Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: The Sin-Eater's Confession, by Ilsa J. Bick

The Sin-Eater's Confession
"Who swung the hatchet? Who are the shadows? What do the living owe the dead?"
When I first picked this one up, I had the impression it was a supernatural tale - something about the title, cover, and the above quote from the jacket cover just gave it that feel. Then, the protagonist began speaking in first-person from his military post in Afghanistan, and it quickly snapped into present-day reality.
The word "reality" doesn't even begin to cut it. The fact that I waded in with no idea of what to expect just made the reading experience all the more intense, I think, so I'm not going to give much of a synopsis here. In a nutshell, Ben is expecting to go out on a mission tomorrow that he knows he may very well not come back from. Before dawn, he is attempting to get on paper his memories of what happened in his tiny Wisconsin town two years ago. Everyone knows the end result, and they may think they know what led up to it, but only he has the whole story - or, at least the lion's share of it.
This is the story of a lie that spirals out of control. You know, one of those situations where the initial lie prompts further hiding of the truth, because if you tell the truth now, people will find out you lied before, yadda yadda. I usually have no patience with such storylines, because they all come to the same inevitable ending: the whole story unravels, the initial lie is discovered, and if the main character had just told the truth to begin with...lesson learned.
Excpet, this time, Ben isn't the one who told the initial lie (and, really, who did? What was the initial lie?) Nevertheless, he gets caught in an untruth that other people believe wholeheartedly, and while his initial actions may have been above reproach - commendable, even - continuing to do the right thing could have disastrous consequences for him.
Intense almost isn't an adequate term. This is definitely a page-turner, a sticks-with-you, a look-up-in-a-daze-when-someone-tries-to-talk-to you kind of book. The kind of book your high school students would love you for assigning, but which half your parents may object to - but, man, the discussions you can have in class before the administration knocks on your door and tells you to pass out Moby Dick!
Highly recommended for any high school library (mature topics and very graphic violence). Thank-you Carolrhoda (division of Lerner) for the review copy, and for the lost sleep!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Unlucky Charms by Adam Rex

Unlucky Charms
I love when a publisher sends me a review copy of a book I am just about to order for myself. This came in the mail the very day it was released, and I devoured half of it on my lunch hour!
I reviewed the first book in this series, Cold Cereal, in this post (which I just realized contains an embarrassing number of typos - I will fix those shortly!). It was hard to give a synopsis of that one without giving things away, and while still making sense. This one is almost as difficult, and that is part of its charm. The writing still reminds me of Daniel M. Pinkwater, now with some J.R.R. Tolkein creeping in. Did that make you tilt your head and give a puzzled expression as you tried to picture what that would look like? Good, then I think you're ready.
All the characters from Cold Cereal, the good, the bad, and the aggravating, reappear in Unlucky Charms. Scott's Mom is even there - until, suddenly, she isn't. New characters are introduced (queens both human and fae), backstories are fleshed out, and the group is divided as different quests with the same end goal are pursued (see? Tolkein). Rex is able to keep the different stories going at a quick pace, without confusing the reader. I finished reading happy with what I had learned, but anxious for the next installment. Get on with it, Rex!
I would recommend this one for grades 4 up through high school, especially any readers into fantasy and/or hilarity. The size (just shy of 400 pages) may be daunting to a reluctant reader, but a chapter or two read aloud could hook them pretty firmly. Thank-you, HarperCollins, for the very timely review copy!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

C is for Cloud

"Cloud dough" is all the rage among Mommy bloggers at the moment, so I knew we had to try it. Since we are in the middle of the letter "C", this seemed as good a time as any.
Foregt the commercial stuff, this is possibly the easiest homemade craft supply ever. Are you ready?
1. Mix one part baby oil to 8 parts flour.
2. That's it, you're done.
What you get (in about thirty seconds of mixing) is something between Play-do and sand. Very soft and fine, holds shapes when you, for example, press something into it, but crumbles apart again when you pick it up. I made a big bowl using 8 cups flour/1 cup baby oil, tossed in the pastry cutter I had used to mix it, some matchbox cars, and a few smll containers, and let the kids go to town.
Boy, did they! All three were instantly hooked:

Next time: ditch the navy sweatshirt first.
Yes, it was a tiny bit messy...

