Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mount TBR Reading Challenge Book List

In addition to my own Victorian Reading Challenge, I'm really looking forward to the Mount TBR Reading Challenge from My Reader's Block---the challenge that encourages us to read from our already-established To Be Read shelves. I'm going all out this year and attempting the Mt. Vancouver level at 36 books. 

Here are the 36 books I'm planning to read from Mount TBR to fulfill the challenge. Some of these will also fulfill my Victorian Reading Challenge. (update Jan. 19th--I'll be replacing some of these titles with others as I'm trying to clean up my reading a bit...)

  1. Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  3. Rise Above by Peg Willis
  4. The Blessed by Ann H. Gabhart
  5. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  6. The Little Book for Girls by M. L. Stratton
  7. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  8. Tesla: The Life and Times of the Electric Messiah by Nigel Cawthorne
  9. Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters by Daniel Pool
10. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
11. The Illustrated Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
12. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schoenwerth
14. The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer
16. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
17. When Others Shuddered by Jamie Janosz--read 1/2 and abandoned 1/3/16
20. Prairie City by Angie Debo
21. Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss
22. Evangeline and Selected Tales and Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
23. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
24. Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert
26. Emma Brown by Charlotte Bronte and Clare Boylan
27. How to Think Like Sherlock by Daniel Smith
28. At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
30. The Covered Deep by Brandy Vallance
31. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
32. A Passion for the Impossible by Miriam Huffman Rockness
33. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
35. A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Bronte by Katherine Frank
36. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

Do you have a Mount TBR that's ready to erupt? Consider joining a Reading Challenge!

2016 Reading Challenges

At the beginning of 2015, I was feeling relaxed and peaceful and ready to take on loads of reading. I did great up until about May or so...then preparations for my England trip got crazy and I didn't read very much. I'm really hoping to commit to that relaxation and peacefulness for 2016 and am excited to join the following reading challenges.

First, there's my own Victorian Reading Challenge. Super excited about this one! Here are the books from my To Be Read shelf, as well as my permanent collection, that I plan to read this year: Victorian Reading Challenge Book List.

There's another Victorian Reading Challenge at Becky's Book Reviews---a Bingo style!

Next, the Women's Fiction Reading Challenge from Book Date. I'm choosing the Savvy level at 6-10 books. 

Also from Book Date is the Full House Reading Challenge. I did this one last year and really had fun with it!

I'm really looking forward to the Mount TBR Reading Challenge from My Reader's Block---the challenge that encourages us to read from our already-established To Be Read shelves. I'm going all out this year and attempting the Mt. Vancouver level at 36 books. I've listed the books I'm challenging myself with here: 2016 Mount TBR Reading Challenge Book List.

There you have it! My 2016 Reading Challenge goals. I'm excited to hear about the goals you all have for your 2016 reading!

Monday, December 21, 2015

2016 Victorian Reading Challenge --- Join Us!

More than any other time in modern history, in my opinion, the Victorian Age saw the most change to European and American societies. Many agrarian, rural communities transitioned to urban centers of industry. Men and women began to talk about and take steps toward redefining their traditional roles. Theories about God, the origin of man, and the practice of religion began to be publicly put forth, challenged, refuted, or solidified. The Victorian Age saw a great revolution in the western world and it's a topic that fascinates me endlessly.

Over the past few months, I've collected a good stack of Victorian novels and have several on my Christmas list. With an upcoming trip to England, including a visit to the Brontes old stomping grounds, I've got Victoriana on the brain. This year's reading challenge will be all about the Victorians.

The Rules
  • Books published during the Victorian age (1837-1901) are acceptable. 
  • Books written about the Victorian age are acceptable, no matter what year they were published. (Here are some ideas)
  • Stories are not limited to Victorian Britain. Read about what was going on in other parts of the world during this time!
  • Challenge is open to everyone everywhere---you don't have to have a blog or site to join. Just enter the link to your online review (Amazon, Goodreads, BookCrossing, or elsewhere)---or just participate by leaving comments on this post.

How to Join
  • Leave a comment below letting me know you're in and add your blog link if you have one. You can link directly to your home page or to a post you've written about the challenge.
  • Add the button below to your site so your friends can join up too!
Belle's Library
Please direct all questions to

Friday, October 9, 2015

How to Love {and Actually READ} Classic Literature: A Christian Guide to the Classics by Leland Ryken #FCBlogger

I've always considered myself a bit of a scholar. {Bwahahahahahahaha!!} If you actually know me you will probably crack right up at that statement because, as a student, I was one of those teacher's pet, big-headed, full of herself kids who usually went above and beyond without having to try too hard. As an adult, I've realized that I don't really know much about what it takes to actually function in real life---but I can beat you at any version of Trivial Pursuit ever made and I've got a song or pop culture reference for just about anything that anyone says. Not really important stuff to keep the world spinning...

I mention all this to say that, a few years ago, I decided to actually challenge myself and dive into the classics. I fudged my way through my Advanced Literature classes in high school by skimming the books, watching the film versions, memorizing Cliff's Notes---whatever I had to do to make myself look like I knew what I was talking about. Writing came naturally to me so everyone figured I was a literature whiz too, but the truth was that my attention span was super short and my reading comprehension was actually pretty immature compared to the other "scholars" I associated with.

