Friday, November 20, 2015

Ishtar's Odyssey {a Kregel Book Tour review}

I don't recall at all when we first read through Jotham's Journey by Arnold Ytreeide as an Advent devotional, but it seems it was at least a decade ago.  According to everything I see, it was published in 2008, though.  So a decade isn't possible.

Like so many other really great friendships, it just seems that these books have been part of our Advent lives forever.

Ishtar's Odyssey by Arnold Ytreeide is the fourth title in this Advent series. 

From the publisher:
A new Advent family devotional from the author of Jotham's Journey! Fourth in a set of Advent adventure books for families, Ishtar's Odyssey follows the ten-year-old son of a Persian wise man as their caravan follows a star across the desert. Ishtar would just as soon stay in the comfort of the palace, but slowly he learns that there's much to see, do, and learn in this world that can't be experienced in school. He eventually meets Jotham, Bartholomew, and Tabitha as he follows his father and uncles in their search for a newborn king.

Arnold Ytreeide's family advent devotionals have become a much-loved Christmas tradition, enjoyed by multiple generations. With over 100,000 in print they include Jotham's Journey, Bartholomew's Passage, and Tabitha's Travels.

Our thoughts:

If you've read Jotham's Journey, Bartholomew's Passage or Tabitha's Travels, you already have a pretty good idea as to what to expect.  Fairly short daily readings for the entirety of Advent, with lots of cliff-hanger endings from day to day.  The main narrative follows a child who is caught up in some aspect of the Christmas story, and that kid learns a thing or two over the course of the story in a bit of a coming-of-age series of events.  Mostly, though, it is encountering Christ, the son of God, that transforms their lives.  If you've read any of the sequels, you also know that the main character is going to encounter the kids (and other characters) from the past books as well.

A bit of a formulaic approach, sure.  But it still works.

This story focuses on the magi, the wise men from the East.  Ishtar is the rather pampered, self-important son of one of the wise men, and he isn't really a likable character at the start.  It took a bit longer than I expected for my kids to care at all for him, but eventually you can't help but get caught up in the story.

I think it is probably best to read these stories in order, but you do not have to have read the other three to enjoy this newest one.

This is a wonderful Advent tradition.  With Advent starting in just over a week, you still have time to obtain this and start in with this for your family.

Disclaimer:  I received this book through Kregel Blog Tours.  No other compensation was received.  All opinions expressed in this review are my own.   

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Another Way Home {a Litfuse Blog Tour review}

I started reading Deborah Raney's Chicory Inn series with the very first title, and the character I was immediately drawn to was Danae.  When I realized that each of siblings was going to have a book focused on them, I was immediately hoping the next one would be Danae's tale.

Finally, it is her turn.

Another Way Home by Deborah Raney was worth the wait.

From the publisher:
Sometimes God's ways are not at all what we expect . . . and exactly what we need.

Grant and Audrey are adding grandchildren to their family left and right, but middle daughter, Danae, and her husband, Dallas Brooks, have been trying for years with no baby in sight.

Though Danae is ready to consider adoption, Dallas will not even discuss it. Despairing of ever having a family of her own, Danae decides to pour her passion and energies into volunteer work with a newly opened women's shelter in town. Looking for a good cause to fill her lonely days, she never expects to give her heart to the hurting women she meets there. She's finally learning to live her life with gratitude, but then heart-wrenching events on Thanksgiving weekend threaten to pull the entire Whitman clan into turmoil-and leave them all forever changed.
Two Roads Home involved Danae swapping homes with her older sister, and now at the start of Another Way Home she is in this big, beautiful dream home, decorating a nursery, with no real hope of ever being able to fill it.  Danae is in full-blown feeling sorry for myself mode, and isn't a very pleasant person to be around.  Like her sisters' stories, this one has a rather unlikeable person go through some transformations during the events of the book, and end up a much more mature and all-around better person by the end.

This book touched me also because of the subject of adoption.  I have a passel of adopted cousins.  The eldest one has adopted a baby herself, from the same orphanage she had been at.  Another cousin, I just found out, is in the process of adopting an older child.  I love reading about adoption.

