Monday, December 31, 2007

Resolution Solution

I hate New Year's Resolutions. I hate the whole idea of them. I think some sado-masochistic demon from heck thought up that idea, wrapped it up in a pretty package, and we all fell for it. Because we're stupid.

Resolutions have failure built into them from the very beginning. Think about it. What goes on these lists? Not things that we feel we have a reasonable chance of accomplishing. No, our lists are made up of all the things we have been struggling with for a long time. And, trust me, if you could make whatever change in your life you're putting on that list, you already would have made it. And you wouldn't need a holiday to motivate you either. The items on your list are there because you can't do them. At least, not yet. So in a day, or a week, or a month, or however long it takes to whip your behind, you'll look at this list and see failure. Again.

Sorry. I don't need my failures pointed out to me. I'm very well aware of them already, thank you very much. And you are, too.

So. This is what I do instead. I get a piece of paper and title it 2008 Resolutions. That's all I put on the paper. Then every week or month, I pull it out and think about what I've done recently that has made a change in my life—and I write it on the list. After I've made the change.

Guaranteed success.

And at the end of the year, I feel a whole lot better about myself and my life when I look at that list then I ever felt looking at my list of failures.

You may be thinking, "How does that help you make changes, commit to new habits, if you only record them after the fact?"

Well, which list do you think is going to inspire me to try something new? To step forward with confidence and enthusiasm? And which list is going to make me go back to bed with a box of chocolates and stay there for a week?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Books Read in 2007 Index

Click on the title to read the review.

  1. Armageddon's Children by Terry Brooks
  2. Blood Lines by Tanya Huff
  3. Blood Pact by Tanya Huff
  4. Blood Price by Tanya Huff
  5. Blood Trail by Tanya Huff
  6. Book of the Dead, The by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
  7. Counterfeit, The by Robison Wells
  8. Counting Stars by Michele Paige Holmes
  9. Dragon and Slave by Timothy Zahn
  10. Dragon and Soldier by Timothy Zahn
  11. Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn
  12. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  13. Extras by Scott Westerfield
  14. Fablehaven (#1) by
  15. Golden Compass, The by Philip Pullman
  16. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  17. Invasive Procedures by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
  18. Lovely Bones, The by Alice Sebold
  19. My Not So Fairy-Tale Life by Julie Wright
  20. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  21. Out of the Shadows by Candace Salima
  22. Pretties by Scott Westerfield
  23. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
  24. Secrets in Zarahemla by Sariah S. Wilson
  25. Serpent Tide by K.L. Fogg
  26. Sheep's_Clothing by Josie Kilpack
  27. Specials by Scott Westerfield
  28. Spires of Stone by Annette Lyon
  29. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  30. Uglies by Scott Westerfield
  31. Wake Me When It's Over by Robison Wells
  32. Young Merlin Trilogy by Jane Yolen

Friday, December 28, 2007

January BIAM

I'm doing a BIAM (Book in a Month) in January, sponsored by Tristi.

The project I'll be working on is a YA book with a Book of Mormon setting. Started on it over a year ago. Time to get serious about it.

My goal is 30—60 minutes per day, Monday through Friday. If I write on the weekend, that will be gravy.

I'll be posting intermittent progress reports.

If you're working on a manuscript, whether you're starting fresh or polishing a WIP, and you need a little encouragement , come join us!

Invasive Procedures by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston

George Galen is a brilliant scientist, a pioneer in gene therapy. But Galen is dangerously insane – he has created a method to alter human DNA, not just to heal diseases, but to “improve” people – make them stronger, make them able to heal more quickly, and make them compliant to his will.

Frank Hartman is also a brilliant virologist, working for the government’s ultra-secret bio-hazard agency. He has discovered how to neutralize Galen’s DNA-changing virus, making him the one man who stands in the way of Galen’s plan to "improve" the entire human race.

I am a hard-core Orson Scott Card fan. I own most of his books, in hardback. I have read most of his books multiple times. There are some that I like more than others, but pretty much, when a new Card book comes out, I just go ahead and buy it in hardback because I know I'm going to love it. So, it is with great sadness that I have to say I did not love Invasive Procedures.

