Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Spellmans Strike Again

by Lisa Lutz

Thumbs Up.

I think the Spellman books by Lisa Lutz, would probably fall under the chic lit genre, but with a crossover into noir fiction. Whatever one would call them, I love them. The Spellmans Strike Again is the fourth in the series.

The main gist of the Spellman books is that the Spellmans are PIs. Yes, the entire family. The parents raised the kids within this family run business. But they are all so ensconced in subterfuge that as the kids grow up, none of them can stop treating each other as if their family is one big case to be investigated and solved.

As in the first books of the series, the protagonist, Isabel Spellman tells her story by way of log entries, lists, transcripts of recorded conversations, and other sundry writings. The entire collection is lighthearted and witty, as Isabel tries to figure out her bizarre life. I especially got a kick out of Isabel's descriptions of the mandatory-Sunday-night-family-dinners being titled after cheesy horror flicks.

Each book has a mystery to solve, usually either a case the family is working on or something tangential to a case. But there are multiple familial mysteries throughout, and all the wacky interpersonal issues that result from this strange kind of a home life.

Those readers already familiar with the Spellmans will notice a difference in tone in this book. All the known and loved characters seem to be figuring out their lives this time around. They are growing up and evolving. I sincerely hope all the tying up of lose ends Ms. Lutz did at the end of this book does not signal the end of the Spellmans. Although I found the characters' growth very satisfactory, I would be sad to have this be the end.

All in all a good, quick candy read.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Classic Connections: Turning Teens On To Great Literature

By Holly Koelling

Thumbs Up!

I've spent the last decade or so acquiring a ton (at least) of great books, assuming that my children will just naturally prefer to read the classics rather than contemporary fiction.  Ha!  The fact that their mother can easily be in the process of reading a dozen books at any given time and will most likely only actually finish the contemporary fiction ones, probably has something to do with their own tastes.  If I want to encourage my kids to read a healthier diet of books, I need to take a much more active role in reading (and completing) more satisfying books myself.  Classic Connections was a good fit for me at this point in my life.  I'm hoping it will jump start my own interest in reading the classics and hopefully passing that interest on to my children.

Mainly gearing her book toward youth librarians and educators, Koelling places a strong emphasis on getting to know the classics yourself.  READ them and cultivate the love for them yourself so that you can pass it on.  She offers definitions of what exactly are the classics, and which ones might best connect with teens.  She offers plenty of practical information, such as internet sites with book discussion groups, as well as websites and an extensive bibliography of resources for finding background information on the material you are reading.  She also provides guidance for understanding what teens are going through so that you can better help them as readers.

Koelling offers plenty of practical advice throughout Classic Connections.  There are lists throughout the books such as Classic Short Stories, Classic Poems, various age categories, etc.  She also suggests ways to combine classics with more contemporary and/or appealing works or media.  (I know it won't be long before I can apply some of the suggestions for combining classics with comic books and graphic novels.)  While this book has a more scholarly feel to it, it is quite readable, organized well and helpful.

As always, parents will want to use discernment when browsing the suggested book lists.  Not all of the books would be appropriate for homeschool families.  I did find it refreshing that she emphasized several times the need to be sensitive to families that have strongly held religious beliefs.  Some sections, such as those geared toward attractively displaying the library's Teen Classics holding, will not be applicable to the home setting.  (Although, now that I think of it, I probably could set aside an attractive section of my shelves for the books I want to encourage).  But, I think that most homeschool parents would be able to glean some insights from this book.

While War and Peace has been beckoning my from my bookshelves for several years, I think that first I'll read some books from Koelling's Thin Classics List first.  Perhaps Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and then move on to something by H.G. Wells.  (And I'll squeeze The Doomsday Book in there because it looked so interesting and we're studying that period in history right now.  Plus, I've never read Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl - I know, shame on me- I better get on that one right away.  And, it's been so long since I read anything by Mark Twain.  I've been thinking about The Crucible quite a bit lately.  I really should put George Orwell at the top of my reading list, too ....)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cruel and Usual Punishment

by Nonie Darwish

Thumbs Up.

