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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Random seems to be what I do best

I've reviewed my last product for this year's TOS Crew.  I got some great stuff this year, and maybe, just maybe, I'll get around to a favorites list, but for now let me just say IEW ROCKS!!!

Our homeschool year has come to an end...which should not be confused with the idea that we have finished our work in every subject (just to be clear).  Em and TJ DID finish their math, which was a phenomenal accomplishment.  And I have to keep reminding myself that even though we did not finish Botany, they DID also complete Anatomy and Physiology via a co-op this year, so really they've done one and a half sciences.  We made great progress in Grammar, and they kids did well in spelling.  History on the other hand we are only about half way done with, but I am choosing to be good with that :-).

This summer holds some really big projects for me.  And I came home today to find several boxes (in their flat form) sitting on our bed.  Nothing like a not-so-subtle "hint hint, nudge, nudge" from the hubs!

Speaking of coming home, I was at the FPEA homeschooling conference Thursday night, Friday, and Saturday.  I have sooooo many random thoughts to share about that...
  • This year was the first time even that I worked for a vendor instead of being a conference attendee.  I calculate that I saved untold amounts of money and actually came out ahead, but it was VERY strange to be there and yet not be participating in the seminars or strolling the vendor hall browsing for the next great thing I can't live without.
  • I think being on the TOS Crew has really changed how I approach the conference and the vendor hall especially, which is why I didn't feel the need to shop 'till I dropped this year.  I get so many different things sent to me over the course of a year that it's like having the best of the vendor hall arriving in my mailbox!  I DID miss the opportunity to visit with this year's vendors and tell them" thank you".  Especially IEW.
  • I love my math curriculum (Right Start).  I've always known and believed it is the BEST curriculum for us.  The focus is on mastery over memorization, and it uses tons of manipulatives and games to teach the concepts instead of "drill and kill".  I have spent the past 2 1/2 days telling others about Right Start and how it works.  It's amazing how many people walked up and said, "We are using XYZ curriculum but my child JUST ISN'T GETTING it...tell me about Right Start because I've heard great things...."
  • Our conference was at one hotel (hotel A) for several years until it moved to a bigger, brand new hotel (hotel B).  We leaders were told that the hotels are booked on multi-year contracts, but that hotel A had booked our convention weekend with someone else for the the next few years after our existing contract expired so we HAD to find somewhere else.  Apparently employees of hotel A were told a different story, but really it's not my concern.  Anyway, the first year at hotel B was rough.  They had not opened on time, and we were their first big event-and they clearly were NOT prepared for 30 thousand people.  The second year was okay, and then the next two were actually really, really good.  The rooms were big, and there was always plenty of seating.  The exhibit hall was larger and so the aisles were wider.  And the layout is just smarter.  But last year was the end of that contract and this year was the return to hotel A...and they were NOT prepared for us.  Their parking lot enters and empties via ONE LANE each way.  The lines were over 30 minutes long to leave the first night!  They ran out of toilet paper in the bathrooms one day, and today totally ran out of hand soap.  They have ONE elevator to get from the exhibit hall to the upstairs conference rooms, and it is small (like two strollers fit on it small) and the line was over and hour to use it.  And the conference rooms are TOO SMALL and people were sitting on the floor or having to stand.  It's funny how great that hotel looked when it was all we knew, but how disappointing it was now that we had seen something else.  We are apparently at that hotel for another 7-8 years...I hope they fix their problems before next year.  There is supposedly a redesign in the works that will address the elevator issue.  I'm hoping they can work out some of the other things too.
  • My son is out of school as of yesterday, and his promotion ceremony is tomorrow night.  I am taking pictures for it.  Between doing that and photographing their prom and doing their senior pictures, I haven't paid tuition in a month.  THAT is a Godsend!
  • Back to the conference, said eldest child went with me Thursday night and enjoyed himself so much he wanted to skip his last day and go with me again.  Instead, he came today, and so did Mimi.  I love that they are old enough to be on their own and just check in with me a few times throughout the day.
  • Yesterday Mimi went and spent the day with my TOS Crew leader's daughter.  They met last year when Heidi was here for the conference and we all went to Disney together, and then again when we stopped up in PA to see them on our way to NY.  So Mimi was there from 8:30AM-9:30 PM compliments of a really long day exhibit hall day and Right Start taking the booth assistants out to dinner...and then even longer because a DELUGE occurred that kept any sane person inside.
  • I think that's it for now because my brain is DEAD!
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Friday, May 27, 2011

Read for the Heart Review

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Anyone who has been homeschooling for any length of time has probably heard the name Sally Clarkson.  She is a well known conference speaker and author of several mothering books.  She and her husband have a ministry called Whole Heart Ministries, and now their daughter Sarah is proving herself to be talented author in her book Read for the Heart, Whole Books for the Wholehearted Child.

That Sarah Clarkson has a gift for words is evident from the very first page.  She so beautifully describes places, things, and events that you can picture yourself there.  And she uses her talents first to impress upon the reader the importance of reading for a "wakened heart, a strong mind, and a steadfast soul" and then later to describe each book that she believes to be worthy stirring such passions in young readers.  Each chapter of the book is organized according to literature type, and each contains a list of "whole books " by author (or time period when applicable).  These books have been hand chosen by Miss Clarkson as the best of the best.  Besides listing the basic information about each book such a author, illustrator, awards, etc., there is also a short review of each book and any notes about content that parents should be aware of.  Miss Clarkson has also complied lists of her favorites for boys, girls, and read alouds, as well as a list of audio books.  At 384 pages, her book is quite thorough!

The pros:  It's truly a gift to have such a wonderful book filled with suggestions for other wonderful books.  Miss Clarkson does a great job describing each book and really has created a "must own" resource guide.  I think my kids will be reading through many of these books this summer!  And I have to say, Miss Clarkson's own commentary is so beautifully written that the book would be worth owning for that alone!
The cons: NONE.

The bottom line:  What a great way to end this Crew year!  I love this book, and I can't wait to go out and read all the books she recommends that we haven't read, and maybe re-read a few that we have. 

To order Read for the Heart for $17 , or any other products that Apologia carries, go HERE.  To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say, go HERE.
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Friday, May 20, 2011

Wordy Qwerty Review

You may remember back in the fall my kids and I had a chance to review Read, Write & Type by Talking Fingers.  To say that they loved it is an understatement.  And they KNEW that the Crew was going to have another product by Talking Fingers to review in the spring, so they asked over and over if we were going to review it and when, oh when, might that be?

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Well, their prayers were answered a few weeks ago when we were indeed selected to review Wordy Qwerty, the next "level" up from Read, Write & TypeWordy Qwerty teaches students to identify spelling "patterns" such as silent "e" and when the "c" makes the "ssss" sound.  Below you can see a sample parent report chart with all the skills that are covered.  (You may have to click on the picture to see it really well.)


 For each skill, there are several activities to complete- categorizing words to deduce the spelling pattern by discovery, listening to a catchy song about that spelling rule, typing sample words in sentences, recognizing correctly spelled words, and finally just spelling the words outright.  As a student progresses through all those activities for one skill, they are then allowed to continue on to another.  Correct answers are rewarded with points and game advancement.  Incorrect answers get no points (and sometimes cost you points) and also will initially stop you from advancing.  Correct typing skills are suggested, although they are not nearly as instructed as they were in Read, Write & Type.  Twenty common spelling rules, a.k.a. patterns, are taught, and the product is recommended for children in grades 2-4.  It is available on CD ROM for $35 or as a program played online with varying costs depending on how many licenses you need (but for one student it is $25 for a 5 year subscription).
  
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( The chart above shows a more detailed outline of what the first few activities cover.)

The pros:  I love this company, and Kris, the creative mind behind Talking Fingers is wonderful.  The jingles to teach the rules are catchy and effective.  I also like the encouragement for the students to place their fingers correctly on the keyboard before beginning to type and the fact that assistance is rendered for incorrect answers by fingers that show where the correct letter is located and what finger should type it.  I LOVE that parents can access a report that tells them how their child is doing with each skill.  Also, students can go back and replay skills that they need more practice on.