The classics of literature can be really intimidating at first, but some are far less challenging than others. For instance, it's taken me a really long time to understand and appreciate Jane Austen, while I was hooked on the Brontes years ago. Shakespeare is still almost impossible for me but Charles Dickens and I could definitely have been buds. I think the thing that has helped me more than anything else is that I've taken the time to read a lot of nonfiction and have learned about, and even visited, the historical cultures in which many of these were set. When you can imagine the scenes in your head, it makes understanding so much easier. When you read Austen's, Northanger Abbey, and know the layout of the city of Bath, you can insert yourself right into the story.

In A Christian Guide to the Classics, author Lelad Ryken aims to explain what the classics are, how to read them, and why they're important to us today. He says, "the classics have a particular knack for capturing what is universal in human experience." This is right on. There's an annoying song (see I told you...) that goes, "People are people wherever you roam..." ...and that's the truth. We enjoy the classics because we can relate to them. We see people in a different historical and cultural setting battling the same stuff and making the same choices that we face today. Because we tend to look back in time with rose colored glasses, coupled with the fact that we know society is still going strong after all the struggles they've faced, this gives us hope. The classics give us comfort.

One point he made that the snarky, big-headed part of me loves is his "Bad Practice #4: View(ing) the classics as being sacred and beyond criticism." He says, "Among the literati who treasure literature and the arts, the possibility always exists that they will give literature and the arts a higher position than they deserve." I had some great literature instructors in my school years but, bless 'em, they wouldn't tolerate any negative criticism of their beloved icons of literature. The more "classics" you read, the more you'll find that there's a lot of junk out there. I'm not talking "inappropriate", I'm talking bad writing. (*cough, cough* Mary Shelley's, Frankenstein, *ahem, cough*)

In addition to some great tools and practical thoughts for study, Ryken includes a list of several classics---secular and Christian---to get you started reading. Though the guide is written for Christian readers, he makes a great case for reading the secular classics, as well. There are several on this list I'm not familiar with so I'm excited to check them out.

I guess the thing to remember is that the classics aren't any different than other literature. When you learn about the times in which these people were writing, you'll find that Jane Austen wrote about every day life in the early 18-teens the same way that Debbie Macomber, Kate Morton, and Amy Tan write about every day life today. She wasn't setting out to write amazing pieces of literature that would endure for centuries---she was a just a regular girl like me who had something to say and wanted someone else to appreciate it. (Side note: I'd argue that Amy Tan's novels are instant classics and she's going to endure for centuries...just saying...)

I have so much more I want to say on this subject so be on the lookout for some follow ups. For now, I'll just say---don't miss out on some of history's greatest literature out of fear and intimidation. Challenge yourself to become a well-read individual and you'll see that's it's really not as difficult as you're expecting. Get some classics under your belt---then, let's play Trivial Pursuit!

Make sure to visit Family Christian for this and more books by Leland Ryken and enter to win a $10 Gift Certificate from Family Christian below. (Rafflecopter widget may take a minute or two to load.) a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, September 11, 2015

Longing for Paris by Sarah Mae -- Guest Book Review

Lynzie and I are gone to England so my friends are running the show! I'm so excited to welcome my friend Jennifer as a guest blogger today! Jennifer was my roomie when I went to England in 2013 and is one of my dearest friends. She blogs at Chickadee Manor.

In Sarah Mae’s latest book, Longing For Paris, she writes about her longings to experience the beauty and culture of Paris and her search to find out if her dreams and longings are Biblical or simply selfish desires.  As she explores the idea of longings we are presented with an amazing picture of God’s love for us and the love and intention He had when He formed each of us in our mothers' wombs.  Many of us have stifled or sacrificed our dreams and longings along the way and yet these feelings and desires still surface again and again.

I’ve been so concerned with being “right” and “good” that I never stopped to contemplate the heart of my Father and His pleasure over the things that stir my heart…He designed me.  He put the very ability to long in my soul.  He gave me the gift of dreaming so I could have vision in this life. – Sarah Mae

Longing For Paris offers up practical ways that we can bring our longings into our everyday lives.  While most of us don’t have the resources to travel the world with our families or drop our day to day existence to experience the exotic, we can nurture the individual longings that God has placed in our hearts.  This book is an encouragement to be in communion with our God and to both cultivate the longings He has placed within us and to give those back to Him so that He is glorified in our lives.  It is a call to appreciate our surroundings in the life stage we are currently in and to live our lives fully awake.  

We can choose to trust God with our dreams and longings because He is a loving Father who wants the best for us and who delights in us, especially when we are shining our lights brightly, being the people He designed us to be. 

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that the God who holds it is good. – Sarah Me

I felt refreshed and inspired by Longing For Paris and felt that my perspective on life was that much brighter after being reminded of God’s care in uniquely creating each one of us.  Sarah Mae encourages us to live authentically and to realize that nothing on earth will fully satisfy us because we were made for heaven in all of its perfection.  The glimpses of beauty and wonder we see on earth remind of us of how wonderful our eternal home will be and that one day we will be completely fulfilled at last.

Jen is happily married to Dwayne and together they have five sweet kiddos - two sons and three daughters.  She hails from Canada’s Northwest Territories where they make a life enjoying the great outdoors, homeschooling, running a family business, and trying all sorts of creative pursuits.  Her blog, Chickadee Manor, captures some of the fun and beauty in the world around her.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Tale of Despereaux By Kate DiCamillo -- Guest Book Review

Lynzie and I are having a blast in England. She helped me out a little before we left by writing up this guest book review to share with you all. Lynzie blogs at Thoughts From a Young Writer.

This book has enchanted me since the day I read it. I checked it out from the library, curious about what it would be like. I then fell in love with it, and recently read it for the fourth time!