I really hate to give this book a thumbs up. Not because of the book itself however, but because the subject matter is so troubling.

Ms Darwish is an Egyptian born former Muslim. After 9/11 she decided to start a public stand against her former religion. This is her second book. She also is co founder of Former Muslims United and a public speaker and writer on issues of Islamic Sharia and jihad.

In the first part of the book, Ms Darwish leads the reader to a clearer understanding of how Sharia law affects individual Muslims. She shows the extreme violence against and oppression of women and non-Muslims particularly. She also analyzes of how that attitude negatively affects various other demographics like the poor and the sons and grown men and family life in general. She shows the culture of fear that is a necessary part of Islamic society. She shows how Sharia naturally effects the violence that we in the West like to think of as associated only with extreme Islam. Most of us are familiar with the Q'uran as the Muslim holy book. Ms Darwish introduces Western readers to the idea of Hadith, which is the collection of sayings by Muhammad that were collected by followers who were close to him; and also to the origins of Sharia, which was codified in the first hundred years or so after the death of Muhammad.

The result is quite frightening. I cannot summarize well what I felt after reading the first half of this book. Ms Darwish documents not only the many passages from the Q'uran, but also some of the many statements of Hadith that not only support, but also demand violence against particularly Jews; but also those of any religion outside of Islam; those without a religion; and also even those Muslims who don't do Sharia properly. More troubling still, Ms Darwish clearly shows how subjective the idea of following Sharia properly really is. And follow this with the truth that any individual Muslim has permission, by their own religious precepts, to kill anyone within Islam who can be perceived as not following Sharia. Oh, and that same permission extends, of course, to those outside of Islam.

In the second part of the book, Ms Darwish analyzes how Sharia law and its demands on individuals translate into society as a whole and international relations. She teaches about Dar al Islam (society within Islam, or the Islamic state, wherever that may be, geographically) and Dar al Harb (literally the house of war, or society outside of Islam). She shows how this distinction has evolved into the various geographical and political troubles today between Islam and others. These would include the constant violence in SE Asia and Somalia between Muslims and non Muslims, and even among Muslims; the civil war in what was formerly Yugoslavia; the constant acts of individual terror in western countries and elsewhere; and even the demands within western countries for more and more Sharia. By narrating many specific situations and also a chapter tracing the history of Egypt as an example, Ms Darwish successfully argues that the West needs to view Islam less as a religion and more as a political system. She includes a quite scathing reprimand of our media and its failure to report accurately the atrocities inflicted by Muslims around the world.

Ms Darwish uses an example that worked well to highlight the political nature of Islam and how we need to address it. She compared our relationship to the USSR during the cold war, to our relationship with Islam today. If Communism would have successfully sold itself as a religion, would we have allowed Communist temples in our communities or Communist studies departments in our universities? Just so, argues Ms Darwish, Islam is a political system. More specifically, it is a political system that in its purest sense views the West, and those who do not choose to subject themselves to that particular political system, as political enemies. And yet we invite into our communities the mosques that teach hatred of our way of life and even violence toward it. We allow Arab and Middle Eastern studies departments to be promoted and paid for by those who want to obliterate our society from the face of the earth.

Ms Darwish shows very clearly that Islam is not a religion of peace. Islam does call for violence. Through her use of only some of the 35, 213 verses calling for such violence, she shows that any one outside of Islam is at risk. But more troubling still is the second method Islam has used throughout history to spread itself and its violent and oppressive culture. That is the seemingly peaceful migration of Muslims into other geographic areas. These pilgrims, one might call them, are forbidden to assimilate. They are exhorted regularly by their religious leaders to hate those outside of their religion. They are encouraged to find fellow Muslims who are not following Sharia closely enough. And finally they have both encouragement and also the demand from their religion to show violence toward and even kill those with whom they disagree. Even what we might call a moderate religious leader finished up prayers every Friday with the exhortation to kill the infidel. It is part of what we might call the prescribed liturgy.

