss.

But I hope that I can give you the space to grieve, and the assurance that you are a most loved, most wanted, most prayed for blessing in our lives. I can give you the chance to ask hard questions, even if I don't know the answers, even if there aren't any answers.

We can honor your first Mama together. She gave you life, and brought your adorable, sparkly little self into this world. She won't be forgotten, brushed under the rug, or dishonored in any way.

We will also remember all of the women who cared for you for the last ten months-- who fussed over you as you slowly learned to take your bottle, who got you ready to be adopted when you were just a little bitty bit, who keep you clean and safe, who even dressed you up for Chinese New Year and fed you cake. They've been such an important part of your life for the last year-- they are the only people you know, and we're about to take that small bit of comfort and security away from you.

I don't expect you to like it. I don't expect you to like me at first.

But that's okay, because you are already written in my heart. And we'll get through these tough next few weeks and months, and any tough moments that come thereafter.



Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: Girls Don't Fly by Kristen Chandler (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Girls Don't Fly
Author: Kristen Chandler
Enjoyment Rating:9/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 30

On Saturday morning, I got up to go running. It was 5:30 in the morning and windy, and I hadn't made arrangements to run with any of my friends, but I managed to pry myself from my bed with the knowledge that I'd have Myra, the protagonist of Kristen Chandler's Girls Don't Fly to keep me company.

Girls Don't Fly opens with Myra sitting on the steps of her ramshackle house, filled with too much junk and way too many brothers, as her "perfect" boyfriend, Eric, breaks up with her. She's in shock, but in true Myra fashion, she endures the breakup quietly and takes refuge in cleaning. Myra is a good girl-- she works really hard, and everyone can count on her. Everyone does, most notably her parents, who seem to think she's the primary parent to her four younger brothers and her pregnant older sister, who's not married, home on bedrest, and perpetually in a foul mood. As a result, Myra doesn't have time to do much for herself, and she doesn't have great self-esteem. You know all of those stories in the Young Women's manuals about girls who earn their rewards in heaven by sacrificing their dates and their relationships with friends by caring for their hordes of younger siblings? Well, that's Myra.

Except not exactly. Because Girls Don't Fly is set in a western suburb of Salt Lake City, but Myra isn't Mormon, which sets up all sorts of interesting dynamics between her and the other kids at her school, especially after her older sister gets pregnant. As Myra is reeling from her breakup, she learns about a program to send high school students to the Galapagos Islands to work with biology professors. Myra has some vague ambitions for what she'll do after high school, but no plans, no time to work, and zero money, and this program seems like the perfect fit for her. She falls in love with birds and with biology. The birding symbolism is just right-- Chandler introduces each chapter with some detail about birds, but it's not overdone. Think Refuge married with a YA novel, and you've just about got it.

There are a few things that didn't work for me in the novel. The middle is a little bit slow. The relationship she develops with the graduate student who she works with is a little bit icky. Some readers will be uncomfortable with the frank discussions of sex and a scene that very nearly involves a sexual assault. There's also a smattering of adult language. I felt that all of these details were necessary and important for the narrative and didn't seem gratuitous. Also, the villain is a Mormon, which might not make this a popular choice for the Whitneys.

The best thing about Girls Don't Fly is the way Chandler unfolds Myra's growing realization that she is a doormat. In the early chapters, we don't realize that Eric is a jerk because Myra hasn't learned to see him that way. I spent a whole morning run complaining to a friend about how awful Myra's parents were and how Myra needed to learn to stand up for herself, and very shortly Myra started to come to those same difficult conclusions (difficult because Chandler shows that Myra's feelings are complicated-- she loves these people and has sympathy for them, but seriously-- how is she supposed to go to school, have a job, and being the full-time caregiver for five extra people?). There are plenty of books written about spunky, outspoken girls, but not enough about the girls in the back of the class who never raise their hands, not enough books about the Myras of the world.

I've now read 15 books for the Whitneys, and Girls Don't Fly is my favorite so far. Maybe that shouldn't come as a huge surprise since Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me (also by Chandler) was my favorite book last year.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Review: Daughter of Helaman (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Daughter of Helaman
Author: Misty Moncur
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 29

It's a story almost as old as time, or at least as old as Joan of Arc. A girl yearns for the same kind of adventure she sees her brothers enjoying. People tell her she should remain content with her lot in life. She cuts her hair/dresses like a boy/learns to fight/stows away on a ship until she gets the respect she deserves. Here's that story set in Book of Mormon times, where Keturah wants nothing more than to fight with her teenage brothers in Helaman's army. Lots of people tell her no, and then eventually, they let her (no haircuts or breast-binding required).

What to say about this book? It's very readable. I think there are probably lots of readers out there who would enjoy it a lot. It seems to end right at the point where the action starts (does that mean there will be a sequel? Noooooo!). I've decided I am not a big fan of Book of Mormon "historicals" because there is so much about the history of the Book of Mormon that is not known, and all of the books seem to have a modern, American sensibility to them, but I'm not sure how that kind of situation could be remedied. I'm not holding this against the book in any way, but I've decided that I'm not a huge fan of the size of the Covenant/Bonneville books. The pages are big and there's not a lot of white space, and I think I find the amount of type on one page to be overwhelming. I know it's probably cheaper that way, but in the age of the iPad, long blocks of type feel especially fatiguing.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Review: My Unfair Godmother by Jannette Rallison (Whitney Finalist)

Title: My Unfair Godmother
Author: Jannette Rallison
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library copy
Books I've read this year: 28

A couple of years ago, Jannette Rallison's My Fair Godmother was a Whitney Finalist. I thought it was a decent book, but I wasn't in love with it. So I went into reading My Unfair Godmother, its sequel, with a certain guardedness. But I'm pleased to say that the book surprised me in lots of good ways. Just like in My Fair Godmother, Chrysanthemum Everstar, a fairy in training, picks an unsuspecting teenage girl to give three wishes and set her life on course. Chrissy is a pretty horrible excuse for a fairy godmother-- she gets things wrong, she doesn't show up when she should, and she has an attitude. In this book she tries to turn the life of Tansy Miller around, and she does this first by bringing Robin Hood and his Merry Men to the 21st century, and then by sending Tansy and her family back to the 12th century in order to meet up with Rumplestiltskin. There's a lot of humor and hijinks and just the right amount of romance.

