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Friday, October 14

Curl Up with a Good Book!

What a great crop of books we have for you this month!!  Everything from autobiographies to get-lost-in-it fiction to children's books!!  Read on...

Adult Non-Fiction

Two centuries after his death, Alexander Hamilton is shining once more under the world’s spotlight—and we need him now more than ever. Hamilton was a self-starter. Scrappy. Orphaned as a child, he came to America with nothing but a code of honor and a hunger to work. He then went on to help win the Revolutionary War and ratify the Constitution, create the country’s financial system, charm New York’s most eligible ladies, and land his face on our $10 bill. The ultimate underdog, he combined a fearless, independent spirit with a much-needed dose of American optimism. As he made his mark on history, Hamilton also mastered the arts of wit, war, and wealth. He died before he could teach us these lessons, but Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life unlocks his core principles—intended for anyone interested in success, romance, money, or dueling. For history buffs and pop-culture addicts alike, this mix of biography, humor, and advice offers a fresh take on a nearly forgotten Founding Father, and will spark a revolution in your own life.

If you loved the musical Hamilton, or just love American history itself, this is a fantastic read. It should be part of high school and collegiate level assigned reading for history courses, as it's snarky enough to hold the reader's attention for long periods. Written chronologically, it details the life of one of our lesser-known (until the musical appeared) founding fathers. It's funny, it's educational, and it's worth the read!

Cuba! (Recipes and Stories from a Cuban Kitchen) (Dan Goldberg)
Cuba continues to captivate visitors with its vibrant culture, colorful cities, and incredible cuisine. Cuba! explores the magic of this country through recipes and stories that will set taste buds on fire and delight even the most well-seasoned traveler. Brazen, bold, and colorful, Cuba is a country that pulses with life. Fascinated by its people and their endlessly delicious home-cooked cuisine, friends Dan Goldberg and Andrea Kuhn have been visiting this magnetic country, capturing its passion and vibrancy, for the past five years. Dan, an award-winning photographer and Andrea, an acclaimed prop stylist and art director, along with renowned food writer Jody Eddy, bring the best of Cuban food to home kitchens with more than 75 meticulously tested recipes. From Cuban-Style Fried Chicken and Tostones Stuffed with Lobster and Conch, to Squid-ink Empanadas and Mojito Cake with Rum-Infused Whipped Cream, this book offers a unique opportunity to bring a little slice of Cuba into your home and onto your plate.

With the emergent relationship between the US and Cuba, I can only imagine that this book was intended to get folks interested in travelling to Cuba. The photographs are beautifully shot, showing all of the best sides of the island – but not necessarily the ‘real’ island. The same can be said about the recipes. It’s true that there are some wonderful recipes in here, which are easy to follow and easily reproduced in your kitchen, but they’re not necessarily the authentic Cuban recipes you may be seeking. Growing up in a Caribbean family (Cuban & Puerto Rican), I can tell you that there are a lot of classics missing from these pages. Where is the Arroz con Pollo? Where is the Bacalaito Frito or Asopao Criollo? Where are my grandmother’s recipes??? THESE are the authentic Cuban recipes that you’ll find in the Cuban grandmother’s kitchen – not the fancy, frou frou tourist restaurants whose recipes are featured here. Oh, the food and recipes are good, it’s true, but there are some glaring absences. One aspect of the book that I did like was the inclusion of stories. It seems like real folks were selected to include their stories and memories of island life, sandwiched between the recipes. It’s bright, it’s beautiful, and the food is good – but is it authentic? I’ll let you decide…

Spaceman (Mike Massimino)
Have you wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that’s about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on Earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble Space Telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you’re about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind’s chance to unlock the universe’s secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit, with all the zip and buoyancy of life in microgravity.  Massimino’s childhood space dreams were born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, he catapulted himself to Columbia and then MIT, only to flunk his first doctoral exam and be rejected three times by NASA before making it through the final round of astronaut selection.  Taking us through the surreal wonder and beauty of his first spacewalk, the tragedy of losing friends in the Columbia shuttle accident, and the development of his enduring love for the Hubble Telescope—which he and his fellow astronauts were tasked with saving on his final mission—Massimino has written an ode to never giving up and the power of teamwork to make anything possible. Spaceman invites us into a rare, wonderful world where science meets the most thrilling adventure, revealing just what having “the right stuff” really means.

