Friday, March 20, 2015

{Book} Review: A Plague of Unicorns by Jane Yolen

Disclosure: I received this product free in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. Your opinions and results may vary.

When you come across a book titled A Plague of Unicorns, it kind of makes you pause and wonder what on earth that could be about! 
In that first autumn of Aelian's rule, when the golden apples were at their ripest, the battle lines were drawn--monks against unicorns. 
It was never a fair fight.   
Young James, the duke's son, asks too many questions. At least that's what everyone at Callendar Castle thinks after all but the last of his tutors quits and his uncle ships him off to be educated at Cranford Abbey.  Unfortunately, the once-beautiful abbey has problems of its own, including cracked walls, a leaking roof, and shattered stained glass windows.  Not to mention the pesky herd of unicorns that continues to enter the abbey's orchards and claim them as their own. 
The only hope to save the abbey, it seems, is money raised by Abbot Aelian's golden apple cider, made from a recipe passed down in his family for generations.  But that means getting rid of the orchard's unwelcome visitors.  And, as everyone knows, unicorns have very sharp horns.  Monks do not. 
James has an idea that could help defeat these hungry beasts, but first must find someone to listen to him.  For once, he might be the only one asking the right questions. And the only one who knows the perfect hero for the job. 

It turns out, this book is as quirky and delightful as its title suggests!  I have read many books that take place in abbeys or boarding schools and plenty of books with monks, orchards, or mythical beasts.  But I have to say that this is the first book I have ever read that has entwined these elements in such a hilarious and compelling story.  I found myself literally laughing aloud in spots.

I enjoyed the writing style as well as the two-part perspective that is used to first give the background story of the unicorn problem and then tell the story of little James.  Authoress Jane Yolen never fails to delight!

James' many questions -- some of the utmost absurdity -- reminded me a little of myself as a child and also of my 8-year-old daughter who chatters my ears off from time to time with her incessant questions and "what ifs."

A Plague of Unicorns
Written by Jane Yolen
ISBN: 978-0310746485
Publisher: ZonderKids
186 pages

Any child -- boy or girl -- who enjoys colorful depictions of life in a bygone era or is tickled by little twists of humor throughout a story will thoroughly enjoy this book.  Adults who enjoy YA literature may also enjoy this story -- I certainly did!  The ending has a lovely little twist that didn't take me by surprise, but might well take younger readers by surprise...and delight them!  But if you want to know what it is, you will have to read it for yourself!  At under 200 pages, it's a quick read, so what do you have to lose?

Find it from the publisher here or on Amazon.

I review for BookLook Bloggers

Sunday, February 15, 2015

{Book} Review: Beneath the Forsaken City by C.E. Laureano

Disclosure: I received this product free in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. Your opinions and results may vary.

It has been a very long time since I read a book for pleasure.  I read with the kids, I read for the kids (i.e. parenting & homeschooling books), but rarely a book for pleasure.  In fact, the last time I did was (oh, this is embarrassing) about a year ago when I read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

So when I got the chance to read a Christian fantasy novel for review, I decided it was an opportunity I didn't want to pass up.

I didn't realize it when I first started, but Beneath the Forsaken City is actually Book Two in the Song of Seare series.  Having not read the first book, Oath of the Brotherhood, didn't slow me down a bit.  I was able to jump straight into the story and follow along without any trouble.  Although clearly I might have had a better understanding of the characters had I spent time with them in the first book.

About the Book

A Storm on the Horizon.
A Brotherhood Scattered. 
Conor and Aine have barely escaped Seare with their lives. Conor knows he must return to find the harp that could end the Red Druid’s reign of terror, but in the midst of their escape, he and Aine are torn apart once more. Surrounded by despair and thrown into as much danger as they left behind, Conor and Aine must cling to the whispers of Comdiu’s plans for them and the homeland that depends on their survival. But at what cost? Will they learn to depend on Comdiu completely? Or will they give up hope?

There is nothing I like more than a steaming hot bath after a long trying day.  Having an engaging book to read makes it even better!  And that is how I cracked the cover of Beneath the Forsaken City.  I blazed through the first three chapters before turning to a prune.  After all that relaxing, my bed was calling.  But it only took me two more days to finish the book.  And that's with homeschooling my kids and executing all my other household obligations!

The story begins with Conor and Aine escaping on a large sailing ship.  There had been a violent battle and though I admit I got a little lost at first with all the Celtic names of clans and individuals -- I gather I would have been less confused if I had read the first book -- it wasn't long before I was sucked into their world, their fears and hopes becoming my fears and hopes.

