Monday, April 24, 2017

Book #33: Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves

Rosalyn Eves, the author of this book, was my Writing Fellows boss and professor while I was at BYU! I spent a lot of time working with her for a year, and I am Facebook friends with her still and have seen all of her posts about her book being published, etc. I think it's SO cool that she did this, something that she's always wanted to do--and it's inspired me. I have always thought I'm not much of a creative writer, but who knows? Maybe someday I'll have a great idea for a story that I'll want to write too.

This book, set in Victorian times, is about Anna Arden, who is Barren of magic in a family full of magicians. She can't cast any spells and actually messes them up, breaks them, when she comes across them. She eventually gets sent to her ancestral home of Hungary with her grandmother, where she begins to get involved with the revolutionaries wanting to overthrow the government and the Circle, the leaders of the magical world. It turns out that her lack of powers ends up being very powerful indeed, and she is central to that revolution.

My favorite thing about this book was the setting. It felt so fresh to read something set in Eastern Europe--how many Regency/Victorian-era novels do you read set in England, and how many do you read set in Hungary? I also really liked how the book used real historical events and superimposed this magical world on top of them, changing why or how things happened to fit this other storyline. I thought the magical world had a lot of potential, and I liked how Rosalyn set up the world. The writing was also really beautiful and distinctive. I did wish that we could get a little more from the characters--I never really got attached to any of them, and I'm not sure why. I felt like they were all kind of cardboard characters, doing what they were supposed to but not having any feelings while they did it. I don't know what would have made them any better, though; there wasn't anything specific that stood out in their characterization. But overall, it was a worthwhile read and since this is the beginning of a trilogy, I'm sure I'll be checking out the other two.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book #32: Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

I read Rubin's The Happiness Project a few years ago and really enjoyed it. It really stuck with me as she methodically set resolutions to improve her life and make herself happier. When I heard she'd written a sequel I decided definitely not to read it, since how different could it be? But enough time has passed that I picked this one up and decided to read it. I liked all the same things about this one that I liked about the first one--it seems like such a follow-able method that anyone could implement, and it's inspiring to read about the things she decided to change. However, this book really did strike me as exactly the same as the original. This book was a happiness project focused on her life at home--but at least half of the themes for each month were the same as her original book (even if the resolutions were different) and it just didn't seem like a distinct enough concept from the first happiness project. Rubin's personality kind of annoys me, after reading this book--she comes across as VERY Type-A and always having to have the last word (at least in her conversations that she transcribes into the book, where she's always contradicting people with her happiness research advice), and she has all these weird opinions and neuroses that seem to be all-consuming for her, because she talks about them ALL THE TIME, like she hates errands and she has an overwhelming dread/fear of driving and she hates traveling or basically doing anything new.

However, even considering all of that, I did come away feeling inspired and motivated to do some sort of resolutions myself. I feel like I am in a really good frame of mind considering that we have a newborn in the house--and having some sort of resolution project might help me to maintain that.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Book #31: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I resisted reading this book--I keep wondering, HOW MANY WWII novels can there be out there?? Every time I hear a recommendation for one I groan a little inside and decide I'm not going to bother reading it. But eventually, if I hear enough good review, I can't keep myself away and I usually am glad I did (like with Everyone Brave is Forgiven). I really enjoyed this one, once I got past the first few chapters (which were slow and gave me a sense of foreboding, which meant I didn't get past them for a few days). The book is about two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, and their experiences living in German-occupied France during WWII. Isabelle gets involved with the French resistance, helping downed Allied airmen to get out of France, and Vianne tries hard to keep her head down and to survive with her young daughter while her husband is at the front while Nazis take over their town. The book is about both of their experiences with the war and how they both end up resisting and surviving.

I really liked how this book gave a look at what it was like living in occupied France during the war. It gave a lot of detail about the difficulty they experienced--lack of food, lots of suspicion and fear, etc--and makes you feel how scary it was. I thought the relationship between Isabelle and Vianne was well written, and I liked how they came together in the end, and I liked how they kind of represented two opposing responses to the war and the occupation: one by fighting back, and one by hiding and surviving. I also liked the character development of both women throughout the war: Vianne started off as weak and incapable of doing anything without her husband, but grows and makes many horrible choices over the war, and Isabelle starts out as an obnoxious, strong-willed teenager and grows to appreciate the true dangers and situations that they are in. I thought they both were interesting and really well done. There were many really heart-breaking things that happened, which kept me totally engaged and feeling all the feelings in the book. This book was definitely not at the same level of All the Light We Cannot See in terms of the skill of writing (but it's a little unfair to compare any book to the writing of that one because it is SO beautiful), but this story was very engaging and definitely worth the read.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book #30: French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon

I've wanted to read this book for years. And I'm really glad I did! I truly enjoyed the insights from this book. The subtitle kind of says it all: "How our family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy eaters." Le Billon writes about her family's year of living in the remote French countryside and how they adapted to the wildly different food culture and expectations from their native land of Canada. Her kids started off the year as extremely picky eaters but were forced to be exposed to lots of different foods through their school lunches, etc., and began to eat a lot better.

