Thanksgiving Musings

Two days ago, on Thanksgiving afternoon, my husband decided to go through a buildup of mail and other papers. As we decided which were worth keeping and which no longer had value, several sheets came to our attention. What should they be but some notes and quotes I put together for a freelance article I was writing? The topic gave me pause: Thanksgiving and the Jewish tradition.

We are believers that nothing is by chance; this find proves it. Not only did my husband discover them on Thanksgiving, it is not usually my practice to print out an article in progress. Whatever my reason for doing so, the tidbits offer timely and timeless insights into this holiday. Here are a few choice gems.

The Creator gives us many precious gifts, among them life, health, and happiness. In return for the wonders He bestows, it is only right that we should respond with thankfulness and praise. He does not need our words of blessing; we feel the necessity of recognizing His loving and unending presence.

The early settlers had much to be thankful for: liberation from the oppression they suffered in Europe, the Creator’s involvement in every part of life (the holy and the mundane), and for displaying His love and care. These three areas hearken a much older holiday: the festival of Chanukah. G-d freed the Jews from a power more powerful than they and, once the enemy was routed, cared enough to perform another open miracle: a small vessel of undefiled oil burned in the Temple menorah eight days until more could be prepared. These thoughts are worthwhile ones now (Chanukah is right around the corner) and when we next see a public menorah.

Expressing appreciation is not something we do one day, or one week, a year. Human parents, unlike many in the animal kingdom, do not produce offspring and leave the youngsters to fend for themselves. Rather, they devote years to caring and providing for their children. Similarly, the Creator does not leave us to our own devices; He is involved in all aspects of our lives. This constant care is worthy of taking time every day to praise Him for this beautiful world and everything in it.

Observant Jews offer thanks to G-d from the moment of awakening, before beginning their daily activities, when eating and drinking, seeing and hearing impressive sights and sounds like lightning, thunder, and the ocean, and more. A few seconds or moments pausing to praise Him for His many kindnesses, large and small, can really set the tone for the day.

Happy Thanksgiving days.

Farewell to Artimé (for Now)

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As Island of Dragons, the long-awaited seventh and final novel in Lisa McMann’s masterpiece series, opens, the land of Quill is in flames. Alex, the young head mage of Artimé, begins resettling the now-homeless Quillens in his domain. It’s no easy task; many of its residents mistrust anyone or anything magical.

As Alex and his fellow Artiméans, with more than a little help from the head mage’s once evil twin Aaron, come up with solutions on the home front, danger is lurking just beyond their shores. Two enemies of the magical land, seeking revenge for past defeats, have formed an alliance with one goal in mind: destroy Artimé. With a formidable army of humans, animals, and magic at their disposal, the foes approach the island. Despite intense preparations, once the battle begins, the magical land is in great danger of falling to the invaders. Alex finds his military and leadership skills put to the test as never before–and the stakes are higher than any he has known until now.

I must stop here for fear of giving away the plot. The seven-month wait between finishing the sixth volume and the local library finally making the final book available was more than worth it. Devotees of this series will find the conclusion as marvelous and magical as the land of Artimé.

One more word: those who have a hard time bidding farewell to Alex and his compatriots will only have a little time to miss them. As balmy weather returns to the Northern Hemisphere at winter’s end, the first book in the Unwanteds Quests series will arrive in the spring.

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It Was Worth the Wait

They don’t get better than this. Jodi Meadows’ Orphan Queen duology has to be the most phenomenal fiction I’ve read in quite some time. As readers of my blog may remember, the first book came to my attention during a browsing session at the nearest public library branch. When I finished this novel, I wondered how the author could end her story on the proverbial edge of a cliff–until I discovered a sequel was awaiting publication. With relief and not a little anticipation, this bibliophile began looking forward to the day the second book would be in my hands.

Three months turned into seven before the public library system obtained the novel–in e-book format. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I decided that reading the continuation of the tale outweighed my old-fashioned preference for the traditional book. The virtual pages could not be turned fast enough, and last night I reluctantly turned the last one. So, as promised, here is my review of the incomparable The Mirror King.

Things could not possibly be worse. Prince Tobiah, the heir to the throne of the Indigo Kingdom, has been mortally wounded. It is barely a week after his father, the king, was murdered. Wilhelmina, the princess from Aecor whose own parents were killed ten years before in what came to be known as the One-Night War (and who awaits the day when she can reclaim the throne) shares the kingdom’s distress. For she knows who performed both dastardly deeds: Patrick, an Aecorian who supports her cause–and will stop at nothing, even murder, to achieve his aim. Before the attack, Tobiah revealed Wilhelmina’s identity to his subjects–and the princess learned that the young monarch is Black Knife, a vigilante she joins night after night do battle against the kingdom’s dangers.

