Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: The Story Keeper

Synopsis: Jen Gibbs is an editor who has just landed a job at Vida House Publishing in NYC . . . she's working her way up the ladder, and while Vida isn't the biggest publishing house in the city, it's got a stellar reputation and Jen is thrilled to have this position.  Not bad for a girl who grew up in rural Appalachia, in poverty, but Jen has put that life behind her to live her dream in the big city.  That is, until she finds a mysterious manuscript on her desk. The Story Keeper, apparently found in Vida's infamous "slush pile," draws Jen in from the first page, and ultimately leads her on a journey of discovery to Tennessee, trying to discover if reclusive author Evan Hall is the author of this fascinating story.  But the journey also takes Jen back to her roots in Looking Glass Gap . . . a place she doesn't want to go.

My thoughts: I really, really liked this book.  I think The Story Keeper was my first Lisa Wingate book, and I was very impressed with her writing.  I loved how she wove the two stories together . . . the manuscript story of Sarra and Rand, and the modern-day story of Jen herself.  I loved the threads that tied the two stories together, and watching Jen grow and change through the book.  It's really hard to sum up The Story Keeper in a brief review, but this was a book that stayed with me, and I highly recommend it.  I was also fascinated to learn more about the Melungeon people of Appalachia (I had never heard of them before!), and I felt like I could picture every setting in Wingate's story--she's excellent at making you feel as if you're there!  I actually was sad to see this book end.  It ended in a very satisfying way, but I would have liked it to keep going.  And that's one of the marks of a good story, for me. :)

Thanks to Tyndale House for the free review copy of this book.  I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: Keepers of the Covenant

Synopsis:  Ezra, a Torah scholar, never expected to be chosen to lead his people.  He was content to live a quiet life of study, but all that changed with one decree from the king of Babylon.  Suddenly the Jewish exiles in the kingdom are facing annihilation, and Ezra's people are thrown into despair.  Why is God allowing this, and how will He rescue them?  In a surprising turn of events, the king makes a new decree that the Jews can defend themselves against their enemies, and God's people are miraculously saved.  Ezra, now a leader (though not by choice), finds himself living a very different life than the one he once had.  Together with his family, he leads many of the Jewish exiles back to their homeland, a number of years after the events of Purim.  He finds himself a leader in Jerusalem as well, and a somewhat unpopular voice for purity and holiness in the Jewish worship and following of God's laws.

My thoughts: I feel like it's difficult to give a good synopsis of Keepers of the Covenant in just a paragraph or so, because it is a BIG book with so many interwoven stories.  While Ezra is the main character, there are several other characters whose lives are followed through the book.  My personal favorite part was the story of Reuven, one of the exiles who traveled back to Jerusalem, and Amina, a lame young girl who was adopted into a Jewish family.  Their story touched me as I desired a happy ending for them!  This book also covers a number of years of Jewish history . . . and as always, Lynn Austin does a wonderful job bringing Biblical events to life.  I found it interesting that the book started with the events before and during Purim (the story of which is told in the book of Esther), but it focuses on Ezra, instead of Esther, as we might expect.  Esther is only mentioned very briefly in the book, and I liked seeing the story from a different angle--from the point of view of the Jewish exiles instead of Esther herself.

As in her preceding book, Return to Me, Austin does an excellent job of drawing the reader into the time and place of the story.  I know she has traveled to Israel to research her books, and it shows.  I've really enjoyed The Restoration Chronicles so far, and look forward to hopefully reviewing book 3 in the future!

Thanks to Bethany House for the free review copy of this book.  I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: With Every Breath

I have had the privilege of reading every one of Elizabeth Camden's books to date, and have enjoyed them all.  But I think With Every Breath may be my new favorite!

Synopsis: Widow Kate Livingston is content with her quiet life and her job at the census bureau in Washington, DC.  And then, her life is turned upside down by Trevor McDonough, or "Dr. Kendall," as he is now known.  A rival from school days, Trevor was always moody and disagreeable, but now he's requested for Kate to help him in his tuberculosis research at Washington Memorial Hospital.  Some of Trevor's theories for a possible cure seem far-fetched, but as Kate works with him, she finds herself becoming passionate about finding a cure too, and drawn to Trevor himself in ways she didn't expect.  But when Kate discovers Trevor's deepest secret, and someone in the background is working hard to discredit him, it seems that both success in their work, and their happiness together, may be impossible.

