Book Review: For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage by Tara Parker-Pope

What makes for a good marriage? What combination of inborn traits, behaviors, and life circumstances makes for marital longevity and bliss?

Sure, there are plenty of people willing to opine based on their personal experiences with marriage, or perhaps on their experiences counseling married couples or divorcees. But what does the science say?

Ostensibly, that’s what Tara Parker-Pope set out to explore in For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage.

And, if you do a cursory reading of her book, you’ll come to certain conclusions about the best marital model. Mainly, you’ll come to think that an egalitarian, 50-50 marriage is the way to go. It is clearly the best option. That is, if you fail to read page 254 carefully. There, a couple of paragraphs belie the drumbeat of “egalitarian is best” to which the entire rest of the book marches:

“It’s often a surprise when people learn that a traditional marriage, which is marked by the male breadwinner/female homemaker roles, is widely viewed as the most stable marriage. It had the lowest divorce rate in the studies by Dr. Hetherington. But just because these marriages are stable doesn’t mean they always are the most happy.

For a traditional marriage to thrive, both partners have to be happy with their individual role, perform it well, and feel respected by the other partner for the contributions they make to the marriage and family. If one partner changes, particularly if the wife decides she wants to work outside the home, the marriage can be stressed, often beyond repair.”

I love how shocked Parker-Pope is (and how she attributes her own shock to “people”) that experts on marriage stability regard the traditional marriage to be the most stable model (you know, based on things like… data.) I also love how quickly she jumps to discredit that result. I mean, it may be the most stable, but clearly one couldn’t actually be, you know, happy in a marriage like that.

When I read that second paragraph, I can’t help but think that the things she’s arguing make for a happy traditional marriage are things that make for a happy marriage altogether. Even if both spouses work, they will be happiest if both are happy with their individual role, perform it well, and feel respected by the other partner for the contributions they make to the marriage and family. And if one partner changes, perhaps maybe if a woman decides she wants to stay at home with the children? The marriage is stressed – not necessarily by the desire, but by the change in family dynamics that must be navigated before a new equilibrium is reached.

Now, does this mean that Parker-Pope’s book is not worth reading? Not really. I found it to be interesting. It sparked lots of conversation with my husband (always a nice thing whether or not the topic of discussion is marriage – but it’s especially nice when a book about marriage enables conversation with your spouse.) There was other information that is applicable even if you reject the pervasive belief that egalitarianism is the best model for marriage (for instance, did you know that couples with MORE conflict tend to have stronger marriages? It’s really in how conflict is brought up and managed that makes the difference.)

I don’t think this is a great book to read if you feel like your marriage is in trouble. It’s not terribly practical in that regard. I also don’t think it quite succeeds at the subtitle’s aim of discussing “the science of a good marriage” (given its failure to look any deeper at the most stable model of marriage – the two paragraphs above are literally ALL that is said about traditional marriage.) But if you’re like me, in a happy and functional marriage and eager to continue learning and growing within that marriage, I think this could still be beneficial (or at least interesting).

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Marriage
Synopsis: Attempts to discuss what the science says about successful marriages (that don’t end in divorce), but without really regarding a traditional marriage as a viable option (and therefore leaving out an entire area of inquiry that seems rather important to this reader.)
Recommendation: Interesting information, probably not helpful for a struggling marriage.

Book Review: Animals of the Bible illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop

Books are about words, right?

Of course, right.

Or at least that’s what I’ve always thought.

While I read picture books, I really only care about the words.

While I’ve been reading picture books for years, I’ve typically only cared about the words.

But after reading Baby Read-Aloud Basics, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the pictures, especially when reading out loud to Tirzah Mae. Then, I read Donald Crews’ Freight Train (recommended by Baby Read-Aloud Basics) and was absolutely enthralled by the illustrations. The library copy I’d borrowed featured a Caldecott Honor Medallion – which inspired me to look at the Caldecott Award.

