Saturday, March 25, 2017

Mini March Reading Tag -- Summary

You may recall me posting briefly about this event.  I decided just to do one summary post at the end of the month about what I read for each author, since I didn't read anything new or big.

For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I read "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," both of which are in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  I'm teaching ninth-grade literature and creative writing to our oldest niece, and those were both things I assigned to her.

For William Shakespeare, I read the first two acts of Hamlet.  I meant to read the whole thing, but children and life intervened.  

For J.R.R. Tolkien, I finished a chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring today.  I'm considering suspending my LOTR read for right now because I might be teaching it to my niece next fall, and I don't know that I have time to read it twice in one year.  Which isn't me giving up on My Year in Middle Earth, just sort of splitting it up.  I won't decide until I've discussed the idea with my in-laws and niece.  She loves fantasy and hasn't read it, and I think it would be an excellent way to teach things like theme and world-building and foreshadowing and... we shall see!

Anyway, my thanks to Joseph at The Once Lost Wanderer for setting up this mini reading challenge!  Without it, I wouldn't have dipped into Hamlet this month, I'm sure.

Friday, March 24, 2017

"The Merchant's Daughter" by Melanie Dickerson

So many of you have recommended Melanie Dickerson's fairy tale retellings to me over the past few years, and I have several of her books on my to-read list.  When the price for the e-book version of Dickerson's version of "Beauty and the Beast" dropped recently, I decided to give it a try.  And I read the whole thing in only three days, which necessitated a couple of extra battery rechargings for my phone.

So, yes, I definitely enjoyed this book!  The Beast, Lord Ranulf le Wyse, reminded me a lot of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, but with a less lurid past.  And the Beauty, Annabel, was a sweet blend of curious and patient.  She learned a good lesson about the importance of honest, and he learned not to expect others to judge him by his appearances.  I liked both of them a great deal, and if I should find this book in paperback at some point, I might just buy a copy.  (I infinitely prefer reading real books over battery-dependent e-books, and if I really like a book and know I will want to re-read it in years to come, I want that book on my physical bookshelves.)

I'm reading some Hemingway and Fitzgerald short stories right now too, for the high school lit class I'm teaching our niece, who is in ninth grade.  And I know I've said before, here and elsewhere, that while I absolutely love the way both those gentlemen write, I don't always love the stories they tell.  I bring this up, because The Merchant's Daughter was exactly the opposite for me -- the story and characters grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let go, but Dickerson's writing itself was pedestrian.  And that's okay -- I'm certainly no Hemingway or Fitzgerald myself.  I would have liked some more subtlety in the emotional changes within both characters, but my taste is not everyone's taste.

If I have one real quibble, it's that Lord le Wyse had an almost historically impossible grasp of God's love and forgiveness, the way that his grace extends to sinners.  The story is set in 1352, 165 years before the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and while the parish priest holds the kinds of views I would expect in the pre-Reformation era, le Wyse is impossibly enlightened and Reformed in his understanding of Scriptures.  Dickerson talks in her Author's Note at the end about the research she did into Medieval England's judicial system and societal customs -- it's my opinion she would have done well to research Medieval theology as well.

Particularly Good Bits:

Her servant status could almost be a blessing.  This thought surprised her.  She'd felt abandoned by God, but maybe He had actually been taking care of her by sending her here.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for repeated assaults against a woman's virtue, talk of women tempting men, and some discussion of feeling desire for others.  Nothing really risqué, as my mother would say, but also not appropriate for children.

This is my first book read and reviewed for Heidi Pekarek's Adventure of Reading Challenge!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong" by Joan Steinau Lester

Jamie at Books and Beverages reviewed this recently and made it sound so good, I put a hold on it at my library right away.  Culture clashes, and the way people navigate them, have fascinated me for a long time, probably since I moved from Michigan to North Carolina when I was twelve and discovered people who thought, talked, and behaved in ways different than I did.

Nina Armstrong's dad is black.  Her mom is white.  And they just split up.  Nina now lives with her mom in the same house she grew up in, but her brother Jimi lives with their dad in a very different neighborhood.  Also, Nina just started ninth grade, and her best friend has been acting oddly, hanging with some new people.  All this fills Nina with a whirlpool of teen angst.  She lets her emotions control her, finally convincing herself that the only way to make sense of her situation is to gain some distance from it by running away to the house of a friend who moved several hours away.

