Monday, December 10, 2018

The RAHM Report for 12/10/18

What I Finished Reading

  • P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han
    Though some of the plot of this book was spoiled for me by Netflix's To All the Boys I've Loved Before, I still enjoyed this second part of the trilogy and all of the storylines that didn't make it into the film. I really want to read book three, but the library holds list is long and says I'll be waiting at least 7 weeks. 
  • Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris, audiobook read by Julia Gibson
    I listened to this audiobook on a whim and actually thought it was the best Charlaine Harris book I've read so far. Lily is a well-developed character and the mystery was very suspenseful and well-crafted. This isn't quite as cozy as this author's Aurora Teagarden series, but I definitely want to read more! 
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller
    This was not my favorite book about books, possibly because I haven't read most of the titles discussed, but it was a solid three-star read. 
  • Alaskan Holiday by Debbie Macomber
    Another enjoyable Christmas love story from Debbie Macomber. I really want to go back and read her other ones set in Alaska.
  • Snow in Love by Melissa de la Cruz, Nic Stone, Aimee Friedman, and Kasie West
    This is a sweet and fluffy book of YA short stories. My favorite was the first story, which was by Kasie West and involved a snowy road trip. The others were fine but not as memorable. I especially disliked de la Cruz's take on The Gift of the Magi because, knowing the original story, I knew how it would end from the beginning. 

What I'm Currently Reading


  • Cold as Ice by Julie Mulhern, audiobook read by Callie Beaulieu
    I love this series, and I'm close to being caught up! I'm past the halfway point in this one and really enjoying it, as always. Mulhern manages to make a murder mystery funny without being overly morbid, which I thoroughly appreciate.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    This book is coming off the back burner this week so I can discuss it with my Instagram read-along group on Saturday. I renewed the audiobook, too, so I can listen while I fold the laundry and get some of it done that way. 
  • Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand
    I was going to rush through this before it was due back to one library, but then I just borrowed it again from another library so I could take my time. I hope to really get into it this week.
  • The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman by Louise Plummer
    This is my favorite Christmas book of all time, and I've read it many times, but I like to read it every year if I can. I'll probably finish this re-read fairly quickly if I don't decide to save the New Year sections for New Year's Eve. 
  • Three Children and Shakespeare by Anne Terry White
    My husband recommended this to me, and it's great. Three fictitious kids and their mother read and discuss four Shakespeare plays. I can't wait to use this book to introduce my kids to the stories of Shakespeare in a few years.
As usual, I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Reading Through History: Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace (1950)

Emily Webster is a few years younger than Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly, the stars of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series, but she lives and moves within the same community in Deep Valley, Minnesota. At the start of this stand-alone novel about Emily, she is just about to graduate high school. The day is bittersweet, both because Emily's parents died years ago and can't be there to celebrate it with her, and because she won't be going off to college, as she perceives that her grandfather, a man from a different time period, would prefer that she stay home and keep house for him. As the summer passes and her classmates all move onto the next chapters of their lives, Emily begins to see that things will have to change for her as well if she is going to avoid being lonely all the time. So, though she waits anxiously from news of her friends who have left home, she also begins to make the most of her new adult life in Deep Valley by going to dances, starting up a class, and helping some Syrian children make friends. As Emily begins to develop her own interests, she also develops confidence in her capabilities and the work she is meant to do slowly reveals itself.

I really enjoyed this look at young adult life after the turn of the 20th century from the point of view of someone whose life hasn't been quite as charmed as that of Betsy or Tacy. Emily is a vulnerable and likable underdog, and the reader is on her side from the outset, eager to see her find her path and come into her own. Though Emily's experiences are largely products of her time period, every generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings goes through that period of beginning to discern how they wish to spend their lives, and often this does involve going against the grain, or at least taking a slightly different path from one's friends. Emily, in her quiet way, gives girls a strong role model for charting the unfamiliar waters of life just after high school, and she provides a strong sense of hope as well, as things do ultimately work out for her.