I discovered that the Caldecott Medal is given by the American Library Association (ALA) to the illustrator of an outstanding picture book.

Okay, okay. If the ALA considers illustrations important enough to give an award for them, maybe I should pay a little bit of attention to them.

And what better way, I figured, than to read through the Caldecott Award winners?

Dorothy P. Lathrop received the very first Caldecott award for her Animals of the Bible, published in 1937.

My library’s copy had to be retrieved from storage, and I was interested to see the penciled-in note on the front flyleaf indicating that water damage had been officially noted 9/17/70.

The text of Lathrop’s Animals of the Bible consists entirely of passages from the King James Version of the Bible, all of them pertaining to animals in some fashion. Each story (with a few exceptions) is accompanied by a full-page black-and-white illustration.

Reading this (and looking at the pictures) reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder, looking at the pictures in Pa’s big Bible and in his animal book.

I couldn’t help think of the great differences in picture book illustrations since 1937. Perhaps the easiest to note is the change from black-and-white to full-color illustrations – but even more striking is the variation in level of detail. It certainly seems that recent illustrations tend towards the cartoonish, with spare details. But the further back one looks, the more detailed the illustrations tend to be.

Lathrop’s illustrations are highly realistic montages of multiple animals in distinct environments along with carefully drawn plants. They are delightful (apart from the unfortunate addition of halos on Jesus and the angels, a convention I rather detest.)

I can see a preschool or early elementary child enjoying these illustrations, although I think said child would likely be overwhelmed by the King James English of the text. Then again, I’ve never been much of an illustration person, and I may be translating my own tastes to a child – if you can find this book at the library, I’d find it there and try it out on your child before buying.

Rating: 3-4 stars
Category: Children’s picture book
Synopsis: A collection of “animal” passages from the King James Bible along with striking full-page black and white illustrations.
Recommendation: Children might be interested in the illustrations, not sure how easily they’ll get the King James English.

Book Review: Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke

Inklings opens on the day of C.S. Lewis’s funeral. A protege of his, David MacKenzie had a change of heart as he watched the flame of a candle on Lewis’s casket burn brightly, unwavering despite the wind. David recommitted his life to God and purposed to make a difference in the lives of students at Oxford, just as his mentor had.

MacKenzie and a friend begin the “Inklings Society” at Oxford, meeting at the same “Bird and Baby” where the original Inklings had met. The group shares literature – that of their own and others’ composition – and discusses matters of life and faith.

Enter Kate Hughes, a Virginian studying in Oxford for the year. She’s reading Shakespeare with MacKenzie, and quickly develops a crush on her handsome believing tutor.

This is definitely a Christian romance, with romance being the operative word. As such, it is fairly straightforward – although with an emphasis on a sort-of courtship-ish model such as was popular among homeschoolers when this was published (the author is a homeschooling mom of many, of course!)

Not being a terrific fan of romances for romance sake (at least not for quite a while), I didn’t find the romance to be tremendously interesting. But the setting? This is like a travel brochure for Oxford. The glimpses into the life and thoughts of C.S. Lewis? Yes, please.

I think that someone reading this for the romance might feel that the travelogue and the Lewis biographical notes are heavy-handed and unnecessary. But not I. I tolerated the romance and relished the bits of Oxford/Lewis info.

Sidenote: Why didn’t I study at Oxford? The whole reading/tutor system seems a much better fit for my learning style than the lecture-style system of American education. Not that I wouldn’t love to attend the lectures – the ones that dons give that aren’t required but that anyone can attend who wants to (be still, my beating heart.)

I read this because my bookclub is reading it – one member of the club had seen it at the church library and was curious about it. And I’m glad we did read it. It’s not spectacular fiction, but passable as Christian romance (isn’t most Christian romance simply passable?) Yet the depth of information about Oxford and about C.S. Lewis made it worth reading for Lewis fans (at least, for Lewis fans who don’t mind Christian romance :-P)

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Christian romance
Synopsis: A British don and an American exchange student carry on something of a romance in Oxford just after C.S. Lewis’s death.
Recommendation: I wish I could draw a Venn diagram, but you’ll have to just imagine it. Imagine the intersection of “those who tolerate Christian romances” and “those who love C.S. Lewis”. Those people would likely enjoy this book.

