Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review: Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Title: Imagine: How Creativity Works
Author: Jonah Lehrer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 61

When I was in college, my roommate Leslie and I had a plan. We would graduate, get jobs, get married, and then somehow convince our husbands to settle not just in the same city, but in a communal living situation. Then we'd invite our friends to buy the houses around ours, and we'd all live in a happy state of shared domesticity. The idea wasn't that weird to me; when I was a kid my parents and their best friends shared a condo for several years, but we've never been able to convince the husbands to make a go of it. However, when we get together, Leslie and I always get a glimpse of what our lives would be like if we lived together. Our boys play, my middle daughter makes plans to marry her son, and we get involved in some kind of creative pursuit. Sometimes we paint (she's an artist), sometimes we come up with ideas for essays, sometimes we delve into a decorating project or put together a feast. Whatever we do, I feel like there's some kind of synergy at work-- together the two of us are more-- more interesting, more creative, just more than we are by ourselves.

In his book Imagine, Lehrer talks about how creativity often comes in surprising ways, and he validates the idea that Leslie and I may have been onto something. His chapters focus on how inspiration can come when the mind takes a rest (why those Silicon Valley companies have ping pong tables, for example), how some of the best ideas come from novices, how collaboration works (and brainstorming doesn't)-- this chapter has a fascinating view of Pixar, why cities produce more patents and more good ideas than more rural locations, and how to live a creative life, not just experience spurts of creativity.

I have a weakness for Jonah Lehrer. I've read his other books, and when Jad and Robert say that they'll be speaking with Jonah Lehrer on Radiolab, it always gets my heart beating. Dare I say I have a literary crush on Lehrer, whose work makes neuroscience accessible to the masses? Imagine was no different. I listened to it eagerly, and I was sad when Lehrer came to the end of the story.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: Confessions of a Scary Mommy by Jill Smokler

Title: Confessions of a Scary Mommy: An Honest and Irreverent Look at Motherhood-- the Good, the Bad, and the Scary
Author: Jill Smokler
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Ordered new from Amazon
Books I've read this year: 60

I'm not sure where I came across this book. In fact, I think I might have thought I was ordering that book about why French moms are better than American moms. Regardless, once I got the book in my hands, I was a little bit disappointed. Jill Smokler is a blogger with a book deal, who managed to parlay decent writing skills, a shtick, and a personality that doesn't fear putting herself out there into not only a successful blog, but also a book deal.

Unfortunately, for someone who has been reading "confessional mommy blogs" for nearly a decade, this book didn't feel all that interesting or fresh. Sure, there were times when I laughed out loud, and I do appreciate knowing that there are other moms out there who secretly think one of their kids is cuter than the others or whose favorite time of day is bedtime (incidentally, the only reason I'm writing this post is because it's naptime, another favorite time of day), but I think I've gotten to the point as a reader that this shared camaraderie isn't enough-- the story needs to go deeper than "I hate my kids for giving me stretch marks-- even though I love them." I think that the book will appeal to fans of Smokler's blog, who have been reading her stuff for free for many years, but I'm not sure it will convert lots of new followers. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Blessings and bruises

Last year, when Ed and I were in the early stages of our adoption, one of the reasons that the China program looked so attractive is that our relationship with our baby's birth family would be very cut and dried. There would be no relationship. The vast majority of kids who are adopted from Chinese orphanages are abandoned, and after no one comes calling for them for a period of time (they even put finding ads in the newspapers) they are determined to be the equivalent of wards of the state. It seemed like things would be simpler if our baby didn't have birth parents who could call us or who might decide to change their minds; I'd seen too many friends, potential adoptive parents, who had gone through the agonies of waiting for babies only to come home empty-handed after those babies were born. I wasn't sure my heart could take that kind of pain.

On Saturday we gave Rose a name and a blessing. Ed held her in a circle of uncles and a grandpa and our bishop while he welcomed her to our family and talked about all of the things he hopes she will achieve in life, just like he's done for our four other kids. She even wore the same dress all of the other kids wore. And when we said "Amen," Rose looked up at her daddy and clapped her hands, a giant smile on her face. She seems perfectly content to be part of our family.

Then, on Monday, we took her to the hospital, where a group of surgeons repaired her lip, tacked her soft palate together for a future repair, and inserted a prosthetic hard palate and ear tubes. I spent a few nervous hours waiting with my mom and two dear friends who dropped by. And then it was over-- she was fixed. No more gap above her lip. No more formula coming out of her nose and boogers coming out of her mouth. She was bruised and swollen and sore, but also whole.

That night, we were carefully attended by a nurse who came to check vitals late in the night and told me that three years earlier she had placed a baby girl for adoption. "It's worked out really well," she said. "My family and I see her all the time; we've even gone on vacation together."

And now I wonder if I had it all wrong. Because there's nothing I want more than to tell Rose's birth parents that she's fine. Her lip is fixed. Her palate works the way a palate should. Rose thrived this year, despite all of the obstacles in her way. She's beautiful and curious and strong-- everything anyone could want from a child. And I'm so blessed that she's mine. But I wish I could give them a glimpse of how the baby girl they created and bore is turning out. It would surely heal their hearts more than it would render mine vulnerable. Because she's such a joy-- she's the best gift I've ever been given, and I have them to thank for it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

2011 Whitney Recap

(originally posted at Segullah)

It's been a little more than two months, and we've been hard at work reading the finalists for the 2011 Whitney Awards, which honors novels written by LDS authors. Angela, Emily M, Jessie, Melonie, Rosalyn, and I have spent the last couple of months discovering new voices, cheering for old favorites, and occasionally wishing we could throw our Kindles against the wall. But now we're emerging, pale and myopic, from our reading cocoons, and we'd like to share what we've found with you as we submit our ballots to the Whitney Awards Committee. Jessie, Rosalyn, and I all blogged about some of what we read on our blogs.