My thoughts:  One thing I love about Camden's books is her strong female characters.  Kate Livingston was no exception.  Trevor was an interesting and complex character too, and I enjoyed seeing how their story played out.  Another thing that I really appreciate about Camden is her ability to weave some very interesting (and sometimes little-known) history into her books.  This novel gave me not only a picture of Washington, DC, in the late 1800s, but also a lot of information about tuberculosis itself, and the research that went into searching for a cure.  Camden does a fantastic job with researching her novels (unlike quite a few historical fiction authors I've read), and through her books I've learned about things like the opium trade, watch making, the Great Chicago Fire, etc. I am always interested to see what she'll come up with in her next book!  With Every Breath was a great read, and I was very satisfied with the ending.

One minor quibble: I have to say that every Elizabeth Camden novel has a beautiful cover.  (My absolute favorite is Against the Tide, but I like them all.)  But I felt like the artist "missed" on the cover's depiction of Kate.  The woman on the cover is lovely, but not at all as I pictured Kate in the book.  Like I said, just a little minor thing, and the cover is still nice. :)

Thanks to Bethany House for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book!  I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Mid-April Daybook, Part 2 (aka picture overload!!)

Hmmm, can I still call this "mid-April" even though we are almost at the end of the month now? And even though I just looked out my window and saw that "terrible awful bad white stuff" (to quote my dad) falling from the sky?!  (Don't worry, I don't think it's cold enough for it to stick.)  I wanted to continue the daybook since (as usual) I had more to chatter about.  And actually, this post will be less of a daybook style (though still a bit of that) and more a bunch of pictures that I hadn't posted before.  I've shared some of these on Facebook, which is my go-to place for quick little posts these days (sorry Mom! ;)), but I know my non-FB friends would probably enjoy seeing them also.  So here we go!
 One of the ladies from a Facebook homeschool group I'm part of is doing a few sewing classes for kids at a local library.  I took Julia and Ari to the first one back in March.  Julia had a great time and enjoyed making a heart-shaped pillow out of an old t-shirt!  
 Ari and I spend part of most Sundays out in the foyer or another room to nurse when she gets hungry or restless. We had fun taking a few pictures several weeks ago when everyone else was in Sunday school.
 One day Sam held Ari for me while he worked on handwriting.  
 I think both of them enjoyed that! :)
 Ari really likes to feel like she is one of the big kids.  We will often put her on the floor on her blanket or in the Bumbo so she can watch them and feel a part of things.
 She's getting so big already!!
 First time out on the deck in the Hop 'n Pop!  (Please ignore the Christmas/winter wreath and sled in the background...they have since been put away, although I still haven't replaced the wreath with a spring one yet!)
 We made  3 dozen "doubled eggs" for Easter.  Each of the kids got to peel 6 eggs and they were a big help!
 What's new around here:  We've spent a lot of time over the past couple months hunting for a new vehicle.  Jim and I have been scouring Craigslist ads, we drove around to some dealerships, and even took one trip farther south to look at a Yukon which didn't pan out. Oh yeah, not to mention my in-laws graciously looking at one vehicle for us in Ohio!  A different vehicle was a need because our Suburban was too rusty underneath to pass inspection this month.  These next pictures were taken during a nursing/get-Ari-out-of-the-carseat-break on our trip to look at the Yukon.  All we came home with were some cheap sunglasses from Ocean State Job Lot (because I forgot to bring mine along)...maybe the best $2 I ever spent because they are really comfortable!
 We went all the way to Maine for the Suburban we ended up buying.  The service center where we bought it happened to be right across the street from the Sarah Orne Jewett house.  (Thanks to which I was able to pick up free wifi and therefore wasn't totally bored while Jim was looking it over, taking it for a test drive, and doing all the paperwork and payment stuff.)  In the meantime the kids had fun putting Julia's sunglasses on Ari and taking pictures. :)
 The old and new Suburbans stopped at McDonald's on our way home.  We were SO hungry and I had a major headache by this time!  The new one is only a couple years newer than the old one, but has no rust that Jim could find.  Yay!  However, the check engine light came on on the way home (grrrr).  Thankfully it just needs a couple sensors replaced to fix the issue, and then it can be inspected.  Have I ever mentioned how THANKFUL I am to have a husband who can fix stuff like this?  Seriously, he watched a couple Youtube videos about how to do it, ordered the parts, and today he's replacing sensors.  He's quite a guy.
 Another fun activity:  Last Thursday it was time for another sewing class!  This time I took the boys with me too, because Jim was working.  The project was one that all the kids enjoyed doing!  They drew and colored a picture on fabric with crayons, then the lady set the design with an iron.  After that they cut and pinned their fabric, and she sewed it.  They stuffed their finished "buddies" with fluff and then I hand-sewed them closed at home, because we ran out of time to do it in class.
 Josiah with the front side of his "bad piggie."
 Sam's design was an airplane:
 And Julia made a butterfly!
 Cutting out the back:
 More coloring:
 And cutting: 
 Hard at work:
 I forgot to take pictures of their finished projects, so I will have to do that another time!  They all had a lot of fun though, and I'm grateful for opportunities that open up for them to craft and learn new skills with other kids--it gives me a break from "teaching" and gives them the chance to meet some new friends, too.