Book Review: Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

Unlike a majority of Georgette Heyer’s romances, Devil’s Cub is not set in Regency England. Instead, it is set about 30 years before, prior to the French Revolution.

Like Georgette Heyer’s other romances, though, Devil’s Cub includes a supercilious man who is an expert shot, a couple foolish male foils, a rather silly and romance-headed girl, a sensible female, and several other major players. As is usual, it took me a couple of chapters to get the characters straight in my mind – but once they were fixed, I was transfixed.

Murder in the first chapter. Female squabbling in the second. A love interest in the third. High-stakes cards in the fourth. Before the book was out, there was mistaken identity, abduction, and an elopement (or was it two elopements?). Just the sort of thing to get one’s mind off the laundry and the dishes.

I enjoyed this book, as I usually do Heyer’s romances. I did find a few bits jarring – a groom starts off the book taking the Lord’s name in vain (there are usually quite a few “damn’s” in Heyer’s books, but this seemed out of place compared to what I’m used to), and the different time setting meant the terminology and attire were a little different (requiring me to work a bit more than usual to understand what the characters were saying and wearing.)

It was also plain to see that this was a sequel – that Heyer had previously written the story of the parents of the “Devil’s Cub”. While the story was plenty enjoyable without knowing the back story, there were frequent allusions to the parents’ story that would probably have been more enjoyable had I read These Old Shades prior to reading Devil’s Cub.

In all, I was glad I read this – but it probably wouldn’t be my recommendation for a first foray into Heyer.

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Historical romance
Synopsis: Straight-laced Mary Challoner attempts to save her sister from the clutches of the notorious “Devil’s Cub” – and ends up embroiled in scandal herself.
Recommendation: Fellow fans of Heyer will enjoy this one – but it’s not the best intro to Heyer’s writing.

Book Review: The Baby Food Bible by Eileen Behan

Face it, feeding a baby is hard work. Whether at the breast, from a bottle, or at the table, infant feeding takes time, energy, and savvy. (And don’t even get me started on the cleanup!)

For the health savvy mom, feeding a baby can be even harder – there’s so much conflicting information, so much advice, so many different ways to go. Start at four months or six? Rice cereal or avocado as a first food? Wait 3-5 days between foods or introduce mixtures at will? Cut grapes into quarters or sixteenths? Jarred or homemade baby foods? Or maybe baby-led weaning is the way to go? Should I choose organic foods or are conventionally grown foods okay? Should my baby eat salt? Sugar? Dairy foods? Soy foods? Wheat? Peanuts? The list of potential questions goes on and on.

I wish there were a good quality book that addressed all these issues (and addressed them the way I do – because, of course, I know it all :-P), but unfortunately, to my knowledge, no such book exists.

Eileen Behan’s The Baby Food Bible does a pretty good job though as a basic resource for moms. Behan, a dietitian who works with families, does a decent job summarizing general infant feeding recommendations as of 2008 when The Baby Food Bible was published.

The largest section of the book is a list of healthy food items (from all the food groups), discussing how moms can make them into purees for their infants and how they can incorporate those foods into family meals. She gives easy “recipes” for the purees, including how much water to use per unit of food and both stovetop and microwave cooking times. For the mom who’s going the puree route (which you don’t have to, by the way – Tirzah Mae ate purees maybe twice), it’s a good resource. The next largest section is a collection of multi-ingredient recipes that can be pureed to be fed to babies, as well as to the rest of the family. Again, if you’re going the puree route, it’s a good resource.