Even though Wilhelmina’s feelings for Tobiah are mixed, she knows she cannot allow him to die. Despite the fact that the magical abilities she possesses are forbidden (making use of them increases wraith, a sinister substance that is overtaking the landscape and destroying kingdoms and their people), the young woman acts. When the combined efforts of Wilhelmina and Connor, one of the last remaining Aecorian noblemen, bear fruit and Tobiah recovers, the kingdom is relieved.

However, this relief is short-lived. Wraith continues its menacing march and threatens Tobiah’s kingdom with increasing speed. Against this backdrop, the prince, putting duty ahead of his personal wishes, determines to officially take the crown and marry Lady Meredith, the young woman favored by the late king. Yet, following the coronation, the new monarch’s plans for his future, and that of his people, are foiled by adversaries both human and magical. When tragedy strikes, and Tobiah understandably blames Wilhelmina, the princess decides the time has come to return to her homeland. With James, the king’s cousin, closest friend, and guard joining her entourage at Tobiah’s request, Wilhelmina begins the journey to the kingdom she has not seen in ten years to take her rightful place as its queen. As the young woman enters Aecor and takes steps to ascend the throne, devastating news arrives from the Indigo Kingdom. Fearing that all hope is lost, Wilhelmina questions whether she has the ability to rule–or even if there will a kingdom left for her to govern.

Under the capable pen of Jodi Miller, The Mirror King picks up where The Orphan Queen ends and takes off running. This continuation of Wilhelmina’s story lacks none of the excitement, surprises, and suspense of the first novel. The journey of discovery that our heroine, Tobiah, James, the queen-wannabe’s best friend Melanie, and the rest of the people in their world undertake is the stuff of great fiction. By the time readers reluctantly turn the last page, they will know they have read something remarkable. I know I am not the only one who will want to check out the author’s earlier works and look forward to what she will do next. (In the meantime, there are four Orphan Queen novellas to enjoy!)

 

 

 

More Gems for the Picture-Book Set

A children’s book publisher from time to time sends me new and upcoming titles to review. I make an effort to complete these reviews and send them off to the publishing company–and share them on my blog.

However, two reviews did not yet make it to this venue. (Perhaps I was waiting for the books mentioned in my previous post to become available, and other book-related thoughts went out the window.) Since it is never too late, I am rectifying the oversight. Check out these picture books and share them with the little ones in your world.

Animals Babies series by Julia Groves

Did you know that hare babies are called leverets and young orangutans are infants? In these simple yet informative board books, readers and listeners are introduced to critters who make their homes in different habitats. On each full-page spread we meet a grownup animal and its offspring. Colorful backgrounds provide an attractive highlight for both parents and their youngsters. Julia Groves’ books are a nice introduction for babies and toddlers beginning to use language and learning the names of things in their world.

And Then… by Alborozo

A young girl is not happy, and for good reason: “Oh, Brother…As in MY brother. He gets all the attention! Even though it’s MY birthday!” So the disgruntled big sister begins to tell a story about a little girl with a baby brother who cries all the time, is smelly, and, like all infants, “gets slimy stuff all over their big sister’s toys like a squid and nobody seems to mind because they can’t help it.” The big sister, since it’s her birthday, makes a wish—and her parents become so tiny they need to hide from a bee under a cupboard. AND THEN…the baby brother squid is hungry but his miniscule mother cannot feed him. The resourceful little girl knows who to turn to for help and, at the end, makes another birthday wish to set everything right again. The wiser big sister realizes the new family member is not “that bad I suppose as long as he left her toys alone.”

Alborozo, the author-illustrator of The Acrobat, has written another sensitive story about interpersonal relationships and finding happiness. Readers and listeners (especially if there is a baby brother or sister in their lives) will empathize with the young heroine and wonder what is going to happen next. Kids will enthusiastically join in when the storyteller repeats her refrain “AND THEN…” The author’s bright, imaginative illustrations add the right touch of humor. The big sister’s plight and way she solves her dilemma are sure to spark children’s imaginations. Little details like the protagonist’s knowing to ask for a visitor’s identification and awareness that salty foods are not good choices present these important facts in a non-frightening, kid-friendly way. By the tale’s end, older siblings might just take another look at the attention-grabbing new baby—and decide he or she is not so bad after all.

