Review of The Handmaid and the Carpenter, by Elizabeth Berg


The Handmaid and the Carpenter

by Elizabeth Berg

Random House, New York, 2006.  153 pages.

I’ve been reading Christmas novels, so here’s a novel about the original Christmas.

There was a time when I couldn’t really enjoy novelizations of Bible stories — I would get upset over quibbles where they didn’t quite line it up with the Bible text, or the characters would not act as I had imagined them to act.  But perhaps I’ve outgrown that.  I’m quite sure this is not how I would imagine Mary and Joseph, but I did enjoy these characters.

What would it have been like to give birth to the Son of God?  And how would your betrothed react?  Elizabeth Berg does pull us into the story, in all its wonder, yet with a nod to the reality of dirty straw and a long journey and a village reacting to the story of an angel announcement.

This isn’t a dramatically in-depth novelization, but it gives you a taste of what that first Christmas might have been like.  Definitely good holiday reading.

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Review of Santa Cruise, by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark


Santa Cruise

A Holiday Mystery at Sea

by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

Simon & Schuster/ Scribner, 2006.  261 pages.

I have enjoyed some of Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark’s earlier Christmas mysteries.  So I picked up this Holiday Mystery for some fun Christmas reading.

To start up his new cruise ship, Commodore Randolph Weed launches the “Santa Cruise” — a free trip for people who have done good in the world.  He even includes ten department-store Santas to cheer the crowd while enjoying the cruise.  Alvirah Meehan and her husband Willy are among the honorees, and Alvirah invites her friend, private detective Regan Reilly and her husband Jack, as well as Regan’s parents, Nora and Luke.

What the Commodore doesn’t know is that his nephew Eric is using the cruise to make some money on the side.  Eric has agreed to take two convicted felons on board and drop them off on an island in the Caribbean without an extradition treaty.

Right from the start, Eric’s plans get thrown off.  He has to give his large room to Alvirah and her husband, so the felons don’t have a convenient place to hide.  Good thing there are lots of Santa suits available.

Santa Cruise has lots of coincidences and never really works up to much feeling of suspense, but it does provide some light-hearted fun in a holiday setting.

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Review of Starcross, by Philip Reeve



by Philip Reeve

performed by Greg Steinbruner

Recorded Books, 2008.  7 CDs.  7.5 hours.

Starcross is a worthy successor to Larklight, another rip-roaring adventure of Art and Myrtle Mumby in the outer reaches of the galaxy.  Once again, we’re in alternate-reality 1851, where space travel has been discovered through alchemy, and the British Empire rules the ether (rather than the waves).  It turns out that there is all kinds of life out there in the solar system, and the British Empire has outposts among the natives on every planet.

At the start of this book, the Mumbys, with their mother, are invited to Starcross, a sea-resort hotel on an asteroid which has never been known to have any water.  Sure enough, the “tide” comes in every twelve hours, and the dry sea bed fills up with water as if it has always been there.

Obviously, something strange is going on at Starcross.  And what about the top hat in Art’s closet that seems to be calling out to him to put it on?  Or the strange shadow across the balcony and the little voice saying “Moob”?

Sure enough, the adventures involve international intrigue, mortal danger, and this time even time travel.  Once again, I lost track of how many times their lives were in peril.

Listening to these books on CD makes them all the more fun.  These would make excellent family listening, as it will appeal to all ages.  The narrator does an excellent job giving each character a distinct voice.  The way Art and Myrtle pick at each other seems completely realistic for a brother and sister and is just one of the amusing touches the books are packed with.

You do not have to read (or listen) to Larklight in order to enjoy Starcross, but why would you want to miss it?  Almost all our old friends from the first book show up in this one, and add to the fun.

Here’s a light-hearted adventure story by a writer with a wild imagination and a delightful sense of humor.  We’ve got space travel and pirates and spies and aliens and mind control and time travel and speeding space trains and proper ladies and British soldiers and a sinister plot to take over the solar system.  What more could you want?  Huzzah!

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Review of Let It Snow


Let It Snow

Three Holiday Romances

by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Speak (Penguin), 2008.  352 pages.

Starred Review

Okay, I’m in the mood for holiday reading, and this book of three intertwined holiday romances was completely delightful.  I began reading during a dentist appointment, and found when I got home, my recovery demanded further reading.

The three stories are all teen romances, delightfully told.  John Green’s story, told from the guy’s perspective, is in the middle, and makes a nice subtle change from the other two, but I loved all three.

