Book Review: York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby – 4 stars

I had heard such wonderful things about Laura Ruby’s York: The Shadow Cipher! And, knowing that the 2nd book in the series, York: The Clockwork Ghost was releasing on May 14th, I just had to dig into it and find out what all the fuss was about! I really was not disappointed! This book was intriguing and entertaining for me and is a definite winner, in my opinion, for the middle grade/young YA reader!

The Shadow Cipher begins with a flashback to the time when men used walking canes and street lamps were lit by oil. We are introduced to a set of genius twins, The Morningstars, who are responsible for amazing mechanical creations that have changed the face of New York City and the world! Their inventions include everything from mechanical bugs that clean the streets to elevators that can move diagonally. Before the twins died, they created a cipher for the public: solve the riddles and find the treasure! Unfortunately, however, people have been trying to solve the cipher for hundreds of year unsuccessfully!

Enter another set of twins (modern-day Tess and Theo Biedermann) and their friend Jaime Cruz. All 13 years-old, the kids are in a situation where their current apartment building is about to be sold to a wealthy New York real estate magnate. When they intercept a mysterious letter addressed to their grandfather (a famous cipherist who has been trying to solve the puzzle his whole life!) they begin to suspect that there is a second set of clues to the cipher that have, as yet, been undiscovered. (Thus, the title: The Shadow Cipher.) They decide that the only way to save their building is to solve the cipher and find the treasure!

Tons of hijinks ensue…the kids are led all over the city searching for clues related to history, New York City and the Morningstars. While all of that is happening, strange things are occurring in their apartment building…the real estate magnate’s henchman are searching the building, members of their grandfather’s cipher society are getting involved and clues are turning up in unexpected places. Ultimately, the kids’ quest to solve the cipher is exciting and fast-paced, if sometimes a little to dependent on coincidences to drive the plot!

As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t read books out of order so I picked up this one to prepare myself for the release of York: The Clockwork Ghost. Knowing that there was a sequel to The Shadow Cipher somewhat prepared me for a cliffhanger at the end of the book, but I was slightly disappointed about the lack of closure that the book provided. While it left me anxious to find out what happens in the The Clockwork Ghost, I would have preferred a bit more effort to tie up the initial storyline without it. I really don’t like being left hanging! The prevalence of ‘coincidence’ as a plot driver and the lack of a satisfying ending were the only things that kept me from making this a 5-star review!

I must say, I loved Ruby’s writing. Her creation of a ‘better’ New York combined with the descriptions of the New York I know and love were incredibly compelling. She is also a very smart writer: there are tons of nods to history and subtle jokes throughout the book. As a kid, I loved being able to pick up on subtleties that an author embedded in her story. Not much has changed in that regard since then! Finally, the ‘world building’ that Ruby undertakes with her inventions and technological enhancements in the story are impressive. She folds mechanical inventions that do not exist today into the New York that we know and makes the whole thing hang together in a way that is coherent and believable.

Ruby definitely has a feminist agenda of sorts in her book as well. (And don’t get me wrong, I’m ALL for that!) There are many references debunking gender sterotypes and lots of female characters (young and old) who are depicted outside of cultural female norms. Tess and Theo’s mom is a detective while their dad loves to bake, Cricket (a neighborhood 5 year old) is dedicated to all kind of gender-bending in her wardrobe and Tess herself is, by far, the braver and ‘stronger’ of the two twins. As an adult, these feminist-type references were pretty obvious to me but, for the Middle Grade set, I think Ruby does a nice job folding the message seamlessly into the story without making her intentions too overt.

I must also commend Ruby for her characters: Tess, Theo and Jaime are interesting and distinct. Jaime is Latinx and cultural identities are explored occasionally via his relationship with his grandmother. There are sly references to the potential for a budding romance between Tess and Jaime and interesting passages that describe what it’s like to be a twin. While I found the 13 year olds a bit mature…they seem to only make good decisions and have a great deal of freedom to move about the city alone…as individuals, I understood their motivations and found them unique and likeable. Jaime’s struggle with his father’s absence and his identity as an artist were as compelling as Theo’s ‘Rain Main’-like mathmatical abilities and Tess’s struggle with anxiety!

The other characters within the book are, unfortunately, somewhat less distinguishable from one another: there are about 20 neighbors who live in the apartment building and another 10 members of the cipherist society and many of their identities tend to run together. Nonetheless, the important characters seem to distinguish themselves, when necessary. Cricket (as mentioned above) is hilarious and plays a key role in helping the kids with their quest while Mr. Stoop and Mr. Pincher (ridiculously funny names for super tall and super slouched guys) are both evil and idiotic as henchman should be!

