Thursday, April 19, 2018

"The Choir Immortal" by Katie Schuermann

Do you ever read the first book in a series and think it's pretty good, and then you read the second book and it blows your tiny mind?  That totally just happened to me.  I liked House of Living Stones, Schuermann's first novel about the people who attend Zion Lutheran Church in fictional Bradbury, Illinois.  It was cute and funny and a little zany.  But the second book?  My heart is not yet recovered from the upwelling of emotions caused by this book.

As Larry the Cucumber says, "I laughed; I cried.  It moved me, Bob." 

I did laugh.  Quite a bit, actually.  But I cried more.  Happy and sad tears both sprang to my eyes, sometimes both at the same time.  This book was simply excellent at portraying Christians facing good and bad times both, learning to cling to God's love and forgiveness in all circumstances.  This book has weddings, funerals, marriage proposals, family squabbles, new friendships forged, old friendships strengthened -- everything we walk through in life, in other words.

And also Jell-o salad, cream of mushroom soup, and hot coffee in the middle of the summer because yup, those are cornerstones of a Midwestern Lutheran life ;-) 

I'm really not telling you what this book is *about* very well, am I?  Well, there's a bachelor pastor who's trying to figure out how to ask his church's choir director to marry him.  There are families facing the death of people young and old.  There's a little boy trying to become a ninja.  There's a college student who's trying to come to terms with his parents' divorce after his dad chose a gay lifestyle over his family.  That college student, Blaine Maler, became one of my favorite characters over the course of this book.  He reminds me of someone I knew in college who also got judged a lot because he liked wearing black clothes, had a lot of tattoos and piercings, and did weird things with his hair.  I hung out with a lot of the weird people in college, being weird myself, and I really just wanted to jump in this story and befriend Blaine because he definitely needed more friends.  But then, don't we all?

Bottom line: if you like stories about small town congregations filled with very real, quirky, lovable, exasperating people, you're going to love this book.  But read House of Living Stones first so you know who's who and what's what, okay?

(My copy with my morning coffee.)

Particularly Good Bits:

She always had an easier time talking to yarn than to people (p. 117).

Transferring from Northwestern University to BC in the middle of his sophomore year had felt a bit like jumping off a speeding train and landing on a tractor (p. 125).

"I was trying to be helpful," she explained, her voice gaining in momentum and volume, the usual music that so often accompanies self-justification (p. 217).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for discussions of homosexuality, divorce, death, and other difficult topics.  No bad language or smutty scenes or violence.  It's clean, but not child-appropriate at all times.

This is my 7th book read and reviewed for the Mount TBR Challenge 2018.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Enchanted" by Alethea Kontis

Wow.  This book was not at all what I expected -- but I mean that in a good way.  It's taken me days to sort through my feelings and thoughts of it, and I'm really just giving up on that and writing this review anyway because... the book is due at the library.  Such is life.

So, it all starts when Sunday Woodcutter falls in love with a frog, who of course was once a handsome prince because this is about fairy tales.  Only it turns out the handsome prince he used to be is someone Sunday's father hates, as do many of her family.  But she didn't know at the time who he used to be, she just knew him as her friend the frog.  

Also, Sunday has six sisters who are also named after days of the week.  And you know that old saying about Monday's child is full of this, and Tuesday's child is full of that?  Well, that saying defines the personality of each Woodcutter girl.  (I've always found that saying to be complete bunk because I was born on a Wednesday, but I've never been full of woe.  I've always been a pretty cheerful sort.  Stubborn, but cheerful.  But in this imaginary world, it all makes sense thanks to some fairy godmothers and stuff.)  Also, she has a brother and an adopted brother and a lost brother.  And a mother who is more powerful than you might expect.  And a father who is literally a woodcutter.

I'm really hopeless at reviewing this book.  Because it's just so different!  It doesn't retell a specific fairy tale.  It weaves oodles of them together!  Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, The Red Shoes... I could go on and on.  It's simply crammed with fairy tale references.  Kind of dizzying at times, actually.  I had to put this book down more than once and let my brain settle down a bit before I could go on.

