Scratch My Back / And I’ll Scratch Yours by Peter Gabriel

Scratch my BackThis two CD set is a compilation of Peter Gabriel performing other artists’ songs and other artists performing Peter Gabriel songs.  On disc one Gabriel covers tracks by the likes of David Bowie, David Byrne, Regina Spektor and many more.  The artists that cover Gabriel’s songs on disc two include the late Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and other talented artists.  Many will recognize the popular Gabriel songs performed on Disc 2, like Big Time and Shock the Monkey, but each artist brings their own style.  Gabriel brings along a full orchestra to accompany him on his performance.  The sounds are beautiful, uniquely Gabriel, yet still recognizable of the original artist.  The mixture of contemporary and old school artists makes this CD attractive to those of all ages.

I couldn’t help continuously listening to disc one because Gabriel’s voice and the instrumentals brought new elements to the cover songs.  His cover of The Book of Love by the Magnetic Fields is hauntingly lovely, much like the original.  I listened to the second disc only once and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but like Gabriel’s covers better.  The concept of this album is great: let me cover your songs and you can cover mine.  The collaboration in this case was successful at producing an enjoyable album.

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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

bird by birdReading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life began as a homework assignment; however, author Anne Lamott’s hilarious and often poignant take on being a writer (and, really, just being a person) made this one assignment that was especially enjoyable.

The title comes from her beloved father, the inspiration for her first novel, Hard Laughter: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.’”

Like this little excerpt, I found Lamott’s advice to be more theoretical than practical, but it’s all good stuff. The book is divided into several sections: Writing, The Writing Frame of Mind, Help along the Way, and Publications—And Other Reasons to Write. Lamott covers several traditional craft topics like plot and dialogue but also less talked about issues like jealousy and perfectionism. But all of her advice is really just an “excuse” to tell her stories, which are often hilarious, occasionally bitter, and sometimes sad. She writes about her family, beloved (and not-so-beloved) friends, her own writing challenges, and, perhaps most often, her students.

I would definitely recommend this book for would-be writers. While she doesn’t give you the elusive secret to writing a bestseller, her advice is always honest and spot-on. And anyway, I think that reading good writing is the first step is being a good writer, and Lamott’s writing is certainly good.



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The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand

chocolate thiefWelcome to Paris! Cade Corey of America’s favorite chocolate maker, Corey Chocolate, has just landed. Her dream is to transform the name of Corey (synonymous with comfortable) by including a new gourmet line of chocolates to be created by the top chocolatier in Paris, maybe even the world. The top chocolatier happens to be Sylvian Marquis and he (not so politely) says no. Cade does not give up. She tries a few other chocolatiers on her list but she really wants Sylvian Marquis to be her chocolatier. But Cade might have to break a few rules to make it happen.

I really enjoyed this steamy romance and look forward to reading the rest of this series about romance in Paris with characters involved with chocolate, pastries, and restaurants. The writing felt like taking a bite of one of the many chocolates Florand describes, so very rich. One warning: The Chocolate Thief will make you want to consume large quantities of chocolate.

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The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

white princessThe White Princess is the fifth of Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series, this one focusing on Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.  Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, ending the War of the Roses, to become Henry VII.  To unite the York and Lancastrian families, Princess Elizabeth was forced to marry Henry VII, whom she believed to be the murderer of her love, Richard III.  Henry VII was suspicious of everyone and everything around him, making one wonder how anyone could have had a very satisfactory life.

Ms. Gregory has created fear and suspicion so well in The White Princess that it is almost depressing to read.  One does get the feeling, though, of what it would be like to be a royal back in the late 1400s, living in constant fear for not only your own life but also the lives of your children.

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The High Druid’s Blade by Terry Brooks

druid bladI grew up reading Terry Brooks and have loved his books for a long time. As I read this new addition to the world of Shannara, The High Druid’s Blade, I couldn’t help compare it to my absolutely favorite story, The Wishsong of Shannara. It is in Wishsong where we are first introduced to the powerful magic of the Sword of Leah, a talisman that has become just as important to this series as the Omhsfords themselves. I was thrilled that here was finally a tale that would allow us to learn more about this enchanted and dangerous blade.

The High Druid’s Blade didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It is not a bad book really. It’s just that this story doesn’t quite have the same…charisma…as the Wishsong of Shannara or the earlier Shannara books. Many of the characters are not as well fleshed out yet, with the exception of two (the villain, of course, and the Druid Starks). The story isn’t as complex as other Brooks novels (and that is okay—not everything has to be a cataclysmic adventure), and it does suffer from a few pacing issues.

As I said, it is not a bad book. I do like the idea of Paxon’s development into a Knight Errant, and the idea that this is technically a standalone novel (though there are enough unanswered questions that hopefully the next book will help to answer). Definitely recommended for longtime fans. Although a new reader could pick up this book, he/she may feel a little lost with the references to other adventures.

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Stitches by Anne Lamott

stitches“It can be too sad here.  We often lose our way.”  Anne Lamott’s latest musing on faith focuses on the thorny parts of life and love—grief, anger, pain—and how to keep living throughout it all.  Stitching together the ripped shreds of ourselves, she says, is the answer. Community, faith, music, even something as mundane as replacing smelly, stained floorboards—all of these help us sew our lives together and move on, stronger for the scar tissue that has knitted us whole again.   Like many of Lamott’s works on faith, Stitches blends deep and insightful theological musings with personal (and often funny) anecdotes from the writer’s own life, managing to cover tropical vacations, cancer and wildfires in one slim volume.