Overall, this book has an incredible amount to recommend it. I won’t disclose the ‘message’ that is finally delivered to the kids in the closing chapter of the book as it would go too far in spoiling the ending but, suffice it to say that (despite the book’s lack of closure) there is something to be learned from everything that happens to Tess, Theo and Jaime. Young readers ages 9-12 (and potentially older, in my opinion) as well as adults will enjoy this wild romp of a read that brings a fantastical premise and setting together with some real, determined and lovable characters! I can’t wait to see what The Clockwork Ghost has in store!

To get your copy of York: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby (Free with Kindle Unlimited at the time of this writing and $7.99 to purchase without,) please click the link below:

York: The Shadow Cipher

2nd Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club Selection: All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil!

Thank you to everyone who voted in my poll for our next read! It was close but All of Us With Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil is our selection. Don’t forget to dial in to discuss this terrific YA read on July 15th at 8:00pm! More details to come!

To get your copy of the book, and lease click the link below:

All of Us with Wings

Camp Review: Background Info and Day 1 – Camp Woodward – Action Sports Camp for My PANDA?

Well…we arrived in Woodward, PA yesterday for Camp Woodward and I’ve been dying to tell you about it! Camp Woodward is an ACA-accredited action sports camp for ages 7+. While there are several Camp Woodward locations and they offer camps for several different action sports, my PANDA is attending Scooter Camp at the location in North Central Pennsylvania.

Attending this camp was definitely Spencer’s idea. He had seen lots of YouTube videos of his favorite scooter tricksters (is that what you call them?) at Woodward and knew it was a place that he wanted to go. He’s never done sleepaway camp before and I was a little concerned that he’d back out before the date actually arrived, but, in fact, he seemed to just get more and more excited as we got closer to leaving!

We registered for Week 1 of 2019 Woodward Camp in late 2018 and were offered $100 off the registration fee as first-time campers. All in all, the camp cost us about $1350 for Week 1 (Weeks 2, 11 and 12 are also $1350 while weeks 3 through 10 are $1550…due to popularity, I suppose?) Included in the fee are 6 nights and 7 days of activities/training as well as all meals and most optional recreation activities. Most of the camp options follow that pricing model although some are a bit less. The programs available at Woodward’s PA location are: Gymnastics, Cheer, Dance, Parkour, BMX, Skateboarding, Freestyle BMX, Mountain Biking, Scooter, BMX Racing, Digital Photography, Video Production, Multi-Sport (more on that later,) and Ninja (an American Ninja Warrior-style activity!)

Woodward offers payment plans for their fees…so you can arrange to pay for camp throughout the year up to 30 days before arrival at camp. Otherwise, there is a $300 deposit and the remainder is due prior to arrival. They also offer a ~$100 camp protection plan in case your camper gets sick, hurt, etc. and can’t attend…you’ll get your money back. We rolled the dice and didn’t take advantage of the insurance. We had heard nothing but good things about Woodward and our experience with registration and form completion was a very positive one.

Camp Woodward has a ‘camper account’ for each camper and suggests that each family put at least $200 on that account for their kiddo for the week. It will cover any extra recreation activities the camper wants to participate in, any ‘extra’ food from the canteen and any merchandise they choose to buy during the week. It was super easy to add money to the account and Spencer was given a code to use to access that money when we arrived. Any funds not used and more than $10 are refunded to the form of payment at the end of the week. Anything less than $10 is donated to Woodward’s scholarship program.

Woodward asks for all of the appropriate health, medical and dietary information through their portal prior to arrival. They are staffed with a nurse (more than one nurse?) in their infirmary 24×7 and are completely prepared to administer medication with a doctor’s note on whatever schedule is necessary. As you can imagine, that’s a big deal to a PANDAS family. Also a big deal…they can accommodate dietary restrictions. The cafeteria is amazing with numerous food stations (burgers, pizza, Asian food, Mexican food, etc.) as well as plenty of gluten-free options upon request. The staff is also more than willing (I called prior to our departure) to provide ingredient labels to the kids so that they can determine whether or not something is okay for them to eat. As Spencer does not eat dairy, gluten, corn syrup or food dye, that was particularly important for us!

