Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Friday, December 5, 2014


We live now in a wonderful age of instant access to digital books on Kindles, Nooks and IPads, but for any book lovers on your gift list, there is still nothing like a real book, crisp pages yearning to be turned, in their hands Christmas morning.  Here are a few of my favorite authors’ recent releases which do not disappoint and also a few suggestions for the young adult and toddler on your list.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult fans can count on her for a page turner with well researched moral dilemma issues.  In the past, for example, she has written of terminal illness, donor children,  and teen suicide. In Leaving Time, she weaves a mesmerizing fictional tale that makes us aware of the plight of endangered elephants. At the heart of the book is the extraordinary behavior of elephants as research scientist, Alice Metcalf, devotes her life to investigating how elephants experience grief.  Teenage daughter, Jenna, begins a search for Alice, ten years after her mother mysteriously disappears when a co-worker is trampled to death.  Jenna refuses to believe her mother would leave her behind and she corrals two unlikely allies in her quest:  Virgil, a police detective whose career crashed when he botched the investigation ten years ago of the trampling, and Serenity, a nationally famous clairvoyant, who also fell from grace when her spirit guides deserted her in the middle of the search for a senator’s kidnapped child.  The three characters share the narration for a fascinating tale that involves noble pachyderms and not so noble humans.   And by the end of the book, I wanted to save every elephant and one of my own.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham

Grisham has created a new legal heroine in Samantha Kofer as she tackles the villain in this story: Big Coal industry in Appalachia.  As he has done in the past, Grisham has us rooting for the underdog as they battle against seemingly invincible evil forces.  The story opens when Samantha, along with hundreds of other associates in her Wall Street law firm, are furloughed on day ten after the fall of Lehman Brothers in September, 2008.  At age 29, a graduate of Columbia Law, she was working 100 hours a week at a tedious job she hated, yet a slave to her salary of $180,000 a year and on track to  a lucrative partnership by age 35.   Shortly before being escorted out of their high-rise offices, the firm offers a fig leaf to former employees. They can keep medical benefits and possibly be re-hired if they agree to intern with a non-profit agency for a year.   As Samantha scrambles to find an internship, she, a magna cum laude grad, faces ten rejections the first day as other unfortunates have dialed the non-profit numbers more quickly.  Finally, she is granted an interview at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in the heart of Appalachia.  Just mere pages into the story, we follow Samantha from glamorous Manhattan to Brady, Viriginia, population 2,200, where she encounters people and situations unlike any she has ever known.

Her new unpaid job takes her deep into the dangerous world of coal mining where laws are broken, rules are ignored, and regulations are flouted.  Danger lurks around every mountain pass, not only for the employees but for those who would attempt to expose Big Coal’s  infractions. 

But for the first time in Samantha’s career, she has an opportunity to “help real people with real problems”.  Also a first, she prepares a lawsuit and sees the inside of an actual courtroom.   And like most Grisham novels, there are secrets to uncover, an untimely death, some romance, colorful and humorous characters.  And the ultimate question: Will Samantha return to the glamour of NYC or stay and fight the battle of the impoverished.

While we are engrossed in a good story, we cannot escape Grisham’s message loud and clear: the power of big business, specifically the coal industry, to corrupt a community and the land both with little regard for the honest and hard-working  people who call Appalachia home. 

We Were Liars by e. lockhart
This young adult novel tells of the Sinclair family who spend their summers on their private Beechwood island off Martha’s Vineyard.  Of the dozen or so members of the family, “No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.” These three lies, the first of many, are the opening lines of this story of three teen-age cousins and one outsider friend, Gat Patil.  Strikingly different than the beautiful blonde haired, fair-skinned Sinclair children, Gat of Indian descent is dark-skinned, handsome and charismatic.  Fifteen-year old Cadence, the narrator, falls in love with the interloper at first sight (the summer they were both eight.) However through the summers that follow, his passionate political beliefs, far different than the Sinclairs’, create problems. When Cadence suffers a catastrophic accident her fifteenth summer that leaves her with crippling migraines and amnesia, she struggles to remember how it happened.  She can’t and no one will tell.

Two summers later she returns to the island, trying desperately to remember, to reconstruct what happened, leading to the climax of the story. The book jacket for We Were Liars says, “If anyone asks you how it ends, just lie.” 

The author, who goes by e.lockhart, might be familiar to readers who have read her four previous books featuring character Ruby Oliver. Lockhart received a Cyblis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, The Disreputable History of FrankieLandau –Banks. We Were Liars has been optioned for a movie adaption.