I'm not sure why I liked this book significantly better than the first, but I think it might have to do with two things-- sequel fatigue, and having a daughter. First of all, I'm a fair bit of the way into the Whitney reading (13 down, 22 to go-- doesn't sound so great when I put it that way) and I've read a lot of books so far that are sequels or set up sequels. And in order to get the most out of those books, it's essential to start at the beginning and commit yourself to the whole series. What I really like about My Unfair Godmother is that it's more like Quantum Leap than it is like LOST. I did read the first book, but everything I needed to know about Chrissy and Tansy is included in this volume. Chrissy helped someone else (completely unrelated to Tansy) in book one, and if there's a book three, I'm sure it will be with a whole different cast of characters. I'm sure a publisher would give you a million reasons why you want to suck readers into as many books as possible, but as a reader, I appreciate being given the opportunity to decide whether I want to commit to the next volume.

In the time that's elapsed since I read My Fair Godmother, my own daughter has gone from age seven to age ten. Back then she was reading Junie B. Jones, and now she's right on the cusp of reading books like this. And I know that she would adore this book, if not now, then in a few years. There's enough depth and gravitas from Tansy's situation and the way she looks at life to counterbalance Chrissy's fluff, enough romance without it being icky (okay, maybe a little icky in the last few chapters, but icky in a way I think my daughter might like). I always like coming into books like My Unfair Godmother because it's one that I'll file away on my mental shelf for when Annie comes to me complaining about how deathly bored she is.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: Slayers by C.J. Hill (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Slayers
Author: C.J. Hill
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 27

What if dragons really exist? What if pregnant women who come into close proximity to dragon eggs eventually bear children who grow up to become dragon slayers? C.J. Hill explores these questions in her book Slayers, where the dragon slayers, now sixteen and seventeen, gather together at summer camp so they can channel their inner powers and learn to whop some dragon booty.

I'll admit to being skeptical about Slayers. It's not a genre I typically enjoy, it's a book about dragon fighting, and the cover reminded me a lot of that open-mouthed shark that scares the crap out of my kids at the Dinosaur Museum at Thanksgiving Point (random, I know, but Maren kept making me hide the cover under other books). When I sat down yesterday, I figured that this would be a book to be endured, not enjoyed. But it surprised me. The writing is tight-- probably the best writing I've come across in the Whitneys this year (whoever this C.J. Hill is-- it's a pseudonym, knows how to move a plot along and which details are relevant to a story). Even though the book is almost 400 pages long, I read it in less than a day and thoroughly enjoyed it.

That said, I'm not sure it's a book my kids would love, but I think that has more to do with my particular kids than with kids in general. I do think that young teenagers would really enjoy it. It is the first book in a series, but I'm not sure how many books are planned for the series-- it's probably the first of a trilogy, if I had to wager a guess.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review: Before I Say Goodbye by Rachel Ann Nunes (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Before I Say Goodbye
Author: Rachel Ann Nunes
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 26

Back in the day, Rikki and Dante were best friends growing up in Spanish Fork, Utah, dragging Main on Friday nights (Nunes doesn't actually say this, but I imagine that every high school kid in SF has done this at least once, especially wild-child Rikki). They were drawn to each other because they both grew up in dysfunctional households, which set them apart from all the perfect they saw around them. But when Dante decided to go on a mission, Rikki skipped town and didn't come back for 20 years.

When she did come back she had two kids and a brain tumor. You might say that I'm ruining the book for you, but I could tell by the end of the first chapter that she was sick (she takes pills by the handful and mysteriously talks about "not being around" for her kids). So she's come home to reconnect with Dante (now the Bishop, married to a nearly-perfect woman with four kids), and find a place for her children to go once she's gone.

There were a lot of things to like about Before I Say Goodbye. First of all, I think Nunes does a nice job telling the story from multiple points of view. There are times when it feels like some of the characters sound too much alike, but in general, she differentiates between them nicely. Secondly, the Mormons in the book aren't necessarily cookie-cutter Mormons. The kids fight. Dante and Becca's relationship isn't perfect. But they do ultimately make good decisions, even heroic ones.

On the other hand, Dante and Becca sometimes bugged me. I felt that they were stifling as parents, with their constant threats to ground their kids, and everyone did, ultimately make the heroic choices. I also felt that there was no surprises with the plot. From the beginning of the book, I knew what would happen, and it did happen.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Miles to Go
Author: Richard Paul Evans
Enjoyment Rating: 3/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: I had to buy my own hardback copy for $15 from Amazon. No PDF provided; library waiting list too long (Not that I'm bitter or anything)
Books I've read this year: 25

Miles to Go is the second book in The Walk series, and it operates in every way like the second novel in a trilogy. It's The Empire Strikes Back, the Back to the Future 2, of the series. By this, I mean that it assumes that the reader knows everything from the first book and is comfortable picking up mid-story. It also assumes that the reader is going to pay $15 for the third book, so there doesn't need to be any resolution. For a reader like me, who hasn't read the first book and who has no plans to read the third, this makes for frustrating reading.

When the book opens, Alan Christofferson is in the hospital, recovering from being jumped and stabbed by a gang in Spokane. He was in Spokane because he was dealing with his grief from losing his wife (in a tragic accident), his business (a ruthless partner stole the business while he was in the hospital with his wife), and his home (foreclosed on in less than a month! really?), by walking from his home in Seattle to Key West, Florida. After being released from the hospital, Alan spends several months living with Angel/Nicole, a woman who's reeling from her own tragedies. Once he helps her get her life in order, he continues on with his journey, ending somewhere in the upper plains at the end of the book.

That's the entire plot. There may be some kind of narrative arc to the three books, but this book did not have its own that I could tell. I know that Evans is beloved by many, but I find his writing almost unbearable. In describing Angel, Evans says, "She was short, petite, and barely taller than a floor lamp." He includes lots and lots of extraneous detail about movies, and this book doesn't seem to reflect an understanding of using dialogue to move a story forward instead of replicating what people might actually say in a certain situation. Regardless of my opinion, I know that there are hundreds of thousands of people who will buy this book and love it, and I hope they really enjoy it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Letter to Rose-- February 21st

Dear Rose,

Three weeks from today, you'll be officially ours. Last winter, when Daddy showed me the picture of his friends who had adopted a baby and that started me on a relentless path to do the same thing, I don't think I thought it would actually happen. Something would stop us. Someone would get cold feet, or our families would talk us out of it, or we wouldn't pass our homestudy, or we would decide that it was too expensive/long/discouraging and drop out.