We could go on and on about how the overall quality of the books has improved in the years we've been reading the finalists (it has) or about how frustrated we were with some of the ways books were categorized (fodder for other posts), but we're just going to cut to the chase and tell you how we voted. We were instructed to rank all five of the finalists in each of the seven categories. Then we had to vote for our favorite book by a new author and our favorite book of the year. So without further ado...

General: Before I Say Goodbye by Rachel Ann Nunes. Nunes's book, about a woman with terminal cancer who returns to Utah County with her two children, hoping to get them settled before she has to leave them, was our pick this year. Nunes seems to have her finger on the pulse of what her audience wants to read, and she did a nice job weaving together the multiple points of view.

Historical: Emily, Jessie, and I were all fans of Gale Sears's Letters in the Jade Dragon Box, a story about a young girl coming to terms with her relationship with her parents (who sent her to live with an uncle in Hong Kong during a period of unrest in her native China) against the backdrop of the establishment of the LDS Church in Hong Kong. While the main narrative felt more like a YA novel than a historical novel at times, we nonetheless enjoyed the interesting subject matter and the characters Sears created.

Romance: When I started reading the Whitney finalists three years ago, I was anti-Romance. But reading the finalists has converted me. In fact, we had a really hard time picking a book in this category because so many of them were so strong. Ultimately, our first-place vote went for seasoned novelist Carla Kelly's Borrowed Light (after a protracted conversation about whether the book was, in fact, a historical novel rather than a historical romance), the story of a young woman who flees her boring fiance in Salt Lake in the early 1900s and goes to Wyoming to cook on a ranch. While in Wyoming, she not only finds love, but also finds her own devotion to her faith rather than relying on the faith of her parents and community. But the best surprise of 2011 came in the form of Melanie Jacobson, whose two Romance novels, Not My Type and The List, showed that she really understands how her young protagonists talk and act, and that she's willing to explore some of the trickier aspects of Mormon culture. I know I'm really looking forward to her finalist next year, because I don't doubt that her next book will also be a finalist.

Mystery/Suspense: This was another tricky category for us as readers because we felt that we were comparing apples and oranges. Some of the books were straightforward mysteries, while others were Dan Brown-type suspense novels. We had a really hard time coming to a consensus here. Since the ballot was emailed to me, I ended up putting my favorite novel in the category, Anne Perry's Acceptable Loss, as the first choice. But one of the readers in our group found the subject matter (which involved child sex abuse) so disgusting that she didn't finish the book. Then we found ourselves divided among the other books in the category. I also liked Stephanie Black's Rearview Mirror, which had interesting, complicated characters.

Speculative: We've liked Dan Wells's John Wayne Cleaver books every year, so it should come as no surprise that we were big fans of the final book (or is it?) in the trilogy, I Don't Want to Kill You which brought the events in the three novels to a satisfying, horrifying, somehow exactly perfect conclusion. However, Wells managed to wow us again with his quirky, zany, weird The Night of Blacker Darkness, a Vampire novel featuring John Keats and Mary Shelley as main characters.

Youth Fiction- Speculative: In this very strong category (I could see any of the five books winning the award), Rosalyn and I were completely charmed by Jessica Day George's Tuesdays at the Castle. We loved Princess Celie and how she manipulated her magic castle to save her family and her kingdom. We were also big fans of how Bethany Wiggins modernized the Navajo Skinwalkers legend in Shifting, and, to be honest, every other book in this category.

Youth Fiction- General: It's a good problem when all of the books in the category are strong, isn't it? We found that challenge again in the Youth Fiction- General category. We particularly liked Tess Hilmo's sweet Southern coming-of-age story With a Name Like Love, but I was a huge fan of Kristen Chandler's Birds Don't Fly, and we also liked Sean Griswold's Head.

We were very happy to be able to rank books in the last two categories (Best Novel by a New Author and Novel of the Year) rather than picking a single book.

Best Novel by a New Author: We loved Tess Hilmo's With a Name Like Love, and we also loved Melanie Jacobson's The List. In fact, we liked both so much that we're reluctant to disclose which one got our top pick.

Novel of the Year: Once again, we found it hard to pick just one book, so we were glad we could rank our top ten. We were such big fans of Borrowed Light, With a Name Like Love, I Don't Want to Kill You, Tuesdays at the Castle, and both of the Jacobson books. Which one got our top vote? We're not telling. Which one will win? We'll all have to wait until May 5th to find out.

If you'd like to attend the May 5th awards gala at the Provo Marriott, you can purchase your tickets here. You'll get to see many of your favorite authors (maybe they'll even sign your iPad!), and might even get to rub elbows with a few of your favorite bloggers!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Book Review: A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen

Title: A Royal Pain (A Royal Spyness Mystery)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 59

First of all, you may have noticed something different about the heading of my reviews. I've decided to switch from 1-10/10 system to a *-**** system. I'm a grade grubber, and the number out of ten system makes me feel like I'm failing someone when I give them anything less than a six, and I think it's artificially inflating some of my ratings. So I've decided to switch over to the system used by Goodreads and basically everyone else. One star means it was awful. Two means it was ok. Three means it was good. Four means it was very good. And five means it was amazing and life changing and all that good stuff. So a three-star book is a good book. And A Royal Pain was a solid three for me.

In the second Royal Spyness Mystery, Lady Georgie is still in London in the spring of 1933, still trying to make a living cleaning houses without letting the Queen find out, still looking for a suitable wealthy man to marry, and still getting herself into lots of trouble. A Royal Pain opens with the Queen asking Georgie to house a visiting Bavarian princess, Honey, in hopes that her errant son David will fall in love with Honey and leave that detestable Wallis Simpson alone. However, as soon as Honey arrives, people start turning up dead. First there's an accident at a party, then they stumble over a body in a bookshop, then Honey's guardian dies of a heart attack. The Queen gives Georgie the added responsibility of trying to find out if the deaths are suspicious or related, all while entertaining the boy-crazy princess.

