Sunday, December 31, 2017

"The Brass Compass" by Ellen Butler

I got to hear Ellen Butler speak at my local library a couple of months ago on the topic of women in the OSS.  That's the Office of Strategic Services, if you don't know, the American intelligence service they created in the early days of WWII, which has since become the CIA.  I watched the Alan Ladd movie O.S.S. (1946) earlier this year and was curious as to how accurate that representation might have been, and I'm always interested by anything to do with WWII anyway.

Butler was knowledgeable and engaging, and I very much enjoyed her presentation.  I even raised my hand to ask if she'd seen Alan Ladd's movie and if it seemed accurate in light of her own research.  (She said she thought it was accurate overall, so yay.)  Butler has even managed to meet and interview some surviving female OSS agents, and her own grandfather served as a cryptographer during WWII.  I found her fascinating.

As for The Brass Compass, it was overall most enjoyable as well.  It follows Lily, a young American who speaks French and German flawlessly.  She joins the OSS because she's bored and purposeless and is soon behind enemy lines, posing as a nanny so she can spy on a high-ranking Nazi officer.  But her cover is eventually exposed, forcing her to flee across Germany in the dead of winter.  She's eventually reunited with the man she loves, an American airman, and goes on to have more spying adventures with and without him.  It's kind of an episodic story, with Lily having various spying escapades, and with the love story threading through all of it.  

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  a soft R for violence and torture, mentions of rape, description of a Nazi death camp, bad language sprinkled throughout (including an f-bomb dropped by a soldier confronted with said death camp), and some non-explicit love scenes.  Really, it's the torture that pushes my rating up from a PG-13.

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Council of Elrond (FOTR 2, 2)

Man, this is a long chapter -- good thing I hadn't planned to do more than one or two posts over the holidays. Where to start?

With Boromir, of course. Here he is at last, my beloved Boromir, this "tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance" (p. 234). There's a little smiley heart in the margins of my book here. To get here, he traveled for a hundred and ten days, all alone, making his way from Minas Tirith to Rivendell. I wish I knew what sorts of adventures he had on the way. That's a long time to be out in the wilderness.  Maybe one day I'll have time to write a long fanfic novel about his journey.

Also, it sounds in this like it was Boromir's idea that he come to Rivendell instead of Farmir. He says "since the way was full of doubt and danger, I took the journey upon myself" (p. 240), which sounds very nice of him. And full of pride, which is his besetting sin, but still, nice of him to spare Faramir all that doubt and danger.

I find it interesting that Bilbo, who was hired by Thorin to be a burglar (in The Hobbit), ends up being called a thief. Here, Sauron's messenger is quoted as calling Bilbo a thief while talking to Dain, and he later says "I only wished to claim the treasure as my very own in those days, and to be rid of the name of thief that was put on me" (p. 243). I assume he's referring to Gollum there, who accused him of stealing the ring. In the end, he was hired to be a burglar, and he did kind of do a bit of burgling here and there.

I'm always amazed by just how old Elrond is. His memory "reaches back even to the Elder Days" (p. 237). Holy cow.

Saruman reminds me mightily of Hitler. His voice is his greatest weapon.  Here, Gandalf says he was "lulled by the words of Saruman the Wise" (p. 244), and later on he'll tell his companions to beware of Saruman's voice. Also, Saruman says that his "high and ultimate purpose" is "Knowledge, Rule, Order" (p. 253). Doesn't that sound kind of Nazi-esque?

Okay, I'll say one last thing about Boromir. I love how he stands up for Rohan here. Gandalf and Aragorn discuss whether Rohan might be sending a tribute of horses to Sauron. Boromir says, "It is a lie that comes from the Enemy. I know the Men of Rohan, true and valiant, our allies" (p. 255-56). I love him especially much there. You'll see in the next book that I'm a big fan of Rohan.

Favorite Lines:

"'The time of my thought is my own to spend,' answered Dain" (p. 235).

"The might of Elrond is in wisdom not in weapons, it is said" (p. 239).

"If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so" (p. 242).

"And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom" (p. 252).

"May your beer be laid under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years!" (p. 257). (I've always wanted an opportunity to say this to someone, but nobody I know brews their own beer.)

"...only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero (p. 263).

"This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great" (p. 264).

Discussion Questions:

I'm always struck by the fact that Aragorn attends Elrond's council "clad in his old travel-worn clothes again" (p.233). Why do you suppose he does that? Is he trying to keep a low profile and not draw attention to himself? Trying to impress on people the fact that he's good at the whole wandering-around-and-being-brave thing? Boromir "looked again at Aragorn, and doubt was in his eyes" (p. 241), so clearly he didn't think Aragorn looks particularly kingly. But why does he make a point of this?

Elrond says that "The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it" (p. 262). Do you think this is a foreshadowing of what will happen with Boromir (strong) and Gandalf (wise) -- that they (embodying strength and wisdom) will not finish the journey with Frodo?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Amahl and the Night Visitors" by Gian Carlo Menotti, Illustrated by Michele Lemieux

When I was probably about ten, and my brother would have been about five, my mom got this book out of our library on a whim.  Or at least, I think it was a whim -- she might have heard of it somewhere and been delighted to find it, but as well as I can remember, she just randomly found it in the stacks.  