I don't think I started to believe it might happen until the night I saw your face. I'm not a crier, Rose, but when the phone rang that night, I cried so hard I could hardly talk to our caseworker at the adoption agency. And every time she's called since then, I've had this Pavlovian crying response. I see the name on the caller ID, and the tears start.

I believed it a little more when we got our Letter of Approval right before Christmas.

And a little more with each subsequent step.

And then, last Thursday, the final call came, the big one. We now have permission to go to China, and adopt you, and become your parents.

When I was pregnant with Bryce, I signed up for BabyCenter's weekly emails, with updates each week to track the pregnancy. When I was pregnant with Isaac, I was one of the featured pregnancy and baby bloggers at, and every week I gave and update on how things were progressing. This time around, I couldn't count weeks until the end, and I knew that a lot of people who hadn't been through the experience before would understand, but I found a group of women at Rumor Queen who were going through exactly the same thing. Each week Molpugh tracked a chart of our progress. When I got on the chart back at the beginning of October, I was in the 130s. Look at me now! As much as I'm glad that the waiting is over, this journey has been kind of fun, with its waits and its ups and downs, there were also lots of opportunity to think about what kind of Mom I'm going to be to you and to recognize that there's an entire community out there whose families look like ours.

 Once the travel approval arrived, I had several sleepless nights, and spent a few days in a frenzy, getting appointments confirmed, emailing people, buying plane tickets, and on Saturday night, 20 full days before we'll get on planes bound for San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Nanjing, I pulled out the suitcases and started packing. Annie's bag is nine pounds under the limit and mine is eleven (but she doesn't have any clothes packed yet). Baby stuff weighs a ton!

But things have settled down, and I'm glad. We have three more weeks until our lives are going to change-- all of them, and I want to have some time to focus on Dad, Bryce, Annie, Isaac, and Maren for a while. I know you're going to take lots of my time, energy, and love for the next few months, and I am fully prepared to give it to you-- I can't wait to become your Mama, but I also don't want anyone else to feel left out.

The waiting is almost over. In seventeen days we leave for China. In twenty, we'll be united as a family. In twenty-one, we'll adopt you. I'm thrilled to know that this journey to you, the one I almost refused to have any faith in, will end with you in our arms.



Book Review: Letters in the Jade Dragon Box (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Letters in the Jade Dragon Box
Author: Gale Sears
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 24

I'm both delighted and a little bit surprised that this is the second book I've read this year with LDS characters and themes that takes place in Asia. And although I might not have picked this book up if it hadn't been for the Whitney Awards, I'm really glad I read it because it gave me lots of good insights about life in rural China, the ramifications of the Great Leap Forward, and some of the ways that the Chinese government destroyed family structures in the 1950s and 1960s.

Letters in the Jade Dragon Box tells the story of Chen Wen-Shan, a teenage girl living with her great-uncle in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s. One day Wen-Shan and her uncle are summoned to the home of an art dealer, who presents them with a Jade Box that contains letters from Wen-Shan's mother and paintings from her grandfather (the uncle's brother). These letters and paintings had to be smuggled out of mainland China and represent the first communication the family has had since Wen-Shan was smuggled over the border herself, ten years earlier. Over the last decade, she's built up resentment and questions about her past, and the answers to those questions are mostly answered through the letters. However, many of the answers are painful to hear.

While the primary narrative deals with Wen-Shen coming to terms with her past, there's an important secondary narrative. The great-uncle (sorry, I can't remember his name and I returned the book to the library) is one of the early converts to the LDS Church in Hong Kong, but when his wife died and Wen-Shan came to live with him, he stopped attending church. While Wen-Shan learns about her past, and she and her uncle also learn more about the Church and make an effort to reengage with it.

I found the book to be interesting, well-researched, and multi-layered. It wasn't a book to read just for the sake of saying I'd finished it, which is sometimes the case when I read for this contest. My main criticism of the book is something that is hard for me to articulate, which is that Wen-Shan felt like an American in her thoughts and ideas. Maybe Sears would account for this by saying that she was very interested in becoming "Western" (a criticism her uncle often levels at her), but her reactions didn't seem to take into account cultural differences (I don't feel like I'm explaining this well). I also thought the book would have worked better written in the first-person. However, these are small complaints, and overall, I really enjoyed Letters in the Jade Dragon Box. More importantly, I felt like I learned a lot without being preached to too much.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Count Down to Love (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Count Down to Love
Author: Julie N. Ford
Enjoyment Rating: 5/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 23

Count Down to Love starts with Kelly Grace Pickens, an aspiring Nashville country star, waiting to walk down the aisle for her wedding to her high school sweetheart. When he never shows up, Kelly Grace has to confront reality-- her fiance/manager has left her high and dry-- she's out of money and opportunities. So she decides to fill in as a last-minute replacement on a Bachelor-esque kind of show (her cousin is a producer). And once there, she (predictably) falls in love with that Bachelor.

Count Down to Love has all of the textbook things you'd expect in a modern romance-- there's the jilting, the spirited heroine finding her way, the inevitable spats between hero and heroine, the return of the jilter, misunderstandings, other women who get in the way, and, finally, a chance at love. The first few chapters were actually pretty well written, with clean and relatively tight (for a romance novel anyway) prose. But the book was riddled with tons of typos and misspelled words (Mason-Dickson line?), and if you've watched a few episodes of The Bachelor, you know exactly who the characters in the novel are and what their complications will be. It didn't surprise me in any way. I predict that Kelly and Dillon will last six months. Because we all know that despite the roses and the fantasy dates, the long-term survival rate of the relationships is in the toilet.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: Isabelle Webb: The Pharaoh's daughter by N.C. Allen (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Isabelle Webb: The Pharaoh's Daughter
Author: N.C. Allen
Enjoyment Rating: 4/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 22

One of the things I frequently encounter when I read for the Whitney Awards is a book that's part of a series. It's rare that I've read the prior books in the series, and if I can't jump into the story, it's some pretty painful reading. There's an art to giving enough backstory to help a reader along, and not too much. JK Rowling had this down to a science-- she hooked her readers with some exciting bit of action, then did just the right amount of backstory, then back to the action. I jumped into the Harry Potter series with book three, and after the second chapter, I felt completely up to speed.