I feel a little bit guilty for liking the Royal Spyness mysteries. They are very light and fun, and also a little predictable. They don't feel like real life, at least not like mine, which I think is part of the allure. They're perfect to listen to while cleaning the house or doing laundry-- Georgie has such an engaging voice (I don't mean that literally, although the reading is fine, I just think she expresses herself in an interesting way). I'll probably keep downloading these books for when I need a break from the heavier stuff.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: Miss Delacourt Has Her Day by Heidi Ashworth (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Miss Delacourt Has Her Day
Author: Heidi Ashworth
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy (but this book was really hard to get-- no electronic copy provided, and the book was $25 at Amazon; the library copy came in at the very last minute)
Books I've read this year: 58

Miss Delacourt Has Her Day is Heidi Ashworth's sequel to the 2009 novel Miss Delacourt Speaks Her Mind, in which Ginerva Delacourt, the daughter of an English clergyman, and Sir Anthony, her distant cousin, get waylaid by highwaymen and once they get over their initial revulsion for each other, fall madly in love. When the second novel opens, the couple is just about to announce their engagement, but due to his cousin's recent death, Sir Anthony finds himself in line to become a duke, and the current duke has reservations about the relationship and wonders if the couple is a suitable match. In Miss Delacourt Has Her Day, Ginny and Sir Anthony go through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications (and letters thrown in haste into figgy pudding, and lots and lots and LOTS of descriptions of what everyone is wearing) before they can find their way to wedded bliss.

I think that this is a case where not reading the first book does readers a disservice, because initially I though that both Ginny and Sir Anthony were despicable-- mostly because they weren't very nice to their servants or the other people around them. Then I went back and read about the first book and realized that they were both intended to be feisty, not jerky, and that helped me as a reader. I also think that I didn't care enough about their relationship because I didn't see it blossom. So I think this book works well for people who loved the first book and want to see them brought to the altar (spoiler-- there is no altar in the second book, ha ha!), but not as well for new readers.

Finally, and I know that this is not Ashworth's fault, but Miss Delacourt Has Her Day isn't historical fiction as I define historical fiction. It's a romance novel. It would probably be considered a "Regency Romance" but it's definitely a romance, and is published by Avalon Romance, which seems to be a pretty good clue. For a book to be historical fiction, I think it has to either include historical figures (like "real" people) or else it has to be against the backdrop of historical events. And this book isn't and doesn't. While I think it would have been a decent contender in romance, I think the book was done a disservice by putting it in with the historical fiction.

And that's it, folks! I'm done! 35 for 35! I have a big long list of books I'm going to read next-- just because I WANT to read them. I feel so free!

On Sunday we will post a wrap-up of the Whitneys at Segullah. I may post my own wrap-up here too, depending on how much the marathon, the social worker, and the baby blessing take it out of me tomorrow.

Book Review: I Don't Want to Kill You by Dan Wells (Whitney Finalist)

Title: I Don't Want to Kill You
Author: Dan Wells
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Personal copy, purchased with the intent to read it last year
Books I've read this year: 57

I'm coming into the home stretch with the Whitney books. I'd planned to read I Don't Want to Kill You as my last book, sort of a reward for finishing the whole thing, and while a library hold that took more than two months thwarted that plan, it was incredibly satisfying to (almost) finish out the Whitneys by finishing out the story of John Cleaver. The first year I read the Whitney finalists was the year I am Not a Serial Killer was a finalist, and that book made a huge impression on me. For the most part, it was a fantastic book-- albeit a little more gory than I was expecting and a lot more supernatural than I was anticipating until the end. Mr. Monster was also a rewarding read, although it was definitely the middle book of a trilogy, and those poor middle books always have issues just by nature of their place in things. But I Don't Want to Kill You is Dan Wells at his finest-- he hit his stride with this one. We know John Wayne Cleaver, and love him despite his sociopathic tendencies, we understand the world he inhabits, and we know that no matter what else we see in the novel, Cleaver's small North Dakota town will see lots and lots of deaths.

For a guy who doesn't understand girls and has the unfortunate habit of fantasizing about seeing them dead on his embalming table (he and his mom run the town mortuary), John certainly gets a lot of action in I Don't Want to Kill You, where he tries to track a serial killer, beckons the demon he spoke with to come find him, and has to cope with the fact that a rash of suicides has erupted among his high school peers. He's also juggling a new, hot girlfriend while holding out a torch for Brooke, who got tortured alongside him in Mr. Monster and is now keeping her distance. One of the most consistent parts of the John Cleaver stories thus far has been the way his family (his aunt, his sister, and particularly his mother) work together to prevent John from giving into his tendencies (he doesn't want to become Dexter, if he can help it), and the aunt and sister are largely absent from I Don't Want to Kill You. However, John's mother's role is as supportive as ever, and she plays a large part in the surprising (but if you look at the arc of the three stories it seems inevitable) conclusion. A thoroughly rewarding finish to the Awards readings.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs #9)

Title: Elegy for Eddie
Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: I've read all of them!
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 55

Over the nine books in the Maisie Dobbs series, there are times when I want to cheer Maisie on (she can make such big breakthroughs!) and times when I want to shake her and tell her to get over herself (she can be so dense sometimes!). In most of this book, I felt like shaking Maisie, but towards the end, I think I may have started to cheer for her a little bit.