As I mentioned, Spence has never been away from home for an overnight camp and had some concerns before we left. He was sensitive to the idea of communal showering (apparently not uncommon in this day and age in his age group…I was assured by the Woodward staff) and having to change his clothes in a group setting. When I called to inquire about cabin setup in the weeks prior to camp, I was advised that each cabin has a private shower and that approximately 12-20 kids are housed in each cabin by age group and sport. One 18+ year old counselor is assigned to each cabin. I was amazed to hear that communal showering was not an issue. Obviously, however, the boy is going to have to get over some of his modesty as changing clothes in a group setting with 12-20 boys is simply unavoidable. He mentioned prior to heading out that his plan was to ‘make as many friends as possible as quickly as possible since it’s less embarrassing to change in front of people you know!’ 🙂 Good plan, kid!

Woodward offers some transportation to/from camp that we did not take advantage of. They offer shuttle service from several cities, for a fee: State College airport and bus station, Rockaway, New Jersey, Chicago, IL, Toledo, OH and Cleveland, OH. When we checked in yesterday, I immediately received an email stating that my camper ‘had arrived.’ While it wasn’t a useful email for me, I can imagine that it would be very reassuring for parents who send their kids to camp alone via shuttle or public transportation. I thought it was a very nice touch!

Camp arrival day starts at 9 am on a Sunday…campers can check in anytime between 9 am and 2 pm. We arrived at about noon and were greeted by a staff member who was super enthusiastic and walked us through where to park, check-in, drop off medication at the infirmary and find Spencer’s cabin. We proceeded to the check-in barn and were regularly greeted further by staff members who seemed very excited to meet us and couldn’t wait to tell Spence how exciting it would be to be a first-year camper. Apparently, a lot of kids must stay for multiple weeks as we were asked repeatedly how many weeks he would be at camp!

At registration, all forms had already been completed online so check-in was quick and efficient. Spencer was advised about which cabin he would reside in and shown the cabin on the map. The staff confirmed that we had brought bedding for him (sheets and pillows are not provided…you can either bring your own twin sheets or a sleeping bag or both.) There was also a ‘step and repeat’ set up where I could take his photo and the staff took an identification photo of him (for multiple purposes, I’m sure, but I saw it used to ensure that his account funds were only being used by him) when we arrived.

After that, there was one station to review medical and health info for kids who might be arriving sick or had medical protocols to review. (I had to answer questions about whether or not he felt sick at check-in or had had a fever in the previous week…frankly, I’m not sure what would have happened if I had marked yes but that wasn’t an issue for us!) Once we had reviewed our medical information with the staff and ensured that all parent contact info was correct, we were directed to 3 activity booths. The first allowed S to sign up for a ropes course time during the week, the second housed sign-ups for horse back riding and/or an overnight horseback campout (both an extra fee of $30-$45) and the third offered a professional photo package of your camper in action for $250. I’m a sucker for good photos and buy every photo package available to me so they definitely had their mark on me for the photos. I’ll let you know how that turns out in a subsequent post! Spencer chose to sign up for a ropes course slot and a horseback riding slot but declined the overnight horseback camp out. I’m guessing he’s going to regret that and want to do it next year!

After getting through all of the registration, we were guided to the infirmary. The nurse that we met was extremely helpful, knowledgeable and kind. She spoke primarily to Spencer about his needs and his medication and advised him that a golf cart would be sent around to pick him up first thing each morning and last thing each night to make sure he got his medication. She also asked me a few questions about whether or not he is permitted to take OTC medication (ibuprofen for a headache or something for a bellyache, etc.) I left the infirmary confident that his medical needs would be attended to and Spence left feeling sure that he knew what he needed to do and would have the support he needed.

From there, we got back in the car and parked near his cabin. We were easily able to move his foot locker, sleeping bag, scooter and helmet/pads into the cabin. There, we met Barrett, Spencer’s counselor for the week. He’s from Arizona and seemed to have a good rapport with the boys who had already checked-in. Barrett pointed out the bunks that were still available for Spencer to choose and gave us the pros and cons of each. He was incredibly welcoming to us and answered any and all questions I had. Interestingly, one child who had already checked in spoke up and said, ‘Make sure nobody sees your combination for your foot locker lock. Somebody broke into mine last year and stole my stuff.’ Barrett immediately broke in and said, ‘Spencer doesn’t need to worry about that, X. Nobody will be stealing anything in this cabin!’ I appreciated both his willingness to reassure Spencer on that topic and his determination to ensure that everybody behaves appropriately while he’s there.

