Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Imagine being 13 and waking up in your room to find it vastly different than you remember it, looking like it's been abandoned for years. None of your family members are around, you are completely alone. Then you glance in the mirror and realize that you don't even recognize yourself; you look like your older sister, and you have a strange spider-like tattoo on your hand. Finally, you are attacked by a feral human being, who looks like your twin brother, but older than you remember him.

That's how Fiona Tarsis's day starts in Stung, and it just gets worse from there.

In a crowded post-apocalyptic YA fiction field, Wiggins has managed to come up with a few new twists.  Honeybees were going extinct, which would lead to widespread food shortages and other tragedies, so the government genetically modified honeybees to be more resilient.  Unfortunately, these new superbees killed off the other bees AND their sting produced flu-like symptoms, aggression, and death in humans. So a vaccine was developed and a potent pesticide was used to kill the new superbees. And both of those methods backfired.  The pesticide not only decimated the entire bee population, it killed other insects, animals, and plant life as well. And the vaccine, only administered to the best and brightest because of the limited supply, ended up turning those injected with it into raving, feral beasts. A few select people - all young, healthy, and unvaccinated - are safe inside "the wall", a city controlled by a tyrannous governor, but others have to live outside the wall, scraping by with a meager existence risking the roving bands of scavengers and the vaccinated who haven't "turned" yet.

Fiona is a sympathetic protagonist, particularly at first as she's trying to navigate this completely foreign environment, not to mention discovering that she's lost four years of her life. Her disorientation and desperation come through loud and clear, but eventually they wear a little thin as time and after time she proves to be utterly incapable of assisting others in keeping herself alive and requires rescue. (And then **SPOILER ALERT** to cap it all off, she shoots her one friend/ally/love interest, severely injuring him! I mean, really!) Her one real contribution - no joke - is kissing the love interest, because the traces of the vaccine that are still in her system help strengthen his immune system and allow him to heal faster.


While I appreciated that there wasn't a love triangle in this post-apocalyptic YA story, I had a hard time buying the romance that blossomed so suddenly between her and Bowen. It seemed less a factor of real love than adrenalin and a savior/savee dynamic, an attachment formed by familiarity in a setting where absolutely everything else is unfamiliar.

One repellent aspect of this post-apocalyptic world stems from the fact that men now outnumber women seven to one. Outside the wall, women and girls cut their hair, bind their chests, and mimic male behaviors and mannerisms due to the ever-present threat of kidnapping and rape. This danger is alluded to several times, so be aware if younger ones are reading it that may need some further discussion.

Stung wasn't my favorite, mostly because I don't care much for essentially helpless female protagonists, but it's a page-turner where the action keeps flowing and the story is well-told. Not a bad afternoon's distraction.

by Bethany Wiggins
ISBN: 9780802734181
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 115


Yesterday was our 16th anniversary.  For some reason, that just seems like a big number this year.

We look like such babies!

16 years have definitely had their ups and downs, but there's no one I'd rather ride that roller coaster with than the man I'm lucky enough to have as my husband.  I love you, Gene!


I am so excited that the Mormon history blog Juvenile Instructor is hosting a Rough Stone Rolling Book Club this summer! Starting on May 10, they'll be discussing a few chapters of the epic biography of Joseph Smith each week, offering commentary and answering questions.

I read Rough Stone Rolling several years ago and it provided so much context and depth to my understanding of Joseph Smith.  (You can read my review on Goodreads here.) Dr. Bushman doesn't shy away from the "difficult" or "weird" topics, but he doesn't dwell on them either, simply placing them in the proper perspective for the life and times he's addressing. Honestly, this book did more to strengthen my testimony of Joseph Smith's place in the Restoration and of how God works through imperfect human beings than just about anything else, and certainly more than the whitewashing, overly-laudatory platitudes we hear too often in Sunday School. I'm looking forward to reading it again, this time with the opportunity to chat with others along the way!

If you'd like to follow along, you can join this facebook page where they'll be posting updates.