My interest in the space program is by proxy – my sister always wanted to be an astronaut, even going as far as to attend Space Camp (you know, like the movie), and now my son is deeply passionate about space.  I picked up this book less because I was interested in space myself, than to become more knowledgeable about the things they are interested in.  Also – I recognized the author from the Big Bang Theory, and was surprised to see that the ‘actor’ was really just playing himself.  But anyway, in spite of my ignorance, the book didn’t disappoint!  The author is a fabulous storyteller, making what seems (to me) to be a very boring and technical subject something that I became interested in.  The biggest theme in the book is that if you are persistent enough, and willing to work with others as a team, you can go really far – and that’s a theme that’s applicable to most areas of life.  At times, the book was way too technical, and I did skip over some paragraphs here and there as I glazed over the technical stuff, but it was the story behind the man that was most interesting.  In spite of having these out-of-the-world experiences, the author truly remains very down-to-earth.  

With All Due Respect (Nina Roesner)
With All Due Respect is a handbook for parents navigating the difficulties of the tween and teen years. Roesner and Hitchcock help parents identify what successful relationships look like and give easy-to-follow lessons in enforcing rules, communicating lovingly, resetting relationships, overcoming fears and exhaustion, and handling rebellion. Each day features a story every mom can relate to, down-to-earth questions to think about, and a prayer to launch an action plan. As a result, the reader gains new skills and perspective, greater strength, and an ability to live out faith daily as never before. With All Due Respect is for all parents seeking not only to connect more deeply with and positively impact their teens and tweens, but also to grow more deeply in faith through the process.

I enjoyed reading this book, since it came at a timely fashion and is quite applicable right now.  It offers encouragement and sound advice for tackling the pre-teen and teen years.  It’s broken down into manageable bits – with forty days’ worth of reading and challenges.  Each day, you take on a new chapter and try it out.  Each day includes a scripture verse, a story that covers an aspect of parenting pre-teens & teens, reflection questions, and a prayer.  You can also skip around, if you need to try out something immediately.  I like what the author says; “We don’t promise a lack of conflict, by any means; all relationships will have conflict.”  But this book is about maintaining, and deepening, that relationship with your maturing child.

Lights Out (Ted Koppel)

Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before.  It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.”  And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid.  The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.  In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?  With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

This is a short, quick read that will slap you sideways if you’ve never considered any doomsday scenarios before.  The book is divided into three sections :  (1) a technical description of the grid and argument for its vulnerability, (2) documented lack of planning by our government, based on several interviews with high-ranking leaders, and (3) how individuals and communities can help to plan against an inevitable event.  Admittedly, the first section is pretty dry, but it’s also necessary to help set up the facts needed to understand the rest of the book.  It’s a very realistic look at something that will most likely eventually happen, but something so big that no large group (other than maybe ‘preppers’) has tried to find a way around.  Koppel shows us that (a) the electric grid of the U.S. is extremely vulnerable to collapse due to either cyberwarfare, EMP attack, or solar flare; (b) due to a variety of economic and political reasons, we have not implemented necessary steps to protect the grid; and (c) most frighteningly of all, we do not have emergency plans on either the state or federal level to deal with a widespread collapse of the grid.  Not a feel-good book, but one that is definitely worth reading all the same.

Adult Fiction

Mattie's Pledge (Jan Drexler)
Mattie Schrock is no stranger to uprooting her life. Even as her father relocated her family from one Amish community to the next, she always managed to find a footing in their new homes. Now as the Schrock family plans to move west from Somerset County to a fledgling Amish settlement in Indiana, she looks forward to connecting with old friends who will be joining them from another Pennsylvania community--friends like Jacob Yoder, who has always held a special place in her heart.  Since Mattie last saw Jacob, they've both grown into different people with different dreams. Jacob yearns to settle down, but Mattie can't help but dream of what may lie over the western horizon. When a handsome Englisher tempts her to leave the Amish behind to search for adventure in the West, will her pledge to Jacob be the anchor that holds her secure?  Tender, poignant, and gentle, Mattie's Pledge offers readers a glimpse into Amish life in the 1840s--and into the yearning heart of a character they'll not soon forget.

We are studying the Oregon Trail right now for school, so this was a great reading find!  While they don't go to Oregon, they do face many of the same trials and tribulations that we are learning about.  There are three main characters - each has their own strengths and faults, and they are all easy to relate to - but after a long journey, with many struggles along the way, the love story works itself out in the end.  If you're a fan of Amish fiction, but tired of the same old story line over and over again, this will be a good one for you to try out!