While we were in the cabin, I had a chance to check out the bathroom. There was a single shower with some soap supplies in it, a urinal and a toilet. It was nice enough though I’m sure it will be utterly gross at the end of the week with twelve 11-year old boys using it! 🙂 Once we had met Barrett, Spencer had picked out a bunk, met a couple of other campers and I had put some sheets on his chosen bunk, we headed out to The Canteen to check out the available merchandise. Of course, Spencer was adamant that he needed a hoodie and a hat!

The Canteen is amazing…apparently it’s either brand new or newly refurbished. It contains a shop that reminded me of a small Notre Dame bookstore and offered everything from Woodward-themed sweatshirts and hats to raincoats and bathing suits. The prices were to be expected…nothing different than what you would find in a campus bookstore and easily chargeable to his camper account. We also checked out the food in the Canteen and discovered that they offered several natural, corn syrup and dye free options for snacks. They also offered tons of junk too…but whatever. The Canteen also contains what appears to be a radio station…I’m not sure exactly how it is used at camp but it was pretty impressive!

I didn’t get to see all of the facilities while I was at Woodward for drop-off but the ramps, pools, obstacles courses, etc. that I did see were amazing! The camp itself is nestled in the hills of PA and it’s both beautiful and state of the art!

Another thing I noticed during drop-off was that many kids had already checked in and were running around camp in pairs or groups using the facilities by themselves. While that made me a little nervous, I appreciated that the camp is safe enough that groups of 11 year old boys can come and go freely on the grounds without fear.

Shortly after we purchased Spencer’s hoodie and hat, we returned to his cabin and he was ready for me to depart. I got a hug and a farewell and was back on the road. I was surprised, but he didn’t express even a moment’s hesitation about me leaving and was off with some new ‘buds’ before I could get out of the parking lot. While we definitely met the ‘spazzy kid’ (the one who warned us about theft) in the cabin, there were a number of other kids who all seemed to be less intense and were friendly and doing their own things. One boy was sitting in his bunk reading a book when I left! Meeting some of the boys left me reassured that all kinds of kids attend Woodward and are welcomed and accepted!

I’m staying in nearby College Station, PA while Spence is at camp this week. Him being a first-time camper and having a medical condition made me a bit anxious before we arrived. I have the opportunity to work remotely and am using it to be nearby without intruding. Having been there during check-in, I’m pretty sure it’s completely unnecessary but it reassures me that I can get there quickly, if needed, for any reason.

I received my first text from Spence at camp last night. (Campers are allowed to bring phones but are not permitted to use them during ‘programming’ or after ‘lights out.’) It said, ‘I found some natural strawberry/blueberry drink that I can have!’ (Big news for a PANDAS kid) ‘And…I met a new friend! His name is Patrick. He has one arm and can scooter!!!’ Based on that text alone, I’m sure Spencer is going to be just fine!

I’ll provide more updates as the week goes along but, at this point, I’m incredibly impressed with Camp Woodward and super excited for Spencer to experience this week. From what I’ve seen, the program at Woodward is going to be amazing and the staff and counselors really have it together! It’s an opportunity I would highly recommend for any kid interested in action sports…and would certainly recommend for a PANDAS kid with those interests!

To check out Camp Woodward for yourself, please click the link below:

Book Review: The Pale-Faced Lie by David Crow – 3.5 stars

Boy…if you think your family puts the ‘fun in dysfunctional,’ you haven’t seen anything until you read The Pale-Faced Lie by David Crow! This book is the second one I’ve read this year (the first being Tara Westover’s Educated) that has left me speechless about just how broken and toxic families can be! Well-written and brutally honest, I enjoyed The Pale-Faced Lie despite the fact that it is, in many places, as uncomfortable as a book can be!

Crow grows up on an Indian reservation in Arizona and details his life with an emotionally broken mother, a narcissistic, dangerous, unstable father and his 3 siblings. The stories in the book are almost too unbelievable to be real and yet, so incredible that I can’t imagine Crow getting away with writing such things about his family if they weren’t true! The author’s note details the lengths he went to to ensure that his recollections were accurate and, it seems, many of the stories included were actually communicated or corroborated by the broken parents about whom he tells them.

From the very start of this book, the reader is drawn in by Crow’s accounts of his father’s attempts to coerce the 4 children into leaving their home and abandoning their mother without warning. The ongoing battles between mother and father and painful situations that the father puts the children (particularly David) in are hard to read…trigger warnings abound with regard to domestic violence, abuse, language, etc. Yet, the sheer audacity of Crow’s father’s willingness to verbally and physically abuse and gaslight his children is almost too much to look away from. Crow details the various siblings’ responses to this treatment and it’s an incredible study in psychology – each child seems to deal with the family craziness in his/her own unique way.

