Monday, November 22, 2010

The Snow Globe by Sheila Roberts

On a blustery afternoon, Kylie Gray wanders into an antique shop and buys an enchanting snow globe. “There’s a story behind that snow globe,” the antique dealer tells her. The original owner, he explains, was a German toymaker who lost his wife and son right before Christmas. When the grieving widower received the handcrafted snow globe as a Christmas gift, he saw the image of a beautiful woman beneath the glass—a woman who would come into his life, mend his broken heart and bring him back to the world of the living. For years, the snow globe has passed from generation to generation, somehow always landing in the hands of a person in special need of a Christmas miracle.

 Kiley could use a miracle herself. This year, all she wants for Christmas is someone to love. A hopeful shake leads her on an adventure that makes a believer out of her. When Kylie shares the story of the snow globe with her best friends—two women with problems of their own—they don’t believe it. But they’re about to discover that at Christmastime, sometimes the impossible becomes possible and miracles really do come true.

I have let nearly a month go by between finishing this book and getting around to the review.  Not a good plan.  It's possible the salient details escape me.*  Here's what I do remember:

The snow globe that Kylie discovers in an antique store gives the holder a peek into their future.  Kylie and her two friends follow the magic scenes they view to each discover their own Christmas miracle.  It's a sweet story - just right for the season.   I recommend it for fellow lovers of Christmas stories.   

*That line was a West Wing quote.  Can any loyal fans out there tell me who said it?

Avent Tour

Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader are once again sponsoring a Virtual Advent Tour.  Open a gift every day in December by following the posted schedule of blogs that will be sharing their favorite Christmas stories, memories, recipes and traditions each day. 

On December 7th the tour will be stopping right here at "Just One More Thing..."  Last year we shared a favorite family tradition - Grandma's Sugar Cookies.  We're not sure what we'll be offering this year, but be sure and stop by and join the festivities.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Picking Up Bricks

Earlier this month, Ronnica at The Ignorant Historian wrote a post titled "Life's Not Fair".  She spoke about how materially privileged we average Americans are, and I agree with her completely - compared to the devestating poverty, hunger and illness that many people in this world face, my problems are nothing.  Sadly, my focus isn't always on the less priviliged.  Sometimes, in my mind, it's all about me and I think "Life's not fair!"  The line from Ronnica's post that touched me was:  
When we see someone suffering, it’s tempting to say, “That’s too bad” and move on. It’s the easy thing. It’s what we do all the time without thinking. If we don’t get involved, it’s unlikely that anyone will confront us about it. After all, it’s not “our” problem, right?  I don’t want to do that anymore.
That comment hit close to home for me.  Not because I'm not guilty of it - I am - but because of a time when I was on the other end.  ABout eight years ago, we lived in southcentral Nebraska.  Between our house and our neighbor's was a scruffy, ugly row of half-dead bushes.  The neighbor asked if we minded if he dug them out.  Of course we didn't and Dave offered to save him some muscle-work by pulling them with the pick-up - a method, by the way, that Dave had used before and knew how to accomplish safely. They hooked a chain onto the hitch on the BACK (that will be significant later in this story) of the pick-up, wove the other end of the chain through the base of the first bush then drove SLOWLY FORWARD until the bush was pulled up, roots and all.  Repeat process for every bush in the row - each time facing safely forward and applying the gas in moderation.  Within an hour or two, we had a bush-free yard and happy neighbors.

Fast forward a couple days:  Another neighbor across the street - we'll call him Mr. Miller in honor of the beverage he had been consuming when he hatched this plan - decided he no longer cared for the large evergreen shrub in front of his house and he was going to borrow Dave's tree-removal method.  Let me help you visualize this.  The bushes on our property looked much like the picture on the left.


The evergreen Mr. Miller wanted gone looked more like the pic on the right. 
Ok, maybe our bushes were slightly larger and his forest was slightly smaller - but only slightly!

Unfortunately, Mr. Miller did not request help from anyone except his friends, Bud and Schlitz, so his tree removal did not go according to plan.  Problem # 1:  He hooked the chain to the FRONT of his pick-up so he was pulling in reverse.  Why?  No one knows.  Problem #2:  The stinking tree is too big!  It has roots at least 10 feet deep.  You would think common sense would have told him that - but obviously common sense and Mr. Miller have never met.  Problem #3:  Rather than aiming the vehicle down the street, he pointed it straight out from his house, perpendicular to the street.  And do we remember what is across that street? 