Interesting post about the Oregon Trail Generation. I was born in 1978, right in between generations.  The descriptions of Generation X and Generation Y never really fit me and I certainly wasn't a Millennial, but this describes where I fall. I played Oregon Trail; I primarily did research in books through high school and college.  They still had a card catalogue in the BYU library when I was there, though I did use the internet for sources on research papers especially my last couple of years. I never had a MySpace page and I didn't join facebook until 2009 (well, I tried at one point when it was still just for college students, but I had already graduated so that didn't work out).  Anyway, interesting read.


After Will was born, I suffered from post-partum depression.  I have countless friends, family members and acquaintances who have dealt with anxiety and depression as well.  This post collected comics that hit the nail on the head.

I was going to pick out a few numbers to highlight, but really, they're all perfect.  If you want an idea of what living with anxiety and/or depression is like, this is a good start.

All right, I'll pick out one: #13.  Definitely #13.  And #2, #9, #10...

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 114


In high school I attended a magnet school for theatre. One fall, our stage project was a dramatization of poems written by Jewish children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. As part of our preparation, we visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was a somber, heart-breaking, moving, horrifying experience, one that couldn't help but change me. So this morning's oped piece in the Washington Post caught my eye.

In "Why I Require FBI Agents to Visit the Holocaust Museum," James B. Comey, the director of the FBI hits on some crucial points, including what I think is the most powerful lesson of the Holocaust.
I want them to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale. But I want them to confront something more painful and more dangerous: I want them to see humanity and what we are capable of. 
I want them to see that, although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by, and followed by, people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity. 
Good people helped murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all — that our very humanity made us capable of, even susceptible to, surrendering our individual moral authority to the group, where it can be hijacked by evil. Of being so cowed by those in power. Of convincing ourselves of nearly anything.

And we need to recognize the lesson so we can be on guard to make sure we have no part in it ever happening again.

Photo credit


Speaking of horrific happenings...

This past Tuesday marked one year since more than 200 girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, Nigeria.  They are still missing, believed to have been forcibly converted to Islam - or rather Boko Haram's perverted mockery of Islam - and married off. 

All told, Boko Haram has kidnapped or killed thousands of people, destroyed hundreds of schools, and forced 1.5 million people, including 800,000 children to flee their homes. It may be happening on the other side of the world, but it is happening to our sisters and our brothers and it. must. stop.

I wish I knew how to make a difference.  I've written my senators and congresswoman.  I've tried to educate myself on the situation and the players involved. My facebook cover photo is from the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and I post about it occasionally on social media, as well as on other women's right, education rights, and human rights issues, but that doesn't seem to be much, I feel like I have to do something and that's what I can think of.

This article provides a review of the past year and some context and background if you'd like to learn more.


And now on to something lighter (because I can only handle so much heavy at once)!

One of my favorite parts of traveling is trying the local cuisine.  When I lived in Europe for a semester during college, I spent a large portion of my budget sampling different foods from all kinds of wurstfast-food Weinerschnitzel and Kartoffelsalat and Sachertorte in Vienna to fresh gelato in Italy to paprikash duck in Budapest.  So I think this subscription service called Try the World sounds so cool! Every other month you get a box of a half dozen gourmet goodies from a different country or region around the France, Brazil, Tokyo, additional information on the culture-of-the-month.

Mother's Day is coming up...(hint hint)


We're gearing up for our Third Annual Faith Feast, a progressive dinner at different houses of worship, next weekend!  This year, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox is providing light appetizers, the Spokane Central Seventh Day Adventists are doing a vegetarian entree, and Salem Lutheran Church is covering desserts.  The first Faith Feast is how I got involved in SpokaneFAVS, I helped coordinate the second Faith Feast and was glad to be able to include my own faith in that event, and I'm really looking forward to this one, too!  I'll be sure to report back on how it went!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe by Alexander McCall Smith

Even life in slow-paced, traditional Botswana, with its red bush tea and pithy profound wisdom, holds surprises and new adventures.  In The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni agonizes over a difficult decision.  Business at the garage has slowed down and he can only afford to keep one employee, which means that Charlie - lazy, slow, uncertified, women-obsessed Charlie - is out of a job.

Mma Makusi, adjusting beautifully to being a new mother, decides to branch out into business ownership, which doesn't go as smoothly as hoped.  Mma Ramotswe, adjusting gracefully to her business partner's growing ambitions and divided attention, takes on a case trying to identify a women with amnesia. Her heart is too kind and generous to see Charlie - good-natured, but unemployable Charlie - languish without a job, so she hires him as an assistant.