We never learn precisely why her parents split, or even if they're separated or divorced or what.  We get hints that her mom thinks her dad has become obsessed with his black heritage and doesn't like it, and that her dad thinks her mom should care more about his heritage, but we readers remain as confused as Nina about what's going on with her parents.  Which serves to emphasize a major theme of the story, which is that confusion causes people to make bad decisions.  Not that Nina figures out all the answers to her problems by the end of the book, but she definitely learns that seeking answers and asking questions is better than just allowing your confusion to compound.  

Woven throughout the book is a fictionalized version of her great-grandmother's journey from slavery to freedom.  Nina's dad is writing the story and asks for her opinion on it, but her mom asks her not to read it.  Torn between the two, Nina does read the book, and gains comfort and insight into her own problems from it.

I'm not biracial.  And I haven't been a teen for a long time now.  Yet, I could relate a to some of Nina's difficulties.  I've also had friendships disintegrate.  I've been treated as an outsider.  I've struggled to figure out where I fit in.  These are universal problems, but for Nina, they're exacerbated by her difficulty feeling at home in either the white or black communities.  Joan Steinau Lester uses those universal difficulties in a very compelling way to help us understand how hard life can be for someone like Nina who feels torn between two different heritages.  

There's a good bit of discussion about faith and God throughout the book, but it's kind of generic -- I can assume Nina's been raised with some kind of Christian faith, but Jesus is only ever talked about as a source of love and peace, not as the Savior.  I'm okay with that for the most part, as this is not a conversion story, but I think the book could have been stronger if some adult, like the priest Nina talks to at some point, would have reminded her that her problems are earthly, and she has the assurance of eternal salvation through Jesus.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for some mild bad language (but not taking God's name in vain), some violence and danger, and some mild innuendo.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Spring in the Air!

Actually, we're in the middle of a winter storm here, so all the flowers are coated in ice and look very bedraggled.  But it's supposed to warm up this afternoon, so I'm really hoping no permanent damage has been done to our peach and cherry-plum trees.  They're so laden with blossoms that I've been hoping for lots of fruit.

Be that as it may, spring officially begins next week, and the list prompt from The Broke and the Bookish reflects that fact.  Here are the top ten books on my spring TBR list!  By summer, I want to have all ten of these read.

Beyond the Great Snow Mountains by Louis L'Amour -- I haven't read any L'Amour for a few years, so grabbed this collection of short stories off the library shelf a couple weeks ago.  Hope to start it soon.

Black, White, Other by Joan Steinau Lester -- reading this right now on the recommendation of a friend.

By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman -- reading this aloud to my kids right now -- it's so fun!

Hood by Stephen Lawhead -- a friend loaned me this when she learned I love Robin Hood.  Looking forward to it.

Jane and the Stillroom Maid by Stephanie Barron -- I've been wanting to get back into this series for over a year, so picked this up at the library the other day.

One Thousand White Women:  The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus -- I've long been fascinated by stories of white settlers who got adopted by natives.  This is a fictional account of true events that looks so good.

Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash -- I'm about a quarter done with this.  The stories are so varied!  I love how most of them take place in the North Carolina mountains around places I'm very familiar with like Boone and Lenoir and Blowing Rock.

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan:  The True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate by Rick Bowers -- The whole story of how comic book writers took on the KKK and beat them fills me with joy, and I can't wait to read a whole book about it.  Fiction writers can change the world!!!

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome -- Lots of people insist my kids and I will love this, I just need to find time to read it.

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien -- I'm sooooooo far behind on the read-along I'm participating in.  I'm not even finished with The Fellowship of the Ring yet, and I ought to be well into TTT by now.  On the other hand, I'm enjoying savoring it and not really pushing myself to read faster.  But I also need to not neglect it.

What's on your TBR list for this spring?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"The Phantom of the Opera" by Gaston Leroux

It's Beauty and the Beast Week over at Meredith's blog, On Stories and Words!  Be sure to stop over there to see all the fun posts, games, and so on.  For this event, I am reviewing The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, the gothic novel that inspired the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.  While The Phantom of the Opera is not strictly a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it does share a lot of similarities, which I will explore here.

I became a fan of the musical thanks to an art teacher who used to play the original cast recording while we were painting together when I was thirteen or fourteen.  She owned two copies on cassette and graciously gave me one when she realized I loved it and had never heard it before.  I listened to that recording over and over, trying to figure out the story line from the songs alone.  I came to several very erroneous conclusions by doing so, like I thought that Christine's song "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" was her singing about the Phantom, not her father -- that song seriously confused me for years.  Because y'all, this was the mid-'90s, and no one had made a movie version yet.  I didn't have the means to get to Broadway to see it performed live.  It didn't tour anywhere near where I lived.  And so, the story line remained what I could make of it until April 6, 1999, when I found this book at Barnes and Noble, bought it, devoured it, and finally understood the plot!

(Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford in the stage musical)

Gaston Leroux claims in the novel that he based this on real events, and that he interviewed all sorts of people involved, but from what I've been able to dig up on the internet, really he just took the fact that there really are all sorts of underground layers to the big Paris Opera House where a skeleton was found, and then made up a story to go with it.  

Young soprano Christine Daaé debuts at the Opera House in Paris to rapturous acclaim.  Viscomte Raoul de Chagny, who knew Christine when they were children, becomes enamored of her, but she insists she cannot become romantically involved with him.  Her vocal teacher, the mysterious Angel of Music, demands she remain single.  Meanwhile, the opera's managers try to figure out who is sending them demanding notes signed Opera Ghost.  Christine disappears, reappears, disappears again.  Raoul valiantly attempts to rescue her, with the help of a man known as The Persian.  

(Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney in the silent film)

What does all this have to do with "Beauty and the Beast"?  Christine Daaé is beautiful, innocent, and kind.  The Angel of Music, or Opera Ghost, is actually a disfigured man called Erik who lives under the Opera House.  He wears a mask to cover his hideous face, but he is a musical genius and has helped Christine perfect her singing voice.  He falls possessively, obsessively in love with her and whisks her away to his hidden home, where he surrounds her with luxuries and begs her to love him for himself, despite his ugly appearance.  Doesn't that sound a lot like the Beast, with his castle or palace, who yearns for the beautiful girl he holds captive?

Christine does not love Erik.  But she pities him, and comes to feel kindly toward him.  Eventually, she agrees to marry him, initially to stop Erik from killing Raoul and the Persian, but she does feel grateful toward him and does not try to escape him.  Erik then rewards her honorable pity by releasing her from her promise and sending her off to live happily ever after with Raoul.  Which might sound rather different from the ending of "Beauty and the Beast," but both beautiful girls find their feelings toward their captors changing when they come to understand him better.  Pity, kindness, and gratitude all come into play.  And while Erik doesn't physically change from a beastly monster, he undergoes a radical transformation inside, changing from utterly selfish to capable of selfless kindness.  Instead of forcing Christine to marry him and spend the rest of her days in his underground lair, he frees her.

Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, you can read this book for free here via Project Gutenberg!  If you like the musical, or gothic novels, I highly recommend it.

(Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler in the movie musical)

Particularly Good Bits:

None will ever be a true Parisian who has not learnt to wear a mask of gaiety over his sorrows and one of sadness, boredom, or indifference over his inward joy (p. 49).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for suspense and dangerous situations.

This is my seventh book read and reviewed for my second go-round with the Classics Club.  

Thursday, March 9, 2017

"Rogue One" by Alexander Freed

I had basically given up reading movie novelizations until I read this book.  In fact, I initially had zero interest in reading this because I'd tried reading the novelization of The Force Awakens last year and hated it so virulently that I'd sworn off reading movie-into-book stuff.

The trouble is that, when I watch a movie, especially when I watch it over and over like I did Rogue One, I write it in my head as I watch.  I will absolutely have an internal voice-over of sorts going on that narrates bits of the action, fills in what people are thinking and feeling, and generally novelizes it for me.  One of the hazards of being a writer I guess.  Also, it really bugs me when a writer feels the need to improve a movie's dialog by changing it a ton.  If they want to add more, fine, but also give me the dialog that is in the movie the way it's said in the movie.  I absolutely do not want to spend my time thinking, "But that's not what they said!"

Actually, it was a movie novelization that made me realize, when I was 18, that I was actually getting to be a good writer.  I read the book version of The Mask of Zorro (1998) on the plane ride home for Christmas from college, and I kept objecting to the way it was written and wanting to improve it.  That was the first time I ever read a book and thought, "I could have written this better."  (And before I sound too arrogant, let me add that I've only thought that maybe a dozen times in the 18 years since.  This is a rare and generally irksome occurrence, and usually one I get with children's books.)

However, DKoren read this and loved it, for the most part.  She assured me that, while she also couldn't make it past the first chapter or two of The Force Awakens, she inhaled this book in a single day.  So I got it from the library and gave it a try.