In Elegy for Eddie, Maisie has to figure out if a suspicious death (which turns into a series of suspicious deaths) in a printing establishment in her old stomping grounds on the east end is a murder or just an accident. Along the way, Maisie gains some insight into the large conflicts on the horizon (the novel takes place in 1933, and instead of hearkening back to WWI, like most of her the previous novels in the series, this one is definitely setting up for the conflicts of WWII).

The story of Eddie is almost incidental to Maisie's navel gazing in this novel. The mysteries often mirror the psychological drama Maisie endures, and I guess that's true in this story, since Maisie discovers that both she and Eddie (the dead guy, who had developmental delays) "walked a narrow path" in life, meaning that they are uncomfortable with change. Maisie also comes to realize that she can't fix everything that goes wrong in other people's lives just because she has the money to do it, which I think is an important lesson for her, because she spent so much of the last book micromanaging everyone with her newfound wealth. 

I'm always curious about the degree that the author's worldview influences characters. For example, I married young and have had a very fulfilling family life, so my life experience has taught me that marriage and family are desirable objectives. It seemed in previous novels that Winspear might be steering Maisie toward marriage and family before her biological clock (which never ticks audibly) would run out. But in this novel, James is such a ninny-- he was so sweet in the previous books, and while I'm all for real, complicated love with real, complicated people, it seems apparent that Winspear doesn't seem to be steering Maisie and James down the path of marriage and kids sliding down the banisters at the Dower House. I wonder how much of this is Winspear's own life experience-- does she think that it would be inconceivable for a woman to balance a fulfilling career and a family in the 1930s? If anyone could do it, Maisie could, it just seems that she might not want to.

Book Review: Bloodborne by Gregg Luke (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Bloodborne
Author: Gregg Luke
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 56

If you like the drama of Dan Brown (to whom Luke gives an over shout-out in the book), combined with the medical knowledge of Michael Crichton, and the suspense of Dean Koontz (who is also alluded to in the book), I think you get what Luke attempts to achieve in Bloodborne (minus any implausible romances, if I'm reading correctly that the final pages are motivated by duty/friendship instead of romance budding among the mosquitoes).

In the opening pages of Bloodborne, someone opens fire at a deli and tries to kill Dr. Erin Cross, a scientific researcher at a Lehi, Utah lab, working on vaccines for H1N1 and malaria, among other things. Within pages, someone else tries to kill her, then a co-worker gets killed and she discovers someone creeping around her house. She flees, and turns to the only person who she thinks might be able to help her, Sean Flannery, a  former special ops Marine who she met earlier at the deli. They run off to the Dixie National Forest, where Erin soon learns that Sean has a host of his own problems. Meanwhile, evil scientific researchers are unleashing deadly mosquitoes on a small Hawaiian island, testing out their new biological weapon, which will make them rich and powerful, if they can only get rid of Dr. Cross. Eventually, the two stories come together, and Cross can only avert disaster if she places her trust in the right people.

While the writing is fairly clean and the story moves quickly, it feels SO derivative.  I enjoyed Dr. Cross's character, but most of the other characters either felt wooden or problematic. This is a book to take at face value, but not one that seems to reward a deeper reading.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


On Saturday, Rose went to her first gathering of the entire Miner clan-- both of Ed's brothers were in town, so we all got together for the first time in more than six years (so it was actually Maren's first gathering of the whole family as well). And what do you do when you have the whole family together? Take pictures, of course. We didn't hire a photographer because we weren't 100% sure Ed would make it until he walked though the door halfway through the party (those pesky heart attacks), and one certain member of the family has forbidden me from posting any pictures of him, but here's what we got of our immediate family:

Rose looks pretty darn cute right in the middle, doesn't she? Many thanks to Blue for sacrificing her Saturday afternoon and coming to snap a few shots.

I think I had some idea that after Rose joined our family we'd start shopping at the Chinese grocery store in Sandy and chopsticks would grace our dinner table. But we haven't done much adapting. Rose, however, has done lots of adapting. To the ever-present car seat, to the heavy-duty lotion rubdown every night, to being pushed around the house in Maren's dolly stroller. She's taken most of it in stride (although she didn't like it when Maren dumped her out onto the bathroom floor). But she really digs this:

Her first McDonalds cheeseburger. She are almost the whole thing-- mustard and all!

Here is one last look at my precious, drooly-faced baby standing at her new play table. She thinks she can stand all on her own, but we've had a few mishaps when we let go for a second. Take a close look at this sweet face, because in my next update she'll probably be markedly less cheerful, but her upper lip will be all in one piece! Surgery on Monday! Cross your fingers and say your prayers that everything goes well.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Book Review: Shifting by Bethany Wiggins (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Shifting
Author: Bethany Wiggins
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 54

It's been a while since I finished reading Shifting, so it might be hard to give a great review of it. Maggie Mae is seventeen, and has been in about that many foster homes during her childhood. She has the unfortunate habit of being picked up by the police for indecent exposure. So Maggie's social worker deposits her in a town in Southern New Mexico with his mother, who promises to get Maggie out of high school and past her eighteenth birthday without mishap. However, this proves to be more difficult than either of them anticipated. People follow her. The kids at school seem to hate her. And then there's Bridger, the impossibly gorgeous guy who seems totally interested in her. Maggie isn't sure how much she can trust him or tell him about herself.

Shifting is well-written and engrossing. I definitely found myself captured by the story, and was even more impressed when I read that the paranormal stuff in the story, the Skinwalkers, come directly from Navajo legend. Wiggins does a great job setting the story against a backdrop that's rich in Navajo history. My main quibble with the story, and it's a small one, I think, is that Maggie waits so long to let readers know what exactly is going on with her. I can understand why she would want to keep the secret from her foster families and people at school, but it made me distrust her a little bit as a narrator when she didn't come right out and tell us why she was always naked in public until we saw it happen for the first time. 

