Monday, November 30, 2009

November Novella Wrap-up

We did it! We finished our first challenge...and with a few days to spare. The November Novella Challenge was sponsored by J.T. at . We signed up for Level II, which was to read four novellas during the month of November. We each selected two and read them together. Our four selections were The Mist by Stephen King, Animal Farm by Orson Wells, Murder at Wayne Manor by Duane Swierczynski, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickins. You can find our reviews by clicking on November Novella Challenge in the labels list.
This was really our first experience with intentionally selecting reading material from this genre, but we found that there are a lot of good ones out there. Miriam-Webster defines a novella as "a story with a compact and pointed plot". Being a fan of "a little less talk and a lot more action" (to quote Elvis), I enjoyed that aspect of these books.
Thanks to J.T. for sponsoring this fun, quick challenge. To see what everyone was reading, visit
her blog and read the many reviews.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Lessons

With the Thanksgiving weekend winding down - son back at college, leftovers eaten or frozen, and Christmas movies dominating the t.v. schedule - I took a moment to reflect on the holiday and the lessons learned:
1. It doesn't matter if you accidentally leave the sugar out of the pumpkin pie. Teenagers will pile so much Cool Whip on it they won't even notice.
2. If you forget to buy the pre-seasoned bread cubes for the stuffing and the only grocery store in town isn't open, emergency stuffing can be prepared from a week-old loaf of french bread and creative use of available seasonings.
3. Alzheimer's is a despicable, heartbreaking disease! But small, loving acts can bring a smile amid the confusion and leave you with a warm satisfaction.
4. The best moments in life can't be planned - they just happen.
5. The best laid plans of mice and men....(and readers). I didn't spend nearly as much time with my feet up and a good book open as I had planned, but enjoyed the time with extended family, church family, and kids who will be celebrating Thanksgiving in their own homes way too soon.
Now, Hubby and daughter are snoozing, so I'm headed to the recliner to spend the last few hours of this Thankfully Reading Weekend with a Carolyn Hart mystery.

50 Things to Do With a Book by Bruce McCall

Bruce McCall laments the technology age and the corresponding downfall of the printed page. "Librarians recently thrown out of work are forced to take jobs assembling Kindles in basement facilities where books were formerly stored." Book warehouses are now storing and shipping video games, Barnes & Noble stores are being converted to mini-storage units... McCall's tongue-in-cheek picture of our journey toward being a "paperless society" will get a grin and maybe even a giggle from those relics that still insist on turning pages by hand.
The introduction - a short essay on the extinction of books - is by far the highlight of the book. What follows are fifty one-paragraph ideas on alternative uses for your book collection now that you're not reading them. Books as substitutes for clay pigeons in skeet shooting, as game pieces in a round of "book bombing", or as coasters, snack trays and end tables were some of my favorites.
This is a cute, under-an-hour read that I recommend for a laugh, and maybe even a moment of introspection on the plight of our printed companions. However, with only 100 pages, nearly half of them illustrations, and hardly a dozen lines each on the printed ones, the $16.99 price tag seems awfully steep. And, since it's unlikely that many libraries will stock this small volume, you may want to enjoy it while standing in the aisle of your favorite bookstore.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thankfully Reading Weekend is Here

The turkey is a memory, the last few slices of pie no longer look appetizing, the relatives have gone home, the Christmas tree is twinkling, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is playing softly. We had a wonderful day with the in-laws - ate a lot, played games, watched football (Go Broncos!) and laughed!--- especially when we squeezed Dave, I and both kids (ages 17 and 19) into my little kitchen, which is perfect for one person, to do the dishes. Lots of bumping and pushing, but we managed to get everything done - I literally laughed till I cried. What a blessing!
Now that everything has quieted down, it's time to break out the books for Thankfully Reading Weekend. The gals at are sponsoring this fun, no pressure reading event. There's still time to join in if you haven't yet.
So far I've been able to finish up True Blue by David Baldacci and read 50 Things to Do with a Book, a quick read by Bruce McCall. I began Merry Merry Ghost by Caroline Hart this afternoon between putting up the tree and catching a snooze on the couch. I'm hoping for one more evening of card games and giggles before son returns to college tomorrow, so I probably won't make much progress on the reading list, but I wouldn't trade these moments for an entire library.
Hope each one of you had a Thanksgiving full of love and laughter, and God bless you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I had a couple of friends recommend that I read Animal Farm, although they didn't give me any description at all. When I saw it on a list of novellas, I thought it would make a good choice for the November Novella Challenge. However, I still had no idea what it was about. I don't know what I expected, but I was surprised - in a good way.
Animal Farm was written by George Orwell in 1946, a year after World War II and during the period that Communism was getting a secure hold on Eastern Europe. Orwell was a vocal Socialist, but saw huge differenes between Socialism and Communism.
The animals on the Manor Farm become enlightened and decide that the human owners and employees of the farm are mistreating them. The oldest and wisest of the animals gets them all together and convinces them that all animals everywhere would be better off without humans. The animals conspire to chase the humans off the farm and re-name it Animal Farm. All goes well until the pigs, the smartest of the animals, become tyrants and eventually are indistinguishable from humans.
This book is a satirical look at the flaws of communism. It also seems like a good lesson for any society, especially one which allows its leaders too much control. In the end, the animals were in a much worse situation than they had ever been, but they didn't even realize it because the PR machine of the pigs worked constantly to convince them of how good things were and they believed it, too far-removed and beaten down to question their lies.
The premise of this story can carry over to any government entity that becomes obsessed with its own power and uses it in unhealthy ways, whether it be a school board, county administration or the Federal goveernment. I believe Animal Farm should be required reading for every young adult - maybe it would help a few of them keep their eyes and minds open.
- Reviewed by Dave