Ari news: Last Friday we tried Ari in the Ergo for the first time.  I still wear her in the Baby K'tan a lot, but she's getting heavier and sometimes it's just nice to have her on my back instead.  She's still a little small for this position, but I think we'll be doing this more often when she gets to be 6 months or so.  Can you find her in this picture?  (Hint: she fell asleep. :))
 Later she woke up, and she was pretty happy that way for a while too. Especially when Julia came along and talked to her. :)
 Family stuff: Taking some inspiration from our friends the A. family, we have started having a family fun night every Friday.  This Friday we didn't because it was Josiah's birthday (which equals automatic family fun!), but we've all been taking turns to plan the menu and activities for each Friday.  Last week, Sam requested strawberry shortcake for dessert (last minute decision) and since I had no strawberries, and Jim needed a few things in town anyway, he and Sam headed to Walmart.  When they came home, Jim whispered to me that he had gotten something that wasn't on the list.   It was a new bike for Julia!  She was rather surprised. :)
 Jim had told her a year ago or so that when she was big enough for this size bike, he would buy her a brand new one.  (Almost all our bikes around here are freebies from the dump or cheap ones from yard sales.)  As it turned out, she had forgotten that he ever said that, so she wasn't expecting it...but she was quite delighted!
 On my mind: On Sunday, our pastor sang "Cherish the Moment" as a special, which was requested in memory of the infant granddaughter of a couple in our church, who had gone home to Jesus 8 years ago.  It's a beautiful song and a good reminder that we don't know how long we'll have with our children.  Even if we have them till they're out on their own as adults, that time is fleeting.  I'm feeling the shortness of it every day when I realize how tall my 11 year old is getting, how the time from kindergarten to 5th grade flew by in a flash.  Truly, the days are long but the years are short.  Some days (like last Wednesday) are *really* long and I'm glad to see the end of days like that!  But I'm trying to treasure the everyday moments like this one.
 Because, you know?  We only get moments like that for a short time.  I'm so glad we live in the age of digital photography.  Thanks to that, and my blog, I'll be able to look back on memories like this for years to come. :)

Also on my mind: On a related note, last weekend my FB news feed lit up with the news of Jonathan Crombie's death.  (He played Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables movies.)  He was only 48 and died suddenly due to a brain hemorrhage.  So sad . . . and another good reminder that life is short.

In the schoolyard:  I'm calling it the schoolyard just because we did some school outside one nice morning last week. :)  The bugs aren't out yet, and we just needed to go out and soak up the sun!  We didn't get a whole lot done before it started sprinkling, but it was fun while it lasted. 

Ari LOVES being outside.  She is very content out there for ages . . . and of course the kids couldn't resist putting sunglasses on her again.  She's a pretty patient baby--she doesn't really seem to mind!
Well, this has been such a long post that I'd better wrap it up . . . I'm hoping to (FINALLY) post some book reviews today while Ari is napping, plus I have some cleaning up to do around here, some emails to type, etc.  I hope you are all having a wonderful weekend so far!

Schoola: My review

I'm working on getting part 2 of my daybook post finished, but in the meantime I wanted to quickly share a review of Schoola, the used clothing site I mentioned back in February.  I've been meaning to post a review for a while, and now is actually the perfect time because they're offering free shipping again for a limited time!  So if you haven't signed up, now is a good time to try it. :)  If you use my link, you will get a $15 credit and I will get one too . . . win/win! 