Beneath the Forsaken City
Written by C.E. Laureano (Facebook, Twitter, G+)
ISBN: 978-1612916316
Publisher: NavPress, in alliance with Tyndale House Publishers
416 pages

What I Thought

There is nothing I like more than a steaming hot bath after a long trying day.  Having an engaging book to read makes it even better!  And that is how I cracked Beneath the Forsaken City.  I blazed through the first three chapters before turning to a prune.  After all that relaxing, my bed was calling.  But it only took me two more days to finish the book.  And that's with homeschooling my kids and executing all my other household obligations!

Other than C.S. Lewis, I had never read a Christian fantasy book before.  I was a little skeptical going in, worried I wouldn't like what I encountered.  But the opposite could not be more true.  Not only did I absolutely love the story, but I loved the way the author created a world in which the characters serve Comdiu who has a Son named Balus.  I loved the magic component and the way the good characters who had magic were trying to use it correctly in a way that served Comdiu.  There were, of course, also bad characters who would rather use magic to serve their own ends.  This was all very new to me!

Beyond enjoying the content, I was very pleased that the author used words.  And by that I mean that I did not feel that my intelligence was insulted by dumbed down language.  I confess I went in with a bit of hesitation, afraid I would find the writing to be poor and unimaginative.  But my very first impression, before I even had a sense of who the characters actually were, was that the book was written very eloquently.  And I appreciated that very much!

I didn't take the book as a moralistic allegory the way some Christian novels try to be.  Instead, I felt a kinship with the characters who faced realistic struggles in the way they were attempting to live out their faith and battle against a world dominated by an Adversary.  I could identify with many of their faults and misgivings as well as their triumphs.  It was a more natural parallel to my own experiences than I had expected.

My only complaints were the Gaelic names.  I didn't discover the pronunciation guide in the back until I had finished the book (oops!) so I had no idea that sidhe was pronounced "shee" for example.  If you have more experience with Irish or Scottish Gaelic, you may not find this a problem and if you don't, I recommend you consult the glossary in the back sooner than I did!

All in all, I highly recommend this book if you are looking for an engaging read -- I haven't mentioned all the wonderful twists and turns in the plot; you'll have to discover those for yourself -- and I will keep an eye out for a third book in this series!

Find it from the publisher here or on Amazon.  

Tyndale Blog Network

Missing photos

I finally went and deleted my old Wordpress blog, but in doing so it looks like my oldest posts have lost all their images!  Doh!

No worries, I have them all saved on my computer, but it will take me some time to get them re-uploaded and fixed.  In the mean time, please enjoy my more recent posts.

Friday, February 13, 2015

School Room Tour 2015

Before we moved, we lived in a 900 sq. ft. duplex with a multipurpose kitchen that served as our cooking room, dining room, home office, and school room.  When we bought this house we added about half again as much living space.  The kids now get their own bedrooms and though the kitchen is smaller now, we gained a finished room in the basement that has been turned into a family room/school room!

On one end of the room is a bright fluorescent light in the ceiling.  I positioned our table near it because it lends itself well to bookwork.  We all sit at this table when we need to fill out worksheets or write or draw or color.  There is built in storage behind the table that we use to corral all our school books for the year.  We haven't implemented workboxes since the move and might not since things have been working so smoothly for us so far this year.

Hubby's treadmill is down there which is nice when it's bitter cold outside and one of the children need to burn off a little energy.  Just past the treadmill along the same wall is a little folding table I covered with a pretty cloth and positioned a TV/DVD player on a lazy susan.  Hubby turns it toward the treadmill when he runs and the kids turn it toward their beanbag chairs on the floor when I have a DVD from the library for them to watch.  This is a new addition to our routine and we love the cozy feel of it!

I often find Miss M camped out with her books at this table instead of our main one.  The lighting isn't as good, but I think she likes having a sort of walled-in feeling to help herself focus on the task at hand a little better.  Otherwise she tends to get off task a bit too easily.

Of course, I couldn't let a perfectly good white wall go to waste, so I put up our adorable kids from Oriental Trading.

On the opposite side of the room from the treadmill and TV table there is a wet bar.  Now this was always a little amusing to us from the first time we looked at the house because we don't drink, but hey, as homeschoolers having a wet bar is awesome!  Instant science lab and art center, right?  We're using a portion of the bar as a little tea center!  Every morning when we come down into the chilly basement, there is a fresh pot of hot tea brewed and waiting for us.  It's utter luxury!  And it's something special that the kids look forward to.