Although the book has Card's name as the most prominent feature on the front cover, and while it is based on one of Card's short stories, and even though he states in the Afterword that this book was a collaborative effort—if you've read much of Orson Scott Card, you will notice right away that this book does not have the feel, the depth, the intensity of his other books.

The concept isn't bad—in fact, it's pretty intriguing. But that's where the really good stuff ends. The characters are a little flat for Card. The dialog is off. The tension and the compelling nature of Card's writing just isn't there. It's like a good joke being told by an amateur—the timing is not right.

There are also a lot of mistakes. Not just typos, but double words and words in the wrong order. Almost every book has a few of these, but this one has way too many. It's not up to either Card's or TOR's usual standard. However, I could overlook these, if it weren't for some glaring content errors.

For example, in the beginning of the book (p. 48), Frank Hartman makes a big deal of how the counter-virus serum is RED because it STOPS the virus. Then at the end of the book (p. 327), when the serum is administered to someone, it's GREEN. What??

Another example (starting on p. 327) is when the good guys are lined up with their hands tied behind their backs. Hernandez has Byron put the helmet of his biosuit on so she can talk to him through the com link. He does. Then she tells him to take the helmet back off before someone notices it. He does. THEN she cuts the cords binding his hands. WHAT??

I am so disappointed. If you're a Card fan or you like near-future bio-based sci-fi, you'll probably want to read this book regardless of what I've said about it. And truthfully, it's not so completely bad that you'll want to poke your eyes out with a fork. But it's just not what we've come to expect from something that says Orson Scott Card on the front cover. Definitely check this one out from the library; don't buy it.

I reluctantly give this book 3 out of 5.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Armageddon's Children by Terry Brooks

Logan Tom is doomed to remember the past and determined to rescue the future. Far behind him lies a boyhood cut violently short by his family’s slaughter, when the forces of madness and hate swept our world after decadent excesses led to civilization’s downfall. Somewhere ahead of him rests the only chance to beat back the minions of evil that are systematically killing and enslaving the last remnants of humanity. Navigating the scarred and poisoned landscape that once was America and guided by a powerful talisman, Logan has sworn an oath to seek out a remarkable being born of magic, possessed of untold abilities, and destined to lead the final fight against darkness.

I love Terry Brooks. I know lots of people love the Shannara books, but not so much the Word and the Void series. I love them both. This series, Genesis of Shannara, connects the two.

Armageddon's Children begins more than 100 years after Nest Freemark (Word and the Void series) lived and died. We pick up with Logan Tom, a Knight of the Word, as he travels across the country looking for the gypsy morph who was Nest's son. We meet Angel Perez, another Knight of the Word, who has been charged with saving children from various cities that are falling to the demons. We're also introduced to the Elves and the Ellcrys, which figures prominently in the Shannara books. Another story line centers around Hawk and his group of street children as they try to survive on their own in the deserted city of Seattle. This is the most compelling story line in the book, as these children battle demons and Freaks for survival.

I love the way Brooks gets us involved in the characters, how he reveals their past through a series of flashbacks. Most of the time, I don't like a lot of flashbacks, but these work. There is no huge surprise when Brooks finally links the characters and story lines together at the end of the book, but it does leave you wondering what is going to happen next in the series.

The Shannara books are generally considered YA, at least, The Sword of Shannara is. The Word and the Void series is more adult. This series has aspects that appeal to both teens and adults. There is violence. There are fake swear words. The demons are pretty evil and creepy, so I don't recommend this to readers who have nightmares easily. But if you're a Brooks fan, I don't think you'll be disappointed—until you finish it and realize that while book two, The Elves of Cintra, is available now (in hard back), book three is not due until August 2008.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Top 10 Christmas Index

Click on the item to read the review.

