Monday, January 28, 2013

A New Song by Jan Karon

My 2 cents:

It's January, temperatures plummeted to 17 degrees this weekend (in North Carolina!), and I want to go to the beach. January and February are bleak months for me, and I must not be the only one. No wonder Sports Illustrated publishes their annual swimsuit issue in February. I got my swimsuit issue today from Lands' End.

If I can't be at the beach to hear the waves and the gulls, I can read about it, which is why I pulled an old favorite off the library shelf this weekend and read it again. A New Song, by Jan Karon, first published in 1999, is the fifth book in her much-loved Mitford series.

A New Song takes Father Tim Kavanagh and wife, Cynthia, to a year-long interim pastorate on Whitecap Island, somewhere off the coast of North Carolina or Virginia. Accessible by a small bridge (when it's not out), and otherwise by ferry, the island interim proves both challenging (terrible storm, infidelity, depression, theft, two mysterious neighbors); and exhilarating (ocean sunsets, bike rides on beach roads, new friendships, a borrowed three-year-old boy, reconciliations, gifts, and God's work at St. John's in the Grove).

Reading it again blew an island breeze through my soul (and now I'm longing for the coast more than ever).

Length: 400 pages

Worth Your Time? Yes, the entire series is worth your time, if you haven't read it yet, or simply want to pick it up like an old friend, and read it again. Also, you might like Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader, a story/cookbook for staunch Mitford fans, which includes jokes from Uncle Billy, stories from Miss Sadie, and recipes for Esther Bolick's Orange Marmalade Cake, and Cynthia's Heavenly Tea. I sent a copy recently to a friend, who fell off a chair and broke her leg (but that's another story … )

Bonus: Thanks so much to my friends at Scotland County Memorial Library, who faithfully go the extra mile to assist and support me, and keep me in books up to my eyebrows! :) 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Proof of Heaven (A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife) by Eben Alexander, M.D.

“This story would be remarkable no matter who it happened to. That it happened to Dr. Alexander makes it revolutionary. No scientist or person of faith will be able to ignore it. Reading it will change your life.”

Those aren't my words. That text appears on the back cover of Dr. Eben Alexander's new book, Proof of Heaven (A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife). But after reading it, I agree.

My 2 cents:

Q: Who is Eben Alexander, M.D.?
A: Dr. Alexander is an academic neurosurgeon, now in Virginia, formerly in Boston, Massachusetts at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham Women's & Children's Hospitals. The son of a doctor, Dr. Alexander grew up in Winston-Salem (where his father was chief of staff at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center), graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1976 with a chemistry major, and four years later, earned his doctorate at Duke University Medical Center in Durham. Dr. Alexander's family includes his wife, Holley, and sons, Eben IV, and Bond. He lives in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Q: What happened to Dr. Alexander?
A: Just over four years ago (on November 10, 2008), Dr. Alexander woke up at his Lynchburg home very early on a Monday morning, not feeling well. He had flu-like symptoms, back pain and his head hurt. By lunchtime that day, Dr. Alexander was in a coma in the hospital emergency room with a ventilator machine, IV antibiotics, and a diagnosis of spinal meningitis. Within 24 hours, tests for E. coli-bacterial meningitis came back positive. Dr. Alexander was very sick.

Q: How sick was he?
A: According to Dr. Scott Wade, one of Dr. Alexander's physicians:
Despite prompt and aggressive treatment for his E.coli meningitis, as well as continued care in the medical intensive care unit, he remained in a coma six days and hope for a quick recovery faded (mortality over 97 percent),” (p. 184). In fact, doctors were discussing with Holley the possibility of stopping treatment, because her husband was still in a coma, part of his brain (the neocortex) was not functioning, he was not responding well to antibiotics, and was not likely to recover - when something happened …

Q: What was going on during those six days he was in a coma?
A: Dr. Alexander went to another place, a place of unconditional love, a place of light, and music, and God, and beauty, trees and waterfalls, all with a “girl on a butterfly wing.” He tells his story with breath-taking, simple, (but incredibly vivid) detail.

Q: Was everyone surprised?
A: Surprised, shocked, astonished … the whole range of emotions.

Q : Is Dr. Alexander's experience unusual?
A: Yes, very.

Q: Why did Dr. Alexander write a book about it?
A: “Medically speaking, that I had recovered completely was a flat-out impossibility, a medical miracle. But the real story lay in where I had been, and I had a duty not just as a scientist . . . but also as a healer to tell that story. A story – a true story – can heal as much as medicine can,” (p.144 – Dr. Alexander).