Unlike the other two books though, I actually liked Danae, even when she was wallowing in self-pity.

Maybe it is because I hung out in that same pity party locale years ago, where I didn't relate to the issues facing Danae's sisters.

Maybe it is that all of the characters are more fleshed out and real now in this third book.

I'm not entirely sure, but I do look forward to the next installment with the Whitman family soon. 

Disclaimer:  I received this book through LitFuse Blog Tour.  No other compensation was received.  All opinions expressed in this review are my own.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

2015 Blue Ribbon Awards

Another Crew year is closing out this week, which I find really hard to believe.  Especially because effective this month, I'm leading this group.  I don't believe I've actually announced that on my blog before now.

This year has been crazy for me.  I usually end up using -- and reviewing -- quite a few products over the course of the year.  Mom died right as the reviews were truly kicking off, and it seems like I've spent all year long trying to get back on track and up to speed.  And suddenly, the year is ending.

So, while I reviewed pretty much nothing this year for the Crew, we have used a bunch of these.  So I'll be commenting on things here.

At the end of each Crew year, we get a chance to vote for our favorite products in a whole lot of categories.  Here are the results:

2015 Schoolhouse Review Crew Blue Ribbon Awards

Favorite Reading Curriculum: Reading Kingdom
Favorite Writing Curriculum: Institute for Excellence in Writing
Favorite Vocabulary Program: Dynamic Literacy
Favorite Spelling Program: Institute for Excellence in Writing: Phonetic Zoo
Favorite Grammar Program: Institute for Excellence in Writing: Fix-It! Grammar
Favorite Penmanship Program: CursiveLogic
Favorite Literature Curriculum: Progeny Press

Among the language arts related products, we used all of the winners, and we really did love them.

Favorite History Curriculum: Home School in the Woods
Favorite History Supplement: Heirloom Audio Productions: In Freedom's Cause
Favorite Science Curriculum: Visual Learning Systems
Favorite Science Supplement: Ann McCallum Books: Eat Your Science Homework
Favorite Math Curriculum: CTC Math
Favorite Math Supplement: SimplyFun

Other core curricula are all fantastic too -- everyone was using CTC Math, Heirloom makes so many great audio dramas, Home School in the Woods is a bit overwhelming for me, but oh so worthwhile!

Favorite Christian Education Curriculum: Grapevine Studies
Favorite Christian Education Supplement: Brinkman Adventures
Favorite Foreign Language Curriculum: Middlebury Interactive Language
Favorite Fine Arts Product: Maestro Classics
Favorite Elective Curriculum: Apologia Educational Ministries: Field Trip Journal
Favorite Audio Drama: Brinkman Adventures
Favorite Video:

My one and only review is above -- Maestro Classics was simply wonderful.  The Nutcracker.  Loved that.  But we are making use of most of the other products too.

Favorite Elementary Product: Star Toaster
Favorite Middle School Product: The Critical Thinking Co
Favorite High School Product: Writing with Sharon Watson
Favorite College or College-Prep Product: Freedom Project Education
Favorite Parent Product: Koru Naturals
Favorite Planning Product: Apologia Educational Ministries: The Ultimate Homeschool Planner

Three of my absolute favorite products this year are in the above section.  The Critical Thinking Co. has a critical thinking title for middle school that we are absolutely loving.  Writing with Sharon Watson's Illuminating Literature is a wonderful (and boy-friendly) high school literature course.  And Koru Naturals introduced me to emu oil, something I'm not sure I could live without anymore.

Best Resource I Didn't Know I Needed: Homeschool Planet
Best Online Resource: Super Teacher Worksheets
Best e-Product: Home School in the Woods
Just for Fun: USAopoly
Kids' Choice: La La Logic
Teens' Choice: YWAM Publishing
All Around Crew Favorite: Institute for Excellence in Writing

I was not surprised that IEW is on the list for All Around Crew Favorite!

