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review 2018-01-26 02:08
Angel On Assignment (Elf on The Shelf Alternative) by Wanda Carter Roush
Angel on Assignment: Move over elf. It's time to share the shelf. - Wanda Carter Roush,Mike Motz

If your family loves the Elf on the Shelf and you want to keep the fun going, check out Angel on Assignment. It's a children's activity book that offers a Christian alternative to the elf, teaching children about the angels who watch over them, not just at Christmas but all year long. With beautiful illustrations and rhyming verse, Angel on Assignment takes readers through the angels' roles in the Christmas story and presents the ways guardian angels look out for boys and girls today--and how children can act as angels in disguise for friends who need help. See how many angels your child can find--some are hiding!





In recent years, it seems the Elf On The Shelf holiday tradition has become nearly as standard an element as gingerbread cookies and numerous twinkle light displays. Wanda Carter Roush, former Sunday school teacher and author of Angel on Assignment, after witnessing her daughter battle Dravet Syndrome-induced epilepsy, wanted a special spin on the elf tradition. Roush wanted something that would teach young readers about the role of angels not only during the holiday season -- though the nativity story is incorporated -- but throughout the entire year, reassuring each reader that an angel has your back nonstop, watching and protecting you every day of your life. The intent of this is to not only instill hope and wonder in the hearts of children, but Roush also urges children to think of these angels and be inspired to carry out charitable acts of their own each day, to aspire to make it a natural way of life as they grow towards adulthood. 


From a poor simple stable and a bed made of hay, 

To the cross on a hill, in a borrowed tomb he lay.

Angels were there from the start to the stone,

When the greatest gift to the world was made known.


      ~text from page 6 of Angel on Assignment


But there's more than just a mere story here. Readers are given a fun interactive experience throughout! In addition to a heartwarming tale told in rhyming verse, Angel on Assignment  features wonderfully colorful illustrations done by Mike Motz as well as a "spot the angels" game in each illustration. At the back of the book, there are also pages that instruct children on how to make their own paper angels (with adult supervision, of course) and encourages children to post their creations to the book's Facebook page. The last page of the book is an inscription page where families can record the date that they first started the Angel tradition in their home. 





Since being released in 2017, Angel On Assignment has gone on to be awarded the Gold Medal Christian Book Award in Young Kids category as well as the Bronze Medal Readers' Favorite Book Award in the General Christian category. The rhyming is done in a pleasant rhythm, flowing nicely without being TOO simple in vocabulary or awkward & clunky in pace. Roush's spin on the classic Elf tradition offers a refreshing alternative to parents looking to incorporate more "reason for the season" kind of celebrating into their family festivities during the Christmas season. 


FTC Disclaimer:  BookCrash.com and Ella's Pearl Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2017-11-05 10:55
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment In Relishing The Season by Alexandra Kuykendall
Loving My Actual Christmas: An Experiment in Relishing the Season - Alexandra Kuykendall

The Christmas season is a particularly difficult time for women to slow down and relish what's right in front of them. An annual marker for many, it is a holiday that can often remind us how life is not going as we'd planned. Our family relationships remain strained, our finances stretched, and our schedules stuffed with too much to do in too little time. Following the formula of her successful Loving My Actual Life, Alexandra Kuykendall shares with readers her own personal experiment to be completely present in her life as it is during the holiday season. Addressing the themes of Advent and Christmas, she reflects on hope, love, joy, peace, and relishing the season, with practical pullouts on common Christmas stressors, such as finances, schedules, and extended family. Kuykendall's signature candor helps women go easy on themselves, remember what truly matters, and find joy in their imperfect Christmases.





It all started with Alexandra Kuykendall's previous release, Loving My Actual Life, in which for an entire year she challenged herself to slow down a bit and take in the actual life she was living rather than the one she was obsessively trying to achieve through insane schedules, a go-go-go lifestyle and maybe a touch of subconsciously trying to compete with friends and neighbors for a mythical "best life" award. Using the format of that experiment, Kuykendall challenges herself once again, this time tackling the seemingly inevitable stress that comes with each year's impending holiday season -- the days packed with endless holiday festivities, the decorating, the blown out holiday budget that depresses her come January. She explains that her inspiration this time around was the realization that she did not want her daughters to grow up and have their dominant holiday memories be of stressed out, edgy and resentful parents. Instead, she wanted to put the need for perfection aside and just try to be present and authentically capture the true magic of Christmas for her girls. This year, Kuykendall wants to put the focus back on true family togetherness, charity, kindness, all those warm fuzzy emotions we ALL desperately need a good dose of right about now. 