The story is about a little mouse named Despereaux Tilling, the youngest of the Tilling family. He was not very smart, and looked funny with his large ears. He comes upon a story, one day, about a young princess, and soon decides that he will be a hero too! He meets a real princess above the castle named Pea and falls in love. But to his horror, the first and most followed rule was broken: no mouse must appear before a human. Despereaux is then sent to the rat-infested dungeon, where he fights off rats and darkness to save the Princess from the evil rat, Roscoro.

A young girl named Miggery Sow also appears in the story. She is a young maid who desperately wants to become a princess, after sighting Pea years before. She teams up with Roscoro and kidnaps the lovely Pea, forcing her to teach Miggery how to be a princess.

This story is full of light, rats, perfidy, soup, and quests. My favorite part is when Despereaux meets the princess and calls the King’s music, “heaven”, and “honey”.

I also have a few favorite quotes, such as this one in chapter three:

“Despereaux looked down at the book, and something remarkable happened. The marks on the pages, the “squiggles” as Merlot referred to them, arranged themselves into words, and the words, and the words spelled out a delicious and wonderful phrase: Once upon a time.”
“Reader, you may ask this question; in fact you must ask this question: Is it ridiculous for a very small, sickly, big-eared mouse to fall in love with a beautiful human princess named Pea?
The answer is…yes. Of course, it’s ridiculous. Love is ridiculous.
But love is ridiculous.
But love is wonderful. And powerful.”

Also, chapter forty-five: 

“Cook turned away from him. She put the candle down, and picked up her spoon and started to stir. “Oh,” she said, “these are dark days.” He shook her head. “And I’m kidding myself. There ain’t no point in making soup unless others eat it. Soup needs another mouth to taste it, another heart to be warmed by it.”

This book is truly amazing and cannot be put down. It would be a great book to go on a wish list.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins -- Guest Post

Thanks to mom for filling in this week while Lynzie and I are in England. I loaned her my copy of The Moonstone and was thrilled to hear her thoughts on it!

I just finished reading one of the best mystery novels of all time. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins was first published in 1868. This talented author was born in London in 1824 and published more than twenty six novels in his career, making him one of Britain's most popular writers. He compares, without a doubt, to other accomplished writers such as, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Dickens, whom he actually met and became friends with in 1851.

This entertaining story is set in a comfortable English country home in the year 1848. It is told in the first person words of several of the main characters, each telling their story regarding a missing valuable diamond which was gifted to the lady of the manor's daughter, Rachel, at her eighteenth birthday party.

I loved the mix of characters and respected Gabriel Betteridge the most for his honesty in all things. He was the elderly house steward who was outspoken and kept to his convictions at all times. His constant reading of Robinson Crusoe was an adorable addition to this story.

Sargent Cuff reminded me of an old fashioned "Columbo" from the 1960's and 1970's "whodunit" TV show starring Peter Falk. All Mr. Cuff needed was a glass eye and a rumpled coat to complete his look!

The fanatic Miss Clack was the classic copy of some women I have known who will never take no for an answer. I am sure she invented Obsessive Compulsive Disorder before anyone even knew what OCD was. I love how she decided to leave her hoard of tracts to Rachel as a legacy in her will!
I have to say, the ending of this book was perfect and I was shaking my head at how easy the task of guessing who the thief was should have been. This author did a great job of keeping me guessing.
I would recommend this suspense-filled detective story to anyone, young or old, who enjoys a good mystery!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

English Tea Customs: Three-Book Review

The Orangery at Kensington Palace, London. One of the loveliest places I've been.

My daughter, Lynzie, and I are headed to England in only 12 days! It will be her first trip there and I can't wait to show her all of my favorite spots in Bath, Winchester, and Jane Austen's Chawton Village. I've been immersing myself in relevant reading and research---trying to make it a memorable experience for her.

I brought home lots of books when I visited in 2013, among them were a few on the customs of tea and tea drinking. It's only been this past summer that I've taken the time to read through them and I'm more excited than ever now to take Lynzie to tea at the Regency Tea Room at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. I went there twice last time I was in England---it's the best!

The Etiquette of an English Tea by Beryl Peters
This is a fun little book that I picked up at the gift shop in Kensington Palace. In addition to practical advice for those having tea both in a group and alone, it gives recipes and tips for which tea to drink depending on the time of day and what you're taking it with. There's even a part on how to read tea leaves!

Tea and Tea Drinking by Claire Masset
I absolutely love the collection of books put out by Shire Library. They've got a book on just about anything British that you can imagine. I found this one, along with another on Regency era costuming, at the Jane Austen Centre gift shop in Bath. I read the costuming one on the way home and didn't even finish it. They're so full of great information and beautiful illustrations that they take hours to consume and even longer to mull over. Among other interesting things, I learned that the lady of the home was in charge of the tea cabinet and kept the key to it in her possession, lest the servants break in and pilfer the expensive tea! One of my favorite photographs featured was the tea canisters with the Alice In Wonderland artwork---advertising this new release to the British people!

Tea with the Bennets by Margaret Vaughan

I can't wait to make some of the delicious recipes found in this book! I also picked it up at the Jane Austen Centre and am so glad I did. It's full of fun P&P quotes, as well as all kinds of recipes that I can't imagine finding anywhere this side of the pond. find myself a handy dandy mls/grams conversion table...