Top 10 Christmas Picture Books:
1. On the Night You Were Born—Nancy Tillman
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas—Dr. Seuss
3. The Polar Express—Chris Van Allsburg
4. Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury—Jan Brett
5. The Night Before Christmas—Clement C. Moore & various illustrators
6. Snowmen at Christmas—Caralynn and Mark Buehner
7. The Barnyard Night Before Christmas—Terrill & Newbold
8. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas AND Here Comes Santa Claus—Bruce Whatley
9. Merry Christmas, Mom & Dad—Mercer Meyer; Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear—Don and Audrey Wood
10. A Merry Little Christmas—Mary Englebreit

Top 10 Christmas CDs:
1. Sleigh Ride—Emile Pandolfi
2. December—George Winston
3. Home for Christmas—Amy Grant
4. The Nutcracker
5. What a Wonderful Christmas—Anne Murray
6. Christmas Portrait—The Carpenters
7. All-Star Christmas—Various Artists
8. Christmas Carols—New American Guitar Ensemble
9. The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas
10. A Jolly Christmas—Frank Sinatra

Top 10 Christmas Movies:
1. It's a Wonderful Life
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (cartoon) and A Charlie Brown Christmas
3. A Christmas Story
4. Elf
5. A Christmas Carol
6. White Christmas and Holiday Inn and The Bishop's Wife and Miracle on 34th Street
7. The Nutcracker (Baryshnikov)
8. Rudolph and Frosty
9. I'll Be Home for Christmas
10. Eloise at Christmastime

Top 10 Christmas Games:
1. Cruising for Christmas Lights
2. Apples to Apples
3. Settlers of Catan
4. Ticket to Ride
5. Monopoly and Clue
6. Rook and Scum and Phase 10 and Five Crowns
7. Mad Gab
8. Cadoo
9. Spy Web and Guess Who
10. Scrabble

Secrets in Zarahemla by Sariah S. Wilson

As she hangs upside-down in a hunter’s snare, Kiah feels a wave of fear as her captor comes into view. By his looks, as appealing as they are, the tall Lamanite is the mortal enemy of Kiah and her people. She can’t hope that her father, Captain Moroni, and his Nephite soldiers will rescue her—the strong-willed young woman has wandered well beyond the safe borders of Zarahemla. However, she is determined to use her warrior training to fight the Lamanite called Jeran until the end, no matter how hopeless the odds...
Secrets in Zarahemla is the first book I read for the Winter Reading Challenge. It's also my stretch book because it's a romance and "traditional" romance is not my favorite genre.

Okay, here's my issue with romances. I just don't believe them. I don't believe people fall in love at first sight. I don't believe a strong relationship can develop in a matter of days. I don't believe all the fainting and sighing and does-he-love-me-or-not junk. Since this is the currency of romance, I spend most of my reading time rolling my eyes and making retching noises.

While reading Secrets in Zarahemla, I think I only rolled my eyes once and I don't remember making a single retching noise. While there was plenty of pounding heartbeats, stolen glances and almost kisses in this book, there was also mystery, suspense and action—enough to distract me from the mushy stuff. It wasn't a bad read.

Wilson did a good job with her characters—they were believable. I liked Kiah. She is strong and tough with a mind of her own. Nothing wishy-washy about her, no fainting or sighing. I liked Jeran. I believed in his motivations, his actions. I believed their relationship—the way it developed. We spent some time with them before they started with all the lovey-dovey stuff, and they had some substance. I could see why they would be attracted to each other.

I liked the way Wilson's bad guys, specifically Corahan, changed, the way he made choices that took him farther and farther into the darkness. I also liked the way she gave her supporting characters personality and believable motivation.

Even though the LDS fiction market is so small that there is not always a distinction between YA and adult fiction, I consider this a YA novel. As such, there are a couple of places parents might want to be aware of—there is some violence (there is a war going on, after all) and an attempted rape, but I felt it was handled very discreetly. I'm not one who feels we need to completely shelter our children from the bad things of the world. Forewarned is forearmed. I did not find these passages at all offensive and would be completely comfortable recommending it to mature 12 year olds, and anyone 14+.

I give this book a 4 out of 5.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter Reading Challenge Reviews

I logged on today to create this post—so proud of myself that I'd just finished my first book in the challenge—only to discover that some of you are ahead of me on that!

To be eligible for the GRAND PRIZE, you need to post a review of at least one book that you read this winter, although we hope you'll review every book you read for the challenge. (That's how many of us choose titles that we want to read.)

