Corduroy

by Don Freeman, illustrations by Lisa McCue

I loved reading Corduroy books when I was young, so naturally, I was drawn to this board book depicting the friendly little bear with charming illustrations. It’s a large, shaped board book, which sets it apart from all the standard-sized books we own, and my son seems to enjoy looking at the pictures every time we pull it out together.

Though the pictures are nicely done, the text is pretty generic, using brief sentences to describe Corduroy’s actions throughout the day. (“Corduroy reads his favorite books.” “Corduroy is mailing a letter.”) But since the illustrations satisfy my sentimental attachment to this overalls-clad bear, I can forgive the lackluster story. All in all, it’s a nice book to introduce Corduroy to a small child.

One special note about this book: We also own Corduroy’s Day, a counting book about Corduroy. However, many of the illustrations in the Corduroy board book are exact copies of those in Corduroy’s Day. So if you already own Corduroy’s Day, you may want to avoid this board book and get a different one from the Corduroy series instead. (There seem to be a vast array of Corduroy board books on the market.)

Happily Ever After

by Susan May Warren

In Happily Ever After, Warren weaves a love story between two people who are living with the weight of the past on their shoulders. As the book opens, Mona moves to Deep Haven, Minnesota to pursue her dream of opening a bookstore/coffeeshop, but she’s plagued by doubts that God will allow her dreams to come true. Enter Joe Michaels: A drifter who’s just returned to Deep Haven so he can check in on his brother Gabe, a young man living in a group home for those with Down’s syndrome. Joe takes a job as Mona’s handyman, and a romance soon follows.

Without giving any major plot elements away, I’ll just say that this romance follows the familiar formula: Boy and girl meet, attraction develops, obstacles arise to thwart the budding romance, and are eventually overcome. In this case, Joe and Mona both have unresolved pain from the past that needs to be dealt with: They need to learn some lessons about forgiveness in order to move forward with each other.

Warren developed somewhat interesting characters, but the plot dragged along and was bogged down with too much metaphorical and descriptive language about the Minnesota scenery. Unfortunately, this book also fell into some lengthy passages of “preachiness,” barely disguised as dialogue between characters. In a sense, I felt that Warren didn’t trust her own story enough: I think she could have left out a lot of the direct conversation about forgiveness and just let Joe and Mona’s story do the talking.

All in all, Happily Ever After had a cute story with interesting characters, but it fell a little flat on delivery. I’d say if you want to read a good Christian romance, you’ll probably want to try something else.

A Severed Wasp

by Madeleine L’Engle

A Severed Wasp tells the story of Madame Vigneras, a retired pianist who finds herself developing unlikely relationships with the members of an Episcopal community in the heart of New York city. Vigneras hopes for a quiet retirement with time to come to terms with her past: Instead, she finds herself preparing to give a benefit concert at the Cathedral, and she quickly becomes embroiled in the fears, dramas, and problems of those around her. Somehow, amidst a strange mix of new friends, disturbing phone calls, and daydreams about her youth, she not only unravels the truth about strange events at the Cathedral, but also finds some peace about her past.

I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, I respect the skill and imagination of Madeleine L’Engle: She tells an interesting story with a tone and style that befit the New York setting. Her characters certainly don’t fall flat; they come with an intriguing mix of history and emotion. And I enjoyed L’Engle’s careful observations about a musician’s unique outlook at life.

But despite the smooth writing, I found myself somewhat bored with the story. I felt as if I were attending one of the numerous dinner parties described in the book; I was mildly interested in the people around me, but ultimately just wanted the event to be over.

In the end, my reading experience with A Severed Wasp was reminiscent of attending a concert: Though I didn’t feel captivated by each note echoing through the hall, the overall effect was still pleasant enough. And I have a feeling that some of the deeper melodies will float through my mind for awhile.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle

When it comes to board books, it’s hard to go wrong with anything illustrated by Eric Carle. The bold colors and interesting textures seem to capture my son’s attention every time we pick up this book.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? has a great cadence, with the text following a simple pattern throughout the entire book. Each page depicts a brightly colored animal, and though Noah is too young to know his colors just yet, this book will be a fun teaching tool once he’s old enough to start learning them.