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott -- Guest Post Book Review

I absolutely love having guest bloggers on my blogs---especially this one as it's fun to hear other peoples' thoughts on books they enjoy. Today my mom, Christy, is guest posting about a book she borrowed from me, The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott. I love anything having to do with the Edwardian/Titanic eras and this one doesn't disappoint!

I just finished reading this fabulous fiction by Kate Alcott, called The Dressmaker, which was written in 2012 but set in 1912. Ms. Alcott (I wonder if she is related to Louisa May) is a journalist who lives in Washington, DC and has covered politics there.

This is a fast-paced story written around a young, ambitious women named Tess. She wants to be a dress designer and finds herself aboard the Titanic and on her way to New York with her dreams and aspirations.

I love how the author has included plenty of the actual people who were on the Titanic on that horrific day of the sinking of the ship. One of the people aboard ship was Lady Duff Gordon, a world-famous designer of the times, who escaped along with her husband and her secretary. There was actually much controversy surrounding events that happened in their sparsely-filled lifeboat---which were told later.

Much of this novel is a fictional tale based on true events such as, what really happened in the lifeboats that night and the social and political events happening in New York this same year. We get to sit in on the hearings at the Senate Chamber and other interesting actual occurrences. The fight of Women's suffrage was very interesting and gave me several things to ponder about.

I felt like this story showed the integrity of Tess, Jim, Jack, Pinky, and others, while also giving grace to some of the survivors who made bad choices due to their own fears or selfishness. I think the character, Elinor, described Lady Duff Gordon perfectly, for this particular fiction, when she said, "Don't you see, dear? She is your Pygmalion."

I loved the romantic way this story ended and how it kept me guessing who Tess would choose to be her soul mate.

My favorite part of the book was the last paragraph of the author's note. It made me want to do some investigating on the birth of Millvina Dean. Maybe I should change my name to Pinky and become a reporter!

Ultimately, "For everything there is a season..."

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin -- Book Review

Ok y'all...I'll try really hard to make this article a little more substantial than just, oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness!!! You HAVE to read this book!! Because seriously, once you read it, you'll see why that little freak out is more than enough. Melanie Benjamin's, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is easily the very best book I've read in a really long time. I loved everything about it---the setting, the characters, the story, the narration. It is just a wonderfully flawless story that played like a movie in my mind the entire time I was reading it.

From Amazon: She was only two feet, eight inches tall, but more than a century later, her legend reaches out to us. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Warren Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and became the world’s most unexpected celebrity. Vinnie’s wedding captivated the nation, preempted coverage of the Civil War, and even ushered her into the White House. But her fame also endangered the person she prized most: her similarly sized sister, Minnie, a gentle soul unable to escape the glare of Vinnie’s spotlight. A barnstorming novel of the Gilded Age, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the irresistible epic of a heroine who conquered the country with a heart as big as her dreams—and whose story will surely win over yours.

According to the author's notes at the end, a good majority of this work is either definitely factual or probably pretty close to the truth. I just love stories like that because they lead me down rabbit trails to learn about things I never knew I was interested in.

I love reading about America's Gilded Age and trying to find out ways to work words like, "phantasmagoria", "omnibus", and "automaton" into conversation. I also love a book that uses a great story to teach me about a piece of history long forgotten. I found myself feeling a range of emotions for Vinnie, but mostly sad. While some would call her a success and a star, I was sad for her that she really actually failed, over and over, at the things that matter most in life.

I often found myself putting this down to look up places and people: the Barnums, The Five Points in NYC, Jenny Lind, magic lanterns, Anna Dickinson, and more. The novel was obviously well-researched and the author used the information in a way that seemed natural and interesting. I found Benjamin's other story, Alice, I Have Been, at my library last night. I can't wait to jump in and enjoy it soon!

{reading challenge info to be added here soon}

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Early Spring Reading: The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Study of Jane Austen

Wow---spring has arrived, and lots of busyness with it! I've made it a point to read every day---but sometimes it's only three or four pages! I say, bring on the cold weather again---I get more reading in that way!

I'm currently reading Dickens', Great Expectations and totally loving it---which is a good thing because the two I read before that were t.e.r.r.i.b.l.e. Like, if I wasn't so concerned with keeping posts up on this blog, I'd not even take the time to review them. In fact, you're not even getting a review on these---you're getting a random mess of thoughts...and then a big fat THE END.

I'll never be able to express to you the depths of loathing I feel for The Picture of Dorian Gray. It reminds me of Victorian London---you know, that one time when they pretty much dumped every kind of imaginable offalous waste into the Thames and no one knew the danger until it was too late...people got sick...people wasn't good. Yeah, I'm thinking Oscar Wilde found him a shady spot down by the Thames one day and became inspired by the putridity and just went to town on this one.

Book Description: "In this celebrated work, his only novel, Wilde forged a devastating portrait of the effects of evil and debauchery on a young aesthete in late-19th-century England. Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. For over a century, this mesmerizing tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde's most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind."

No. No, I must disagree. Not mesmerizing. Not really all that suspenseful or horrible. Devastating, yes, but only because I'd promised my 15-year-old daughter that I'd read it and wanted to stop after like 20 pages. She's decided it's her current favorite book. She obviously doesn't get it. Besides the extreme use of adjectives and melodrama, the cross-dressing and nitric acid were a little much. I didn't really dig the whole effeminate man thing. But, then again, I like my men to actually be men, you know? Moving the incinerator...

