Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Simply Calligraphy by Judy Detrick, 2016

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With the rise of do-it-yourselfers, there is growing demand for a calligraphy guide that is much simpler than what's currently on the market. This book answers that call, with a focus on only the popular Italic alphabet rather than the scads normally covered by other books (Gothic, Uncials, Half-uncials, and so on). After learning the basic letters, this book presents an open invitation--and a bit of inspiration--to make calligraphy one's own with creative flourishes for every project and occasion. With a modern two-color design and simple explanatory text, Simply Calligraphy's unintimidating approach proves that calligraphy is as easy as picking up pen and paper.
(96 pages)

I have a huge confession to make: I didn't actually use this book to learn calligraphy.

You see, when I actually sat down to start trying out the lessons, I discovered that the ink in my calligraphy pen (bought on a whim several years ago, and left abandoned under my dresser for two whole years) was entirely dried out. I tried to resuscitate it with a jar of red ink, but all I got for my troubles was a mess of crumpled red paper towels, a near heart attack when I almost stained the carpet, red fingers that looked like I'd gotten the worst nail polish job ever, and some concerned questions from my sister after she found my seemingly bloody paper towels in the bathroom trash can.

Oh, yeah, and I also got about twenty seconds of globby red ink coming out of the calligraphy pen. Not enough to actually learn to write with, and too messy to make dipping and writing a feasible option for this (rather clumsy) beginner.

So yeah, I feel absolutely terrible but I wasn't able to test this book out the way I'd thought I would. Instead I just read through it, and - for what it's worth - I can say that to the naked eye it looks like a good book for learning calligraphy. You learn lower case first, and then upper, and then numbers, and then fancy decorations (or "flourishes"); the characters in each category are grouped according to the motions you use to make them, instead of just by their order in the alphabet, and little numbered arrows are written in next to the characters to show you what motions to make when writing them. I could totally see how focusing on just one page at a time and moving steadily through the book would be a great way to learn all of calligraphy. I don't know that I'm really the sort of patient person who would settle down to do all of the practicing I can see now that it would entail, but I can definitely enjoy looking at the finished product!

I can't vouch very well for the quality of the book, both because I didn't actually follow its instructions and because I've never read any other book on the topic that I could compare it to, but to me at least it seems like a good starting point for a beginner who wants to learn calligraphy. If any of you know anything about calligraphy, have you tried this book? Do you like it? I'm really curious to see what people who actually know what they're talking about think about Simply Calligraphy!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the Blogging For Books program in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Spindle's End by Robin McKinley, 2000

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All the creatures of the forest and field and riverbank knew the infant was special. She was the princess, spirited away from the evil fairy Pernicia on her name-day. But the curse was cast: Rosie was fated to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a poisoned sleep-a slumber from which no one would be able to rouse her.
(354 pages)

This is a very . . . strange book.

My mother read it before I did, and she handed it off to me with the pensive remark that "it's like an older Gail Carson Levine." I can sort of see what she meant, the way McKinley took such a traditional fairytale and spun a completely new story out of it, but under the surface I don't think there are really many similarities at all between, say, Levine's Ella Enchanted and Fairest duo and Spindle's End.

For one thing, McKinley is a lot less concerned about conveying the plot through dialogue. Pages upon pages go by with little to no conversations taking place; instead everything is narrated. This doesn't really matter much, because her writing is really smooth, but it did take a little bit of adjusting just because I wasn't used to this style of storytelling.

Anyway, part of me wishes that the ending was a little more normal. I obviously can't go into much detail, because that would ruin it for people who are going to read it, but let's just say that things pretty much completely jump off of the tracks by the ending. This is most definitely not your typical Sleeping Beauty retelling, and that's both a positive and a negative. I was in the mood for something truly original, so it worked out well, but part of me is still a romantic at heart: I can't help but want all retellings to stick to certain fairytale ground rules the way Levine's do.

