Wednesday, December 16, 2015

If Eyes are the Windows to the Soul...

If eyes are the windows to the soul, what are bionic eyes, or cataract-free eyes with replacement lenses - hey, they even gave me the guarantee card that goes with it when they fixed my eye earlier this week.

My soul feels lighter, I must admit; it's easier to see. I can type. I can drink coffee while I type (is that good for the keyboard?). I can read and I can write. So maybe my eyes are smiling brighter now. Who knows? Meanwhile the windows to my home are cleaner, brighter and warmer too - we've just got double-glazing, at last!

Are glasses double-glazing for the eyes?

And why don't kids like to wear glasses? I loved mine because they made it easier to avoid catching the wrong bus and being late to school. I thought they made me special, because my Mum wore glasses. Then I learned to hate them over time, wishing I wasn't always wearing breakable stuff on my face, with weighted arms over my ears, and general inconvenience. So now I'm typing these reviews without glasses - hurray! I can only see one of each letter (a huge improvement over life before cataract removal), and I'm happy!

So... let me happily give you some children's book reviews, and ponder which children are or are not wearing glasses in these books.

I'll start with Kiboko, by Amelia De Mello, a gorgeous picture book which combines wonderful original art (from African artist Edward Kimambo) with a pleasingly lyrical story, simply told and filled with sweet wise lessons. Enjoy this tale of a hippopotamus following his dreams, while you dream of of lively easy-drinking coffee. No eyewear on hippo and friends, but you have to see those pink flamingos, and read those color-coded Kiswahili words!

Another book for small readers is Three Monkeys Welcome to Treehouse Lane. The text offers intriguing questions and multiple choice answers concerning how you view a new house, make friends, and deal with everyday childrens' problems. It's a nicely thought-out, intriguing tale for small kids, and reminds them that friends can look very different from yourself. (They might even wear glasses). Enjoy with some well-balanced smooth three-star coffee.

For older readers (middle grade and above), The Bettanys on the Home Front by Helen Barber is an excellent introduction to a timeless girls series - one my mother enjoyed as a child, and I enjoyed following her. The original Chalet School books by Eleanor M Brent-Dyer were set post-WWI and featured an adult sister starting a school which her younger sister attended. The Bettanys on the Home Front introduces the older siblings aged around 14, while baby sister's still a baby and the casualties from world war have just begun to take effect. If you like Downton Abbey, old girls' school stories, or especially the Chalet School, or if you just want something clean and fun for a girl to read, this is the one for you. Drink some well-balanced full-flavored coffee and enjoy. (And yes, some of the girls do wear glasses.)

How I Met The Beatles (and how they broke my heart) by Barbara J Guardino is another good book for middle-grade girls, teaching lessons for everyday from the convincing story of a girl who worshiped the Beatles. How little life has changed! Enjoy a lively easy-drinking two-star coffee with this lively easy-reading book, and, if you were a Beatles fan, enjoy the authentic sense of time and place - small-town America with a touch of Liverpool!

White Swans by Annamaria Bazzi might be aimed at slightly older or maturer readers. Nicely lowkey romance blends with a regency world, a touch of science fiction and magic, and some fascinating questions of duty, love, and how to treat people as people. For anyone who loves regency romances or magic, this might be the perfect choice. Enjoy with some elegantly complex four-star coffee.

Then, for the guys - possibly mature middle-grade, but certainly young adult and adult - there's Camouflaged Encounters by David Englund. It's not the first in the series, but it represents a step forward from everyman the wannabe Superman to everyman the savior of the world, and it's surprisingly good fun. What if aliens were among us, manufacturing our wars, our politics and more, just for the sake of winning a game? What would you do if you a) knew they were there, and b) were possibly, purely by accident, the only person who could do anything about them? Enjoy some bright lively easy-drinking coffee, and gaze into the windows of an alien's soul.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Does dark weather demand dark reads?

I have some slightly darker book reviews for today - appropriately I guess, since the weather is dark and gray.I'm hoping for brighter days, so I can travel around with Mum. But for now, just being home or damply driving out for everyday shopping is really quite a treat, since we get so little time to spend together.

Anyway, as I take a few minutes off from sharing news with family from England, here are some book reviews (and coffee recommendations) to share with readers everywhere.

Repercussions by Anthony Schneider tells the parallel stories of a white Jewish South-African caught up in the violence of apartheid, and his white Jewish American grandson caught up in the violence of that world's repercussions. Echoing through both stories are questions of what we do, what we can do, and why we do what we do. Enjoy with some seriously rich, elegant and complex four-star coffee.

Target of Opportunity by Max Byrd is filled with a similar sense of history's repercussions dripping through to the present day. It's a novel that blends genres perfectly, combining police procedural with WWII espionage, and offering powerfully convincing portrayals of both. More rich and complex four-star coffee will be needed with this one.