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The cons:  Have you ever really, really wanted to like a product but sadly found it lacking?  That's how I feel!  I want to start with saying both my kids who used this say they love it.  BUT, unlike with Read, Write & Type (RW&T), they weren't begging to use it.  In fact, each completed only two sections before this review was done, as opposed to both of them FINISHING RW&T before that review was due.  But both are willing to keep working on it, and they will, I assure you ;-).  As a mom though, I just feel like the program is lacking in a few areas.  First, the navigation is NOT intuitive at all.  Sometimes, I didn't know where to click to move on or how to advance from activity to activity.  In fact, there is no "start" button on the home screen-just a "replay" and a "next".  In my mind, I didn't want to do either...I wanted to "start" (but it should be noted that I played on my daughter's account AFTER she had already played, so maybe there was more introductory information, and I missed it).  I didn't care for the little buzzer to let you know that an answer is wrong.  Basically, the program allows for "multiple guess" before it finally kicks in and helps you.  I'd like to see it prompt you with more instruction after the first incorrect answer.  Otherwise, kids can just sit and click and eventually luck into the right response.  And currently the program has a parental control that allows you to chose what percentage your child has to achieve to move on, but that only holds true for the FIRST attempt.  If they fail to get that percentage the second time, they are still promoted so as to not discourage the student.  I DO NOT like that!!!!  I think it just reinforces the incorrect answers and negates the importance of knowing the correct one.  It is also possible on some screens, like the spelling test, to spell words incorrectly and never receive any feedback that tells you they are wrong other than a lack of points being awarded.  If I spell "cake" as "kake", I think the correct spelling should pop up and I should have to type it right before moving on.  Otherwise, there is no actual instruction and the wrong answer is never addresses.  That is NOT true on every activity, some do eventually prompt  you to type the correct letter, but it takes several wrong guesses before you get to that point.  Finally, this wouldn't be a stand-alone spelling program, and the sequence that skills are covered might not line up with the sequence your chosen core language arts program uses, so you'd want to check that out.

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The bottom line:  I love Talking Fingers, and we adore Read, Write & Type.  And I have to say I actually like the graphics a little better in Wordy Qwerty.  But I wish it held students to a higher standard of excellence instead of promoting them just so they don't feel badly about failing.  It's better to master a skill before moving on than proceed forward with a false assumption that you are ready to continue on.  With that said, I do plan for my children to continue working through the program over the summer, and I am confident they will learn the rules they don't know thanks to the songs if not the practice activities.  But the best part is, you don't have to rely just on my review to make your decision.  Talking Fingers offers a free trial of the online version HERE.  And you can read the reviews of other members of the TOS Crew HERE to see how their experiences differed from mine

Legal Disclaimer:  As a member of the TOS Crew, I received two online subscriptions to Wordy Qwerty so that I could offer my honest review.  Those subscriptions were the only compensation I received.
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Monday, May 16, 2011

WonderMaps Review

Bright Ideas Press Logo

When it comes to pillars in homeschool curriculum, Bright Ideas Press is definitely a contender.  I've been privileged to review their products in the past (In the fall, I reviewed Illuminations and the year before I reviewed Mystery of History and Hands on Geography.), and so I jumped at the chance to review their newest offering- WonderMaps.

Wondermaps Logo

The Hogans, the family behind Bright Ideas Press, have always been into Geography.  So if any company was going to come out with a map program that totally changed how you can use and implement maps across the curriculum, it's only natural that it should be them.  WonderMaps is available as a download or a download and CD and works for Windows or Mac systems.  The program contains over 350 different maps falling in 4 categories; the World, the United States, Historical maps, and Thematic maps.  They are viewed using Adobe Reader, a free downloadable program that most people who spend time doing anything on the internet will be familiar with. 

Your opening page looks like this:
opening page

You can click on the bigger boxes for each category, or use the littler ones below for a listing of the available maps in alphabetical or chronological order or according to each theme.  As a bonus for Mystery of History or All American History users, the maps from those texts are contained in this program too and are available by clicking on the ovals in the upper right of the screen.

But now we get to what puts the "wonder" in WonderMaps.  Much like most high-tech photo editing software, WonderMaps contains "layers" for each map making every map you view totally customizable.  You can adjust things like whether or not you see the lines of latitude or longitude, whether rivers are shown and/or identified, whether cities are shown and/or identified, whether geographical formations like mountains are identified, and even whether the map is color or black and white.  And you can turn on or off any of the features available for each map whenever you want...and then print the map you created.
 
Below is an example of Australia with all the options on, and then most of them turned off:
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Below is the introduction page for the Thematic maps:
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And here is the intro page for the Historical maps:
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The pros:  These maps are really, really nicely done, and the ability to customize them is amazing.  I love having almost every map I could think of at my fingertips.  No hunting them down in this book or that book..all right here downloaded on my computer and available with one click.  And as a Mystery of History user, it is great to have the maps from the book available to print out with ease. No more breaking the spine of my book to get it under the scanner so I can print out each map!  There are over 25 Biblical maps included in the Thematic maps section, which appeals to me as well.  But my favorites are the historical maps.  having them all in one place and easy to access is priceless!

The cons:  This program is brand new, so it has a few things that need correcting-small things like typos and larger things like a few locations being not quite where they really are (or were).  An upgrade is already planned for later this summer. 

The bottom line:  WonderMaps is available for $49.95, but TOS readers might want to check their recent magazine for a discount code.  At either price, that can sound high until you stop to think that because this is a digital product, it can be updated forever and will never be "out-of-date".  Goodness knows that even atlases from MY high school years are now obsolete, so it's nice to have something available that won't be rendered inaccurate because of world events in teh decade between my eldest and youngest children using it.  I'm very happy to have WonderMaps and we have definitely used it a BUNCH already.

To learn more about WonderMaps or to purchase it, go HERE.  You can even watch a tutorial for WonderMaps while you are there.  If you want to see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say, go HERE.

Legal Disclaimer:  As a member of the TOS Crew, I received a download of WonderMaps for free in exchange for my honest review.  That download is the only compensation I received.
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Friday, May 13, 2011

FIRST Wildcard Review- The Lightkeeper's Ball

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!OBM says-  What a page turner!  I am totally engrossed ;-).  I'm about half way done with the book right now, and may well stay up half the night to finish!  I'd write more, but The Lightkeeper's Ball beckons.

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:

Thomas Nelson; 1 edition (April 19, 2011)
***Special thanks to Audra Jennings, Senior Media Specialist, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Colleen Coble’s thirty-five novels and novellas have won or finaled in awards ranging from the Romance Writers of America prestigious RITA, the Holt Medallion, the ACFW Book of the Year, the Daphne du Maurier, National Readers’ Choice, the Booksellers Best, and the 2009 Best Books of Indiana-Fiction award. She writes romantic mysteries because she loves to see justice prevail and love begin with a happy ending.


Visit the author's website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:


Olivia seems to have it all, but her heart yearns for more.

Olivia Stewart's family is one of the Four Hundred—the highest echelon of society in 1910. When her sister dies under mysterious circumstances, Olivia leaves their New York City home for Mercy Falls, California, to determine what befell Eleanor. She suspects Harrison Bennett, the man Eleanor planned to marry. But the more Olivia gets to know him, the more she doubts his guilt—and the more she is drawn to him herself.

When several attempts are made on her life, Olivia turns to Harrison for help. He takes her on a ride in his aeroplane, but then crashes, and they’re forced to spend two days alone together. With her reputation hanging by a thread, Harrison offers to marry her to make the situation right. As a charity ball to rebuild the Mercy Falls lighthouse draws near, she realizes she wants more than a sham engagement—she wants Harrison in her life forever. But her enemy plans to shatter the happiness she is ready to grasp. If Olivia dares to drop her masquerade, she just might see the path to true happiness.



Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson; 1 edition (April 19, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 159554268X
ISBN-13: 978-1595542687

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:

The New York brownstone was just half a block down from the Astor mansion on Fifth Avenue, the most prestigious address in the country. The carriage, monogrammed with the Stewart emblem, rattled through the iron gates and came to a halt in front of the ornate doors. Assisted by the doorman, Olivia Stewart descended and rushed for the steps of her home. She was late for tea, and her mother would be furious. Mrs. Astor herself had agreed to join them today.

Olivia handed her hat to the maid, who opened the door. “They’re in the drawing room, Miss Olivia,” Goldia whispered. “Your mama is ready to pace the floor.”

Olivia patted at her hair, straightened her shoulders, and pinned a smile in place as she forced her stride to a ladylike stroll to join the other women. Two women turned to face her as she entered: her mother and Mrs. Astor. They wore identical expressions of disapproval.

“Olivia, there you are,” her mother said. “Sit down before your tea gets cold.”

Olivia pulled off her gloves as she settled into the Queen Anne chair beside Mrs. Astor. “I apologize for my tardiness,” she said. “A lorry filled with tomatoes overturned in the street, and my driver couldn’t get around it.”

Mrs. Astor’s face cleared. “Of course, my dear.” She sipped her tea from the delicate blue-and-white china. “Your dear mother and I were just discussing your prospects. It’s time you married.”

Oh dear. She’d hoped to engage in light conversation that had nothing to do with the fact that she was twenty-five and still unmarried. Her unmarried state distressed her if she let it, but every man her father brought to her wanted only her status. She doubted any of them had ever looked into her soul. “I’m honored you would care about my marital status, Mrs. Astor,” Olivia said.

“Mrs. Astor wants to hold a ball in your honor, Olivia,” her mother gushed. “She has a distant cousin coming to town whom she wants you to meet.”

Mrs. Astor nodded. “I believe you and Matthew would suit. He owns property just down the street.”

Olivia didn’t mistake the reference to the man’s money. Wealth would be sure to impact her mother. She opened her mouth to ask if the man was her age, then closed it at the warning glint in her mother’s eyes.

“He’s been widowed for fifteen years and is long overdue for a suitable wife,” Mrs. Astor said.

Olivia barely suppressed a sigh. So he was another of the decrepit gentlemen who showed up from time to time. “You’re very kind,” she said.

“He’s most suitable,” her mother said. “Most suitable.”

Olivia caught the implication. They spent the next half an hour discussing the date and the location. She tried to enter into the conversation with interest, but all she could do was imagine some gray-whiskered blue blood dancing her around the ballroom. She stifled a sigh of relief when Mrs. Astor took her leave and called for her carriage.

“I’ll be happy when you’re settled, Olivia,” her mother said when they returned to the drawing room. “Mrs. Astor is most kind.”

“She is indeed.” Olivia pleated her skirt with her fingers. “Do you ever wish you could go somewhere incognito, Mother? Where no one has expectations of you because you are a Stewart?”

Her mother put down her saucer with a clatter. “Whatever are you babbling about, my dear?”

“Haven’t you noticed that people look at us differently because we’re Stewarts? How is a man ever to love me for myself when all he sees is what my name can gain him? Men never see inside to the real me. They notice only that I’m a Stewart.”

“Have you been reading those novels again?” Her mother sniffed and narrowed her gaze on Olivia. “Marriage is about making suitable connections. You owe it to your future children to consider the life you give them. Love comes from respect. I would find it quite difficult to respect someone who didn’t have the gumption to make his way in the world. Besides, we need you to marry well. You’re twenty-five years old and I’ve indulged your romantic notions long enough. Heaven knows your sister’s marriage isn’t what I had in mind, essential though it may be. Someone has to keep the family name in good standing.”

Olivia knew what her duty demanded, but she didn’t have to like it. “Do all the suitable men have to be in their dotage?”

Her mother’s eyes sparked fire but before she spoke, Goldia appeared in the doorway. “Mr. Bennett is here, Mrs. Stewart.”

Olivia straightened in her chair. “Show him in. He’ll have news of Eleanor.”

Bennett appeared in the doorway moments later. He shouldn’t have been imposing. He stood only five-foot-three in his shoes, which were always freshly polished. He was slim, nearly gaunt, with a patrician nose and obsidian eyes. He’d always reminded Olivia of a snake about to strike. His expression never betrayed any emotion, and today was no exception. She’d never understood why her father entertained an acquaintance with the man let alone desired their families to be joined.

“Mr. Bennett.” She rose and extended her hand and tried not to flinch as he brushed his lips across it.

“Miss Olivia,” he said, releasing her hand. He moved to her mother’s chair and bowed over her extended hand.

Olivia sank back into her chair. “What do you hear of my sister? I have received no answer to any of my letters.”

He took a seat, steepled his fingers, and leaned forward. “That’s the reason for our meeting today. I fear I have bad news to impart.”

Her pulse thumped erratically against her ribcage. She wetted her lips and drew in a deep breath. “What news of Eleanor?” How bad could it be? Eleanor had gone to marry Harrison, a man she hardly knew. But she was in love with the idea of the Wild West, and therefore more than happy to marry the son of her father’s business partner.

He never blinked. “I shall just have to blurt it out then. I’m sorry to inform you that Eleanor is dead.”

Her mother moaned. Olivia stared at him. “I don’t believe it,” she said.

“I know, it’s a shock.”

There must have been some mistake. She searched his face for some clue that this was a jest. “What happened?”

He didn’t hold her gaze. “She drowned.”

“How?”

“No one knows. I’m sorry.”

Her mother stood and swayed. “What are you saying?” Her voice rose in a shriek. “Eleanor can’t be dead! Are you quite mad?”

He stood and took her arm. “I suggest you lie down, Mrs. Stewart. You’re quite pale.”

Her mother put her hands to her cheeks. “Tell me it isn’t true,” she begged. Then she keeled over in a dead faint.

#
Harrison Bennett tugged on his tie, glanced at his shoes to make sure no speck of dirt marred their perfection, then disembarked from his motorcar in front of the mansion. The cab had rolled up Nob Hill much too quickly for him to gather his courage to face the party. Electric lights pushed back the darkness from the curving brick driveway to the porch with its impressive white pillars. Doormen flanked the double doors at the entry. Through the large windows, he saw the ballroom. Ladies in luxurious gowns and gentlemen in tuxedos danced under glittering chandeliers, and their laughter tinkled on the wind.

His valet, Eugene, exited behind him. “I’ll wait in the kitchen, sir.”

Harrison adjusted his hat and strode with all the confidence he could muster to the front door. “Mr. Harrison Bennett,” he said to the doorman.

The man scanned the paper in his hand. “Welcome, Mr. Bennett. Mr. Rothschild is in the ballroom.”

Harrison thanked him and stepped into the opulent hall papered in gold foil. He went in the direction of the voices with a sense of purpose. This night could change his future. He glanced around the enormous ballroom, and he recognized no one among the glittering gowns and expensive suits. In subtle ways, these nobs would try to keep him in his place. It would take all his gumption not to let them. It was a miracle he’d received an invitation. Only the very wealthy or titled were invited to the Rothschilds’ annual ball in San Francisco. Harrison was determined to do whatever was necessary to secure the contract inside his coat pocket.

A young woman in an evening gown fluttered her lashes at him over the top of her fan. When she lowered it, she approached with a coaxing smile on her lips. “Mr. Bennett, I’d hoped to see you here tonight.”

He struggled to remember her name. Miss Kessler. She’d made her interest in him known at Eleanor’s funeral. Hardly a suitable time. He took her gloved hand and bowed over it. “Miss Kessler. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“I came when I heard you were on the guest list.”

He ignored her brazen remark. “It’s good to see you again. I have some business to attend to. Perhaps later?”

Her eyes darkened and she withdrew her hand. “I shall watch for you,” she said.