The bar countertop is divided by a support pillar on which I affixed our trusty whiteboard.  On it I display our memory verse for the week, and occasionally solve a math problem or two.

Behind the bar is a bunch of built in storage space.  In fact, in the whole room there is a bunch of built in storage space (score!), but let's first take a peak in the  storage behind the bar.

That is where I keep all our office supplies, school supplies, and basic craft supplies.  You'll find pencil boxes of markers, colored pencils, glue sticks, safety scissors, and more.  I have stacks of papers, bottles of glue, glitter, craft sticks, pompoms, and the like.  Everything is neatly labeled with my handy labeler and so far it has remained fairly tidy in spite of heavy use by two artistically inclined kiddos!

Now we're coming to the best part of the whole room!  It's an awesome built in nook complete with a mountain lake background scene.  There is storage space beneath the seat and in closets on both sides.  One closet holds all our board games and the other holds various less frequently needed homeschooling paraphernalia.  The ceiling slopes down just before the nook making a perfect place to hang our flags of the world!

I've been stalking Target's clearance section to get more pillows because every reading nook needs a plethora of plump pillows to make it more inviting.  One thing I've always wanted was a place to display some of our library books to tempt the kids' reading appetites rather than only having them available inside a box, basket, or crate.  The past few weeks I've been putting a few choice titles on display like this and it has been a huge hit.  Not only do the kids gravitate toward them, but they make comments about how the cover looks uninteresting, but they read it anyway and find out that the content is wonderful.  If that's not a win, I don't know what is!

To one side of the book nook is our children's library.  I put two 9-cube shelves side by side and arranged our collection of reference books and kids books there.  They are roughly arranged by topic with science in a group, social studies/geography in a group, etc.  I set up some little camp chairs, but eventually I'd like to put some big beanbags or lounge pillows there in their place.

Our curriculum recommends the use of a Book Basket™ to "spread the feast" of books for the kids.  This gives them exposure to various perspectives on the topics we are studying at a given time.  I have two Book Baskets, one for Mister E (kindergarten) and one for Miss M (4th grade).  The one I use for kindergarten is actually a cheap wire dish rack.  I like it because it separate the books with the little wire dividers making it easier for the little Mister to see what's there and removes frustration in trying to get out the ones he wants.

Miss M's book basket is a little more traditional -- an actual basket marketed for use by libraries.  It sits up on top of one of the 9-cube shelves.  These baskets typically hold books from the public library, but I do sometimes toss in some of our own books and magazines and even the occasional DVD.

And that is our school room!  It probably won't look exactly like this for long because like most homeschool spaces, it is constantly evolving to meet our needs.  The biggest boon to having a dedicated school space is that when lunchtime comes we can literally leave behind our work, spread out as it is, go upstairs and eat lunch, then return and get back to work.  Whereas before, by necessity, we had to pack up and put away our school work in order to eat at the same table we were schooling at and then pack up and put away lunch before redeploying the books after lunch!  Besides, it's such a pleasant place that we all like to hang out down there even after school is over for the day!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Home for Sycamore Hill

Two months ago we closed on our first house!  We were on break from school at the time, which was a huge blessing.  After getting moved and settling in a little (digging ourselves out of boxes!) it was Christmas and then time to start a new school year.  And all the while I've neglected my poor blog!

It's not much, but it's OURS!

But I'm back now!  And I'm going to show you our new school room set up in the basement.  It's ah-MAY-zing to have a dedicated school space!  Being able to just run upstairs for lunch and return to our open books and half-finished papers is a huge blessing.  Not to mention the fantastic built-in storage.  It's homeschooler heaven!  (Well, maybe not.  That would probably be a house with far more square footage on an acreage, but...I'm content!)

We are no longer in a small town, but smack-dab in the city.  This is mostly good, but has a few draw-backs.  Everything is so much more accessible and yet we are saving beaucoup bucks on gas since Hubby cut his commute from 45 miles per day to 45 miles per week.  But we're a lot further from "nature" and will miss our many woodland visitors.  Though we've been quite excited by the squirrel population and visiting winter birds.

I've been taking lots of pictures and am putting together a virtual tour of our homeschool space, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Fish Nuggets & Hush Puppies

I love discovering new recipes online.  I hardly use cookbooks (but I pin plenty of recipes on Pinterest). I'm always trying new recipes and I've decided to try to post more of our family's favorites on my blog this year!

Tonight I made delicious fish nuggets and hush puppies!  Hubby said they taste exactly like Long John Silver's.  I'd like to think they taste even better.  They were a big hit!!

I made both nuggets and hush puppies at the same time, frying them together in batches in the oil.

