Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Wednesdays in the Tower (Castle Glower #2)
Author: Jessica Day George
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: G or PG

Jessica Day George's Tuesdays at the Castle was a YA finalist two years ago, and I adored it. The story takes place in an enchanted castle, and Princess Celie and her siblings live in a home that is constantly changing, adapting, and possibly even working toward its own purposes. In Wednesdays in the Tower, Celie becomes the guardian of a gryphon egg, and the eventual hatching of that gryphon causes all kinds of changes to take place in the castle, which seems intent on confronting its history.
While the first novel seemed satisfying in and of itself,  Wednesdays in the Tower suffers from the "second in a trilogy" syndrome. It lacks the character (and castle) development that was so delightful in the first story, and it leaves off in the middle of the action, not coming to a satisfying conclusion for readers of this particular book. The writing is still great and Celie is just as engaging in this story as in the last, but the book seemed geared toward readers who want to read the third book as well as the second. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Review: Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Sky Jumpers (Sky Jumpers #1)
Author: Peggy Eddleman
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG

World War III has come and gone, and the world is forever changed. The chemical warfare used has changed the properties of metal, and the residents of the town of White Rock have to be careful to avoid the pockets of Bomb's Breath that kill anyone who breathes air infused with it. Twelve-year-old Hope is a failure at inventing things (a skill prized among the residents of White Rock), but she can do something no one else even dares try-- she can use the extra density bomb's breath to break her falls as she jumps from the sky. This skill comes to the aid of the entire town when they are ambushed by bandits, and Hope and two friends travel to a nearby town to get help.

This books is a nice balance between internal and external conflict. Hope's character is well-developed, but there's also plenty of action. I felt like I wanted a more complicated narrative, but I later learned that the book is the first of a series. It doesn't necessarily feel like the first book of a series, and the conclusion is satisfying in and of itself. Eddleman read from her book at my kids' school a few weeks ago, and both of my elementary-age kids couldn't wait to get their hands on this one. My son kept asking me how I liked it. It's one I think he would like too, even though the protagonist is a girl.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book Review: The Inventor's Secret by Chad Morris (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: The Inventor's Secret (Cragbridge Hall #1)
Author: Chad Morris
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

The year is 2074 and it's time for Abby and Derick Cragbridge to start their time at Cragbridge Hall, the boarding school that only takes the best, brightest and most distinguished middle schoolers on the planet. The problem is that Abby, at least, hasn't done much to distinguish herself. She happens to be the granddaughter of the school's founder, a world-famous inventor, and therefore feels a great impulse to prove herself worthy of being at the school. She's able to do this when her parents and grandfather turn up missing. Her parents are being held aboard the Titanic, and unless Abby and Derick can figure out how to go back in time and reach them, their whole world might come crashing down on them.

The Inventor's Secret, published by Shadow Mountain, is the first book in the Cragbridge Hall series. The second book, The Avatar Battle, was recently released. The books are action-packed, and Morris seems to rely on constant motion and on really cool inventions and technological advances to keep the plot moving in The Inventor's Secret. The book seems to rely much more on external conflict than internal conflict, but many young readers may be so entranced by all the bells and whistles of time travel and technology that they might not care.

A year! (And oh, what a year it's been)

A year ago today, my mom, Rose and I spent the morning strolling through an outdoor shopping area in Nanjing, China. Over the previous five days, we had flown halfway around the world, then done a marathon of sightseeing in Beijing and Shanghai. I think we thought it was finally time to catch our breaths. A year later, I'm still not sure I've caught my breath.

A year earlier, when we had gone to the same room in the same office building in the same city to get Rose, we waited for the longest half hour of my life before the babies arrived. This time, the orphanage people were waiting for us, and we turned the corner to find Eli, with a look of terror in his eyes. They placed him in my arms and he screamed. Rose patted him and said, "Okay, baby." And within just a little while, it really was okay.

Once his tears dried, Eli seemed to accept quickly that life with us was the new normal. And he's been easygoing like that for most of the last year. I'm not sure he would have survived the early months, with new casts each week and surgeries every month, if he hadn't had such a sweet disposition. And, like most two-year-olds, he definitely has his moments when he wants to be held or he whines or he climbs on things over and over and over again, but really, he's such a sweet, gentle, nice little guy. I feel so incredibly blessed to be his mom.