In terms of history, the descriptions of Deep Valley's Memorial Day celebration in which Emily's grandfather participates are a very interesting look back in time, and Emily's patriotism, especially, is a quality worthy of admiration that we don't often see mentioned in novels for kids. Reading aloud the chapter about Memorial Day would make a nice family tradition, I think, and could be helpful in reminding kids what Memorial Day is actually about.

Understanding and enjoying this book does not require any prior knowledge of the Betsy-Tacy series, and I only saved it for last because it happened to be the last of the books that I acquired.  I tend to think of it as being in the same category as Carney's House Party or the later Betsy books, prior to her wedding, because, like those novels, it deals with questions more likely to be of interest to older teens, but there is no objectionable content that should keep the book from a younger child. There are also a lot of lessons to be learned from this book about self-confidence and marching to one's own drum beat that would resonate especially well during the middle school years, which is likely when I will pass it down to my own daughters.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett, illustrated by Helen Stone (1953)

Minikin ("Minx") is the daughter of the much-feared witch Madam Snickasnee, who turns innocent children into flower pots, stirs up dangerous brews in her cauldron and refuses to allow her only child to attend school. Minx shares none of her mother's terrible qualities, however, and she is determined to do things her own way. When she begins going to school against her mother's wishes, Minx makes some new friends, and together they all try to use Madam Snickasnee's potions to conjure up a fairy who might be able to help them turn her flower pots back into children and maybe even rescue Minx from her unhappy home life.

I read this book aloud to my three and five year old daughters in the days just before Halloween, and they were completely riveted. Myself, I was more amused by how old-fashioned the book felt and by how easily I was able to predict what was going to happen next. I did like that this witch was a complete villain, not just someone who was misunderstood, and I also appreciated that she received a fitting villain's comeuppance. I think sometimes it's good for kids to hear a story where good and evil are clearly delineated and evil is given the proper punishment. I also enjoyed all the different fantastical characters who popped out of the pot while Minx and her friends were hoping for a fairy. It was a fun way for my girls to learn about things like nixies and centaurs and the Pied Piper. The ending also does a nice job of resolving the book's tension in a way that isn't scary for young readers.

I also really enjoyed the vintage illustrations, which are simple pen and ink drawings. They break up the text nicely and really help explain how the magic pot works, and also give faces to the children who become Minx's friends, as well as to their kindly grandmother who serves as a surrogate caretaker for Minx. Even in the ebook edition, which is all we have, my kids were eager to look at each one and to decide which figure in each illustration was meant to be which character.

This was a decent one-time read-aloud. I don't think we'll make it a tradition, as there are other Halloween-themed books we may enjoy more, but I won't hesitate to read it again when my youngest daughter is ready to hear some chapter books in a few years. It's a solid three-star book that added a little festivity to our fall.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The RAHM Report for 12/3/18

It's the last month of the year already! Though I have read many books this year, I still feel an urge to read a ton in December to make sure I've gotten to everything I planned to read. My to-read list is enormous, and it includes four library books due next weekend. Fingers crossed that there is a lot of room for reading time in my schedule this week!

What I Finished Reading


  • A Nancy Drew Christmas by Carolyn Keene, audiobook read by Jorjeana Marie ⭐⭐⭐
    I was surprised by how mature this felt. It had a lot in common with a lot of the adult cozy mysteries I read. 
  • The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I did a buddy-read with a friend on Instagram and we both loved it. A great novel for Catholic families who like to see their faith reflected in fiction. 
  • No Slam Dunk by Mike Lupica (ARC) ⭐⭐⭐
    I enjoyed the relationships in this basketball novel. Review coming soon. 
  • A Midnight Clear by Katherine Paterson ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    The stories in this collection were a little uneven, but considering they were written to be read aloud in church, it makes sense that they're not very long or involved.
  • A Cherry Cola Christmas by Ashton Lee ⭐⭐
    I have decided to be done with this series. This book was a struggle. 