Members of the 2015 Schoolhouse Review Crew are sharing their thoughts about the Blue Ribbon Award winners and the companies they voted for who may not have won.  Go check that out.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Faith of Our Fathers {a FlyBy review and Giveaway}

When I was in high school, I had a really good (male) friend, and one evening we decided to go see a movie.  We ended up seeing The Killing Fields, which was a movie neither of us knew anything about, at all, but it was what was playing next when we got there.

Turned out, as you probably know, that it related to the Vietnam War, and Cambodia in particular.  That evening, I learned some things about my friend that I didn't know.  Like that his dad was really his stepdad.  His real dad died in Cambodia.

It was a fairly emotional night for both of us.

I was vaguely aware of the Vietnam War as a child, but only vaguely.  It had never occurred to me before then that real people, you know, like friends' dads, had died there. 

The synopsis of Faith of Our Fathers reminded me so much of that friend of mine. 

About the movie:
John Paul and Wayne are two young men in search of their fathers.  Problem is...their fathers have been dead for 25 years.  Eddie and Steven are two young men in search of their sons...whom they've never met.  In 1969, Eddie and Steven are with their squad deep in the jungle of Vietnam on a five-day mission to retrieve fallen comrades.  They write letters to their wives, often mentioning their love for their sons, one, who is an infant and one yet to be born.  In 1994, John Paul and Wayne go on a five day road trip to the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC to see their fathers' names.  Along the way, reading those letters, they begin to get an understanding of who their fathers were and how they died.  Trials and mishaps, both funny and sad, complicate the road trip for the boys.  The horrors of war and the testing of faith manifest themselves for the young men in Vietnam.  Ultimately, in parallel stories - 25 years apart - the fathers and sons are bound together forever. 
John Paul and Wayne are a little younger than my friend, but the whole idea of seeking to know the father you never got to know in real life struck me.  I know every war results in casualties -- and many of those men would have left behind children who never knew them.  It seems that the Vietnam War resulted in so many more of those situations.

Maybe the anti-war protests and the horrible treatment of returning soldiers made some of this even worse for these kids.

It is something to think about.  And I think movies like this are important.  We get a chance to identify with both sides -- the fathers and the sons who were left behind. 

Check out the trailer:

I have to say that there was definitely a fair amount of scenes that felt pretty contrived, and there was some awkward dialogue. 

Even still, I was cheering for a positive ending (knowing I wouldn't truly get a happy one).

I have a copy to give away!  US and Canada only, please.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

"Disclosure (in accordance with the FTC’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”): Many thanks to Propeller Consulting, LLC for providing this prize for the giveaway. Choice of winners and opinions are 100% my own and NOT influenced by monetary compensation. I did receive a sample of the product in exchange for this review and post.

Only one entrant per mailing address, per giveaway. If you have won a prize from our sponsor Propeller / FlyBy Promotions in the last 30 days, you are not eligible to win. If you have won the same prize on another blog, you are not eligible to win it again. Winner is subject to eligibility verification.”

This grief thing is weird

Yesterday was an unusual day.

Lots of activities going on, which is good.  A huge party/celebration for the community after church, complete with bouncy houses, cotton candy, pie-eating contests, lots of food, lots of candy -- just an all around fun/crazy time.

And a chat with a friend I haven't seen for awhile who recently became a widow.

And then last night was packing Operation Christmas Child boxes, which also included a whole lot of crazy activity, and a bunch more not-necessarily-healthy food.

And a chat with a friend who I see frequently, who has been a widow for a bit over a year now. 

In both of those chats, we discussed loss, grief, dealing with things.  The recent widow seems to be at a pretty good place right at this moment.  The not-as-recent one had a rough day because of a birthday party, and seeing folks that she and her husband had done things with for a lot of years.

It occurred to me last night, as I did my traditional hug and "Goodnight, my 14-year-old" routine with my middle child, that my mom won't be calling him tomorrow to wish him a happy birthday.  And that means I won't be talking to her tomorrow either.

This grief thing is weird.  It takes happy occasions and makes them hard sometimes.  And from talking with that second friend, I know this is a long-term thing.