Maureen Johnson tells the  first story, where Jubilee Donegal is on a train to visit her grandparents in Florida instead of at her boyfriend’s big family Christmas Eve Smorgasbord.  Her parents were arrested in a riot over collectible Flobie Santa Village buildings, and Jubilee got sent to Florida.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t get far before the train is stopped by snow.  She’s in a car with a group of cheerleaders off to a cheerleading competition and a cute guy obsessed with trying to call his girlfriend (and failing).  What can she do except go out through the snow and try to get to the Waffle House she sees across the highway?

What follows is a delightful story of adventure and eye-opening revelations and, yes, romance.

John Green’s story involves a guy and two friends trying to get through the snow to the Waffle House, where their friend, the store manager, is telling a hysterical tale about a group of cheerleaders needing “help” working on cheers.  He needs them to bring a Twister game, but if they take too long, someone else’s friends might beat them to it.  Once again, things don’t happen as they expect.

In Lauren Myracle’s story, we see the ex-girlfriend of the guy on the train, despairing because he didn’t show up and he didn’t even call.  Meanwhile, her friends need her to do a little something for them — and they don’t want to hear that there’s been another “crisis.”

The stories dovetail beautifully.  They are all funny and sweet and wonderfully entertaining.  Definitely recommended holiday reading!

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Review of A Christmas Grace, by Anne Perry


A Christmas Grace

by Anne Perry

Ballantine Books, New York, 2008.  210 pages.

Starred review.

Ah, there’s nothing like a nice cozy Christmas murder mystery by Anne Perry!  It’s getting to be a tradition for me that I especially enjoy.

Emily Radley gets a message that her estranged Aunt Susannah is dying.  Aunt Susannah was cut off from the family years ago for marrying a Catholic.  She lives in a remote part of Ireland, and now she wants to have family near her at Christmas, so she does not die alone.

Emily comes and gets a feel for the coastal village.  Then an enormous storm hits, with a shipwreck offshore and a stranger stranded on their beach.  Emily learns that the town is haunted by the memory of a similar event.  Only that earlier stranger was murdered.  Did he ask questions too uncomfortable to answer?  What did he know that he was killed for?

I’m not quite sure how Anne Perry manages to make murder mysteries so beautifully communicate a cozy and warm spirit of Christmas.  But her Christmas stories leave me feeling uplifted and remind me of what Christmas is all about.  Lovely.

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Review of A War of Gifts, by Orson Scott Card


A War of Gifts,

An Ender Story,

by Orson Scott Card

Tor, Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2007.  126 pages.

Here’s a Christmas story that takes you into Ender’s world.  We follow the story of Zeck, who’s been brought up to believe that Santa is a form of Satan.  When Zeck is sent to Battle School, he refuses to participate or ever fire a weapon, because he also believes that War is not a valid field of study.

Then a Dutch boy puts out his shoe for Sinterklaas, and gets a Sinterklaas poem.  This starts a trend of the students, where religion is forbidden, finding subversive ways to celebrate Christmas, claiming it’s a national observance, not a religious one.

As the “war of gifts” escalates, Zeck’s life is touched in a way that he doesn’t expect.

A nice Christmas story, quite different from typical ones.  Ender fans will especially enjoy it.

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Review of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J. K. Rowling


The Tales of Beedle the Bard

by J. K. Rowling

Translated from the Ancient Runes by Hermione Granger

Commentary by Albus Dumbledore

Introduction, Notes, and Illustrations by J. K. Rowling

Children’s High Level Group in association with Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2008.  111 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #3, Children’s Fiction

J. K. Rowling is truly a master of mixing the light-hearted with the profound.  This book collects five original fairy tales.  They truly feel like folktales, with the twist that they are set in the Wizarding World created by J. K. Rowling.  She’s captured the simplicity and magic of folktales, with her signature touch of the bizarre.

I wasn’t crazy about the commentary by Dumbledore.  It felt a little like trying to drive home the moral too hard, and I get tired of hearing that Malfoys have been Muggle-haters for centuries.  However, there are some delightful and hilarious touches that made me laugh out loud.  For example, Dumbledore says that The Tale of the Three Brothers was the story he requested most often at bedtime as a child.  “This frequently led to arguments with my younger brother, Aberforth, whose favorite story was ‘Grumble the Grubby Goat.'”

Another example is where she tells about Beatrix Bloxam, who tried to turn the tales into something pure and precious.  “Mrs. Bloxam’s tale has met the same response from generations of Wizarding children:  uncontrollable retching, followed by an immediate demand to have the book taken from them and mashed into pulp.”

The proceeds from the sale of this book go to The Children’s High Level Group, which is one more reason to buy a copy of this delightful collection of tales.  I am going to try to talk my son into letting me read him the tales at bedtime.  You can’t outgrow these stories.