What I'm Currently Reading


  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    I've read 18 chapters. It's fine, but so far I don't love it. I have jumped from one Instagram read-along to another so that I can have more time to finish it. 
  • Snow in Love by Melissa de la Cruz, Nic Stone, Aimee Friedman, and Kasie West
    I focused a lot on physical books this week, so this Kindle book took a backseat. 
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller
    This is the last book I need to read for a challenge. It's slow-going, probably because I feel the pressure to just get it done. 
  • Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand
    This is a library ebook that is going to expire next weekend. I started it, but haven't gotten very far.
  • P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han
    I have been on hold for the ebook of this for months, so I was shocked when the paperback was just sitting on the shelf at the library. Though there is more talk of teen sexual activity in this book than I typically want to read about, the writing is really good, and I love the characters, especially Kitty.
  • Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris, audiobook read by Julia Gibson
    I chose this audiobook at random and got completely sucked in. This book is far superior to any of the Aurora Teagarden books. 
As usual, I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Reading Through History: Casilda of the Rising Moon: A Tale of Magic and of Faith, of Knights and a Saint in Medieval Spain by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño (1967)

Casilda is the youngest and most beloved daughter of the ruler of Toledo, but she also brings a lot of grief into his life. She is frequently ill, but whatever strength she has she insists upon using to help the Christians her father holds prisoner.  It is also clear to all who know her that Casilda herself wishes to be a Christian. Though Casilda has male admirers, such as Ismael Ben Haddaj, a Muslim prince with a Jewish heritage, she remains singularly focused on living out her mission on earth according to God's plan rather than pursuing marriage. As her story unfolds, her journey to sainthood plays out for the reader, culminating in a  miraculous ending.

This book is, I believe, what The Inquisitor's Tale (2016) (which I don't recommend for Catholic kids) was trying to be, or perhaps could have been. Set in medieval Spain, this story brings the three major Western religious traditions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - into one place and time and explores how their members get along with one another. This time, though, not only is Christianity treated fairly, the main character turns out to be a fictionally fleshed-out version of a canonized saint! Obviously, as a Catholic mom, I prefer this book. When Kirkus reviewed the book in 1967, the reviewer wrote, "Outside a Catholic frame of reference, it is doubtful if girls will find her a convincing heroine." Lucky for us, my girls and I live smack-dab in the middle of that frame of reference, and I have no doubt that when they meet Casilda in a few years, they will love her story as much as they love the ones they already know about St. Therese, St. Elizabeth, St. Margaret of Antioch and many others.

In terms of writing, I'll admit that this book isn't as compelling as the author's Newbery Medal book, I, Juan de Pareja (1965), but I do still think it's well-done. That Kirkus review complains about it being a "miracle play without metaphor" but personally that's what I love about it. The Kirkus reviewer is correct when she writes, "one cannot regard Casilda as a saintly soul motivated by kindness and compassion, one must acknowledge and revere her as a saint." There is no question that Casilda is a saint in this book,  and what's wrong with that? Personally, I'd like a few more unapologetically Catholic books to come live on my bookcase and insist that I believe in their saints.

Casilda of the Rising Moon was a pleasant surprise for me. I came into it cold, without reading even a blurb, and could not believe how much I enjoyed seeing my own faith tradition treated so respectfully and seriously by a children's author. I see this author has written other books steeped in Catholic tradition, and I'll be looking for those as well.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

On Writing Fiction (Or Not)

Prior to November 1st, I cleared my schedule to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). After four days, I decided to stop, not because I didn't think I could do it, but because I was simply not enjoying the act of writing.  As a result, I started reflecting on my journey as a writer over the past 30 years, from kindergarten to motherhood. I want to talk a little bit about that journey today, as I continue to discern whether writing fiction is something I ought to be doing.