For his part, Crow is both his parents’ pet and their preferred victim. The multiple decade account of their behavior leaves the reader wondering how David, also beset by a learning disability and hearing loss, survived long enough and developed well enough to ever write a book! Yet, the book itself is clearly written and the story well told. It lags a bit around the time that David goes to high school…the reader has, at that point, heard so many unbelievable tales of abuse and lies that emotional fatigue begins to set in. The story picks up again almost immediately, however, in Part 4, as Crow graduates college and begins to assert himself as an adult in the political world of Capitol Hill.

Personally, I found myself torn between rooting for Crow and cringing at the ways that he participated in his own heartbreaking story. I was hard pressed to remind myself that this child’s home life was so broken that he could not possibly have known another way to live. I struggled with blaming him for some of his behaviors (just as his parents do) and having to pull myself up short to remember that Crow was doing what he could, with what he had, simply to survive.

I wish that more time had been dedicated to Crow as an adult. The end of the book felt a bit as if he had reached his page count and needed to wrap it up. While he becomes both a husband and a father, only a few lines are spent acknowledging those facts. Given his childhood, how he engaged as both a husband and a father would likely have been extremely interesting.

Crow’s story is definitely one worth reading. The simple, raw nature of the story will pull you in and leave you breathless for a family of children who struggled to withstand some of the most pronounced functioning mental illness I have ever read about. While the book is, by its very nature, horrifying, I found myself unable to put it down. When I reached the final page, I found myself both astounded at what Crow had endured and proud of his ultimate ability to push forward in a life that was, at times, apparently filled with little more than pain. If you enjoyed Tara Westover’s Educated, this is most certainly a book for you. A Pale-Faced Lie is Crow’s own story, however, and worth a read from anyone who wants to understand human nature and incredible resilience.

To get your copy of A Pale-Faced Lie (at the time of this writing, it is available for free through Kindle Unlimited), please click the link below:

The Pale-Faced Lie: A True Story

Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict – 3 stars

Since the inaugural Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club meeting has come and gone and we had the opportunity to discuss The Only Woman in the Room as a group, I thought I’d follow up with my personal review of the book now.

I added The Only Woman in the Room to the list of books that the Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club could select for its first meeting because I had heard such good things about Benedict’s Carnegie’s Maid and The Other Einstein. I was excited when The Only Woman was selected as I knew that Benedict explored the life of Hedy Lamarr, an actress in America who I knew only by name and who apparently had a great many other accomplishments in addition to her acting and an amazing backstory. As someone who considers herself a feminist, I’m always excited to hear stories of woman who have overcome obstacles and asserted themselves despite the constraints of place, time and culture.

The Only Woman in the Room is the story of famous actress Hedy Lamarr (originally Hedy Keisler) – an Austrian Jew who immigrated to the United States as an actress to escape her violent, controlling husband – munitions magnate, Fritz Mandl. Through Benedict’s book, we watch as Keisler’s marriage and heritage bring her to the brink of danger during World War II and then see how escaping to the United States changes both her name and her life. Not only does she become a major name on the American silver screen, she becomes interested in scientific experiements to benefit the war effort and attempts to assuage her guilt at escaping by supporting and initiating projects to help the Jews and defeat the Germans.

As I began reading the book, I was fascinated by Hedy Keisler and her burgeoning relationship with Mandl and curious about how his violent, controlling side and Keisler’s Jewishness would play out. Unfortunately, it felt to me that the fact that Keisler was Jewish was glossed over a bit…Benedict’s telling of the story almost made it appear that Keisler herself was surprised to find out she was Jewish. Considering that her parents supposedly pushed her to marry Mandl to protect herself and them from the Nazis, I was confused by how little Keisler identified with her religion and culture.

The ‘cat and mouse’ portion of the book that focuses on Mandl trying to control Keisler and her trying to escape was very interesting and pulled the storyline along for 2/3 of the book. Aside from highlighting that Keisler’s father talked to her a great deal about politics and current events, however, I didn’t get a sense that Keisler had the education or experience to take in the information that Benedict purports she did. While it is one thing to have been an intelligent woman in that era, I found it hard to believe that Keisler had the skills she would have needed to actually comprehend/take action on a great number of the arms secrets that she supposedly gathers in the book. While other writers seem to indicate that Keisler was involved in scientific inventions throughout her life and therefore would have been capable of gathering and utilizing the information she overheard from her husband’s colleagues, I didn’t get that sense at all from Benedict’s book and thus had to suspend disbelief a bit in order to accept that Keisler subsequently became a war spy and munitions inventor.