So, Mr. Miller puts his pick-up into reverse and presses gently on the gas and, of course, the shrub doesn't budge.  He presses harder on the gas.  The shrub doesn't budge.  Now the pedal is nearly to the floor, engine racing.  The shrub doesn't budge --- but the chain does.  It snaps!  With the evergreen no longer keeping up it's end of the tug-of-war, Mr. Miller and his pick-up barrell backwards across his lawn, off the curb, across the street, over the next curb, through our yard, through my rose garden, through a nine-foot plate- glass window and the brick wall surrounding it, and come to rest in our living room.  To be fair, the entire truck wasn't in our living room, just a portion of it's back end.

I know you are asking the same questions we asked at the time.  Well, maybe you're not screaming "What in the hell are you thinking, you #$%^;????"  But after that, we wondered, "Why didn't he stop?"  It's not like the houses were only a few feet apart.  There were two decent-sized yards and a street in between - ample space to apply the brakes.  Then we wondered, "If he had been facing forwards, would he have seen the house coming and attempted to stop?"  There really are no answers to these questions except that this guy doesn't possess sound reasoning skills and his reflexes were a little...uh...delayed.

Now there's more to this story - like the fact that our son had been sitting in front of that window only minutes before the crash, or that the police failed to note Mr. Miller's "friends" or that he left the scene and attempted to hide his vehicle in his garage (Cause they'll never think to look there!), or that we had put this house on the market just two days earlier, or the long fight with an insurance company who believed that our house had jumped in front of their client, or that our daughter moved in with a friend and refused to come home for three days because our house looked embarrassing - but that's not the point today.  Our point is back at Ronnica's post.

While the police filled out forms and the insurance agent snapped pictures and half the town drove by to rubber-neck, people began to offer their platitudes:  "It'll be ok."  "Good thing you have insurance."  "We'll be thinking about you."  Some even offered their prayers, which we greatly appreciated, but we're still standing here with a gaping hole in our house.  One couple didn't offer words, they just quietly began to pick up bricks.  They saw that we didn't need cliches, we needed help.  They stayed after the crowd was gone and helped clear the debris so we could assess the damage and get the hole temporarily patched with ply-wood. 

I am currently listening to the audio version of Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs.  When the protagonist is offered an overused chestnut of wisdom, she observes, "That's a sh***y line that people tell you so you don't fall apart and make things messy for them." and that we often "...try to pass off a lame pep-talk as compassion." 

I'm inspired by Ronnica's words to not do "the easy thing".  Our life has been full of changes lately - not all of them by our choosing or to our liking and some of them blatently "not fair" - but Ronnica encouraged me to look around at others who are also having a tough time and see where I can "pick up a brick".

If you want further encouragement and proof of how far a small gesture can go, check out A Secret Gift by Ted Gup.  I learned about this true story from an article in the New York Times and it's now sitting near the top of my TBR pile.

"Make Out With Murder" by Lawrence Block

I recently read Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop, a collection of holiday-related short stories, and in the process, discovered a new series by one of my favorite mystery authors, Lawrence Block.  New to me, that is - they were originally published in the 1970's.  Dave and I have been fans of Block's Bernie Rhodanbarr series and his Keller novels for quite some time, but I didn't even know Chip Harrison existed until he made an appearance in As Dark As Christmas Gets.  You will recall from my review, which I'm sure you read, that in his last two adventures, Chip worked for Leo Haig.  Leo is a Nero Wolfe fanatic who believes the rotund slueth actually exists and angles to be just like him.  Since I am also a Nero Wolfe addict, I ordered one of the Chip series, Make Out With Murder, to see what I was missing.

Currently employed as a man-about-town for a demanding New York City detective, Chip must solve the suspicious, untimely deaths of three sisters--one of whom stole his heart. Now he must cozy up to the remaining two, as he investigates some nefarious relatives with money and murder on their minds!

I don't think Chip will be replacing Bernie Rhodenbarr as my favorite Lawrence Block character but, like Bernie, he solves mysteries with a touch of wit.  The parody of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is catnip to Rex Stout fans.  There are only four books in this series and only the last two contain the Wolfe angle.  I ordered this book through the Interlibrary Loan system, and I'm not sure I will bother to order the others, but if you run across Make Out With Murder, it's a fun diverson.