Unfortunately, I never felt like I got up to speed with The Pharaoh's Daughter. There were characters from the previous book introduced in the first few chapters, and later Allen introduced characters from earlier in Webb's life (and maybe earlier books). There were a whole lot of characters, some in disguise, others who were spies (and I didn't understand the spy ring either). And I never quite understood why they were traveling-- was it vacation? For the sake of the jewel? Were they passing it off as vacation to the girls? I'll admit that I probably didn't read the last half of the book as closely as I could have, but that's because I was so darn confused by the time I got there that I didn't know what else to do other than just plug on to the end. As I've been working on my novel over the last year, I've recognized how hard it is to know which details are essential and which aren't, and unfortunately The Pharaoh's Daughter gave too few of the former and too many of the latter.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Miles from Ordinary
Author: Carol Lynch Williams
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 21

Carol Lynch Williams is a master at presenting the tough, dark parts of life, the ones we'd rather leave untouched. In Glimpse, her protagonists were forced into prostitution. In The Chosen One, we read of a young girl who escapes polygamy. And in Miles from Ordinary, Williams tells the story of thirteen-year-old Lacey, who hopes to have a normal summer working at the library, if her Mom will let her.

The problem is that Lacey's mom is sick, apparently with schizophrenia or some kind of related disorder. Lacey has found her a part-time job, and the book takes place on the day that Lacey and her mom are due to report to work. In the first part of the book we see Lacey getting her mom ready for work. We get some of the backstory about the dead grandfather who "talks" to Lacey's mom. We learn that Lacey's Aunt Linda, who used to work at the library and helped create a sense of normalcy in the house, left last year after an enormous fight with Lacey's increasingly unstable mom.  We see Lacey at work and on the bus with a cute boy, but not all that much happens. In the last third of the book, the action picks up. But the book also takes a departure-- until this point, I felt like I'd been reading realistic fiction, but Lacey sees things that leave a reader wondering how realistic this fiction is. Williams has either introduced supernatural elements (heretofore absent from the plot) or she's suggesting that Lacey too is becoming unstable. However, she seems too young to be falling prey to the same illness that her mother has (schizophrenia usually manifests in women in their mid- to late twenties. Despite these flaws, Williams's prose is lovely, as it always is.

I applaud Williams from not shirking the hard stories. Lacey's struggles with her mom reminded me a lot of Cynthia Voight's Dicey's Song, which was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. But I think that the execution is less successful in this case than it has been in some of her previous novels.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Title: The Sense of an Ending
Author: Julian Barnes
Enjoyment Rating: 9/10
Referral: I had seen this one mentioned frequently on book lists this year and my friend Nicole said she wanted to read it.
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 20

The book I listened to just before The Sense of an Ending was 11-22-63. That book was thirty hours long and while it had many introspective moments, it was filled with action and shooting and fights and time travel. The Sense of an Ending couldn't be more different. For one thing, I'm not sure I'd characterize it as a novel at all-- I think the audiorecording is four hours long, which is about half as long as most YA novels. Not much happens in the book-- Tony Webster, a sixtysomething, retired divorce living in London receives word that the mother of a former girlfriend has willed him 500 pounds and the diary of another old friend who died 40 years earlier.

This letter (which Tony actually receives about halfway through the novel, although presumably everything that comes before is backstory) sends Tony on a mission to understand why his ex's mother had Adrian's diary in the first place, and why she wanted Tony to take possession of it. We get a LOT of introspection in the story-- we  have Tony looking back at his youth and analyzing it, Tony looking back at his time with the ex-girlfriend and analyzing it, Tony looking back on his marriage and analyzing it. In fact, there's so much introspection that although I get the sense that Tony's not out to deceive us as readers, his logic and remembering might have some gaps. This is evident when the ex, who now has the diary and doesn't want to give it up, sends Tony a copy of a letter he sent to her shortly after the breakup. Tony has told us that the breakup was relatively uncomplicated, but the letter is vitriolic. Once he sees the letter he reasons that he just forgot writing it.

There is a reward for all this introspection-- the plot picks up significantly in the last third. Although the turn of events is a surprise, it also makes perfect sense. And my sense of this ending was that Barnes got it just right.

Now the inevitable question-- is it right for a book club? It depends on the book club. It's nice and short, but it is dense, and I think many readers might find the introspection kind of boring. There is at least one sex scene, lots of talk of frustrated lust, and a good smattering of cursing.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review: Sean Griswold's Head (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Sean Griswold's Head
Author: Lindsey Leavitt
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 19

When fifteen-year-old Payton Gritas walks in on her mother giving her father a shot in the backside and discovers, not only that he has MS, but also that the whole family has been hiding it from her, she freaks out. She stops taking to her parents, and they sign her up with counseling sessions at school. The counselor tells Payton to pick an object she can focus on while she's working through  her feelings, and Payton decides that the head of the kid she's been sitting behind in school for the last several years, Sean Griswold, will do the trick. Payton's a little OCD, and she throws herself into learning as much as she can about her focus object, and, you guessed it, she ends up falling head over heels for him.

Sean Griswold's Head has a lot going for it. Payton is an engaging narrator. Her relationship with her family seems real. And who wouldn't like Sean-- he's cute, interesting, nice, and just a little mysterious. It deals with a serious issue (Payton's father's health) without being too didactic about it. It's the kind of book I'd like my daughter to read in a couple of years, and it's also a book that I think she'd really enjoy. Payton has the "I'm smart but quirky" vibe that seems to be a prerequisite for teen heroines, and the book isn't groundbreaking in any way, but it's a nice, well-written story that a teenage girl would enjoy curling up with.

My two favorite letters....

T. and A.

As in Travel Approval.

As in, the Miners are going to China.

You may know that already, but I think it's just starting to sink in for me.

Unless you hear otherwise, we're leaving 3/10.