The historical aspects of The Only Woman in the Room were very interesting…the Austrian culture, the Hollywood parties and the attitudes that were held toward women during World War II were definitely topics explored in the book that I found riveting. I could truly feel Lamarr’s frustration at the non-verbal roles she was assigned by MGM because of the desire to focus on her beauty alone. As an old Hollywood noir piece, this book delivered an amazing picture of a place and time that resonated throughout the pages and provided a glimpse into exactly what sex discrimination looked and felt like in the ‘old boys’ club’ of Hollywood.

Presented as a fictionalized memoir however, I struggled to understand some of Lamarr’s motivations (Why didn’t she pair up with a scientist or munitions expert to begin her experiments? Why did she choose to partner with a musician when so many others must have been available to her?) and decisions (If she held all of the arms secrets that are described in the book, why not use her fame and influence to approach someone in the U.S. government and share that information?) and thus finished the book with a fair bit of skepticism. As a story, The Only Woman in the Room has a message about Lamarr’s strength, influence and isolation as a woman of that time. As a memoir, it required a bit more believability to hang together for me.

As a fiction reader who loves a good story, well told, I struggled in places to stick with The Only Woman in the Room. Benedict asked me to believe in circumstances and motivations that seemed tenuous, at best, to me and left the second half of her book far less explored than the details she provided about Keisler’s early life. After allowing myself to be drawn into Keisler’s conundrum as a an Austrian Jew married to an arms dealer who was in bed with the Nazis, I wanted to be submerged in the story of how she perservered to the very same degree. Unfortunately, the last half of the book didn’t feel as well-developed or intriguing to me as the first. As a reader who enjoys learning about people, places and times that I am unfamiliar with however, The Only Woman in the Room was a valuable opportunity for me to sink into World War II from a new perspective and, if for that reason alone, I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to read Benedict’s newest book!

To get your own copy The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict, please click the link below:

The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel

VOTE NOW!! Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club – 2nd Meeting! Help pick the book!!!

Our last Mama Panda Bear Virtual Book Club pick was The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict and, whole the meeting was sparsely attended, it was a lot of fun! I’d love to have more of you join us this time…so I need your help picking the book!
Since this blog focuses on Middle Grade, YA and Contemporary Fiction, like last time, I’m providing 2 choices from each category. We’ll meet July 15th at 8:00 pm EDT! Connectivity info will be made available closer to that date.

Please indicate which book YOU would like to see us read for our next meeting below.  Links to read more about or purchase any of the books are located below the poll!

Use these links to read more or get your own copy of any of these books!

The Tenth Muse: A Novel One Night in Georgia: A Novel The Girls of Firefly Cabin All of Us with Wings A Monster Like Me Waiting for Fitz

Voting will close at midnight on May 31, 2019!

Book Review: The Promise Between Us by Barbara Claypole White – 3.5 stars

As always, I’ll be completely straight with you and admit: I struggled with this book. I almost gave up on it twice early on: I found the plot a little too ‘convenient’ and formulaic. The voice that Claypole White gives to mental illness (particularly OCD) however, reeled me in and kept me reading. I had no regrets when I finished the book!

The Promise Between Us is told from 5 points of view:

Katie (mother of Maudie, suffers from OCD)

Callum (father of Maisie)

Jake (godparent to Maisie and Cal’s best friend)

Lilah (Cal’s wife and Maudie’s stepmother) and,

Maisie herself (dealing with burgeoning OCD.)

We learn early on that Katie’s OCD was triggered post-partum and she begins to suffer with intrusive thoughts about harming her daughter. These thoughts lead to a stand-off between her and Cal and, not understanding her disease, she ultimately decides to leave Maisie in order keep her safe.

Fast-forward nearly a decade and Maisie, a tween, is accidentally reintroduced to her mother (this was where I had to suspend disbelief and push on) who slowly begins to realize that Maisie has inherited and is dealing with OCD too. In her quest to save Maisie from the pain that she experiences, Katie finds herself involved in the life of her former husband, his wife and his best friend.

In bringing Katie and Maisie back together, Claypole White creates the opportunity for secrets from numerous other characters to surface and be revealed. Katie and Maisie are not the only ones troubled by their mental health concerns and it will take involvement from all parties (including Katie’s colleague, Ben and sister, Delaney) for all of those issues to come to light.

