Review of Anahita’s Woven Riddle, by Meghan Nuttall Sayres


Anahita’s Woven Riddle

by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Amulet Books (Harry N. Abrams), New York, 2006.  352 pages.

Set in 1880s Iran, Anahita’s Woven Riddle tells the story of a girl of a nomadic tribe who loves the land, loves their annual migration, and loves to put the colors of native plants, along with her own dreams, into her weaving.

When the local khan seeks to marry Anahita, she is not happy.  He has already buried three wives, and he does not seem to be a kind man.  She wants to marry someone who loves riddles as she does, so she requests that her father offer a contest.  She will weave a riddle into her wedding carpet, and she will marry the man who can solve her riddle.

This book gets off to a slow start, and I wasn’t impressed at first with the writing, jumping into the perspectives of various people.  However, by the end I was quite absorbed in learning Anahita’s fate.  I ended up liking that the author presented the viewpoints of more than one suitor whom Anahita could be happy with.

I did learn lots about the history of Iran and the nomadic peoples of Persia.  The author conveyed Anahita’s love for her land and her tribe.  She learns from the dyemaster how to make dyes from plants she finds along the path of their migration, and scorns the new chemical dyes available in shops in the city.

This book has a meditative quality, including poetry by the Persian poet Rumi.  The story does draw you in and leaves you feeling you’ve caught a glimpse of the heart of old Iran.

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Review of The Verbally Abusive Man, by Patricia Evans


The Verbally Abusive Man

Can He Change?

A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go

by Patricia Evans

Adams Media, Avon, Massachusetts, 2006.  269 pages.

Starred review.

When you think of verbal abuse, most people think of name-calling, yelling or swearing.  Patricia Evans gives us a clear definition.  I knew I didn’t like it at all when someone talks to me as described here.  Now I understand why.  It is verbal abuse.

She gives a clear definition, a definition that enables me to spot exactly which sentences are not only not true, they are abusive.

“Verbal abuse defines people in some negative way, and it creates emotional pain and mental anguish when it occurs in a relationship….

“Any statement that tells you what, who, or how you are, or what you think, feel, or want, is defining you and is, therefore, abusive.  Such statements suggest an invasion of your very being, as if to say, ‘I’ve looked within you and now I’ll tell you what you want, feel, etc.’  Similarly, threats are verbally abusive because, like torture, they attempt to limit your freedom to choose and thus to define yourself.  Of course, if you have defined yourself to someone, ‘I’m Suzy’s Mom,’ and that person says, ‘That’s Suzy’s Mom,’ they are affirming or validating what you have said.  On the other hand, verbal abuse is a lie told to you or told to others about you.  If you believe the lie, it would lead you to think that you are not who you are or that you are less than you are….

“Another common way the abuser defines his partner is by walking away when she is asking a question, or mentioning something, or even in the middle of a conversation.  By withholding a response, he defines her as nonexistent.”

Here is a nice explanation of why being defined negatively by your partner is so painful:

“Clearly, when one person defines the other, the person doing the defining (abusing), has closed off from the real person.  When a person is told what they are, think, feel, and so forth, it is not only a lie told to them about themselves, but also it means that the abuser is closed off from the real person.  The abuser cannot really hear, see, and take in information from the real person.  It is as if he sees someone else.  For instance, if the abuser says, ‘You’re too sensitive’ or ‘You’re not listening,’ he is talking to someone whom he defines as ‘made wrong’ or as ‘not listening.’  So, the real person isn’t seen or heard.  It is as if a wall has arisen between the verbally abusive man and his partner.  This is why, when a man defines his partner, she feels pain.  At some level, she experiences the end of the relationship.” 

One refreshing thing about this book is that the author does NOT blame the person being abused for the abuse she receives.  However, she does help you understand better what’s going on and equip you to respond more effectively.

The crux of this book is about giving the abuser a wakeup call in the form of an Agreement — an Agreement for both parties in the relationship.  She also gives the reader guidelines as to whether the abuser is likely to actually change back to a loving, empathetic partner.

Even if the relationship is not in a place where you can use the Agreement, this book is invaluable in its presentation of how to respond to verbal abuse.

One important point is to learn not to try to respond to verbal abuse with logic.  That only dignifies his viewpoint, as if it had a basis in reality.  If you think about it rationally, how can he possibly know what your motives are?  Verbal abuse is inherently irrational, so defending yourself with a rational argument is an ineffective response.