Feel free to resume calling me between the hours of 1-3pm, if you wish.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: Borrowed Light by Carla Kelly (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Borrowed Light
Author: Carla Kelly
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 18

Carla Kelly is a veteran Romance novelist whose who has published about 40 novels (mostly Regency Romances) with major publishing houses. Kelly, who has a master's degree in history and has worked as a professional historian, really knows her stuff, and the details and setting are part of what make Borrowed Light such a fun read. Borrowed Light is the story of Julia Darling, an almost 28-year-old Mormon living in Salt Lake City in 1909 who decides to breakup with her stuffed shirt of a fiance even though she recognizes that it might be her last chance for marriage. A graduate of the Fanny Farmer cooking school, she signs a contract to cook on a ranch in Wyoming for a year. The proprietor of the ranch turns out to  It sounds like a pretty stereotypical romance novel so far, doesn't it?

But that's the thing. Kelly uses the conventions of a romance novel. It looks like a romance and sounds like a romance, but it's missing some of the elements I've come to expect in a romance. For example, there's no rival to Otto, the handsome rancher. Julia doesn't waver in her growing love for him once she meets him. The conflict comes not in the relationships, but in Julia's relationship with her faith. As the title suggests, Julia has been "living on borrowed light," and this year living in Wyoming helps her determine how important her faith is to her. Instead of a romance, this feels more like a bildungsroman. Of course, there are the essential plot twists and misunderstandings, but I'm not surprised at all that Kelly chose to publish Borrowed Light with an LDS publisher instead of with Signet or Harlequin, since the story is essentially a Mormon "coming of faith" novel. Whatever the category, it's interesting and engrossing and very well done.

Christmas 1989

I was fourteen, a freshman in high school.

We drove to my grandma's house to celebrate Christmas.

I knew exactly what I wanted. That September, I'd started my first year of early morning seminary. I wanted my own set of leather scriptures-- teal, with my name imprinted in gold. I'd picked them out on a trip to the LDS bookstore in Washington, DC, and I didn't care if I got anything else.

When we woke up on Christmas morning, there were so many presents that they filled the living room and spilled out into the hall. We had to climb around them to find a place to sit.

We started with the youngest (my baby cousin, Ted) and everyone opened in turn until we got to the oldest (my 84 year-old Great Grandma Mandt).

The long package in the corner was for me. A beautiful new set of skis.

On the next round, I got the boots and poles to go with them.

On the next round, a fancy ski bag.

On the next round, an expensive ski jacket.

On the next round, that U2 CD I really liked.

On the next round, a sweatshirt and some Outback Red jodphurs from The Limited.

The next rounds brought a Laura Ashley dress, more books and CDs.

But there were no scriptures. I looked at my gigantic pile of loot, and I cried hot, fat tears. I knew I was being a brat; I had so many good things right in front of me.

But not the righteous desire of my heart-- the one thing I really wanted, the one thing I expected to get that day.

I had to get up and leave the room. I was so embarrassed. I could only see what I lacked. 


Today we got an adorable picture of our baby.

We got the fantastic news that our insurance will pay for a significant chunk of our adoption expenses (who knew?).

I have a beautiful family, a lovely home, wonderful friends who run with me when it's dark and do incredibly thoughtful things like sending me paintings out of the blue.

But I expected that Travel Approval today. I could taste it. Today was going to be our day.

23 years later, the disappointment still feels the same.


We went skiing the next day. I got the scriptures for my birthday, 27 days later. The Travel Approval will come too. I just hope I don't have to wait 27 more days.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A letter to Rose-- February 14th

Dear Rose,

It's Valentine's Day. We're celebrating with new books for the adults, candy and little gifts for the kids, and cupcakes for all after dinner. In just a few minutes, your big brothers and sisters will burst through the door with their backpacks full of candy and sweet messages from their friends. The only thing that's missing from making this a perfect Valentine's Day is you. Next year you'll be here to hear Daddy tell about the time that he got pulled off the bus by his second-grade teacher for throwing all of his valentines in the classroom garbage can on his way out the door. He'll probably also tell you about how mad I got at him the year we were engaged and he bought me three carnations for Valentine's Day, which I thought was cheap and lame and a sign that I would get cheap and lame presents forever and ever, a fear which has been unfounded.

But today, I can't wax philosophical or lovey. I'm done. I'm all wrung out. Just before starting this letter, I hit "send" on what I hope will be the final draft of my MFA project, and I'll defend my thesis in twelve days. Working on this novel has kept me sane over the last few months of waiting, but the last few days, when there was a new revision in the inbox every time I checked my email, have just about done me in. I can't write any more, and I sure as heck can't wait any more.

I've heard a rumor that travel approvals may arrive at the adoption agencies tomorrow. I'm so excited and nervous that I don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight. Yes, yes, I know, we're still under the average wait time for travel approval, but I have never, ever been a good waiter. Your Mimi and I were talking on the phone today, and she laughed and said, "Well, if you were going through this experience to teach you patience, it sure hasn't happened." It's true; I'm not a whit more patient than I was a year ago when we started our wait for you. And to think that tomorrow we might know, that all of the uncertainty of the waiting might end and I can actually go out and buy plane tickets to China, well, that's almost too much excitement for me to take. But on the other hand, we might not get that phone call tomorrow, and I might have to watch the other people who have been waiting through this paper pregnancy along with me get their approvals. I might end up overdue for the first time since I started having kids, and while it would serve me right, it might just be too much to bear.

So hang tight, my little Valentine. You don't have any other choice, and neither do I. But cross your fingers and say a little prayer that tomorrow, our waiting may finally come to an end.



Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Review: The Book of Mormon Girl by Joanna Brooks

Title: The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith
Author: Joanna Brooks
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Joanna is a friend of mine and an fMh sister
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 17

While Mitt Romney is undoubtedly the most high-profile Mormon in America right now, many might argue that Joanna Brooks is the most high-profile Mormon woman in America today. In addition to her job as chair of the English Department at San Diego State University, she writes for Religion Dispatches and Washington Post, hosts the Ask Mormon Girl website, and blogs at Feminist Mormon Housewives. Last week, the front page of CNN's website included an in-depth story of Brooks and her family. So it's really the perfect time for her memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl, to be released.

Brooks divides her life into three basic sections-- growing up, early adulthood/disillusionment, and maturation/resolution. In the growing up years, which comprise the bulk of the memoir, she gives us detailed and delightful stories of her Young Women's leaders and her grandmothers, interesting, devoted, hardworking women who taught her the gospel while hiking mountain passes and doing service. She writes about the cultural dissonance that comes from being "in the world but not of it." She writes about her adoration for Marie Osmond. All of these chapters are rich with description and detail.