And he’d do the same, with the intent to avoid her. “If you’ll excuse me.” He didn’t wait for an answer but strolled through the crowd. He finally spied his host standing in front of a marble fireplace. A flame danced in the eight-foot hearth. Harrison stepped through the crowd to join the four men clustered around the wealthy Rothschild.

The man closest to Harrison was in his fifties and had a curling mustache. “They’ll never get that amendment ratified,” he said. “An income tax! It’s quite ridiculous to expect us to pay something so outrageous.”

A younger man in a gray suit shook his head. “If it means better roads, I’ll gladly write them a check. The potholes outside of town ruined my front axels.”

“We can take care of our own roads,” Rothschild said. “I have no need of the government in my affairs. At least until we’re all using flying machines.” He snickered, then glanced at Harrison. “You look familiar, young man. Have we met?”

Flying machines. Maybe this meeting was something God had arranged. Harrison thrust out his hand. “Harrison Bennett.”

“Claude’s son?”’

Was that distaste in the twist of Rothschild’s mouth? Harrison put confidence into his grip. “Yes, sir.”

“How is your father?”

“Quite well. He’s back in New York by now.”

“I heard about your fiancĂ©e’s death. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Harrison managed not to wince. “Thank you.” He pushed away his memories of that terrible day, the day he’d seen Eleanor Stewart for what she really was.

“Your father was most insistent I meet you. He seems to think you have a business proposition I might be interested in.”

Harrison smiled and began to tell the men of the new diamond mines that Bennett and Bennett had found in Africa. A mere week after Mr. Stewart’s passing, Mr. Bennett had renamed the venture to include Harrison. An hour later, he had appointments set up with three of the men as possible investors. His father would be pleased.

Harrison smiled and retraced his steps to toward the front door but was waylaid by four women in brightly colored silk. They swooped around him, and Miss Kessler took him by the hand and led him to a quiet corner.

“Let’s not talk about anything boring like work,” she said, her blue eyes sparkling. “Tell me what you love to do most.”

He glanced at the other women clustered around. “I’m building an aeroplane. I’d like to have it in the air by the time Earth passes through the tail of Halley’s Comet.”

She gasped. “Do you have a death wish, Mr. Bennett? You would be breathing the poisonous fumes directly. No one even knows if the Earth will survive this.”

He’d heard this before. “The scientists I’ve discussed this with believe we shall be just fine,” Harrison said.

“I assume you’ve purchased comet pills?” the blonde closest to him said.

“I have no fear.”

The brunette in red silk smiled. “If man were meant to fly, God would have given him wings. Or so I’ve heard the minister say.”

He finally placed the brunette. Her uncle was Rothschild. No wonder she had such contempt for Harrison’s tone. All the nobs cared for were trains and ships. “It’s just a matter of perfecting the machine,” Harrison said. “Someday aeroplanes will be the main mode of transcontinental transportation.”

The brunette laughed. “Transcontinental? My uncle would call it balderdash.”

He glanced at his pocket watch without replying. “I fear I must leave you lovely ladies. Thank you for the conversation.”

He found Eugene in the kitchen and beckoned to his valet.

Eugene put down his coffee cup and followed. “You didn’t stay long, sir,” he said. “Is everything all right?”

Harrison stalked out the door and toward the car. “Are there no visionaries left in the country?”

Eugene followed a step behind. “You spoke of your flying machine?”

“The world is changing, Eugene, right under their noses—and they don’t see it.”

Eugene opened the door for Harrison. “You will show them the future, sir.”

He set his jaw. “I shall indeed.”

“I have a small savings set aside, Mr. Bennett. I’d like to invest in your company. With your permission, of course.”

Eugene’s trust bolstered Harrison’s determination. “I’d be honored to partner with you, Eugene. We are going to change the world.”
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IEW Review

Not that this blog is very indicative of it, but words-both written and spoken-have always been "my thing".  I love to read, and I love to write.  And I've always been good at both.  But having a God given talent and being able to teach someone else how to DO it are two very different things, and while I have managed to instruct four children in how to read  (leaning heavily on the wisdom and curriculum of those who have gone before me) writing is one skill whose components I could not seem to parlay into usable tidbits of instruction that produced any sort of meaningful result.

Until now.

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Oh sure, if you hang around in homeschool circles long enough, you are bound to hear someone mention IEW and how it changed their life...or at least their approach to teaching writing.  But if you hang around in homeschool circles long enough, you also come to learn to be a bit skeptical because every family is different and what works great for some might not work at all for others.  And soooo, despite all the glowing reviews I had heard from people I respected, I never looked into the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW).

Boy, was THAT a mistake!

Let me tell you how I'm in love...

Let me tell you how IEW has transformed my children's writing...

And let me tell you how it worked not just for me, but for all my closest friends too...

Unlike writing curriculums that ask students to "write about this" or "write about that", IEW is a method of teaching writing by having children learn to rewrite things written by other people in their own words.  The best illustration as to WHY this approach works comes from thinking of a student who wants to learn to play an instrument.  You don't tell them, "That's great, but you are not allowed to play any song ever written my someone else.  You must make up your own music."  Instead, you give them pieces written by others so they can practice the mechanics and learn basic techniques which then allows them to become comfortable enough to "put their own spin on it" or maybe even write some original pieces.  IEW functions much the same way.

Teacher/Student Combo
No matter what age your student is, you start with a "Student Writing Intensive".  There are 3 levels of Student Writing Intensives offered depending on the age of you student(s) as you begin the program.  We reviewed Level A for grades 3-5.  (Level B is for grades 6-8 and Level C is for grades 9-12.)   These SWI packages are $99 and contain 4 DVDs featuring Andrew Pudewa teaching the lessons to a group of real students.  Also included are a student binder with dividers and teacher notes, student handouts, and checklists.  The teacher notes give detailed explanations of what is covered in each lesson, what handouts are needed, the handouts themselves, writing checklists, and instructions about how much of the DVD lesson to watch that week.  There are 15 lessons and you can choose whether to cover them one a week or one every other week, so the SWI can take 15 or 30 weeks to cover depending on the pace you chose.

IEW Comparative Chart
Our Level A Intensive covered Unit 1-Key Word Outlines, Unit 2- Summarizing from Notes, Unit 3- Story Sequence, Units 4 and 6- Report Writing, and Unit 7 Creative Writing.  (Unit 5- Writing from Pictures is not covered in Level A, nor are Units 8- Essays and 9-Critiques.)  In addition to the specific skills the Units work on, "dress-ups" are taught one at a time to enhance the quality of the writing.  These techniques are things like using who or which clauses or using strong verbs, and really take the student writing from basic to excellent.
After you do whichever level SWI is grade appropriate, you move on to the Student Intensive Continuation Course (SICC).  Level A covers grades 4-6, Level B grades 7-9, and Level C grades 10 and up.  Once you start the SICCs, you continue from one level to another of them, never going back to the SWI even as you progress from one grade level to another. 
The package we were fortunate enough to receive for review also contained Teaching Writing: Structure and Style (TWSS).  This indispensable resource features 10 hours of DVD lessons for YOU the teacher.  Mr. Pudewa walks you though the IEW method step by step and shows you how to teach this method across your curriculum.  It also contained the Seminar Workbook with all the handouts from the seminar as well as suggestions for teaching multiple grade levels and sample lesson plans.  And there is a bonus Tips and Tricks DVD.
Before I get to my usual assessment, let me give you a little more information.  When my friends heard that I received IEW to review, they were all as excited as I was.  In fact, we ended up with 4 extra students joining us for "writing class" each week.  And when word got out of how much ALL the parents loved it and how well all the kids were doing, 4 more wanted to join in.  For my personal experience though, I used this program with my 3 oldest students (13, 11, and 9) until my eldest went to a "building school" back in February.  (His teacher reports to me how well he writes though ;-).)  My 9 year old son and 11 year old daughter are the ones who have completed the SWI Level A, so it is mostly their experiences I will share. 