The thing that annoyed me about this book was that Le Billon writes about her family's food culture as if it's totally normal for North Americans, when I think she was very extreme on the bad side of allowing pickiness and catering to her kids' whims. I definitely got a lot out of learning about the French eating habits, but I don't think they are as much of a revelation as Le Billon seems to have. Before moving to France, they would make their kids pasta with Parmesan cheese every night and let them eat snacks all day long and thought that it was normal that they wouldn't eat more than 10 foods. I think that is just bad parenting (in most situations) and the French approach is a lot more reasonable.

According to Le Billon, French kids truly do eat everything, and they are happy to do so. They don't fight with their parents about eating good food, and they are excited about trying new foods. It all comes down to the habits and food culture that French parents across the board have created, mainly because they focus on food being a pleasurable experience, not worrying about the healthiness of foods or catering to their kids' demands. I think this is the main thing I would love to adopt from this book. Our kids are EXTREMELY good eaters (for North Americans), but too often it becomes a fight at the dinner table just asking them to eat more quickly or to try new things, and I would rather not stress out about those things.

These are the 10 food rules of French eating, according to this book:

1. Parents: YOU are in charge of food education! This is pretty obvious to me.
2. Avoid emotional eating. NO food rewards, bribes, etc. This is one I want to get better about. Too often I catch myself saying, "Okay, you don't get dessert because you didn't eat your salad" or giving them snacks when they're crying at the store. I liked how the French stick to their schedule of four meals a day, and don't eat outside those times. We are pretty good about not doing snacks most of the time, but sometimes we definitely fall short (like church).
3. Parents schedule meals and menus. Kids eat what adults eat. No short-order cooking. We've always eaten like this. Although I think I could be better about making a menu for lunch so that we eat better at that meal. Too often I have to throw together a PB and J for the boys and give them grapes and carrots and call it good--which is better than nothing but I'd like a little more variety and not so many carbs.
4. Eat family meals together. No distractions. We do this pretty well too.
5. Eat your veggies. Key: Think "variety." I loved how she talked about introducing new types of veggies to your kids. She started with just making vegetable purees as soups and giving them to her kids until they liked them. I would love to do that too. Our kids eat their veggies really well, but we don't have too much variety. It's almost always salad (spinach and lettuce, tomatoes and carrots) or frozen veggies (peas, carrots, corn, green beans), or carrots or broccoli with hummus. We could definitely be better about introducing new veggies!
6. You don't have to LIKE it, but you do have to TASTE it. Say this at every meal. The French are really good about being neutral when kids say they don't like something. Instead of forcing them to finish what's on their plates or getting mad when they won't eat, they just insist that they try everything and then if they don't want to eat more, just take it away and say, "Oh, that's okay. You'll like it more when you try it again." I could be much more neutral about this!
7. No snacking! It's OK to feel hungry between meals. I liked how they had a scheduled "snack" (really a small meal) at 4pm. I think we could do breakfast, early lunch, snack after naps, then dinner. We've been moving in that direction anyways.
8. Slow food is happy food -- as in, eat slow. She talks about how they started doing mindful eating and how it helped them all enjoy their food more. This is ironic because we are always harping on Dane to eat faster (because he just sits and talks and lounges around a lot of the time instead of eating anything at all). Maybe if we talked about how our food tastes and showed more real enjoyment in our meal instead of just scarfing it down ourselves it would go better.
9. Eat mostly real food. Treats are OK for special occasions. By "real food" she means food a human cooked from actual fruits, vegetables, meats, etc. I feel like we mostly do this. We do have snack food in our cupboards that don't necessarily qualify for this, but our meals are almost always made at home and generally from scratch.
10. Remember: Eating is joyful. Relax! We can be better about enjoying our food and spending time together. 