“Realizing that verbal abuse is not rational, it becomes clear that the man indulging in it can’t hear a rational response from his partner.  But it is difficult for the partner not to respond with a rational explanation.  For instance, she may say she didn’t deserve to be yelled at, or she didn’t do what she is being accused of, even when she knows that rational explanations just won’t work.  It takes enormous conscious effort for the partner not to explain herself to her mate.  It usually seems to her that he is rational and will apologize and not do it again.

“Women often talk about how hard it is to remember that there is no point in their ever responding rationally to verbal abuse, even when they know that verbal abuse is a lie.  However, it is important for you to keep in mind that since the verbal abuse is a lie, it is incomprehensible.  You must decide to see it as so untrue, so unimaginable, so unreal, that you simply say, ‘What?’ or ‘What did you say?’ or ‘What are you doing?’  This may gently prod him toward hearing himself if he starts defining you in any way.

“If in the past you told him, ‘Stop!’ when he was abusive and he didn’t, it is likely that he accused you of being abusive, saying, ‘Now you’re giving me orders and trying to control me.  That’s abuse!’

“A good response to this lie is to simply say, ‘What?’ or even, ‘Did I just hear you tell me what I was trying to do?  What did you say?’  After all, he just told you what your motives were and what you were trying to do, as if he were you….

“Ultimately, since you know that blaming is a category of verbal abuse, it should be easier not to blame yourself in any way for his behavior.  You can see it as abusive no matter how much he blames you, tells you that you ‘made’ him mad, or tells you that it is your fault.”

If you still have a relationship with the verbal abuser, this book does offer hope of change: specific steps you can take to issue a wake-up call. 

Even if the book only verifies that change is not likely, I found it well worth the cover price for two key ideas that it presented:

— Defining verbal abuse so you can easily recognize it and won’t be tempted to believe it.

— Teaching you to respond to it as incomprehensible, not as something you can reason away.

As with some other books I have read on unpleasant topics, I can’t help but think of the Bible verse, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Understanding and naming the situation you’ve been living in is a huge step toward healing and being better able to cope.

This is truly a wonderful, helpful, and healing book.

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Review of Janes in Love, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg


Janes in Love

by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

Minx (DC Comics), 2008.  152 pages.

Starred Review.

The Janes are at it again.  In this sequel to The Plain Janes, Jane’s group of friends (all named Jane), try to give new life to P.L.A.I.N. — People Loving Art in Neighborhoods — with new “Art Attacks.”  However, their funds are running out, the authorities are still against them, and Jane’s Mom reacts badly to news of another terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s Day is approaching, and all hearts are turning to thoughts of love, making life that much more complicated.

I liked this graphic novel even better than the first.  It’s a fun story of a gutsy character, who still believes in her message: Art saves.

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Review of The Complete Peanuts, 1969 to 1970, by Charles M. Schulz


The Complete Peanuts:  1969 to 1970:  Dailies and Sundays:  The Definitive Collection of Charles M. Schulz’s Comic Strip Masterpiece

by Charles M. Schulz

introduction by Mo Willems

Fantagraphics Books, 2008.  325 pages.

It’s so delightful to get my hands on another volume of The Complete Peanuts, twice a year.  In this volume, we have some references to the Vietnam War (with a protest at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm), and Lucy embraces feminism.  Snoopy suffers through a stint as Head Beagle, and Woodstock finally receives his name.

I think my favorite thing about this volume is that it includes Snoopy’s efforts to be a novelist, and includes his complete novel, including the sentence that ties all the threads together (Spoiler alert!):

“Could it be that she was the sister of the boy in Kansas who loved the girl with the tattered shawl who was the daughter of the maid who had escaped from the pirates?”

Ah, the joys of writing!  We also see Snoopy in the throes of rejection-slip shock being soothed by a line from Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth: “What you have written, Snoopy, is just as good as a lot of other things you see being published these days…”  Isn’t that the truth?

May the volumes of The Complete Peanuts keep coming!

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Review of Wicked Lovely, by Melissa Marr


Wicked Lovely

by Melissa Marr

HarperTeen, 2007.  328 pages.

Aislynn has always been able to see faeries, much to her horror and disgust.  Faeries walk among us, and they are not very nice.  Grams has warned her, again and again, not to attract their attention, not to let the faeries know she can see them.  That’s one reason Aislynn likes to visit Seth — he lives in an old train car, made of steel and safe from the disturbing presence of faeries.

Then the Summer King notices Aislynn, and chooses Aislynn.  Her fate seems to be sealed.  Keenan, the Summer King, is locked in an ages-long battle with his mother, the Winter Queen.  Once he chooses Aislynn, she must either become one of the empty-headed Summer Girls or dare to take up the staff and risk the Winter Queen’s chill.

