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book review: Tough Customer

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Usually, when I’m on vacation, I like to read as much as possible. And usually, when someone else is driving, I am allowed that chance. Unfortunately, I was the driver for all but 8 of the 52 hours in the car. And during those eight navigation-free hours, I was too interested in my navigator to do much reading. Plus, I thought it would be very rude.

“Hey… thank you for taking time off work to accompany us to Savannah. Why don’t I just grab my book and read while you drive us there?”

Um… nope. That certainly wasn’t going to happen.

However, whenever my kids were in the pool, which was quite often, I pulled out my book and read. And I was able to complete two books. One, Heaven is for Real, I’ve already reviewed. The other, Tough Customer by Sandra Brown, was also enjoyable, but in a completely different way.

One of the minor characters in this book, Derek Mitchell, was featured in Smash Cut just last year. And it’s his employee, Dodge Hanley, who leads the action in this book. In short, Dodge’s former lover, Caroline King, calls him for help after not speaking for over 20 years. Their daughter, Berry, the one he’d met through glass when she was born, was in trouble, and she needed his help.

It seems that a murderer had set his sights on Berry. In his first attempt, he shot one of her co-workers. This led to scandal, and Caroline wanted to avoid more.

I liked the fact that the history between Caroline and Dodge was leaked, bit by bit, as the book unwound itself. And I liked the southern setting which mirrored my vacation destination.

I’ve enjoyed Sandra Brown’s books since I read The Switch way back when my oldest was a tyke, so I also liked elements of the book that are quintessential Sandra Brown. She lays out the plot and reveals bits of the villain’s character, but she keeps part of it to herself. The tension of romance is always present, but it isn’t blatant enough to be uncomfortable. The twist at the end, though, is always my favorite part.

My children have learned that when I reach the last few pages of a novel, they probably should save their questions, lest they get “the look.” Hey, it’s the climax of the novel! It’s intense! Especially with Sandra Brown, and especially with this book. I never saw this particular surprise coming.

So… on vacation I was able to read two books, and both were winners. Pick up Tough Customer. Or another Sandra Brown book. And hit the deck chair. You’ll enjoy it.

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book review: Heaven is for Real

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One of our vacation stops included the U.S. headquarters of Operation Mobilization (O.M.), a missions group spreading the word in over 110 countries. While there, we couldn’t help but visit their bookstore.

And when I saw Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo, I put it on the must-buy pile. It had been on my Amazon wish list for a while, and once it was right in front of me (at an amazing price), I couldn’t pass it up.

It is one of the biggest-selling Christian books of the year. And now that I’ve read it, I understand why.

Todd Burpo is a pastor. At the time of this book’s events, Todd and his wife Sonja were raising daughter Cassie and son Colton. Their family had encountered more than their fair share of problems when suddenly Colton became very sick. After nearly two weeks of illness, the doctors claimed that they had run out of magic for Colton.

The next day, however, after Todd and Sonja’s church met for a prayer meeting for Colton, his condition underwent a drastic change. By that afternoon, he was playing with his action figures and sharing bits of his personality again. This was just one piece of the miracle that was to come.

A few months after his recovery, Colton told his parents about how the angels sang to him in heaven. A few days later he told them about the colors in heaven. And that’s when his parents realized that he’d been telling him about his experiences all along, and that what he was saying had to be true. I really want to share more, but it’s not my story to tell. It’s Todd’s. And Colton’s. And a few anecdotes here would never do it justice.

What I can tell you is that as I was reading, I became very excited about the heaven in my future. Colton makes it sound like a beautiful place. It feels real to me now. A reward to anticipate.

The book is short — just about 120 pages — and I read it in just two days. (It would have been one day, but vacation isn’t just about sitting by the pool and reading!) Then I promptly gave it away. Because it is a book that must be shared.

Rest assured, though, that I’ve just re-purchased the book from Amazon. I want to be able to pass it along to others.

You should pick it up, too.

book review: Lioness Arising

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I once was informed (by a male friend) that men want women who appear wholesome on the outside but reveal a slightly wilder side at home. Apropos or not, it’s what I thought of when I was rereading one of the chapters of Lioness Arising by Lisa Bevere.

a little worn... with many notes inside!

I don’t think Lisa and my friend meant the exact same thing, but bear with me. In the chapter I most recently reread, Lisa describes how lionesses do “life right out in the open, light-filled expanses of the African plain” where they “rest, play, groom, feed, train, and even mate in the open.” In contrast, she also details lionesses who calmly focus on their prey and hunt when the time is right.