The Pros:  I love, love, LOVE this.  Despite first impressions, Andrew Pudewa is an engaging speaker and clearly communicates each step of the process.  I like that he does the initial teaching, and I just work with them on their follow up assignment.  In our experience, the first lesson in each unit required quite a bit of oversight on my part to make sure they had done each of the steps correctly and had completed their check lists.  After that, my 11 year old did well on her own, and my 9 year old generally wanted to dictate his story to me and have me suggest different "dress-ups" and letting him pick which one he wanted to use, or where he wanted to use it.  But for both of them, neither of whom had ever done any purposeful writing at all before this, they were able to produce some really amazing work!  The steps were easy to follow and plenty of practice is given.  The program allows for easy customization according to your student's mastery of the concept.  But even with as easy as the program is to use, I was VERY glad to have the TWSS.  As my kids changed from unit to unit, they suddenly needed more instruction and guidance from me, and having the TWSS gave me a resource I could turn to so that I fully understood what they were to do and why.  While we could have lived without it, it would have taken al LOT more work, and, I really was glad I didn't have to.  Knowing that, I would encourage anyone looking at IEW to buy the package with the SWI/TWSS together.

The cons:  I only have two.  First, because the SWI DVDs were recorded during seminars with Mr. Pudewa actually teaching, they do not break into even-length lessons.  Some DVD lessons are 13 minutes, and some are over 60.  It would be nice if they were all roughly the same length, as my kids found the longer ones a little, well, long.  I know I'm asking for the moon, but re-recording the DVDs with evenly timed lessons and maybe a bit more camera time on the white board as he is writing lists for the kids to copy would make the program almost perfect.  The only other thing is the price.  If ever a curriculum came closes to being worth what it costs, this one is it, but if you bought IEW Level A and went through the whole program, you could spend quite a bit when all is said and done.  And I can tell you, once you give IEW a try, you will want to continue!

The bottom line:  Have I mentioned I LOVE IEW???  The progress my kids have made is beyond description.  In fact, I wanted to include some examples, but this post is already really long, so I will have to make them a separate post.  I don't know what else I can say, except that in 3 years of reviewing products for the TOS Crew, this one is hands-down my favorite.  I plan to continue using IEW, and that's the highest endorsement I can give.

To check out all of IEW's offerings, go HERE.  Each level of the Student Writing Intensive is $99 (but remember you only need to do 1 SWI).  The Teaching Writing: Structure and Style is $169 with all the paperwork or $145 for just the DVDs.  Combined, the price for one level of SWI and the TWSS is $239.  This is the package I received, and the one I would highly recommend.  For pricing on the rest of the program or the other products they have available, be sure to follow the link above.  To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say (some of them reviewed other levels of the SWI) go HERE.

Legal Disclaimer:  As a member of the TOS Crew, I received the SWI Level A and the TWSS for free in exchange for my honest review.  Those DVDs and the accompanying paperwork were the only compensation I received for this review.
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Thursday, May 12, 2011

FIRST Wildcard Review-The Fitting Room

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:

David C. Cook; New edition (April 1, 2011)
***Special thanks to Karen Davis, Assistant Media Specialist, The B&B Media Groupfor sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Kelly Minter is a singer/worship leader, a recording artist, a popular speaker, and the author of two books (Water into Wine and No Other Gods) and three Bible studies (No Other Gods, Ruth, and Hannah’s One Wish). Among her CDs is one based on insights from her Bible study on Ruth. Minter resides in Nashville, TN.

Visit the author's website.


SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Kelly Minter explores what it means—in real life—to “clothe” ourselves (Col. 3:12) in Christian virtues like forgiveness, joy, patience, compassion, and more. Can we really “dress up” in the character of Christ? Kelly Minter says the answer is yes—if we let the Master Designer do the fitting. This relatable book offers insightful Scripture study with real-life stories and simple, down-to-earth explanations of tricky concepts such as justification and sanctification—stitching it all together with dry humor and down-to-earth honesty. There are no gimmicks, no guilt trips, just an irresistible invitation for women to enjoy a spiritual makeover—to put on a life that’s personally tailored by the One who knows and loves them best.




Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook; New edition (April 1, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1434799859
ISBN-13: 978-1434799852

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Where Are They When You Need Them?


The Virtues


A video shoot for a wonderful author and friend is taking place at my house this week. Stylists, cameramen, set designers, talent, and black-clad crew have been running around my home for days. The entire shebang has absolutely nothing to do with me except that twenty people are now using my bathroom. This is a girl’s recurring nightmare. I’ve decided the only true payoff is the round-the-clock

catering, which produces warm cookies every afternoon around three-ish—a routine I am trying to understand how I have lived so richly without.


This morning as the crew arrived, I feverishly applied the last few elements of makeup onto my slightly puffy and pillow-wrinkled face. I threw on my work-at-home uniform, which is made up of jeans, a

T-shirt, and socks if the hardwoods are chilled, flip-flops if it’s summertime. As I meandered through the kitchen—for the catering, of course—I ran into a stylist I knew who was working with the talent. I told her I needed help finding new boots for the winter. She agreed at an alarming rate, well acquainted with my wanting shoe collection. Her exaggerated urgency was tongue-in-cheek, but with a hint of dead-serious. After all, she is a stylist. Clothes are what she does.


If ever there was a spell in history when what we wear is paramount, I daresay it is now. Dress is a multibillion-dollar industry. The garments we drape on our backs, the hats we don on our heads, the jewelry that dangles from our necks and wrists all tell a little of who we are. Our dress is an expression of ourselves, a statement of our personalities or moods. We dress up, we dress down, we dress for comfort, we kill ourselves in high heels to dress for style, we dress for the weather, we dress for others, we dress for ourselves. But what about the dress of our souls? What about the way our character clothes us? And our character does clothe us. We give off far more than we will ever know by the way we greet the barista, drive in traffic, enter a room, answer the phone, glare at our toddler who’s having a meltdown in a non-meltdown-friendly environment. If only it were as simple as hiring a stylist for an extra bag of peace or another color of honesty. Could I get some denim patience for under $100?


I promise not to kill you with the clothing metaphor for the next several thousand words, but I want to pull from the comparison the apostle Paul set in motion in a letter to the Colossians: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (3:12). A few verses earlier he writes, “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (vv. 9–10). The image of clothing, the picture of slipping out of the old and sliding into the new, is an easily digestible concept because we dress every day.


The gap in the metaphor comes when we don’t know how to clothe ourselves in Christ’s character, or when we’ve given it our valiant best and come up short … really short—like we just walked out the door in our towel, and everyone is staring and mortified while we grasp for fig leaves from our ailing character-garden. The breakdown occurs when we were never taught the value of integrity, when anger

and resentment were the prominent traits our parents passed down, when we weren’t modeled the fine art of forgiveness, when sexual escapades were our solution for loneliness, when lying seemed to work better than the truth at untangling our predicaments, or when complaining became our default over contentment.


Basically, the spiritual concept of throwing off scratchy wool for designer silk sounds simply effortless, but the real-life version is another matter altogether. Many of us who have attempted such a wardrobe overhaul have come up frustrated rather than inspired, and this for many reasons we will address in the pages to come. I hope to speak to these struggles while looking at specific character qualities less from an academic view and more from the vantage point of our everyday realities. Because most of us know we’re supposed to take off old things like bitterness and anger and full-on recklessness and put on the new self, which is full of qualities such as kindness and joy and self-control. But knowing this doesn’t automatically make it so.


I can fairly easily write about what these new-life virtues are, their characteristics, and how we need more of them in our lives, but that feels just about as helpful as the book I was reading last night that appropriately told me not to eat out of boredom or past seven o’clock, which triggered the thought that I might be a little bored, which reminded me of the homemade cinnamon-raisin bread I had in the kitchen. Before I could be held responsible for my actions, I had lost my place in the book and was standing in my pajama pants eating bread.