I have some good ideas coming out from reading this book. However, since Tommy is going back to work soon and I will soon be home alone with three small children while preparing the meals in our house, I don't know if I will be able to implement them. Maybe I should re-read this in a year when we are out of the baby phase... I would definitely like to do these things: introduce more variety to our kids, stop making eating a "have-to" thing (be better about the "you have to try it but you don't have to eat everything"), and make it more fun and enjoyable for the kids AND us.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Book #29: An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan

After reading A Little Folly by Morgan, I wanted to check out some more of his other books. After reading the synopses on Goodreads, I decided on An Accomplished Woman because it sounded interesting. But sadly, I didn't like it as much as I liked A Little Folly. The book follows Lydia Templeton, an intellectual and single 30-year-old who is happy in her life, after she turned down the most eligible suitor in her early twenties. But she accepts the role of chaperone or companion to a younger and much more naive girl going to Bath for the season, to advise her in her relationship issues, and all sorts of romantic entanglements ensue.

I liked Lydia's character, particularly her inner thoughts that we are privy to in the narration. But I thought her insistence on being direct and sarcastic got to be a little annoying--particularly with Lewis Durrant (the ex-suitor of hers who is still around since he is her family's next-door neighbor). She is downright rude to him and he doesn't care, which seems ridiculous. She is half Elinor from Sense and Sensibility, with the insistence on being 100% rational all the time, and half Emma, trying to matchmake and decide everyone else's love lives, while insisting that she isn't actually involved. The storyline of the book, and half of the characters, are seemingly half lifted from Emma, which bothers me, since it wasn't like Morgan set out to write a rewrite of Emma but just copied and hoped that nobody would notice. I was really annoyed by the coincidences by the end. Also, the book seemed to move pretty slowly and it took me forever to get through. That was probably partly because I was reading it most of the time while I was nursing and not solely focusing on reading, but I feel like a good bit of the story could have been condensed. However, it was still pretty enjoyable and I was happy with how it all ended up romantically at the end (although it seems a little unbelievable that Mr. Durrant was really waiting around for her all that time, when she was so mean and he was so prideful (according to her)).

Monday, April 10, 2017

Book #28: A Heart Revealed by Josi S. Kilpack

This book is about Amber Sterlington, the Rage of the Season in Regency-era London. She is determined to marry the richest, highest-titled man who will propose to her, and goes to great lengths to flirt with and associate with anyone who fulfills those criteria. But when she starts to lose all her hair, everything falls apart and she is exiled by her family to northern England to live in a cottage with her maid. She then undergoes a total change of heart and personality, re-evaluating her prior assumptions and attitudes and realizing how shallow and selfish she, and the rest of the elite London crowd, had been. (And, spoiler alert--she finds love, even with her debilitating fear of rejection after losing all her hair.)

I thought this book posed a very interesting rhetorical question: what would it have been like for someone in that class and time period who suffered from allopecia? I thought this was a believable scenario and I liked the about-face in personality that Amber goes through, and how she becomes humbled and willing and able to take care of her own needs to cook and clean and build fires to keep warm, etc. She goes from being pretty terrible person to very normal and even nice, thanks to the help and encouragement of her maid, Suzanne. I kind of thought the romance was a little weird, how they had their dates where he knew who she was but she didn't know who he was--but it all ended well and was pretty satisfactory in the end. I thought this book was written very well and I enjoyed the plot. Definitely a fun read.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Book #27: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

So, I started reading this book 9 months ago. SERIOUSLY. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to finishing it. I read the first half in a couple of days, then I set it down and promptly left it on my bedside stand for the next nine months until I decided yesterday that I had to finish it. It only took me about two hours to work through the rest of it--sad that I put it off for so long. The problem was that I really didn't love or understand it the first time I started reading it, and wasn't very interested in finishing it. But interestingly, I really liked the second half much more and was much more engaged by it this time around. I really enjoyed the stream of consciousness writing and how Woolf fluidly shifts from narrator to narrator--it seems very beautiful and it really emphasizes how interconnected everyone is. It feels like a movie where the camera follows one person closely for a few minutes, where you see everything they think and see and do, and then the camera spins off with someone passing by and follows them instead. The shifting narrators and the different perspectives change so easily that sometimes you don't even notice it's changed until a few paragraphs later. I think this is a book you need to read with the expectation that it'll be smooth and calm and not being interested in "what happens" or the plot--just take it slow and enjoy the ride. I thought the best part was Woolf's commentary on mental illness (through the character of Septimus Warren Smith, suffering with PTSD after WWI) and doctors and society's views on mental illness. (It seems very forward-thinking of Woolf to be so cognizant of this issue considering that this book was first published in 1925. Of course, she had her own mental illness issues, which is probably why.) I could feel Woolf's anger and frustration with the system and Smith's desperation as he feels cornered and throws himself out the window. I also liked the consciousness of time and how time passes slowly through the book, and you hear Big Ben clanging the hour all day throughout the book. Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would at first, and I would definitely re-read it again (and probably like it better now that I understand more of what it's about).