The three of us were enchanted by this story of a lame beggar boy and his mother encountering the wise men, who are on their way to visit the Christ child.  We got it from the library multiple times.  

And then, while on vacation, we discovered that one of my aunts had a videorecording of the opera this book is based on!  So we got to watch it!  I have no idea anymore which production it was, as the opera was written specifically for TV in the 1950s, and there were many productions over the years.  I do know that we watched that version several times over the next few years.  And my mom, my brother, and I will still sing, "This is my box!  This is my box!  I never travel without my box!" at appropriate moments. 

This is the same edition that I read as a kid, illustrated by Michele Lemieux, and I still love these pictures.  I was so excited that our library had the same edition!  The ending still gives me goosebumps.

This is technically a picture book, but pretty long -- 64 pages with a LOT of text.  I read it to my kids in two parts because we didn't have time to read the whole thing in one sitting.  

This is my third book review for the Literary Christmas 2017 link-up hosted at In the Bookcase.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

"Christmas in Williamsburg" by K. M. Kostyal and Lori Epstein

I picked this book up earlier this month when I was in Colonial Williamsburg with my kids to see all the Christmas decorations.  I spent all day looking in various shops there for some kind of cool Christmasy book and not finding one.  The last place we went was the big bookstore over in Merchants Square, and I spotted this book right when we walked in.  Exactly what I was looking for!

This book explains what Christmas celebrations were like in the colonial era, that they were really much more subdued than our own.  It talks about where our own various decorating and celebrating customs come from too, and then about how old and new are combined in Colonial Williamsburg now.

The book is chock-full of great photos.  It also has a bunch of recipes for things like hot chocolate and Twelfth Night Cake and a non-alcoholic version of syllabub.  And it has some ideas for Christmastime crafts too, like decorating wreaths and making cool gingerbread houses.

On a whole, the book is a little bit aimed at school children, but I learned a lot from it too.  I'll definitely be trying some of the recipes out.  And I'll probably use this book to teach my kids some history at some point.

This is my second book read and reviewed for the Literary Christmas link-up hosted In the Bookshelf.  I signed up to read at least two books, so I've hit that mark now, but I'm hoping to get another Christmas-oriented book or two in before the end of the month.  Here's hoping!

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Another LOTR Read-Along: Many Meetings (FOTR 2, 1)

This may be one of my favorite chapters. I love peaceful Rivendell, and would love to spend some time resting there myself.

And I find the relationship between Bilbo and Aragorn so sweet. How Aragorn, with all the things requiring his attention and time, still willingly pauses to help Bilbo compose a song. And this is not the first time he's done so.

Did you notice that Frodo has now twice been found lying on his face with a broken sword under him? Gandalf says that's how he was found after the flood passed, and back when Frodo was stabbed on Weathertop, that's exactly how his friends found him then too, back on page 192. Hmm.

Favorite Lines:

Frodo lay down again. He felt too comfortable and peaceful to argue, and in any case he did not think he would get the better of an argument (p. 213).

"There are many powers in the world, for good or for evil. Some are greater than I am. Against some I have not yet been measured. But my time is coming" (p. 214).

Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, 'a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all'. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness (p. 219).

Discussion Questions:

Bilbo says, "Don't adventures ever have an end?" (p. 226) Do you think they do, or do they just lead on to more adventures?

Of Rivendell, Tolkien writes, "Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness" (p. 219). Do you have anywhere in your life that feels like that?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"The Story People" by Heather Kaufman

Sometimes, I read a book so quickly, I don't even get around to putting it on my sidebar here.  Or adding it to Goodreads.  (And sometimes I take so long reading a book that you probably get sick of seeing it in my sidebar.  I know I do.)  Well, The Story People was one of those books I simply inhaled.  And then it took me a few days to find time to write a review because... this is a busy time of year, did you notice?

Anyway, so in The Story People, there's this writer/illustrator named Rosemary and this bookstore owner named Ben, and they don't realize it when they meet up as adults, but they actually knew each other as kids.  Together, the kids had made up this wonderful fantasy about Story People who eat the stories that are inside books.  The story of them as kids is interwoven into this story of them as adults, which was just a beautiful writing device -- I loved it.  In fact, I loved this book as a whole.  

Which is a little surprising, to me, because it contains some storytelling elements that usually drive me up a wall.  Ordinarily, I will actively dislike, even quit reading, a book that involves misunderstandings and near-misses, especially if they are what's keeping a potential couple apart.  Drives me nuts.  Partly because they frustrate me, but also because they usually feel like blatant plot devices, just obstacles stuck there by the writer to make the story take longer.  And I think that's why I loved this book despite the fact that if the two characters had just talked to each other, they would have been together in like 3 seconds -- the misunderstandings did not feel like plot devices.  They felt like natural occurrences that were regrettable, but organic.  Did I get frustrated by them?  Yes, sometimes -- there are these three ladies who keep meddling in things and messing them up, but out of the goodness of their hearts, not out of malice.  And there's another character who downright lies and almost ruins everything by doing so.  But overall, the story was just so cozy and enjoyable, and I loved the two main characters (and several minor characters) so very much that I loved the book anyway.

There's also a sweet secondary romance going on between two retirees that warmed my heart :-)

Also, I have a great fondness for stories about people who love books.  And stories about writers.