See, I’m pretty sure most of us need more heart transformation than we need more head knowledge, whether it’s about food or far more important things like exhibiting the character of Christ. Knowledge is vitally important, but it seems so many of us in Western Christianity are just crammed with it—really important knowledge that we gain in controlled settings like Bible study—but when up against the prospect of forgiving someone who has just ripped our insides out, or needing to grab patience out of thin air after our roommate has just stepped on our ever-loving last nerve, we are left with a ton of knowledge about what we should do (don’t eat the bread when you’re bored) but have no idea how to do it.


I had the rare blessing of growing up with parents who modeled and taught the character of Christ well. They were big on the “how” of character and emphasized it over most everything else: A struggling grade on an algebra exam was more excusable than lying (which ended up working heavily in my favor … coefficients?); an off game on the basketball court was no problem compared to being disrespectful to a teacher. My parents taught my siblings and me at a young age about humility, gentleness, patience, contentment, gratefulness, purity, and so on. This doesn’t mean I’m good at all these things; it just means I had the privilege of being taught them. And now that I am past most of my adolescent outbursts and full-on temper tantrums—so often directed toward my parents’ instruction—I am ever thankful for their guidance. If only they could get paid back in stocks or something.


Still, the virtues revealed in Scripture are hard enough when you’ve been taught them. But what if you’ve never been exposed to them in the first place? Perhaps it is in response to this question that my deepest desire for the following pages is to shed fresh light on some of the seemingly shadowed and antiquated virtues in Scripture, exposing their beauty, their delicacy, and the freedom in which they are meant to tailor our lives. This is important because so many of us are plainly stuck in life, wearing the same old things and getting the same miserable results. Our character clothes are frumpy, because we’ve never been groomed and fitted from the pages of Scripture.


There are others who are all too aware of the characteristics of godliness but want nothing to do with them, because they were taught such virtues by people who didn’t actually live by those principles. For them, the notion of godly character was flaunted by hypocrites, self-righteous leaders, or possibly angry parents, and they haven’t wanted a piece of its polyester since. Yes, a lot of damage has been done in the name of God and Christian virtue; people have been clothed by reckless tailors. However, one of my greatest hopes is that if this has been your experience, you will give the discovery of authentic godliness another look, because biblical virtues are not punitive but life-giving.


If there are those who have had little exposure to what the Bible says about godly character and those who have had lots of exposure but find it legalistic and binding, then there is a third group as well: those who long to grasp hold of godly traits but find them maddeningly unattainable. Perhaps you have tried to wear godliness like you try to lose weight or work out or stick to a New Year’s resolution. You’ve dug deep but have found that things like moral purity, kindness, or humility simply don’t exist in your closet. You’ve worn the knock-off brands that faintly resemble the real thing, but after a few good washes of reality, their colors fade and their seams split. And so you find yourself not necessarily disdaining the virtues, but having given up on them.


This is a common dilemma, mostly because we mistakenly view godly character qualities as things we can accomplish if we try just a little harder. We promise ourselves we’ll hold our tongues next time or be thankful for what we have. Perhaps one day we muse we’ll graduate to stretching our reserve of patience, or we’ll respect ourselves enough to stop sleeping with acquaintances. But we can never separate the qualities of God from God Himself. True Christian virtues are not something we can slap on ourselves like cutout clothes for paper dolls. They come as a result of heart change that is accomplished through the supernatural love of Jesus. And yes, we will expound on this more, because I am challenging myself not

to offer Christian colloquialisms that are easy to throw out; even though some of them are true, most are vague and inaccessible. I have experienced the frustrating failures of trying to “do better” as a Christian. I’ve been damaged by legalistic authorities whose preaching and practicing lived in entirely different zip codes. And I’ve had times when I just didn’t know much about the heart behind godly virtue, even though my parents gave me a great foundation. Still, the authentic changes that the gentle and unyielding characteristics of holiness have brought about—and are bringing about—in my life are wholly divine and transforming. Not to mention enormously practical.


Practical, because there are relationships that need to be healed from the cancer of bitterness. There are bones that need to be freed from the incessant gnaw of anger. Hurting neighbors who need to hear an encouraging word of kindness instead of the latest morsel of gossip. Children who need to know that we’ve been blessed in our Western society and that contentment is healthier than complaining. Husbands who need peaceful wives instead of anxious ones; wives who need comforting husbands instead of critical ones. Friends who need to be given to instead of demanded from.


I recently wrote a piece that included a list of several virtues, and I asked women to chime in on the virtues they found the most difficult. This was a bit of a trick question, because the virtues are probably all equally hard in their own right, but I was curious as to what their comments would include. I could not have been more delighted by one woman’s sincere reply: “I think I have plenty of each when I don’t need

them. It is only when I am in the situation that I discover that the one I need is the one that I am short of.” This is pure genius. I pondered her sentiments as a possible subtitle to this book: Clothing Yourself in the Virtues You’ve Got Plenty of Until You Need Them.


Of course the very essence of biblical virtues is that they’re only virtues when they’re being tested: Patience is not patience if someone or something is not trying it. Forgiveness is not forgiveness if there is no offense to pardon. Humility is not humility if a person never has to bow. Biblical virtues need to be studied and defined, but if we leave them in the Christian classroom, we will find we’ve got a wardrobe literally bursting with them until the moment we’re invited to the ball.


If this is has been your experience as it has often been mine—if you find that you have virtues in droves until the moment you need them—it may help to go back to the beginning. To begin with God and what He has accomplished that enables us to live all the virtues He embodies. Much of this can be summed up in the opening line of Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved …” See, we can’t really get to the virtues in Scripture until we have a good handle on the truth that we have been chosen, made holy, and are dearly loved. If we take this introductory line away, we are left with a list of dos (clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience …) without any context for them.


Once we understand the context, the way is paved for the oftenpainful work of parting with our old wardrobes, even that A-outfit from college we’re pretty sure we’d still look fabulous in. ’Cause the old and the new don’t coalesce—our human natures don’t meld with the character of Christ. But leaving the old behind can be surprisingly liberating, because it leaves us poised to wear the virtues we will explore in the pages ahead: forgiveness, peace, kindness, humility, compassion, and patience, with a sassy feather of joy in our hats. Virtues that won’t mysteriously disappear when the clock strikes twelve, ones that will actually be there when we need them.
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FIRST Wildcard Review-Darkness Follows

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:

Realms (May 3, 2011)
***Special thanks to Anna Coelho Silva | Publicity Coordinator, Charisma House | Charisma Media for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Mike now lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Jen, and their three daughters. He is a regular columnist for AVirtuousWoman.org, was a newspaper correspondent/columnist for over three years, has published several articles for The Candle of Prayer inspirational booklets, and has edited and contributed to numerous Christian-themed websites and e-newsletters. Mike is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers association, the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, the Relief Writer’s Network, and FaithWriters, and plans to join International Thriller Writers. He received his BA degree in sports exercise and medicine from Messiah College and his MBS degree in theology from Master’s Graduate School of Divinity.


Visit the author's website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Sam Travis lives in a Civil War era farmhouse in Gettysburg, PA, where he awakens one morning to find an old journal with an entry by a Union soldier, Lt. Whiting…written in Sam’s own handwriting. When this happens several more times, both at night and during waking “trances,” Sam begins to question his own sanity while becoming obsessed with Lt. Whiting and his bone-chilling journal entries. As the entries begin to mimic Sam’s own life, he is drawn into an evil plot that could cost many lives, including his own. Can the unconditional love of Sam’s daughter, Eva, break through his hardened heart before a killer on the loose catches up with them and Sam’s past spurs him to do the unthinkable?




Product Details:

List Price: $13.99
Paperback:
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Realms (May 3, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1616382740
ISBN-13: 978-1616382742

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Prologue



Gettysburg, 1863


Captain Samuel Whiting removed his gloves and sat on the cot in his tent. It had been a long, grueling day of battle, and his clothes were soaked through with sweat. He’d lost more men, good men, family men. Men who would never return home to their wives. Boys who would never again cross the thresholds of their parents’ homes.