Can I do this? Create an experiment where I'm able to savor the season in front of me without ending up overwhelmed and bitter? Where I avoid needing a detox from the fa-la-la-la and the mistletoe? It is worth the try. Because hope, peace, joy, and love are certainly words I want to associate with this time of year. Rather than overspending, overeating, undersleeping and underrejoicing, I want to notice the goodness God has offered in the here and now. In this year. This Christmas. Regardless of the circumstances. Because I don't want to resent this actual Christmas. I want to love it. 



It's a tough year for Kuykendall, as it's the year her stepfather passed away, a man she had come to rely on as a loving, reliable male figure in her life (for more on the difficult relationship Kuykendall has with her birth father, check out her memoir, The Artist's Daughter). Hard as it will be to tackle a season of family gatherings without this important man there for her, Kuykendall works hard not to let the sadness tarnish the warm memories she wants to cultivate for her family. 


In Loving My Actual Christmas, Kuykendall admits from the very beginning that this round will be slightly different because she is not working within the luxury of an entire year. We are talking about a season. So she gets the ball rolling in November, jumping right into family gatherings and activities around Thanksgiving, Christmas right around the corner. After moving passed Christmas, the book closes out a few days past the New Year (this past January 2017, as she notes that she started writing this book during 2016 holiday season).


Though she may not have a full year to work through, to give herself some sense of structure to this experiment, Kuykendall plots out the time frame of the experiment using the window of Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas Day) as well as Christmastide (more commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas), carrying through to just after New Year's celebrations. This book has the same diary-like layout as Loving My Actual Life. From day one, Kuykendall makes entries for every day of every week, giving readers a rundown of what the day's activities looked like, what she hopes to accomplish with that day, what she comes away with (lesson-wise) at day's end, and what Scripture she used that day to ponder on as she worked through each day's schedule. The entries are divided by Advent week and for each week she gives herself an overall theme to focus on: 


  • Week 1 = HOPE
  • Week 2 = LOVE
  • Week 3 = JOY
  • Week 4 = PEACE
  • * and then a section that does an overview on her Christmastide experience


Each chapter closes on "Questions for Reflection", questions that help guide readers on their own journey of better appreciating the season. She also offers relevant scripture, so this book (as well as her previous experiment book) have potential to be used as devotional supplements. Kuykendall is quick to address that a lot of the issues / stressors she tackles in this book will likely come of as #firstworldproblems, but as she points out -- the experiments are called MY ACTUAL LIFE and MY ACTUAL CHRISTMAS... it might seem first world, but it is the life SHE is personally living, so we gotta let her do her thing. 


What I love about these experiments of hers is that Kuykendall gives it to her readers honestly, warts and all. She fully admits to being human, starting with the best intentions and then getting in the moment and seriously wanting to throw in the towel instead. Immediately from Day 1 of her Christmas experiment she hits a wall. Not a good start, but a humorous and relatable one! She talks of facing the living room mantel, realizing she has to take down all the "harvest" decor to set up the Nativity scene... and she's honestly just not feelin' it, y'all! Who hasn't been there!


Also on this day she's hit with the first wave of holiday family travel plans (orchestrating all that) as well as trying to find time to sit down to do the obligatory Christmas cards. Those Christmas cards haunt her through many of the days, leading her to tell a story of when she just decided to NOT do cards one year, and guess what? There was a little guilt involved on her part, but no one died and no one disowned her. This spoke to my soul as it's exactly where I was last Christmas, and frankly I don't know that I'm feeling much for the cards this year, so it was nice to get a sense of camaraderie from that. Kuykendall encourages readers to still do cards, but do them for the right reason. Do it because you honestly love and miss these people and WANT to connect, don't just make it a chore to scratch off because you don't want things to get awkward later. 


No big surprise, but one of Kuykendall's big takeaways from this project is that the best gift is really just giving someone time / attention / respect / love. If you love the act of bestowing physical gifts, just make sure that the gifts show you LISTEN TO THEM. Don't get caught up in getting what everyone else seems to be buying -- unless, I guess, your people have expressed that's truly what they want with all their hearts. But in general, it's nice to give gifts that give a nod to something said in passing that shows you were listening even when they thought you weren't! ;-)


Other main points:


* Decide on a holiday budget and STICK TO IT. Also, it might help to make an inventory of all expected costs for the season -- what you anticipate to spend on holiday meals, outings, travel, holiday clothing, etc. Factor that into the overall "holiday budget" at the beginning of the season and you probably won't have quite as much sticker shock come January. 