Joanna's story is one that I'm familiar with because I've both heard her tell it and because I recognize parts of it in my friends and myself. Maybe not the growing up in the tract house on the edge of Southern California's orange groves, but certainly the feeling of being the only LDS girl in my high school, of being a "root beer among cokes" as she puts it. Like Joanna, I was a girl who set my sights on attending BYU and only BYU, and went through a little bit of disillusionment when I arrived there and realized that it wasn't as perfect as I thought it would be. I see her story in the story of friends who have felt pain too acute to bear, pain they associate with the church, and have left as a result. And I see her story in friends who have come back from that pain, who want to find a way to live a life of integrity within the religion and culture in which they were raised.

Brooks's adult chapters, as well as the way she has chosen to live her life publicly, do a lot to dispel the myth that Mormon women are all cut out of the same cloth, with the same thoughts and beliefs. She shows that it's okay to grieve for the things we wish were different, that we can find our voice, even if we're most comfortable speaking quietly and politely, and that we can love the church and want to be part of it without embracing every aspect of it. Furthermore, she shows that it's possible, even fulfilling, to come back and to see raising children in a home where parents come from different faith traditions as a boon and a blessing.

Brooks chose to self-publish her memoir, and while I understand why she did it, and I really do think that she has both an important story to tell and the writing chops to carry it off with remarkable sensitivity and finesse, self-publishing is always a tricky business. The Book of Mormon Girl, is an engrossing and important memoir, but it's not a perfect book. The child and teen chapters repeat many of the same details, and while the repetition seems to be intentional, the cumulative effect was to give sort of a storybook quality to the setting. Also, as a reader, I am interested in Brooks's childhood, especially since her teen years seem to be such a reflection of mine, but I'm even more interested in how she went from belief to disillusionment and back again. She does give several chapters to the adult struggles in her life, but I want more. I think it's a testament to the success of her writing both in The Book of Mormon Girl and in other venues, that we want more of Joanna's wit and wisdom. And I'm confident that she'll give it to us.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Review: Gifted by Karey White (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Gifted
Author: Karey White
Enjoyment Rating: 4/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist-- General Category
Source: Library copy
Books I've read this year: 16

I kicked off this year's Whitney reading by diving into Karey White's Gifted, which is a finalist in the General category and also eligible for Best Novel by a New Author. Gifted is told from the point of view of Susan, who adopts baby Anna in the opening pages of the novel. As Anna grows, it becomes evident to Susan and her husband Brent that their daughter has unusual gifts-- she doesn't get sick or hurt, people never argue when she is in their presence, and all of the kids in her class learn things effortlessly. Susan and Brent struggle first with accepting their daughter's gifts and then with how much they should tell her about them.

Gifted is perfect for a reader who wants a sentimental, feel-good story. It starts out like every good talk in the Mormon church-- with a definition of "Guardian Angel" from a dictionary and an online encyclopedia, and a quote from a General Authority. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the book has an overt "message" and therefore feels a bit didactic. If that's the kind of story you're interested in reading, then this one fits the bill. However, the plot basically consisted of Anna growing up (and I predicted the end within five minutes of opening the book), and White's prose is so bogged down in tiny details that at times Susan sounded like my mom giving me a recap of her day more than a narrator giving only the pertinent details that would enhance a narrative.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review: 11-22-63 by Stephen King

Title: 11-22-63
Author: Stephen King
Enjoyment Rating: 10/10
Referral: I've heard lots of buzz about this one
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 15

I've been listening to 11-22-63 for nearly a month. Usually, when it takes me a month to get through an audiobook, that's because the book is boring. That's not the case at all here. It's just because the book is 31 hours long. Even if I listened for an hour a day, it would take a full month to get through it. But now that I'm in the waning chapters, I don't want the story to end. I'd listen for another, well, if not 30, then at least another dozen hours.

I've never been a fan of Stephen King, mostly because I associated Stephen King with blood and guts and creepy monsters. Then I read his memoir this summer and was thoroughly impressed by his intelligence and the discipline he shows as a writer. When I downloaded this book, I knew it would be historical (the title refers to the Kennedy assassination) but I also expected it to be supernatural and icky. Instead, the book has taught me a lot about both history and humanity.

Jake Epping is a high school teacher in Maine-- a good guy in his mid-30s, recently divorced from his philandering, alcoholic wife. He gets a telephone call from Al, who runs the local diner, a place where the burgers are so cheap the the locals whisper that they're really catburgers. Al reveals to Jake that not only is the beef in the burgers real, but it's real beef from 1958, since Al has found a time-traveling window back to 1958 in the pantry of the diner. Al has been using the window for more than time travel; in fact, he's just come back from spending nearly five years in the late 50s and early 60s, hoping to thwart the Kennedy assassination. Unfortunately, while he was in "the land of ago," he got cancer, and he turns the responsibility over to Jake, who reluctantly agrees to go back and check it out for himself.

Jake soon sees that he has the power to change the past (he takes a few test runs) and that the clock resets each time he enters "the rabbit hole." He also learns that "the past is obdurate" and he runs into obstacles when he tries to change it. Gradually, he stops seeing himself as a time traveler and just starts living his life.

While the story itself is highly entertaining, King's a master at creating settings-- Derry, Maine, Jodie, Texas, and the small towns in between, are rich and vivid, and I feel like I've learned more about life in this era through this book than I did in any American history class I took. When I'm listening, I'm the time traveler, back in 1962 along with Jake, watching Lee Harvey Oswald.

It's not a perfect book-- I think it could be cut by about 100 pages without losing the richness of the detail, but it's a darn enjoyable one. I rarely give 10/10. This book deserves it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Double Digits!

I vaguely remember many of my birthdays, but for some reason I remember my tenth more than most. It may be because my mom strung the living room with a maze of ribbons that my friends and I unwound at the birthday party. It may be because I really wanted a cat and didn't get one. But I think it had a lot to do with turning 10, when I could claim a double digit number.