I feel like all of this is building up to a "but." I've tried to be as honest as possible on my blog, and while Eli is incredibly awesome and smart and funny and has made so much progress this year, this has also been the hardest year of my life. Ed warned me. The social worker warned me. The reading I did about adoption warned me, but I didn't believe them. I was a seasoned mom. I could handle this or anything in my path.

I thought that the year Ed was an intern and we moved to Minnesota and it snowed all winter long and the house was all brown and dark and depressing and Bryce was a toddler and Annie was a newborn would go down in the history of our family as the hardest year, but this year beat it. I love my kids fiercely, but having two two-year-olds brings me to the brink of my sanity almost every afternoon between the hours of four and six.

photo by Crooked Pinkie Photography
I like to do hard things. I'm always up for a good challenge. Honestly, until this year, I had never met a challenge I wasn't equal to. I hope that doesn't sound too arrogant. I recognize that I'm someone who has a lot of energy and drive, and it happens that I've chosen to focus most of that energy on being (at least for now) a stay-at-home mom. Most of my parenting years, I've worried that the energy and drive would have a negative impact on my kids because I did too much comparing or I was too involved in the kids' lives, but this year, it's been all I can do to keep my head above water. Neither Rose nor Eli sleeps all that well, and if you combine the sleep deprivation with trying to be the best mom I can be to two toddlers (who often act like they hate each other) all day, with doing all of the stuff my school-age kids need once they come home from school, I've felt stretched so thin that I'm sure I'll never be the same. I never have enough arms, enough time, enough patience. I fall asleep in movies, in the car when I'm not driving, and within seconds of my head hitting the pillow at night. I smile less and yell more. I always thought I'd bounce back from this stay-at-home parenting thing to have an awesome career in my 40s, 50s, and 60s, but I don't know if there is a bouncing back from six kids. If there is, it might take a few more years before I can see it.

There's no doubt that I would still adopt these two sweethearts again in a heartbeat. Would I recommend that others adopt? Absolutely. Would I recommend that others adopt two kids the same age? Yes, but with their eyes wide open. I think I thought that having two toddlers would sort of be like having a friend over for a perpetual playdate.

This year has been stressful for all of us, but our lives are better for being together. Eli is such a fantastic kid-- he's adapted so well to the chaos of our lives, and he's grown so much. He's adorable and funny and the perfect completion to our family, and we love him to pieces. I hope that this year will show our kids that we can do hard things, and even when those hard things don't stop being hard immediately, it's ultimately persisting through the hard things that bring life's greatest rewards. I consider Eli one of the greatest rewards of my life.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: RUMP by Liesl Shurtliff (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: RUMP: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin
Author: Liesl Shurtliff
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG

In Wicked, Gregory Maguire turns the Wicked Witch of the West into a sympathetic character, and in the upcoming movie Maleficent, I expect that Angelina Jolie will do the same thing for Sleeping Beauty's nemesis. In Liesl Shurtliff's debut novel, Rump, she turns the tables so readers sympathize with Rumpelstiltskin instead of the evil miller's daughter who forces him to turn straw into gold. 
This novel is delightful. When I'm reading 40 books in a couple of months, I often find myself trudging through them. But Rump was one that I would have read quickly regardless. The story is adorable and Rump shows a lot of growth over the course of the novel. There was plenty of action in the story, but it was Rump's ability to grow as a character that kept me entertained and satisfied as I read.

On Leprechauns, Fairies, Elves and Other Magical Things

A few years ago, a sweet friend of mine brought over a gift for my girls. It was a tiny little house, hand painted and decorated with moss and pine cones. "It's a fairy house," she told Annie and Maren, "And if you write to the fairies, they will write back to you." My girls were delighted, so delighted, in fact, that I doubt anyone saw the look of panic in my eyes.

For several weeks, the girls wrote to the fairies every night. And like clockwork, the fairies wrote back (graduate school and housework and teaching loads be damned!). Then one night the note to the fairies went unanswered. "I wonder where the fairies were last night," Maren said. There may have been a tear in her eye, and there was certainly a lot of guilt in the pit of my stomach.