Ms Darwish shows, these communities of Muslims are spreading and growing like wildfire in western countries. Several European countries are already facing tough decisions with regard to the Muslim community and because of the very nature of Islam. And although there are upright Muslims who we might like to think of as moderate, the religion itself produces such a culture of fear, that we must not expect these people to speak out against the violence promoted by some within Islam. Their life could be forfeit, because of their own religious precepts. Even if perhaps only 10% of Muslims choose to follow the prescribed violence, we can see how risky speaking out is for those who might choose to do so.

When Islam is seen in this light, we in the West, with our relativist attitudes and multi-culturalism are faced with a dilemma. And so far we have not within our culture or political structures clarified a way to deal with this. Ms Darwish gives her list of nine things she thinks could be successfully implemented in the West to stop what she describes as the Islamization of our society.

Finally, Ms Darwish gives her hopes that the religion of Islam itself could experience a reformation. Unfortunately, I can't figure how this would work. Within the Christian church, the Reformation called for the church to return to its origins, the Holy Scriptures. If what Ms Darwish taught us in the whole rest of her book is correct, Islam cannot be reformed without entirely leaving its foundational writings. The entire religion is poisoned from its inception with violence and oppression.

Ms Darwish makes clear that something must be done by those who wish to remain free. Whether we have the strength of will or the moral fortitude to accomplish this is not at all clear.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Do You Do When a Monster Says Boo.

by Hope Vestergaard

Thumbs Up.

I love when a picture book totally engrosses a two year old. That's how my little one reacts to this book. Ms. Vestergaard, with the help of Maggie Smith's colorful illustrations, tells the story of a sister and brother. The sister is younger and pesters the older brother by constantly playing monster and jumping out at him. Each time this happens, the brother chooses to react in a constructive way rather than getting angry at the pesky younger sibling. This continues until the little sister finally succumbs to exhaustion and falls asleep on the couch.

The words are minimal and in rhyme. Most of the details of the story are added through Ms. Smith's rich illustrations. And this is what captivates my two year old. She will look at this book for extended periods of time and each time finds some new nugget of interest in the pages. She has brought the book to me several times and told me about the things she sees in the pictures. I certainly appreciate the illustrations much more through this process, because I would not have taken the time to see all this detail. Many of the portrayed scenes touchingly show an older brothers love and tenderness.

I imagine my older son, would find this book unrealistic. Hmm.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Maze of Bones: The 39 Clues Book One

by: Rick Riordan

Thumbs up.

This is the first book in the "39 Clues" series by Scholastic. Amy and Dan, orphaned children being raised by a very distant great aunt by way of au pair, are sent on a wild hunt around the world for clues following the passing of their wealthy maternal grandmother. She was some sort of archaeologist/explorer, and has set up this elaborate scheme for her kin following her death. By following the 39 clues, they will discover some grand secret which will change the world.

The family breaks into teams to see who can discover the secret first. Dan and Amy discover that their family has some very famous members. In this volume, they discover they are related to Ben Franklin and follow in his footsteps from Philadelphia to Paris. At the end of the book, after they have discovered a clue from Franklin, they are moving on to discover more about Mozart, another one of their relatives.

While I found the writing uninspired, the mystery component kept me reading. Upper elementary students would enjoy the adventures of two kids and their au pair on their own against teams of adults and other children in this quest. There are scary moments, as some of their distant relatives are "evil" and try to eliminate the competition by attempting to kill Dan and Amy. There are plenty of educational opportunities for kids as they read, and it just might whet their appetites to learn more about the historical figures they encounter.

There are apparently going to be 10 books in the series, and they are releasing book 7 or 8 now. There also is an online component, where a child can play along and could possibly win $100,000. It's no Westing Game, but I recommend it and look forward to following the clues along with my children.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


by Patricia Finney

Thumbs Up.