Book Review: Smokescreen by Traci Hunter Abramson (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Smokescreen
Author: Traci Hunter Abramson
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 53

I really didn't like Lockdown or Crossfire, Traci Hunter Abramson's books that were nominated in the Mystery/Suspense category in the last two years, so my sights were set low for Smokescreen, the fifth book in the Saint Squad series. The books in the series follow a set formula-- there's a group of LDS Navy Seals, and in each novel Abramson focuses on how one of the men in the group falls in love with a woman who happens to be at the center of an international terrorist plot. If you can look past the implausibility of the entire concept (which was a difficult thing for me, in the first two novels), then the books are actually pretty entertaining.

In Smokescreen, Taylor Palmetta is an artist who comes home to Virginia after spending time in Europe and hitting it big in the art scene. The only thing missing from her life is a man, specifically Quinn, a guy her brother-in-law works with in the Navy, with whom she had a promising start at a relationship before leaving from Europe, until Quinn suddenly withdrew. Now Taylor's back, and when crazy things start happening to her (mysterious pools of blood in a hotel room in Paris, her new SUV gets broken into), Quinn becomes her protector. Taylor is a target, but she doesn't know why-- it's just her and her paintings, after all. But the Saint Squad bands together and works to avert (yet another) international crisis, all against the backdrop of Quinn and Taylor's budding love.

First of all, a small quibble. Quinn and Taylor? Please don't give both of your protagonists androgynous names! It was hard for me to keep track of who was who. Also, while the character development for Q&T was pretty good, I think it's a shame that the other characters in Abramson's books are so flat-- by this time we know everyone really well, and they can serve as more than just vehicles for the plot to move forward. Finally, Abramson chose to reveal certain details and withhold others in a way that was annoying. Quinn has a skeleton in his closet (literally, kind of) and while Abramson gives us most of the story early on in the book, she keeps other information for a reveal about halfway through, and that felt kind of like a cheap move. All in all, I was entertained and found myself rooting for Taylor not to get killed by the baddies.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: Rearview Mirror by Stephanie Black (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Rearview Mirror
Author: Stephanie Black
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic Copy
Books I've read this year: 52

New England college professor Fiona Claridge has had a successful academic career, but she's also been haunted by the car accident where she accidentally killed her BYU roommate Mia. She finds herself unable to move on or find love, and she's plagued by guilt. Adding to that guilt is a former student who is getting back at Fiona for accusing her of plagiarism by dredging up some of the more unsavory details of Mia's death. Furthermore, Fiona learns that her ex-boyfriend's mother has died and when she attends the funeral, it turns out that he's held a torch for her all these years (despite marrying someone else). And then the mother's death (and other subsequent deaths) are revealed not to be accidents, after all, and Fiona seems to be in the center of everything. Who killed the old lady? Are they working with Kimberly, the disgruntled student? Is this a mean trick or is Fiona's life in danger?

There's a lot going on in this book. I like the characters-- and particularly like that Black has the courage to create Mormon characters who are flawed, even very flawed and damaged. In years past, it seemed that many of the Whitney mystery/suspense novels shied away from having a Mormon pull the trigger/plunge the knife/shove the old bag in the water, and that isn't the case here (I think I can say that without revealing too much). The story is also interestingly complicated in many ways, with great side stories that tie into the main narrative. But the romance part of the story felt forced and didn't work too well for me. I wanted to see Fiona actually falling for James, Mia's old flame, instead of coming to him in a place of comfort and need.

Book Review: If I Should Die by Jennie Hansen (Whitney Finalist)

Title: If I Should Die
Author: Jennie Hansen
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 51

I was out running a few mornings ago. It was dark, and I was by myself, and I was listening to my iPod, when I heard branches cracking and the sound of footsteps. I pulled my earbuds out and prepared to either flee onto Wasatch Blvd or kick someone in the crotch when a deer came leaping out past me. It took me a few seconds to catch my breath, and for that I blame Jennie Hansen, whose book, If I Should Die, (spoiler alert) is about a serial killer who preys on Salt Lake's unsuspecting female runners. Awesome-- now, in addition to cars, deer, ice, and dogs, I also need to worry about serial killers.

If I Should Die is part suspense, part murder mystery, and part romance. When Kallene's running buddy Linda goes missing, police are pretty sure that Linda's soon-to-be-ex-husband did it, but Kallene isn't so sure. Over the course of the next few months (the time jumps are frustrating in this book), Kallene tries to figure out who is responsible for her friend's disappearance, while also saving the day at the office (that part of the story didn't feel integrated or relevant to the rest of the novel) and dating both the lead detective and the victim's brother. It seems that everyone in Kallene's Herriman neighborhood is a creepy potential suspect (and if I were her I think I'd move away). This book didn't quite come together for me-- first of all, it seems a little bit unlikely that Linda's killer had to come from their subdivision, and the rest of the story wasn't unified enough for me. And from now on, I'll always be looking over my shoulder when I run.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

Title: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
Author: William Deresiewicz
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: I think this was in the bargain bin at Audible
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year:50

It took me a LONG time to read this book. A really long time. I started out all gung-ho, because who wouldn't want to read a book about how reading Jane Austen changed some guy's life (yes, you read that right, a GUY's life). The first chapter was great. And then I found that I didn't like this William Deresiewicz guy all that much. He complained a whole lot-- about his dad, his apartment, his spot in an Ivy League PhD program, his love life-- everything. So I quit reading it for a month or two, and then one morning I went out for a run and picked it up again. I won't say that I absolutely loved the book, but Deresiewicz did grow on me over time. I think part of his strategy was to make himself as repugnant as possible in the early chapters so he could be redeemed as he learned and grew from what he'd read (almost like an Austen heroine?). And the book rekindled my love for Jane Austen. I have three more Whitney finalists to read, and then Persuasion is at the top of the stack on my bedside table, calling my name.