* As Kuykendall's husband kept telling her throughout this process: "No bad-mouthing Christmas!" Your season might still have an element of stress no matter what you do but don't blame the season, just find your zen again and remember the real "reason for the season".


As I carried out the experiment, I was reminded that this holiday becomes a circus because we are operating out of our longings. We long for memories and fun and happiness. We long for meaning and purpose. We know it must be hidden somewhere among the decorations and the fuss. And when I stopped and paid attention, this is what stood out to me about why we do all of this Christmas making in the first place. 


* Learn to say "no" sometimes and be okay with it. Much of the stress of the season comes from us allowing ourselves to be roped into doing every little thing to ensure everyone else has the perfect season. Once in awhile, stop and say no. And then go let yourself have some you time so YOU can enjoy the season. 


At the back of the book, Kuykendall also offers supplemental guides such as "Practical Tips and Strategies" where she outlines just how exactly she pulled off this experiment and how you can try it yourself. Within the guides she also encourages readers to engage in some moments of contemplation: evaluate family holiday traditions, WHY you still do them and should you continue with them or are you merely doing it out of habit? (Think: are the kids too old for it? Are there enough people that still enjoy the tradition or are you just forcing them through?). She gives you a really handy guide on ways to be more economical during the season as well as a pep talk on the power of "no thank you".

She closes with the plea to readers that while they go through this process (should they choose to, that is), in all things always strive to continually be kind, gracious and compassionate. 


Near the end of the experiment, Kuykendall points out that throughout this process it is important to keep in mind that you can't (or at the very least, shouldn't) gloss over the hurts and struggles of the year with a simple dusting of tinsel, a few rounds of carols and a nice mug of eggnog (if eggnog is your thing). Kuykendall advises readers to remember the Nativity story: all the struggles that were going on in that time in history, how so many people craved a positive change for peace... and what happened? A star suddenly appeared in the night sky shining a light so bright as to leave any observer awe-struck, so bright as to be able to guide three wise men to a random manger. A light in the darkness. The darkness doesn't go away for good, but having your heart in the right place helps keeps the hardships at bay. That's the idea here. Acknowledge the struggles but embrace the joy and grace found behind them. We will likely always be trying to fight off one evil or another in the world, but Kuykendall encourages you, when faced with dark times, to allow yourself to still be in awe of the marvels & beauties in the world, because if you keep yourself open enough, they will remind you that they are still out there. As she says, "This is a year to celebrate the good news within the context of our actual lives."



FTC Disclaimer:  Baker Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-12-28 23:29
The Greatest Gift by Phillip Van Doren Stern
The Greatest Gift: The Original Story That Inspired the Christmas Classic It's a Wonderful Life - Philip Van Doren Stern

For almost seventy years, people the world over have fallen in love with Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But few of those fans know that Capra’s film was based on a short story by author Philip Van Doren Stern, which came to Stern in a dream one night.  Unable at first to find a publisher for his evocative tale about a man named George Pratt who ponders suicide until he receives an opportunity to see what the world would be like without him, Stern ultimately published the story in a small pamphlet and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas card. One of those 200 cards found its way into the hands of Frank Capra, who shared it with Jimmy Stewart, and the film that resulted became the holiday tradition we cherish today.






It's likely that most of us by now have seen the Christmas classic film It's A Wonderful Life at least once by now... but honestly probably multiple times thanks to that copyright loophole that had television stations running it on an almost constant loop for years during the holiday season (that's since been fixed, which is why you don't really see it on tv much anymore). Being a big fan of classic film in general, I remember watching a documentary years ago where the director of the film, Frank Capra, mentioned that the idea came from a Christmas card. Well, I thought he meant someone sent him a Christmas card, and a regular one at that -- you know, the typical snowy scene with a nice 1-2 line sentiment inside. Wrong on both counts it turns, but more on that in a bit.


If by chance you're not familiar with this story, it's a short little tale about a one Mr. George Pratt (changed to Bailey in Capra's film version). George is a good-hearted guy, very selfless nature, always doing everything he can for friends and family even if it means him going without... but during one particularly hard Christmas season where money is unbelievably tight and George feels like he's being crushed by the stress of it all, he in his darkest moment considers what the world would've been like without him altogether. From a place of momentary pain and hopelessness, he makes the wish for this to be so, a wish granted by the angel Clarence. Immediately, George is able to see all the things that would've never come to be had he not been in the world. Through these sights, George is taught the lesson that every soul is important, every soul has a purpose, even if we don't see it right off or if it seems too inconsequential an existence to matter... believe that it does.