You may have noticed that it has been listed in my sidebar as something I'm reading for weeks.  Maybe a month.  That's not because I was dragging my feet about reading it, or having trouble getting into it.  Quite the opposite!  I have enjoyed this book so much, I have read it just a scene or two at a time, so as to savor it and prolong my enjoyment.  And also because reading it was almost like watching the film.  Since it's gone from theaters now, this was the best way I could find to maintain the joy I got from watching the movie over and over.  In fact, I bought my own copy, which arrived yesterday.  I know I'll be reading it over and over in the years to come.  Especially the first scene in chapter 13.

Am I perfectly happy with this book?  No.  There are a few things I would have written differently.  I interpreted a few character reactions to events in ways this author did not.  But for the most part, I found it a wholly satisfying experience.  There were a couple of times where Freed even used the exact word to describe something that I had picked for it while watching, which tickled me.

If you read my other blog, you know I fell in love with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) the first time I saw Rogue One.  Obviously, that meant the characterization of Cassian was going to be make-or-break for this novel.  I approved if it.  In fact, all the characterizations were awesome, and some of them even made me like a character better than I do in the movie.  Especially Lyra Erso (Jessica Prescott will be happy to hear this) -- I still object to her behavior, but I understand her choices a little better now.  Similarly, I don't find General Draven quite so horrid as I did before.  He's still a black-handed bossypants, but I get where he's coming from now.

The only thing I truly disliked about this book, to be honest, was the fact that it does have some bad language.  Not a lot, but one of the things I love about the film is that it has zero bad language.  I wish the book had been the same.

Particularly Good Bits:

The tragedy of K-2SO's existence was this:  The skills he most cherished were skills his rebel masters disdained; and the skills he considered crude and trivial were skills his masters were helpless to learn (p. 144).

He was tired of crimes he never answered for (p. 153).

Steam spilled from the iris, and as Krennic's eyes adjusted he heard a new sound:  a hollow, metallic rasp that resonated in the chamber; the desperate, hungry breathing of a creature that should not have been alive (p. 189).

Dozens of vessels winked into existence against the shroud of space, filling the void as if some mythological deity had upturned a bottle of fresh stars over the heaves (p. 252).

It was, in a sense, a delaying tactic, but delay defeat long enough, and a triumph  might eventually find its way home (p. 265).

Was this hope?  Facing fear after fear, for oneself and for friends and for the galaxy, all out of some desperate need to accomplish the impossible?  (p. 271).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for violence and language.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Upcoming Events

Time to do a post about all the cool stuff I'll be participating in soon.  I know I have buttons in my sidebar for them, but I want to talk a bit more about them too.

First up is Beauty and the Beast Week hosted by Meredith at On Stories and Words.  I'll be reviewing Gaston Leroux's classic novel The Phantom of the Opera for this.  This is next week!!!

Next, Joseph at The Once Lost Wanderer is hosting the Mini March Reading Tag.  Whether you want to read something by all three authors, or just one or two of them, it's a fun way to band together around these three wonderful authors.  You know I'm a big fan of all three, so there's no way I would miss it!  Not sure yet just what I'll read for this, though.

And third, I'm participating in the Adventure of Reading Challenge hosted by Heidi at Along the Brandywine.  I've signed on for the Wrangler Level, which means I aim to read 10-12 books before the end of the year.  Specifically, I intend to read Hood, Scarlet, and Tuck by Stephen Lawhead, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then whatever else I please.

Which brings me to my final announcement.  I haven't set a start date yet, but I'm definitely going to host a read-along of The Great Gatsby this summer!

Monday, March 6, 2017

"J.R.R. Tolkien: The Mind of a Genius"

I picked up this magazine at Toys 'R Us last week.  It's pretty nifty -- lots of lovely pictures and interesting text.  it's divided into three sections:  Creating Middle-Earth, Exploring Middle-Earth, and Celebrating Middle-Earth.

Creating Middle-Earth tells all about how Tolkien came up with the idea for his fantasy world, drawing on his love of myths and languages, his wartime experiences, and his dissatisfaction with modern fantasy stories at the time.

Exploring Middle-Earth had lots of maps and some timelines.  I especially liked the timelines, as sometimes I get a bit lost as to what events happened in which age and so on.  I suspect that I will be referring to those from time to time.