Book Review: Not my Type by Melanie Jacobson (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Not My Type
Author: Melanie Jacobson
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 49

When I finished reading Borrowed Light, the first book I picked up in the Whitney Romance category, I was convinced it had the category sewn up. I thought it might be a contender for my favorite novel of the year, not just my favorite romance. So I'll admit that I approached the other books in the category with the bar set high-- I needed them to wow me in order to even put them in the running.

And with Not My Type Melanie Jacobson did wow me. With great, rounded characters, tight writing, humor, an interesting storyline, and just the right amount of social commentary about life on the Wasatch Front, Jacobson delivers so much more than just a romance novel. In fact, this is a book that I might have overlooked as a casual reader because of its category-- it feels less like a romance novel than just a strong contemporary novel about a girl trying to find her way in life.

After graduating from BYU and breaking things off with her rising pop-star fiance (it sounds cheesy, but it works), Pepper finds herself frustrated by her job making sandwiches (to pay off her credit card bill for the wedding) and the fact that she's sharing a room with her little sister. Her dad, a family therapist, intervenes after Pepper showers her sister with birthday cake, and encourages her to set some goals and find gratitude for the things she has. These goals help her to get her life back on track socially and professionally, and eventually she finds love (and a lot of bad dates along the way).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review: The List by Melanie Jacobson (Whitney Finalist)

Title: The List
Author: Melanie Jacobson
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 48

When Ashley Barrett goes to spend the summer before graduate school in Southern California with her cousins, she's looking to make a little money and learn to surf; she's emphatically not looking to fall in love. She watched her two older sisters marry in their teens, and grew up aware of the fact that her parents' early marriage had made for some economic challenges, and she was not going to get married until she'd had a little fun. In fact, she made a list to of all of the fun things she wanted to do before she'd let herself fall in love. And if one of the items on that list was "have a summer fling," then that was something she could do during her California summer, no strings attached.

Yeah, right. This is a romance novel after all.

When I picture a woman reading a romance novel, I picture either a teenager or an older, married woman. I don't picture Ashley's peers, the unmarried-but-looking twentysomethings. I guess I figure that that demographic is actually out having romances and can't be bothered reading them. But Jacobson's books feel like they would actually appeal to college students. She has the dialogue and the pacing and just the right amount of detail. She also has really likeable protagonists. I'll write more about this in my review of Not My Type (which I actually liked better), but I think that Jacobson really has her finger on the pulse of what the characters in her stories would like to read.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: Fires of Jerusalem by Marilyn Brown (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Fires of Jerusalem
Author: Marilyn Brown
Enjoyment Rating: 5/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic Copy
Books I've read this year: 47

I used to read a lot of biographies when I was a kid, and I frequently had the experience of getting really interested in a story the biographer was telling, only to have the chapter end and five years pass in that character's life, and never pick up the story again. In that sense, Fires of Jerusalem, a historical novel about the biblical prophet Jeremiah, feels more like a fictionalized biography than like historical fiction. The 240-page book tries to encompass the entirety of Jeremiah's life, with huge gaps from teenager to young man to great-grandfather, and it would have been a much more satisfying read if Brown had focused on a single time period and tried to create a story rather than hitting the highlights of Jeremiah's life.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Book Review: With a Name Like Love by Tess Hilmo (Whitney Finalist)

Title: With a Name Like Love
Author: Tess Hilmo
Enjoyment Rating: 8/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 46

I really liked With a Name Like Love, the story of the daughter of an itinerant preacher, whose family lands in a small Southern town, and who soon finds herself trying to save a young boy and his mother from a murder rap. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot to say about it in this review. I read it in China, in truth, I read most of it sitting on the bathroom floor in China while praying that my girls would stay asleep in the other room, so it's understandably a little bit of a blur in my mind. But I do remember great writing. This story is quite different from the others in the Youth Fiction General category because the rest of the stories are contemporary tales, and all of the other four have some element of romance in them (yes, it's a stretch to call Miles from Ordinary a romance, but I'm doing it anyway). This story, on the other hand, almost feels like it's for a younger audience (despite the fact that Ollie is fourteen). In fact, the place it occupies in the YFG category feels a lot like the Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George occupies in the Youth Fiction Speculative category. It's a quiet book, it doesn't try to hit you over the head with snappy dialogue or funny events. It meanders; it's earnest. It's also the book I'd most want my daughter to read.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book Review: Pride and Popularity by Jenni James (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Pride and Popularity
Author: Jenni James
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic Copy
Books I've read this year: 45

Jenni James comments on the Goodreads page for Pride and Popularity saying:

"If you are hoping to find a YA book full of paranormal beasts, sex, or teens who act much more like under-aged adults, I suggest you save your money and do not buy this book. In fact don't buy any of The Jane Austen Diaries. However, if you are looking for a clean, lighthearted, sweet romance, where teens are good and happy and normal--like all of the teens I know (including my own!) then read on."

James is exactly right. Pride and Popularity is a nice, clean, lighthearted YA novel. If you've read Pride and Prejudice or watched Clueless, you can probably imagine how James has transformed Austen's story to work in a high school setting. And it does work-- the book is cute, and light, and funny. But it's not Austen-- it lacks the subtle social criticism that is Austen's genius. Although I liked the book and can definitely imagine my own daughter enjoying it, it felt almost too light and fluffy in comparison to the other books in the category. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Rose by any other name....