Over the years, Maren has continued to write to the fairies. They write back only rarely. "I think the fairies fly somewhere south for the winter," I've told her, buying myself entire seasons of respite. The other day, I noticed that she had both written a letter to the fairies and her own response from the fairies. Whenever I see that darling fairy house, I feel dread that I'm not providing magical experiences for my kids.

I'm an avid Instagrammer, a fair-weather Facebooker. Although I have a Pinterest account, I gave up pinning things or checking my pins after a few weeks of pinning and pinning and feeling aspirational and unmotivated, which isn't a great combination. Most mornings, I scroll through Instagram, clicking the little heart on almost everything, and get out of bed feeling that all is right with the world. But this morning, my Instagram and Facebook feeds made me feel like a failure. There were no pots of Rolo gold at the end of my kids' rainbows (and for that matter, no rainbows). No trails of marshmallows leading to leprechaun traps. No green eggs, green milk, or green veggies at the breakfast table. Heck, I'd even taken heck from Annie the night before for forgetting to replenish our supply of Lucky Charms (which we eat on regular occasions, not just on St. Paddy's Day), so I couldn't even assuage my guilt by putting the box on the breakfast table. I scrounged for green hair bows and sweatshirts to add to my kids' school uniforms, and sent them off to school feeling like I hadn't done enough.

It should come as a surprise to no one that I don't put up with that Elf on a Shelf nonsense either. I have six kids, I don't need an elf to make messes. Maren has come home from her best friend's house and asked me why they're lucky enough to get an elf. "Are they more magical than us?"

We aren't Irish. I don't like corned beef (unless it's on rye) and the thought of eating boiled cabbage appeals to no one in this house. I dress my kids in green so they don't get pinched, but not out of any sense of festivity. I get that St. Patrick's Day is important to some people, but it isn't especially important to me.

I don't craft. When I was in the Primary presidency we had a firm policy against printables and doing cute things for the sake of being cute. Yet I still feel the guilt of not participating in today's holiday festivities. And as I've thought about the reasons today, I think it extends deeper than the fact that "I'm not keeping up with..." I worry that I'm not providing my kids with a sense of magic, or a feeling that our world is a lovely, numinous place.

My mom never put an elf on our shelf. Never wrote a fairy letter. Never impersonated a leprechaun. No one's mom did that kind of stuff back in the early 80s. And C.S. Lewis and Madeline L'Engle provided me with a greater sense of magic than a pot of Rolos ever could.

Ed and I have been having a discussion/argument over the last few days. I wanted to take the kids to Disneyland for Spring Break before the babies turn three and cost a hundred bucks a day.

"It will be so magical," I said.
"They won't remember it," he said.
"But it will be magical for me," I said.

He hates crowds and won't get behind the idea that a corporation can create magic. He would say that the magic we find ourselves by digging in the back yard and reading C.S. Lewis is much richer and more lasting than than what Disneyland can provide.

I'm not sure I buy his argument, but today, at least, I see his point. I don't see anything wrong with Rolos and leprechaun footprints made by parents who want to go all out and do that, but I know that I don't want to be Instaguilted into joining them (I did feel guilty enough to buy some overpriced cupcakes).  I hope that despite my lack of effort, my kids will get their magic from the world around them and the world they imagine, not from me behind the scenes like the Wizard of Oz, orchestrating things.

We'll put it to the test next month when we spend our break at the Grand Canyon. Maybe we'll find that it's really the most magical place on earth, and I can start to set aside my guilt about not manufacturing magic with elves, fairies, and leprechauns.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book Review: Pivot Point by Kasie West (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Pivot Point
Author: Kasie West
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13

Two roads diverged. We like to say the paths we chose in the yellow wood "made all the difference," but do we really know how our lives will be different based on the choices we make? Addie does. She's a teenager living in a special community for paranormals, and when her parents divorce and tell her that she has to choose whether to stay at home with her mother or to leave the community with her father, she is able to search her future and see which series of events leads to the better outcome.