Q: What were the first words Dr. Alexander spoke when he woke up?
A: I'll let you discover that one for yourself . . . . because I know you're going to want to read this book.

Length: 188 pages

Worth Your Time? Do I really need to say it? Okay, yes.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

My 2 cents:

Like the steam engine Elizabeth Keckley describes on p. 242, Jennifer Chiaverini's newest novel, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, starts out slow, chugs along steadily, then gathers steam until it becomes impossible for the reader to get off the train. By the end of the ride, the reader is completely immersed with a real sense of who these extraordinary people - Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln, and President Abraham Lincoln – really were. I could almost hear the late Paul Harvey (famous radio broadcaster … ) intoning, “And now you know … The Rest of the Story.”

Chiaverini's a scholar, without a doubt. In fact, this work of historical fiction could easily be a companion book, alongside U.S. History textbooks, and if I were teaching the Civil War, I'd make sure my students had a copy of Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.

But, the best parts are the glimpses inside the White House, inside the lives of Elizabeth, Mary Lincoln, President Lincoln, their families, friends, and in some cases, enemies. As Mrs. Lincoln's personal seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley spent many hours during Lincoln's presidential years in their private rooms. My favorite scenes are those of the President affectionately mussing his sons' hair, or wrestling with them on the sofas and rugs, watching his goats play outdoors in the White House grass, and handing Elizabeth a comb to “brush my bristles down.” (p.160). He calls his wife “Mother,” and she calls him, “Father.” I find that endearing. Not everything between the couple was endearing, though.

We remember Gettysburg for the terrible battle that was fought there, and for the “The Gettysburg Address” President Lincoln delivered there. The day before Lincoln was scheduled to board the train for Pennsylvania to give his speech, his son, Tad, became quite sick, and Mary Lincoln begged her husband not to go. He insisted, saying, “Mother, it is my duty.” They argued bitterly, and the First Lady told the President (with Elizabeth in the room) that he was “a better bureaucrat than a father.” (p.149).

Scenes such as that one portray Mary Todd Lincoln, as history often has, in an unflattering light. It was not uncommon for members of the President's staff to call the First Lady names like “Hellcat” (p.144), and “Her Satanic Majesty,” (p. 159). But, Chiaverini also makes clear how much Elizabeth Keckley loved and admired both the First Lady and President Lincoln. Indeed, after President Lincoln's assassination, Elizabeth was the only staff member who traveled with Mary Lincoln from Washington to Chicago to assist her and console her in her grief.

“As she accompanied Mrs. Lincoln from the White House, Elizabeth was stunned almost breathless by the stark contrast with Mr. Lincoln's final leave-taking … the only music the chirping of the birds, with scarcely anyone to bid her farewell. The silence was almost painful.” (p. 241).

As Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, a former slave who bought her own freedom (and that of her son's) with money earned as a seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley sacrificed much to share her memories of these extraordinary people in those extraordinary times.

“I was her modiste … I dressed Mrs. Lincoln for every levee (reception),” she said. “I made every stitch of clothing that she wore. I dressed her hair. I put on her skirts and dresses. I fixed her bouquets, saw that her gloves were all right, and remained with her each evening until Mr. Lincoln came for her. My hands were the last to touch her, before she took the arm of Mr. Lincoln and went forth to meet the ladies and gentlemen on those great occasions.” (p. 345).

Length: 353 pages

Worth Your Time? A “red, white and blue” yes. Especially, if you enjoyed Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN (the movie, 2012). Elizabeth Keckley was portrayed by Gloria Reuben in the movie, Mary Todd Lincoln by Sally Field, and President Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Bonus: Chiaverini's legions of fans will be delighted to read about the quilt Elizabeth designed and made from scraps of Mrs. Lincoln's dresses.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper

My 2 cents:

Have you ever picked up a brand new book and felt a shiver of excitement, knowing that you,  you ,are the first person to thumb its crisp pages and read its beautiful, clean print? That's how I felt when I first held The FitzOsbornes at War (The Montmaray Journals, Book III), by Michelle Cooper, in my hands. I almost didn't want to read it. Especially since I knew that this book is the last one in Cooper's spellbinding WWII trilogy, as recorded by Princess Sophia of Montmaray. Classified as Young Adult Literature, Cooper's book easily appeals to adults of all ages, young and otherwise.