Annie has always seemed older than she is, so I doubt that turning double digits is all that exciting for her. She'd rather be turning 12 than turning ten. But since we can't speed up the clock, we'll celebrate what we've got, which is ten wonderful years with Annie. She won't remember the birthday party (since she didn't have one) but she will undoubtedly remember her ten-year-old trip (a Miner family tradition) since she's lucky enough to be coming to China with us to get Rose (I'm not sure if she'll remember it with fondness or not, that is still to be determined). She was really, really hoping that she'd celebrate in China, but since we're still waiting for our final approval, that obviously hasn't happened. I'm glad that she got to do it at home, with friends to sing to her and Lemon Lover's White Chocolate cake for dessert.

Happy Birthday, Annie girl!

Book Review: Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost

Title: Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation
Author: J. Maarten Troost
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Someone on one of the adoption boards told me about it
Source: Used copy from Amazon
Books I've read this year: 14

If you've been reading the blog over the last year, you know that I've been doing a LOT of reading about adoption and China. All told, I'd say I've probably read 10 books about China and 20 about adoption (with some overlap, to be sure). When I undertake anything significant in my life, the first thing I do to prepare is to read up on it.

Ed, on the other hand, reads to relax and to prepare for exams. Since there are no adoption exams (other than physical exams, which we've already passed), he hasn't done much any reading at all about China or adoption. I figure I've read enough for both of us and he never read What to Expect When You're Expecting either. But since he's the one up at night worrying about our trip, I thought it would be a good idea for him to read a little bit about what he might experience on our travels to Nanjing and Guangzhou. Enter Lost on Planet China. Judging from the fact that Troost's previous book was called The Sex Lives of Cannibals, I figured that Lost on Planet China was a book Ed might dig. It was sure to be entertaining, at least.

Lost on Planet China is entertaining. Troost leaves his wife and two young sons at home in California and takes off for six months on a tour through "the world's most mystifying nation." He doesn't just take a tram up the great wall and then retreat to the relative comforts of Shanghai or Hong Kong, nooooo, he goes to Inner Mongolia and Tibet. He eats everything (and doesn't seem to suffer any ill-effects). He stays in hotels that most foreign travelers wouldn't dream of spending the night in, and he learns to bargain like a pro.

While Lost on Planet China is thoroughly entertaining, after reading it I had a little bit more trepidation about our upcoming journey than I did when I was blissfully ignorant about what would greet us on the other side of the world. I knew about the smoking, the crazy driving, the spitting, and the "massages" but I didn't realize how living in China for an extended period of time would really change a person like it did Troost. Two weeks probably isn't long enough for it to happen. But I still haven't given the book to Ed to read. Maybe I'll hand it over when we're on the plane and it's too late to back out.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: Pretty Woman Spitting by Leanna Adams

Title: Pretty Woman Spitting: An American's Travels in China
Author: Leanna Adams
Enjoyment Rating: 5/10
Referral: Someone on RQ (the adoption board I'm addicted to) told me about it
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 13

I've been through certain life experiences, whether they were living abroad in college, waiting for a missionary, giving birth. raising children, adoption, where I've thought, "Hey, maybe I should write a book about that." In Pretty Woman Spitting, Leanna Adams does just that. Several years ago, when Adams was in her mid-twenties and not quite sure what she wanted to do with her life, she decided to spend a year teaching English in Wuhu, China (about an hour from Nanjing, which is where we're going to get Rose). Adams does a great job capturing the cultural dissonance she feels when she arrives in China. I'll admit that I'm a little bit nervous about the trip (not as nervous as Eddie, though), and it's the things about Chinese culture like spitting and squatty potties and staring that have me packing my suitcase with kleenex, hand sanitizer, baseball caps, and sunglasses. But the book has no narrative arc (it's a year, she gets to the end of it), and there's a distracting amount of punctuation/grammatical problems. Adams is funny, and the book is entertaining, but there are other books out there that tell a similar story and actually have a story to tell that's more than a travelogue.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Letter to Rose-- February 7

Dear Rose-

Maren woke up and ran to my room this morning, just like every other morning. Most mornings she comes in demanding juice and cereal, and this morning, before the demands for breakfast, she said, "Rose is ten months old today." You are ten months. We've known about you for almost five. That's half your life. It makes me tear up a little bit to think about how much we've both missed out on as we've tried our best to push papers as fast as they will go.

I'm getting kind of tired of these letters. It would be so much better just to whisper these words in your ear, to snuggle you, to see you so you can know how I feel about you. But we're close. So close. I'll hang in there for a few more weeks if you will.

A few more weeks-- that's all. If all goes well, we should be getting on a plane in four weeks and three days. We'll have you in arms two days after that. We can't know if all will go well until it actually goes well (does that make any sense?). I like to give myself an idea of how much time we need to wait by thinking about what I was doing that much time ago. For example, if I have to wait four weeks and three days to get on a plane, I think to what I was doing four weeks and three days ago. It was January 7th. A week into January already-- the Christmas tree was down and the kids were back in school and I was working on my thesis. When I think of it that way, it doesn't seem that long until I can be with you.

The next few weeks are going to be rough-- there's no two ways around it. I know that in the world of International Adoption, parents are supposed to be open to all kinds of uncertainties, and I've learned through this process that I'm so much better with certainty. If I knew I were getting on a plane on March 10th, it would still feel like a long time, but it wouldn't be stressful. Instead, I'm glued to the computer. Reloading, reloading, reloading. Right now, I tell myself, it's not for myself, but for the sisters I've waited with all through this process, the ones who got their LOAs and their Article 5s just before we did, the ones who have already been waiting a long time. Reload, reload, reload.

Soon it will be our turn.

I love you, sweetie.



Whitney Awards 2011

In just a few minutes, I'm headed off to the library to pick up a stack of books. A big stack of books. So many books that the library system said "enough" and I couldn't reserve any more. When I come home with those books, I'll be back on the computer, reserving another enormous stack.

Yes, you know what that means. It's reading season for the Whitney Awards. This year I'll be reading 34 books (I'd only read one of the finalists) and heading up Team Segullah (with Emily, Angela, Melonie, and Rosalyn) as we work together to vote in seven categories, plus "Best New Author" and "Novel of the Year." I'll be writing my own personal reviews of all of the books here, and we'll also be writing several review posts at Segullah.