Again, it strikes me just how good these characters are at heart. They are not perfect, of course, but over and over they do what they can to help those around them and bring out the best in each other. Mma Makutsi discovers that the daughter of one of the workers building her new restaurant can't afford to continue attending Botswana Secretarial College and convinces her husband Phuti Radphuti to provide the funds for her to finish her education.  Mma Potokwane, who runs the local orphanage, offers to purchase some of Mma Ramotswe's cattle so she can afford to hire Charlie, with the plan to return them when calves are born. Mma Ramotswe's personal experience of living in an abusive relationship allows her to reach out to another woman in a similar circumstance and help her find a solution to her difficult predicament.

As Precious takes a walk in the garden with her husband at the end of the book, she soaks up the beauty of the scene she sees.
There was also enough light, Mma Ramotswe reflected, to see that the world was not always a place of pain and loss, but a place where our simple human affairs--those matters that for all their pettiness still sometimes confounded us--were not insoluble, were not without the possibility of resolution.
These books give me hope in humanity.

The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe
by Alexander McCall Smith
ISBN: 9780307911544
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Couple Beautiful, Thought-Provoking Picture Books

A friend on facebook recently asked for suggestions for children's books that introduced topics of spirituality or ethics in an age-appropriate way for youngsters, and I was thrilled to mine all of the ideas gathered in the comments.  Two of the books listed were The Three Questions and Big Momma Makes the World.

I love when God is portrayed as a woman, powerful and good.  Mormons believe that Heavenly Father has a counterpart in Heavenly Mother and I so wish She got more air time. Big Momma Makes the World just whets my appetite for female diety.

Big Momma is warm, creative, and maternal, but she's also no-nonsense, no-fuss, and completely in control.  Following the pattern of creation outlined in Genesis, Big Momma creates light and dark, sun and moon, earth and sky.  She commands the grass and trees to grow and delicious fruits for her baby to eat.

Then, the story notes, "Lots of folks would be plenty pleased, but Big Momma, she doesn't quit a job till it's done and done right." Next it's whales, birds, and fish, "more whales and catfish and mockingbirds and crows than a little baby could shake a stick at, which a little baby could do if a little baby wanted to, since Big Momma had already made all those trees full of sticks."

Finally, Big Momma finishes the job in "one Big Bang!" with every sort of animal exploding out of a burst of light.  Except despite her joy in all she's created so far, something's missing. "I need some folks to keep me company."  So she takes leftover mud and makes "big folks and little folks. Fat folks and thin folks. All kinds of shades of folks. And every one of those folks had a story to swap with Big Momma."

Big Momma is the queen of multi-taskers, but she is a momma first, delighting in playing with her baby and showing that little baby all the wonders of the world she created.  The warm illustrations invite the reader in and fit the comforting cadence of the story perfectly.

The Three Questions is based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, adapted for children.  A boy named Nikolai "sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act. 'I want to be a good person,' he told his friends. 'But I don't always know the best way to do that.'" He asks his animal friends:

When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?

His friends give him the best answers they can from their experiences, but Nikolai finds them incomplete, so he sets off on a journey to ask the wise old turtle Leo.  He has the chance to help both Leo and an injured panda bear in a storm and discovers the answers to his questions.
There is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world. This is why we are here.
Simple, profound truths illustrated gorgeously with cool watercolors, this book is a treasure.

The Three Questions
written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth
ISBN: 9780439199964
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Big Momma Makes the World
by Phyllis Root
illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
ISBN: 9780763611323
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 113


We finished the last book of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series a little while ago.  All told, we spent almost a year reading those five books out loud together.  You can read my (often brief) reviews of the books here:

The Book of Three
The Black Cauldron
The Castle of Llyr
Taran Wanderer
The High King (see below)


The High King is the culmination of Lloyd Alexander's classic coming-of-age series.  Taran has grown from a hero-obsessed boy, hoping to earn glory and honor by wielding a sword and conquering enemies, to a thoughtful, serious man, reluctant but willing to lead and fight when necessary and determined to fulfill his commitments, no matter the personal cost.