I find that my one-year-old has distinct preferences about books, even at this young age. With a great combination of animals, colors, and rhythm, this one is a winner every time we pick it up.

I Know A Rhino

This has quickly become a favorite for both me and my son. I’m a big fan of Charles Fuge’s illustrations, and in this book we see his delightful renderings of a little girl and her animal friends. The text is a wonderful poem telling about the various activities she shares with a rhino, an ape, and other assorted creatures. At the closing page, we see a fun little twist as the girl lays sleeping in bed–surrounded by stuffed animals that correspond to all the scenes depicted throughout the book.

My son is only one, but he seems to enjoy the bright colors and the rhythm of the text. There’s just the right amount of text on each page.

“I know a giraffe, and we laugh and we laugh, blowing hundreds of bubbles as we take a bath.” With cheerful prose like that, what’s not to love about this little book? I highly recommend it as part of any baby or toddler’s collection.

The Chase

by Susan Wales and Robin Shope

The Chase introduces us to Jill Lewis, an investigative reporter attempting to uncover a story of political scandal. But just as her story breaks, the shady senator she was attempting to expose comes up with some fabricated documents to clear his name, leaving Jill without a job or much of a reputation.

The rest of the story unfolds in Jill’s hometown of Delavan, Wisconsin, where Jill settles for a job at the local paper while trying to unravel the tangled threads of her story. A little romance unfolds when Jill meets her new boss, Craig Martin, and turns to him for help with her investigation.

At first, I had a difficult time getting into this story. I found Jill’s character to be a little unbelievable (would a hard-nosed investigative reporter really spend so much time daydreaming about a small-town newspaper editor?). There was a tendency toward overwriting in the first few chapters of the book, and the authors spent a little too much time setting up the romance, losing some of the suspense that one hopes for when they pick up a mystery.

Thankfully a strong plot developed and eventually won me over. In the end, this became a book that I had to stay up late reading because I just couldn’t put it down. Unlike many suspense novels, where the mystery’s solution is painfully obvious to the reader well before the main character realizes it, this book provided enough twists and turns to keep me guessing. The mystery pieces were put together well in the end, but unfortunately the romantic sub-plot resulted in an incredibly cheesy and unbelievable scene at the end of the book.

All in all, this was a decent effort for the authors’ first attempt at a novel. I’ll be interested to see how their writing develops in coming books. For those of you who like some light suspense and don’t mind a heavy dose of romance mixed in, The Chase may be just right for you.

The Living End

by Lisa Samson

Another well-written story from Lisa Samson, this book chronicles the quest of Pearly Laurel, a recently-widowed woman who grieves through the process of carrying out her husband’s “wishlist.”

I usually find Samson’s writing so captivating that I have difficulty putting her stories down, but this book didn’t pull me in like her others have. Perhaps it was the melancholy tone; or the fact that I found it difficult to relate to the suicidal Pearly, (though I did find myself liking her and hoping she would somehow find the courage to move on). The Living End does an admirable job depicting the complex process of grief, but I felt less satisfied with Samson’s approach to Pearly’s eventual conversion. Somehow her acceptance of the faith just seemed to unfold too conveniently in the plot, especially for a character who’d done so much resisting in the past. I couldn’t quite understand what helped Pearly finally make the leap to faith. But then again, I suppose most conversions are an organic experience that can’t be easily explained.

As usual, Samson’s writing offers up a well-written slice of life. And though I didn’t find this particular book to be my favorite flavor, I’m sure I’ll be returning to Samson’s table for her next new dish.

Flabbergasted

by Ray Blackston

Have any beach trips planned in the next few months? If so, this is a perfect vacation read. I thorougly enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek tone as the author relates the story of Jay Jarvis, the new guy in town who decides to start attending church to meet girls.