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens' classic is our fourth and final installment in the November Novella challenge. (Yes,we still owe you a review of "Animal Farm".) I won't subject you, once again, to my fountain of memories and emotion for this story. (If you really want to know, check out our posts about the movie version or the "Re-reading the Classics" challenge from Read-a-thon.) It's sufficient to say that I've read/listened to this book countless times and enjoy it every time - outdated, confusing language and all. The story and it's moral have been re-told a thousand times, so naturally Dave was familiar with the plot, but had never read the original. Truth be told, I don't think he was all that enthusiastic, but still it was fun to share this timeless book. I will continue to make A Christmas Carol part of my holiday celebration each year.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marple-Poirot-Holmes Challenge

This challenge is right up my (Tami's) alley. I have been a Christie fan since high school but haven't read any recently, so when I ran across this challenge on I saw it as the perfect incentive to get back to the classic mysteries. I'm not as familiar with the Holmes stories - I've only read a few, but look forward to exploring them, also. Thanks to Kals for sponsoring this challenge.

Batman: Murder at Wayne Manor by Duane Swierczynski

When a construction crew at Wayne Manor discovers a long-buried corpse, all the evidence points to Bruce Wayne's late father, Thomas, as the murderer. Torn between the need to protect his father's honor and his thirst for dispensing justice, Batman sets out to solve this coldest of cases, using police reports, his fathers private journal, maps of Wayne Manor, news clippings, forensic samples and photographs from family albums - all included as removable facsimiles. (Synopsis from Barnes and Noble)
This book was a fun diversion on a recent car trip. The removable "clues" were fun to pass around, study and try to decipher. The story itself was understandably superficial - there just wasn't enough length to include character development, background, etc, but the concept was entertaining. Think of this book as "Encyclopedia Brown" for the whole family (actually, our whole family used to get a kick out of reading the original Encyclopedia Brown together). An enjoyable adventure for readers from upper elementary grades to adult.
This book was part of our November Novella Challenge. (

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Gift by Cecilia Ahern

The Gift is written with Cecelia Ahern's customary magic. A cautionary tale with just a touch of the fanciful.

Lou Suffern is an extremely unlikeable man. He is self-absorbed, ruthless, arrogant and just plain nasty - to the point that, for most of the novel, I was hoping something heavy would fall on him. He treats his wife as a possession, his children as pesky flies, and his co-workers as stepping stones. Money and power are his singular goal. He schemes and connives to attain that goal at the expense of anything or anyone who steps in his path.

Then Lou meets Gabe, a homeless man begging outside Lou's office building. Lou is unexplainably drawn to show a small amount of compassion and Gabe becomes twisted into the strands of a life that Lou is desperately trying to keep from unraveling. Soon Lou sees Gabe as just one more hurdle, one more person interferring with his path to the top.

At this point, I knew that Gabe was going to be Lou's "Clarence" (the angel from "It's a Wonderful Life"). "You see, [Lou] you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a waste it would be to just throw it away?" But, unlike George Bailey, Lou was such an unsympathetic character that I couldn't imagine how he could be redeemed or why anyone would care to try.

This is where the magic of Cecilia's writing comes in. The scene at Lou's father's birthday party, when Lou attempts to make amends with his family, is painful. Watching Lou as he grasps how deep the cuts of his selfishness are actually made me ache, but also made me - surprise! - sympathetic.

Even though this is billed as a Christmas story, it could take place at any time of year and be nearly as effective. The conclusion avoids the trap of holiday triteness while still delivering it's message. It left me listening for a bell to ring and Jimmy Stewart to whisper "Atta boy, [Gabe]".