Betrayal is the second in the Lady Grace Mysteries, a children's mystery series. A narrow audience is probably girls in grades 4-8, although an independent reader of any age or gender could enjoy it.

Lady Grace is the youngest member of the Court of Honor to Queen Elizabeth I. The books of the series are her daybook entries.

In this story, Lady Grace, with the help of court tumbler, Masou, saves the honor of Lady Sarah when Grace thinks Sir Francis Drake has abducted her.

Lady Grace is a spirited girl who gets into some situations not really becoming of a lady of the court. This results in many humorous anecdotes.

Pursuit and Persuasion

by Sally Wright

Thumbs Up.

This is the third in the Ben Reese mysteries. Another winner.

Apprentice archivist Ellen Winter has inherited an estate in Scotland. But not only is the fact that she is not a relative of the decedent bringing up questions; there is also some mystery associated with the death of her friend, Georgina.

Ms. Wright continues to develop the characters we've come to know and introduces a few more. I like how she works in connections with her previous books and characters from them. It makes me want to go back and read them again to see if everything is consistent.

In this book, the possibly developing emotional bond between Ben and Ellen continues in subtlety, but Ms. Wright introduces another potential woman to vie for our hero's attentions.

There is one episode of Reese's marvelous feats that I found a bit cheesy. I know heroes in murder mysteries are supposed to be somewhat above average in their abilities, but in this case the hyperbole is beyond believability for me.

Ms Wright continues to include a Christian world view in her writings. The conversations and thoughts are natural and in character for the people who speak and think them. Nor do they come across in any way as preachy or self-righteous. So unlike many who write within the genre of Christian fiction.

In spite of the over-the-top previously mentioned scene, I will continue to read the series. The characters are at the same time human and noble. Very representative of a Christian's walk in life. We all struggle with many things. But ideally, our values show through to those with whom we come in contact.


by Bernard Shaw

Thumbs Up.

Since I have recently watched the Lerner and Loewe musical, My Fair Lady, I decided to read the original play upon which it was based. In this writing, I'm assuming that the readers are familiar with the musical and if you are not, well, you'll just have to get the film adaption from the library.

The play is very like the musical; the writers of the musical changed very little. The famous Ascot scene, instead takes place in Mrs. Higgins' sitting room. So there is, therefore, no "cheering on Dover" line. There are a few conversations in the play that do not take place in the musical.

What I found most interesting in reading the play, was the afterword in which Shaw ties up, in narrative style, all the lose ends. My kids have asked whether we're supposed to think Eliza married Higgins at the end. I have told them to use their imagination to come up with the ending they like best. In Pygmalion, Shaw uses reason to determine the actions he finds most consistent with the characters he's created. I won't ruin the ending by going into more detail.

For those who may be curious about the name of the play, Pygmalion is a sculptor from Greek mythology who hated all women except a particular female statue he created. He loved this statue, named Galatea, so much he prayed to Aphrodite to bring her to life. Which Aphrodite did. And so Professor Higgins is Pygmalion to his Galatea, Eliza.


by Matthew Sanford

Thumbs Up.

Matthew Sanford became a paraplegic at the age of thirteen, in the same car accident that killed his father and sister. In Waking, he tells the story of that experience, how it changed his life, and how he changed his reaction to the new life.

The book is interesting and inspiring. Mr. Sanford is a good story teller. He pulls the reader along to find out what happens next, and he gently guides through some very painful spots.

Throughout the book, Mr. Sanford uses the metaphor of darkness, silence, and sleep, to describe both his paralyzed limbs and his life experience. This is combined with the parallel metaphors of light and waking to refer to the new outlook he gradually took on.

I do recommend the book because I think many of Mr. Sanford's insights are worthy of consideration. But I am saddened that so many of the struggles he addresses and subsequently solves via his intense pursuit of the yoga way of life, could just as readily be solved with Biblical insights.

Mr. Sanford is a yogi, motivational speaker, and sustainable investment advisor.