I actually received this as a gift via the Advent Book Exchange hosted by Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife.  I liked it so well that, even though I wasn't finished reading my own copy, I gave a copy to a friend as a Christmas present.

Particularly Good Bits:

It was easier to cope with loss, he supposed, if you didn't focus too much on what exactly had been lost.  Because when you lose someone, you don't just lose that person.  You lose all the possibilities that came with that person.  Better to focus on the possible, on the next step, than to dwell on the vastness of what had been lost (p. 119).

"I think reading lets us know that we're not alone, that our experiences have been others' experiences.  Sometimes we think our situation is so unique, but reading puts us back into context.  We don't have to feel isolated or alone after all.  Stories connect us as humans" (p. 278).

There was a certain satisfaction with feeling wronged or misunderstood.  Such feelings obliterated obligation and responsibility.  Such feelings put the onus on the other for fixing the problem, while blanketing one's own participation in a cover of hurt (p. 324).

...a book is just a book until it is opened and loved (p. 361).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG.  No curse words, no innuendo more than a few sweet kisses at the end, and no violence.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Joy of Christmas Book Tag

Saw this on Finding Wonderland and couldn't resist the Christmasyness of it :-)

(from Pinterest)

1: Anticipation: The Christmas excitement is real; what book release(s) are you most anticipating?

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King
If I Live by Terri Blackstock
Whatever Katherine Reay writes next

2: Christmas Songs & Carols: What book or author can you not help but sing its praises?

Everyone needs to know how much I enjoy Katherine Reay's books!  I keep giving them to people as gifts.

3: Gingerbread Houses: What book or series has wonderful world-building?

I think The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to world-building, don't you?

4: A Christmas Carol: Favorite classic (or one that you want to read)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is my favorite classic <3 

(from Pinterest)

5: Christmas Sweets: What book would you love to receive for Christmas?

Okay, there's this collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "personal essays" called My Lost City that I would LOVE to read, much less own... but it costs more than $100, so yeah, that's pretty much not going to happen.  But you DID ask.

6: Candles in the Window: What book gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling?

Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery definitely does.

(from Pinterest)

7: Christmas Trees & Decorations: What are some of your favorite book covers?

(I'll stop now.  Five was a good number to share, right?)

8: Christmas Joy: What are some of your favorite things about Christmas and/or some of your favorite Christmas memories?

  • Christmas songs
  • eggnog 
  • multicolored lights 
  • going on "Christmas walks" with my husband and kids (we walk around the neighborhood looking at all the decorations) 
  • fudge
  • singing "Silent Night" by candlelight
  • allllll the Christmas church services

These are a few of my favorite things!

Not tagging anybody with this cuz I wasn't tagged myself.  If you want to do it too, then do it!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Another LOTR Read-Along: Flight to the Ford (FOTR 1,12)

Once again, I'm astonished at the amount of time that elapses in this section of the book compared to the movie. I've seen the movie more often than I've read the book (though I've read the other two books just as often than I've seen the other two movies, I think), so I'm used to all this going much more quickly and Frodo's wound being more quick-acting. It's the end of their twelfth day out from Weathertop that they meet up with Glorfindel, and they travel with him for another day before Frodo crosses the ford to reach Rivendell.

Speaking of Glorfindel, I so wish he was in the movies. I understand the cinematic need to reduce the staggering number of characters, and the modern need to give the women more to do. But Glorfindel gets totally excluded, while Haldir's role got expanded a lot. And Haldir's only in the Lothlorien part of the books, while Glorfindel is one of the few who can ride openly against the Nazgul. And not just ride against them, but actually drive them away from a bridge and chase them! So unfair.

Okay, enough grousing. The movies can't be perfect. I love them anyway.

The little section with the trolls makes me laugh. With Merry and Pippin terrified, and Strider just walking up to one and hitting it with a stick -- I like this little light-hearted interlude to lessen the oppressing doom of Frodo's wound.

Speaking of Frodo, I love it when he refuses to ride Glorfindel's horse to Rivendell and leave his friends behind in danger. Of course, Glorfindel rightly points out that if Frodo isn't with them, his friends won't be in much danger, but still, it was very noble of Frodo.

Favorite Lines:

"I am learning a lot about Sam Gamgee on this journey. First he was a conspirator, now he's a jester. He'll end up by becoming a wizard -- or a warrior!"
"I hope not," said Sam. "I don't want to be neither!" (p. 203)

He almost welcomed the coming of night, for then the world seemed less pale and empty (p. 207).

Discussion Question:

Frodo has "an uneasy dream, in which he walked on the grass in his garden in the Shire, but it seemed faint and dim" (p. 197). Do you think this is just because he's wounded, or has the ring already changed him so much that, even if he gave it up at Rivendell and went home like he expected to do, he would no longer belong in the Shire?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Skipping Christmas" by John Grisham

I really don't remember why I picked up this book at a library book sale a couple years ago.  My husband describes me as "determinedly Christmasy," so a book about people who decide NOT to celebrate Christmas in any way seems kind of like the opposite of something I'd enjoy.  Maybe I was going through a fit of "I should read something by a popular modern author now and then to maintain a balanced diet" or something.  Dunno.