I really enjoyed Pivot Point. The narrative unfolds chronologically, and in alternating chapters, we see what happens in scenario A and scenario B. There are different schools, different friends, different potential love interests. And in both cases, she has a relationship with her best friend. All of West's characters seem well-drawn and nuanced, and I particularly liked Addie. I also like that the decision she makes is one that is not without its complications. This was a great read and one that I hope my kids would enjoy for the challenges Addie faces and the maturity she gains as part of her experience.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book Review: Dark Memories by Jeffrey S. Savage (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Dark Memories
Author: Jeffrey S. Savage
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence and creepiness

In 1977, six kids went missing in a Colorado mine during a school picnic. Nearly a week later, five kids were rescued. Nearly forty years later, those kids, now grown up, are killed, one by one. Police Chief Cal Hunt tries to solve the mystery of their deaths, while coming to terms with the powers that the mine still seems to hold.

I opened Dark Memories on my Kindle before checking which Whitney category it was nominated in. I guessed that it was nominated in Mystery/Suspense, because I've read works by Savage in that category before, but it was quickly apparent that this was no normal mystery. Dead children appear, the walls of a mine seem to weep and moan, and people have the strangest kinds of dreams. The book reminded me a lot of a Stephen King novel, and I was both surprised and a little delighted to see Covenant Communications publishing a horror novel. The book was entertaining and delightfully creepy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Book Review: Dead Girls Don't Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Dead Girls Don't Lie
Author: Jennifer Shaw Wolf
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for intense situations, drugs and alcohol, violence

Rachel and Jaycee have been best friends since before kindergarten. When they're sixteen, Rachel abruptly pulls away, starts hanging out with different people, changes the way she looks, and within six months, she's dead. Jaycee, crushed by her friend's death and wracked with guilt by the way their relationship was unresolved, tries to figure out what really happened. All she has to go on to start with is a text message from Rachel, who tells her not to go to the police or her father and to trust no one but "E."

This is the only one of the YA books that one of my children actually read. My twelve-year-old daughter, Annie, is a Pretty Little Liars fan, and for some reason the book reminded her of PLL, so she asked me to renew it from the library so she could read it. When she was about a hundred pages into the book, she said, "Why is this book so racist?" The book takes place in a small town in Washington, where most of the long-term residents are white, and migrants from Mexico work on the farms. The teenage children of these migrants are generally portrayed as gang members (although [spoiler alert] so are some of the white kids). Regardless, I can see how a young person would feel that there's some racial stereotyping going on in the story.

Jaycee reminds me most of all of one of those dumb girls in a horror movie. She keeps getting herself in situations where I, as a reader, would go, "How can you be so stupid? Stay away. Run far away." But Annie seems to be enjoying the story so far, so I guess it's reaching its target audience.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: Chasing June by Shannen Crane Camp (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Chasing June (June #2)
Author: Shannen Crane Camp
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

June and Joseph, who we met in Camp's previous novel, Finding June, have now been dating for the last two years. June's taken a leave from her hit TV show, Forensic Files, and they are heading to Provo to start at BYU. The only problem? Joseph has broken up with June, even though they're perfect for each other, because he wants to get ready for his mission. June is lonely and jealous, and they both have a hard time navigating being "just friends" after their time together, especially when they're both being pursued by other people.

I've now been reading for the Whitney Awards for four or five years, and one of the things that never seems to change about them is that there are lots of books that are parts of a series. Sometimes, the author does a great job giving new readers the necessary backstory and making them feel like they have the information they need to enjoy the novel in front of them. Sometimes the books have a satisfying conclusion, even when the author anticipates that there will be future books in the series. This book, fell short on both counts. A new reader would have a hard time appreciating June and Joseph's relationship, and would know virtually nothing about Ryan, the guy who comes courting in the second half of the novel (who plays a supporting role in the first book). The book didn't conclude so much as leave a reader hanging. I did like how Camp painted a picture (accurate, if sometimes painful) of life at BYU. I know that some of June's roommates are painted to look pathetic, but June can also appear whiny, insecure and plagued by some of the Mormon cultural conventions as well. I had fun reading this one, but I'm not sure it will be popular with readers who haven't read the first novel.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: All the Truth That's in Me
Author: Julie Berry
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13

Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their village in the newly-settled American colonies. The friend's body was found shortly thereafter, and two years later Judith returned home, whole except for the loss of her tongue. Since then she's people have been suspicious of her, and treat her like she's stupid because she can't talk. She spends her time enduring her mother's wrath and pining for Lucas, who certainly can't love her back now that she's damaged.  But when pirates come to attack the town, her actions save the town, and reopen the questions everyone thought were closed for all these years.