Of course, Jay’s not the only one in this story who’s looking to the church for true love: The girls he encounters have already developed an extensive e-mail network for rating area churches based on their bachelor potentials.

Filled with quirky characters, an easy-going plot, and a refreshingly honest perspective on singles in the church, this book begs to be read from a lounge chair in the ocean breeze. But even if you aren’t planning any treks to the ocean, you’ll find it an entertaining read. So slip on your flip-flops (yes–even if it’s only 20 degrees outside!), grab a cup of lemonade, and pick up a copy of this book for a relaxing afternoon.

Follow-up note: If you enjoy Flabbergasted, you’ll be happy to know that Ray Blackston wrote two additional titles for the series. I’ll give you a short description of each below:

A Delirious Summer follows the story of Neil Rucker, a single, South American missionary who desperately wants to find a date. A furlough in Greenville, SC (site of the spouse-shopping church hoppers in Flabbergasted) seems to hold some promise for his romantic prospects. But soon he finds himself back on the mission field as he and his new Greenville friends head to Ecuador on a mission to rebuild a burned-out village. Another engaging story about friends, faith, and the search for love from Blackston.

In Lost in Rooville, Jay Jarvis and his buddy Steve take an Outback adventure with their girlfriends. As both guys consider taking the “plunge” into marriage, they begin searching for the perfect moment to propose. But their trip Down Under quickly turns up trouble, with an unexpected detour that leaves one of the couples stranded. Will Jay and Steve be too distracted to fulfill their knee-dropping, question-popping goals?

The Russians

by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella

I first started reading The Crown and the Crucible while I was in high school. I enjoyed this literary journey into a turbulent era of Russian history and quickly went on to read the next four books in The Russians series. Two years ago, I returned to the series again after learning there had been two additional titles added since my first reading.

I’m not usually one for rereading, but this series was just as delightful the second time around. They are wonderful stories where drama, history, and a little romance mingle together like the flavors of a favorite coffeehouse blend.

I loved the characters and stories, but what made this series especially enjoyable for me were the numerous history lessons I learned along the way. Phillips and Pella do an excellent job of weaving historical facts into the fictional lives of their characters. I feel like I’ve taken a course in Russian history – but without the tedious lectures and term papers. (In fact, I did take a Russian history class in college and I was surprised by how much I already knew simply from reading these books.)

If you enjoy historical fiction, get your hands on this series. The first few books are no longer in print, but if you can find them in a library or a used book store, it will be worth the search!

For your information, here is a complete listing of the series.:

#1 – The Crown and the Crucible

#2 – A House Divided

#3 – Travail and Triumph

#4 – Heirs of the Motherland

#5 – The Dawning of Deliverance

#6 – White Nights, Red Morning

#7 – Passage Into Light

* Books #1-3 were written by Phillips and Pella, Books #4-7 are by Judith Pella only.

Club Sandwich

by Lisa Samson

This is the second book I’ve read by Lisa Samson, an author I fell in love with after reading another of her novels, Tiger Lillie, last fall.

At first I was a bit taken aback by the completely different tone of this book. In contrast to the beautiful and near-lyrical quality of Tiger Lillie, this book has a harder edge. But I quickly realized that the tone of Club Sandwich perfectly suited its primary character, Ivy Schneider; a middle-aged woman sandwiched between the needs of her children and her aging mother. As if it’s not enough to juggle those needs, Ivy also struggles with a marriage that’s deteriorating and an ailing family business.

I love Samson’s writing because she does such a perfect job taking on the voice of her characters. (Her books are written in first person.) As you read Club Sandwich, you really feel like you’re hearing these experiences from Ivy, not some third party author. She also weaves in stories from the characters past, slowly revealing the rich tapestry of their dreams, faith, fears, and personalities.

This isn’t a book with shocking plot twists. It doesn’t have a dramatic or highly romantic story line. And yet I couldn’t put it down. It’s just an insightful look at real life, real people, and real faith. And that earns it a very high recommendation from me.

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