But, it swept up pretty easily with a plain old broom. This held their attention longer than Play-do usually does. I'm not sure how long they would have played, but wen I finally announced we needed to clean up for lunch, S. had a full-blown temper tantrum. Then, in the middle of stomping her feet, she discovered how cool it felt, and shuffled around the dining room, tantrum forgotten.
Of course, that meant a few white footprints made it onto the brown carpet:
But they vacuumed up easily, as well.
I stored this batch in a container, and plan to make some more with cocoa powder added. If that works just as well, I will make a giant batch at the library for our summer mud party - a not-so-messy alternative for parents who don't want the real stuff in their cars. The toys rinsed clean, 
as did we. Bonus: we all smell great, and have super-soft hands. 

And feet!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nascar Party Snacks

I'll get to the Nascar bit in a minute.
Remember when we were kids, and our moms would spend a few hours making great snacks for our class to share on birthdays, Christmas, Valentine's Day? Now that we are parents, we get to spend ten minutes at the grocery store, buying something prepackaged and full of preservatives - because the powers that be all over the country have decided that is much healthier.
I love to bake (shocker!), so when C. joined the local 4H, and discussion turned to providing snacks, I somewhat cautiously asked the other parents if they would mind homemade goodies. Psh - silly question - we're mountain folk, our kids eat dirt on occasion, and as long as they don't dribble it on the clean carpet, we're good.
Even better, the next meeting was February 12, Mardi Gras! I was already making this layered Jell-O for home, for Valentine's Day, so I made extra for the 4H-ers. To celebrate Mardi Gras, I divided cake batter into three bowls and died them purple, green and red. A spoonful of each in cupcake tins and they baked up looking very festive. Topped with cream cheese frosting, and liberally dusted with red, yellow, and green colored sugar by S., and I was quite pleased with the result.
Then it snowed, the meeting was postponed, and somebody whose name rhymes with "Daddy" ate all the cupcakes.
I still had the Jell-O squares, though, and I certainly didn't mind another excuse to bake, so I looked up obscure February holidays. The 19th, as it turns out, is National Mint Chocolate Day. A quick search of my favorite cookie cookbook turned up a sandwich made of what were supposed to be soft chocolate cookies with a minty frosting between them. Perfect!
Except, the cookies turned out so brittle, most of them crumbled when I took them off the cookie sheet.
Okay: I'm running out of time, but I have brownie mix. I can spread the minty frosting on top, and sprinkle it with those crumbled mint pieces I've had for a while.
Except, i forgot to add more flour to the brownie mix (high altitude), so it fell in the middle. And, the mint chips had melted and resolidified into one big chunk.
That's okay, the kids who get middle pieces will just have more frosting, and a few whacks with the rolling pin took care of the giant lump. Pretty! And done! Time for bed!
The next day I rushed home from work, warmed up a quick supper for the kids, and went to cut the brownies up before leaving for 4H. Hard. as. a. rock.
So, in the end, the kids got week-old Jell-O squares, and some prepacked, full of preservatives snacks I scavenged from C.'s lunch cabinet.
All this to say, I felt the need to redeem myself. Fortunately, we were invited to a Nascar party yesterday. I know the hosts would have been happy with a bag of chips, but my pride was now at stake!
Some internet searching for Nascar party snacks just came up with the usual 7-layer-dip and little smokies (which are also awesome), so I decided to fall back on the Mardi Gras cupcake success. I made two batches of cake mix, one white and one black, and started spooning a little bit of each, hoping it would resemble a checkered flag. About three spoonsful in, I decided this was NOT going to work. Then, I remembered how we iced the cake balls for S.'s birthday cake:
Perfect!!! I grabbed one in each hand and started squirting away. To my pleasant surprise, my little dollops formed themselves into squares:
I did three layers this way, then baked as usual, and this is how they came out:
Some got a little pinwheel-y, but still a much better effect than I was going to get dropping by spoons.
The bottoms held the pattern well:

Although the middles got a bit more splotchy:

Some cream cheese frosting and some black and white sprinkles, and we're ready to party!
The kids wanted to get in on the fun, too, so we practiced colors: 

*singing* One of these things is not like the others...
I was going to do the Nascar starting lights, but I couldn't find mini M&Ms, and there wasn't room for five regular ones. I didn't think anyone would mind - and they didn't. The traffic lights disappeared within half an hour of us getting there, and out of about 4 dozen cupcakes, I brought eight home. Redemption!
Now, what to make for 4H next month...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Now I Know My ABC's! (We will learn "D" next week)

S. has started learning the alphabet, spending a week or so on each letter. She did, after all, just turn 3, so it is high time she start reading her own bedtime stories. Just kidding - that will always be my job. She is a very curious child, though, and since there is no time pressure, it's fun to just play with each letter for as long as it is interesting, then move on. There are soooooooooo many things you can do with each letter, you could really get bogged down if you tried to do everything. An internet search will give you hundreds of blog posts and web sites with activity ideas - so, hey, why not add ours to the mix?!
Some things, we are doing the same with each letter. I have printed out these great coloring pages from, and while she is not into coloring, she will paint most of them. She also loves the dot markers, so I printed out one of the many versions of the alphabet you can find all over the internet (here are some really cute ones from DTLK).
We start a 'word wall' for each letter, just a sheet of paper tacked to the dining room wall, and throughout the week, family members will add words that start with that particular letter. This often happens at meal times, or when we are gathered in that room doing crafts, which is nice - the words are more often relevant to what is going on, and we get anything from "cow" to "catastrophe" (see tomorrow's Nascar Snacks post to see what brought the word "catastrophe" into the conversation).
When we are finished with the letter, I copy each word neatly onto another sheet of paper, with S. watching me write as we talk about each word. Then she gets to go through my big sticker box and find anything that matches. Stickers are HUGE with S. right now, so this is a highly motivational end product.
She decided this should go on Daddy's computer cabinet for a while. And, yes, you do see the word "boobies" in there.
Cutting and pasting are also big, so we go through newspapers or magazines to find the week's letter, and glue samples to another page.
We try to do some cooking/baking to go with each letter. I posted earlier about our "A" pastries. For "B", biscuits ruled breakfast for a while, and as Cookie Monster says, "C is for Cookie"!
I absolutely love the Easy Peasy All in One Homeschool site, although it takes my computer forever to download the page sometimes. We watch most of the videos (usually while dancing), but not all of the art projects (we have others we do instead). I love that she starts each letter with a Google image search, and C. and I spend a lot of time asking her, "Which B is red? Which B is made of balls?" We know that, every time a child sees a particular shape, it strengthens that pathway in their brain, and this is a really fun and easy way to do that.
We are also finding different ways to build each letter on our living room floor. For "A", we used our bodies:
For "B", books!
We haven't decided how to do "C" yet.
I also write the letters on her bunk bed, and each night we trace them and talk about words that start with each letter (this has become one of her newest stalling techniques, so I have to put a number limit on them now.)
Upper and lower case letters can get confusing, so I made a matching game today, using some plastic Easter eggs. One side has the uppercase, the other the lower case,