In The FitzOsbornes at War, Sophia chronicles her experiences in WWII London from 1939 to 1944, with a beautifully-written epilogue, “Four Years Later”. Through Sophie, Cooper captivates the reader with conversations about queue lines (waiting for everything from a single onion to a can of Spam), and relentless, German bombing raids, while she and Princess Veronica hide out in their tiny cellar, night after night. Sophie writes about her war job at the Food Ministry, Veronica's work as a Spanish translator, and family friend Julia Stanley-Ross's experiences as an ambulance driver. And so much more. There's Sophie's brother, King Toby, who enlists as a RAF fighter pilot and goes missing. There's Rupert with his carrier pigeons, and Simon, with his complicated relationships, and Daniel, Veronica's boyfriend's secret war work. There's eccentric Aunt Charlotte, whose estate is turned into a rehab center for wounded British soldiers. And, of course, there's Henry (Princess Henrietta), younger sister to Sophia and Toby, who wrangles her way into the WRENS.

A war story, such as this one, sounds dismal, and it is, in places, as it should be. War is dismal. But, Cooper's book is also funny, amusing, heartwarming, provocative and illuminating. I didn't want the book to end. I didn't want to let go of the characters I felt I had come to know and fiercely like. I didn't want to leave London and the island of Montmaray. This book is a work of historical fiction, but Cooper presents her characters as real-life people. And, any time you bring a group of people together, chances are they will not agree on all issues, such as religion, politics, sexuality, marriage, and even food preferences. That is real life. And, if Cooper encourages tolerance of other people's views, then her book is more than just a good read. It could be life-changing.

Length: 545 pages

Worth Your Time? Yes. Not Since Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, have I lain awake in bed in the dark, long hours after I finished reading the book, and thought about the characters . . . and just wondered about their adventures and how their lives unfolded after 1948. What's your next project, Michelle?

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Giving Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

My 2 cents:

Jennifer Chiaverini has written over 20 books. A New York Times bestselling author for her Elm Creek Quilts series, Chiaverini is a master of writing and quilting. The Giving Quilt was my first Chiaverini novel, and I'm already looking forward to her next one. I loved the pattern of her novel, and as I read her work, I can picture Chiaverini at her own sewing machine or quilting frame, sewing patch by patch, stitch by stitch.

The Giving Quilt opens with Sylvia and her staff preparing for a week-long quilting workshop, where women will arrive from all over the country to spend a week at the spacious, illustrious old Elm Creek Manor. There, they will make new friends with fellow quilters, renew old friendships, learn a new quilt pattern, eat delicious, home-cooked meals, and make quilts for “Project Linus,” an organization dedicated to providing soft, warm quilts to children in need. The annual quilt event is held each year the week after Thanksgiving, thus it's fittingly called “Quiltsgiving.”

Quilters will love the attention to detail Chiaverini gives to Gretchen's “Giving Quilt” classes as she teaches the Resolution Square quilt. Most of the workshop's participants are experienced quilters, but a few are new to the art, and all are encouraged to help each other. I don't quilt, and I found myself glossing over some of the technical quilting instructions, but the story and characters were compelling enough to keep me reading, even when I didn't understand the type of stitches Gretchen carefully explained. I found myself wondering about each fascinating character's life long after I finished reading The Giving Quilt.

Length: 357 pages

Worth Your Time: Yes! Especially if you quilt, want to learn, or just love quilts. Chiaverini also offers five collections of quilt projects, inspired by her books. The end flaps of her book are covered with colorful samples of her quilts, including Resolution Square.

Bonus: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, Chiaverini's newest novel, comes out this week - January 15, 2013. It chronicles the “extraordinary relationship” between Mary Todd Lincoln and her talented dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave. For more about Chiaverini and her newest novel, go to:

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Starstruck by Lauren Conrad

My two cents:

Lauren Conrad's on to something. Starstruck, Conrad's second novel in the bestselling “Fame Game” series, drew me in and had me cheering in the end. Starstuck follows the lives of Madison Parker and four other20-something girls; sister Sophie, roommate Gaby, friend Kate Hayes and frenemy, Carmen Curtis, as the young beauties strive to “make it” in Los Angeles. With Trevor Lord filming everything they do for a reality television show.

Conrad's new novel takes a darker turn with Gaby's accidental overdose, Madison's jewelry “theft” and its consequences, Kate's music career and Carmen's relationships. I admit, I like Conrad's serious side. I like the way she develops Madison's character, and I like the way she exposes the “secrets” of reality television. Couldn't help thinking about the Kardashians, and just how “real” their reality shows are. Fans of Conrad's former MTV reality show, The Hills, will have fun guessing how the book's characters match up to the show's stars.