Waves of Mercy (Lynn Austin)
Geesje de Jonge crossed the ocean at age seventeen with her parents and a small group of immigrants from the Netherlands to settle in the Michigan wilderness. Fifty years later, in 1897, she's asked to write a memoir of her early experiences as the town celebrates its anniversary. Reluctant at first, she soon uncovers memories and emotions hidden all these years, including the story of her one true love.  At the nearby Hotel Ottawa Resort on the shore of Lake Michigan, twenty-three-year-old Anna Nicholson is trying to ease the pain of a broken engagement to a wealthy Chicago banker. But her time of introspection is disturbed after a violent storm aboard a steamship stirs up memories of a childhood nightmare. As more memories and dreams surface, Anna begins to question who she is and whether she wants to return to her wealthy life in Chicago. When she befriends a young seminary student who is working at the hotel for the summer, she finds herself asking him all the questions that have been troubling her.  Neither Geesje nor Anna, who are different in every possible way, can foresee the life-altering surprises awaiting them before the summer ends.

We visited this area a couple of years ago, and studied about the Dutch immigrants in Michigan – Holland, MI – and it was just really fascinating!  The historical details included in this novel brought back that entire trip.  They were really accurate, and so I can only assume that the ones about the Netherlands were just as accurate, and now I’ve taken a virtual trip there as well.  The characters are believable and easy to relate to, and the storyline itself is very easy to follow.  One of the main themes of the book is ‘healing.’  My biggest beef with the story was the perspective.  It was different from most of the stories that I read, and was occasionally difficult to follow.  Overall, though, it was a very nice read.

Long Way Gone (Charles Martin)
At the age of eighteen, musician and songwriter Cooper O’Connor took everything his father held dear and drove 1,200 miles from home to Nashville, his life riding on a six-string guitar and the bold wager that he had talent. But his wager soon proved foolish.  Five years after losing everything, he falls in love with Daley Cross, an angelic voice in need of a song. But just as he realizes his love for Daley, Cooper faces a tragedy that threatens his life as well as his career. With nowhere else to go, he returns home to the remote Colorado mountains, searching for answers about his father and his faith.  When Daley shows up on his street corner twenty years later, he wonders if it’s too late to tell her the truth about his past—and if he is ready to face it himself.  A radical retelling of the prodigal son story, Long Way Gone takes us from tent revivals to the Ryman Auditorium to the tender relationship between a broken man and the father who never stopped calling him home.

This was a page-turner for me, partly because of the music aspect.  Fans of our blog will immediately recognize just how large a role music plays in our family’s life – from the musical ditties we create for our special needs son to learn basic skills all the way down to the fact that each blog post is titled with a song.  Having the music intertwined with the story kept me interested and moving along.  The story itself was also captivating – it is a retelling of the Prodigal Son, which means that the spiritual aspect is woven into it as well, and the characters are believable as they cope with their personal struggles.  While it ended a little strange for me, overall, it was a pretty good read, and one that is different from most of the things I’ve read lately (which is another plus).

The Devoted (Suzanne Woods Fisher) 
Bright, curious, and restless, Ruthie Stoltzfus loves her family but is stuck in a sea of indecision about her future: Should she stay Amish? Or should she leave? She's done all she can to prepare to go--passed the GED, saved her money--but she can't quite set her journey into motion.  Patrick Kelly is a young man on a journey of his own. He's come to Stoney Ridge to convert to the Amish and has given himself thirty days to learn the language, drive a buggy, and adapt to "everything Plain." Time, to Patrick, is of the essence. Every moment is to be cherished, especially the hours he spends with Ruthie, his Penn Dutch tutor.  Ruthie's next-door neighbor and cunning ex-boyfriend, Luke Schrock, is drawn to trouble like a moth to a flame. Rebellious, headstrong, defiant, Luke will do anything to win Ruthie back--anything--and Patrick Kelly is getting in his way.  Bestselling author Suzanne Woods Fisher invites readers back to Stoney Ridge for a story of dreams deferred and hopes fulfilled--complete with Fisher's signature twists that never fail to leave readers delighted.

While I haven’t read the first two books in this series (The Imposter & The Quieting), this book works very well as a stand-alone story.  The characters are well developed and any necessary backstory is provided, without a complete rehashing of the other two books.  Unlike many Amish books, the English world is a very big part of this book – and we get to see the dichotomy of those two worlds as they collide and the characters try to sort out their place in each world.  Themes of forgiveness, understanding, hope, jealousy, and pride are all brought up throughout the book, and they are resolved through faith and family.  I think the author does a fantastic job of portraying what is probably a very real struggle for some members of the Amish community, and conveying the story in a way that Englishers can relate.