Another book I read recently was A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen by Richard Jenkyns. It wasn't so much that I didn't enjoy it---just that there wasn't a lot of new information here. However, there was a new way of presenting some of the already-known info, so that was refreshing. I really like the comparison he makes between the Psalms and the opening pages of Pride and Prejudice. He talked about Austen's lyrical style being derived from her life as the daughter of a man of the church. That was interesting and something I'd not considered before. 

I do think his comparing her to Monty Python might have been a bit much, and he does overuse the term, priggish. I really didn't like his position on Mr. Bennet's supposed lack of love for his wife. Makes me wonder if this guy has been married, because he's obviously ignorant of the fun banter between long-married friends. I liked the study of the two movie Darcys on page 88, but I think this author is extremely hung up on the concept of sexual frustration.  All in all, I'd say don't even attempt this one unless you're familiar with each of Austen's stories and their characters. For the Austenite who thinks she's read it all, this one is something new.

Book Description: "Jane Austen's work was a true triumph of the comic spirit--of deep comedy, rising from the heart of human life. In A Fine Brush on Ivory, Richard Jenkyns takes us on an amiable tour of Austen's fictional world, opening a window on some of the great works of world literature.Focusing largely on Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, but with many diverting side trips to Austen's other novels, Jenkyns shines a loving light on the exquisite craftsmanship and profound moral imagination that informs her writing. Readers will find, for instance, a wonderful discussion of characterization in Austen. Jenkyns's insight into figures such as Mr. Bennett or Mrs. Norris is brilliant--particularly his portrait of the amusing, clever, always ironic Mr. Bennett, whose humor (Jenkyns shows) arises out of a deeply unhappy and disappointing marriage. The author pays due homage to Austen's unmatched skill with complex plotting--the beauty with which the primary plot and the various subplots are woven together--highlighting the infinite care she took to make each plot detail as natural and as plausible as possible. Perhaps most important, Jenkyns illuminates the heart of Austen's moral imagination: she is constantly aware, throughout her works, of the nearness of evil to the comfortable social surface. She knows that the socially acceptable sins may be truly cruel and vicious, knows that society can be red in tooth and claw, and yet she allows the pleasures of comedy and celebration to subordinate them. 
Insightful and highly entertaining, A Fine Brush on Ivory captures the spirit and originality of Jane Austen's work. It will be a cherished keepsake or gift for her many fans."

The Picture of Dorian Gray fulfills the following challenges: Full House challenge for "Been on Your TBR Forever," and the New To You challenge for New Author. A Fine Brush on Ivory fulfills the following challenges: Full House challenge for "You Heard About the Book Online," TBR challenge book #7, and the New To You challenge for New Author. Visit my Reading Challenges post for more info on the challenges I'm doing this year. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ Book Review {A Bit on Ethan Frome, as well...}

I've been raving to my friends lately about how much I love Nathaniel Hawthorne. Well, his works anyway...although one friend and I agree he was pretty much a babe in his younger years. I've gone on about him so much that I put myself in the mood to reread The Scarlet Letter, a book I hadn't read in about six years, and before that, not since 7th grade. Each time I read this, I find I get so much more out of it and I sympathize with different characters' points of view.

Most people are familiar with the story, but here's a little bit---just in case:

Book Description: "Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a dark tale of love, crime, and revenge set in colonial New England. It revolves around a single, forbidden act of passion that forever alters the lives of three members of a small Puritan community: Hester Prynne, an ardent, fierce, and ultimately ostracized woman who bears the symbol of her sin--the letter A stitched into the breast of her gown--in humble silence; the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected public figure who is inwardly tormented by long-hidden guilt; and the malevolent Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband--a man who seethes with an Ahab-like lust for vengeance."

In my opinion, one must really be able to relate to Hester's point of view, in order to really get all there is to get out of The Scarlet Letter. Yeah, you can be the scorned and bitter type and get Chillingworth, you can be the self-hating man with a martyr complex and get Dimmesdale, but to get Hester, you've got to understand redemption. You've got to "get" grace. Not everyone who reads Hester sympathizes with Hester. You sort of have to have been Hester to get it---and I think that's kind of the direction he ultimately goes with this story. As time goes by, the townspeople start to see that sin doesn't have to define, disable, or destroy the sinner. How we come out of the mess and move on determines our character. The townspeople went from loathing her to lauding her---all because she took what was coming to her like a lady and didn't let it get the best of her.

Before I share my favorite bits from the story, here's a few thoughts on Nathaniel Hawthorne. I'm seriously approaching annoying fan girl status when it comes to him. I love everything I've ever read of his---but I can't really pin it down to one thing. I think one big thing is that he writes about a part of history that's starting to become almost mythical---Colonial America. I love reading about the Salem Witch Trials and the Colonists' struggle to stay true to their understanding of the Bible in the face of so much opposition and hardship. I also really like how Hawthorne writes about the hypocrisy of self-righteous leaders and always seems to have a soft spot for the one who finds himself or herself not measuring up to the law---whether God's or man's. Hawthorne's ancestors were prominent colonial leaders who played a part in the condemning of early settlers, both during the Witch Trials and after. I've always thought his writings might be a form of penance for their mistakes and he confirms this in the intro to this book.

The story of how he was inspired to write The Scarlet Letter is an interesting one. There's a lot of back story as he explains it all in his introduction---it can get rather boring. The reader can probably just skip ahead to the part where he begins, They were documents, in short, (page 27 in my book) to get the general idea of what's going on, but basically, he worked in a customs house at one point in life and came across a fancily embroidered capital letter A. That's just so interesting to me and I'm dying to know what the real significance of it was. We'll probably never know.