Friday, November 5, 2010

In the Company of Others by Jan Karon

Funny, after yesterday's post about my penchant for fast-moving thrillers, that this would be the next book I finish.  You couldn't possibly find a book that is a more polar opposite.  USA Today described it as "lovely", and that sums it up. 

Father Tim and Cynthia arrive in the west of Ireland, intent on researching his Kavanagh ancestry from the comfort of a charming fishing lodge. The charm, however, is broken entirely when Cynthia startles a burglar and sprains her already-injured ankle. Then a cherished and valuable painting is stolen from the lodge owners, and Cynthia's pain pales in comparison to the wound at the center of this bitterly estranged Irish family.
The publisher's synopsis makes the story sound like a mystery, but the thefts are secondary.  The primary focus is the human drama - relationships, fractured for decades, between family members, and between man and God. 

When Father Tim and Cynthia Kavanagh are stranded at the remote lodge in Ireland by the injury to Cynthia's ankle, they slowly become immersed in the regrets and secrets that surround three generations of the Conor family. The present-day story is mixed with sections of the 1860's diary of Fintan O'Donnell, which Tim and Cynthia discover in the lodge's library and in which they become absorbed.  In their typical soft-spoken, compassionate manner, the Kavanaghs steer the Conor family toward reconciliation.

Several reader reviews referred to this book as "boring" or "disappointing".  I disagree. Although it was certainly a change of pace, both from my recent reading choices and the Mitford series, I saw it as a slow stroll - through the Irish countryside, through history, through unhurried vacation days, through complicated relationships.  Read it when you have time to sit a spell and be immersed.  I'll admit I struggled with the historic sections from time to time and I took frequent breaks to read something else, but when it all wrapped up so beautifully at the end, I was glad I made the effort. 

If you have never read the Mitford series or the previous Father Tim novel, you probably don't want to start with this one.  It helps to get to know the more light-hearted, easier- reading Father Tim and the characters of Mitford before delving into this second, deeper series.  Jan Karon says "Of all the novels I've written, In the Company of Others is my personal favorite."  That's easy to understand.  This is not cookie-cutter, commercial fiction - this is a personal, inspiring story.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Whine and Cheese

Looking back at the eighty-some book reviews I've posted on this blog, I realize that I have a slight tendency...ok, it's not slight, it's substantial ... nonetheless, I have a tendency to whine about  bloodshed, gore, and/or carnage in the books I'm reading - yet I continue to read them.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

That quote has been attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, but whoever said it, I think they were talking about me.

But here's the thing - I like thrillers and they tend to be graphic.  I used to be addicted to cozy mysteries, but the slower pace just doesn't seem to hold my attention any more.  Perhaps it's my advancing age (awareness of finite amount of reading time in life) or my job at the library (more exposure to the vast number of books left to read in that limited time).  Whatever the reason, I find myself picking books with a more brisk pace.  

Which brings me to the point where I ask for your help.  When I'm feeling the need for speed without the threat of losing my lunch, where do I turn?  Can anyone recommend some authors who will grip my attention without twisting my stomach? 

And to those who have read all my whiny thriller reviews, I can only quote F. Scott Fitzgerald:  It takes a genious to whine appealingly.  I hope the reviews have held some appeal.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Christmas Journey by Donna VanLiere

I ordered this book for the library for two reasons:  1.  Pretty Christmas cover, 2. Donna VanLiere's name on the pretty Christmas cover.  It wasn't what I expected - but that's not a bad thing. 

This is a short read - less than an hour - but it tells a powerful story.  You all know that I'm a Christmas nut.  I watch the movies and listen to the music year round; I read every sweet, holiday story I can find; I dream of having a house that looks like this (alas I lack the money, style and creativity to accomplish that dream). 

In the midst of all that, it is so easy to see the Nativity as one more decoration; one more sweet story.  This re-telling reminds us that Mary was a frightened, shunned young girl who gave birth under horrendous conditions.  It shows us Joseph's fear that he would not be a proper father for a King; that he would fail this incredible responsibility and gift.

The story of the manger scene is familiar to most of us...Mary and Joseph snuggled warmly together admiring the comfortable baby in his soft bed of hay, wise men and shepherds gathering to worship and giving gifts to the King in the warm, well-lit stable, and always that magnificent star above to show the way.  Somewhere along the way the cave has been sanitized, the birth made painless and the people involved stripped of all fear or emotion.  It seems to have colored in or forgotten much of what happened to make that journey possible...I wrote the Christmas Journey several years ago for a church banquet.  I read it as a narrataive then, as a reminder, and still do today.  I hope you will do the you won't forget."  - Donna VanLiere
Since it could easily become a Christmas favorite that gets re-read each year, it helps justify the $12.95 price for such a quick read. If you can get it at your local library, even better.