Anyway, in Skipping Christmas, a married couple's only child goes to Peru for a year to do volunteer work.  Her parents decide not to spend several thousand dollars on Christmas stuff in her absence, but instead will go on a cruise.

Their lives fall apart.  Their neighbors harass them with Christmas carols.  Their friends worry about their mental health.  They have to work terribly, horribly hard to keep convincing themselves that this is a good idea.

And then.  Their plans all fall apart.

In the end, this was an amusing book, but not one I loved. I know the movie Christmas with the Kranks (2004) is based on it, but I've never seen that, so don't know how good of an adaptation it is.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for a couple of very minor curse words and some vague spicy content, like a brief mention of a previous office party that involved male strippers.  Not a book that's gonna interest kids, anyway.

This is my first book read and reviewed for the Literary Christmas link-up hosted by In the Bookshelf.

This is also my twelfth and (presumably) final entry into the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017.  Yay!  I achieved my goal of reading 12 books that I have owned since 2016 at the very latest.

Friday, December 15, 2017

My New Story -- A Christmas Gift for You!

So... I wrote a new short story.  It's a sequel to "The Man on the Buckskin Horse," but if you haven't read that yet, you will be able to enjoy this story anyway.  Here's the synopsis:
Can storytelling save a life?
Emma the warm-hearted midwife transforms into a prairie Scheherazade, using storytelling to fight death while delivering her step-daughter's baby. 
Whether you're rejoining your favorite characters from "The Man on the Buckskin Horse" or meeting them for the first time, this story of a blizzard birth on the Nebraska frontier will warm your heart any time of year.
This is the gift I hinted about the other day :-)  You can read "No Match for a Good Story" right now, for free.  How?  Just visit my official website, where you can read it online, download and print it, or even download a version to load onto your Kindle.

I will eventually have this available for free on Amazon and Barnes & Noble's website, but that's proving to take longer than I'd expected.  So for right now, this is the only place you can get this story.

It does have a page on Goodreads already, though :-)  If you want to review it there, you are welcome to do so!

Merry Christmas, my friends.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Another LOTR Read-Along: A Knife in the Dark (FOTR 1, 11)

Well, that was tense! I love that we get to see what's going on back at Crickhollow here. Fatty Bolger has a narrow escape, but it shows that Frodo's subterfuge about moving to Buckland did trick the Enemy, at least somewhat. I think this is why all nine Ringwraiths aren't in Bree. And why they don't all nine attack them at Weathertop. They split up, some going to Crickhollow, and those ones hadn't caught up yet.

Anyway, after their own narrow escape, Frodo and company head out into the wilds, and their journey turns uncomfortable, then unpleasant, and finally dangerous. I find the part with the Neekerbreekers particularly memorable, for some reason. Probably because they keep the hobbits from sleeping, which makes me feel terribly sorry for them.

I tend to think of Sauron as a Satan-figure, but here we read about "the Great Enemy, of whom Sauron of Mordor was but a servant" (p. 189). The Enemy is named Melkor, and he rebelled against the creator of Middle-earth just like Satan rebelled against God, though that's all in the backstory that's told in The Silmarillion -- it's Tolkien's sort of creation story and all about this war to regain magic gems called silmarils. Those get talked about here, and people from that farther-back history like Gil-galad and Beren and Luthien. It's a lot harder to wade through than LOTR (it's about a third as long, but took me like six months to get through), but if you get really into LOTR, The Silmarillion is worth reading one day.

We get to learn part of the story of Beren and Luthien here in that long poem that Strider recites. Beren was a mortal man, and Luthien was an elf, but they fell in love anyway. Remind you of anyone else in this book? Aragorn is descended from them via Earendil and the Kings of Numenor, and Elrond is also from their line. That's why he's called half-elven, though he's much more elf than Aragorn, who is just a teensy bit elvish and therefore mortal (but long-lived). But of course, the whole idea of a mortal man and an elvish woman falling in love is echoed in the love story of Aragorn and Arwen.

And here's a fun fact: Tolkien and his wife are buried side by side with the names Beren and Luthien on their tombstones. (And their real names too, don't worry.) It's said that he based Tinuviel on his own wife Edith, who reportedly liked to dance in the woods. So sweet!

Favorite Lines:

"What do they live on when they can't get hobbit?" asked Sam, scratching his neck (p. 178).

In that lonely place Frodo for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger (p. 183-4).

Discussion Question:

When Strider begins to tell the tale of Beren and Luthien, he says, "It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts" (p. 187). Do you find their story sad? Do sad stories ever "lift up your heart?"

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"The Austen Escape" by Katherine Reay

In which I quit two other books I'm reading, right in the middle of them, because I just couldn't hold off on reading this until I'd finished them.  It sat there on, taunting me, promising all the delicious, thoughtful, engrossing fun that Reay books deliver to me.  I caved.  I read.

I mean, I WILL finish those other books.  But I had to pause them.  This was too tempting.

Was it worth it?  You betcha.  Reay's books delight me, and this was no exception.  Even though I kept wanting to shake various characters and tell them to be nicer, or more sensible, or less sensible, as the case may be.  You see, the main character, this engineer/physicist/inventor named Mary -- she has a completely horrible friend named Isabel.  Like, just the awfullest friend.  I basically could not stand Isabel through most of the book, though I did pity her.  And Mary frustrated me because she was kind of this weird mix of oblivious and pragmatic and secretive, and um... I liked her, but I didn't always sympathize with her.  