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Review of Tell Me No Lies, by Ellyn Bader and Peter T. Pearson


Tell Me No Lies

How to Stop Lying to Your Partner — and Yourself — in the 4 Stages of Marriage

by Ellyn Bader, PhD, and Peter T. Pearson, PhD,

with Judith D. Schwartz

Skylight Press (St. Martin’s Press), New York, 2000.  241 pages.

Starred review.

I think of myself as a truthful person.  So I was a little offended by the first paragraph of this book.

“Everybody lies.  Friends lie to friends.  Children lie to their parents.  Politicians lie to constituents.  And, certainly, husbands and wives lie to each other.”

However, they do point out that these lies definitely don’t start out mean-spirited.  For example, classic lies of the Honeymoon Stage are “I like everything about you.” and “We like all the same things.”

The authors show common lies in the four stages of marriage and how they can lead to the marriage getting off track.  Their explanations ring true.  I was able to realize that the belief that I always tell the whole truth was definitely a lie I was telling myself.

They define four stages of marriage as The Honeymoon, Emerging Differences, Freedom, and Together as Two.  They explain the pitfalls of lies in each stage:

“Certain types of lies arise at different points in a marriage in response to the specific challenges of each stage.  Deception will stunt development in each stage, creating an emotional gridlock that leaves both partners stuck.  We call these stalled points “Detours and Dead Ends.”  From the Honeymoon, you can veer into The Dark Side of the Honeymoon.  When deceit obscures your Emerging Differences, you can end up in the Seething Stalemate.  The failure to negotiate independence can thrust you into Freedom Unhinged.  The only way to get on track is to confront the truth.”

The authors don’t place all the blame on the person doing the lying.  They include a chapter on “The Lie Invitee” explaining why there are times when we really don’t want to hear the truth.

This is a fascinating and helpful look at what makes an open and honest marriage.  You can’t really know one another if you don’t tell the truth to each other.  If you are beginning to feel distant and “so different” from each other, maybe it’s time to take a look at what truths about yourself you are hiding from your partner or maybe from yourself as well.

This book is full of good advice for building a good marriage.  It can also help you understand the dynamics of what went wrong if your marriage falls apart.

“Intimate relationships are difficult, despite what cultural myths would have us believe, and every couple will encounter some tough situations.  The grit to withstand those challenges — and to keep your marriage growing and alive — requires that you find the courage to voice the truth.  And the resolve to listen to it.”

Here are more helpful quotations from this book:

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Review of Knock, Knock!


Knock, Knock!

Who’s There?

Jokers Welcome!

Jokes by fourteen wacky & talented artists inside!

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2007.  36 pages.

Okay, I’m not at all sure you’d want to give this book to any beginner reader that you have to live with!  The knock-knock jokes contained in this book are familiar groaners.  (Aren’t all knock-knock jokes groaners?  I’m curious:  Do they have anything like knock-knock jokes in other languages?  Do any of my readers know?)

The delightful part about this book, and what makes it fun for an adult to read once, is that it celebrates the magnificent art of fourteen exuberant and amazingly talented children’s book illustrators.

The fourteen illustrators featured are Saxton Freymann (Naturally, his knock-knock joke is “Lettuce.”), Tomie DePaola, Dan Yaccarino, Peter H. Reynolds, Sophie Blackall, Yumi Heo, Boris Kulikov, Brett Helquist, Henry Cole, Judy Schachner, Chris Raschka, Laurie Keller, David Small, and Jon J. Muth.

This book is a delight to read through.  And although it can get annoying, it will teach the classic knock-knock jokes every American child should know.

Come on in!

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Review of The Light-Bearer’s Daughter, by O. R. Melling


The Light-Bearer’s Daughter

The Chronicles of Faerie

by O. R. Melling

Amulet Books, New York, 2007.  348 pages.

Twelve-year-old Dana barely remembers her mother, who disappeared when Dana was three years old.  Now her father wants to leave Ireland for a job in his native Canada.  If they leave Ireland, how will her mother ever find them?

When her father takes Dana to visit some friends, protesting the felling of a stretch of forest, Dana gets a message from faerie.  Before long, she’s recruited for a quest, a quest to save faerie from the Destroyer who’s entered the land.  If Dana accomplishes the quest, she can make a wish, and she knows what she wishes for more than anything else — to find her mother again.

The quest is dark and difficult and full of surprises.  Dana encounters several surprising helpers along the way, and the end is not what she expected.

This is a lyrical tale, set in modern-day Ireland (even including places I have visited!), peeling back layers of magic and mystery.  The author weaves in Gaelic songs and old Irish history, including St. Kevin in Glendalough, giving the reader a sense of place.  Reading this book is like taking a magical trip to Ireland.

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