Now, every so often, Behan says something about a specific food that reflects traditional infant feeding biases that I don’t agree with (and that don’t have research to back them up) – like when she says that cucumbers are “not recommended for infants”, but are “a good snack food for older toddlers.” It’s true that cucumbers do not puree well, but I don’t see any reason why an infant eating stage 3 or 4 foods shouldn’t have little chunks of the inner portion of a cucumber (Tirzah Mae does whenever we’re eating cucumbers). Likewise, Behan writes that “onions are not a baby food” and suggests only that they can be included in recipes for older children because they add flavor. I’ve never seen any reason to avoid onions with babies (except cultural biases against it) – and we eat sauteed onions (or sauteed onions and zucchini or onions and peppers or…) rather frequently.

Other recommendations Behan makes are outdated – the most notable being that she gives the (then current) recommendation to avoid potentially allergenic foods in the first year. Pediatricians and dietitians had been giving that advice for years based on a “better safe than sorry” principle while research was being conducted to determine whether it made a difference. Well, in the past 2 (maybe 3?) years, the research has come out and indicates that holding off on potentially allergy-causing food has the exact opposite effect than the one we’d hoped for. We now know that introducing potential allergens between the ages of 4 and 6 months has a protective effect against the development of food allergies.

And then there are the philosophical questions that don’t necessarily have scientific evidence on their side – organic foods, local foods, humane foods, etc. Behan generally jumps on the bandwagon with each of these, although she does acknowledge to some degree that parents may have different priorities.

So… now for the difficult part. Do I recommend The Baby Food Bible?

If you’re a mom with a baby younger than 8 months, you intend to go the puree route, and you want to learn how to make your own baby food, this is a great resource. If you’ve got a baby older than 8 months, you should be working on introducing textures (which Behan doesn’t talk a whole lot about but which I consider a very important step in ensuring healthy eating patterns into adulthood – something I believe the research supports). If you intend to skip purees – hey, I did too – wanna compare notes? If you intend to just buy staged baby food from the store, the bulk of this book won’t apply to you.

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Infant feeding
Synopsis: Behan discusses then-current recommendations for infant feeding and gives a giant list of foods and how to prepare and puree them for your baby.
Recommendation: Worthwhile if your baby is under 8 months, you intend to feed your baby purees, and you want to learn how to make your own baby food.

Book Review: Your Child at Play: Birth to One Year by Marilyn Segal

Your Child at Play gives the basics of what to expect from your child developmentally as well as a variety of activites you can do with your child for each month of the first year. It includes hundreds of photos of babies and parents engaging in the suggested activities. It’s simply packed with ideas.

Published in 1998, it’s also super-outdated. The author recommends not a few activities and toys that are no longer recommended because of safety concerns.

I thought it was great. I collected dozens of activities from among the hundreds included and have used them with Tirzah Mae.

That said, I’m not sure whether other moms would find this helpful. My observation has been that many moms feel insecure in their ability to wade through the waters of “developmental appropriateness” and “child safety” and choose one of two ways of dealing with that. Either they choose an expert that they trust implicitly and follow everything that expert says to the T (Babywise or Dr. Sears devotees, anyone?) or they are just simply terrified of everything and parent by taboos (I can’t let my child out of my sight, my child should never encounter a string or ribbon, I can’t let my baby roll onto her tummy in her sleep, etc.)

This book would not be helpful to either type of parents. The terrified-of-everything parents will become terrified quickly and have nightmares of all the terrible things that could happen to parents who try stuff from this book. And the expert-trusting parents will have to endure the censure of terrified parents – and may put their child at risk if they leave him unsupervised to play with the toys made on the books recommendation (or to engage in the activities the book suggests.) On the other hand, it’s highly unlikely that a child could be hurt while engaging in these activities under supervision.

So, should you read this book?

Judge for yourself. Are you looking for ideas for activities to do with your infant? Do you have the time and energy to be discerning about which activities to try? Do you have easy access to this book via a library or can you find it cheaply at a used store? Then go for it.

If not, may I recommend Retro Baby by Anne Zachry? It’s got a lot of similar activity ideas, but is more up-to-date as far as safety recommendations go.