I'm very glad that I finally read a Robin McKinley book, after all of the wonderful things I heard about them, and I definitely see why her writing is so highly praised. She's a talented writer, and in this case at least she was extremely creative with her story. Now I simply have to read another one of her books, to see if she follows some sort of pattern or if all of her books are all as random and creative as this one was.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

I Don't Wait Anymore by Grace Thornton, 2016

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In I Don’t Wait Anymore , Grace Thornton challenges readers to find their calling and purpose from God and go after it with completely committed hearts. Have you been waiting for life to turn out the way you expected?
You’re not alone.
There are lots of us out there who feel that way. Grace Thornton is one. She had dreams, plans, and ideas for what life should look like. For one, she thought she’d be married. She thought she’d have kids. She thought God would bring her the life she’d been waiting for because she knew He was good and she tried to be obedient.
But that’s not what happened. Not at all.
So she found herself wrestling with God. Who is He if He doesn’t bring along the life, husband, and 2.5 kids she thought He was supposed to? And where should she go from there?
When she got brutally honest with herself and asked the hard question, “Why do I think the world has more to offer than God does?” the answer was stunning. Her honesty led to the path God had for her. One that would write a story for her life that was even better than the one she had dreamed for herself.
This positive and encouraging book offers inspiration to anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life right now. Grace decided to let go of her expectations of the way life “should be” and grasp God’s hand for the adventure He had for her.
You can too.

(224 pages)

I had credit to get another book from the BookLook Bloggers program, but there weren't any books that I was dying to read. I decided to give I Don't Wait Anymore a go, to see what sort of peace Grace Thornton offers for people who don't wind up with spouses. I haven't exactly been waiting for a husband (I'm only seventeen!), but I've been facing a lot of crossroads when it comes to moving forward with my adult life and I was curious to think about what my life could be like if I never get married.

It turns out I Don't Wait Anymore is actually a devotional, so each chapter offers a specific Christian lesson and then has room for you to answer a specific question about your own relationship with God. I don't usually use devos (I always forget to do them), so it took me a little while to get through this one. I wound up doing it in spurts over the course of a few weeks: some days I did three, and others I did none. If you did one chapter a day, though, it would take about two weeks. There's a very pretty light-brown ribbon you can use to hold your place, and the paper itself is thick and smooth - very luxurious, and great for writing on. The pages are all white where the text is, and then a very pretty shade of light green underneath it.

So yeah, physically the book is great as a devo. What about the text itself? Well, I have to say that it's truly wonderful to see how God has blessed and shaped Grace Thornton's life. Her insights on what it means to follow God (to bring Him out of your pocket into every area of your life, and to focus on pursuing Him instead of on what you get out of Him) are convicting and thought-provoking. It's wonderful to see all of the amazing opportunities Grace has gotten (including moving to England for two years!) - opportunities she wouldn't have had if she'd been married. She also has a lot of God-loving friends (none of whom I could ever keep straight) to cheer her on, which is really great.

No book is perfect, though, and I do have a few small troubles with I Don't Wait Anymore: for one thing, every couple of pages a line or two is offset into its own paragraph, put into a slightly larger font, and made green instead of regular old black. This is done to emphasize particularly meaningful or impactful statements/thoughts, the way they do it in magazines, and it looks very pretty when you flip through the book. Here's the problem, though: you know how in magazines the lines that are made big are ones that are also still in the articles? Well, here they took lines from the devo and highlighted them right where they were. To read what Grace is trying to say, you have to read the highlighted text in context along with all of the normal-sized text surrounding it. I kept accidentally skipping over the ornamented text, though, and then I'd have to go "wait, that's not just ornamental!" and go back and read it. That got kind of annoying after a while, but it certainly wasn't a deal-breaker.

Anyway, I'm no devo expert - I've done a grand total of two in my life - but I really enjoyed this one. If you're a Christian (female or male) who struggles with finding God's plan for your life, then I highly recommend this book. It definitely made me look at my future in a whole new light.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers program in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Princess Plot by Kirsten Boie, 2005

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Jenna has just won the starring role in a film about a princess--sweet! In the wink of an eye, she's whisked off to a remote, romantic kingdom for the "shoot." But something's amiss: First, she finds out she bears an uncanny resemblance to the real princess, who has run away following the death of her father, the king. Then she learns that the conniving regent plans to use her to take control of the country, now being fought over by rebels. As the plot twists and turns, Jenna discovers just what she's made of--and just why she resembles the missing princess so much!
(400 pages)

This is a really good escapist book, one of those novels that meets all of your unspoken desires.

