Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summertime and the Reading is Easy, Part II

Part 1 covered June, Part 2 July. Maybe I'll get Part 3 done (and posted) before summer is over (and you can interpret that as either the end of August or when fall starts on September 22nd). ( :

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Carrie has written about her love for this series many times, and I'm glad to have finally embarked on the journey. This book is clever, intriguing, and full of adventure that any child (or adult) should enjoy. I especially liked the mind puzzles and the way the characters' strengths and weaknesses complemented one another perfectly. I think my daughter could handle the reading level now, but I'm going to wait a few more years to introduce her to this series when she should be better able to enjoy the subtleties of the narrative.

The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell
After reading City of Tranquil Light, I was curious about this previous novel by the same author. To be quite honest, I think that it is hardly worth comparing the two. While they both include an insider's perspective on the changes in China throughout the 20th century, this one is told through the experiences of a very dysfunctional family, dysfunctional and disrupted mostly due to the husband and father who loved Shanghai and the easy money he could make there more than his wife and daughter. His selfishness brought many tragic consequences, and while there was a bit of redemption at the end, it really struck me as too little too late - at least in terms of making it a meaningful story for me.

On a side note, I did a bit more research about the author, and found this very interesting first-person account of her life and conversion to Roman Catholicism. I'm sad that her faith is so shaped by experience, believing as I do that the Scriptures and sound doctrine provide a much more stable foundation. But after much consideration, I've decided that it does not diminish my opinion of City of Tranquil Light, for the faith of the characters in that book is tried and genuine. It's obviously not a book that is meant to teach doctrine, but insofar as it speaks of God and the Christian life, I still think it presents a accurate picture.

Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
I didn't like it, but it was one of those books that I had to keep reading just to see what happened. I even lost sleep over it, staying up late because it was so hard to put down. But I still didn't like it, not one little bit. Like most modern novels it included too much information about intimate relationships between unmarried men and women. And the ending - well, it was just unnecessary. At least everyone in my book club agreed with this consensus, and we're returning to 19th century classics for our next selection!

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
If you haven't noticed, I have to do some therapeutic reading after I've read a book that leaves a a bad taste in my mouth. So I had checked this one out from the library as an option for my daughter (I like to have a wide variety of titles for her to choose from) and decided that "a summer story about four sisters, two rabbits, and a very interesting boy" would be just the thing after the Picoult novel, not to mention that I love the cover art! It was certainly light and easy, and the characters were written so that I felt I knew them quite quickly. On the downside, one thread of the story involved a pre-teen crush on an older boy. Disobedience and lying were justified by a positive outcome or by the meanness of the adult making the rules. So I won't be handing this to my 8-year-old anytime soon. In a few more years, she can read it, and we'll talk through the issues, for there were certainly many fun and funny parts, too.

Thunderstorm in Church by Louise A. Vernon
See my earlier comments on two other books by the same author which we read aloud earlier in the summer, as this one was very similar and my opinions haven't improved any. This one was interesting for the glimpses into life in Luther's busy household, but the dialogue... {shudder}

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy, Part I

We took a family vacation in June, which meant that I got more reading time than usual! It also meant that many of my reading selections were a little on the lighter side, but I would still highly recommend several of them.

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell
Every so often, I open a book and find a sense of quietness and purpose - perhaps holiness is the word I'm looking for - that makes me take a deep breath and settle in for refreshment, encouragement, and challenge to a greater life of faith. Most often, I think this happens with biographies, so to find a novel that evokes this deep satisfaction is truly rare (Stepping Heavenward is the only other that I can recall). But City of Tranquil Light is one of those special books, one that I borrowed from the library and then ordered two copies (one to keep and one to give away) before I was halfway through, and I've ordered eight more since then. I could tell you more, but I'd rather you just borrowed or bought your own copy and savored it yourself! I usually don't promote book purchases here, but as of this writing, Amazon has hardback copies of this book for the bargain price of $2.74, and I believe you would find that to be money well spent! (You can follow the links to Amazon from either the book's picture or title.)