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Infant Play activities
Synopsis: A month-by-month listing of activities you can do with your baby in his first year of life
Recommendation: Lots of nice suggestions, but safety recommendations have changed since this is written, so parents will have to be discerning.

Book Review: Sleep: The Brazelton Way by T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow

Sleep is one of those things that I think each family has to figure out for themselves. Hundreds of rigid programs exist, but few (none?) are worth following to the letter. Because every baby is different. Every parent is different. Every situation is different.

I used to think I’d never bring a baby into my own bed. I value the intimacy of sharing a bed with my husband (only) too much.

Then we brought home a preemie who would only sleep on Daniel’s chest or mine. We’d trade off nights, Daniel staying awake on the couch with her on his chest, then me taking a turn. Except we got so exhausted with the routine that we were falling asleep with her on our chests. And whatever your views are on the safety of bed-sharing, there can be no mixed opinions about sofa-sleep sharing. It’s dangerous.

We didn’t feel comfortable with her sharing the same surface. I was pumping and fortifying breastmilk to be fed by bottle at that time – and that thing about exclusively breastfeeding mamas being biologically more in tune with their babies and non-exclusive mamas not as much? There’s good scientific evidence for it – and it held out in our experience. I totally could have rolled over on her. We got a guard rail for the bed and a box for her to sleep in next to me (against the rail). Once we were exclusively at the breast (and Tirzah Mae was growing too large for her box), we tried on the bed directly – and there was never a fear that I’d roll over on her. We were physiologically bound, cycling through sleep together. I was aware of her, yet not losing sleep.

But that didn’t mean I was willing to give up and just be a bed-sharer. At the beginning of March, I made getting her to sleep in her bassinet a goal. It was hard work. No longer right next to each other (I placed the bassinet at the foot of the bed), getting up with her became more disruptive to my sleep. It was easier to nurse and then fall asleep together without having to stay awake to put her back in her bassinet after nighttime feedings.

Then I started reading Sleep: The Brazelton Way. There are plenty of things I’m uncertain about regarding Brazelton’s “method” (he seems to think that spacing out feedings during the day helps a child sleep better at night, which I don’t understand philosophically and don’t really agree with nutritionally), but one thing in the “four month” sleep section ended up being an epiphany to me. Brazelton suggested that parents try “patting” their baby back to sleep during nighttime wakenings, not getting them up to eat. What? I thought. Tirzah Mae might not be hungry, might not need to get out of her bassinet at nighttime? I tested it out, patting her when she awoke during the night.

About three-quarters of the time, patting was enough. She settled back into sleep after minimal fussing – and I could go back to sleep too. The other quarter of the time? If she didn’t settle or started to cry, I got her out and fed her. Sometimes I stayed awake to put her back in the bassinet, sometimes I didn’t. But she was on her way to independent sleep.

**Regular readers will note that Tirzah Mae’s sleep took a turn for the worse at the beginning of April. That was majorly disruptive and she was NOT able to be soothed with patting. Now that she is sleeping better and is in her crib in her own room, she awakens much less frequently but generally needs to be fed at those awakenings.**

I have since finished Brazelton’s short volume (114 pages), in which Brazelton addresses a variety of sleep issues (that we aren’t dealing with).

Do I recommend Brazelton’s sleep program? No, I don’t. But I think I will recommend his book. Because I think that coming up with a sleep program that works for your own family involves collecting ideas and occasionally letting your assumptions be challenged and experimenting to find out what works for you. Brazelton’s book is a generally non-extreme resource for coming up with ideas and challenging assumptions.

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Baby Care
Synopsis: Discussion of a baby and young child’s sleep patterns and how parents can deal with common sleep issues.
Recommendation: Useful as a source of ideas, not particularly for a comprehensive “sleep program”.