 and she simply has to match them together:
daddy gave me this giant box of chocolates for Christmas, and I couldn't stand to throw the box away - I knew it could be used for SOMEthing - and, here it is! Besides, "candy" starts with "C".
There are other things we do differently with each letter, to keep things from getting too routine. For "C", for example, we are planning to visit with some neighbors who raise cows. I am also going to teach her to use my smaller camera, and let her take pictures of things that start with "C". For "B", we sorted buttons, went out to breakfast, and went to see some friends whose last name started with "B".
For each letter, I have three goals, in order of importance right now:
1. Letter recognition - as long as she can identify the upper and lower case version of each one, I figure we're good. She's only three!
2. Sound recognition - I want her to be able to tell me what sound each letter makes (going for short vowel sounds and hard consonants for now), and be able to pck out which words start with that sound. The latter is more difficult than the former, so we're just introducing it and not going for mastery - she's only three!
3. Writing each letter. She has pretty good hand-eye coordination, but a capital "B" is still kind of tricky for little hands. For some reason, she does better on the Etch-a-Sketch than with a pencil/marker/crayon. This is another we are just introducing, because...she's only three!
Having a smart kid can backfire if you start expecting them to learn everything right away. I see it happen sometimes at the library - we start off making learning fun, but our adult mind wants to see the same results every time, and it becomes an expectation with negative consequences. I watched a mother a couple weeks ago getting upset with her toddler, because the girl wanted to play with puppets rather than do flashcards. The child wasn't even potty trained! Learning and exploring are great, but just because your child is ahead of his peer group now, doesn't mean he still will be in fourth grade - especially if you have made learning something he has to do, rather than wants to.
Mini-soapbox-lecture done! Stay tuned for ideas to go with the rest of the alphabet! Unless we stop having fun. Then, you're on your own.


Monday, February 18, 2013

A Day at Home

Both L. and S. had crawled into bed with us last night...and then L. wet the bed, so everybody started the day with a bath.  Breakfast of bacon and cereal, then Daddy out the door to work, while Mommy began on laundry and dishes.

7:56 - Finally get around to wiping down mattress cover. Decide to finally put bed on risers I bought days ago, so I can finally get underbed box under the bed, before finally putting new sheets on.

7:58 - Bottoms of bed corners won't fit inside groove of bed risers. Maybe if I just turn them upside down? I don't need the whole 5 1/2 inches.

8:00 - That will work!

8:02 - No, it won't. Abandon bed project when dryer signals it is through.

8:23 - Trail of torn tissues leading from one bedroom to another. L. at end, explaining, "boogers!"

8:37 - Walked through the living room, which looks like a tornado hit it. There appears to be a mummy on the sofa. He is lying completely still, so it couldn't have been him.

Maybe he'll fold the laundry.
This one is asleep, so she's obviously innocent as well.

Oh, look, more shredded tissues.
8:52 - Finish downloading pictures, and, thinking I have a least accomplished one thing, go back to put the sheet on the bed.

8:58 - Tell kids we can make cookies for tomorrow's 4H meeting as soon as they have the living room picked up, knowing that gives me at least another hour.

9:11 - In the middle of scrubbing the bathtub - "Mom, L. took his diaper off!" L: " Naked butt! Naked butt!"

9:15 - Finish putting new diaper and pants on baby octopus.

9:20 - School time: look at Google images of letter "C", watch video of Cookie Monster singing, "C is for Cookie". S. starts coloring picture of Cookie Monster inside a C shape, while L. colors... Iron Man. Whatever.

9:30 - Start C. on making cookies while I put dishes away.

9:38 - L., where are your pants?!

9:52 - Daddy calls from work to check on status of cookies.

10:03 - Start S. on filling for cookies. C. is now a pirate-mummy holding a pink shotgun, and asks to go outside to play. Sure, we wouldn't want the neighbors to have a dull day.

10:23 - Try to watch another "C" video, computer freezes up, restart. While waiting, S. decides to sweep kitchen. L. decides to help. Argument ensues. L. decides to mop living room carpet instead. Bangarang.

10:40 - Note to self: Stop trying new recipes when you are making something to take somewhere. Let's see...brownies are chocolate, and the mint filling can go on top, with some chopped Andes mints, thereby fulfilling the National Chocolate Mint Day requirement that I gave myself. Google recipes to use crumbled chocolate cookies.

10:43 - Try to print yummy recipe with chocolate cookie crumb. Printer not working. At all. I'll mess with it later.

10:45 - Watch "C" video together and write down some of the "C" words we heard. Play a musical "C" video while I pull chairs out of dining room to sweep. Kids start dancing really cute. Abandon sweeping to videotape it. Can't find camera.

10:48 - Seriously, where is my camera?

10:53 - "Kids, help me find my camera." Tear house apart.