I hear this is part of a series, but this book ended so beautifully that I'm not sure I want to read more of a series because this really just felt like a perfecly contained story and... I don't know if the next books will please me as much as this one did.

So anyway, yeah, I liked it.  That's really all you wanted to know anyway, right?

Oh, and I really loved Velius.  Just so you know.

(From my Instagram)

Particularly Good Bits:

"We are all made of stars," said Velius.  "Not just you, little one" (p. 168).

"The curse of an interesting life: there are either very good times or very bad times" (p. 205).

"My life has been a string of very long days lately" (p. 214).

She had that way of looking at him that made him feel like he'd built the world for her and given it to her as a gift just that morning (p. 237).

"Child, no one is ever ready for anything.  I would never doom you to that.  What sort of adventureless life would that be?" (p. 265).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13.  There's a lot of peril going on, violence of the fairy-tale sort, and some scary moments.  Also a ghost.  Lots of magic.  Some talk of vampire-like and cannibilistic behavior.  I don't recall there being any bad language, but there might have been some?  (That's the trouble with waiting for several days to write a review -- my ideas solidify, but details start to fade.)  There's also some mild innuendo, of the sort where people are wondering what happened between a man and a woman, but we the readers know nothing untoward occurred.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Poetic Justice

This week is a freebie from That Artsy Reader Girl for Top Ten Tuesday, so I decided to celebrate National Poetry Month with my list!  I hereby present to you my ten favorite poets:

1.  Robert Frost

2.  Kenneth Koch

3.  Langston Hughes

4.  Carl Sandburg

5.  Robert Browning

6.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

7.  William Shakespeare

8.  Billy Collins

9.  T. S. Eliot

10.  Shel Silverstein

(From my Instagram)

What did you do for TTT this week?  Are you celebrating Poetry Month in any way?  Do you like any of these poets?

Monday, April 16, 2018

"Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen (again)

(From my Instagram)
After this reread, I can say for certain that, yes, Northanger Abbey ties with Pride and Prejudice for my second-favorite Austen novel.  (Persuasion is my favorite, and has been for decades now.)

I love Catherine Morland.  I love Henry Tilney.  I love Elanor Tilney.  They're all absolutely adorable, and I want to hug all three of them.  At once, if possible.  An Austen group hug. 

I also love how much this book makes me laugh.  It's just delightful, that's all there is to it!  I first read it in 2012 -- it was the last of her major works that I read.  I loved it then, and I loved it now.  How could I not?  An entire novel about a heroine who can't possibly be the heroine of a novel?  It's brilliant.

As usual, Austen's writing is delightfully wry and witty and sarcastic.  Especially the dialog for Henry Tilney, whom I would probably have been scared of if I'd met him when I was 17 myself.  Dude is way too smart and way too teasing, and his humor is probably too dry for me to have quite gotten when I was that age.  Now, however, I do declare he is probably my favorite Austen hero!  Though if I reread Persuasion soonish, I may recant that and decide that nope, it's Captain Wentworth.  I really can't decide between the two of them most of the time, so whichever one I've encountered most recently is my favorite.

I actually based a few things in Cloaked, my Little Red Riding Hood retelling, on this book.  Like Catherine, Mary Rose is imaginative and fond of reading novels.  Like Catherine, she travels far from home at a young age and must learn to trust her instincts and intelligence.  Like Catherine, she meets and dances with a young man who also likes to read novels and tease her.  I didn't actually plan for those similarities to be there, they just kind of organically happened while I was writing it, and I liked it so well, I tossed some Austen references into the book while I was at it to cement things :-) 

Anyway!  So happy I got to re-read this.  It was perfectly charming, and I'm now in the mood for more Austen, so we'll see if I can slip another of her books into my reading time this spring.

Particularly Good Bits:

Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? (p. 29).

Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone.  No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her better for it (p. 67).

"If I could not be persuaded into doing what I thought wrong, I never will be tricked into it" (p. 95).