It feels a lot more clunky now that I'm older, a lot more manipulative as you realize how obviously Boie is catering to the emotional desires of a teenage girl reader who dreams of being whisked away to wear nice dresses, smile to an audience, play the part of royalty, and be a hero in a complex political mess - a political mess that, in this case, seems so big and complex and yet is designed in a way that gives one side all of the moral superiority over the other. It's funny how I didn't notice how crazily unrealistic that was the first time I read it.

But then, the first time I read it I really was a tweenage girl whose emotions were being perfectly catered to.

So maybe the main character is kind of an idiot (I mean seriously, she falls for everything). And maybe the politics are a little off. And maybe Jenna's mom seems a little too pushy to be realistic (who seriously makes her kid behave perfectly all the time?). But it really is a fun book to read, and a great book for the summer. I'm glad I reread it, and if you're in the mood for a pretty fluffy (but not romance-heavy) novel then I definitely recommend this one. Read it, then let me know what you think of it in the comments section below.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne, 2010

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Hamlet Kennedy just wants to be your average, happy, vanilla eighth grader. But with Shakespearean scholar parents who dress in Elizabethan regalia and generally go about in public as if it were the sixteenth century, that’s not terribly easy. It gets worse when they decide that Hamlet’s genius seven year-old sister will attend middle school with her— and even worse when the Shakespeare project is announced and her sister is named the new math tutor. By the time an in-class recitation reveals that our heroine is an extraordinary Shakespearean actress, Hamlet can no longer hide from the fact that she—like her family—is anything but average. In a novel every bit as funny as her debut, Erin Dionne has created another eighth grader whose situation is utterly unique—but whose foibles and farces will resound with every girl currently suffering through middle school.
(304 pages)

I've loved this book for years, since I myself was actually Hamlet's age. I always thought it was so amazingly funny, so clever and sweet and perfect.

Now that I'm older (and have actually read Hamlet), I find it a lot less amazing.

For one thing, a lot of the Shakespeare quotes seem to be taken entirely out of context. Her literary parents of all people should know better than to take random quotes from the plays and use them in everyday life; if they've read the plays, they know that the popular quotes people use from the plays aren't always used in ways that make any sense if you know the scenes they're pulled from. Another problem I have also connected to believability (not even bringing her genius little sister into the conversation) is this idea that Hamlet's family can really revolve so entirely around Shakespeare, and yet she's still kind of shaky on some of the plays. Also, there's no such thing as being a "natural Shakespearean actress." The book treats it like Hamlet was born with this magical ability, but I'd say her ability to read Shakespearean rhyme in rhythm probably has a lot more to do with her parents reading the plays to her when she was little and constantly speaking like they live during the Elizabethan era than it does with her own special little genius.

Anyway, I don't mean to be so negative. This is still a very cute book, the sort of novel that you read when you're twelve and think is just perfect. I shouldn't knock it too much now that I'm out of the target audience, because I truly did adore it once upon a time. I even recommend it to you, if you like a good MG school-drama and are willing to step into the ever-imaginative brain of a twelve-year-old girl.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Wish by Gail Carson Levine, 2000

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Wilma Sturtz is invisible and miserable at school. So when an old lady on the subway offers her a wish, Wilma immediately asks for popularity -- in fact, she asks to be the most popular kid at school.
Suddenly, Wilma has more friends than she can keep track of, forty dates to the Grad Night Dance, and a secret admirer writing her love poems. Everything is great, until she realizes there's a loophole in her wish, and her time in the spotlight has almost run out.

(243 pages)

The first time I started this book was probably about five years ago, when I had just finished Ella Enchanted for the first time and was devouring everything by Gail Carson Levine that I could get my hands on. I only "started" it, not "finished," however, because the boy-girl stuff got too icky for me. I put the book down halfway through, told myself never to read it, and moved on to the infinitely superior Fairest.

This summer, however, I forgot just how much I'd disliked The Wish; I figured my disgusted reaction all those years ago was just because of my age (all twelve years olds think romance is icky, right?), and that now I was finally old enough to read and enjoy this book by the author of several of my favorite books.

Then I started reading again, and only finished because it was late and I was at my aunt's house and I didn't have anything else to read. The "girl-boy stuff" truly was too much (Wilma and her new boyfriend - both not even in high school - go to the park, lie on a blanket, and kiss passionately for over an hour after dating for like two days. I can only assume this is where I stopped last time). Reading past that to finishing the rest of the book, though, I also realized that Wilma is frankly just unlikeable. She's so obsessed with being popular that she doesn't even care that people only like her because they're being forced to. She claims to feel bad about it, and apologizes when they find out and are mad, but when given the chance she's still perfectly ready to force them back into being her friends-on-command. How can I like or respect someone like that?