Julie Berry is a friend of a friend, and I've had her book on my to-read list since I heard it was being published last year. I'm grateful to the Whitney Awards for finally making me get my butt in gear to read it, because the book is fantastic. The writing is spare and poetic (in fact, it might be too poetic for a barely literate girl, which I attribute to the fact that it could be told in retrospect), and the story is rich and engrossing. I loved watching Judith find her voice (literally and figuratively) over the course of the novel. My only frustration with the story is that I was unable to place is historically, and as a reader, I wanted to know where and when it took place. I'm sure this was intentional on Berry's part for some reason, but this reader would have felt enriched by a clear historical context.

Two years

Two years ago, they placed her in our arms. We expected tears. We got quiet acceptance and
alertness. This sick, skinny, red-cheeked baby seemed to trust us as we fussed over her, smiled and cried, then took her back to our hotel room to discover that not only was she not walking at eleven months, she couldn't sit or roll over. The only time she got really upset was when we tried to feed her solid food-- it was obvious she had no idea what it was. But there was a spark in her eyes that let us know that eventually, she would be fine.

This morning, she and Maren spent the morning acting out the songs from Frozen. She's wearing her favorite purple shirt and her favorite purple shorts, which she wears because she thinks they make her look like Elsa (so much for all the money I spent on cute clothes this winter). When I contrast the newborn-like baby she was two years ago with this big kid (an acutal kid! not a baby!), it makes me so happy to see how far she's come, and also a little sad at how quickly this time has
She's smiling for the camera, can't you tell?

Today, Rose runs the house. When we decided to adopt, it was, in part because I wanted the sound of kids' voices in the house for a bit longer, and I certainly have them. Rose does everything with purpose, intention, and zest. Everyone in the house, probably even everyone on our street, knows when she's happy and when she's sad. She's the life of our party and completely central to our existence, and even though she runs us all ragged sometimes, we couldn't imagine our lives without her.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Kasie West (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: The Distance Between Us
Author: Kasie West
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG

In Caymen's town on the California coast, there are two kinds of people: regular people, and rich people. Caymen is one of the regular people. She lives in a tiny apartment above her mother's doll shop, which caters to the rich people. As a result, she's had quite the opportunity to develop her "love to hate  them" attitude. All of this changes when Xander, the scion of a Hiltonesque family walks into her store to pick up a doll for his grandma. At first Caymen can't believe he likes her, then she thinks she's selling out for liking him back, and then events of the novel reveal that she has an even more complicated relationship toward wealth than she originally thought.

While the characters in The Distance Between Us are fine (I especially liked her best friend's boyfriend), I felt like the central conflict of the novel was a little flat. It felt heavy-handed to have the whole story built around a Cinderella narrative (culminating in a surprise at a ball!). The conclusion of the story redeemed it somewhat, but also complicated it in a way I'm not sure I liked, but overall, I would have liked to see a little more depth from the plot.

Confessions of a Selfish Mother

A couple of weeks ago, dinnertime came around, and only the boys and the babies were at home. We decided to head over to Five Guys. Eli eats everything except burgers, and every time I buy Rose a burger at Five Guys, it ends up being five bucks thrown in the trash. They usually stuff themselves with fries and peanuts, so this time I didn't order them burgers. I got one for each of the boys and one for myself, and was happy to get away from the cash register parting with less than forty bucks.

The burgers came, and mine was amazing. The cheese was melted just right, the pickles were crunchy, and the ketchup and grilled onions made it a sloppy, gooey, yummy mess. I hadn't taken two bites of that delicious burger before Rose started begging for it. After a couple more bites, she was complaining loudly enough that people were starting to stare, so I sighed, handed over the rest of the burger, and started in on the fries. She took a few happy bites, dropped the rest on the floor, and I spent the next five minutes wondering if there was some graceful way I could pick it up and finish it without being gross. 