Fans of Lamott (like myself) will love her latest foray into personal essays and her always profound mediations on life.  However, when I say this is a slim volume, I mean it—the book clocks in at less than a hundred pages, and at times it feels like even that could be tightened up.  But for readers willing to endure a little drifting and repetition, Stitches offers up gems worth ruminating on for weeks.  Excellent for readers of faith and memoir writing, especially fans of Anna Quindlen and Sue Monk Kidd.

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Cutie and the Boxer (DVD)

cutie boxerZachary Heinzerling’s debut documentary about Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara is a film that astonishes viewers not because Ushio and Noriko are wonderful artists—and they are—so much as because they’ve managed to stay married to one another.  Forty years ago, a beautiful young woman came to America to study art and met Ushio, a hell-raising iconoclast who gained a bit of fame as a performance artist.  Noriko fell in love.

Life with Ushio isn’t easy for Noriko—he drinks, doesn’t sell much artwork—but it is stimulating. She suffers, citing her husband (while sitting next to him!) as the source of her hardship. He suffers too, confessing that art is a demon that has drug him along. Cutie and the Boxer catches them at the moment Noriko gains recognition for artwork that chronicles her marriage, a development which appears to add daggers to an already wounded relationship. But the marriage endures. The dedication this couple has toward their art and toward each other can stem only from either fierce, stubborn loyalty or love of the brightest kind—probably both.

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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamotte

Bird by BirdI’m not a writer but Anne Lamott makes me believe that I could be a great one.  Bird by Bird is a writing manual that reads like a memoir, a very funny, life affirming, let’s get real memoir.  She reminds me a bit of Cheryl Strayed in her clarity and insight not only about writing but about relationships and priorities.  Lamott says, “if you want to know your characters, you have to hang out with them for awhile.”   I highly recommend hanging out with Lamott.

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The Vanishing Coin by Kate Egan

vanishing coinMy family read The Vanishing Coin and its sequel, The Incredible Twisting Arm, in quick succession. The main character is a fourth-grade boy who has trouble concentrating and following up on his school work, and who generally seems to always be putting the wrong foot forward. Besides failing to live up to his parents’ and teachers’ expectations, he’s got a class bully to deal with and a new neighbor, Nora, who is embarrassingly smart, that he spends after-school hours with.

In The Vanishing Coin, when Mike discovers The White Rabbit, a shop downtown that he’s never seen before, he enters into a world of new possibilities. Here, he is welcomed and accepted, but can he and Nora pass the test set for them to truly be welcomed and learn magician’s secrets?  Finally, Mike succeeds at something Nora can’t and finds himself enthralled with the infinite possibilities The White Rabbit seems to offer.

In the second story, Mike is still stumbling through school and dealing with his class bully. He and Nora are good friends and magic partners. Mike finds himself struggling with Nora’s other friendships, and again with his parents’ expectations.  A chance for extra-credit science work at school provides him an opportunity to show his parents that he isn’t completely irresponsible and to maybe earn a new privilege (riding his bike to The White Rabbit on his own).

Included in each book are about 5-6 instructions for the magic tricks Mike learns through the story. We found that we didn’t need to buy anything to try these tricks out at home, either! The books also feature fun illustrations, which help break up the story. The illustrations, magic tricks, larger print, and uncomplicated plots make these great for younger readers.


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Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (game)

With art from the esteemed Studio Ghibli, and mechanics that hearken back to the early days of RPGs, Ni no Kuni (literally “second country”) is a game that exudes charm from its every pore.

You play as Oliver, a young boy in a ’50s-influenced town who, after a charming introduction, suddenly loses his mother and is orphaned.  After weeks of withdrawn grief, his tears fall on a stuffed toy his mother had given him, and it comes to life.  The former toy, named Mr. Drippy, tells Oliver that he’s from another world and says that since the two worlds are connected, it could be possible to save Oliver’s mother if he goes to that world to find her counterpart: a great sage that’s been captured by an evil man.

Fans of classic RPGs will appreciate the structure of the game, with an overarching world map that can be freely explored—eventually by dragonback!—and towns with interactive NPCs.  The towns are distinct, often populated by humanoid animals, and provide a lot of side-quests and background information.  The combat system involves a little strategy, as each party member can control up to three creatures (called familiars) in battle, and non-lead characters are given general patterns of behavior rather than direct commands.  Familiars can be caught or evolved, adding further to the Pokémon-feel of battle…as does the fact that your first familiar is given to you by an Oak (tree).

ni no kuniThere is a surprising amount of depth to all of the characters, as should be expected of a Ghibli production, and the story is utterly delightful.  The only thing that is any kind of drawback is the pacing.  The combat is very easy right up until it spikes severely in difficulty, and right about the time you feel that the game should be wrapping up to a satisfactory ending—albeit with a few loose threads that might seem as if they could be picked up in a sequel—the game throws an unexpected plot twist at you with little to no warning, pretty much doubling your playtime.  For some, this might not be a drawback at all, but it felt jarring to me and threw me out of the immersive experience.  It hardly stopped me from playing to the end, though, and what an end it has.

Ni no Kuni is a gorgeous, entertaining, fun game, and its few flaws do nothing to keep it from being something worth playing.

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