Overall, I think the thing I enjoyed the most about the book this time around is that I understood the language. For instance, a major foreshadowing happens at the end of the fourth chapter that I'd never picked up on before. Also, at the end of the tenth chapter, everything turns around between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth---but I've never understood what was going on there until now. Both of these instances are integral to the heart of this story. It's interesting to me how much I've grown since I've changed my reading habits to include more well-written and classic literature.

My favorite line from the book is something I think we should all memorize for times when we're feeling attacked: "Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!" answered the minister, encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. "Thy power is not what it was! With God's help, I shall escape thee now!"

I'd love to hear your thoughts on The Scarlet Letter or any others of Hawthorne's excellent works.

This week I also read Ethan Frome. So. Ethan Frome. I remember the first time I started this book. It was about nine years ago and I had a pink bathtub. I tried---I really did. But I just couldn't get into it. Last month, I figured I'd pick it up again since I'm just so much more intelligent and mature now. I got it this time---but it was a Frodoian feat to finish it. Like The Great Gatsby, it's sort of a "meh" for me. In my opinion, it was depressing from beginning to end, not super developed, and ended flatly.

The Scarlet Letter fulfills the Full House challenge for Outstanding Heroine.
Ethan Frome fulfills the Full House challenge for Book Set in the Northern Hemisphere and the New To You challenge for New Author.

Read more about my Reading Challenges!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte ~~ Book Review {featuring a bit on The (not so) Great Gatsby}

This week's reading hasn't been super wonderful---but I did knock two more books off that "Gotta Read It Before You Die" list. (By the way, I'm starving and need popcorn or I will die, so I'm goona make this quick. I really don't want the last books I've read before departing Earth to be not-so-great ones).

So, first Agnes Grey. I can't say I totally didn't like it---but it's definitely not on my list of faves. To sum it up, it was sort of a bad Jane Austen knock-off from the point of view of a Negative Nelly. Like Austen's stories, it ends with the girl getting the guy and a happy marriage and a happily ever after---it was just so full of whiney waa-waas. Agnes's negative self-talk got annoying fast and her over-abundance of humility seemed fake. Besides that, there's just not a whole lot to it. Girl works for bad family. Girl works for not so bad family. Girl gets guy. The End. Just not a lot of substance.

Still, Agnes was quite the little evangelist. I liked her conversations with Nancy---especially this from page 94 in my book: "An' so it is, Miss Grey, 'a soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.' It isn't only in them you speak to, but in yourself." It's very true that we will feel so much less negative emotions---less bitterness, less anger---when we give a soft and respectful response to a disagreement. Love this.

I also love the response that Agnes's mother gives her own father who has negative things to say about her marriage to Agnes's father--- a man the grandfather said was beneath his daughter to marry. She basically tells him to shove it...Ha! Leave and cleave! Love it!

I actually found myself way more interested in the biographical info at the beginning and end of the book. For instance, I've always thought it was strange that the Bronte line just completely died out. First the mother died, then the two older sisters died. Then the only son died. Then the two younger sisters. Then the last sister and, years later, the father--having never remarried. Just so weird. Makes me wonder what was in this family that God allowed that to happen? Another "bio thing"---this one an irritation---is the fact that Charlotte completely discounts the heart of Anne's other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by basically saying it was a mistake for her to have ever written it and that the character of the novel was not the character of the author. I think this is pretty shallow of Charlotte. For one thing, she doesn't know what was in her sister's heart. Anne obviously felt strongly enough about it to seek publication. Secondly, it's pretty ridiculous for her to even give a bit of credence to the idea that the story should be taken as biographical. Can't an author just write a great story without critics---let alone family---reading more into it than there was? I remember feeling put out with Charlotte when I read the forward to Wuthering Heights, as well. She seems like a busy-body who was too overly concerned with her family's reputation to stand up for their genius.

Book Description: Concerned for her family's financial welfare and eager to expand her own horizons, Agnes Grey takes up the position of governess, the only respectable employment for an unmarried woman in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, Agnes cannot anticipate the hardship, humiliation, and loneliness that await her in the brutish Bloomfield and haughty Murray households. Drawn from Anne Brontë's own experiences, Agnes Grey depicts the harsh conditions and class snobbery that governesses were often forced to endure.

I also want to just give a quick response to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald---a book that everyone raved about but I just didn't really care for.

For me, it was pretty much a big ol' Meh. When I posted on Instagram and Facebook that this was my next read, I got tons of responses about this being a favorite book of my friends. However, I just don't see what all the hype is. The writing style and word usage is unique and quite enchanting in some places, but the story itself left much to be desired. Well, let me back up and say that it might just be a cultural thing. The story takes place on Long Island and is very much a study of that particular people group in that place and in that time period. Knowing absolutely nothing about the New York Jazz Age culture, the issue is probably more that I was reading about something not particularly interesting to me---rather than not particularly interesting, in general.

I do love how so much of the story is implied, rather than given straight out. That is a neat and unique way of writing it. So little is said about the characters, yet something tells us all we need to know and paints them vividly in the mind of the reader.

Yeah, that's pretty much all I have to say. So, kind of a blah reading week---a week of which I feel pretty indifferent. This week, I'm waffling between re-reading The Scarlet Letter or a modern cozy mystery that I really enjoyed the first time around. We'll see...but for now, it's popcorn! Yay!