There are things I can do with grace as a parent (clean up poop messes, become a taxi service, quiz math/spelling/Latin roots), and there are things I fail miserably at.

Sharing food is one of those things. I used to share my food happily. I used to share just about anything happily. When I was in college, my roommate Les and I would often eat dinner out of a common pot. She and I also had an "open closet" policy with each other. I'd borrow her bodysuits to wear with my jodphurs, and she'd borrow my fisherman's sweaters to wear with her peasant skirts. The only problem is that I did laundry one a week and she did laundry once a month and sometimes my clothes would get lost in the recesses of her bedroom for weeks at a time. But her Penne Arrabiata more than made up for it. 

Tonight Rose was sitting on my lap after finishing her own dinner, and she started in on eating the broccoli slaw on my plate. She took a couple of bites, chewed them up, then spit them out all over the salad I couldn't see to eat with her blocking my view of the plate. "Rose," I whined, "That was my dinner!" Ed pointed out that there was still half a bowl of salad that would certainly go uneaten, but that's not the point. It was my dinner.

In some ways, parenting has either brought to light my selfishness, or else has made me more selfish than I used to be.

I don't want to share my food. I'm a lot like my two-year-olds in the sense that I want my own food. A couple of days before I got married, my mom and I were running errands in Park City and stopped for a caramel apple at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. This was back in the day before RMCF was as ubiquitous as Wendy's, and getting an apple there was a once-every-few-years kind of treat. The apples were enormous and expensive, and I was worried about fitting into my wedding dress, so I suggested we share one. I could feel her eyes boring into me every time I took a bite, sizing up the size of my bites relative to her bites, and when we finished she said, "I am never sharing one of those again." At the time, I thought she was being crazy, but now I get it. As a mom, you're asked to share so many bits of yourself at so many inconvenient times, that there are some things that just shouldn't be shared.

My Diet Coke is another one of these things. I've been known to chug a Route 44 from Sonic, not because I'm thirsty or I'm going somewhere with a no-drinks policy, but because I have a vulture hanging on each leg, begging for a sip. I've cried actual tears after going out of my way to bring home a fountain drink with ice, only to leave the room and come back to an empty cup. For this teetotaling Mormon, my Diet Coke is what wine is to some of my friends, and no mom is ever expected to share her wine with her toddlers.

Also on the list are my iPhone and Kindle (which often get taken when my back is turned), my favorite blanket (see, I am a two-year-old!), NPR on the car radio (I'm secretly gleeful that Eli and Rose broke the DVD player in the car), my time in the bathroom (which didn't used to bother me, but now it does, because my current toddlers like to turn the lights off when I'm in there, and then they want to help a little bit too much), and my exercise time. My ideal workout time is spent chatting with a friend from 5:15-6:15am, but I will gladly spend the same hour with a book on my iPhone. If one of the kids prevents me from getting in my run early, I will move heaven and earth to make it happen during the day, even if I spend the whole time listening to Daniel Tiger and staring into the glass on the framed print hanging in front of my treadmill to make sure no one is trying to climb on behind me. It's not as much about the exercise as it is about feeling accomplished in one aspect of my life, when so much of the rest of my day is about entropy and failing to control my temper.

Ed shares happily. He doesn't mind when someone swipes the bacon from his plate at dinner, and he thinks it's adorable when the kids come by and take enormous gulps of Diet Mountain Dew. But then again, he's with them for about an hour each day. He doesn't have to accomplish anything other than playing with his babies (which I am very grateful that he loves doing), and therefore doesn't experience the (joys and) frustrations of reading/cooking/eating/sleeping/car pooling/peeing with them in tow.

