Quick Lit: January 2015

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

Cassandra Mortmain is an engaging narrator, writing a journal about her life in a dilapidated castle in the English countryside. In the English way, her prospects are few since their only rich relative has disowned them. That leaves a rich marriage for her or her sister, Rose. It seemed like a fairly conventional set up, but from there on out, this book surprised me constantly. Every time I thought I knew what was coming, I was wrong.  Highly recommended.

Cleaning House by Kay Wills Wyma

Ostensibly about keeping the house clean, this book is really about the value of work and how we have robbed our children of its benefits.  It resonated with me in so many ways.

A Tan and Sandy Silence and The Scarlet Ruse by John D. MacDonald

These two McGee books were my least favorites, probably because I’m tired of the formula.  He writes well and makes stunning observations about human nature, but the women in each of these books were too flawed, too doomed from the start.  I won’t be giving up on MacDonald, but I don’t recommend these two books.

Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkein

These letters from Father Christmas to Tolkein’s children are like Christmas cookies: short, sweet and purely delightful.  I loved everything about it, from Tolkein’s magical descriptions to his disguised handwriting.  This one is fun for both the parents and the kids, though perhaps for different reasons.

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis

I love Willis’s novels, but she is a master of the short story.  These stories range from charming to disturbing, but they are all memorable and all worth reading.  My favorite, of course, is Adaptation.  Pick up a copy and stick it in your stocking for next year!

twitterature: november

It’s been awhile since my last twitterature post.  Be sure to check out Anne’s reading at Modern Mrs. Darcy— I can always find something great on her list.

The Good Lord Bird (James McBride): Hands down, this was the best book I’ve read in awhile. It’s a fictionalized account of John Brown, and both Brown and the book’s narrator (Henry/Onion) were vivid and remarkable. Even as the story marched toward the inevitable historical conclusion, I waited for a last-minute miracle to save them… and somehow McBride pulled that off.

Gene Card (E.E. Giorgi) is a sci-fi thriller heavy on the science, which is realistic and compelling.  Gene Card occurs in a disastrous future in which all the characters are complicated and no one’s motives are pure.

The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown).  I loved this book and even regretted loaning Sam my kindle while I was reading it. Brown tells the story of the US 1936 Olympic crew from childhood through their brush with the Nazis, and I couldn’t put it down.

The Watch that Ends the Night (Alan Wolff). This was a reread for me, and I did a test read with the children, who keep asking for it.  It’s the story of the Titanic from many perspectives. In free verse.  Longer review here.

Peace and Bread: The Story of Jane Adams (Stephanie Sammartino McPherson). This biography of Jane Adams was a surprise hit with the under-13 crowd, and I found myself reading ahead.  Free from sentimentality. Inspiring.

Finding Calcutta (Mary Poplin): Another reread, and absolutely worth coming back to. Poplin’s observations about her time with the Missionaries of Charity are incisive and compelling.  I’m glad I found it again.

From This Day Forward (Elswyth Thane): A Thane romance between a famous singer and a scientist in the 1930’s. Last time I read it I hadn’t been to Guatemala yet, and I enjoyed her descriptions of Central America.   I see how reading this book as a teenager shaped my ideas of marriage.

Okay for Nor (Gary Schmidt): I was skeptical that any book would live up to The Wednesday Wars, but Schmidt did it again.  This family is in grave distress, but the painful beginning is powerfully redeemed by the end.

A History Booklist for the 19th Century


I’ve received a few emails asking for a more detailed book list from last year, so here it is. It’s roughly in historical order, and I’ve added a few notes about content.  We read lots of others, but these are the ones I will do again when we come back around to the 19th century.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (Latham) This is one of my all-time favorites.  Nathaniel Bowditch was a self-educated renaissance man who revolutionized nautical navigation in the early 1800s. 

Fever, 1793 (Anderson)  Anderson makes the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia come alive.

Amos Fortune, Free Man (Yates) My children begged to hear this one. Fortune was a brave man of deep faith and convictions.  We will read it again.

Chains (Anderson) This book about slavery is vivid and hard, but it’s well worth the read (for middle school and up, I think).

Amazing Grace (Metaxas) Another of my favorites about William Wilberforce, the English orator and politician who ended the slave trade and changed the culture of England.  It was an independent-read for my 8th-grader.

Those Rebels: John & Tom (Kerley) This deceptively simple picture book held all of us enthralled. It’s about the conflict and deep friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  It opened some great conversations.

Adironam Judson: God’s Man in Burma (Hambrick) I didn’t expect this read-aloud one to capture my children as quickly as it did.  Judson’s childhood (he was born in 1788) is vividly portrayed and the descriptions of his experiences in Burma are fascinating.

A Picture Book of Lewis & Clark (Adler) Adler has a whole series of basic but informative picture books. We like them.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition (Webster) This was a simple independent read for my 8th grader.

The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Lewis) I read aloud selectively from this primary source, but the maps and journal entries were great.

A Picture Book of Sacagawea (Adler)

Streams to the River, River to the Sea (O’Dell) O’Dell has such a gift for making characters come alive. This one’s about Sacagawea.

Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame and What the Neighbors Thought (Krull) Krull’s biographies are always entertaining.  This one was no exception and was a picture book for the younger crowd.

The Great Little Madison (Fritz) We all loved this one. She blended great details of his life with an insightful analysis of his understanding of the constitution. It started great conversations.

Dolly Madison: famous first lady (Davidson) We liked this one because it treated her in her own right, instead of just as James Madison’s wife.

James Monroe (Teitlebaum) An 8th-grade independent read.

Andrew Jackson (Meltzer) Another 8th grade read-alone.

Hispanic Heritage: Wars of Independence (Sanchez) This was a good overview of Latin America’s Wars of Independence.