Give each review a separate post on your blog and a separate entry in Mr. Linky. Put the title of the book, followed by your name in the “Your name” field. [Example: The Cat in the Hat (Karlene)] Use the URL specific to each review post to sign up through Mr. Linky (below).

Please note: The Mr. Linky below is only for linking to reviews of the books you've read for this challenge. Link directly to the URL for the post of your review. If your link does not go to a review, I will remove it from the list. If you need help linking to your review post, leave a comment.

The Mr. Linky to sign up for the Reading Challenge is here.

To read the reviews, click on any of the links in Mr. Linky list links.

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Today is the official start of the Winter Reading Challenge, so let's get reading!

There's still plenty of time to sign up. In fact, you can sign up any time during the challenge.

Remember to check back here often as I will be doing intermittent prize posts throughout the challenge.

Kim in Ohio and Lena—I don't have links to your blogs. If you need help creating them in the Mr. Linky, just send me your blog URL and I'll do it for you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Christmas Hoopla

I was tagged by Tristi. I was also tagged by someone else for another meme a few weeks back. I'll do that one soon. But this is a Christmas meme and will expire in 3 days, 6 hours and 44 minutes.

Here are the rules which I copied and pasted straight from Tristi's blog:

1. List 12 random things about yourself that have to do with Christmas

2. Please refer to it as a 'hoopla' and not the dreaded 'm'-word (Josi doesn't even know what the m-word is but she's trying really hard to think of all the dirty words that start with M that she's ever heard. Tristi thinks the "m" word is Meme.)

3. You have to specifically tag people when you're done. None of this "if you're reading this, consider yourself tagged" stuff is allowed...then nobody ends up actually doing it. The number of people who you tag is really up to you -- but the more, the merrier to get this 'hoopla' circulating through the blogosphere.

4. Please try and do it as quickly as possible. The Christmas season will be over before we know it and I'd like to get as many people involved as possible.

My 12 things:

1. Back when I was a SAHM, I would have all my Christmas shopping done by August. I liked that.

2. My children understand the Spirit of Christmas.

3. I sort of have OCD about Christmas presents. Especially for my kids. They have to have exactly the same number of gifts, in the same sizes, and costing the same amount of money. This is hard to do, but I am very good at it.

4. My greatest fear is that someone will show up with a present for me and I won't have one for them. (This just happened to me last night at my writers group. I am trying not to obsess over it.) (Apparently I'm failing at that.)

5. It is not physically possible for me to wrap Christmas presents without having Christmas music on while I'm doing it.

6. I am tone deaf. I don't sing in front of people. It is a terrible experience for them and I like to be thoughtful. However, when I am all alone, I frequently sing Christmas songs. Occasionally I do this in July.

7. My Christmas tree lights must be turned on at dusk. It really irks me when the other people in my house neglect to do this.

8. My sister is the Champion Christmas Gift Giver of the Entire Universe.

9. At our extended family Christmas party, my mother always makes us read the Christmas story from this really lame Christmas storybook. We each have to pick a tiny nativity figurine and place it on the coffee table during the right part of the story. The part of the angel is played by a Cabbage Patch figure with bright orange braids that I think was once part of a Happy Meal. The whole thing is really cheesy and lame, and everyone groans and rolls their eyes but she makes us do it anyway.

10. This is my favorite part of the family Christmas party.

11. My favorite Christmas memory from childhood is sneakily gathering with my brother and sisters early, early Christmas morning to watch for my grandparents to come wake us up with fire crackers.

12. My favorite Christmas memory from adulthood is the one we'll be making this year—our first Christmas with grandchildren.

I tag Sandra, Suan, McKenna and Megan.

Fall Into Reading Recap

Today is the last day of the Fall Into Reading challenge hosted by Katrina at Callapidder Days. I got off to a great start and actually did read quite a few of the books I initially planned to read. (List here.) But some were not to my liking, so I read a few chapters and then quit. I finished 13 books. Yea! Made my goal.

I didn't get very many reviews written. In fact, only one. Between traveling and grandbabying, I just didn't make the time.

The book I liked most was Scott Westerfield's Extras. It's #4 in his Uglies "trilogy." The book I liked least...well, that would be a 4-way tie between the ones I didn't finish reading. Right now I can only remember one of them—which shows how memorable I thought they were.