One thing we noticed in China is that Rose didn't recognize her name. I don't mean that she didn't recognize the fact that we were calling her Rose, but she didn't recognize Jue, the nickname the orphanage director said she went by. At first, we thought we must be saying it wrong, because, in truth, we had been saying it wrong, but when our Chinese-speaking guides called her by name, she didn't act like she understood what they were saying either. Was she deaf? Hearing-loss is definitely a possibility with cleft-affected kids, but she responded to clapping hands and honking horns and the sound of my voice.

She just didn't know what her name was. She was a baby among many, not Rose, not Jue.

But if you say "Rose," or "Rosie" now, she knows who we're talking about. She kicks her legs, claps her feet together, and waves her little hands. And I'm so glad.

In other (big!) news, Rose had her first birthday on Saturday. We tried to keep things quiet and small, because we didn't want to overwhelm the girl.

Her birthday present from her brothers and sisters-- they had to relinquish one of their swings to give her room.

Ed and I decided that this is the kind of outfit that women love and men hate. We took Rose to dinner at PF Changs and half a dozen women told me how adorable it was. But the tulle totally got stuck in the velcro on the car seat. It may be dumb, but I do think it's mighty cute.

I'm going to miss this sweet little face. I love it just like it is.

Book Review: No Angel by Theresa Sneed (Whitney Finalist)

Title: No Angel
Author: Theresa Sneed
Enjoyment Rating: 5/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 44

When I was filling out my college applications, there were a couple of instances where I had to name my favorite book. I'm pretty sure that I said it was The Grapes of Wrath but in the interest of full disclosure, it wasn't really my favorite book. There was a book that I had read half a dozen times, a book that never failed to reduce me to tears every time I finished it (and honestly, I think that's why I read it-- I needed that cathartic release or something). It was called Star Child, and was written by Doug Stewart and Linda Higham Thompson, and like its companion book, Saturday's Warrior, it dealt a lot with how relationships formed in the preexistence were complicated on earth. I'm sure that if I read it now, I'd find it abhorrent (and I guess I'll find out since I found a copy online and just ordered it), but at the time, it helped me through my teen years in Connecticut when I thought I'd never find a Mormon boy to marry me.

If you take two parts Star Child and one part It's a Wonderful Life, you have Theresa Sneed's No Angel. The protagonist, Jonathan Stewart (which feels like an intentional allusion to IAWL) is a guardian angel, chosen by Celeste, a spirit on her way to earth. Jonathan doesn't want to be a guardian angel-- he's not good with people, hated his time on earth, and just wants to spend out his eternity living his neatly ordered little life. But Celeste picked him, so he goes along, kicking and screaming the whole way. I started reading this book reluctantly-- in general, I stay away from books that delve into some of the "it's impossible to know this" areas of Mormon theology, but the early chapters of No Angel were quite good-- quick moving and tight. I found myself grudgingly approving of it-- it felt like it could be more like Defending Your Life than Saturday's Warrior.  But the last third of the book takes a decidedly weird turn, and I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. If the book had been more about Jonathan's relationship (and not a romantic relationship, which I found icky) with Celeste and less about him trying to overcome guardian angel prison, I think I would have liked it better.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review: A Night of Blacker Darkness by Dan Wells (Whitney Finalist)

Title: A Night of Blacker Darkness
Author: Dan Wells
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 43

I read a whole bunch of books on the way to China, and once we got there and got Rose, I didn't blog about them. Then I read more books in China, and didn't blog about them, either. Then we came home, and between the jet lag and spring break and settling in, I didn't blog about those either. And now I'm in trouble, because I feel an obligation to blog about the books I read (for you, fair reader), especially these Whitney books, because it's kind of my thing, writing about all of the books, even if I'm mostly just doing it for myself (and therefore justifying this long, rambling introduction that has nothing to do with the book so far). Anyway, I'm getting to my point, which is that after a while, all of the books started to blend together in my mind. I blame it on the fact that I read a lot, but I have a memory for plots like most people have for where they put their car in long-term parking. I can remember what I need to as long as I'm reading, but the details tend to fade away quickly. Annie keeps asking me minute details about The Hunger Games, which I read almost four years ago when it was brand new (and with the new baby I think I am probably the only person on the planet who has read all three books and not made it to the movie yet, but that's a digression on top of a digression), and then she gets mad at me when I don't remember. "Are you sure you really read that book, Mom?" I feel her rolling eyes saying to me when I tell her I can't remember who provided the poisoned berries or whether Cato was killed by wild dogs or at the hand of another kid in the arena. Anyway, my point is that while so many of the other books I read blended together, this one really stood out. And for that, I give it major props.

Frederick Whithers and his girlfriend Gwen plan to scam an old rich guy with one foot in the grave out of his fortune of 90,000 pounds, which back in the early 1800s was a lot of cash. But Frederick is in jail when the rich guy dies, and he has to find a way out. When his cellmate dies, Fred bribes the coffinmaker to bury him too. The only problem? He's spotted leaving the coffin by a bunch of vampires who believe that he is The Great One, come to save them. And it just gets crazier from there. Whithers hooks up with John Keats (yes, the poet) who speaks only in rhyming verse. Together the two work to get back at the underhanded Gwen, escape from the vampires, and secure the inheritance for themselves. Along the way they get assistance from Mary Shelley (yes, that Mary Shelley, robbing graves in the name of research), talk about Jane Austen, and leave the reader wondering if these two really deserve to come out on top at the end of the novel (they are just so goofy!)