These books will fulfill the following reading challenges:
Full House Reading Challenge: The Great Gatsby for Free Choice and Agnes Grey for Debut Novel by Author.
Women's Fiction Reading Challenge: Agnes Grey
New To You Challenge: Agnes Grey and The Great Gatsby for New Author

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins -- Book Review

Whew! Where have I been the last two and a half weeks? Well, I've been reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins...really...slowly... It's not a difficult read at all. I loved it and plan to keep it for many years of rereading enjoyment. I've just been so busy that there's not been a lot of time for reading---or reviewing. Before I get to the review, I have to note that I just found out there's a BBC version of this featuring John Wise, the not-so-nice Willoughby from the 1995 version of Sense & Sensibility. Must find this! Second random note---take a minute to Google search the images for The Moonstone. Lots of different book covers---all depicting significant scenes from the book. It's one of the most varied mix of covers I've seen.

Book Description: "Alongside Edgar Allan Poe in America, Britain's Wilkie Collins stands as the inventor of the modern detective story. The Moonstone introduces all the ingredients: a homey, English country setting, and a colorfully exotic background in colonial India; the theft of a fabulous diamond from the lovely heroine; a bloody murder and a tragic suicide; a poor hero in love with the heroine but suspected of the crime, who can't remember anything about the night the jewel was stolen; a lawyer, a doctor, a sea captain, and assorted friends, relatives, and servants--all of them suspects; and, most essentially, a bumbling local policeman and a brilliant if eccentric London detective. Adding spice to the recipe are unexpected twists, a bit of dark satire, a dash of social comment, and an unusual but effective narrative structure--eleven different voices relate parts of the tale, each revealing as much about himself (and, in one case, herself) as about the mystery of the missing Moonstone. Filled with suspense, action, and romance, The Moonstone is as riveting and intoxicating today as it was when it first appeared more than a century ago."

The Moonstone is considered to be the first detective story written in English. It was just an excellent story and I really enjoyed it. It had the very best ending---ended just as it should have. The story is told from the perspective of many different narrators, an idea that initially turned me off when I read the book description. However, it starts right in being told by Betteredge, the main narrator, and captivates the reader from the very beginning. His humor and mannerisms remind me of my Dad---that's probably why he was my favorite character. I love how he talks to the reader:

"Here follows the substance of what I said, written out entirely for your benefit. Pay attention to it, or you will be all abroad, when we get deeper into the story. Clear your mind of the children, or the dinner, o the new bonnet, or what not. Try if you can't forget politics, horses, prices in the City, and grievances at the club...Haven't I seen you with the greatest authors in your hands, and don't I know how ready your attention is to wander when it's a book that asks for it, instead of a person?"

Later, Miss Clack takes over---a self-righteous, yet hilarious woman. Her "BookCrossing" escapade through Mrs. Verinder's house cracked me right up!

I do have to say that the non-smoking, opium-induced theory was a little out there, in my opinion. However, taking into consideration the time in which this was written, it probably wasn't too far of a leap for the author to take.

My favorite quote in the whole book is this: "Speaking as a servant, I am deeply indebted to you. Speaking as a man, I consider you to be a person whose head is full of maggots." Bwahahaha!! Love it!

This one comes highly recommended---definitely get your hands on a copy and prepare to enjoy!

This fulfills my goals for the Full House challenge: published pre-2000, the TBR challenge (book #4), and the New To You challenge for new author. Read more about my 2015 reading challenges here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Who Needs the Classics Anyway?

My friend, Meghan at Meghan Carver, Lawyer Mom, has a love for classic literature---just like I do! She's written an excellent article on why we need the classics. I've read five classics so far this month, and am about one hundred pages in to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I don't know why I'm craving the classical thing lately---just making up for lost time, I guess! Be sure to check out Meghan's post and let us know what classic you've read lately!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley ~ Book Review

When I was in high school, I had a friend who was obsessed with the movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Whenever we'd go to his house to hang out, it was pop, snacks, and that movie. Over and over and over again. That's probably why this book has been sitting on my shelf for several years and I've continued to remain uninterested in reading it. However, it's one that I promised myself I'd read this year so I decided to get it over with.

I wish I could say I loved it --- but I didn't. I am glad I read it---but mostly so I can say that I've read it. Ha! Like Orwell's 1984, it's one of those 1001 books I probably could have died without reading.

Book Description: "The story of Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation has held readers spellbound ever since it was published two centuries ago. On the surface, it is a novel of tense and steadily mounting horror; but on a more profound level, it offers searching illumination of the human condition in its portrayal of a scientist who oversteps the bounds of conscience and of a monster brought to life in an alien world, ever more desperately attempting to escape the torture of his solitude. A novel of hallucinatory intensity, Frankenstein represents one of the most striking flowerings of the Romantic imagination."

Nah...not really. No horror. Not really profound. No hallucinatory intensity. If by "flowerings of the...imagination" we mean "great imagination---budding writer", then yeah, I'll give you that one. Mary Shelley was barely nineteen years old when she wrote this and, although it was published within months of Frankenstein, this is exactly the kind of gothic nonsense Jane Austen was parodying in Northanger Abbey.

The idea of a scientist pushing the bounds of human convention to create non-human life is brilliant.
The idea of the "monster" developing human abilities and emotions is brilliant.
The way Shelley made it all happen? Not so brilliant.

I was left with way too many questions on this one. How did the monster learn all he did in just a few months of spying on his neighbors? How does he go from inanimate blob to quoting Plutarch and Milton in such a short amount of time? His knowledge is inconsistent. For instance, he knows about the mythical character of Pandemonium but he doesn't know fire will burn him? Shelley wrote this as part of a dare between herself, Lord Byron, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and another friend. Throughout the entire book, all I could imagine when the monster was prattling on and on was that Mrs. Shelley was really just wanting to show off all her knowledge to these obnoxious men she was in competition with.