Book Review: Lose that Baby Fat! by La Reine Chabut

Despite ending my pregnancy eight weeks early, I gained significantly more than the recommended amount – at least 50 pounds. Much of it was water weight, which means that, after rigorous diuresing, I returned from the hospital only 8 pounds above my prepregnancy weight. Which perfectly explains why I’m now closer to 18 pounds above my prepregnancy weight.

Well, actuallly, there is an explanation for that. Almost three weeks of bedrest meant a rapid loss of muscle mass, leaving me with a still-voracious appetite (from breastfeeding), but nowhere near as much muscle to use up the calories I’m consuming.

Now, I’m not particularly worried about my weight – I’m still in the healthy range and only a bit above my post-high school norm (I was about 5 pounds lighter than this through college). But I am worried about the loss of muscle mass (and gaining fat mass). Which is why I’ve been making a concerted effort to be active – and to include strength training in my routine. And, of course, this gives me opportunity to read some more books!

Lose that Baby Fat! is supposed to be a month-by-month exercise guide for the first year after having a baby – but I didn’t use it as such. Instead, I worked through the various exercises and routines more quickly (about one month per week) in order to allow me to try and review other books as well. This means that I can’t comment on the effectiveness of the program as written except from a theoretical standpoint – but, actually, there is very little guidance as to how often one is supposed to do the monthly exercises (or whether one is supposed to do anything in addition to them), so I suppose it’d be hard to comment on effectiveness anyway – it will be what you put into it.

As I worked my way through the book, I wrote up comments as seen below.

First Six Weeks: Kegels
Very simple version of Kegels.

Month 2: Walking and Stretching
Do stretches REALLY need to use an exercise ball? I had a hard time balancing well enough to get a good stretch – and nearly all of the stretches could just as easily be done without any equipment at all. (In the author’s defense, it’s easier to balance with tennis shoes on – and I frequently exercise without them.)

Month 3: Abdominals
I like the use of the ball for abdominal exercises like the bicycle and the abdominal crunch – I felt like the ball helped me stay focused (or maybe distracted from the monotony?) and made me less likely to hurt my neck than with the traditional floor exercise. This chapter included a nice range of difficulty, from very easy to quite difficult, perfect for ramping up after a life-experience that rather stretches out those abs :-) (Little complaint here: at the beginning of each chapter the author has a “how you may be feeling” blurb, and this month’s is “Thinking twice about continuing with breastfeeding.” My experience as a WIC dietitian is that women who stick it out to three months very rarely have second thoughts – by then they’ve gotten through the most difficult learning curve and can’t imagine having to wait to mix up a bottle and get it warm before feeding their baby.)

Month 4: Arms and Chest
Pretty standard arm exercises (biceps curls, triceps kickbacks, chest presses) done on the exercise ball with a resistance band. We own an exercise ball, so I did the exercises on it – but I didn’t purchase a resistance band to test these out (I know enough of myself to know that buying a piece of exercise equipment will not motivate me to use it.) Instead, I used the 3 pound weights I already have. All the exercises in this chapter happen to have the resistance working in line with gravity, so no postural changes were required to adapt from one to another. I officially like doing arm exercises on the ball (versus standing or on a bench) – it adds a bit of an ab workout and doesn’t take as much space as a weight bench.

Month 5: Butt
A couple of the exercises involved standing with some part of your body against an exercise ball which is positioned against a wall. Obviously, the author is a fitness-lover rather than a book-lover – she has a room with plenty of wide-open walls. All of my walls are jammed full with either bookshelves or windows. Thankfully, the exercises that she does this with (squats and lunges) can be done just as well without a ball or a wall.

Month 6: Shoulders and Upper Back
This includes four ball and band exercises, half of which require postural modifications to do with free weights (of course, the author doesn’t explain how to do that). Disappointing chapter.

Month 7: Legs
Jumping rope in 30 second intervals. I didn’t do this because I couldn’t be bothered to find my jump rope.

