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 :-)