However, I reeeeeeeeeally liked Nathan.  He was all kinds of awesome -- sometimes edging into too-good-to-be-true territory and then suddenly getting all realistic and not-so-perfect-after-all.

This is not my most sensible book review ever.  Okay, so Mary works with Nathan, but won't let him know she likes him.  Her childhood friend Isabel (I use the term 'friend' really loosely here, because Isabel rarely behaves like a friend to Mary) takes Mary to... basically Austenland.  If you seen that movie or read that book, then yeah, it was kind of like that.  A big, ancient house in England where everyone dresses up like they're in Regency England and adopts names of characters from Jane Austen's books, and they all have some escapist fun.

And then Isabel's mind kind of gives away, or she has a sort of mental breakdown, or something -- it's never really labeled -- and she starts to believe she IS Emma Woodhouse.  In a much less far-fetched way than I'm making it sound.  It makes sense in the book, okay?  And Mary has to help her friend kind of work through some stuff, while Mary also works through a bunch of emotional and work-related stuff... I'm saying "stuff" too often, aren't I?

Sorry.  I could vague that up a little for you, if you'd like?  Anyway, it was a thoroughly enjoyable book :-)  Though not as overly Christian as some of Reay's others -- I'm not actually going to label it "Christian fiction."

Particularly Good Bits:

"Music is math, and once you understand that... How can anyone not be in awe?  It's the audible expression behind the laws of the universe.  it feels like the only thing, apart from God, that lives outside time.  Once released, it lives on and it can make you laugh and cry, rip you apart and heal you, all within a few discrete notes strung together.  And while it follows rules, expression is limitless" (p. 195).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for a few mentions of things like cleavage and some mild kissing.  No sex scenes (or make-out sessions), no bad language, no violence.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Another LOTR Read-Along: Strider (FOTR 1, 10)

ACK!  How did I not post a new chapter for almost a week?  Sorry about that.

Oh, Strider, you are so lovely. I like you ever so much more in the books than the movies. You're grim and strong and wonderful. And so intriguing, with your half-hinted backstory lingering in the shadows still here. You say you're older than you look, you hint that you've dealt with the Nazgul before, and you are just altogether awesome. I remember some of your fellow Rangers will show up later in the books and being all cool and mysterious and just begging to have their own books. Sigh. Yum.

But anyway, I love how Frodo goes all suspicious in this chapter. He thinks Strider is a rascal out to swindle or trap him, he thinks Butterbur forgot Gandalf's message on purpose -- Frodo just doesn't do things halfheartedly, does he? First he's one hundred percent too careless in the previous chapter, and now he's one hundred percent too suspicious. Makes me laugh.

And good old Butterbur. Determined to guard his guests even against terrible foes. He may be a scatterbrain, but he has a stout heart.

We also hit the poem about Strider, the one on page 167 that begins "All that is gold does not glitter." I see the second line ("Not all those who wander are lost") on stuff a lot, as it's very popular for t-shirts and journals and bumper stickers.  I always get annoyed if it's quoted incorrectly -- so many people leave out the word "those," and then it's all wrong and I frown vehemently.

Oh, and we hit the "Black Breath" here too -- the Nazgul power to sort of overpower you. Remind you of the Dementors from Harry Potter? It does me.

Favorite Lines:

"Go on then!" said Frodo. "What do you know?"
"Too much; too many dark things," said Strider grimly (p. 160).

"A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship" (p. 167).

Discussion Questions:

1. Strider says that the Nazgul's "power is in terror" (p. 171). What can you think of that might be an antidote to such power?

2. How might the story have been different if Gandalf's letter had reached Frodo as intended?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

New Mailing List, New Gig, and a Hint About a Christmas Present

Like the post title says, I have three things to discuss with you today!  And they're such important things, I'm doing the same post on both of my blogs because I don't want any of my blogging friends to miss out.

First of all, I have finally started an official mailing list.  

EDIT. My thanks to everyone who signed up! Unfortunately, I am not cool with the way that the mailing list service, Mail Chimp, insists on displaying my physical mailing address to everyone who signs up for my email list. So I am going to rethink that whole mailing list thing and come up with a better, safer way to make this work.

Okay, that was thing one.

Thing two I need to tell you about?  I've been hired to write a column for the Prairie Times, a Colorado-based magazine!  They print twelve issues a year, which are also available on their website.  I'll be writing about different historical people and events from the American West.  For someone who minored in both English and History, this is basically a dream come true!!!

And thing three... is a surprise.  A Christmas present to all of you from me.  But it's not quiiiiiiite ready for you to unwrap yet, so just know that it's coming, okay?  I'm shooting for December 15, but I might have it done before then. 

Okay, that's it!  Time for me to go put up some more Christmas decorations and for you to... return to your regularly scheduled programming?  Something like this, yes :-)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Christmas: The Coloring Book of Cards and Envelopes" by Rebecca Jones

This is one of the coolest coloring-book concepts ever!  I have been having so much fun with this book!  It's exactly what it says:  a collection of Christmas cards with matching envelopes that you can color yourself to send to others.