Aislynn has seen the world of faerie and wants no part of it.  There must be some way out.  And what about Seth?  Keenan has never met a mortal so good at resisting his charms.

Wicked Lovely has some dark and gritty parts, exploring the dark side of faerie.  But the core of the story — a girl grappling with love and destiny — is intriguing and powerfully written.

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Review of Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, Audiobook


Book of a Thousand Days

by Shannon Hale

read by Chelsea Mixon and the Full Cast Family

Full Cast Audio, 2008.  6 compact discs, 7 hours, 30 minutes.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #1, Audiobooks

When I first read Book of a Thousand Days ( ), I wasn’t quite ready to declare it the best book I’ve ever read.  Could I really put it ahead of my long time declared favorites, The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery ( ), and The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley ( ), or ahead of Shannon Hale’s own The Goose Girl (

Well, after listening to Full Cast Audio’s fabulous production, I can say without a moment’s hesitation that this is by far the best audiobook I have ever listened to, and the story itself is definitely one of my all-time favorite books.  Okay, I’m still equivocating with the print books (simply because of having so many so much loved old favorites), but in the middle of listening to this book, I found myself gushing like a teenager to my son that this is the “best book in the world”!

Full Cast Audio surpassed itself with this production.  The voices suited the characters perfectly.  I especially liked Lady Saren’s voice, seeming timid and tentative at the beginning, but growing in strength.  Chelsea Nixon, who read Dashti’s voice, was wonderfully expressive.  They even included the snatches of the Healing Songs that Dashti sings throughout the book.

Lady Saren has been condemned to be sealed into a tower for seven years because she refuses to marry Lord Khasar.  Her father decrees this on the very day that Dashti the mucker maid showed up to be Saren’s new lady’s maid.  So Dashti enters the tower with Lady Saren, and their adventures begin.

Saren is terribly afraid of something.  So afraid that when Khan Tegus, the man Saren secretly promised to marry, shows up outside the tower, Saren makes Dashti speak with him, pretending to be Saren.

This book is a magnificent piece of writing.  All of the growth and development is done gradually and masterfully drawn out.  Dashti grows as a servant and as a person.  She grows in her mastery of the magic of the Healing Songs.  She grows as she figures out what is really going on with the evil Lord Khasar.  Meanwhile, Saren grows as Dashti calms her fears.  And the love story blossoms, slowly, gradually, beautifully.

When my CD player finished the book and cycled back to the beginning of the last CD, I found I couldn’t bring myself to eject it, and I’m listening to that last wonderful section all over again.  I don’t want it to be over!

A magical and beautiful book.

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Review of Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer


Crazy for God

How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back

by Frank Schaeffer

Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2007.  417 pages.

Starred review.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri and famous Christian writers.  In college, I read Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, What Is a Family?, The Tapestry, Affliction, and Common Sense Christian Living.  I bought a set of The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, but still haven’t read any of it!

My father was a fan of Francis Schaeffer’s writings, and my mother a huge fan of Edith Schaeffer’s.  After reading Edith’s books, I dreamed of living that sort of life myself — living as a family in Europe, reaching searching souls for God!  It sounded like a dream existence.

Frank Schaeffer (known as Franky then) did come and speak at my college, Biola University, when I was a student.  I think he was promoting A Time for Anger, and he came across as very angry indeed.  I pretty much dismissed what he had to say, and figured he must be a typical rebellious preacher’s kid, though I was still enthralled by his parents’ works.  His mother spoke at a Ladies’ Tea at Biola, promoting her book Common Sense Christian Living, and I was further enraptured.

I should add that I still think of her way of looking at suffering, as presented in Affliction, as a wonderful paradigm for dealing with why God allows suffering.

In Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer outlines his life growing up in Switzerland, his later involvement in the founding of the religious right political movement in America, and his search for some kind of peace.

In a lot of ways, I found his quest mirroring my own.  I too grew up in a rather unusual Christian community — a family of thirteen children.  I too ended up with liberal political views.  Although I still attend an evangelical church, it is a church about community and much less hung up on exact statements of faith.  It sounds very similar in attitude to the Greek Orthodox church where Frank Schaeffer has found a home.  Like him, I find myself thinking of Christianity as a “journey to God, wherein no one is altogether instantly ‘saved’ or ‘lost’ and nothing is completely resolved in this life (and perhaps not in the next).”  My belief that all will be saved eventually puts me at odds with the standard evangelical community he was once so much a part of and that I was once so much a part of.  So I found his journey fascinating.