Still Life With Crows by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

If this book had not been a selection for a challenge, it would have gone into the DNF (did not finish) pile early on.  As it was, this was my "Staff Pick" choice for Library Bingo.  Sure, I could have put it back and picked again, but I was curious to see why it had been recommended, so I stuck it out to the last gory, repulsive page. 

I have read one other novel from the Special Agent Pendergast series, so the fact that Preston and Child write vivid violence was not a surprise.  I've read Stephen King, Tami Hoag, James Patterson and a handful of other thriller authors who don't cut corners in the carnage department, so I'm not totally unfamiliar with the genre.  But, (B-I-G but) this was a whole new level of disgusting.  Dismembered, disembowled, disfigured bodies - human and animal - drip from every page.  It may have been the cannibalism that pushed me over that last edge.

One of the attractions of this book is that it is set in southwest Kansas (that's where we live) and it's always fun to read about towns and settings with which you are familiar.  However, this was a Kansas I didn't recognize.  We've been involved in agriculture in Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska for twenty-seven years.  We've lived in this area for the last seven.  The endless miles of cornfields and the sensation of driving between "walls of corn" can be found in many parts of Nebraska, but not here.  Also, I would wager that the authors have never been in/near a tornado.  Their descriptions of the storm, the warning system, and the length of advance notice were all off.  And my final peeve - seriously, this is the last one - was the typecasting of the citizens as redneck, uneducated and just plain stupid.  I resemble that remark!  :)

I don't need to critique Preston and Child's writing style for you.  They have a string of bestsellers to their names.  They are obviously talented.  The plot of this novel is creative and original - but the butchery is off the charts.  It won't be getting a recommendation from this staff member.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Halloween: The Empty Nest Years

I have been through several stages in my appreciation - or not - of Halloween.  As a child, of course I loved inventing costumes and spent hours imagining what I wanted to be.  Some ensembles were leftovers from school programs, some were purchased wherever we shopped in the pre-Walmart 1960's, and some were my own creations.  Whatever the get-up, the best part of Halloween was "Trick or Treat for Unicef".  All the town's children gathered at the VFW hall and were divided into age groups.  Younger groups canvassed the streets nearby, while older kids hiked across town and worked their way back on assigned routes.  At each stop we received treats - many of them homemade, like Mrs. Collie's fudge - plus a donation to our Unicef collection box.  I'm not sure we ever really knew what Unicef was, but we were all for helping out starving children in Africa if it got us more candy.  When all groups had returned, we spread out on the hard wooden floor of the hall with our bags of goodies and a bottle of pop and watched cartoons projected on the wall. 

My children don't think that sounds like much to get excited about, but they never lived in the world before Cartoon Network, when cartoons were only on for three hours on Saturday morning and that's when your mother wanted you to clean your room.  They also never knew pop as a rare thing.  We only got pop at home on Sunday evenings while we watched Wild Kingdom and ate popcorn.  Even then Mom divided three bottles among five people in cups with w-a-y too much ice so you didn't get much, so a whole bottle to myself was a thrill.

There's a gap in my Halloween memory beginning at junior high.  I don't recall paying much attention to the date at all between outgrowing trick-or-treat myself and having my own children.  During the preschool years it was fun to dress the kids up, take their picture, walk them to a few friends' houses and watch their adorable little faces when given a Tootsie Roll. On Mitch's first Halloween - at age 11 months - we dressed him as Mickey Mouse.  Assuming that a child of that age wouldn't take well to a mask, we painted on an adorable black nose and whiskers with face paint guaranteed to "remove easily".  Here's a parenting tip:  Don't paint a 1-year-old's face!  It did not come of easily.  In fact, after much scrubbing and screaming (some his, some mine) we just let the lingering bits wear off over time.

As the kids aged, the entire production lost it's shine.  It became a chore to shop for, sew, or borrow the perfect costume that would simultaniously make the little darlings happy, not break the bank and fit within our costume choices limitations:  only fun characters such as a clown, a cowboy, a football player, a princess - no serial killers or bloody zombies.  And if those restrictions didn't tic them off enough, then came the teen years.  The rule at our house was that trick-or-treat ended when you entered junior high.  At that age it becomes more about the "tricks" than the "treats".  Picture me (preferrably 10 years younger and 20 pounds thinner than the actual me) giving my sternest parental lecture:  "It doesn't matter if you actually pull any of the pranks or not.  If you are running around town you will be accused of whatever vandalism takes place.  Sometimes all it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time!"  Our answer to their usual reply, "We're just doing it for the candy", was "So, get a job and buy your own."  Our poor teens were restricted to the house every October 31st. 