Throughout Lioness Arising, Lisa Bevere uses the metaphor of a lioness to reveal how women can and should act and be. It is a powerful metaphor and a beautiful one. I read the book once with women at my church, and I’m reading it again now as part of my daily quiet time.

The more I read this book, the more I want to be a lioness. I see so many things in this animal that embody who I want to be.

I want to be “at ease with [my] strength and at rest with [my] power.” I want to “wear [my] beauty comfortably.” I want to be someone a lion can trust and build a life with. I want to be under the same mission as a lion. I want to be protective of all the pride’s young, not just my own. I want to believe that God will lead me to steps 2, 3, and 4 after I complete step one in faith. I want to live in the light and be real about who I am and what I believe.

These are just a few of the lessons I have learned from this book, and I recommend it to men as well as women. Lisa’s writing is passionate and accessible. She weaves scriptures in to explain her points. She is human and real as she writes.

And several times as I was reading, I wanted to talk to a man about the ideas. One in particular, because he gets my metaphors, and because I think he would be intrigued by this particular metaphor of a lioness.

For years and years, I have said that I wouldn’t mind being a cat for a day. Now, however, I believe that I would like to be a lioness for life. This book is one of the best.

my very first tutorial: fabric bins

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I have been on the hunt for baskets for my desk forever! No… actually for about 2 weeks. Because that’s where I found this wreck of a desk at a thrift store.

I had a friend put bottoms on the sides where the drawers should have been. Other than that, I’m going to leave it shabby-looking. And I added fabric bins in place of the drawers, of course.

After I decided to give up the hunt for the baskets, I began the hunt for a fabric bin tutorial. The tutorial I used had to be easy to follow and customizable. I also wanted to be able to wash the container if necessary.

(Does anyone else think it’s goofy that I’m going from washable sofa/chair slipcovers to dry-clean only ones, yet I want a washable fabric bin or two? Oh wait… you don’t know about that yet. I’ll save that — Ikea featured! — story for another time.)

Fortunately or unfortunately, I found tutorials that fit some of my characteristics, but not all. You know what that means, right? Yup. I’m writing my own tutorial. Guess what, all! I am no longer a tutorial virgin!

First, the cast of characters. (Measurements are for my baskets: 18″ long x 9″ wide x 3.5″ tall. Notes to customize are included below. The end of this post makes suggestions for next time. I highly recommend reading them before beginning.)

  • fabric (3/8 yard of main fabric and 3/8 yard of lining will be more than enough for my needs.)
  • ribbon to fit perimeter of bin (I used 1 5/8 yards of 7/8 inch.)
  • cardboard pieces for all sides and bottom cut a bit smaller than the basket itself
  • usual suspects: thread, scissors, sewing machine, cutting board and rotary cutter, etc. (What? You don’t see a rotary cutter in that picture? Me neither. Mine is MIA, and I had to use a “regular” scissor.)

Cut pieces to size. Based on my measurements of 18″ long x 9″ wide x 3.5″ tall and adding 1/4″ seam allowance all the way around for each piece, I cut the following from the main (outside) fabric AND duplicated the cuts for the lining (inside) fabric:

  • 1 – 9.5″ x 18.5″
  • 2 – 4″ x 18.5″ (for future versions, I would cut 2 – 5.5″ x 18.5″)
  • 2 – 4″ x 9.5″ (for future versions, I would cut 2 – 5.5″ x 18.5″)

If you want to make a different size bin, you’ll need one piece for the bottom, two for each width, and two for each length of your basket. Don’t forget to add your 1/4″ seam allowance all around. (Edit: Also 1.5″ to the height of the basket.)

This might also be a good time to cut the cardboard pieces. I used cardboard that began life as a paper box. I wanted the heavier feel of the corrugated stuff. You could also use a recycled cereal box. You need the same number of pieces as the fabric, but cut it a little smaller than the finished sizes to make it easier to slip the cardboard into the fabric later. You also don’t need seam allowances on the cardboard. I cut my cardboard pieces in the following sizes:

  • 1 – 8.75″ x 17.75″
  • 2 – 3.25″ x 17.75″
  • 2 – 3.25″ x 8.75″

(Edit: I taped my side pieces together at the ends. You could also make 2 larger pieces, one for each width and length. But taping the individual lengths worked fine.) Big surprise! The life of a cardboard cutter is much easier with a new razor in the blade. Ahem.