I wanted to be a writer from the time I learned to write. I loved it when teachers set aside time for "Writer's Workshop" in elementary school, and I wrote completely un-self-consciously about the subjects that interested me, imitating books I loved, like Danny and the Dinosaur and Sarah's Unicorn. As I got into the middle school and high school years, however, I was tortured by the fact that I could never come up with topics to write about. I would start stories, and abandon them after just a page or two because I had nothing to say. Occasionally, this problem was alleviated by school creative writing assignments; under deadline, I always came up with something. I also found it very easy to hand-write hundreds of pages in a journal about the boys I liked and all the friendship dramas of my teen years. But I really struggled to write fiction, while all the while feeling like writing fiction was what I must do.

When it came time to apply to colleges, I wanted to attend a school where I could either major in creative writing or major in English and take creative writing classes. I ended up at Vassar, which does not have a separate writing major, but does have a very strong history of producing creative writers. (Graduates include Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Ruth Stiles Gannett (My Father's Dragon), Jane Smiley, Scott Westerfeld, and Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me), to name just a few.)  I was thrilled to be accepted at Vassar, but completely naive about what a liberal arts creative writing program really cared about and focused on. Up to this point, my favorite authors were mostly not writers of literary fiction. I was 17 for the first few months of my college career, and I loved YA books by Sarah Dessen, the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun, and had only given up reading The Baby-sitters Club a few years before. I aspired to write the kind of books I liked to read, and I was disappointed to realize that, in college creative writing classes, students and instructors alike look down on anything which isn't "literary." (I was also really uncomfortable with how much time creative writing workshops spent discussing sexual topics. It was a lot of time.)

I spent the next four years trying to conform whatever raw talent I might have had as a writer to the mold of what my professors considered "worthy." My classmates commented often on how much they wished their rough drafts could be as polished as mine, and one professor told me she liked to save my writing submissions for last when she was reading papers because they were "like dessert." She and another favorite professor really encouraged me to apply to graduate schools without ever making it known how unlikely they thought it was that I would get in, or how foolish it was to apply to more than one or two programs. Eventually, when I asked for letters of recommendation, they both kind of turned on me, accused me of being rude for asking for letters for so many schools, and actually made me cry in one of their offices on my 21st birthday. Later, when I happened to read their supposedly confidential recommendation letters, I found out that they didn't actually say many positive things at all. One said I was too quiet during workshop discussions and the other called me "offbeat."

At the start of my senior year, I was rejected from the prestigious "Senior Comp." seminar, in which I would have been allowed to write a creative project for my thesis. In the spring, I was rejected from all six graduate schools to which I applied. (This prompted the professor who called me offbeat to say, "Well, if all you wanted to do was write, why did you even go to college?" Just imagine how happy it made me to hear that.) Finally, a third professor, one with a much more practical outlook, told me that I should really pursue a back-up plan and that even if I was a good writer, it was still not wise to plan on just writing. I was so grateful to her for her honesty, and so hurt by the fact that the other two professors hadn't had the courtesy to be as truthful. At that point, I put down my proverbial pen and applied to library school.

Librarianship was clearly a vocation for me, and I excelled in it and enjoyed it. Working in the library renewed my love of reading which had been destroyed by the demands of English classes I did not want to take for a major (English) that I did not want to pursue. Because of my work in libraries, I started blogging, and because of my story time blog, Story Time Secrets, I was given the opportunity to write two textbooks for librarians which were published and even earned me a small royalty check. I have no doubt at all that the career path I followed after college graduation was the right one. For a while, I even thought those two textbooks would be enough to satisfy my urge to write, even though they were nonfiction.