The Wait Is Over

Way back in the cold, dark days of January, I posted my thoughts about a marvelous, multi-layered fantasy (discovered during a browsing session at a public library branch) entitled The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows. When I completed the book, its cliff-hanger ending left me quite unhappy–until I learned of a sequel whose publication date was a long three months away. There was no choice but to wait for not only The Mirror King but the concluding volume of the phenomenal Unwanteds series by Lisa McMann, due to come out about the same time, and the countdown began. April came, then May, but the local library system did not yet have either book!

Finally, after seven months, the long-awaited volumes arrived. No matter that it appeared both were only available in e-book format. I immediately requested them and only then learned that Lisa McMann’s gem was also in the collection in the preferred print version. Now my trusty laptop is keeping both electronic tomes safe for me, and The Island of Dragons also waits patiently by by bedside.

I am about halfway through The Mirror King and am as mesmerized by this book as I was by its predecessor. The “only one more chapter” rule before I attend to more important duties is a hard one to follow. Meeting Wilhelmina, Tobiah, and the others in their world is wonderful. Even better, the story that unfolds is so full of action, discoveries, twists, and turns that the most reluctant readers will be anxious to know what happens next.

The Island of Dragons also promises to be a worthy conclusion to this series. I have only read a little of the book, but I am already caught up in the action. When I finish each of these tales, my thoughts will appear in this blog. I promise not to keep you waiting seven months…

 

 

A Novel Lover’s Cup of Tea

From time to time, I receive offers for free downloads of soon-to-be-published books. The only price is an expectation of a review, one which I am happy to satisfy. Following are my thoughts on a freebie that is worth reading.

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As the story opens, 18-year-old Clarissa Belhaven has a difficult task: to once again deal with her inebriated father’s outburst. She understands the pain behind Jock Belhaven’s anger. Mourning for his wife, killed in an earthquake, and long-standing resentment against the Robson family who he believes (with some justification) are out to ruin his tea-growing business have turned the senior Belhaven into a bitter shell of the strong, kind man he once was. Clarrie, devoted to her father, her musical and artistic little sister Olive, their tea garden Belgooree, and the beautiful country of India where she grew up, is wise beyond her years. Feeling the weight of the world pressing down upon her—the failing tea garden, 13-year-old Olive’s bouts of asthma, her father’s seeking escape in drink or opium—the young woman finds solace in sunrise rides through the Assam hills on her beloved pony, Prince.

As Clarrie makes a predawn trek to a favorite hilltop, home to a holy man, she pauses to take in the serene beauty of the landscape. However, a hunter’s gunshot shatters her equilibrium and frightens Prince who, in his panic, slips on wet leaves and throws his rider. Clarrie loses consciousness and awakens in a tent belonging to none other than Wesley Robson, the handsome, headstrong descendent of those who have earned her father’s enmity. Fiercely loyal to Jock Belhaven, Clarrie rejects the young man’s attention and solutions to their monetary woes—including an offer to marry her and take on Belgooree and pay its debts. However, things go from bad to worse, and Jock Belhaven succumbs to illness and despair.

The funeral is barely over when creditors begin approaching Clarrie with their claims. Facing insurmountable debts, the young woman reconsiders Wesley Robson’s offer of assistance in return for assuming control of Belgooree—but she learns that he is no longer in India. With a heavy heart, she locates the address of her father’s cousin Jared Belhaven in England and writes him. When a response arrives with the offer of taking in Clarrie and Olive until they come of age, the sisters sell their possessions and prepare for the long journey from their beloved homeland. After a painful parting from devoted and wise khansama (butler) Kamal, to whom Clarrie gives her pony Prince, the girls (with few belongings and Olive’s violin) leave India behind.

Upon their arrival in Newcastle in northern England, Clarrie and Olive are met at the train station by Cousin Jared. A ride through successively poorer neighborhoods takes them to the Cherry Tree Hotel, a tavern run by Jared and his wife Lily. The sisters are in for a rude surprise: they are given the tasks of preparing food and serving at the bar. Lily makes no secret of her resentment of the newcomers. Long hours, backbreaking work, and no free time off even for holidays take their toll. There are a few bright spots, however: Clarrie’s friendship with working women who seek respite at Jared’s establishment, association with the wealthy Stock family who are regular customers for the pies Lily bakes, and an affable tea delivery man our heroine meets by chance.