Anyway . . . overall I've been pleased with my experience with Schoola thus far. I have ordered from them 3 separate times, and each time the clothes arrived neatly packaged like this:
 The shipping was pretty fast, too, which is always nice!  I think my first two orders were completely free, due to some friends ordering through my link, plus the free shipping at the time.  (I searched for things by lowest price, which meant I was able to come up with some good deals for under $15 each time.)  When my first order arrived, I was pleased with the quality of the things that came--I felt like they had been described quite accurately on the site.  Here are a few of the clothes I bought:
I was disappointed, though, to discover that one item from my order was missing.  It was listed on the receipt, but wasn't in the box.  So I immediately contacted Schoola's customer service to let them know, and ask if they could give me a credit for the amount of the missing item.  (That would have been around $4, I think.)  Much to my surprise, they went above and beyond, giving me another $15 credit instead!!  While I'm not sure if this would happen every time they made a mistake like that (maybe it depends on the customer service rep?), I was very happy!  It meant I was able to order even more free or cheap clothes!

Another thing that was neat: about the time I was working on my second order, I realized that Schoola has a "high school" section.  Upon further investigation, I found that this section has tons of women's clothes, so Schoola isn't *just* a children's clothing site!  They even had a few bits and pieces of maternity stuff (not that I need any, I just happened to notice and was thinking of all my pregnant friends :)).  So I had fun ordering some things for myself, too!  I scored a couple pairs of jeans, a pair of capris, and a nice Old Navy jacket, all for super cheap.  It's always a bit of a gamble to order used clothing online, because of not being able to try it on first.  One pair of jeans was a little small, but hopefully I can shrink into it eventually. :)  If not, I can always donate to the local thrift store!  And the capris were a little more worn than I had expected, but I can't complain for the price.

I did find that sometimes mistakes happen (like the missing item), and today I got an email from Schoola, reminding me to use the $45 credit in my account . . . well, I have NO credit in my account at this point, so that was obviously an error.  So there are things like that, that you'd want to be aware of.  But my experience thus far has been a pretty positive one, and I figure if you can get a few pieces of clothing for free or close to it, you don't really have anything to lose by trying the site. :)  So if you could use a few things for your kids or yourself, go check it out!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Mid-April Daybook, Part 1

Crazily enough, a whole month has gone by since my last post.  WHERE is April going?!!  It seems like I blink and another month has passed.  On the 5th of this month, I turned 38.  On the 9th, Ari turned 5 mos. old.  On the 24th (that's just TEN days away), Josiah will turn 7, and then Julia turns 9 on the 29th.  Craziness, I tell you!!  In the midst of all this real life, I desperately want to record the moments, and yet weeks go by in between, and I suddenly realize I didn't record the memories and the milestones.  The winter felt so long, and yet at the same time it sped by in a blur.  I meant to post about the ice skating, the sledding, the weeks and weeks of freezing temps . . . and I barely caught any of it.  But instead of moping about what I didn't post, let's just jump back in and start posting as much as I can, catching the moments that I'm able to.  I felt like a daybook was in order. :)  And I'm interspersing it with some recent pictures, because that format seems to work well lately!
 Easter 2015

Around the house: Boy, do I see so many areas I want/need to spring clean!  But I'm barely keeping my head above water with just the basics.  Laundry is my current nemesis, along with dishes (my most long-standing nemesis!).  I also need to put away the snowman decorations and the (gulp) Christmas lights/garland that are still up in the living room.

Outside my window: I think winter may be finally letting go of us.  We've enjoyed some beautiful weather over the past few days, sunshine that calls us outside to soak up some lovely Vitamin D!  Oh, we still have a few snow piles here and there, and there's a bit left to melt in the woods.  But overall we're well into that wonderful 5th New England season known as "mud season."  My floors are not so happy about that, but I'm so happy about the warmer weather that I don't even care (much). :)
In the sewing room: Well, if I actually HAD a sewing room, that is.  Instead, I use the kitchen table, and we make do and move the sewing machine around when we need to eat.  I had the most fun making matching Easter dresses for Julia and Ari over the past month.  SO MUCH FUN!!  You can get a peek at them in these pics.  I wanted to make a coordinating skirt for me, but that didn't quite happen yet.  Maybe in time for Mother's Day?  We will see.  For the girls, I made simple peasant style dresses and fancied them up a bit with sashes.  I tried my hand at shirring with elastic thread to do the collars and sleeves.  It was a little tricky as my machine didn't care much for the elastic thread, but it worked out okay.
 I also made some coordinating shoes for Ari from the same fabric as the sashes.  Sewing for a baby is like making doll clothes . . . love it!
 In the kitchen: I still haven't fully gotten on plan with Trim Healthy Mama.  I have good intentions but haven't quite succeeded in planning ahead enough yet.  So I do what I can, and try some new recipes here and there.  One recent yummy THM recipe we tried was Sour Cream Beef Enchiladas.  I think I'll cut the cream cheese in half next time I made the recipe, but it was really good!  Another new recipe I just tried tonight (not THM) was this ham/pineapple/rice casserole from an old issue of Quick Cooking.  This was a hit with Jim and me, and the kids liked it pretty well (especially the pineapple).  A good way to use up leftover ham!