Maybe by writing this out, I'll get my crying done here in the middle of the night, and tomorrow I can be happy with my birthday boy.  And not cry when Dad calls.  I doubt I'll pull off the last one though.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Lightning Struck: a Book and Unit Study review

I have always been fascinated by the life of Martin Luther.  I'm sure that growing up in the Lutheran Church was a big part of that.  As a kid, though, I would learn bits of his story here, and parts of it there, but I was never exposed to anything truly comprehensive.

I would have absolutely loved When Lightning Struck! The Story of Martin Luther by Danika Cooley.

Book description:
When Lightning Struck! is the story of Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, written for young adults.

Martin Luther's life was too exciting not to be written for teens and younger readers! In this fast-paced, action-packed novel of Martin Luther's life, teen readers (and more than a few adults!) will be introduced to a fascinating time when princes ruled Europe and knights roamed the countryside. They'll learn about a time when powerful forces lined up against each other and believing the wrong thing could get you killed.

When Lightning Struck! is far more than just an adventure story, of course. It also tells a theological story. Drawing carefully from Luther's own words, this book introduces readers to a kindred spirit who struggled with what knowing God through Scripture means for daily life. They will understand what was at stake and how powerfully liberating Luther's idea of grace through faith was—in his time and in ours!

In crisp, enjoyable prose, author Danika Cooley conveys both the drama and the meaning of the Reformation for younger readers like no one before her!

This book is intended to work for kids as young as 3rd grade, and it is fascinating for adults too.  With an emphasis on action (see excerpt to the left), the story starts off with the life-changing thunderstorm in 1505 that led Luther to become a monk.  The story then shifts back to his childhood and goes sequentially from there.

We've been using this as a read-aloud with children ages 9 to 18.  It certainly keeps everyone's attention!

The book all by itself is really terrific, but what makes this even more amazing is some of the resources that are available with it.

If you visit Danika's site, you can find a Discussion Guide that is completely free to download.  The Discussion Guide includes a page for every one or two chapters.  The pages are colorful, with a few discussion questions in a box, but there is more than that.  Each page also includes a box with timeline information that covers not only the events talked about in that chapter, but also other major events.  About half of the pages include some type of background information, such as a brief biography of Ulrich Zwingli.  The other half include a mini Bible Study.  The pages also have some sort of artwork.

You can also find a 12-week Unit Study for grades 6-12 that is free for subscribers.  The Unit Study includes the pages from the Discussion Guide, but there is so much more than just that.  A summary page each includes possible assignments for history, science, geography, writing, vocabulary and art.  That is followed by a whole lot of notebooking pages, including a study of an artist and five of his works.  The final page is a copywork page.

We aren't using all of this, but it is nice to be able to pick and choose and add what works in my family.

Bottom line:  If you are studying the Reformation time period, this is a great addition to that study.  If you want to add a bit of church history to your children's lives, this is an awesome choice.  I wouldn't necessarily use the book if my oldest was a 3rd grader, but it has been terrific with my range of kids.  And the study guide has been fantastic for everyone from 4th-12th grades as well.  I think Trina is just used to her materials being a bit over her.

Go.  Get it.

Oh, and go enter the amazing Reformation Day Giveaway.

Friday, November 6, 2015

On a Winter's Night {a Family Christian review and giveaway}

Friends of mine have been complaining about Christmas music being on the radio already.  And while I understand that sentiment, I also just love Christmas music and am thrilled to be able to listen to it longer than just in December.

Which is one of the things I love about doing reviews.  I get the chance to "have to" listen to a CD like On a Winter's Night by Jim Brickman.

"I know it is only November, honey, but this is a review!"

I love it.

When Family Christian gave me this opportunity, I knew I had to go for it.  Lots of years ago, my sister-in-law gave me a Jim Brickman CD (or tape?  Could it be that long ago?) for my birthday.  I had never heard of him, and I probably rolled my eyes a bit, as I sometimes get a little weird about other people's ideas about music I'd enjoy.