When the elderly lawyer Herbert Stock discovers Clarrie’s affectionate relationship with Will, his younger son, and her domestic skills, he offers her a position as housekeeper—and agrees to provide a home for Olive, as well. The only drawback to their new situation is Herbert Stock’s older son Bertie, who finds the family’s new staff member a target of constant ridicule. However, resilient Clarrie keeps the household running smoothly and cares for the ailing Louisa Stock—until tragedy strikes and the lady of the house passes away.  A despondent Herbert Stock withdraws into himself. As time passes, the housekeeper finds herself in the position of encouraging her employer to rejoin the world—until one day, Herbert Stock approaches her with a proposal that has nothing to do with Clarrie’s employment. To her shock, the elderly gentleman asks her to marry him. Once over her surprise, she realizes accepting will provide Olive with the security she has long promised her. So, to the consternation of acquaintances and the disapproval of many, Clarrie agrees to become Mrs. Herbert Stock.

As the couple settles into their comfortable marriage, a devoted Herbert is even agreeable to his wife’s long-standing dream: open a tea house to provide working-class folks an alternative to escaping their reality in taverns. As Clarrie hopes for a better future for herself and Olive, she and Herbert face obstacles from within and without as society is changing and Europe moves toward a world war. Can the Stocks, their family, and friends weather the storm that is brewing on the horizon?

Janet Macloud Trotter takes readers on a wondrous journey. Her descriptions of the hills of India are so vivid we can almost feel the breeze and hear the calls of the country’s colorful birds. In stark contrast, working-class Newcastle and its depressed neighborhoods come to life. Clarrie and Olive’s descent from tea-planter’s daughters to overworked barmaids is realistically painted, and all the people who are part of their lives are true-to-life and believable. Readers will feel and cheer for our heroine. This novel, the first in the India Tea series, is a must-read for historical fiction aficionados and anyone who enjoys a rich, multi-layered story.

After I completed this wonderful story, I did the only sensible thing: downloaded the now-available second volume in the series. As soon as I turn the last virtual page, my review will be forthcoming.

A Delight for Any Season

It’s true that spring has (finally) arrived. So why is a book that resonates more with autumn appearing on my blog? The reason is simple: this newly-published treasure of a story is worthy of a place on any child’s bookshelf and a joy to read and hear any time of year. Check it out.

Little Bird loves everything about his home. There is his favorite branch, where he sits and sings a happy song. There are cherries galore (Little Bird’s favorite food) to eat, music from a wind chime hanging from his branch, and a view he can look at every day.

However, one day, things begin to change. A chilly wind starts to blow and leaves fall from the trees. Little Bird’s big brother wraps his wing around his young sibling and says, “Did you know a home can be here or there? It may be near or far, big or small, and even hot or cold. And sometimes you can have two homes—just like us! It’s time to fly south to our winter home, where the food is plenty and the wind’s breath is warm.”

But Little Bird is not reassured. The youngster feels despondent at the prospect of leaving all his favorite things behind until the he has a wonderful idea: to take what he loves along. So Little Bird fills his nest with cherries, flowers, his favorite branch, and everything else that reminds him of home. When it is time to leave, the sky is full of green-and-yellow birds flying south—and Little Bird following with his favorite things held in his feet.

However, Little Bird, because of the weight of his treasures, cannot keep up with his fellow travelers. “So with a splish and a splash…his favorite branch found a new home. Much to a dog’s delight!” This scene repeats itself as a strong wind blows and then a thunderstorm sweeps in—causing another of Little Bird’s favorite things to find a new home to the joy of its recipient.

When the voyagers finally arrive at their winter residence, Little Bird has only his nest. However, he does not have a chance to miss his favorite things: there is so much to discover in his new home– and new friends to share his nest.

Jo Empson’s warm story will resonate with kids, especially those who are facing a move or living in a new home. Repeated refrains (“And further south the birds flew”) add to the dramatic effect of the tale. Vibrant illustrations by the author provide a charming complement to the text and effectively depict Little Bird’s emotions and all the characters’ body language. The reader can almost feel the cold wind and the warm sun as the birds make their journey south. The delightful conclusion and a map of the avian route add a touch of realism to the story and provide a springboard for discussion. A delightful tale of friendship, family, and how the choices we make can have effects of which we are not always aware. Pair this book with Gotta Go! Gotta Go! by Sam Swope for another story about animal migration.

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