That's the basic gist of the story. Now how this story came to be: Well, Van Doren Stern, an editor for a publishing house that printed travel-size books for armed service members, first wrote up the story in 1938 after being inspired by a particularly vivid dream. He tried to sell it for publication, but it seemed at the time no magazine or newspaper offices had any interest in buying it. Van Doren Stern already had some 40 or so books published to his name but they were primarily non-fiction topics. He suspected that maybe he wasn't fluid enough in fiction writing for the story to flow quite the way he intended. His agent theorized that the idea of the story -- an angel temporarily making someone non-existent -- was too fantastical for most markets at that time. Saturday Evening Post rejected it, heck -- Van Doren Stern said he couldn't even sell it to any of the farming magazines! So he stuck the piece away, taking it out every so often to make little revisions here and there. Finally, in 1943, Van Doren Stern decided to pay to have 200 copies of the 24 page printed up. He then sent these out to friends and family as a unique kind of Christmas card that year!


A studio exec at RKO Pictures got ahold of a copy. By March 1944 RKO bought the movie rights to the story. The studio soon ran into trouble though... they found that even with the most skilled writers they had, no one there could quite figure out how to successfully translate the story to screen. Legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra had just gotten back from serving in World War 2, got wind of the story and soon agreed to direct the picture, even taking on the rewriting of the script himself (much to the relief of those RKO execs!). Capra got in touch with old friend Jimmy Stewart (who had been in a few Capra films previously and also newly back from serving in WW2) and quickly got him signed on to play George Bailey. The film was released December 1946 and a classic was born! Eventually.... because the film wasn't a huge box office smash right out of the gate. It took years (and that copyright glitch mentioned above) to build up the audience of beloved fans the film now has today. People became so in love with the film, the original short story has since largely fallen into obscurity! In their later years, Stewart with 70+ movie credits to his name, Capra having written / directed over 50 films himself, both said It's A Wonderful Life was their very favorite film of their careers, Capra even went on to say it was the best film he ever made. 


So how to the film & book compare? Well, there might be a reason the film is more well remembered. I personally found that while the original short story is sweet, I think I am pulled in more by the nostalgia and yearning for simpler times it stirs up rather than the writing itself. It's tough to read that the story went through multiple revisions because even now it's good, but not epic. It's the type of story you might find in an anthology of holiday stories, enjoy in the moment, but then largely forget about. I'd say Capra's interpretation of Van Doren Stern's idea helped keep both versions circulating in the minds of generations of people since the film's release.


While you'll find much of Van Doren Stern's original dialogue worked into the film script and the opening sequence of George saving his drowning brother was kept in the film, there were some notable changes. For one thing, Clarence the angel was much more delightfully memorable in the film. In the book he poses as a random brush salesman, which I found a little odd but as some say, "It was a different time back then." :-P So instead of Zuzu's bell at the end of the film, book Clarence leaves the family one of his brushes... yaaaay. :-S Also changed: the idea of "spinster librarian Mary" from the film was actually "Mary marries one of George's oldest & dearest friends" in the book :-P Mean Old Man Potter, the nasty, manipulative banker that runs Bedford Falls? Not even mean in the book! Nope, he's just a simple photographer in town! Fun fact though: After the movie's release, there were whispers that the film could be interpreted as Communist propaganda because Old Man Potter made bankers look like such an evil sort! 


I'd still recommend checking out the original story if you come across a copy. It's a short little thing so you could probably even read it online for free somewhere. I may not have liked it quite as much as the film but hey, I still gave it four stars for the warm fuzzy holiday factor, that element is definitely there! But this is another one where you're really just doubling up on enjoyment if you experience the story and the film together. 


We may go through some seriously tough times now and then, but as Capra himself said once in an interview shortly before his passing, "It really IS a wonderful life..."


Happy Holidays, everyone! 

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review 2016-12-15 23:20
Ex-Mas by Kate Brian
Ex-mas - Kate Brian

Seventeen-year-old Lila Beckwith's parents just left for vacation, and Lila's all set to throw the holiday party of the season. But when her Christmas-obsessed little brother, Cooper, discovers that global warming is melting the North Pole, he and his best friend, Tyler, take off on a runaway mission to save Santa. Lila has to get Cooper safely home before her parents get back on Christmas Eve. But the only person who can help her is Tyler's older brother, Beau — a.k.a. Lila's musician, anti-everything ex-boyfriend. It'll take more than a Christmas miracle for Lila and Beau to overcome their differences and find their fugitive brothers. But could a journey destined for disaster help these polar opposites fall in love...all over again?