He leaned forward, removed his boots, and stretched his legs. The air in the tent was still and muggy. At least outside there was a light breeze to carry away the stench of the wounded. In here, the smells hung in the air like a haze. Beyond the canvas walls the sounds of soldiers—heroes—in the throes of agony wandered through the camp like the souls of dead men looking for rest. But there was no rest in a place like this.


A single oil lamp sat on the floor, casting an orange glow about the tent’s interior. Samuel turned the knob on the lamp, giving more wick to the flame. The light brightened and the shadows darkened. From a writing box he removed a leather-bound journal, the one his mother had given him before he left to join Mr. Lincoln’s army. At the time he thought he was doing the right thing, thought he was fighting for a noble cause.


Now he thought differently. There was nothing noble about this war, nothing honorable about the way it was being fought nor the reasons for which it was being waged.


After dipping the tip of his quill into an inkwell, he put the tip to the paper and began to write. The words flowed from his hand, though they were not born of him but of something else, something dark and sinister, something to which he had finally given himself.


In the corner of the tent a shadow moved. He saw it from the corner of his eye. It was a shadow cast not by the oil lamp’s flame but by some other source, a source Samuel did not fully understand but felt.


The shadow glided along the canvas, following the angles of the tent, and came to a stop beside the cot. There it seemed to lurk, to hover, as if curious to see what was being written on the pages of the journal. A chill blew over Samuel, penetrated his clothes and

flesh, and settled into his bones.


The shadow began to throb in rhythm with Samuel’s beating heart. His quill moved across the paper more rapidly now, the point carving words—vitriol—at an alarming pace. His heart rate quickened and, with it, the pulsations of the shadow.


At once a strong wind ruffled the canvas and brought with it a low howl that sounded more like a moan. It did not originate from outside the tent, from wounded and homesick boys, but rather from within, from the shadow. The wind circled the tent’s interior, stirred

the pages of the journal, Samuel’s hair, his clothes, and finally, as if in one final great sigh, extinguished the light of the lamp.


Captain Samuel Whiting was engulfed by darkness.

One



Present day


Sam Travis awoke in the middle of the night, cold and

terrified. The dream had come again. His brother. The shot.



You did what you had to do, son.


He sat up in bed and wiped the sweat from his brow.


Next to him Molly stirred, grunted, and found his arm with her hand. “You OK, babe?”


“Yeah. I’m gonna go get some water.”


“You sure?”


He found her forehead in the darkness and kissed it. “Yeah.”


The house was as still and noiseless as a crypt. Sam made his way down the hall to Eva’s room, floorboards popping under his feet. He cracked the door and peeked in. The Tinker Bell night-light cast a soft purple hue over the room, giving it a moonlit glow. Odd-shaped shadows blotted the ceiling, like dark clouds against a darker sky. Eva was curled into a tight ball, head off the pillow, blankets at her feet.


Sam opened the door all the way, tiptoed to the bed, and pulled the covers to his daughter’s shoulders. She didn’t stir even the slightest. For a few hushed moments he stood and listened to her low rhythmic breathing.


The past six months had been hard on them all, but Eva had handled them surprisingly well. She was just a kid, barely seven, yet displayed the maturity of someone much older. Sam had never known that her faith, much like her mother’s, was so strong. His,

on the other hand . . .


He left the door open a few inches. Farther down the hall he entered the bathroom, where another night-light, this one a blue flower, reflected off the porcelain tub, toilet, and sink. He splashed water from the faucet on his face. Remnants of the dream lingered and stuttered like bad cell phone reception. Just images now, faces, twisted and warped.


After toweling off, he studied himself in the mirror. In the muted light the scar running above his ear didn’t look so bad. His hair was growing back and covered most of it. Oddly, the new crop was coming in gray.


From downstairs a voice called Sam’s name. A chill tightened the arc of his scar.


He heard it again.


“Sammy.”


It was neither haunting nor unnatural, but familiar, conversational. It was the voice of his brother. Tommy. He’d heard it a thousand times in his youth, a hundred ghostly times since the accident that had turned his own brain to mush. The doctor called them auditory hallucinations.


Sam exited the bathroom and stood at the top of the staircase. Dim light from the second floor spilled down the stairs into the foyer below, and the empty space looked like a strange planet, distant and odd. Who knew what bizarre creatures inhabited that land

and what malicious intentions they harbored?


He heard that same voice—Tommy’s—calling to him. “Sammy.”


Sam shivered at the sound of his name.


A dull ache had taken to the length of the scar.


Descending the stairs, Sam felt something dark, ominous, present in the house with him. He stopped and listened. He could almost hear it breathing, and with each breath, each exhalation, he heard his own name, now just a whisper.


He started down the stairs again, taking one at a time, holding the

railing and trying to find the quiet places on the steps.


From the bottom of the stairway he looked at the front door,

half expecting it to fly open and reveal Tommy standing there, with

half his head...


You did what you had to do, son.


He looked left into the dining room, then right into the living room. The voice was coming from the kitchen. Turning a one-eighty, he headed that way down the hall.


At the doorway Sam stopped and listened again. Now he heard nothing. No breathing, no whispers, no Tommy. The kitchen held the aroma of the evening’s meal—fettuccine Alfredo—like a remote memory.


“Tommy?” His own voice sounded too loud and strangely hollow.


He had no idea why he said his brother’s name since he expected no reply. Tommy had been dead for—what?—twenty-one years. Thoughts of his death came to Sam’s mind, images from the dream. And not just his death but how he’d died.


You did what you had to do, son.


From off in the distance Sam heard a cannon blast. Living in Gettysburg, near the battlefields, the sound was common during the month of July when the reenactments were going on. But not in the middle of the night. Not in November. Another blast echoed across the fields, then the percussion of rifle shots followed by a volley of more cannons.


Sam walked back down the hall and opened the front door. He saw only darkness beyond the light of the porch lamp, but the sounds were unmistakable. Guns crackled in rapid succession, cannons boomed, men hollered and screamed, horses whinnied and roared. The sounds of battle were all around him. He expected Eva and Molly to stir from their sleep and come tripping down the stairs at any moment, but that didn’t happen. The house was as still and quiet as ever.


Crossing his arms over his chest, Sam stepped out onto the porch. Three rotting jack-o’-lanterns grinned at him like a gaggle of toothless geezers. The air was cold and damp, the grass wet with dew. Nervously he felt the bandage on his index finger. He’d slipped while carving one of the pumpkins and gouged his finger with the knife. Molly had thought he should get stitches, but he refused. It was still tender, throbbing slightly, healing up well enough on its own. Here, outside, the loamy smell of dead wet leaves surrounded him. Beyond the glow of the porch lamp, the outside world was black and lonely. The sky was moonless.


Across the field and beyond the trees the battle continued but grew no louder. Sam gripped his head and held it with both hands. Was he going crazy? Had the accident triggered some weird psychosis? This couldn’t be real. It had to be a concoction of his damaged brain. An auditory hallucination.


Suddenly the sounds ceased and silence ruled. Dead silence. No whispers of a gentle breeze. No skittering of dry leaves across the driveway. No creak of old, naked branches. Not even the hum of the power lines paralleling the road.


Sam went back inside and shut the door. The dead bolt made a solid thunk as it slid into place. He didn’t want to go back upstairs, didn’t want to sleep in his own bed. Instead he went into the living room, lay on the sofa, and clicked on the TV. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep was watching an old Star Trek rerun.


Sam’s eyes opened slowly and tried to adjust to the soft morning light that seeped through the windows. He rolled to his side and felt something slide from his lap to the floor with a papery flutter. He’d not slept soundly on the sofa.


Pushing himself up, he looked out the window. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, and the sky was a hundred shades of pink. The house felt damp and chilly. The TV was off. Leaning to his left, he saw that the front door was open. Maybe Molly had gone out

already and not shut it behind her.


“Moll?” But there was no answer. “Eva?” The house was quiet. Sam stood to see if Molly was in the yard and noticed a notebook on the floor, its pages splayed like broken butterfly wings. Bending to pick it up, he recognized it as one of Eva’s notebooks in which she wrote her kid stories, tales of a dog named Max and of horses with wings.