That perfect family life at L’Abri was not so perfect after all.  Those family reunions that Edith Schaeffer wrote about as so idyllic were filled with angry fighting.  Francis was an abusive husband, and Edith was not a tremendously respectful wife.  Both were rather neglectful parents, sacrificing family life for “the work” and letting their son run wild.  (Not that he didn’t enjoy that!)

He also points out that Francis and Edith were very open and accepting — at least for most of their lives.  But they closed down that openness when they were catering to the American evangelical political movement.  He has some scathing words about many American evangelical leaders, and points out some things about them that were downright strange.

He grew up in Europe, and when he got involved in American politics, he didn’t even really know America.  His parents enjoyed European culture, and thought themselves a bit above your run-of-the-mill Americans.  Francis Schaeffer’s book, How Shall We Then Live? was based on his wide knowledge of Western art and history.  Having lived for ten years in Europe myself, I have some sneaking sympathies with him on these points. 

I’m sure many hero-worshipers will be bitterly angry that Frank Schaeffer would say anything negative about his parents.  He also says many positive things, but is trying to write about his own strange childhood.  He makes the point that we are all human, that the perfect “common sense Christian living” may have its own flaws, under the surface, if you look more closely. 

This book was fascinating and eye-opening.  I appreciate the look at someone else’s thoughts about what it really means to live for God, and making sense of his own life’s path and life’s work.  In many ways, with the collapse of my marriage, I am looking at some of the same issues.  So I appreciated this chance to get someone else’s perspective, as well as to learn that what I thought of as idealistic perfection in my youth didn’t actually match that in reality.

I’m coming to think that a lot of what God wants from us is to live life as the person he made us to be:  Enjoying his blessings and doing the work He made us best suited for, whether it has anything to do with “leading others to Christ” or not.  I doubt that Frank Schaeffer would word it exactly that way, but I felt that much of his spiritual journeying mirrors my own, and I appreciate the insights from a fellow traveler.

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Review of Saving the Griffin, by Kristin Wolden Nitz


Saving the Griffin

by Kristin Wolden Nitz

Peachtree, 2007.  184 pages.

Starred Review

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008, #1 Children’s Fiction

I’m finally reviewing my friend Kristin’s wonderful book.  Unfortunately, when it first came out, I was in the middle of moving and grad school and lots of things that led to stacks of books I meant to review but didn’t quite get around to.

I freely admit that I am biased about this book.  Kristin is part of my online writers’ critique group, the Sisters of Royaumont, so I saw early versions of this book and contributed some encouragement and suggestions.

However, I’ve gotten lots of feedback from kids that they love this book.  My nephew declared it the best book he’d ever read.  Recently, the Homeschoolers’ Book Group at my library chose Saving the Griffin as their first selection, and every one of them said they liked it a lot.

Kate and her family, with an older brother and a younger brother, are living in Italy for a month.  When a baby griffin interrupts their ball game, at first Kate thinks she must have looked at too many wild statues.  She and Michael try to keep the griffin a secret, while feeding him and helping him learn to fly and even to say a few words.

Their older brother, Stephen, thinks he’s too grown up for their “games,” and doesn’t realize what he’s missing.  But the little griffin gets spotted by a photographer and then gets lost in Siena.  Kate and Michael need to help him find his way home.

One of the things I like about this book is the perfect depiction of the sibling tensions between Kate and her brothers.  Stephen is suddenly acting too grown-up for them, but Kate remembers when he was her companion, and Michael was just a baby.  I also loved the way Kristin, who lived in Italy for a few years, beautifully integrated the Italian setting and words in Italian, giving the flavor of Italy.

The kids in the book group said they especially liked the way the book mixed magic with everyday life.

This book isn’t long, and would be a nice follow-up for kids who enjoy The Spiderwick Chronicles.  I admit I’m biased, but I did like Saving the Griffin better.  It has a more light-hearted feel.  You’re dealing with an adorable baby griffin rather than sinister angry characters.  However, there is still tension in trying to save the little griffin from the dangers of the human world.

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Review of Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka



Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka

by Jon Scieszka

Viking, 2008.  106 pages.

Starred Review

Now we know how Jon Scieszka got so funny!  He grew up with five brothers.

I got to hear the author read from this book at the National Book Festival in September, so I knew I simply had to read the book myself.  It turned out that the parts he read were by no means the only hilarious parts.

The cover is like a comic book.  The chapters are short.  And funny.  The whole thing is beautifully designed to draw kids in and not let them go.