But I loved it.  If it was a tape, I'm sure I wore it out.

The publisher describes this pretty simply:
Jim Brickman has revolutionized the sound of solo piano with his pop-style instrumentals and star studded vocal collaborations. That trend continues with On A Winter's Night, which is a soothing collection of personal favorites on solo piano.

My thoughts:

I love this.  There is a great mix of music on here, many of which sound very traditional.  Lots have little riffs of traditional songs in there, and that mix is just so pretty to listen to.

About two-thirds feature just the piano, which are really my favorites.  A few feature someone singing.  Kenny Rogers, John Oates, and a bunch of names I don't recognize.  They all have beautiful voices, and they fit their songs so well.

One also has a violinist, Tracy Silverman.  This is simply beautiful.  Christmas in Brazil.

I think my favorite song is the piano-only version of Blue Christmas.  I am a big Elvis fan, so I am partial to this song.  And this wordless version is lovely.

My kids love John Oates singing Night Before Christmas.  The words are not quite exactly the same as in the poem, but they are so very close. 

The best part of this CD is that the music is just so gentle and not completely in-your-face Christmas music, so listening in November doesn't seem wrong at all, and it will be quite relaxing as Christmas gets closer too.

I have a copy of this amazing CD to give away!  US only please.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book and an additional copy for a giveaway, free from Family Christian Stores through the Family Christian Blogger program.  This post does contain affiliate links.  I was not required to write a positive review, and any affiliate relationship does not impact my opinions. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Ology {a Litfuse Blog Tour review}

One issue I've had with our life in general is that I don't feel like my kids are getting anything at all like the basic theological foundation that I experienced during my two years of confirmation classes.

My adult son is going through a New Member Class at church that seems to be covering a lot of that type of thing.  And eventually I'll find something to do with my other teens, I am sure.

But I've found a fabulous option for my elementary/middle school children.  The Ology: Ancient Truths Ever New by Marty Machowski is a fantastic book.  I may even use it with my teens on our second run through it, but more on that later.

From the publisher:
A page-turning storybook of theology for kids

In the cellar of the old stone cathedral, Carla and Timothy uncover a life-changing treasure, a carefully wrapped ancient book known as The Ology. What adults might describe as a beautifully illustrated storybook of systematic theology, the kids discover to be a story of adventure, mystery, and wonder that leads them to the truth about God, themselves, and the world around them.

Truth is for kids, not just for adults! So The Ology gives kids of all ages a beginner's theology book to help them understand who God is and how we, as his children, relate to him. Arranged within a traditional systematic theological framework, each truth in The Ology is also connected to the larger redemptive story of Scripture. The doctrine of God, for example, is presented in the larger framework of creation, where the attributes of God are more clearly on display. The Ology takes abstract theological concepts and makes them easier to understand with the use of creative examples, illustrations, and analogies. The goal is not to say everything that could be said about a theological topic, but rather to share the key thoughts behind a theological concept. The Ology is a starting point to learning theology and aims to create a hunger and desire in children to learn more as they grow older.

Designed for six-year-olds through preteens, this flexible resource includes built-in adaptations for use with younger or older children, so that entire families can enjoy it together. Read The Ology to preschoolers, read it with grade-school kids, and let older kids discover the "hidden" truths by reading the corresponding Scripture passages for each section. However you read it, The Ology will give your children a gift that will last a lifetime---a solid foundation of life-changing biblical truth that will point them to the God who loves them and gave himself for them.

Our thoughts:

This book is split into 71 sections, organized in eleven topic areas.  The sections are pretty short, which is great, as you can read through them in just a few minutes.  The broader topics include:
  • The Ology of God
  • The Ology of People
  • The Ology of Sin
  • The Ology of the Promise and the Law
  • The Ology of Christ
  • The Ology of the Holy Spirit
  • The Ology of Adoption into God's Family
  • The Ology of Change
  • The Ology of Church
  • The Ology of the End Times
  • The Ology of God's Word
Systematic Theology for kids.  Seriously, how much better does it get than this?