Of the ones I did read, I was most disappointed in the two by Tanja Huff. This started out as a tolerable vampire series, then turned really dark. There is a fifth book in the series but I doubt I'll ever read it. The sex and the swearing were just too much for me. Plus, I didn't like the way #4 ended. Made me mad. I don't know if I've completely written her off. If someone told me she had another book that wasn't so dark and sex/swear-filled, I might give it a try.

There are two titles I took off my fall list that I may add to the Winter Challenge list: Peace Like a River and The Other Boleyn Girl. I did start reading The Other Boleyn Girl, but had to return it to the library before my trip to KY. Peace Like a River is on terminal hold. I may have to break down and buy it.

I tried several new authors—Alice Sebold, Brandon Mull, Candace Salima, Annette Lyon, K.L. Fogg. I'm looking forward to reading Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star, Brandon Mull's sequel to Fablehaven. I might also try another of Annette Lyon's books—Spires of Stone wasn't too bad for a romance. (Dang! I just hate it when I have to say nice things about romances.)

What did I learn? Hmmmm. That I'm much happier when I'm reading on a regular basis.

So now that this challenge is over, it's time for the next one—hosted by me. The Winter Reading Challenge starts tomorrow (Dec. 22nd). Join me for another 12 weeks of reading fun!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

#1 Favorite Christmas Picture Book: On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman

On the Night You Were Born
by Nancy Tillman is not only my favorite Christmas picture book, it's currently my favorite picture book, period. If you only get one book for your child this Christmas season, this should be the one.

This book has been out a little over two years now, but I had never heard of it until last month when I was browsing the children's section at Borders. I started reading at one end of the Christmas display and made my way down the line until I got to this one. I picked it up with no idea what to expect, and seconds later, I'm bawling in the middle of Borders! It took me quite some time to get my emotions back under control and make my way to the checkout counter.

The illustrations are a delight. They are rich, colorful, playful. The text is soft and lyrical, flowing smoothly and gently. You simply cannot read it in a harsh or hurried voice. The words won't let you. Reading it aloud with your child will create a wonderful, intimate and loving, bonding experience. Go now and get a copy for your child this Christmas (unless you happen to be the parents of two particular grandchildren that I know).

Promo info: On the Night You Were Born weaves rich illustrations and comforting language to promote in children a deep sense of their own worth. Geese fly home to celebrate. Polar bears dance. The world comes alive with thanksgiving. Before the tale ends, children will be wiggling their toes and whispering their names in joyous celebration of their own unique wonder. The birth of a baby—"the one and only ever you"—causes jubilation throughout creation in this quietly celebratory picture book from newcomer Tillman. Polar bears dance, giraffes weave to the sound of brass horns, and "the moon smiled with such wonder/ that the stars peeked in to see you/ and the night wind whispered,/ `Life will never be the same.' " The pictures subtly radiate golden glints of moonlight, and her almost sculptural rendering style gives her characters a hefty physicality that counterbalances the ethereal sentiments being expressed. Although one suspects that grown-ups will be most taken with the topic and treatment, this is one of those rare baby books that should make both skeptics and sentimentalists of all ages happy.

Now, you may be asking yourself, Why this is a Christmas picture book? Aside from the dancing polar bears, there's really not a Christmas or winter theme to it.

On Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a child—a child for whom angels sang, and animals celebrated, and the moon and the stars and the wind looked upon in "wonder." From the humblest of beginnings on this holiest of nights, this child grew up to be the Savior of the world.

As we welcome a new infant into our families, the night of their birth becomes a holy night for us. We gaze upon this child, so fresh from heaven, and we have no idea what wonderful things he or she may do in their life but the Spirit whispers to our hearts that they are very special. While they may not grow up to save the world, one thing is certain—the world would not be the same without them. And I, for one, think that is something to celebrate.

Every child deserves this book for Christmas.