11:14 - Find camera in trash bag with recycling. Bemoan the fact that I only use initials on my blog, because yelling "L.W.!!!" doesn't have quite the same effect as using his full name.

11:16 - Play video again, but nobody wants to dance now. Write down more "c" words.

11:25 - Sweep dining room. C. thinks it would be funny to drop more trash in front of the broom. Congratulate C. on his wise choices, and tell him he may now clean the kitchen floor. Alone.

11:44 - L. wanders by. Sniff suspiciously. Change diaper. And pants. No more apple juice today. L. is growling, "my precious!"

11:48 - Tell kids to pick toys up so we can eat lunch. S. refuses. S. is put on her bed in time out.

11:53 - Hugs are exchanged, S. starts picking up toys. I start making sandwiches, with L. cheering me on ("My jelly! My jelly!") (Why are there two open bags of bread?)

12:12 - Lunch - picnic on the dining room floor. Finish mine, and vacuum while they nibble.

S: "L., no!!!"
Me: "S., stop screaming."
S.: "But, he's getting my sandwich!"
Me: "If you were EATING your sandwich, he couldn't be GETTING it."
S: "L., No!!!!"

12:23 - Surf Facebook, waiting for kids to finish. Bookmark link to cool program to check out later.

S: (moving to a different area of floor) "Mommy, I'm eating by myself!"
C: "Can I eat with you?"
S: "Yes."

12:26 - My junk mail folder includes several offers to help build my testosterone.

12:30 - Put last load of laundry (for today) in dryer. Fill jug with laundry soap for Grandma. Can't find lid. Improvise with ziploc and rubber band, and put it in the van.

12:35 - FINALLY!!! S. is finished, and ready for her nap. She insists I take her sandals off, and I notice her toenails need trimming, so I do it right then, because there is no way I will remember that when she gets back up. She negotiates for two songs (won with extra kisses), and then I put the cow and the pillow in front of her door, and turn the pillow around once and then upside down, because she is just a little OCD that way.

12:43 - Wipe top layer of PB&J off L.'s hands and face. He grabs wiper and wipes me off. Put him in bed. Sniff. Take him back out of bed, change diaper, and put him back in bed again.

12:50 - C. plays on Starfall while I scrub the dining room and kitchen floors, tile by tile, scraping food off walls as I go. Note to self: Sign L. up for any sport that involves throwing.

1:20 - Get C. a band-aid. How do you injure yourself playing Starfall? He switches to Play-do, potentially less dangerous, while I check e-mails.

1:25 - Brownies fell in the middle, because I forgot to add extra flour. Andes mints have melted and resolidified into one giant chunk. Next month, I am just buying the kids carrot sticks.

1:30 - Start folding laundry.

1:50 - Still folding laundry. C. has made a bajillion Play-do pirates, and is constructing long ropes for them to use to climb down off the table. Except, some other Play-do dude is sawing partway through the ropes when the Play-do pirates aren't looking. I'm not sure who the bad guys and good guys are in this scenario.

1:57- Put my laundry away. Everything else goes in a room where someone is sleeping!

2:05 - Do some math with C.

2:11- S. wakes up, curls up in my lap, cuddles for a bit. Where did these fairy blonde curls come from??? C. joins us, and we read some of the books I am supposed to be reviewing. One is about slaves building the White House - big concept for someone who just gets a time-out when she refuses to do something.

2:21 - S. takes over Play-do. I go to the bathroom and realize that I never got any further than cleaning the bathtub this morning. Decide I don't care, and start on dishes from baking. C. (who is now wearing a band uniform) mostly lies on his back on the loor and pesters S.

2:46 - Start paying bills. Yippee skippee.

3:21 - Holy cow, there's still money left, that can't be right! Oh, wait, propane bill...