Month 8: Full Body
The first workout that is actually a full workout (as opposed to just a few exercises for a target area). Most of the exercises are duplicates from past chapters – making me wonder if one was really supposed to only be working on the butt in Month 5, for example, instead of incorporating each new monthly set of exercises into a weekly rotation (as I would have assumed).

Month 9: Circuit training
A very short (6 minutes total) but very intense (at least for me) workout with 30 second intervals (Daniel uses a HIIT interval timer on his phone for interval training – and I tried it for this workout, which worked well). This workout uses a coffee table for triceps dips and pushups, but since I don’t have a coffee table, I used a footstool for dips and did girlie pushups straight on the floor. I’m definitely going to have to try this again – it was a good FAST workout.

Month 10: Strength training
These are fairly traditional dumbbell exercises using the exercise ball as a bench.

Month 11: Running
Sorry, even if I did decide to purchase a jogging stroller, you’re not going to get me running. I had enough trouble keeping my bosom controlled before baby and breastfeeding – trying to do it now sounds like a major OUCH!

If you read through my notes so far, you’ve seen that I had numerous comments regarding equipment use. This book assumes that you have 1) an exercise ball, which is used for almost every exercise, 2) a fitness band, 3) a jump rope, and later on 4) dumbbells and 5) a jogging stroller. I do not feel that any of these are necessary for a good post-pregnancy workout (although having some form of resistance for strength training is worthwhile). I did find that I enjoyed many of the exercises using the ball.

If you have this equipment already, I would recommend this book as a good source for a variety of exercises that can be done using them. If I were to use this book as my complete program, I would plan on doing some sort of aerobic activity (probably walking) at least three times a week and do at least two or three exercises from the current month a couple times a week, adding in a couple exercises from each previous month as well. (It seems crazy to me that the author only puts things together into a full-body workout in month 8 – you’d lose any muscle tone you’d gained in your abs, for example, by then if you hadn’t kept on working with them.)

**Side note: The author knows nothing about nutrition. Disregard anything she says (thankfully, she doesn’t say much.)**

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Post-pregnancy exercise
Synopsis: A month-by-month selection of exercises for the post-pregnancy year.
Recommendation: A good selection of exercises if you already have the equipment (or were already intending to get it). You have to be proactive about setting up your own schedule and making sure you don’t lose gains you’ve made during previous months working on different body parts.

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

When was the last time you read a book straight through cover to cover?

The last time I did was January 28, right after Tirzah Mae got her two month shots.

The book was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

The circus arrives unexpectedly, massive black and white tents surrounded by a black wrought iron fence in what yesterday was only a field. The placard at the gate announces that it is open at night only.

Once the circus-goer pays admission, he passes through the gates into a circus like none he’s ever seen before. Everything inside is in black and white, bright light and total darkness. The grounds dazzle every sense as the circus-goer follows interwoven circles through dozens of tents. Each tent contains its own entertainment. Some are typical fair, if more spectacular than usual – contortionists and fire dancers and cat trainers. But some of the Night Circus’s amusements are completely novel – a garden made of ice, an enchanted wishing tree, a labrynth of rooms each more mind-boggling than the last.

What the circus-goer doesn’t know is that this ephemeral entertainment, popping into and then disappearing from one site after another, is not the main attraction. The Night Circus is a venue, a stage, a stadium in which a high stakes game between two great magicians is played out.

The game started many years ago, when a student magician innovated a new philosophy of magic, a new technique for wizardry. His master challenged him that a new philosophy or a new technique is only worthwhile if it can be taught. Each magician would choose a student, would train that student in his own magic – then, when the time was right, the two students would be pit against one another to see whose magic would prevail.

It’s been years since the last match, but now at last, Prospero has found a student he feels sure will prevail against anyone Alexander could train. He invites Alexander to a show, invites him to the game, offers as his contestant his six-year-old daughter Celia. Alexander accepts, begins training his own apprentice. And when Alexander decides that the time is right, he contacts a man in London to create an acceptable venue for the competition – and he sends a two-word message to Prospero: “Your move.”