Enna Burning by Shannon Hale
This second installment in the "Books of Bayern" series from Shannon Hale was much darker than The Goose Girl, and I didn't enjoy it nearly as much. I suppose it's a story of friendship, a coming of age story laced with a great deal of pride and lack of self-control, and there is really nothing unusual in those themes in young-adult literature, though the fact that something is common does not mean I should condone it. I'm not sure if the author intended for there to be any moral lessons or analogies, but when I started trying to think through the implications of some of the imagery, it seemed far too pantheistic for me to even want to explore those trains of thought. Maybe that's why it left me with such an unsettled feeling, and why I finished it simply to be done, not because I enjoyed it.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
I've seen recommendations for this series by Alexander McCall Smith on many blogs, and my daughter has enjoyed listening to his mysteries for kids. So when I found this at a children's consignment store (of all places!), I added it to my summer vacation reading bag. I've said before that mysteries are my favorite genre, but I do prefer full-length novels to short stories. I like a very well-developed plot, though I will make an exception for Sherlock Holmes (who wouldn't!). At any rate, this initially seemed very disjointed, as the chapters jumped back and forth between Mma Ramotswe's family history and various cases she'd solved more recently. Eventually, a case develops that somewhat ties everything together, but overall it just wasn't my cup of tea. I'll stick with Lord Peter Wimsey and Brother Cadfael when I need my mystery fix.

Royal Children of English History by Edith Nesbit
Have I mentioned that I have a Kindle? It will never replace real books for me, but the free classics and public domain works are lots of fun to explore. (All of L. M. Montgomery's short stories for free? Yes, please!) So this was a short little book that I read as a bonus for our book club's "British Royalty" theme in June. I expected it to be stories from the childhoods of various kings & queens, but it was more a children's history, a simple retelling of the most common anecdotes or deeds of valor of notable English princes or kings. I'm sure my children would enjoy this as a read-aloud if I could fit it into the schedule.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
This is a very sweet fairy tale set in a secluded valley of Victorian England with good guys, bad guys, and some highly intelligent and helpful animals. There is a very large "dog," who turns out to be a lion, but that is the extent of any parallels to Narnia, I think. There is not much grace or redemption, but only trying very hard to be good, which I would consider a bit overly idealistic if I were reading this only for instruction in morality. That is not the only purpose of a good story, however, and I appreciated the beautiful descriptions and gentle blend of fantasy and reality. I must say that I find an old-fashioned morality tale to be much more enjoyable than many modern novels that include too little morals and too much information, so you can read this one without regrets.

The Beggars' Bible and Ink on His Fingers by Louise A. Vernon
These are interesting for their historical perspective, but the story line is extremely repetitive - a young boy is distressed (obsessed) about what he will do when he grows up then crosses paths with a historical figure (John Wycliffe and Johann Gutenberg, in these books) and finds direction for his life. They are heavy on dialogue, and that dialogue is often forced and stilted. The author seems to have done her research thoroughly, but her use of anecdotes and dialogue is extremely awkward. I'm glad we read them aloud, as my kids probably learned more than reading them on their own, but all of us found it challenging to stay interested at times.

The Fantastic Flying Journey by Gerald Durrell
This is an imaginative story about an eccentric uncle who takes his niece and twin nephews on a trip around the world in an amazing and well-equipped hot air balloon. The purpose of the trip is to find Uncle Lancelot's brother, a naturalist, so they follow his trail and meet many animals in their natural habitats around the world. This one is both fun and educational, and my daughter finished it ahead of my reading it aloud, so I know she liked it a lot. I was pleased that it did not have an overt evolutionary slant. In fact, I can't recall if there were any allusions to evolution, but that could be my faulty memory. We found this at our library book sale, and we highly recommend it!