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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Review of Free of Charge, by Miroslav Volf


Free of Charge

Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

by Miroslav Volf

Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005.  247 pages.

I’ve been reading lots of books lately about forgiveness, because it’s an inexhaustible topic, and I find I desperately need it in my life these days.  I do believe that forgiveness is absolutely essential to happiness.

Miroslav Volf’s book, Free of Charge, is more of an academic look at forgiveness and at giving.  He approaches giving and forgiving as our response to a giving and forgiving God, our obligation as God-followers.  Though his approach is a little more academic, it is nonetheless powerful, and perhaps that much more persuasive.

God’s forgiveness is so amazing and unlimited, how can we do less and claim to be His children?

I found some wonderful quotations along the way, posted on Sonderquotes:

“God works against evil and suffering.  But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.”

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Review of Beastly by Alex Flinn



by Alex Flinn

HarperTeen, New York, 2007.  304 pages.

Starred review.

Here’s a wonderful retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in modern-day New York City, told from the beast’s perspective.

I just saw the Twilight movie, and now I’m going to recommend Beastly to people who like the movie but don’t want to wait for 900 people on the request list for Twilight.  Although there are no vampires, Beastly has the same flavor of supernatural romance, told with beautiful writing.

Kyle Kingsbury knows he is the sure winner for ninth-grade prince of the spring dance court.  No one can compete with his looks and his dad’s cash.  When a creepy goth girl challenges the whole idea of voting based on looks, he reacts.

“She pissed me off, so I jumped on her.  ‘If someone’s so smart, they’d figure out how to get better-looking.  You could lose weight, get plastic surgery, even get your face scraped and your teeth bleached.’  I emphasized the you in the sentence, so she’d know I meant her and not just some general sort of you.  ‘My dad’s a network news guy.  He says people shouldn’t have to look at ugly people.'”

Later, Kyle thinks of a way to get her back for her disturbing words.  A way to utterly humiliate her at the spring dance.

The author convinces us that he completely deserves his curse:  to become a beast until he finds “someone willing to look beyond your hideousness and see some good in you, something to love.  If you will love her in return and if she will kiss you to prove it, the spell will be lifted, and you will be your handsome self again.  If not, you’ll stay a beast forever.”

When Kyle’s Dad is convinced that doctors can’t cure him, he rents Kyle a house in another part of the city with a housekeeper and a tutor, with thick shutters against the outside.  Kyle slowly shows the beginnings of transformation as he learns to grow roses and loves them.  So then when a junkie crashes into his greenhouse….

I love the way Alex Flinn worked in all the elements of the traditional tale.  I also loved the believable way she showed us Kyle changing, transforming.  And of course there’s the wonderful blooming of true love.

Between all that drama, there are hilarious interludes of transcripts from a chat room, the Unexpected Changes chat group, hosted by Mr. Anderson.  There’s a mermaid called SilentMaid, a former prince called Froggie, and someone called Grizzlyguy who’s met these two girls, Rose Red and Snow White (not *that* Snow White).

All this adds up to a truly delightful book that I hope will become wildly popular with teens.  And any adults who will admit to enjoying Twilight, let me urge you to give Beastly a try.

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Review of Swindle, by Gordon Korman



by Gordon Korman

Scholastic Press, New York, 2008.  252 pages. 

My homeschoolers’ book club chose to read Swindle because they like Gordon Korman books.  This book is fun reading with some serious underlying issues.

When Griffin Bing finds an old baseball card in a house about to be torn down, he naturally brings it to the local shop for collectibles, run by S. Wendell Palomino.  Palomino tells him it’s a fake and pays him $120, but soon after Griffin sees him on TV talking about the million dollar card he found in an estate sale — and it’s the card Griffin sold him.

It’s doesn’t seem right that S. Wendell should be able to swindle a kid and get away with it.  Meanwhile, his parents have sunk all their money in Griffin’s Dad’s invention, and they are going to have to move.  Griffin comes up with a daring but complicated plan involving a team of friends to steal the card back.

Stories of a daring heist are always fun.  This one happens to involve a group of kids, stealing back something they believe is rightfully theirs.  Again, Gordon Korman delivers a funny, absorbing story that will draw in both boys and girls.

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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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