Children's Books

Gilt Hollow (Lorie Langdon) 
Willow Lamott’s best friend is a convicted killer, and no one in the small town of Gilt Hollow will let her forget it. Over four long years, she’s tried to fade into the background—but none of that matters when Ashton Keller comes striding into school, fresh out of juvie and fueled by revenge. The moment their eyes meet, Willow no longer feels invisible. Drawn to the vulnerability behind Ashton’s mask of rage, she sinks deeper into his sinister world and begins to question whether he’s a villain, a savior, or both. Ashton thought he wanted vengeance, until Willow Lamott stepped back into his life. Now he longs to clear his name and become the person she sees in him. But the closer they get to uncovering the truth, the darker the secrets become, and Ashton wonders if his return to Gilt Hollow will destroy everyone he loves.

It’s autumn here, and it’s autumn in Gilt Hollow…a little town that will remind you of Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The town itself is a character in this novel, and probably my favorite. While the story line was fascinating, it seemed to drag on forever. It could have been 2/3 the length without losing anything. There is a lot of teenage angst, but the characters have good values, and it’s also a mystery. So while you, as an adult, may not get into this, you can feel comfortable with the fact that your teenage girls will probably love it!

Jesus : 365-Day Devotional (ZonderKidz)
Jesus isn’t just found in the New Testament of the Bible—mentions, whispers, and echoes of Him can be found throughout the Bible. There are hundreds of clues and promises about Jesus in the Old Testament, which are fulfilled in the New Testament. Jesus: A 365-Day Devotional helps 8-12 year olds understand these revealing verses about Jesus from the beginning of the Bible to the end. Each devotional includes a Scripture, an explanation, and a prayer for reflection to help children discover that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is a promised fulfilled for all of us. God promised he would send a deliverer, and He did. Jesus is ready and waiting for you.

This is a good 'first' devotional to introduce your child to daily readings. It would be good for circle time in a homeschool setting or as a family togetherness time each evening. Each devotional starts with a verse, includes a story and application, and then ends with a prayer. The pages are very colorful, with a teal and white theme. Verses are printed one way, while the story and applications for story are printed in the inverse colors. Some of the printing is blue on blue (different shades), which makes it difficult to read, but this is not in that many places and doesn't detract from the overall beauty of the book itself.

Love Letters from God (ZonderKidz)
What child does not love to receive mail? What if that child could receive, open and read his or her own personal mail from God? The Love Letters from God will invite them to do just that! Accompanying each story in this unique children’s Bible is a very special and encouraging letter, each tucked away in its own lift-the-flap envelope, just for them. Written for children ages four to eight, the Love Letters from God includes eighteen of the most popular Bible stories―nine from the Old Testament and nine from the New Testament. Following each story the child will find his or her own letter from God. Children will love the excitement of opening the letters and parents will love how each letter elaborates on the Bible story being told. A very special Bible verse, entitled God’s Wonderful Words To You will accompany each story and letter. Much more than a mere memory verse, each carefully chosen promise will be God’s very own personal words of love, encouragement, and hope. This book will culminate in an invitation for the children to write their own RSVP to God.

This book highlights some of the best Bible stories showing love. Each is retold for the young audience, and includes a short memory verse. At the end of each story, there is a lift-the-flap letter from God that can be personally addressed to your child. Do you remember The Jolly Postman? It was one of our favorite books as children – and this reminds me a lot of that book. It’s very hands-on, which usually appeals to young children. There’s also a spot for them to write back to God. The illustrations are engaging and the writing is at an appropriate level. The repetition, coupled with the hands-on elements and memory verses, ensures that they’ll be learning something as you enjoy a little snuggle time!

The Berenstain Bears Bedtime Devotional is perfect for little cubs settling down for a good night’s sleep. Including a devotion for each day with a reflection, Scripture, and a Bear Prayer for the End of Day from Brother, Sister, and even Honey Bear, these 90 reflections on simple Christian truths such as God loves us, love one another, be courageous and kind, and much more are the peaceful way to end a busy day.

I loved reading the Berenstain Bears as a child, and am loving being able to share them with my children now.  Each of the ninety devotions is focused on something that happens within the Bear Family.  Then related scriptures are covered and there is further discussion on appropriate responses.  The devotions are short, sweet, and to the point.  It’s a perfect beginner’s devotional to read with preschool aged children.

I received some of these books in exchange for an honest review.

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