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid" (p. 102).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for not-spelled-out-entirely cursing and some taking the Lord's name in vain, both by one odious character.  ::glares in his direction::

This is my 16th book read and reviewed for my second go-round with the Classics Club.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Another LOTR Read-Along Index

For future reference, here are all the individual posts for this read-along.  If anyone wants to discuss it at some future date, I'm always willing to go back and discuss a book again!

Guest Post: "I am No Man, but I'm Still Important" by V. Kovaciny

The Fellowship of the Ring

Prologue: Concerning Hobbits, and other matters

Book One
1. A Long-expected Party
2. The Shadow of the Past
3. Three is Company
4. A Short Cut to Mushrooms
5. A Conspiracy Unmasked
6. The Old Forest
7. In the House of Tom Bombadil
8. Fog on the Barrow-downs
9. At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
10. Strider
11. A Knife in the Dark
12. Flight to the Ford

Book Two
1. Many Meetings
2. The Council of Elrond
3. The Ring Goes South
4. A Journey in the Dark
5. The Bridge of Khazad-dum
6. Lothlorien
7. The Mirror of Galadriel
8. Farewell to Lorien
9. The Great River
10. The Breaking of the Fellowship

The Two Towers

Book Three
1. The Departure of Boromir
2. The Riders of Rohan
3. The Uruk-hai
4. Treebeard
5. The White Rider
6. The King of the Golden Hall
7. Helm's Deep
8. The Road to Isengard
9. Flotsam and Jetsam
10. The Voice of Saruman
11. The Palantir

Book Four
1. The Taming of Smeagol
2. The Passage of the Marshes
3. The Black Gate is Closed
4. Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
5. The Window on the West
6. The Forbidden Pool
7. Journey to the Cross-roads
8. The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
9. Shelob's Lair
10. The Choices of Master Samwise

The Return of the King

Book Five
1. Minas Tirith
2. The Passing of the Grey Company
3. The Muster of Rohan
4. The Siege of Gondor
5. The Ride of the Rohirrim
6. The Battle of Pelennor Fields
7. The Pyre of Denethor
8. The Houses of Healing
9. The Last Debate
10. The Black Gate Opens

Book Six
1. The Tower of Cirith Ungol
2. The Land of Shadow
3. Mount Doom
4. The Field of Cormallen
5. The Steward and the King
6. Many Partings
7. Homeward Bound
8. The Scouring of the Shire
9. The Grey Havens 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Grey Havens (ROTK 6, 9)

We did it.

To quote Frodo, I'm glad to have you with me, here at the end of all things. Well, not all things, but the end of these books. Congratulations! You've just read one of the finest works of modern literature, not to mention the most iconic piece of fantasy fiction basically ever.  

But enough about us. This is such a quiet, soft, melancholy chapter, isn't it? It reminds me of the little coda to Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, when the narrator tells Pooh, "All stories have an ending," and Pooh replies, "Oh, bother." I would cheerfully spend another hundred or so pages reading about life in Hobbiton, and Merry and Pippin's visits to Rohan and Gondor, and Sam's children growing up, and Faramir and Eowyn setting up their household and trying to keep Ioreth from visiting all the time to dispense gossip, and...

But all stories have an ending. And, as Sam's Gaffer says, "All's well as ends Better!" (p. 999). I'm not really sad about how everything ends, just the fact that it does end.

Okay, so, on to a few less-pensive thoughts about this chapter. Tolkien writes that "there were thousands of willing hands of all ages" in the Shire, ready to rebuild! Thousands! I honestly tend to think of there being maybe, I dunno, three hundred hobbits all told, but if there were thousands of hands, then there had to be at least a thousand hobbits! Wow.

I love Sam replacing beloved trees, using his magic dust from Galadriel to better the whole Shire, not just Bag End, or even just Hobbiton. And then he spends the winter being "as patient as he could, and tried to restrain himself from going round constantly to see if anything was happening" (p. 1000). I get that way too, wanting to encourage things to grow somehow :-)

And how happy I am that Sam and Rosie get married and move in with Frodo! What could be better? Well, okay, Frodo not being changed beyond return would be better, but... I love Sam, and he's happy, so I'm happy.