3:26 - Decide I need a snack and a Play-do break. Enough fun for one day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review: When My Baby Dreams of Fairy Tales

When I first saw some of the amazing photographs created by Adele Enersen some time ago, my first thought - and I know I can't have been alone here - was, "How does she get the baby to stay asleep?!" If you aren't familiar with her work, Enersen created amazing scenes around her sleeping daughter, making it look like she was taking a flying carpet ride, or dancing in the rain. Hasn't she ever heard the adage, "Let sleeping babies lie"?! She says it only took her a few minutes to conceive, arrange, and shoot each scene. But, just look at this cover photo:
When My Baby Dreams of Fairy Tales By Adele Enersen Illustrated by Adele Enersen

Enersen obviously has much more creativity in her than I do, because it would take me all day to get something like this figured out and set up, never mind doing it around a sleeping child. C., at this point, I could probably build an entire house around while he is sleeping, but S. and L. are notoriously light sleepers. With L., I am constantly tiptoeing out of the room, only to make it a step from the doorway before he senses I am no longer RIGHT THERE, and wakes with a loud screech.

So, I was relieved (and, admittedly, slightly smug) to read that Enersen's newest child, according to her blog, "is not ready to sleep anywhere else than in my arms, and he prefers eating, not sleeping." All that said, however, I am quite happy to enjoy the fruits of her labors. When My Baby Dreams of Fairy Tales is her second book (The first is simply, When My Baby Dreams), and there is at least one calendar. these are definitely more Mom-books than kid-books, in that moms will want to stop and coo over every detail in the pictures. Babies do love pictures of other babies, though, and I think toddlers will get a giggle out of each pose, while older kids may have fun recognizing the stories that go with each one.

This could be a good shower gift (not to a first-time Mom, please - they often have enough I'm-not-worthy angst), or just a fun family time read. Available now (thanks, HarperCollins, for the review copy!)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Fancy Nancy Extravaganza

Oh, my. This just came in the mail.
Fancy Nancy Storybook Treasury
along with two copies of this:
Fancy Nancy: Nancy Clancy, Secret Admirer
If you don't know who Fancy Nancy is, go find a girl-child between the ages of 2 and 12, and ask. I'll wait. Got it, now? And did you find yourself getting a makeover as part of the explanation? I'll bet you look dazzling (which is fancy for eye-popping)!
The latter of the two is the latest in O'Connor's new chapter book series. This was a welcome addition for parents whose children were addicted to the picture books, but who are starting to grow into bigger reading endeavors. In the first, Nancy and her friend Bree solve some mini mysteries. In this, nancy has a different type of mystery question: "If the heart was just some muscle, like Mr. Dudeny said, then what made people fall in love?"
Like the first, this can make a good chapter-a-night family read-aloud. The chapters are a nice length, with enough of a story in themselves to provide for some entertainment and discussion. In just the first chapter, we learn how to count our own heartbeat (remember doing that in school? I could never find mine - just like one of Nancy's classmates!), and have mention of what makes the teacher so nice. There is wordplay, like "kindhearted" and "heartless". Goodness, you could form an entire home school curriculum around the book, if you were so inclined!
And that, to me, is especially nice to see - a little bit of substance, without being obnoxiously presented, in an entertaining story (Nancy and Bree turn their efforts towards matchmaking) that will appeal to girls of many ages (as well as boys who don't mind holding a book with a pink cover).
For those who are still interested in picture books, the treasury is a glorious (fancy for wonderful) way to either introduce the characters, or spend an afternoon in repose (which is fancy for relaxed) on your favorite corner of the sofa, revisiting old favorites.
Both books are now in print, and will soon be on the shelves at the library! Thank-you, HarperCollins, for the review copies!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Guest Post: How to Make an Apple Pie

*** S. is finishing up her in-depth study of the letter "A", and today she and C. made an apple pie. She wanted to share her recipe with you.
How to Make an Apple Pie

1. Get some apples. Six apples.

2. Then cut them up.

3. I stir them. C. put in sugar.

4. Then I was doing that. It was kinda hard, so you Mommy and C. were helping me. C. is so funny.
5. I don't know.

6. I pushed them. I pushed the edges.

7. We were making an "A".

8. We put it in the oven to cook.

And, there you have it: S.'s soon-to-be-famous A-is-for-apple pie!