A Night of Blacker Darkness is zany and weird and wonderful, and all of the things that make it zany and weird also make it a little bit frustrating to read. As a reader, I found myself having to suspend disbelief in a lot of ways. Well, duh, you say, it's a book in the speculative category about vampires and John Keats! But it's also written in a very twenty-first century style. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the Downey/Law incarnations of Holmes and Watson, where everything is so witty and fast-paced it feels almost anachronistic. Regardless of the anachronisms, I thought the book was great fun.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Review: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson (Whitney Finalist)

Title: The Alloy of Law
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Electronic copy
Books I've read this year: 42

In all fairness, it's hard to pick up reading a series right in the middle. Judging the Whitney's, that's exactly what we're often asked to do. And in terms of making the events of the previous three Mistborn books understandable to a new reader, Sanderson does a great job. His story is interesting, his prose is tight, and his steampunk world is definitely intriguing. In The Alloy of Law, Waxillium Ladrian, an otherwordly Bruce Wayne, whose superpower is his ability to manipulate metal, returns to the city after twenty years of bringing justice to the frontier when his lady love is killed, and even though he tries to get civilized, he can't help but find himself saving the world at every opportunity.

As I read The Alloy of Law, I my main thought is that it would make a perfect video game. You have this world that's almost like ours, but not quite, and these guys who look like normal guys, except they have superpowers and can "power-up" when they get shot, and the fight. Oh how they fight. They fight and fight and fight and fight and fight. They fight for paragraphs, pages, and chapters. They fight in excruciating detail. I found myself just wanting to swoop my finger past all the fighting and get back to the story. But in this case, I think a lot of the story was the fighting. So if you're a fan of steampunk, or the other Mistborn novels, or of video games, I think you'd love this book. But for me, it was more of a challenge than the other Sanderson books I've read in previous years.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Two weeks home

It's hard to believe that Rose has only been in our lives for a little more than three weeks. I know that attachment is a process, but it really does feel like she knows and loves us. She certainly cries when I leave the room. All four of the older kids are on spring break this week and I was dreading having them home, because I thought things might be too crazy for Rose, but she seems to be taking it in stride. I, on the other hand, just might go crazy, but that is par for the course with spring break and me.

Anyway, this isn't about me. It's about Rose. First of all, an announcement. I said I wasn't going to keep the "Letters to Rose" as a regular feature when we got home. I also told myself that I was going to fill out one of those calendars where you write what the baby is doing every day for the first year. I've filled them out for the other kids, and they have been the bane of my existence. Inevitably, I get off track for a day (or a month) and then have to wrack my brain and make things up for each day. So I'm going to do a weekly update for Rose. I hope that at the end of the first year, we can turn it into a little book for her, and it will free me from the Mommy guilt of not doing one of those stupid calendars.

I think it's time to talk about where Rose was when we got her and where she is now, developmentally speaking. Rose was in an orphanage. I think as far as orphanages go, it was a pretty good one. Our SWI director is very pro-active about getting babies ready for adoption quickly. Rose, who was matched at five months, is a good example of this-- it's atypical for babies to be paper-ready so young. She's also enthusiastic about moving to a better facility-- they're in the process of moving to a new building. I saw kids who were clean and well cared for, and nannies who seemed to treat the kids well. But it was definitely an orphanage. The older kids (the ones who were at least fifteen months or so) were mostly up and out of cribs, in walkers or toddling around the floor, but the babies Rose's age spent most of their time either on their backs or propped up in the corner of their cribs. They not only had the four layers of clothing that is typical in Chinese winters, but I also saw several pictures of Rose with a towel wrapped around her waist, Michelin man-style. I knew before we went to get her that for every two months in the SWI, you can expect a month of delays, so I was expecting Rose to be like a six month old instead of a twelve month old, and that's exactly what she was like when we got her. She didn't know how to sit, or roll over, and she would eat only rice cereal or formula in a bottle. She didn't bear any weight on her legs, and barely babbled or cooed. She'd also get super-sweaty whenever we gave her a bottle, like she was in a race to suck the whole thing down before it got taken away from her. She was really good at smiling and looking cute, and she had great fine motor skills (she could take a ring and put it on her finger and then transfer it to a finger on her other hand, for example) but the gross motor skills were seriously lacking.

When we were in China, Rose learned to sit and roll over. She was pretty tentative at both, and very likely to tip. We threw away the Gerber puffs we'd brought and just fed her rice cereal. We didn't know how long it would take her to catch up, so we signed her up with early intervention as soon as we got home. But she's made such great strides in the last two weeks that I wonder if they'll have much to work on with her when they see her next week. She can now sit as long as she wants to. She uses rolling as a means of getting from one side of the room to the other. She not only bears weight on her legs, but she can also hang onto the couch or the table and stand up. She waves bye-bye and nods her head for "yes." She's starting to creep on her belly. She's also progressed to eating anything we're eating-- rice, bread, ice cream, and even beans and chicken! It's dangerous to eat in her presence if you don't want to share. She's also markedly less sweaty after a bottle than she used to be-- I think she realizes that it's not going anywhere if she doesn't suck it down in a hurry.

All Rose needed was some room to spread out and a family to cheer her on, and she's already starting to blossom (okay, bad pun, but I couldn't resist). This is the first time I've ever had a child who wasn't positively running in circles at their first birthday, but I've also never been prouder at the strides one of my kids has made. She might not walk for another six months, but I do feel like she's on the right track.

I also have to say that while the gross motor delays are a little concerning, I feel so grateful that from a social standpoint, she seems to be doing great. She was definitely not ignored during her time in Xuzhou. She came to us knowing how to smile and cuddle, and she gives us hugs and kisses. My biggest fear was that our baby would be emotionally shut down, and we'd have trouble making a connection with her, but that has not been the case at all. I'm not quite sure how she can be so well-adjusted socially but so delayed in her development, but we could not be happier with her. Whenever anyone comes home, the first thing they want to do is find Rose and squeeze her. I'm so grateful that we're able to have this sweet little baby in our lives, and if you want something from me and I've been ignoring you-- you're not alone. I've been ignoring everyone while I spend my time giving Rose as much love as I can.