Gah, I don't know what else to say. I really just want to get this review written so I can stop thinking about The Wish. I hate writing negative reviews, but I had to write this one. Please, steer clear of this particular book by Gail Carson Levine. And if you've read it and found more to like than I did, please take the time to explain to me what there is to like here.

Friday, July 8, 2016

How to Speak Dolphin by Ginny Rorby, 2015

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Schneider Family Book Award-winning author Ginny Rorby has created an irresistible dolphin story about a girl's struggle to help her autistic brother and herself.
Lily loves her half-brother, Adam, but she has always struggled with him, too. He's definitely on the autism spectrum--though her step-father, Don, can barely bring himself to admit it--and caring for him has forced Lily to become as much mother as sister. All Lily wants is for her step-father to acknowledge that Adam has a real issue, that they need to find some kind of program that can help him. Then maybe she can have a life of her own.
Adam's always loved dolphins, so when Don, an oncologist, hears about a young dolphin with cancer, he offers to help. He brings Lily and Adam along, and Adam and the dolphin--Nori--bond instantly.
But though Lily sees how much Adam loves Nori, she also sees that the dolphin shouldn't spend the rest of her life in captivity, away from her family. Can Adam find real help somewhere else? And can Lily help Nori regain her freedom without betraying her family?

(272 pages)

I saw this book in a Half-Priced Books and grabbed it because my parents were paying and it looked interesting. I'd never heard of the author, let alone the book, and I knew it would be either a hit or a miss. Luckily, it was a hit. I enjoyed it, and am very glad I took advantage of my opportunity to get it.

It was really interesting watching Lily struggle to take care of her autistic brother while finding her own feet as a person and navigating a relationship with her loving but intellectual stepfather, who hates to admit that his son will ever be less than amazing. At times I just wanted her to smack Don and tell him how sexist and elitist he was being, that there was nothing wrong with autism classes that taught boys to make paper flowers, that he needed to grow up and recognize that Adam is never going to be some kind of macho-manly boy. The trouble with that, though, is that as the book progresses you realize that Don really does want the best for Adam; he just doesn't see clearly enough through his love to recognize that he has to give up his preconceived notions about what "the best" really is. And you discover that Don really does love Lily; he just doesn't know how to deal with both her and Adam at the same time.

There's more going on that just Adam's autism, though, as Lily also has to struggle with the hole her mother's death left behind and decide how to feel about Nori's imprisonment when Don - a doctor - is so convinced that Adam's visits to the captive dolphin are making him happier. She also befriends Zoe, a kind (though sometimes alarmingly outspoken) blind girl who helps cast a whole new perspective on what it means to have a "disability." All of these plots are beautiful to watch as they unfold and weave themselves around Lily and around the struggles she and Don are having about Adam.

I don't think you have to run out right this second and buy a copy of How to Speak Dolphin, but if you see it on a shelf please don't hesitate to pick up a copy. It really is a very good book, and I recommend it to anyone who think it looks intriguing.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands, 2015

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“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”
Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.
But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.

(384 pages)

I thought I'd like this book a lot more than I did.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it. I went in expecting a rather fluffy read about kids, puzzles, alchemy, and adventure. And while all of those components were definitely in the book, they somehow didn't come together in a very light way. Instead I got a grim read, with lots of blood and death and corpses. Christopher comes across more as being foolhardy and immature than anything else, and his best friend Tom's blind loyalty seems honestly pretty misplaced at times.

I don't know. Maybe Christopher does pull through, shows that he's made of better stuff than I originally thought, but no matter what happens in the end of the book I just can't bring myself to be as invested as I should be in what happens to him. Perhaps it's because the book begins with Christopher doing something truly idiotic (building a cannon inside . . . and then testing it), and then immediately starts putting Christopher into situations that might be unpleasant for him but which I don't care about much because I don't know him or his world very well.

There's honestly not much more I have to say. If you've read this book and loved it, then good for you; I don't think it's bad or anything, it just really didn't strike any chords in me. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.