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thankfully Reading Weekend

Jenn at and friends are cooking up an idea for Thanksgiving weekend - READING! It's a no-pressure, fun way to get caught up on your TBR list before the Christmas season gets too hectic. Check out Jenn's blog for the details or watch for a post on to sign up. We are having the family to our house for the big meal, so I'm sure when they've all gone home, we'll be ready to put our feet up, munch on a turkey sandwich, and slip into a book.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Christmas Clock by Kat Martin

A little Christmas, a little romance, a little tear-jerker...this is a difficult book to categorize. "And that's...ok", to quote SNL's Stuart Smalley. Books don't have to fit into a specific box. Unfortunately, this particular box was overflowing.

First, the tear-jerker portion - we have the grandmother and grandson struggling with Alzheimers and the fear of the future. This is a topic close to my heart, as we are dealing with this horrid disease in our family, so I was interested in the way the characters would handle it. However, at 145 pages, the story just isn't long enough to delve deeply into a subject that heavy and the disease had to progress unrealistically quickly and be dealt with superficially.

Still, I was thinking "that's ok" because the point is really the grandson who is saving his money to buy his grandmother the clock she has admired in the store window - a clock that reminds her of her youth - for Christmas, thus bringing in the Christmas portion. But, as you'll see, that storyline never quite makes it to daylight either.

The second facet - the romance - focuses on Sylvia and Joe, high-school sweethearts separated because of tragic circumstances. Both have returned to their hometown and are looking for a second chance at their relationship. I liked their story, even if it was a little predictable.

There is a minor sub-plot involving Floyd and Doris Culver and their attempt to revive a tired marriage, but again there just isn't time to really flesh out this story.

Then we come to the point where all the characters meet and their stories combine and it's a pleasing ending; a nice "happy ever after" moment that was - dare I say it again - predictable. No problem, I was still "ok" with it. Just because you can see it coming, doesn't mean it's not a good ending.

But wait, what about the clock? You know, the one in the title? It gets relegated to afterthought status and doesn't have the impact it could have, which is sad because the idea had the potential to be a touching conclusion and to shine a little hope into life with Alzheimers.

It's probably hard to believe by now, but I actually liked this story, or at least the possibilities of this story. I was disappointed that so many good ideas got squeezed into such a small box and none of them had the chance to develop.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Christmas Carol - The Movie

Dave and I drove 110 miles round-trip, not to mention paying an exorbitant amount for popcorn and drinks, to see this movie over the weekend. It will be in our local theater over Thanksgiving weekend, but I was afraid with son home from college and in-laws visiting, I wouldn't be able to schedule a movie. But now that I've seen it, I will definitely make time to go a second time. The original Dickins story has been one of my favorites since childhood (see "Re-reading the Classics" post from read-a-thon). Since this version stars Jim Carrey, Dave was wishin' and hopin' for a comic version, but he was disappointed - it was nearly word-for-word true to the original. At least one of us was happy. The downside to the authenticity is that it may be difficult for young children to understand classic lines such as "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are." The flip side of that is, with animation this gorgeous, kids will still be enthralled. There just aren't words to describe the detail and realism. I was blown away by "Polar Express" a couple years ago, and there have evidently been advances to the technology since then. I will be in line the day this comes out on DVD and add it to my list of perennial Christmas movies to watch.

Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb

Wishin' and Hopin' is a cross between the movie A Christmas Story and the classic children's book by Barbara Robinson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. *
Felix Funicello (cousin to Mousketeer Annette) narrates the story of his life as a 5th grader in a Connecticut parochial school in the winter of 1964. At one point I paused to ask myself "What is the point of this story?" I didn't have an answer, but I didn't care. Even without an underlying plot theme (like the quest for the Red Rider BB gun in A Christmas Story), the daily happenings are endearing and engrossing enough that I finished the book in one day.
Although I didn't attend Catholic school, the descriptions of the class room settings and happenings are so true to my grade-school memories that I felt right at home. The innocence of 10-year-olds of that era was charming and comical - confessing to "french kissing" a poster of a pin-up girl, re-telling dirty jokes they don't understand. There is a whole level of niavete', deportment and respect for authority that are missing in the schools my children attended, but that was so much a part of my upbringing that it made me feel both sentimental and sad.
Pop-culture references make the book even more nostalgic for baby-boomers. The Russian girl who joins their classroom mid-semester brings in the theme of the Cold War and the prevelant fear of Communism. References to the Beatles and early TV shows brought back more memories (although I really was a bit too young for Beatle-mania - I was more of the Donny Osmond generation). The Christmas pageant which is the climax of the story was reminiscent of many school and church programs from my youth. The Herdman-esque* string of catastrophes will bring a smile.
Even without a mystery to solve or a problem to resolve, this glimpse into 1964 life is a recommended read. It will alternately make you smile and want to call your mom.
* The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson - The story of the Herdmans, the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie and steal and smoke cigars (even the girls). They talk dirty, hit little kids, cuss their teachers...and take the name of the Lord in vain. So no one is prepared when the Hermans invade church one Sunday and decide to take over the annual Christmas pageant. (Synopsis from Barnes and Noble)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Opposites Attract

Jen's Book Talk is sponsoring an Opposites Attract Challenge for 2010. The rules are simple: read as many pairs of books with opposite words in the title as you possibly can. Books can not overlap between pairs, but can count for more than one challenge if you are participating in multiples.