Critics say this is a story of a monster that was more human than his creator. They say Frankenstein drove the monster to his "badness" and that it was all his fault that the monster committed evil acts. That might be the case if Shelley didn't have him rant in endless philosophical orations. She makes the monster appear more intelligent than the scientist. I'm definitely holding the monster accountable for his own actions. He obviously has a conscience.

This book fulfills my goals for the Full House Challenge: Type of Book You Rarely Read, the TBR challenge (Book #5), and the New To You Challenge for New Author. You can read more about my reading challenges here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite De Angeli ~ Book Review

The kids and I finished this beautiful tale at lunch time today---having read it very slowly over the past few months as part of one of our homeschool co-ops group read-alouds. Yes, I'll admit it, I cried at the end and the kids all laughed at me! BUT---I did see one of my boys wiping away some tears too!

Written in 1949, this sweet story tells the tale of Robin, son of nobleman Sir John de Bureford.  From Amazon: "Ever since he can remember, has been told what is expected of him as the son of a nobleman. He must learn the ways of knighthood. But Robin's destiny is changed in one stroke: He falls ill and loses the use of his legs. Fearing a plague, his servants abandon him and Robin is left alone. A monk named Brother Luke rescues Robin and takes him to the hospice of St. Mark's where he is taught woodcarving and--much harder--patience and strength. Says Brother Luke, 'Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.'"

We had several great discussions about this book---mainly what "the door in the wall" really means. We decided it referred to an opportunity---the chance to change one's course, simply by walking through an available door.

Some of the kids are already asking to reread it, so I'm thinking a second copy is in order. I know our family will cherish this story for years to come!

This book will fulfill the Full House Reading Challenge for: A Keeper, as well as the New To You challenge for New Author.

I also just finished reading George Orwell's, 1984, also written in 1949---a book so not worth writing a post about. It will fulfill the New To You challenge for New Author, #10 on the TBR Challenge, and the Full House reading challenge for Author New To You.  For more information on the challenges I've joined this year, visit my post called Reading Challenges.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Before Amen by Max Lucado ~ Book Review

I had the opportunity to receive a free review copy and, having not read anything by Lucado for a good 12 years or more, was pleasantly surprised by the easy-going tone and light-hearted wit in this little book.

Before starting the book, I wrote down my thoughts on prayer:

Although I don't spend as much time in Bible study as I'd like, I feel like my "prayer life" is strong. I go to God in need, just as much as I go to him in thanks. In fact, I probably thank him more, lately, than anything else. When I feel his Spirit nudging me to pray, I'm faithful the majority of the time. Without my prayer life, I don't think I'd feel close to God right now, as everything else seems far less grounded than my being able to talk to God anytime and anywhere.

Recently, my eight-year-old daughter, Selah, and I were discussing prayer and Bible reading. I told her how essential prayer is to our relationship with God. Not everyone can have daily Bible study time, but just about everyone can pray. Like Lucado points out, there's no need to be profound. Prayer is a simple conversation.

"Prayer, for most of us, is not a matter of a month-long retreat or even an hour of meditation. Prayer is conversation with God while driving to work or awaiting an appointment or before interacting with a client. Prayer can be the internal voice that directs the external action." ~page 7

Regarding prayer, Before Amen reinforced truths I know and practice. However, there was a great little section on guilt that really spoke to me. Lucado explained how guilt is God's idea and how it reveals to us the difference between who we are and who God wants us to be. It prods us to repentance. While I often deal with unnecessary guilt for things that are really out of my control, it's refreshing to be encouraged to put guilt in its proper place and understand that it can be beneficial. More than that, its nice to see someone not trying to talk me out of my guilt and blaming it on the enemy trying to discourage me at every turn. Funny how much "God stuff" we blame on the devil.

A special component of the book that I appreciate is the in-depth study guide, as well as the "prayer strengths" guide, that makes up two-thirds of the book. More than just a few discussion topics, there are sections for each chapter that provide the reader with the opportunity to pull the most possible from the reading. Whether you're studying alone or in a small group, definitely take the time to go through the study sections. They'll help you examine your current prayer habits, strengths and weaknesses, and stir up a desire to kick the good stuff up a notch or two!

Book Description: "We all pray ... some. We pray to stay sober, centered, or solvent. When the lump is deemed malignant. When the money runs out before the month does. When the marriage is falling apart. We pray. But wouldn’t we like to pray more? Better? Stronger? With more fire, faith, and fervency? We aren’t the first to struggle with prayer. The first followers of Jesus needed prayer guidance too. In fact, prayer is the only tutorial they ever requested. And Jesus gave them a prayer. Not a lecture on prayer. Not the doctrine of prayer. He gave them a quotable, repeatable, portable prayer. Couldn’t we use the same? 

In Before Amen, bestselling author Max Lucado joins readers on a journey to the very heart of biblical prayer, offering hope for doubts and confidence even for prayer wimps. Distilling prayers in the Bible down to one pocket-sized prayer, Max reminds readers that prayer is not a privilege for the pious nor the art of a chosen few. Prayer is simply a heartfelt conversation between God and his child. Let the conversation begin."

This book will be included in my goals toward the Full House Reading Challenge for Award Winning, since it's the Family Christian 2015 book of the year. For more information on the challenges I've joined this year, see my post: Reading Challenges.