~from back cover 





Seventeen year old Lila Beckwith's parents are taking off on a trip for part of the holiday season. Lila will be left home to house-sit as well as care for her eight year old brother, Cooper. She has plans for a blow-out party waiting in the wings but those plans are shot down when her brother decides to get little-brother petty and rat out her secret. To get back at him, Lila "accidentally" leaves out an article she got from her Earth Science class that hypothesizes how global warming might spell trouble for Santa this year. Lila knows her little brother still believes in Santa so she figures the article will hurt him a bit, but she has no clue just how far lil' Coop is about to take things!


Cooper, under the guise of hanging out at his best friend Tyler's house, manages to sneak out from the watch of his sister and board a train with Tyler (who just happens to be the little brother of Beau, Lila's grunge-lovin' ex-boyfriend that she currently has rather acidic feelings toward). Cooper and Tyler have a plan to travel to the North Pole to help Santa fight global warming and keep Christmas on track. So with two boys under the age of ten on the loose on the California railway system, Lila and Beau will have to set differences aside and round up their brothers before wind of the impromptu roadtrip gets back to their respective parents. Over the course of days that they find themselves on the road trying to catch up with their brothers' train schedules, Lila & Beau get to talking and discover that maybe they've always understood each other better than they realized and maybe just maybe there's a chance wrongs can be made right just in time for a magical, romantic-in-the-most-unlikely-of-ways Christmas. 


Beau swung back out through the door of the little store, and Lila watched him walk toward her. He had a way of walking like the world owed him something, and he wasn't afraid to hold out for it no matter what. It was a laid-back yet prickly saunter.


This is the first of Kate Brian's works I've tried, though I've heard of her Private series. Given the premise and the cutesy cover, it might be easy to initially dismiss this one as an easy breezy forgettable holiday fluff piece {confession: at least that's about as high as MY expectations going in were...}. While this is most definitely holiday fluff, it's of the best sort, in my book! You have your share of warm & fuzzy feels here, but I also like that it's balanced with families that aren't necessarily Christmas card perfect -- the tree might be up but these guys still argue, get stressed out, annoyed with each other... I can respect that realness!


I think having Beau and Lila start the story at a point where they can barely make eye contact they're so disgusted with each other was a good move as far as plot goes. The reader doesn't immediately have insta-love dumped on them from the first chapter and the build up of the "get a room already" kind of bickering was really well done, I thought. Beau and Lila start off each having their own way of exuding somewhat shallow or judgmental tendencies, but I'm impressed that for such a short story, author Kate Brian found a way to have them both go through emotional growth that seemed to unfold at a reasonable pace.


There was also a fun personal connection for me (being a born & raised Cali girl) having these characters be put on a roadtrip up the coast of California as I got to vicariously re-experience sights I grew up knowing so well but have been away from for quite some time. 


If you're looking for that fun & breezy Christmas read that's not SO sweet it'll feel like chugging a carton of nog, I'd definitely recommend giving this one a try. Coming from someone who has always considered Christmas her favorite holiday, I still say we need all the comic relief we can get this time of year and this one pulled some solid smiles out of me :-)

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review 2016-12-14 14:05
Jingle Bells, illustrated by Kathleen O'Malley
Jingle Bells - Kathleen O'Malley

This is a little holiday book, designed & manufactured with the idea of gifting I imagine, that I came across just recently.


I see no actual author's credit given anywhere in the book, only that it is published through Publications International, Ltd / PI Kids and the illustrations are done by Kathleen O'Malley. A website is provided, for anyone interested in looking up more of this company's catalog: pilbooks.com


Inspired by the classic Christmas song, this book features a quick little story for young readers that tells of a brother and sister who plan a holiday surprise for their family. Thinking they will both have to work at their respective jobs on Christmas Day, Andrew ( a clerk at a general store) and his sister Arabella (a schoolteacher) are informed that they, in fact, do have the day off. This allows the siblings to give their mother the best Christmas gift of all, time with the family all together!


Andrew's boss at the store, Mr. Ward, offers Andrew the use of his horse Nelly drive out to the family dairy farm. Andrew picks up his sister at the boarding house in town where she lives and off they go on a snowy sleigh ride through the woods, anticipating their mother's fresh cinnamon rolls they know she'll be baking and the look of surprise and joy on her face when she gets to see them! 


Within the story, Andrew whistles the "Jingle Bells" tune as Arabella talks excitedly, and the very last page features a full lyrics sheet to the classic song. The story itself is cutesy and heart-warming and the illustrations give it that little something extra to make this a sweet, cozy read for the littlest readers in your life. :-)


Happy Holidays! 

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