Length: 293 pages

Worth Your Time? Yes. But, be warned, some of the book's characters like to drink (a lot), take pills, and, occasionally use bad language.

Bonus: Lauren Conrad just posted the release date and cover photo for Infamous, her third novel in the “Fame Game”series – June 11, 2013 – on her website,

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bojhalian

My 2 cents:

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian is a book like no other I've read. The author plunks us down squarely in the sweltering heat and sun of 1915 Aleppo, capital of Syria. Through Laura's eyes, a young, blue-eyed, red-haired college graduate from Boston, we see hundreds of Armenian women and childen “march” into Aleppo seeking refuge, many finding death instead.

Don't be embarrassed if you're scratching your head. Listen to Laura on p.6:

“1915 is the year of the Slaughter You Know Next To Nothing About. If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and the massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians. Meds Yeghern. The Great Catastrophe. It's not taught much in school, and it's not the sort of thing most of us read before going to bed.”

Laura's right about that. The Sandcastle Girls isn't exactly a bedtime story, either. The pages describing atrocities inflicted on the Armenians by the Turks are so graphic, I couldn't read them. I simply had to skip over those parts, and even then, while I was turning the page, I caught glimpses of words like, “heads rolling,” “decapitations,” “outrages” (rapes), children being lashed on the heels, a pencil jabbed in a Turkish soldier's eye, children being left in caves to smother to death, white bones stacked high to the sky, and, well, you get the picture.

So that's war, and The Sandcastle Girls is a book about war. About war, and so much more. It's a novel of unforgettable characters: Laura Endicott; her father, Silas Endicott; Armen, the young Armenian engineer Laura meets, who's fought his way to Aleppo to search for his wife and baby daughter; Nevart, a doctor's wife whose husband was killed in the genocide; and Hatoun, the orphaned child Nevart strives to save.

Armen climbs with Laura one day to the top of the Citadel, an ancient castle in ruins in Aleppo. As Laura picks her way through the clumps of rubble, she imagines the palace as it once was with “tiles of turquoise and titian and cobalt blue.”

“Once more she was unprepared for such beauty in the midst of such pain.” (p. 35)

In that sentence is the theme of Bohjalian's remarkable novel. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to shut down my laptop, and read The Sandcastle Girls again. With tissue.

Length: 293 pages

Worth Your Time? Yes. But, because of the war atrocities, it's for an audience of mature high schoolers and older. This book is classified Adult Fiction, not Young Adult Literature.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Fame Game by Lauren Conrad

My two cents:

Confession time – I couldn't get through Lauren Conrad's 2010 novel, Sugar and Spice, and I tried valiantly. Really, I did (It was a New York Times bestseller, after all). I made it to p. 81, Chapter 9, and there the page remains turned down, because I never picked up the “L.A. Candy” novel again. But, SHOCKER (to me, at least), I was intrigued enough to pick up Conrad's new novel, THE FAME GAME, and I finished it in two days. THE FAME GAME takes up where Sugar and Spice leaves off, with uber-ambitious, blonde-and-beautiful Madison Parker. Madison's old boss, Trevor Lord, has a new reality television series in mind for her called “The Fame Game,” where she'll have the starring role (pinkie swear – for real). Gaby, Carmen and Kate are signed on to play Madison's “best friends in the series.” The show's plot line chronicles their relationships, their jobs, and their respective struggles to “make it” in Hollywood. If this plot line sounds familiar, it is. Author Laurel Conrad, herself, starred in two reality television shows, MTV's Laguna Hills: The Real Orange County, and The Hills. So part of the fun, in reading the book, is wondering if Conrad's inside scoop on filming a reality show is true. I love the constant texting in Conrad's novel, from “The Fame Game's” producers to the actors, prompting them what to say next and what to do next. It's hilarious. If that's real, then Conrad is extremely skilled at writing tongue-in-cheek, and the only real thing about reality shows, is that the actors don't have scripts. Lots and lots of direction, but no scripts. So the novel's entertaining. Not too different from devouring a celebrity magazine, while you're standing in the grocery line, and yet, I've already googled Conrad to see when the sequel to THE FAME GAME is coming out. (Starstuck, October 2012).

Length: 313 pages

Worth Your Time? Maybe. It seems like there are margaritas and champagne on every other page, lots AND LOTS of detail on what the characters are wearing, and a couple of f-words, here and there, to keep everything real. No mention, well, not much, of anything resembling spirituality. So, while entertaining, the novel's a little empty. Is that the point? Lauren, are you listening?