To make the outer part of the bin, pin and sew the short ends of the pieces together. Finish the seams if you wish. Press the seams open or press to one side, like I did. When you’re finished, all four sides of the bin should be sewn and pressed.

Repeat for the lining of the bin, but use a larger seam allowance. I used 3/8″ for the lining. I’m doing this to make the lining fit more easily into the outside of the basket without puckers or squishing.

Pin and sew the bottoms of the bin to the outer fabric strip. I preferred to pin/sew from the strip side rather than the bottom side. It gave me more control over the corners. I wanted them to be as crisp as possible. Finish the seam. Repeat these last two steps with the lining. Remember to use a larger seam allowance on the lining again.

Finish or make a scant hem around the top of the outer piece of the bin. I chose to finish with a zig-zag stitch all the way around. (No one is going to see this part of the outside of the bin.) Press the outer piece with the wrong sides folding inward.

Press the lining piece with the right sides folding inward. Pin the ribbon to the right side of the lining piece, overlapping the ends about 1/2″. Sew with a scant 1/8″ seam allowance. Finish the seam. Press the ribbon towards the inside.

(In an edited version, the outer piece would fold over the inside of the box by 1.5″ or so.)

Place the bottom cardboard piece inside the bottom of the outside piece. Tape the ends of the sides together, then put the sides in place. Insert the lining, right side out, over the cardboard. Fold the ribbon over the outside piece of the bin, and you’re done! (In the edited version, the ribbon would be further down the side, and about 1.5″ of the lining would also show.)

The edits in the text above show that next time I will make the sides of the outer piece taller, so they fold over the cardboard before placing the lining inside. I will also make the outer part wider, so you see some of the lining from the outside.

**If you have any comments or suggestions, please share them below.

book review: The Secret Lives of Dresses

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Recently I’ve come to believe that we are our most authentic selves when we are in high school. After all, high school is the time when we experiment with what we love and who we love. And it is a time to experiment with the safety net of a home below us.

And I’m not saying that this is true for everyone. And I’m not saying that I want to repeat high school. However, I do wish that I had held onto some of the personality traits common to my seventeen-year-old self.

Wearing vintage, for instance. (I used to scour thrift stores for just the right skirt or jacket.) Spending more time creating and writing. (I even tore apart some vintage pieces to make something new and especially unique.) Spending more time with people I love. (Monday nights with friends were my favorite.)

What brought on this bout of nostalgia, you ask? Well, none other than the book The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean.

In this book, the main character, Dora returns home to care for her grandmother’s vintage clothing store after her grandmother’s stroke. Since she raced home unexpectedly, Dora was forced to dress herself from “the closet room” of vintage-wear that her grandmother had been “curating” for her.

Besides the vintage clothing and being allowed to vicariously live my dream of owning a store through Dora’s character, I loved this book for its writing. For instance, Dora’s iPod wasn’t simply plugged in, it was “jacked into the shop’s stereo.” I also took a picture of a paragraph with an allusion I want to share with my students this fall. And I was consistently entertained by McKean’s creative metaphors.

This book is a love story, of sorts. But not in the typical sense. It explores romantic love, of course, but also love of family and life itself. The novel includes several surprises, but I won’t spoil them for you. I’ll just leave you with one last quote from the book. Probably my favorite:

“Most people think weddings are all about the bride (mostly because she has the best clothes), but when I was there, in front of the minister, I could just feel the love pouring off the groom. It was warm, like you’d imagine love to be, but at the same time it gave you goosebumps, and that little shiver that some people describe as feeling someone walk over your grave. I don’t know if I was feeling it myself, or just feeling Hannah feel it. But I’ve never forgotten it. I hope you feel it someday… I’d like to feel that again.”

book review: Black Out

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Have you ever been excited to read a book, only to find a nap on the couch much more enticing?

Have you ever had to force yourself to finish reading because you’re committed to a book?

Have you ever been so confused by the events of the book that you stopped caring what happened to anyone in it?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, and it was not a good experience for you, do *not* read Black Out by Lisa Unger.

Look, I spent time with this book! The cover condition testifies to that.

I really wanted to like this book. I truly did. I mean, who goes into a book believing that they’re going to hate it? (I mean, besides certain 10th graders who don’t always read books voluntarily.)

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the first Lisa Unger book I read because of the voice she gave to her main character, this book didn’t have the same charm. I think Unger tried to portray the main character, Annie Powers/Ophelia March, as a strong character, but for much of the book I felt that she was weak and hopeless.