*Pause*  A brief intermission to rant about my top Halloween objection: vandalism and theft being dismissed as "mischief".  This year the retailers, library, courthouse and other businesses joined together to decorate the town for fall.  One of the local florists sold pumpkins, gourds and straw bales at a discount to buisnesses who fashioned displays outside their buildings using those items, fall foliage, scarecrows, etc.  The picture down Main Street was charming.  Then came the TRICK-or-treaters.  During the week leading up to Halloween, nearly every pumpkin, including the wagon-load still for sale, were stolen and/or smashed on the streets in the name of "Halloween pranks".  I will spare you my full-throated, red-faced, steam-blowing tirade on the appropriate punishment for the perpetrators and the parents who laugh it off as an example of "Boys will be boys!"

In this, our first Empty Nest Halloween, I noticed another shift in our Halloween attitude.  We're free!  For the first time in eight years we had no teens at home to worry about (whatever they did at college is beyond my control and my knowledge so I'm not even going there).  No teens also meant we only had two cars to hide from vandals.  In the past, vehicles parked outside overnight were targets to be defaced with eggs, shaving cream, tomatoes, derogatory comments in window paint or more permanent substances.  This year however, with both cars shut in the garage and the kids out of town, we could have a peaceful evening enjoying the children at our door, "oooohing" and "aaaaahing" over their cute little faces and their creative costumes.  Wouldn't you know it?  The doorbell only rang four times!  Oh well, my favorite part of Halloween - more Tootsie Rolls for me!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Flint by Louis L'A

He left the West at the age of seventeen, leaving behind a rootless past and a trail of violence. In the East, he became one of the wealthiest financiers in America.  Now, suffering from incurable cancer, he has come back to New Mexico to die alone. But when an all-out range war erupts, Flint chooses to help Nancy Kerrigan, a local rancher. A cold-eyed speculator is setting up the land swindle of a lifetime, and Buckdun, a notorious assassin, is there to back his play.  Flint alone can help Nancy save her ranch…with his cash, his connections—and his gun. He still has his legendary will to fight. All he needs is time, and that’s fast running out…. (publisher's synopsis)

Dave is a veteran L'Amour fan.  He has collected all the titles and read every one.  These are his go-to books when he wants a guaranteed satisfying read.  Good always defeats evil, the hero always gets the girl, and he does it all with no graphic language, sex or violence (not to say there is no violence at all - it's the "graphic" part that's missing.)  Naturally, when I came to the "Western" category on my library bingo card, I asked Dave to name his favorite L'Amour book.  He chose Flint as tying for the Number One spot.  I have heard Dave quote the opening passage many times, and it is the perfect example of Mr. L'Amour's writing style:

It is given to few people in this world to disappear twice but, as he had succeeded once,the man known as James T. Kettleman was about to make his second attempt.  If he did not succeed this time he would never know, for he would be dead.
Not what I expected from a paperback western.  I read tons of paperback romances in my younger years, and the writing level was not always up to snuff.  I guess I thought this would be the cowboy equivalent.  But no! 

The story was layered - Flint's illness and desire to disappear, the brewing range war, Flint's childhood, his relationship with Nancy Kerrigan, his past in New York which has followed him to New Mexico.  The book could easily be twice as long, adding detail to some of the plotlines, without the action lagging and would rival most modern-day thrillers.  The only negative was that the fight scenes were a little detailed for my taste, but Dave thought they were spot on, so I guess that's just a matter of opinion.  Could be that I don't know my left hook from my jab, so that scene was wasted on me. 

Mr. L'Amour paints vivid pictures of the New Mexico malpais - now El Malpais National Monument - where most of the action takes place.  As many times as we've been to Albuquerque, I'm amazed that I didn't even know this amazing landscape existed only 70 miles to the west.  According to the National Park Service web-site, molten rock created this eerie world of lava tube caves, cinder cones, pressure ridges, and bridges.  El Malpais now tops our list of places to go and things to see.                                              (Photos courtesy of the National Park Service)