As Taran has matured, so has the story. Hard choices have to be made, characters we love are lost, and evil gains the upper hand, seeming to win the day. (Slight spoiler, though no one should be surprised, good does triumph in the end.) But all in all, The High King is, I think, the strongest book of the series. The plot is fast-paced and holds together well, the characters and the relationships between the characters are clearly drawn and believable and almost all of the main characters experience growth and change (even Glew!).  The story flows so well it's hard to put down.

The message that what is important is not always easy, but there is joy to be found in the journey and in one's own integrity is a beautiful and powerful one.

The High King
by Lloyd Alexander
ISBN: 9780440435749
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).


On to the next adventure!  I first read the Harry Potter books to my oldest a good five years ago.  He loved them, but his two younger brothers weren't quite old enough to appreciate them.  So we decided to pick up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone again.  We finished it a couple of days ago and watched the first half of the film version last night (we'll finish it up tonight - it's two and a half hours long!).  I'm excited to be delving into the series again for the fifth (sixth?) time and it's a joy to watch my younger two hear the stories for the first time.


And a quick report on how Lent went for me this year:

I completed the 30 Days of Yoga challenge on Yoga with Adriene as well as working my way through her Foundations of Yoga series of videos on youtube.  I noticed a definite improvement in my flexibility and posture over the six weeks or so, and really enjoyed taking some quiet time for myself in the mornings before everyone else got up and going. It was remarkably centering and calming, while also getting my blood flowing and waking me up for the day.

A few times one child or another would wander in and my standard response was "yoga is not a spectator's sport - join me or go find something else to do!" They even joined in a time or two!  I'm looking forward to exploring more of Adriene's videos and continuing some yoga and meditation practice.

The second part of my Lenten change, the 40 Bags in 40 Days challenge, stalled a bit toward the end.  I got through my kitchen, living room, bathrooms, the kids' closets and clothes, and most of my bedroom and closet, and made several runs to the closest Goodwill donation center. It felt great to get rid of "stuff".

I also made a jewelry organizer; I LOVE being able to see what I have instead of it being crammed in a jewelry box or in small boxes in my drawers.  The only problem is it's already full!

There are definitely still areas of my house that need a thorough decluttering. I avoided the storage room(s) downstairs, for one. My boys put the kibosh on trying to get rid of any of the dozens of stuffed animals (they like to use them for building a soft and comfy "nest" in the cupboard under the stairs or in the blanket forts they build every so often, you see). And I can't even begin to sort through the books, that'd be like deciding which child to keep and which to give away! (Ok, not quite that bad, but still...)

Through this process, though, I've gotten a little better at recognizing what I'm hanging on to that I don't need and what I can let go, especially when I know it can be better used elsewhere.

And someday I will tackle the storage room(s).  Really.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a delightful, tongue-in-cheek send-up of every Victorian mystery novel cliche you could possibly think of.  The seven students enrolled at St. Etheldreda's School for Young Ladies are shocked when their cantankerous headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her somewhat disreputable and unpleasant brother, Mr. Godding, keel over at dinner one evening, the victims of some poisoned veal.

The girls jump into action.  Unwilling to be sent back to their various unhappy homes, they decide to hide the suspicious deaths by burying the bodies in the backyard and carrying on as if nothing happened.  Unfortunately, this plan is complicated by the fact that Mrs. Plackett organized a surprise birthday party for Mr. Godding that evening, several unexpected guests pop by for a visit, and of course, there's an unidentified murderer floating around.

Each seemingly insurmountable obstacle is faced and overcome by the determined band of young ladies, using their individual talents and gifts for the good of the group.  Stout Alice impersonates Mrs. Plackett, with the aid of Dour Elinor's deft artistic hand at makeup.  Pocked Louise, scarred by a bout of smallpox as a child, uses her scientific skills to discover what poison was used by the killer.  Disgraceful Mary Jane's flirting abilities are invaluable as a distraction for various and sundry gentlemen.  Each girl plays her part brilliantly in their effort to remain together: "None of us here has a sister at home, have we?...We have our own sisterhood."