Turning it over, he found a full page of writing. His writing. Before the accident he’d often helped Eva with her stories but had never written one himself. He’d thought about it many times but had never gotten around to doing it. There was always something more pressing, more important. Since his accident he’d had the time, home from work with nothing to do, but his brain just wasn’t working that way. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate. His attention span was that of a three-year-old.


Sitting on the sofa, he read the writing on the page, the writing of his own hand.


November 19, 1863

Captain Samuel Whiting

PennsylvanIa Independent Light Artillery, Battery E


I am full of dArkness. It has coMpletely overshadowed me. My heart despairs; my soul swims in murky, colorless waters. I am not my own but a mere puppet in his hanD. My intent is evil, and I loathe what the dAy will bring, what I will accomplish. But I must do it. My feet have been positioned, my couRse has been set, and I amcompelled to follow. Darkness, he is my commander now.


I can already smell the blood on my hands, and it turns my stomach. But, strangely, it excites me as well. I know it is the darKness within me, bloodthirsty devil that it is. It desires death, his death (the president), and I am beginning tounderstand why. He must die. He deserves nothing more than death. So much sufferiNg has come from his words, his policies, his will. He speaksof freedom but has enslaved so many in this cursed war.


See how the pen trEmbles in my hand. I move it,not myself but the darkneSs guides it, as it guides my mind and will. Shadowy figures encircle me. I can see them all about the room, specters moving as lightly as wiSps of smoke. My hand trembles. Iam overcome. I am their slave. His slave.


I am not my own.

I am not my own.

I am notnotnotnotnotnotnotno

my own


Sam let the notebook slip from his hands and scrape across the hardwood floor. Gooseflesh puckered his skin. He thought of last night’s battle sounds, of Tommy’s voice and feeling the darkness around him—the darkness. He remembered the grinning jack-o’lanterns, the click of the sliding dead bolt. He had no memory of turning off the TV and opening the door, nor of finding Eva’s notebook and writing this nonsense.


What was happening to him?


He stood and went to the front door, barely aware of his feet moving under him. With one elbow on the doorjamb he poked his head outside and scanned the front yard, listening.


“Moll?” His voice was weak and broke mid-word. There was no answer. If Molly was out here, she must be around back.


Then, as if last night’s ethereal battle had landed in his front yard, a rifle shot split the morning air, and the living room window exploded in a spray of glass.


OBM says-  I love historical fiction, but this book would really fall more under the "thriller" catagory.  And I did enjoy it.  But as a Christian, and being that the book is meant to fall at least in the Christian genre, I felt that the cause of the darkness, the power behind the supernatural events that led the main character, was not adequately explained.  A non-believer could come away with the idea that Christians believe in "ghosts" rather than it being a demonic influence.  But it was still an engaging read. 
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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Power of Prayer, or Why We Now Have Another Dog

My oldest daughter has been praying for a dog for over a year. 

Or maybe I should be clearer...

We HAVE a dog.  Just not the kind of dog my kids want.  We have the kind of dog my husband wants, or at least the kind he thought he wanted.  He's part Black Lab, part Australian Shepherd, part hound of hades.  Actually, at almost 3 years old, he is FINALLY calming down.  But he's still not the cuddly, watch TV, sleep on your bed, let you dress him up sort of dog that my kids had their heart set on. 

And so we are back to Mimi and her prayer that she could get a dog that meets all the requirements SHE has for an ideal pet. 

She has been diligent about praying for this animal.  And really, really trying to keep her room clean.  And adding "a dog" to my grocery list every week.  And praying out loud in church for this dog so that others can agree with her.

And apparently, I failed in my counter-prayer efforts because I really thought God was on MY side in all of this.

So last Monday, while we were at soccer with TJ and the other kids were home, the neighbor who was renting RM's house showed up on our doorstep with a dog and told her that they were moving THAT night, and they couldn't take the dog, and if no one wanted her, they were taking her to the pound.  Right then. 

So Mimi called me.  And I actually heard the phone ring because I was reaching for it to check the time right that second.  Anyone who has ever called me knows THAT was a God thing.

And so how do you argue with God?  How to do you, "No honey.  I know you've been praying for a dog, but this one on the doorstep can NOT be an answer to prayer because it doesn't fit into my schedule tonight...". 

Nope.  I couldn't do it either.

And so I'd like to introduce you to Jasmine...Jazzy for short.





I don't know WHAT she is...besides a dog, obviously.  I think she's Welsh Corgi and some sort of Bull Terrier.  She has a docked tail, and I can't imagine someone paid to have that done on a mutt, so I think it must be a breed thing.  Her coat is brindle, and her body is long, but her legs are short (although longer than a Corgi's).  She's almost everything they kids wanted in a dog- friendly, small enough to love on, obedient, housebroken, and much more.  But she also has an affinity for chewing up My Little Pony ears, and this morning tried to eat a chicken- yes, the real kind, and no, I'm not sure if it's going to live, so she does have her flaws too.

Anyone with a more educated guess as to what type of dog she is is welcome to chime in ;-).
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Friday, May 6, 2011

Kregel Publishing's Circle C Beginnings Review

Last year, I was asked to review two books by Kregel Publishing.  One of them, called Andrea Carter and the Trouble with Treasure, was part of a series called the Circle C Adventure Series.  We really enjoyed that book (see that review HERE), and so I jumped at the chance to review a book from the new Circle C Beginnings Series!

Circle,C,Kregel,Susan,Marlow

The Circle C Beginnings Series tells stories from the early life of the main character of the Circle C Adventure Series, Andi Carter, picking up her story just before her 6th birthday.  They are written for 6-8 year olds on a 2.0-2.8 reading level, and include a short vocabulary list of words used in the book that the student might not be familiar with and a "Peek into the Past" that asks the reader some questions comparing modern life to life in Andi's times-the 1870's.  Andi's Pony Trouble, the book we received to review, is the story of how Andi is desperate to prove she is "big enough" to get a horse of her own to replace her slow, hand-me-down pony for her upcoming 6th birthday.  Over the course of the story, she comes to realize that maybe she isn't as "big" (i.e. responsible) as she thought she was and learns that her being discontent with her pony has a price when her desire to ride her friend's horse back to the farm as fast as she can results in her loyal, dependable pony going missing. When faced with the idea that she might never see her pony again, Andi begins to understand that the slow and steady pony she had been so unhappy with was exactly right for her.

Circle,C,Kregel,Susan,Marlow

The pros:  What a delightful story!  Maybe it's because my youngest just turned 6 herself, but we really, really loved this story.  And I love that while the stories are Christian, they are really conceivable too.  Andi is impulsive, makes mistakes, and suffers the consequences.  Sometimes even when she does things right, they don't result in a perfect outcome, and she has to decide how to handle that.  In other words, her life is just like REAL life.  And when the going gets tough, she realizes she needs the kind of help only God can give her, but it's not in the "holier than thou" sort of way that so many Christian books tend to portray children in.  It's again in a very real way just like a child would turn to God; no fancy words, no perfect behavior, just an appeal for help when her own actions can't save her and she realizes she was wrong and God can help make it right.  My children were totally wrapped up in young Andi's story, and they can't wait to read more.  Oh, and the illustrations are beyond cute!

The cons:  NONE!



The bottom line:  LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book.  And I'm sure we'd love the rest of the series too.  And for only $4.99 they are a great deal.   But when you add in the fact that they each have a FREE downloadable activity/study guide, they are a STEAL!  The guide includes activities like math problems based on the story, coloring sheets from the book's illustrations, cut and paste story sequencing, and much, much more. (See a sample below).  I can't wait to get more of the series.

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To check out this book or others in the series, (or other books published my Kregel) go HERE.  To see what other members of the TOS Crew had to say, go HERE.

Legal Disclaimer: As a member of the TOS Crew, I received a copy of Andi's Pony Trouble in order to be able to give my honest review of the book.  That book was the only compensation I received from my review.
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