Fish Nuggets


3-4 fish fillets, I used swai fillets
3/4 cup flour
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
3/4 cup water
enough oil to fill a large skillet about 1 inch deep


Cut fish into 2-inch pieces.
Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
Add water and stir until just combined.
Heat oil to between 360 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Coat each piece of fish in the batter and fry until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes per side.
Sprinkle lightly with salt.

Hush Puppies


1 small onion, minced
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
1/2 c. yellow cornmeal
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. dried parsley
1 large egg
1 c. milk


Combine the minced onion, flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, sugar, onion powder, and parsley in a bowl. Whisk the egg and milk in another bowl. Whisk the egg mixture into the flour mixture until just combined.
Heat oil to between 360 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Carefully drop tablespoonfuls of batter into the hot oil.  Fry about 4 minutes per side.  Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet using tongs or a slotted spoon. Sprinkle lightly with salt.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: Homeschool Planet

We have been off from school since before Thanksgiving when our school year ended.  In that time, we celebrated both the kids' birthdays, two major holidays, bought a house and moved!  It's been a bit hectic to say the least.  Now that we're getting settled at our new place, I’ve been spending some time working out our lesson plan for the coming school year: slotting in spelling lists and math assignments, divvying up science units and lining up books to read for both personal reading time and family read-aloud time.  And I’ve got JUST the tool to help me do it!

everything you need to organize your home
and homeschool in an easy-to-use online planner

Honestly, I don’t have time to learn new software at this point in my life.  And it’s not because I’m slow on the uptake when it comes to technology!  I’m pretty savvy!  But time is a precious commodity for a homeschool mama.  That’s the thing I’ve loved the most about Homeschool Planet; it’s completely intuitive!  I have been able to do everything I’ve wanted without struggling to figure out how.  

My favorite features

  • BOTH a Calendar View and a Planner View: ‘cause variety is the spice of life, right? Plus, sometimes you need to view information in different ways.
  • Separate logins for Miss M to view her own assignments and check them off when complete.  What better motivator than a chance to use the computer, right?
  • Color Coding: need I say more?  I love the wide range of colors to choose from!  They make the whole thing more lovely to look at and easier to navigate.
  • Blocking out the school year: like Amy at One Blessed Mama, I love being able to block out our Sabbath Schooling schedule (generally about 6 weeks on, 1 week off).  Homeschool Planet has made this supremely easy and even allowed me to make last minute adjustments without throwing all my lessons out of whack!  That right there?  That’s gold, baby!
  • Automatic Rescheduling: every homeschool mama knows she needs to be able to shift lessons when Life Happens.  Homeschool Planet makes this super simple.  With the click of a button you can reschedule a single assignment, merge it with another day, or shift the entire class down by a day (or more!)
  • Not limited to just lessons: one thing I don’t want to do is juggle a calendar for school, for church activities, for birthdays, etc.  I want everything in one place, thankyouverymuch.  Homeschool Planet makes it very easy to do that!  I can keep track of article deadlines, blog post due dates, dentist appointments, relatives’ birthdays, etc.

Try before you buy

No one wants to waste their money on a product that isn’t going to work for them.  That’s why you can try Homeschool Planet free for 30 days.  They don’t even collect your credit card information, so there’s no risk!  Best of all, if you do decide to buy a subscription, all the information you have entered will be preserved! You will not lose your hard work!

Currently subscription prices are $65/year or $6.95/month.

You must be a member of Homeschool Buyers Co-Op, but don’t worry! It’s free to join!

I haven’t encountered any glitches or problems using Homeschool Planet, but if you do, I’ve heard wonderful things about their customer service including the ability to “roll back the clock” and restore your information going back a certain amount of time.

What didn't work for me

I have no particular love (or hate!) for the widgets along the sides of the planner.  They don't excite me in any way, nor do they particularly get in the way.  They're just...there.

I really don't like that the video starts playing when you go to the information page about Homeschool Planet.  But that doesn't affect daily use of the planner!

I definitely did not like the pink default scheme when I first started using the planner, but thankfully it wasn't difficult to find the setting to change that.

I have no use for the on-the-go features of Homeschool Planet.  I don't have a smartphone or a tablet, so those features remain untested and unused here on Sycamore Hill.  But for those of you who do use make use of this technology, my con may be your pro!

Overall, I find Homeschool Planet to be a very powerful and useful tool both for getting the big picture of our homeschool year and for managing the day-to-day lessons.  I expect to keep using it on a daily basis the rest of this year, if not beyond!

See what the rest of the Home & School Mosaics reviewers thought!