Claypole White (who, unsurprisingly has experienced OCD in her own husband and son) nails the voices in Katie’s and Maisie’s heads that try to keep them sick and afraid. It is the integrity with which she explores mental illness, trauma and blended families that kept me reading right up to the end.

The Promise Between Us is populated with some truly genuine and appealing characters. Although I felt strongly that Claypole White ‘missed’ on Maisie’s voice (too much disparity between her intelligence and her baby talk,) her portrayal of Ben (the strong, silent art studio/garage owner that Katie works with) and Lilah (Maisie’s well-intentioned but overlooked pregnant stepmom) were absolutely winning! You can’t help but want to meet Ben and admire and wish to emulate Lilah!

While I’m generally not much of one for backstory, acknowledgements, Book Club extras, etc, Claypole White’s accessories to her novel are outstanding. The acknowledgements and book club questions helped frame her intention for the book in a way that I found enlightening. She also created (as she does for all of her books, apparently) a musical playlist that you can access as accompaniment. I’d never seen that done before and found it absolutely brilliant!

Claypole White has something to say about mental health, trauma, healthcare in the US and the blended family. If you can get past the somewhat ‘hard to believe’ set up that she uses as her jumping off point, you’ll be better for having received her message and met her characters!

To get your own copy of The Promise Between Us by Barbara Claypole White (available, at the time of this writing, for free on Kindle Unlimited or for $5.99 on Kindle without,) please click the link below:

The Promise Between Us

Book Review: Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith – 4.5 stars

This book is beautiful, lyrical, sad and hopeful. It’s one that has stuck with me for many days after I finished reading it. Delivered in verse, (Thank you Kwame Alexander for teaching me to appreciate books in verse!) Ebb and Flow packs a punch without flowery or abundant language.

Smith’s book is the story of Jett…a tween whose father is in prison and who has been sent to live with his Grandma Jo after doing something troubling while in his mother’s care. Jett carries a lot of guilt and shame about what he did and really can’t bring himself to talk about it. He wonders if he is a bad person ‘like his father’ and spends much of his time beating up on himself and self-sabotaging by committing additional minor transgressions.

Jett’s Grandma Jo is an amazing character…the adult you always dreamed of having or being! Through her love and conversation, Jett is able to reveal his past, come to terms with it and begin to look forward to his future. Other characters in the story (who I won’t mention specifically to avoid spoilers) are also perfectly drawn. I wanted to pick up every single person included in this story to give them encouragement and hugs. It takes a strong author to make a reader feel personally responsible for her characters.

Smith also does an incredible job of making this story flow. It pulls you along with the narrative, a love for the characters and the spot-on verse she writes. You’ll find your heart breaking for Jett and find yourself absolutely rooting for him to see the truth about himself. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself with wet cheeks while reading this book…only you will know whether you are crying for the book’s sadness or hope or both! Read this book because you have faith in humanity…finish it with a better understanding of why!

To get your copy of Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith (Kindle version only $5.99 at the time of this writing,) please click the link below:

Ebb and Flow

Book Review: Bloom Where You’re Planted by Lasairiona McMaster – 3.5 stars

I’m sure some folks are wondering why I would even bother to read a book about being an expat! Are the Navins considering relocating somewhere else in the world for work? For fun? I’ll be honest…when I was asked to review this book, I skimmed the book blurb and said ‘yes!’ When I started reading the book and realized it was a ‘guide to being an expat,’ I wondered why I was reading it myself! I have to tell you though: this book is more than that…it’s a delightful memoir from a woman who you will want to be your friend!

McMaster is from Ireland and her book is peppered with lots of British phrases and words. However, she now considers Houston, TX her home and you can imagine the hilarious stories that go along with that transition. While, as I said, I’m not an expat and not looking to become one…McMaster’s personality and love for the topic shined through in this book, making it an enjoyable (and informational) read throughout.

The book is written in a very informal style…if author asides to the reader bother you, this book will be a hard pass for you! It’s the style, however, that I found most engaging. McMaster describes her life leading up to becoming an expat, explains her desire to live abroad and then catalogs her amazing and harrowing experiences as a expat both before and after becoming a mom.

If you have any inclination toward becoming an expat, it’s all here in this book: how to decide, what to take, who to talk to and how, what pitfalls to avoid! McMaster also pays specific homage to the myriad expat friends she has made throughout her journey. These stories of women truly being there for other women are a big part of what made this book so endearing regardless of the fact that I don’t relate to being an expat myself.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were expats for years and I found myself looking at their experiences in a different light because of this book: McMaster points out many of the biases that exist toward expats amongst non-expats and, I must admit, I was guilty of many of them!