Now though, I haven't worked in a library in five years. I haven't done a story time in about 18 months. It's been over a year since I turned in the manuscript for my last book. I'm still reading, and still blogging, but without library work to occupy my energy, now I'm back to thinking about writing fiction again. It has been nearly 15 years now since I graduated college, and all the shame and disappointment I felt at 21 has largely faded. Looking back, I see the superficiality of academia for what it is, and I know without a doubt that I would not have been happy in that environment in the long-run. I also recognize that I am never going to be a writer of literary fiction. I don't even like reading much of it! As I read more and more of the books I enjoy - cozy mysteries, realistic children's novels, clean romances - I find myself realizing that my writing style is better suited to those genres. My imagination is frequently sparked into action while I'm reading, and I dream up characters and settings and consider the stories into which I might place them. The only thing I don't do with those ideas (yet) is write them down.

This coming new year, I really want to start putting words to paper again. I don't have specific goals in mind just yet, because heading into a new year with lots of big plans always seems to end in failure for me, but my hope is that, by the end of the year, I will have completed a piece of fiction writing: a single chapter, a short story, a novella, a picture book manuscript - something. Until I have done that, I won't know for sure whether this is a calling I need to pursue or a pipe dream of which I need to let go.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The RAHM Report for 11/26/18

What I Finished Reading

  • Be Merry: A Catholic Guide to Avoid Anxiety and Depression During The Holidays by Sterling Jaquith ⭐⭐
    This has been sitting in my Kindle app for a long time so I decided to just quickly read through it. It didn't wow me, but it was better than this author's book on Catholic minimalism.
  • A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor by Truman Capote ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I really enjoyed these stories, though they weren't quite what I was expecting. My book club will meet on Friday to discuss.
  • Cloche and Dagger by Jenn McKinlay ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I really liked the characters in this cozy mystery and the audio narration was very good as well. I think my local libraries only have these on audio, so that's probably how I'll read the rest of the series.
  • The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts: The Library and the Young Adult by Margaret A. Edwards ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    This book about YA librarianship was originally published in 1969, and I read the edition published on the occasion of Edwards' 100th birthday in 2002. As far as I'm concerned, it's just more proof that librarians need to study the roots of their profession; so much of what Edwards argues is being treated today as though it is new. I think this should be required reading in library school. I wish it had been for me! 
  • The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I really loved Rose Rita as the main character in this third book of the Lewis Barnavelt series. This was a fitting conclusion to the original trilogy.
  • Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    It took me forever to get through this book! The middle dragged quite a bit, but the ending was very satisfying and sweet.
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson ⭐⭐
    I read this because I had it lying around and it had been assigned to me in college but I didn't actually read it back then. I liked the concept - a series of connected short stories introducing the residents of a small town - but though the writing was obviously good, it lacked any sort of sense of humor at all resulting in a very depressing reading experience. I ended up listening to the last third or so on audiobook and that did help. Narrator George Guidall's performance is excellent. 

What I'm Currently Reading

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    The read-along group with which I was planning to read this book was supposed to have a discussion on Saturday morning that doesn't seem to have happened, so I'm skeptical that the group is going to stick with it. I am switching back and forth between my Illustrated Junior Library edition and the audiobook narrated by Barbara Caruso, and though I definitely won't finish it this week, I'm going to try to finish it by the end of next week. 
  • The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum
    I'm doing a buddy read of this book over the next three days with an Instagram friend. I have never read a van Stockum book I didn't love so I'm excited to get started.
  • Snow in Love by by Melissa de la Cruz, Nic Stone, Aimee Friedman, and Kasie West
    I read part of the first story in this book yesterday, and I can tell it will be easy to zip through. 
  • A Nancy Drew Christmas by Carolyn Keene, audiobook read by Jorjeana Marie
    I wanted a quick light read for my next audiobook so I borrowed this from Hoopla. So far, it's actually better written than I was expecting. 
  • No Slam Dunk by Mike Lupica
    This middle grade basketball novel will be another quick read. I want to finish and review it this week, since I received an ARC and the book has already been out for three weeks. 
As usual, I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?