Celebrating Middle-Earth is about how popular Tolkien's fiction still is, the adaptations people have made, and so on.  
I have only one quibble with this magazine/compilation/thing, and that's about this sentence from page 41:  "In Middle-earth's version of the Big Bang, the 'Music of the Ainur' created the physical universe."  Um, no... pretty sure that's the Middle-earth version of the creation story from the Bible.  In the Bible, God speaks the world into existence, and in The Silmarillion, Illuvatar sings it into existence, and the Ainur embellish on his work.  The magazine/compilation/thing earlier talked about Tolkien's Catholicism and how it informed his fiction, so I was pretty disappointed in the obvious mistake here.  But it's one sentence out of 90+ pages, not enough to make me recommend avoiding this if you're a Tolkien fan.  Don't avoid it!  It's a fun and pretty collection, and like I said, I'm sure I will be referring back to it.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"The Trouble Begins at 8" by Sid Fleischman

Sid Fleischman has been one of my favorite authors since I was probably ten or so.  My mom read By the Great Horn Spoon! aloud to my brother and I, and she had to stop reading over and over because we were laughing so hard, we couldn't hear her.  I read every book of his I could get my hands on after that, and have a deep and abiding fondness for him.  I read his memoir, The Abracadabra Kid, a few years ago and loved that too.

So it comes as no surprise that, when I spotted this on the junior nonfiction shelves at the library last week, I snatched it up.  It's also not surprising that I read the first three chapters before we even left the library.  Or that I swallowed up the rest of it in no time at all.

Fleischman's own love of the absurd, the fanciful, and the ridiculous-yet-believable makes him the ideal biographer for Mark Twain.  Both Twain and Fleischman are able satirists, great at telling a funny story that you laugh and laugh over, only later to realize that they were teaching you something at the same time as they were tickling your funny bone.  The Trouble Begins at 8 focuses on Samuel Clemens' metamorphosis from human tumbleweed who acquired and abandoned jobs freely to a celebrated humorist, lecturer, and novelist.  Yes, this is written at a middle-grade level, and yes, adults will get a big kick out of it too.

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for mentions of drinking alcohol, smoking cigars, and western violence.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"With Blossoms Gold" by Hayden Wand -- Cover Reveal!

This is my first time participating in a "cover reveal" where an author gives us an advance look at the cover art for their upcoming release.  It's very exciting!  I've already read With Blossoms Gold as a part of the Once collection, but Hayden Wand is releasing it as a stand-alone work on April 2, 2017.

Before we get to the cover, here's the official synopsis:

She never wanted to leave the tower. He never wanted to rule the country.

Nella has lived quietly in her tower in the woods for over a decade. After dangerous accusations drove her and her grandmother away from their village, they escaped deep into the forest where no one would try to harm them. Now, after her grandmother's death, Nella is alone, and she is determined to stay that way. She has no patience for a world she deems judgmental and ignorant.

Or so she tells herself. In reality, her paralyzing fear prevents her from stepping foot outside of the tower.

Prince Benedict Allesandro is an adventurer- a rescuer who prides himself on saving the weak and unfortunate. When he hears rumors of a beautiful damsel trapped in a tower, he rushes to her rescue...only to find a woman who most definitely does not wish to be saved.

But when war breaks out, this reckless prince and reclusive maiden are faced with overcoming their deepest fears in order to determine not only their own fate, but that of their entire country.

Now, here's the cover:

Isn't it sumptuous?  I am agog.

Here are my own thoughts on With Blossoms Gold, which I posted previously as part of my review of Once as a whole:  

This is a Rapunzel retelling with some amazing twists.  For one, the girl hasn't been imprisoned in a tower, she's staying there for her own safety.   And for another, it tackles head-on what it's like to live with panic attacks.  I have friends who suffer from panic attacks, anxiety, and depression in one form or another, and I absolutely loved the way Hayden Wand compassionately described how debilitating these can be, what a real problem they are, how they are not just imaginary things people could "get over" if they tried hard enough.  Also, both of the main characters had wonderful character arcs and truly grew as people over the course of the story, facing fears, sacrificing things for each other, and ultimately learning to understand both each other and themselves so beautifully.  

If you want to add this to your GoodReads list, here's a link.  

And if you want to get to know Hayden better, she blogs here at A Singular and Whimsical Problem.  But here's her official author bio, if you're curious:  Hayden Wand is the author of the novel Hidden Pearls as well as the novella "The Wulver's Rose," which was published in the Five Enchanted Roses collection. A Christian and a 2012 homeschool graduate, she currently attends a local college where she studies history and haunts the campus library.