I must disclose: I was reading an ARC of this book so I experienced some disorganization in the copy of the book I read. I found that a bit offputting (chapters weren’t clearly defined, topics bled from one chapter to the next) but hope that it is resolved in the final copy of the book!

Overall, I would HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone involved in the expat life in any way and definitely recommend for everyone else, as well. It’s funny, (read it if only for the multiple international dildo stories! 🙂 ) heartwarming and real. I saw my struggles as a woman and a mother in many of McMaster’s stories…and I loved her and her book for putting them out there in such a genuine way!

To get your copy of Bloom Where You’re Planted by Lasairiona McMaster, please click the link below:

Bloom Where You’re Planted: Life the Expat Way

My PANDA: A Year in Review

For those of you fighting PANDAS or just fighting to keep your child’s life normal in the face of PANDAS, I think it’s fair to admit that this may have been one of our worst years for symptoms since Spencer was diagnosed! Nevertheless, we had a lot of fun and I wanted to take this opportunity, as the school year comes to a close today, to highlight everything we DID manage to accomplish!

We started our school year, as we always do with a trip. For 5th grade, we went to Chicago again, but this time took Daddy along!

We looked out from the top of the Hancock Building!

We rode on double-decker open-topped busses and in Ubers.

We sailed on pirate ships!

School started in mid-August and he was ready! We took our annual Class of 2026 picture and the obligatory first day of school photo!

I cleaned the house once! 🙂

I hung out with Spencer’s buddies who helped me with my jewelry shows!

School photos were taken.

Daddy and I took Emerson to see Joe Rogan. Spence wasn’t quite old enough for that one yet!

Spencer ran for and was elected to student council!

I kept doing jewelry shows!

I got invited to Notre Dame for ND Loyal and had amazing seats in a box!

Spencer had the flu that weekend so he got some souvenirs!

We took family photos with the brothers for our Christmas cards.

Spence turned 11 and we rented a video game truck for him and his friends.

He saved up enough money to buy his own PC!

Halloween came and went.

We did some fundraising for the PTA and Spencer got to participate in limo lunch.

We went to BizTown with his class.

We honored Uncle Mike at the Veteran’s Day assembly.

I hung out with a tranny and loved it! 🙂

Spence humored me and got his picture taken with Santa.

Grandma broke her arm!

Spencer sang with the choir.

We built a lamp with Grandma Carol’s Christmas present and supported Christopher in his first Nutcracker performance!

We went to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas and showed off our tiny hands and Bob Ross painting set!

We visited the Chinese Lantern Festival in Columbus.

Cotillion started. He hated it. But, we kept up with it.

Late January/early February is when the tics really started.

We went to Disney and took advantage of a special disability pass for his urinary frequency.

We hated having to come home!

I lost 22 pounds with the Faster Way to Fat Loss.

I started modeling for Gwynnie Bee!

Spence got glasses. The tics got ALOT worse though we don’t think it had anything to do with the glasses.

He graduated from Cotillion!

He entered a science project in the district Science Fair with his buddy!

I wore a tin foil hat on my head with my friend, Heather at the Worthington Chocolate Walk.

We went to the Price is Right Live Show for my birthday.

We met Jason Reynolds!

We went to Amish Country with Grandma and Grandpa!

Spence and I got to see Hamilton together!

Shenanigans continued at school but Spencer wasn’t there very often due to tics in February and March.

Destination Imagination competition took place in early March.

Christopher got his temps!

Daddy and I went on a couple of dates! They were long overdue!

We went to see Monster Jam at the Schottenstein.

We met Kwame Alexander and Margaret Peterson Haddix.

We celebrated Grandpa’s 3rd Liverversary!

5th grade fun continued…

Blood draws, blood draws, blood draws and homeschooling.

End of year orchestra concert.

Spencer ran for Student Council Treasurer. He got nominated from his class in the primaries but was beaten by another student in the actual election.

Final choir performance and Art Show.

Last field trip of the year to the Ohio Theater and Columbus Museum of Art.

As you can see…it was a rough year but we kept going! We didn’t let PANDAS stop us even though it nearly brought us to our knees a few times. As the school year ends today and Spencer becomes a rising 6th grader…I can only pray that next year is less eventful healthwise but equally exciting and rewarding in every other way!