We are working through one section per day, which is suggested in the introductory materials.  for ages 10-12, they suggest reading through the book to get a big picture overview of the theology covered here.  Then, the suggestion is to go back through the book, one section at a time, looking up the Scripture references, which are incorporated into the beautiful illustrations by Andy McGuire.  They can journal their way through this, listing the Scriptures, commenting on how that ties together, and also answering discussion questions.

I suspect that we will just discuss the discussion questions, but I love the idea of them putting together a journal.

I'm impressed.  Go see a sample of The Ology for yourself.  And then go see what others had to say on this Blog Tour.

Disclaimer:  I received this book through LitFuse Blog Tour.  No other compensation was received.  All opinions expressed in this review are my own.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Nutcracker by Maestro Classics {a Schoolhouse Review Crew review}

Maestro Classics Review
I have to start this review off by saying that I simply love Maestro Classics.  I have not met a product of theirs that I didn't like, and I own them all.  I was absolutely thrilled to receive The Nutcracker this year, especially given that it is narrated by Jim Weiss. 

I first discovered Maestro Classics during my very first year on The Schoolhouse Review Crew.  Six years ago, I had the honor to review The Tortoise and the Hare, and we fell in love.  A year later, we were reviewing Peter and the Wolf, and then Swan Lake a year after that.

The Nutcracker though?  That just makes my heart go pitter-patter.

Maestro Classics Review

Most of the Maestro Classics titles include the narrated music, some discussion of various aspects of the music, and the music without narration, along with fun little extras.  My kids particularly love the sections where Stephen Simon, the conductor, talks about the music.

The Nutcracker is different from that standard.  It is only the narrated music.

And it is wonderful.

The London Philharmonic performs.  Of course it is wonderful.

The narration, written and spoken by Jim Weiss is superb.  He tells the story, of course, but he tells of so much more than that.  At one point, he is describing what 'pirouette' means, which I thought was great.  If you've ever seen a performance of The Nutcracker, the narration really helps you to picture the ballet in your head while you listen.

Included with the CD is a little booklet.  This contains a list of the various scenes of the ballet.  There is a two-page spread about ballet, which is a perfect length.  Did you know that women didn't dance in ballets until the middle of the 18th century?

There is also a spread about the harp, where I learned quite a bit.  Another spread gives a brief biography of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky.  And finally there are a couple word puzzles.

Maestro Classics is making it even easier to use their materials as part of a music education now, as they have been developing Curriculum Guides to go with their CDs.

This is really amazing!

For The Nutcracker, the guide gives information about ballet, including links to videos, discussion of nutrition, exercise and games.  You can learn more about how Christmas is celebrated around the world.  There is material on the history and science of nutcrackers.  Then you get into fairy tales for a language arts section.  Hands-on families can make a nutcracker, or cut out ballerina snowflakes.  There is more information so you can study Tchaikovsky more in depth.  And there is even math.

Now, I'm not a unit study mom at all, but I am absolutely planning to spend some time using this curriculum guide with my kids in December.

And by kids, I mean all of them.  I believe Maestro Classics claims their materials to be targeted to a fairly young age group (8-12 maybe?) but I have to say that I have used their materials with all of my kids all along.  For that first review of Tortoise and the Hare, my kids were three to twelve, and the CDs were a great fit for every one of them.  Now, they range from nine to eighteen, and the CDs are still a great fit for all of them.

If I were going to be attending any production of The Nutcracker with children of any age, really, I would purchase this CD and have the kids listen to it a few times before going.  The child would then be familiar with the storyline, and also with the music, and be free to enjoy the dancing part without the distraction of trying to figure out what is happening in the story.

My bottom line:

I have been so very impressed with Maestro Classics over the years, and I will continue to purchase everything they make.  While we love some of the titles more than others, we have yet to be disappointed by any of them.  Although I received The Nutcracker as part of the Crew, I have purchased most of the dozen titles they have.

These are well worth owning.

Go see what other Crew members have to say about The Nutcracker and Peter and the Wolf by clicking the Crew banner below:

Maestro Classics Review

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