Now, I have seven brothers myself (but six sisters — which makes a big difference!), so he couldn’t really surprise me with his stories.  His take on the mayhem and the bright ideas six boys can come up with are invariably hilarious.  Several chapters end with a “Knucklehead Warning:  Do not try this at home . . . or anywhere else.”  (But he makes them sound so much fun!)

I love the babysitting chapter.  Why didn’t we think of this?

“We didn’t get paid for babysitting.  Until one day Jim and I figured out a great way to make a little money on the job.

“We were watching Jeff.  He had rolled under a chair and got stuck.  We dragged him out and stood him up holding on to the coffee table.  And that’s when Jeff spotted the ashtray.

“We watched Jeff grab a cigarette butt.

“We watched Jeff put it in his mouth.

“We watched Jeff chew the butt, make a crazy face, then spit it out.

“Jim and I cracked up laughing.

“Then we gave Jeff another butt and watched him do it all over again.

“It was such a great trick that we charged all of our friends ten cents to watch.”

I also love his chapter about learning to read.  He talks about the very strange family he read about in school.

“The alien kids were named Dick and Jane.  Strangest kids I ever heard of. . . .

“When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other’s names.  Because they always said each other’s names.  A lot.

“So if Jane didn’t see the dog, Dick would say, ‘Look Jane.  Look.  There is the dog next to Sally, Jane.  The dog is also next to Mother, Jane.  The dog is next to Father, Jane.  Ha, ha, ha.  That is funny, Jane.’

“Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?

“At home my mom read me real stories.  These were stories that sounded like my life.  These were stories that made sense.  She read me a story about a guy named Sam.  Sam-I-am.  He was a fan of green eggs and ham.

“And then there was the story about the dogs.  Blue dogs.  Yellow dogs.  Dogs that were up.  Dogs that were down.  Dogs that drove around in cars and met each other at the end of the book for a giant party in a tree.  I cheered them on.  Go, dogs.  Go!  I read about them all by myself because I wanted to.  Go, dogs.  Go!

“So I guess I didn’t really learn to read by reading about those weirdos Dick and Jane.  I learned to read because I wanted to find out more about real things like dogs in cars and cats in hats.”

This book is tremendous fun.  Jon Scieszka is the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, with a special mission to Reach the Reluctant Reader.  This book will do that beautifully.  What kid (or adult) could resist?

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Review of Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier


Wildwood Dancing

by Juliet Marillier

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007.  407 pages.

Starred Review

“I’ve heard it said that girls can’t keep secrets.  That’s wrong: we’d proved it.  We’d kept ours for years and years, ever since we came to live at Piscul Dracului and stumbled on the way into the Other Kingdom.  Nobody knew about it — not Father, not our housekeeper, Florica, or her husband, Petru, not Uncle Nicolae or Aunt Bogdana or their son, Cezar.  We found the portal when Tati was seven and I was six, and we’d been going out and coming in nearly every month since then: nine whole years of Full Moons.  We had plenty of ways to cover our absences, including a bolt on our bedchamber door and the excuse that my sister Paula sometimes walked in her sleep.

“I suppose the secret was not completely ours; Gogu knew.  But even if frogs could talk, Gogu would never have told.  Ever since I’d found him long ago, crouched all by himself in the forest, dazed and hurt, I had known I could trust him more than anyone else in the world.”

So begins a wonderfully intricate tale loosely based on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but with many intricate plot threads woven through the tale.

Jenica and her four sisters spend the night of every Full Moon dancing in the Wildwood, in the Other Kingdom.  They have rules to keep themselves safe, like no eating and drinking while there, no wandering into the forest.

But things in the Other Kingdom begin to change when the Night People show up.  Rumors about them in the mountains of Transylvania are dark and sinister.  One of them shows a particular interest in Tati, Jena’s oldest sister.

At the same time, everyday life is getting out of control.  For the sake of his health, their father must spend the winter in the city, and he leaves them in charge.  But Cezar, their interfering cousin, quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t think women capable of that responsibility, and he begins “helping” them by taking over.  They don’t hear from their father and cannot stop Cezar.  Meanwhile, Cezar has a grudge against the folk of the Other Kingdom and vows to destroy the Wildwood.

This tale is beautifully written.  Jena is resourceful.  She loves her sisters and loves her friend the frog.  She glories in her friends from the Other Kingdom.  She tries to protect them, and herself, from Cezar’s manipulations.

This wonderful and rich storytelling quickly captivated me.  It gives the flavor of Transylvania, going beyond the stereotypes to deeper myths.  A haunting tale of wonder and cleverness and sacrifice and true love.

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