Girl news: The day after Easter, Julia got a haircut!  We'd been wanting to cut it a lot shorter for a while.  It's hard to keep it looking nice because it tangles so easily, and she hates having it brushed (very sensitive scalp).  So Jim cut it to about shoulder length and it is so much easier to take care of now.  Plus I think it looks super cute. :)  We thought about going a little shorter with more of a curved bob around her face, but we decided to keep it this way for now.  We can always take off a little more later, but I think this look really suits her and it will be a lot cooler for summer, too.
 I do think it makes her look older, though . . . sniff sniff! :(
 This is the ponytail we cut off.  About 9-10".  She is going to donate it to a charity for children with hair loss.  I have the form all printed out and ready to go, just haven't gotten it sent in yet.
 Miss Ari is now 5 months old, and just too cute, chubby, and kissable for words!  We love her to pieces.  She has moved past the colicky stage, but seems to be teething now.  No teeth have popped through yet, but she's been pretty fussy with many signs of it, so I'm expecting to see one any day now.  It seems like the past 5 months have gone by SO fast.  From our tiny little newborn, she has now become this funny small person with her own unique personality, her grin that lights up the room, and her curious fingers trying to grab everything!  It seems like just yesterday she was content to be wrapped in a blanket, sleeping for hours in her swing . . . and now the swing is put away, she rarely even uses the bouncy seat anymore, and most of her waking time is spent in her hop 'n pop, or the Bumbo, or playing on a blanket on the floor.  Babies change so quickly, and it's sad because I don't really realize it until she's already past one stage and well into another!
But regardless of the stage, she's a ton of fun. :)  And this next picture is SO funny!  I can just see her thinking, "Enough of the flash, Mom!"
Today she rolled over for the first time since she did it at 3.5 weeks (which was only because she was so upset--following after her mommy's "footsteps" because I did the same thing at 2 weeks old!). She went tummy to back, and then tried to roll back the other way, but hasn't quite figured that out yet.  I love this sleeper I found recently at the thrift store.  We think she looks like a little court jester in it. :)
In the schoolroom: We continue to plug away at all the things that need to be finished up for the year.  Technically we have around 10 weeks of work left in most subjects, but I'm pretty sure we can squeeze it all into less time than that.  I'm behind on our history read-alouds again (no surprise there--that's been the story of my year!!), but I have the whole summer to finish up before we start a new Sonlight core next year.  In the meantime though, we are reading through the Little House books before bed most nights, and last week Sam and Julia went on an Imagination Station reading spree, flying through all the books in the series that we own so far (I think there are only four that we don't have yet).  Sam even read to Ari for a while one night, and I think she enjoyed it. :)
Then they also check out lots of books from the library.  Last week there were some new Mr. Putter and Tabby books to check out!  I couldn't resist taking these pictures of Sam reading one to Josiah.  They were both laughing so hard.  They can read these books over and over and still crack up over them every time!

Since it's taken me 2 days to write this much, I've decided to make this "part 1" of the daybook.  I'm not sure when part 2 will be coming, but hopefully sometime this weekend. :)  My goal is to give myself 15-20 minutes each day to write something on the blog (even if it doesn't get posted each day, but is just part of a post!), but tomorrow will be busier than usual and I want to get this post up before any more time goes by.  So I'll leave you with a sleeping baby picture. :)  Jim hooked up this baby swing for Ari in the kitchen . . . we used it in the garage with the other kids, but when we discovered she tends to fall asleep easily in it, he decided to move it into the house!  The first few times we put her in there, she fell asleep within minutes, so we dubbed it the Magic Swing.  Now, it isn't always magic, but if she's tired enough, this is what happens!