Now playing on my iPod: O Holy Night performed by Celine Dion

#1 Favorite Christmas CD: Sleigh Ride by Emile Pandolfi

This is it! THE best Christmas CD in the entire universe and, unfortunately it seems, also the best kept secret. Not just the CD, but Pandolfi himself. He is by far my favorite pianist in the world—yes, I say that based on this one CD. But if you listen to it, you'll understand. He is so much more lively and vibrant than other soloists whose CDs fly off the shelves. I just don't get it.

Well, maybe I do. See, the CD itself is not much to look at and doesn't give the other Christmas CDs vying for your dollar much "visual" competition. If I hadn't heard it before I saw it, I probably wouldn't have given it a second's thought. And that would be really sad because the music is divine! I cannot say enough how much I love this entire CD!

Sleigh Ride is another rare gem that I discovered while Christmas shopping in a boutique with my sister. I think we'd been in the store all of 2 minutes when I rushed over to the checkout to ask what they were playing as their background music. Thank goodness it was a tiny store that didn't pipe their music in, or I would have been doomed forever to dark and dreary Christmases. More than any other CD I've ever heard, this one immediately puts me in the Christmas spirit.

The first Christmas that I had this CD, I used it to wake my children up on Christmas morning. It has been a tradition ever since. The kids weren't allowed to get out of bed until they heard the first notes of Sleigh Ride blasting through the house. Then they knew it was time to come running as fast as they could! Even now that I only have one child left at home, when the grown-up kids get here for Christmas morning, I put the CD on. Full blast to get the mood started, then at a more moderate volume while we're opening our presents.

We were talking about this the other day, and my daughter said, "Mom, do you realize how much you conditioned us to love this CD as much as you do? You played it during the best moments of the year—opening Christmas presents! Of course we love it, and all piano music as well." My youngest daughter quickly concurred. I'd never thought about it before, but that's a pretty good trick.

Now for a confession. This one post has taken me the better part of several days to get it right. First off, I spent hours and hours searching the internet for a clip of my two favorite songs from the CD. No luck. Either the clips were too short or the quality was bad. Then I decided I'd just have to make my own. I spent hours and hours yesterday signing up for YouTube, finding images to go with the music, and figuring out how to work my iMovie software (which I'm still not that good at; can't get the images to zoom and pan). It took me 8+ hours to create the Sleigh Ride video. This morning it only took 1 1/2 to create Baby It's Cold Outside, and that included surfing for images, so I'm making progress—but still.

Anyway, I guess that's a sign of how much I like you. Or how much I love this CD and want to share it with the world. (Or how out of control my OCD is, but I'm pretending I don't notice.)

So, please, since I worked sooooo hard, listen to both the pieces below. I think you'll be glad you did.

Back to Pandolfi, he has several other Christmas CDs which I have not heard because they're not easy to find in the store, and I always forget to order them online. But I can't imagine I wouldn't absolutely love them too.

Now playing on my iPod: Sleigh Ride performed by Emile Pandolfi (the Christmas morning song) and Baby It's Cold Outside performed by Emile Pandolfi (my favorite on the CD. Note: this one is almost like two songs in one. The first half is slower with a lot of trills in the higher octaves; the second half is jazzier and always makes me dance.)

#1 Favorite Christmas Movie: It's a Wonderful Life

Yep. This is it. As corny and sappy as it gets. But It's a Wonderful Life is my absolute favorite Christmas movie. Perhaps it's because I often feel a little like George. This movie reminds me that each of us effect the people around us in ways we never realize and the world would be colder and sadder if any one of us were missing.

Promo info: George Bailey has so many problems he is thinking about ending it all – and it’s Christmas! As the angels discuss George, we see his life in flashback. As George is about to jump from a bridge, he ends up rescuing his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence then shows George what his town would have looked like if it hadn’t been for all of his good deeds over the years. Will Clarence be able to convince George to return to his family and forget suicide? Now perhaps the most beloved American film, It's a Wonderful Life . . . deserves its status as a feel-good communal event, but it is also one of the most fascinating films in the American cinema, a multilayered work of Dickensian density. George Bailey (played superbly by James Stewart) grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls, dreaming dreams of adventure and travel, but circumstances conspire to keep him enslaved to his home turf. Frustrated by his life, and haunted by an impending scandal, George prepares to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. A heavenly messenger (Henry Travers) arrives to show him a vision: what the world would have been like if George had never been born. Capra's triumph is to acknowledge the difficulties and disappointments of life, while affirming--in the teary-eyed final reel--his cherished values of friendship and individual achievement. It's a Wonderful Life . . . but it continues to weave a special magic.