Dry wit abounds side by side with slapstick comedy and plenty of situational humor.  The dead headmistress is described a "rigid and upright" - a commentary on both her personality and her state of rigor mortis. A theological student exclaims that "a well-educated clergyman need never let a lack of experience stand in the way of preaching.  Or else, what are all these divinity studies for?"

There's also quite a bit of feminism subversively coursing throughout the book.  Practically all of the main characters are female, and even in a time when women were almost always wholly dependent on their male relatives for their support they found ways to direct their own destiny. "Some women are born for more independence than society offers them," one women posits. "Perhaps all are, but some have not yet learned to recognize it."

Julie Berry is also the author of All the Truth That's in Me, which won the Whitney Award for Best YA General Novel last year.  The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is definitely a departure from that first novel, and indicates a wide-ranging talent and imagination.  I'm interested to see what Berry comes up with next (as well as in any further adventures of the young ladies of Prickwillow Place).

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
by Julie Berry
ISBN: 9781596439566
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, April 6, 2015

Book Review: Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats by Peggy Eddleman

Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats, a Whitney Award finalist this year in the middle grade category, is a worthy sequel to the initial Sky Jumpers novel, a Whitney Award finalist last year.

A massive earthquake has shifted the geological formations around White Rock, releasing a gas that, though not toxic in itself, bonds to the deadly Bomb's Breath - the residual from the green bombs that destroyed the world in the war.  The band of poisonous gas starts dropping, just a few inches a day at first but at an accelerating rate.  Once again, twelve-year-old Hope has to use her talents, courage, and willingness to take huge risks in order to save her hometown.

The Forbidden Flats effectively expands the world that Peggy Eddleman started to build in Sky Jumpers.  As Hope and other citizens of White Rock travel further afield in search of the antidote to the falling Bomb's Breath, they interact with survivors in other settlements and discover new inventions, new perspectives, and new friends.  And Hope is able to learn more about her birth family as well.

As with the first book in the series, messages about the importance of appreciating different strengths and using your own talents and gifts to the best of your ability shine through.  "What this world needs is people to invent, and people to discover."  Neither ability is pre-eminent; both are needed.

Personal responsibility is another recurrent theme.  At the age of twelve, Hope is expected to make good and wise decisions, regardless of the choices of those around her, even adults.  Hope's willingness to take risks saved her town before and is one of the reasons she is chosen for this task as well, but she starts to understand that while "sometimes you have to take a risk...maybe not every risk was a good one."

The Sky Jumpers series has started out with two engaging stories.  I look forward to the third and beyond!

Sky Jumpers: The Forbidden Flats
by Peggy Eddleman
ISBN: 9780307981318
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 112


Anita Sarkeesian has released a new episode in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, the first of several to focus on Positive Female Characters.  I've never heard of this game, but I'm definitely intrigued.

When archetypal fantasy heroes in games are overwhelmingly portrayed as men, it reinforces the idea that men’s experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are gendered, that women should be able to empathize with male characters but that men needn’t be able to identify with women’s stories. Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.


I recently discovered a new TV series that I'm loving: Scott & Bailey.  (Not to be confused with Scott Bailey, the actor.)  Janet Scott & Rachel Bailey are two detective constables in the Major Incident Team - investigating murder, rape, and other serious crimes - in Manchester, United Kingdom.  And they are real, complex, interesting characters, people who are incredibly good at what they do who happen to be women.

The first three seasons are available on Hulu and, like many other British series, they are short: just six to eight episodes each.  (There's a bit of language and it deals with some rough topics, so if you're sensitive to that stuff, be aware before you watch.)


A couple of weekend ago we took a family hike up in the Dishman Hills.  It was really windy, especially on top, and pretty cold when the sun went behind the clouds, but the views were fantastic and the boys had a great time climbing all over the big rocks.

It was the first on the list in this post, and we had such a good time that I think we're going to work our way through the rest of them too.  It was nice to just get outside and do something together as a family.


It's almost time for the Whitney Awards again!  Last year I read a whole bunch of the nominated books, and I'm going to give it a shot this year, too, though my local libraries don't seem to have as many this time around.  I'm just about done with all five in the middle grade category, including this one that I read last year.  Then I'll start in on the two YA categories and see how far I get.  It's a great way to find interesting new authors and great new books!