Because, you know, I didn't have enough to do in February and March of this year. Actually, all of this reading will be a good thing because it will keep my mind occupied as I count down the minutes until we can go to China.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Title: Boomerang by Michael Lewis

Title: Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World
Author: Michael Lewis
Enjoyment Rating: 5/10
Referral: I bought this for Eddie for Christmas
Source: Hardback copy
Books I've read this year: 12

When I first started listening to the Planet Money podcast a few years ago, I thought it was pretty funny that I, someone who doesn't know much about money, other than how to spend it, was listening to a podcast about economics. But when I told people how great it was, I always said to them, "It's kind of like listening to a Michael Lewis book." I'd read Moneyball and The Big Short, and I related to those books in a similar way-- they were fun for even someone who isn't an economist, or who doesn't care a whit about baseball.

So it was a foregone conclusion that I would read Boomerang. And you know that aphorism about the student surpassing the master? I'm not sure if the people at Planet Money are students of Michael Lewis's (although I know he's mentioned frequently on the show) but I do think that, at least in this case, the Planet Money is out-Lewising Lewis.

In Boomerang, Lewis travels to five failing or precarious economies around the world (Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany-- the exception, and his home state of California). He writes a single chapter about his visit to each place-- getting banged by the bruisers in Iceland, hanging with the monks in Greece, etc... He paints some pretty stereotypical pictures of the people in these places, and he really doesn't delve all that deeply into the stories. I get the sense that he's rich and famous, and people will buy his books regardless of how good they are, so he's going on a junket around Europe and writing about it. I could do that. I expect Michael Lewis to do the kinds of things I can't do. Furthermore, the people at Planet Money have already done it-- they've already been to Iceland and Greece and Germany and done similar reporting. So the book was a bit of a disappointment to me as a reader. Ed, who doesn't listen to Planet Money, really enjoyed it.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Book Review: The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Title: The Snowman
Author: Jo Nesbo
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: This is the book that started my Jo Nesbo kick. I saw it on the books table at Costco and had to read half a dozen books of backstory before I got to this
Source: I may have bought it that night at Costco, but there's no sticker on it.
Books I've read this year: 11

Well, I'm pleased to say that all that reading was worth it. The first time I heard about Norwegian author Jo Nesbo was when I picked up this book. It looked great, and the reviews I could see were fantastic. I wanted to read it, and then I did a little bit of research (because that's the kind of reader I am) and found that it was the seventh book in a series about Detective Harry Hole. The first two books haven't been translated into English, so I started at book three, and read through four, five and six, to varying degrees of pleasure. By the time I finished the sixth book, I was frankly a little burned out on Harry Hole. But this book, in which Hole tries to find a serial killer who is murdering woman and building snowmen in their yards as a calling card, was everything a thriller should be-- it was fast-paced and scary, well-written and well-plotted. It is a little bit hard to believe that Harry's longtime on-again, off-again love, Rakel, could have such bad luck with the men in her life, but after The Snowmen [SPOILER], Harry is looking like a better and better catch all the time.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Title: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Author: Joshua Foer
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Eddie got this book for Christmas
Source: Hardback copy
Books I've read this year: 10

When people ask me what Eddie wants for his birthday or Christmas, I often pick books that I want to read too. Moonwalking with Einstein was one of those books. I didn't know all that much about it, other than it was written by the younger brother of the brilliant Jonathan Safran Foer, and it was getting lots and lots of buzz. People were comparing it to Freakonomics and Malcolm Gladwell's stuff, and I do love me some Malcolm Gladwell.

Foer does remind me of Malcolm Gladwell and a lighter version of the late David Foster Wallace, but instead of focusing on a bunch of experiences in short (or not so short) essays, Foer engages in a years-long experiment with gonzo journalism. He starts out researching memory and using mnemonics and visualization to improve memory, but takes that one step further, hires a memory coach, and eventually ends up as [SPOILER] Memory Champion of the US. The book is entertaining and smart, and Foer is self-deprecating and nerdy enough that we don't begrudge him his statue. I'm still thinking of Claudia Schiffer bathing in a tub of cottage cheese by the front door of my childhood home. Read the book, and that last sentence will make perfect sense to you.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book Review: Falling Toward Heaven by John Bennion

Title: Falling Toward Heaven
Author: John Bennion
Enjoyment Rating:
Referral: John Bennion is my thesis adviser
Source: Ordered used from Amazon
Books I've read this year: 9

I'm putting this one here for the sake of counting it, but since John Bennion is my thesis adviser, I'm going to refrain from publishing a review until our adviser/student relationship is done. I will say that I really enjoyed the novel and the characters and the way the setting really grounded the story. It was also very sad. Full review to come later. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review: A Spoonful of Promises by T. Susan Chang

Title: A Spoonful of Promises: Stories and Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table
Author: T. Susan Chang
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: I got this book for my birthday from my godmother, Annie
Source: Hardback
Books I've read this year: 8

For several years, I went through a foodie phase where I read lots and lots of memoirs about food. Then I started grad school and my kids were lucky to get one home-cooked meal each week that wasn't pasta, grilled cheese, quesadillas or chicken nuggets, and I felt like a poseur reading all of the foodie books. But (thesis notwithstanding) the grad-school phase is done, and maybe this book represents a return to the foodie memoir, a genre I really love.

I've heard of Susan Chang before. I remember reading one of her articles a few months ago about the crazy kinds of ice cream she makes with her family and it felt kind of braggy-- her kids clamor for basil ice cream, really? I'm lucky if mine venture beyond Creamies. So I was expecting bragginess from the memoir as well. And yeah, it does venture in that direction at times, but overall, I really liked the format. She'd tell a story about a food and provide a recipe. The recipes/stories were roughly grouped together into categories (easy dinners or crazy meals, for example) and over the course of all of the stories, cohesive themes began to emerge-- her love for her dad, her relationship with her husband and kids, the sense of loss she feels from her mom's death when she was a teenager. It's a format that I could see working well for my mom, for instance, if she chose to write the story of her life. I'm not sure that it has inspired me to go out and make beef heart chili (or at least not to serve it to my kids), but I may try the Pad Thai.

And since my radar is attuned to all things Chinese American these days, I was also interested in the ways that Chang incorporates her Chinese American background into the story. I know that our daughter will undoubtedly grow up more American than Chinese, and I was grateful that Chang let us glimpse into her childhood as a third-generation Chinese American, a girl whose mom stuffed her lunch not with dumplings and rice, but with wheat germ and granola bars.