Ice by Linda Howard

Don't be fooled by the pretty cover on this one. This is not a sweet and light Christmas story. As Barnes and Noble describes it: ’Tis the season for mistletoe and holly, Santa . . . and suspense... [a] breathless tale of a man, a woman, and a battle for survival against an unforgiving winter–and an unrelenting killer. Oh what fun it is to read. And it is fun to read. The story jumps off a cliff from page one and the ride is non-stop as Gabriel and Lolly battle the extreme Maine weather, two meth-crazed killers, and their awkward, high school memories of each other.
Ms. Howard creates a pleasing blend of action and insight. We get enough background info to understand the relationship between the characters - their animosity and secret crushes as teens, the loss of Gabriel's wife and his difficulty raising his son alone, Lolly's changing family and the loss of connection to her home town - but in snippets between action scenes so the pace never slows.
I don't know Ms. Howard's history, but the authenticity of the storm scenes makes me assume she has lived in a climate that can produce debilitating ice storms. Living in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, I've been through a few and her depiction was spot on. It happened to be near 70 degrees on the plains yesterday while I was reading, but I could feel the aching cold and the pinpricks of ice pellets against skin, and hear the wind beating against the windows.
If there were any points off in this book, it would be that the ending was slightly anti-climactic, but it wrapped up all the story threads nicely and gave me a chance to catch my breath between the action and the end. Highly recommended reading for a cold winter night with a roaring fire and a cup of hot chocolate.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You by Anita Renfroe

If you've never read, heard or seen Anita Renfroe's comedy, you are truly missing out. A former pastor's wife, mother of three and creator of the hit youtube video "Momsense", Anita is a total hoot! She shares her opinions and experiences about parenting, mid-life, marriage and friendship. Our daughter even did an excerpt on mothers and daughters from one of Anita's books for high school forensics competition last year, so her humor translates well to all ages. - although I suspect the daughter and I each thought we were poking fun at the other.

"Don't Say I Didn't Warn You" is, I believe, Anita's 7th book (including wonderful titles like "If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother" and "The Purse-Driven Life") and they just continue to get funnier.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Mist by Stephen King

November Novella Challenge is underway and we finished our first selection, Stephen King's The Mist, while traveling over the weekend. We had mixed reactions.

A bazaar and unearthly fog moves across a small town in Maine, bringing with it a circus of prehistoric and fantastical creatures which spring out of the mist to devour whatever gets in their road. A group of locals and vacationers are trapped in a supermarket, devising various escape and survival plans.

Like all Stephen King stories, the pace was fast. Only once did we feel him "rabbit trailing" and then only for a couple pages. The background info on the main character, David Drayton, and his feelings of inadequacy as an artist when compared to his famous father may have been pertinent and useful in a full length novel, but in this formula there wasn't time to develop the character that far, so only served to slow things down.

The various cliques that developed among the refugees trapped in the market were an intriguing microcosm of society: the "flat-earthers" who chose to deny that anything was happening, the blood sacrifice group which was willing to sacrifice someone to appease the evil - as long as it wasn't one of them, those who just sat back and allowed others to make all the decisions...

Of course the gore level was too much for me (Tami) but I had to concede that point somewhat on the grounds of "What did you expect from Stephen King? If you don't want gore, don't open the book." However, even the gore was freakishly fascinating in it's originality. No two people were decapitated, dismembered or disemboweled in quite the same manner. Definitely no points off for predictability.

Our biggest complaint was the ending - or lack thereof. King has a tendency to let his readers form their own ideas of what happened to the creatures he creates, and that approach is great - in theory. But we had a serious desire to call Mr. King and ask, "But what about....???"

Starting with a scale of 5 stars for the perfect book, I took off a point for gore and a point for frustrating ending - but then had to give back a half-point because it wasn't like I wasn't warned in advance that there would be blood (I read every King book I could get my hands on in the 70's). So I rated this novella as 3 1/2 stars. Dave - who uses King's Gunslinger series as the gold standard for the 5-star book - only gave it 3 stars. "The measure of a good book is you can't stand to put it down and can't wait to pick it back up. I couldn't wait to get home from work to get to the next chapter of the Gunslinger books, but I didn't have that feeling with this one."

On to the next novella on our challenge list: Animal Farm by George Orwell.