Maribeth Shanley's Crack in the World looks at the more immediate repercussions of child sexual abuse, as the protagonist grows from child to woman, bearing the weight of everyone else's problems without acknowledging her own. Truth will out, in the end, and perhaps truth will heal. But good relationships with a neighbor and friend are the glue that keeps her together. Read this dark but hopeful tale, filled with insights into human motivations good and bad, with a good cup of dark five-star coffee.

Real-world darkness takes the stage in To Live Out Loud by Paulette Mahurin, a retelling of the story of Emil Zola and Richard Dreyfus' politically savage trials in France. Having grown up in England, I was vaguely familiar with the history. Reading it told from a new point of view gives it a haunting immediacy, and brings out its relevance to today. More dark five-star coffee might be needed with this well-researched novella.

Next is Stranger at Sunset by Eden Baylee, a darkly sensuous psychological murder mystery that blends new adult noir with an Agatha Christie-type cast of characters at a beautiful Jamaican retreat. The protagonist's dark morality matches her darkly hidden past and sets the stage for a series to come, while the novel stands alone as an intriguingly modern Christie-style mystery. Enjoy with some bold, dark intense five-star coffee.

And finally a truly dark tale, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book One: Southbound Nightmares, by Scott Scherr. In the vein of Stephen King's the Stand, it follows a group of disconnected characters at the end of the world. Hints of Assault on Precinct 13, shadows of the Living Dead, and some very convincingly flawed characters combine to make for a novel that's hard to put down, gruesomely scary, and genuinely fascinating. Enjoy, yes of course, with some more dark five-star coffee, perfect for these days of cold dark winter.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Would you rather unpack book boxes or unpack cases?

Last Friday and Saturday, members or our local writers' group manned a table at a local bazaar, where we sold Writers' Mill Journals and other books written by or contributed to by members of the group.


Then on the Sunday, December 6th, I was honored to be one of the authors at the Oregon Historical Society Holiday Cheer event. (Look who I'm sitting next to - Eric Kimmel, author of Simon and the Bear and other great Hanukkah picture books, and more!).  

There were even Dickensian singers to entertain us all, and offer the promise of Christmasses white instead of blue.  


But now it's all done, and the unsold books need to be repackaged and buried under the bed, ready for next time. Meanwhile two new black suitcases have appeared on top of the bed, waiting to be unpacked. They belong to my mum, who has just arrived for her annual Christmas visit. Which is my way of apologizing in advance if I get even more behind with book reviews because... well, there are so many book conversations going on between me and my Mum instead. And other conversations. And baking of Christmas cakes and steaming of puddings and rolling out of gluten free pastry for the mince pies, and shopping, and...

But I have read some books. Honestly. And I've written some reviews. So here's my latest batch.

Since I was sitting right next to Eric Kimmel yesterday, I guess I should start with some children's books. So.. first is Merry Christmouse by Tess Votto illustrated by Vicki Rushing. It's a fun story told from human and mouse points of view, with the added attraction of bright illustrations drawn from human and mouse points of view. Plus there's all the excitement of trying to survive the onset of Christmas. I'd recommend a lively easy-drinking two-star coffee with this one.

Next is Let’s Make Crepes by Mae Segeti & Nic Monty, where boys and girls work together with Mom and Dad in the kitchen. It's all very convincing, sweet and fun, though I wished I'd seen the mathematician use his skill in measuring perhaps, or the swordfighter in stirring the batter. Ah well; that's just me. It's a fun book to read with a mild crisp one-star cup of coffee and a group of helpful kids.

And then, Oliver and Jumpy 31-33 by Werner Stejskal continues a familiar series with an enterprising cat and his kangaroo friend. The different illustration styles in each story are intriguing and nicely suited to the tales. Enjoy with some light bright two-star coffee.

For slightly older, or more serious minded children, Saint Anthony the Great by John Chryssavgis & Marilyn Rouvelas illustrated by Isabelle Brent is an intriguing historical story with some nicely woven lessons for the reader. The pictures really make this book, giving depth to the text and inviting questions and answers. But for me the best bit is the explanation of demons light nightmares (like monsters in the closet) being just the result of a wild imagination. Enjoy with one with some elegant complex four-star coffee.

While I'm thinking of saints, perhaps this is a good place to add my review of Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber. This one's definitely NOT for the kids, or for adults allergic to the occasional swear word or alternative lifestyle, but it's probably the most Christian book I've read in quite a while, filled with thought-provoking humor, absorbing memories of events, and the wonderful liturgy of the church year perfectly applied to real life. I can't recommend it enough! Drink bold, dark, intense five-star coffee and enjoy Christ in the real world, and the real, liturgical church.

Time now to read some more and write more reviews. Then, maybe, I'll find time to write more books too. Did you know the first 11 books of Five-Minute Bibles Stories are now in print! If I finish book 12, I'll have my own personal book-a-month club!