Or I would be, if the story wasn't ending.

But doesn't it have the best last line ever?

He drew a deep breath. "Well, I'm back," he said.

Brilliant. Wonderful. "I laughed! I cried! It moved me, Bob." (That's from some VeggieTales or other, I can't recall which. It's what my college friends and I always said about movies and books we greatly enjoyed.)

Also, notice that it's almost exactly what he said to Farmer Cotton when he returned in the last chapter. And that waaaaaay back when he stood outside Shelob's lair and debated whether or not to follow Frodo to the tower full of orcs, "[h]e felt that if once he went beyond the crown of the pass and took one step veritably down into the land of Mordor, that step would be irrevocable. He could never come back" (p. 878).

But yet, he does get to come back. And Frodo does not, or he doesn't get to stay back. Hmm.

Favorite Lines:

And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass (p. 1000).

"I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them" (p. 1006).

Discussion Questions:

What did you think of The Lord of the Rings?

According to tradition handed down by his daughter Elanor, when Sam was old and Rosie had died, he left the Shire, found the Grey Havens again, and was allowed to sail to the Undying Lands because he, too, had been a Ring-Bearer. There he was reunited with Frodo, fulfilling his wish from back in Shelob's Lair that Frodo would not go where Sam couldn't follow. What do you think of that?

Housekeeping Note:  I posted the last like ten chapters of this all on one day because I decided it was silly to string it out when my major participants are catching up at their leisure anyway.  I do apologize for having flooded everyone's feeds with a gazillion LOTR posts, but... I had a free hour today, out of the blue, because my kids all finished their school more quickly than usual.  So I put that to good use.

Now you can feel free to comment on these posts as you get a chance to read the chapters, and I'll merrily come back and discuss them with you :-)  I promise!

Another LOTR Read-Along: The Scouring of the Shire (ROTK 6, 8)

Forget everything I've said about favorite chapters. This is it, for me. Does it get much better than our courageous friends putting their new skills and knowledge to use to rescue their families, friends, and homes? I'm so proud of them! The whole story has been about them trying to save the world to protect the Shire, but sort of from far away, you know? Now, they get to put all their new skills to work protecting it in a very immediate way.

The first time I read this, I was so shocked at the reappearance of Saruman. This isn't how it goes in the movies, which I saw first, and him popping up here in the Shire was absolutely horrifying. It felt like finding a tarantula in my cereal box or something. And that's what makes The Lord of the Rings rise above so many other "quest" stories, don't you think? The hero doesn't get home and everything returns to normal. The quest had consequences; the world is not the same, not even the farthest reaches of it. Just like when Gandalf chose to save Faramir instead of fighting the Witch King of Angmar, and thus Eowyn and Merry were grievously wounded -- Frodo and Sam left the Shire unguarded in order to save the world from destruction, and in their absence, less-worthy hobbits messed it all up.

Saruman makes an interesting point at the very end of the chapter: mercy can be cruel. He tells Frodo, "You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy" (p. 996). It makes me think of a line from Hamlet: "I must be cruel only to be kind" (III, 4). Being kind and merciful can be cruel, and saying mean and hurtful things can be kind. Hmm.

Favorite Lines:

"If I hear not allowed much oftener," said Sam, "I'm going to get angry" (p. 979).

They would have started earlier, only the delay so plainly annoyed the Shirriff-leader (p. 980).

"You won't rescue Lotho, or the Shire, just by being shocked and sad, my dear Frodo" (p. 983).

Some of the village-folk had lit a large fire, just to enliven things, and also because it was one of the things forbidden by the Chief (p. 985).

"It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing" (p. 995).

Discussion Questions:

Do you think Tolkien might be making a statement about post-war England here? About what returning soldiers might have been surprised to find, or how the world at home had changed in their absence?

Frodo says, "No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire, and it is not to begin now" (p. 983). Do you find that a bit too good to be true?