I know that all of the experts say that parents need to take care of themselves first in order to be able to take care of others. Whenever I get time alone, I always think that I'll end that time recharged and ready to go home, but I don't think I reach my threshold for alone time and buckling only myself into the car after an hour or two. So maybe my selfishness is really self-preservation--my way of maintaining a bit of my own self even though I'm the primary parent from the moment I get in from my run at 6:15 until the teenagers finally turn off their lights around 9:30. It's a good life, and one I'm grateful to call mine. As long as no one tries to touch my Diet Coke. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review: Insomnia by J.R. Johansson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Insomnia
Author: J.R. Johansson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for intense situations and threats of violence

Parker doesn't sleep. He hasn't slept for four years. Instead, he spends his night inhabiting the dreams of the last person he made eye contact with before going to bed. This means he's spent lots of nights seeing his mom's dreams, and way too many nights witnessing the subconscious of people from school. Sometimes he the thing he sees are scary or dangerous. But what's really dangerous is the fact that his brain never rests. He can't concentrate and feels jittery. His mother is convinced he's on drugs. But then Parker meets Mia, a new girl at school, and when he inhabits her dreams, he finds rest.

The problem starts when Mia starts to think Parker is stalking her. It turns out that someone really is stalking her, and she has a troubled past, and since Parker has to make eye contact with her every night before going to sleep, the assumption seems logical. In order to clear his name, Parker has to find the real stalker, before he completely loses it due to his own sleeplessness. The premise of Insomnia is really interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the world of the first half of the novel. Overall, I found the book a strong contender. However, Parker is a male character, and this felt like female book. I don't know how to explain it, but the preoccupation with girls and relationships made me feel like this was a book more geared to female readers than male readers, which surprised me because of the male protagonist.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: The Runaway King (Ascendance Trilogy #2)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG

The Runaway King begins where The False Prince leaves off, with Jaron burying his parents and taking over as king of Carthya. He's made so many enemies (not to mention all of the enemies his father had who have now transferred their hatred to Jaron) that he soon recognizes that his experience as king will be untenable unless he fixes a few things. The problem is that he can't fix these things and serve as king. So he has a friend impersonate him (seems to be a recurring theme), and runs away to join the pirates, hoping to challenge (and prevail against) the pirate king.
The Runaway King is just as well written, and Jaron is just as cunning as he was in The False Prince. Furthermore, the book doesn't have middle book syndrome. Nielsen manages to give us a decent backstory on from the first novel without weighing down this narrative, and although the book is part of a trilogy, it has its own satisfying conclusion. What it lacks is the plot twist that made The False Prince so great. I think it's a solid story, but lacks the sparkle of its predecessor. 

Book Review: Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Going Vintage
Author: Lindsey Leavitt
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG

It begins innocently enough. Mallory gets on her boyfriend Jeremy's computer to get started on a homework assignment they're working on together. The window is open to the equivalent of Facebook, and before she realizes quite what she's doing, she discovers that Jeremy's avatar is married to a someone in an online game, and he's writing deeply personal emails to the girl who is his online wife. So Mallory dumps his sorry butt and heads off with her dad to help clean out her grandma's house. At Grandma's she discovers a journal her grandma wrote her junior year of high school, filled with goals of things like starting a pep club and making a formal dress. Mallory feels like the modern world has made her own life way too complicated, so she eschews all modern technology (basically anything not available in 1962), and decides to make her grandma's goals her own.

The story has a cute premise, and Mallory has a great voice. I also think that Leavitt does a nice job capturing the supporting characters, both male and female. The book made me laugh out loud in certain places, and my daughter wanted to read it based on the cover and what she read on the jacket. My main quibbles are that Leavitt takes the book in some serious places with some of the side stories (involving the mother and grandmother, in particular), and I found myself more interested in those stories than I was in the main rebound romance story. And while I applaud the ways that she mirrors some of the issues Mallory is experiencing through the side stories, I felt that they were too easily resolved and got short shrift. But overall, an enjoyable read, and one I think teenage girls would definitely enjoy.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Review: A Spy for a Spy by Jordan McCollum (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: A Spy for a Spy (Spy Another Day #2)
Author: Jordan McCollum
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

In A Spy for a Spy, Talia no longer has to keep her profession a secret from Danny. And instead of dumping her, Danny has decided to marry her. The problem? Talia is terrified. She can fight bad guys without fear, but she's seen all of the marriages around her fail, and so she's spinning her wheels about wedding planning. Danny, once again, is impatient. To make matters worse, Talia's new boss, Brand, is the only real boyfriend she ever had before she met Danny. And he's no less of a jerk now than he was five years earlier.