Let me back up a little.

Ophelia March grew up with a mother who was desperate for love. Because of that, she fell into the clutches of a death row inmate and his son. By association, so did Ophelia. In an effort to escape her past, Ophelia became Annie Powers. She married, had a young daughter, and lived an affluent life in Florida.

It should have been a beautiful, charmed time for her, but her past began to haunt her, literally.

The book follows Annie/Ophelia’s struggles with this haunting. Both we, the audience, and Annie/Ophelia are often uncertain that what we see and hear is truth. Our eyes and ears cannot be trusted. Our instincts cannot be trusted.

I wanted to love Annie/Ophelia for her nobility, but she didn’t seem to have many redeeming graces of her own. She was constantly at the whims of her husband, her in-laws, her father, her former lover. I wanted her to stand up at some point and take control, but she was unable.

It was also a book in which I waited for the silver lining. Books like this should be for fun. We should look for the happy ending. There should be a romantic draw, an exciting future, or some sort of there-is-something-I can-look-forward-to feeling.

That didn’t happen, unfortunately. There were too many players, no neatly resolved ending, and a lot of questions left in the balance. I don’t regret reading this book, but it’s probably the last I’ll seek out by this author.

book review: The Search

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Before you know anything else, you must know that I admire dogs, and two dogs that stand out in my mind as the best dogs ever. One was a dog named Snowball. She was a samoyed, and my family got her when I was 8 or 9. I remember her puffball puppy stage and her protective mama stage and her mellow calm stage. She died peacefully in her sleep when the family was away at work and school when I was 18. We think she may have been sick and didn’t want to tell us.

The second was a dog named Emme, a border collie and samoyed mix. She came into my life when she was already 5 or 6 years old and beautifully trained. I fell in love with her respect for her owner and love for her family. I may have fallen more for the dog than for the man at first, but we’ll just pretend you didn’t hear that. It was with this dog that I realized that I was a wonderful dog mama when the dog came pre-trained. (Is this where I can wish that the man had come pre-trained? Oh wait… you didn’t hear that, either.)

In my first round of single days, I tried owning a dog, but the dog ended up owning me. I was too soft, not alpha dog material. Luna slept on my bed, pooped on my floor, and never came when I called her. I’m pretty certain I did her a huge favor when I gave her to someone who would love her and be the master she deserved.

And I told you all this so I can tell you about The Search by Nora Roberts. It, not surprisingly at all, centers on dogs. In fact, the main character, Fiona Bristow, trains dogs and heads a team of search and rescue dogs. Several times in the story, she and her team are called on rescue missions with the dogs. I was impressed with her and the dogs on a number of occasions, so much so that I wanted to reach in and rub the dogs’ scruffs. Who am I kidding? I wanted her dogs. She made me want to own a lab (or 4).

Other than the dog thing, the plot is relatively predictable, as many mass paperbacks are, but it was a fun beach (er, garage sale hosting) read. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Nora Roberts book if there wasn’t a hot man and a romance brewing, so let’s not forget to mention Simon Doyle. We like him, and so does Fiona. I enjoyed watching as Fiona and Simon intended for something simple in their affair only to have it backfire (?!) into a relationship. I loved Simon’s blunt and crusty character. I laughed at their exchanges, often aloud, much to my daughter’s dismay.

But really? How many men would complain as their girlfriend cleaned the windows in his home? And how many men would tell a woman he’s in love with her because she has the ability to pull out the mad in him? Their relationship felt real and desirable and fun. And it was something that I wanted every page of the way.

The push of the plot, though, centers around Fiona’s past rather than her present. Once upon a time, before the book’s action began, Fiona escaped being the fifth victim of a serial killer. To punish her, the killer murdered her fiance and his dog. He ended up in prison, biding his time until he found a proxy to train to finish the job he began: Fiona’s death.

I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything to tell you that Fiona survives. (Really? Do any mass paperbacks have sad endings? Um… NO!) The good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. But that’s not the point. The point is the relationships and the journey of the story. And, like I’ve mentioned, both are definitely summer-read worthy.

And maybe you’ll agree with me: I admire Fiona and envy parts of her life (she works from home and follows her passions!), but really? I’m more of a cat person. Cats don’t expect me to be alpha. In fact, they would laugh at me if I tried to act alpha. So we get along just fine, me and my cats. I just won’t tell them that I just finished a book about dogs.

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