Simon Bolivar (De Verona) The writing wasn’t amazing, but the details were good.

The Amazing, Impossible Erie Canal (Harness) Everyone asked for “just one more chapter” of this one.

The Battle of the Alamo (Jeffrey)

By the Great Horn Spoon (Fleishman) This novel about the California Gold Rush is so good. My 5th-grader read it alone.

The Monk in the Garden (Henig) 8th-grade read-alone. It’s about Gregor Mendel (the “father of genetics” and how he conducted his studies.) Jonah still mentions Mendel.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, Free Man (Douglass) A classic for many good reasons. An 8th-grade read-alone.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers (Fritz) I just love Fritz’s history biographies.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman led her people to freedom (Weatherford) Both the text and the pictures in this are stunning. Appropriate for all ages. You will want this one on your shelf.

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad (Cole) This is a new book, a powerful wordless story your kids will want to look at again and again.

Abraham Lincoln (Raum) An 8th-grade read aloud. Solid.

Abraham Lincoln (D’Aulaire) Like all of the D’Aulaires’ biographies, you will want your own copy.

Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Writing of the Gettysburg Address (Fritz)

A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman (Adler)

Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt) 8th-grade independent read.  It was great fodder for discussions of how the press influences public opinion and the effects (intended and unintended) of war.

The Red Badge of Courage (Crane) Again, an 8th-grade independent read.

Abraham Lincoln’s World (Foster) This read-aloud was our history “spine” and it does a good job of covering both the roots of the Civil War and the revolutions all over Europe.  It took us six months to read it all, but it was worth it.

Little House in the Big Woods et al (Wilder) Wilder’s perfect descriptions an vivid stories opened history to me as a child. It’s not different for my children. These are classics about westward expansion.

Caddie Woodlawn (Brink) Woodlawn’s family is more settled than the Ingalls, but her descriptions evoke the same period with equal authenticity.

Lyddie (Paterson) An independent reader for an 8th grader about the challenges of industrialization during the 19th Century. Beautiful, brave, challenging.

Advent, Week 2

We’ve been continuing with school, and adding in a few Christmas/Advent read-alouds: Geraldine McCraughrean’s The Jesse Tree, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, A Christmas Carol (Jim Dale’s wonderful reading on CD), Christmas in the Barn, King of the Stable, and King Island Christmas. I’m still waiting for a few more I found at Better World Books.  (And thanks to Elizabeth Foss for the picture book recommendations.)


Peppermint Bark happened. The children are very motivated to help when they get the crumbs at the end.  (I am including links to everything today, lest you are mislead to thinking I have any original ideas.)


I picked up Dorothy Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday (the sequel to Gaudy Night, so you know it was dangerous for me). Somehow we managed still to get school done.

And our homeschool group carolled at nursing home near us. Joy to the World.  No more let sin or sorrow reign. Amen.


Now I’m trying to figue out how to share with my children what happened in Connecticut.

I’ll leave you with my favorite prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. 
Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

First Week of Advent

I prepped this lovely craft from Spell Out Loud for our church luncheon.  Then my two girls were sick, and I told them they had to stayt home with Sam.  Both were crushed.  (Sadly, I suspect this had more to do with missing the craft than missing the service.)


In the end, Sam and the girls made the paper chains, and no one at church did.


We also set up the creche on the mantle.  When I wasn’t looking, an unexpected wise men showed up.


Our Christmas books have come out of hiding, and we’ve been enjoying How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Fancy Nancy’s Splendiferous Christmas, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and The Night Before Christmas.  I found some new treasures on Better World Books, so I’m looking forward to their arrival.  Are there any I should put on my wish list?

Book Review: The Easter Story by Brian Wildsmith

Whoa, that’s a big copy of the cover, but I wanted you to see how beautiful the art is.

Brian Wildsmith’s retelling of the The Easter Story is gorgeous, and true.  We’ve been reading it over and over.  Every time we read it, we find a new detail– another brilliant angel, or a cat.  Shopping at the Eerdman’s Publishing table is one of my favorite parts of Calvin College’s Faith & Writing conference, and this year was no exception.

More to come.

Book Review: All Clear by Connie Willis

This will be my last Connie Willis book review for a bit, because I can’t seem to do anything else when I’m lost in one of her books.

All Clear

The books Blackout and All Clear are really one book about the at-home heroism of England during World War II.  They are masterful depictions of the war.  I don’t know how Ms. Willis does it, but she acquaints us with an amazing number of characters in a short space, and then we care about what happens to them– as we do in real life.  What I love most about her story is the way she weaves in other literature and stories: Shakespeare, and Agatha Christie, and the amazing heroism of Ernest Shackleton on his voyage to the south pole.  While the books are primarily historical fiction (did you know thirty thousand civilians died as a result of Hitler’s bombing of London & surrounding areas?), Ms. Willis thinks critically about time and faith and hope in an amazing way.

P.S. I received no compensation for this review… well, if you don’t count being uplifted and inspired.  Which I do.

Book Review: Blackout by Connie Willis

I love Connie Willis’s writing. Remember how much I loved Doomsday Book?
Well, Blackout is a close second.


Unless you count her short fiction, and then”Even the Queen” or “Spice Pogrom” might edge it out. Maybe.

Anyway, Connie Willis writes Sci Fi that is our world, only with a tweak or two: just enough to make her imaginings possible, but not enough to detract in any way from her wry observations of how ridiculous– and brave– we are as people.

Blackout follows three historians through their explorations of World War II, on the British side.  (No, Sam, there are no concentration camps.)  Her observations of human bravery are powerful, and I was completely sucked in.  So much so that as soon as I can drive again I’m going to go to the bookstore to find the sequel, All Clear.