The Night Circus is undoubtedly one of the most unique and most interesting fantasies I’ve ever read. While the story is set in familiar late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century England and America, the setting is at the same time completely novel, thanks to the spectacular Night Circus and the magical premise of the story. The characters are mysterious, elusive, and absolutely fascinating. The plot is engaging and the story well-told.

That said, I doubt The Night Circus would be a hit with everyone. The story includes magic, yes, but also astrology and fortune-telling – all givens in the world of The Night Circus. A sex scene about three-quarters through rather disappointed this reader (it wasn’t terribly explicit, but enough so to make me uncomfortable.) And a jarring f-word in the first couple chapters almost made me put the book down (that was thankfully uncharacteristic for the novel – and I rather wonder why it made it past the editors, it was so out of place for the novel’s Victorian, albeit steampunk, setting.)

So I recommend this novel with serious caveats.

Rating: 3 to 4 stars
Category: Steampunk (but it transcends the genre)
Synopsis: A circus provides the setting for two magicians to pit their young students against one another in a mind-boggling sensory display of wizardry.
Recommendation: Masterfully written, fascinating premise and setting – but certain “dirty” elements make me hesitant to recommend this to all readers.

Book Review: Deceived by Irene Hannon

Kate Marshall’s husband and son died in a boating accident three years ago. It’s taken time to pull her life together, but she’s done it – moving from New York to Missouri, working as a counselor for battered women looking for work. But as she descends an escalator at the local mall, she hears a childish voice ask for a “poppysicle”. Then she sees a boy who looks like a dead ringer for her lost son – except three years older than he was when his father’s boat capsized and he was lost in the lake, with his body never found. She can’t get the incident out of her mind, so she hires a private investigator to find out who the boy is – just to ease her mind.

Of course, she doesn’t expect that she’ll fall in love with the handsome PI or that she’ll end up with her life in danger.

I hadn’t read anything by Irene Hannon until my church book club selected Deceived for their January book club – but, having read it, I’m glad I did. Hannon’s writing style (and her subject matter) reminds me a lot of Dee Henderson – and I was so disappointed when Henderson’s writing skidded to a halt.

How is Hannon’s writing similar to Henderson’s? They both feature highly trained mid-thirties (or at least, I assume they’re in their mid-thirties) professionals in dangerous professions, both involve some sort of crime investigation, both include love stories that progress way too fast (in my mind). One difference is that Henderson’s mysteries tend to be mysteries – something that keeps the reader puzzling through to the end. With Deceived, we know the who-dun-it pretty much from the get-go, it’s the “how done it” and “why done it” that’s the mystery. Furthermore, Henderson spends most of her time developing her main characters – the leading man and woman (who will, of course, fall in love before the book is done) – while Hannon took a significant amount of time developing the villain (actually turning him into a fairly sympathetic character) and a secondary character.

I may be slightly annoyed by how fast the romances evolve (how’s that for hypocrisy?) and especially how kissing precedes commitment (at least in that I’m not hypocritical – Daniel and I’d committed to one another before we even met). I may be slightly annoyed at how shallowly Christian the characters are (that is, how they’re Christians who are committed to their churches but don’t bother to make sure they’re on the same page theologically before they get totally attached to one another – believe you me, theology is one of the first questions I asked of any potential beau!) Overall, I’m thrilled to have been introduced to another author who writes in the crime-drama genre I enjoy. But overall, I’m thrilled to have been introduced to another author who writes in the crime-drama genre I enjoy.

If you’re a fan of Henderson, or if you enjoy any of the massively popular crime-drama television shows these days, you’ll probably also enjoy Irene Hannon’s Deceived. Go ahead and give her a try.

Rating: 3 stars
Category: Christian Crime-drama romance
Synopsis: Kate Marshall hires a PI to investigate the boy she saw in the mall who looks exactly like her son would have – except that he presumably died in a boating accident three years ago.
Recommendation: Recommended for fans of Dee Henderson or of crime-drama in general