I broke down and bought a pack of 24 gel pens to share with my kids for coloring these because I thought the vibrant colors would be especially awesome.  The paper in this book is really thick and takes the color beautifully!  

Here's the front of the first card I colored:

And here's the interior:

You can see they do two cards to a page, fronts and backs on one side of the sheet and interiors on the other.  You have to cut them apart when you're done with them, so I'm happy I have a nice paper-cutter to make the cuts straight.  But a scissors would work too.

Here's another one I colored. I did mostly gel pens for these, but some colored pencils too.  Does that make this "mixed media art" perhaps?

There are so many cute designs in here!  Lots with birds or animals.  I'm working on this one next: 

And then there are the envelopes.  They're in the back of the book, one for each card.  You color them first, and then cut them out and fold along scored lines to make an envelope.  The instructions for how to do this are on the inside cover of the book.  Here's the envelope that goes with the first card I colored:

Here's the one that goes with the second card:

They have dizzying patterns for the inside of the envelopes too, but... I didn't color them.  I mean, I don't have unlimited time, and I'd actually like to send off a few of these in time to reach my friends by Christmas.

So here's the first card inside its envelope:

The book comes with stickers to use to close the envelopes because they aren't adhesive in any way.  That works pretty well, though if you were sending them through the mail, I think you'd want to tape up the flaps a bit too.  I know I will.

This is the front of the envelope:

These cards and envelopes are really big -- the cards are 5"x5" and the envelopes are slightly bigger.  So if you send them through the mail, you will need extra postage.  The book makes 24 cards in all, and I'm going to let my kids color some of them to send to grandparents and so on.  But I'm coloring my favorites myself to give to a few particular friends!

Another LOTR Read-Along: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony (FOTR 1, 9)

Hooray! Back to the parts of the book that I love. And I do love this part -- doesn't Bree sound like a fun place to visit? Especially the Prancing Pony. With Strider lurking in a dark corner. I love him when he's mysterious and shadowy, with his "travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth" and his "high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud" (p. 153). I wish he would just stay all Ranger-y and cryptic, and we could go about having adventures with him. If I had the time, I'd totally read good fanfic about Strider on his pre-LOTR journeys.

(SPOILERS in the next THREE paragraphs)

If you've read this before, or seen the movie, you know who Strider turns out to be: Aragorn, heir to the throne of all Middle-earth. One more instance of Tolkien taking expectations and turning them on their head. Just a dirty, unkempt, dangerous wanderer? Nope, the rightful king. Like Jesus, in a way -- just a poor baby born in a stable? Just a carpenter from Nazareth? Nope. (And yes, Aragorn can be read as Christ-like character, though once again, we need to be careful not to see symbolism where there are only parallels.) Of course, the hobbits don't know this yet.

And here's something fun: do you know what the terms "pantser" and "plotter" mean? A "pantser" is a writer who writes "by the seat of their pants." Only the vaguest of plans for their story, just writing wherever things take them. "Plotters" are writers who plot everything out before they write, do outlines for each story (or each chapter), and know ahead of time where their story is going.

Well, Tolkien was a pantser. Reportedly, when he wrote the first draft, he found this dangerous, mysterious stranger sitting in the corner of the Prancing Pony and tossed him in the story, not realizing he was going to turn out to be Aragorn. I find this hilarious and awesome. And mind-boggling at how much re-writing he must have had to do to have everything weave together so beautifully through a thousand pages, if he pantsed the first draft.


Here we get some longer poetry, too. I like this poem, though, because it's amusing to me to think that the Mother Goose rhyme about the cow jumping over the moon comes from Middle-earth. (Obviously, the Mother Goose rhyme existed long before Tolkien wrote LOTR, but it's fun to pretend.)

Favorite Lines:

"If you want anything, ring the hand-bell, and Nob will come. If he don't come, ring and shout!" (p. 150)

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you think the ring meant to slip onto Frodo's finger, or was it an accident?

2. If you're a writer, are you more of a pantser or a plotter?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Another LOTR Read-Along: Fog on the Barrow-downs (FOTR 1, 8)

This is my least-favorite chapter in the whole trilogy. I find it really creepy. Doesn't make me fall asleep, at least! But all that stuff about the fog and the echoing voices, and then the crawling hand of the barrow wight -- yuck! Good for reading around Halloween, I suppose, but I'm glad the majority of the book is not like this.

But if you like it, that's okay ;-) Could be we'll hit chapters I love that you don't!

One good thing about this chapter is that it gives Frodo a chance to discover that he can be heroic. Which is important, I think -- that "seed of courage" Tolkien talks about on page 137 is awakened here, and he's going to need that so much in the pages ahead.

Favorite Lines:

The mist was flowing past him now in shreds and tatters (p. 136).

The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered (p. 137).

"Few now remember them," Tom murmured, "yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless" (p. 142).

Discussion Questions:

Why didn't Tom Bombadil escort the hobbits to the road in the first place? They clearly got into trouble out in the forest on their own before.

Friday, December 1, 2017

"A Sidekick's Tale" by Elisabeth Grace Foley

I've been reading Elisabeth Grace Foley's westerns for several years now.  I always enjoy them, especially her western fairy tale retellings (yeah, I'm totally not the only person who writes those).  But none of them has come even close to the excellence of her latest book, A Sidekick's Tale.  