Talia soon has reason to suspect that Brand might be an agent gone rogue, willing to sell off secrets to  the highest bidder. Most of the action of the novel, when Talia isn't off trying on wedding dresses or avoiding trying on wedding dresses, she's following Brand around (he's the least suspicious CIA agent ever because he never seems to notice). There seems to be a lot more romance and a lot less mystery or suspense in this novel, and I missed the puzzle aspect of the story. I also find myself a little more frustrated with Danny's character in this story, since he doesn't seem willing to cut Talia a break, and continues to be impatient with her work and lack of interest in planning a wedding. I guess that's what happens when a traditionally raised Mormon boy marries a CIA agent?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Title: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Author: Ann Patchett
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13, maybe? No sex, no violence, no offensive language, but it's a book that probably wouldn't appeal to a kid

I've read several of Ann Patchett's novels over the years (Bel Canto, Run) and I fell in love with her when I read State of Wonder a few years ago. So when I saw that she had a new book out, I ordered it ASAP. I knew that this book was nonfiction, but I wasn't sure what to expect. Perhaps a memoir about marriage? I knew that she'd been married and divorced when she was young, and later remarried, so I was expecting a straightforward story about her marriages.

That's not what This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is. And, I guess, it is. The book is actually a compilation of pieces that Patchett has written over the years. She starts the book by talking about the process of its creation. For many years, as she was trying to establish herself as a novelist, she paid the bills by writing nonfiction pieces for magazines. When someone suggested that she publish some of these essays and articles as a compilation, she read through them, picked a bunch, put them in chronological order, added a few new essays to fill in the gaps, and published.

What I didn't expect was that I would learn so much about writing from reading this book. Patchett studied writing at Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, then taught writing and had many writing fellowships, and lots of what she does is talk about her process as a writer. I often worry that I'm living an interesting enough life to be a great writer, but I think Patchett would say (and I would agree) that it's not about living an interesting life as much as it's about doing the work of being a writer (putting pen to paper every day). I particularly loved her stories about her grandmother and her trip in a Winnebago, but every essay was great. Although they don't seem to necessarily have a unifying thread, they come together in a way that gives us as a reader a really rounded picture of her as a writer.

As I was reading, I kept comparing this book to Mary Roach's My Planet. In both cases, the books are written by writers whose work I admire, but I find This is the Story of a Happy Marriage to be a much more successful compilation. The difference, I think, is that the essays in My Planet are all written for the same publication (Reader's Digest), and are all roughly the same length and in the same format. The fact that the pieces in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage are written for a wide variety of publications (and some are even transcripts of talks) make for a much more varied, more interesting reading experience.

As a writer, I'm mostly just sad that I'm done reading the book. While I was reading, I had great ideas for two new novels and for a couple of essays, and I've done exactly nothing with any of them. I miss my grad school days with its deadlines and grades-- they were always a great motivator to get me writing.

Book Review: I, Spy by Jordan McCollum (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: I, Spy (Spy Another Day #1)
Author: Jordan McCollum
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for adult situations and violence

Jordan McCollum's I, Spy is the first book she wrote for the Spy Another Day series (there's actually a short story that takes place before the actions in I, Spy, but it was published later). The novel, which was one of two in the series that is a Whitney finalist, centers on the actions of Talia Reynolds, a CIA agent working undercover in Ottawa, Canada. In fact, her actual profession is so secret that  even her boyfriend of a year, Danny, thinks she's a lawyer (she did, in fact, go to law school-- it's part of her cover).

In I, Spy, Talia and her co-worker, Elliott, are put on the case of a Russian aerospace executive. A couple of problems become evident: first, Elliott is distracted because his wife is due to deliver their baby any day; and second, Danny is getting increasingly impatient with the number of times Talia has to cancel their dates due to work. The opening scene of the book draws readers in immediately, and I found myself enjoying the first two-thirds of the novel quite a bit (despite thinking Danny is a whiner). I loved Jennifer Garner in the Alias series back in the day, and the books remind me quite a lot of the series (Talia is always getting dressed up in some getup to get ready to meet someone). The last third of the novel felt like one extended conclusion, with lots of action and violence and threatened violence and plot twists and, quite frankly, it dragged a bit for me. But overall, a fun read, and I was happy to delve into the sequel after reading this.