For the young children in your life.  I recommend two picture books that, I promise, you will enjoy reading aloud to them.  Both are about colors. One is beautiful both in verse and illustrations and the other is just plain fun, yet thought provoking. 

Hailstones and Halibut Bones, by Mary O’Neill was first published in 1961 and is now an American classic, at twice the length of most children’s books.  It is recommend for  ages 8-13 but its beautiful rhythms and illustrations will hold a toddler’s attention as well as an adult’s.  (A great relaxing bed-time story). The poet explores 12 different colors in 12 poems.   One thing that makes the book so special is that the colors are connected to all the senses, not just sight. Ms.O’Neill was the first to describe color to those who cannot see with Braille versions.  For example,  “What is white? White is a dove and lily of the valley, and a puddle of milk, spilled in an alley.  Red is a hotness you get inside, When you’re embarrassed and want to hide.”

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywelt.  Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers.
If you had to describe this picture book in four words or less, it would be, “Crayons have feelings, too.” Poor Duncan just wants to color. But when he opens his box of crayons, he finds only letters from the crayons, all saying the same thing: His crayons have had enough! They quit! Their complaints were various: Some felt overused or misused; others, neglected. Beige is tired of playing second fiddle to Brown. Black wants to be used for more than just outlining. Blue needs a break from coloring all those huge bodies of water. And Orange and Yellow are no longer speaking—each believes he is the true color of the sun. And red, clearly overworked. Works all year and even on holidays for Christmas and Valentines.
What can Duncan possibly do to appease all of the crayons and get them back to doing what they do best? This spontaneous strike calls for quick action. Almost instantly, the aspiring artist becomes a mediator.  A fun and creative read yet without enough depth to warrant many lesson plans and classroom discussion.
I close with the words of Neil Galman, Books make great gifts because they have the whole world inside of them. And it’s much cheaper to buy someone a book than it is to buy them the whole word. I hope that you will explore many new worlds through books all year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Waiting for Heaven by Heather Gillis.

Holidays can be a difficult time for families who have recently lost loved ones. In Waiting for Heaven, an Ahwatukee resident, Heather Gillis, reaches out to parents everywhere who have lost a child and are struggling to find peace within the midst of their pain.  As the book  jacket says, “Life can sometimes lead us to unexpected places, only to leave us broken, desperate and hurting.”  Ms. Gillis tells of her personal struggle when their baby son, Bowen, died thirteen days after birth of a fatal kidney disease, autosommal recessive polycystic kidney disease(ARPKD).

Although Heather and her husband, Mac, had no history of kidney disease, they discovered, after Bowen’s birth, that they had the mutation on their chromosomes, making them both carriers of the disease. One in 20,000 babies is diagnosed with ARPKD and they had a four-in-one chance of having a child with it.  Fortunately, their first two children, Brooklyn and Blake, were not affected. Unfortunately, they were totally unprepared for Bowen’s diagnosis, with healthy ultra-sounds throughout the pregnancy.  Her story would be an inspiration to other parents who search for a way to explain the death of a sibling, including a list of books to read to toddlers.

In addition to Heather’s encouraging personal story of faith, hope and renewal, there are many resources listed—books, blogs and websites.  She created to help spread hope to other families with ADPKD. Adult onset of this kidney disease is termed PKD and affects 1in 500 adults, typically diagnosed in a person’s early forties.  Her book can be purchased through her website at $1.99 or Amazon (price varies) and proceeds go toward helping children on dialysis.

Although a sensitive issue, Waiting for Heaven could be a beautiful gift to those struggling to find answers to their loss.  Heather shares honestly the painful grieving process she and Mac went through, yet there are nuggets of wisdom.  For example, “Through this experience I have learned where the answers will never be found. The answer will never be found in anger and any desperate search for an answer will leave one only weak, empty-handed, and more angry.”  Heather finds beauty in the midst of pain through her faith.

The book covers the time period from the day of Bowen’s birth (4-7-11) through the spring of 2013 when Heather, as part of her healing process, began training for the Boston Marathon. Shortly after she crossed the finish line and was looking for her family, she heard a loud sound that she thought was thunder, but in fact was the bomb.  What she experienced that day, as well as meeting many of the Sandy Hook families who lost children, gave Heather a higher awareness of the price of freedom in our country, as well as a greater appreciation for the gift of life, regardless of what we have had to endure.   Like ripples in a pond, Heather takes her personal loss and expands it into a universal message of hope and renewal for all.