From the quirky and outrageous characters to the hints of romance, this book kept me thoroughly entertained.  You probably know that I dearly love to laugh, and this book made me laugh aloud time and again.  It reminded me so much of a screwball comedy from the 1930s and '40s -- you know, the kind with an impossible situation that just keeps getting worse and worse until everyone gives up all hope of ever extricating themselves, and then somehow, everything turns out okay in the end.

Meredith Fayett is a pretty young woman who inherits a ranch, but it's deeply mortgaged, and she soon learns she's going to lose her land if she can't pay down the loan.  She could use money her parents left her to pay off most of the mortgage, but she can't touch that until she turns 21... or gets married.  So, she sets about getting married to one of the men who works on her ranch, Chance Stevens.  Strictly as a business proposition, of course -- the most physical contact they ever exchange is the handshake they give each other instead of a kiss at the end of the wedding.  Happily for Meredith, Chance is an honorable gent, and he promises that as soon as she's got her money, he'll cooperate in getting their "marriage" annulled.  

But I'm leaving out the sidekick, and also the narrator, one Marty Regan.  He loans the couple an heirloom ring to get married with, only it turns out that his large and idiosyncratic family has been feuding amicably for years over who that ring actually belongs to.  And that's where most of the comedy comes in, as Marty and Chance go through a great deal of rigmarole to try to get that ring back and figure out who it really ought to go to.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this is charmingly illustrated by Annie Grubb of The Western Desk.  I've bought some things from her shop over the past couple years -- I really like her work!

Particularly Good Bits:

There's lots of fellows whose names don't get into the history books, but if they hadn't been there at the other fellow's elbow at the right moment, the world would have -- well, either have missed out on something sensational or been spared a lot grief, I don't know which (p. 1).

I don't know if you've ever noticed it, but while the behavior of your family seems perfectly normal to you, it comes across as pretty half-baked to an outsider (p. 54).

She had her hands on her hips as we came up toward her, and the look in her eye as it fixed on me was like the one she wore when she was picking out a turkey for Thanksgiving.  I tried to look meek and unappetizing (p. 57).

Even a sweet, pretty girl like Meredith Fayett, when she thinks she's been ill-used, can make ordinary sentences bite until you feel like you're holding a double handful of ice cubes and can't find anywhere to put them down (p. 121).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG.  Clean, family-friendly, and fun!

This is my 12th and final entry for the Adventure of Reading Challenge 2017!  What a fun year it has been :-)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Another LOTR Read-Along: In the House of Tom Bombadil (FOTR 1, 7)

For many years, I was not a huge fan of this section of the book. I knew a lot of people loved it, and so every time I read it, I felt like I was missing something. I kept getting hung up on the religious imagery I saw, but couldn't figure out how it all tied together with the rest of the story.

For instance, at the end of the previous chapter, Tom hops away singing, "Tom's going on ahead candles for to kindle" and "Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you" (p. 118). To me. that sounds so much like when Christ told his followers, "I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2b). And when the hobbits ask Goldberry who Tom Bombadil is, she simply says, "He is" (p. 122), which sounds an awful lot like God telling Moses that his name is I Am (Exodus 3:14). And then, when the hobbits leave, Tom teaches them something to say if they get in trouble that sounds awfully prayer-like, ending with "Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!" (p. 131).

So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who Tom Bombadil was supposed to represent, what this section was supposed to mean, and so on. I knew Tolkien had said this wasn't an allegory, but Tom Bombadil just didn't make sense in my head. Some people said he was based on a figure from Norse mythology, basically a guardian of the woods. And I think probably Tolkien wove that into this story, as he was fascinated with Norse mythology.

But the book Finding God in the Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware suggests that he's also in some ways a personification of hope. "Hope" is a huge theme in this book. It delves a lot into what it means to hope, how one deals with losing hope, what someone does if their hope seems pointless, and how people behave if there seems to be no reason to hope anymore. And I do like the idea of Tom Bombadil being hope personified, because I think it shows that hope can be separate from what's going on in the world, even if it's also subject to the effects of events.

So anyway, we have a peaceful interlude here, which is nice. Also, reading about all that yummy food makes me hungry :-)

Favorite Lines:

The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently away downhill over cool stones in the quiet of the night (p. 123).

As far as he could remember, Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented (p. 126).

Discussion Questions:

Any thoughts on Tom Bombadil, or Goldberry? Did they strike you as being more meaningful than just random cool people they run into?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Winter is Coming

This week's prompt from The Broke and the Bookish is "Top Ten Books on Your Winter TBR List."  So here are the ten books I want to read next.

For once in my life, I am NOT listing these in any particular order.  It's possible I've had too much coffee already this morning.  Somebody stop me -- I'm being spontaneous!

1. The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien (technically, I'm already reading this, but who's counting?)

2. The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien (which I obviously would begin right after TTT.)

3. The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay (will be starting it SOON -- possibly today?)

4. Skipping Christmas by John Grisham (my pick for this year's Literary Christmas Challenge.)

5. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood (I've read the first chapter aloud to my kids already, and it is So Much Fun!)

6. The Brass Compass by Ellen Butler (I got to hear the author speak this fall!)

7. How the West was Worn: Bustles and Buckskins on the Wild Frontier by Chris Enss (looks like it will be incredibly valuable for research purposes, but also fun.)

8. Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles by Elizabeth Ward and Alain Silver (cuz you know I love all things Raymond Chandler.)

9. If I'm Found by Terri Blackstock (because I loved the first book, If I Run, and really need to read the sequel before book 3 comes out!)

10. Death by the Book by Julianna Deering (I really dig the Drew Farthering series!  I've read books 1 and 4 and am now filling in the gaps.)

(Via Pinterest)

What's on your winter TBR list?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Old Forest (FOTR 1, 6)

To be honest, this is one of my least-favorite chapters of all the books. I find the Old Forest really creepy, for one thing. But also, even considering how much danger befalls Merry and Pippin, it's kind of a slow chapter. For me, anyway. It makes me sleepy!

And here we meet someone who is not in the movies at all: Tom Bombadil. I remember there was a great deal of fan outrage when The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) came out over the fact that he was entirely cut out. I can understand that, since he gets several chapters in the book and is a fascinating character. But I can also understand why Peter Jackson cut him out, because you can't put e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g in a movie that's in a book (unless it's a very short book, which this isn't), and the whole point of this chapter and the next two is that the hobbits have gotten sidetracked already, and they're barely out of the shire. Sidetracks are not great for a fast-moving movie.

Anyway, the hobbits get sidetracked. They start out with the best intentions, right? Let's avoid the road and go through the Old Forest so that we can avoid danger. But the Old Forest turns out to be dangerous too, much more dangerous than they ever dreamed.

Now, we know that Tolkien didn't mean this book to be an allegory of Christian life. But we certainly can see things in the book that remind us of Christian truths. Since Tolkien was a Christian whose faith infused every part of his life, naturally it would be reflected in his writings. And I think that the whole part in the Old Forest is a very good representation of how good intentions can go wrong.

It's so easy to think we're avoiding something bad, only to ensnare ourselves in something worse. That's one of the worst part of living in this fallen world, I think. Good intentions aren't enough. Especially if you don't know much about the decision you're making. None of the hobbits have been very far into the Old Forest. They don't know what they're getting into. They're naive, and that almost costs them their lives. The Bible tells us to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" -- to be aware of the dangers and sins around us, so aware that we know not to get involved in them.

Okay, so that's one thing that the Old Forest chapter has going on. The other is that it's a great image of the fact that we live in a fallen world. The forest was once part of a perfect creation. But now it's corrupted, twisted, evil. Just like our fallen world, it actively works against Frodo and his companions, deceiving them and harming them, finally trying to kill them.

But they get rescued. "Frodo, without any clear idea of why he did so, or what he hoped for, ran along the path crying help! help! help!" (p. 116). He behaves like a Christian crying out in prayer, not seeing any way that God could help, but asking for help all the same. And help comes to the hobbits in the form of Tom Bombadil. We'll talk a lot about him in the next chapter post

Favorite Lines:

Sleepiness seemed to be creeping out of the ground and up their legs, and falling softly out of the air upon them (p. 114).

Other Discussion Questions:

1. Did you get sleepy during this chapter?

2. Can you think of any ways Peter Jackson could have included Tom Bombadil in his movie?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

"The Screwtape Letters" by C. S. Lewis

I've wanted to read this book since the year 2000.  One of my roommates my sophomore year of college read it for a class and said she laughed all the way through it, and it was just so witty and brilliant, and she insisted I would love it.

And it's taken me seventeen years to finally read it.  Partly because I didn't have a copy for a long time, and kept forgetting to get it from the library, and partly because I was pretty worried it was not going to live up to the hype she bestowed on it.  I even bought a copy last year, and then just... didn't read it.

Sometimes, I'm so lame.

But now, I've read it!  And wowwowwow.  Witty?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Yes.  Funny?  Not so much.

I mean, I can see how it could be funny, but it wasn't funny to me.

In fact, it was downright terrifying in spots.

Why?  Because I saw so much of myself in this book.  Complacent, distracted, and not very invested in my faith?  Yeah, that is me just FAR too often.  This was a very convicting book for me, and made me take a long look at how habitual my faith can become.  Which is great, because it made me examine my prayer life, my Bible-reading habits, and my investment in my vocations and see so many places where I am not doing what I should to thank and praise, serve and obey my Savior.

Which is not to say that it didn't make me laugh, because it did make me laugh a couple of times.  But it made me think much more than laugh, which I was not expecting, but which I appreciate so much.

In other words... this was way better than I had hoped.

If you've never read it, the whole book is letters from a demon named Screwtape to his nephew, a demon named Wormwood who is trying to prevent a human from remaining a Christian, but instead to win his soul for Satan.  Fascinating concept that's executed so masterfully.

Particularly Good Bits:

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out (p. 16).

The duty of planning the morrow's work is today's duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present (p. 77).

If we neglect our duty, men will be not only contented but transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas (p. 136).

A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others (p. 142).

It is not fatigue simply as such that produces... anger, but unexpected demands on a man already tired (p. 166).

(I underlined a LOT more than these, but they give you a taste, anyway.  Fantastic book!)

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for non-explicit discussions of human sexuality.

This is my 12th book read and reviewed for my second stint at The Classics Club, and my 11th for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017.