If you've never seen this movie, go rent it now, sit down with the family, and watch it!

Now playing on my iPod: Please Come Home for Christmas by The Eagles

#1 Favorite Christmas Game: Christmas Lights

This game doesn't come in a box and you don't buy it at the store, but it's our family favorite.

A few nights before Christmas, we pile into the car and drive all over the city looking at Christmas lights. It is really a fun, bonding experience for the whole family.

Driving slowly through the neighborhoods, in the quiet of the night, looking at the various ways people express their love for the holiday, brings the Christmas spirit to a peak.

After an hour or so, we head home for hot chocolate around the Christmas tree and talk about our favorite displays. Surprisingly, although we ooh and aah over the extravaganzas, it's often the simpler displays that touch us the most.

Now playing on my iPod: Mary Did You Know? performed by Donny Osmond; Mary Did You Know? performed by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd (I included both because I love Donny Osmond and Wynonna Judd. Wish they had done the duet together. Now that would be sumthin'.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

#2 Favorite Christmas Picture Book: How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

The Grinch stole two of the second place spots on my Christmas list?!? Well, yes. You got a problem with that?

When my children were small, their father started a tradition of reading the How the Grinch Stole Christmas every year at the family Christmas party. The family is grown now, and I'm no longer married to their father, but the tradition still carries on in its own way.

I read the story out loud every year, even if the kids aren't there to hear it. I have an old beaten up copy where McKenna (now 26) embellished the illustrations with her own unique style and circled "key" passages. (I'm not certain what her criteria was, but it makes that copy of the book priceless!)

Last night my daughters were talking about how fondly they remembered the story. They wanted their children to hear it every year. That's one of the reasons for Christmas—passing down beloved and cherished memories and traditions.

Now playing on my iPod: You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

#2 Favorite Christmas CD: December by George Winston

I love December so much, that I'll often listen to it starting in November and carrying on through at least April or May. There are several traditional Christmas carols on here, but also some that you wouldn't necessarily recognize as Christmasy. I've listened to other George Winston CDs, and this one is by far, the best.

Promo info: The mother of all solo instrumental albums, and with good reason. Mixing traditional carols with Pachelbel's Canon and a few originals, Winston produces a solo piano album of unparalleled—and undeniable—beauty. How can music be simultaneously stirring and soothing, relaxed yet exalted? Millions have found the answer here, and an industry has spent more than a decade trying to duplicate it. [Beats Manheim Steamroller all to heck!]

The 20th Anniversary Edition features 24-bit remastering and 15 minutes of new music, the bonus tracks "A Christmas Song" and "Sleep Baby Mine." The enhanced CD-Rom portion of the disc features sheet music to Pachelbel's Canon.

Now playing on my iPod: Joy by George Winston followed by Night

#2 Favorite Christmas Movie: The Grinch (cartoon) and Charlie Brown

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the cartoon version, NOT the feature movie) and A Charlie Brown Christmas are two MUST SEES every year. I just can't do Christmas without them.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Based on the book, which I also love and MUST READ every year), this cartoon really gets me into the Christmas spirit. It reminds me that the hustle and bustle, the stress of shopping and decorating, are not what Christmas is all about. It's the love that we feel for each other that makes Christmas.

Promo info: For generations of children, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the Grinch -- the annual viewing of this animated favorite, based on Dr. Seuss's children's book and narrated in inimitable style by Boris Karloff, has become as much a part of the holidays as trimming the tree. The grumpy old Grinch, an anti-Santa with "a heart two sizes too small," decides to steal Christmas from the cheerful little inhabitants of Whoville, but discovers to his surprise that to the Whos, Christmas means more than just presents and holiday trappings.

If you're wondering why the full-length feature film of the same name is not on my list, it's because although there were some sweet parts to it (namely, the song Where Are You Christmas), it was over-acted, over decorated, over the top in every way. And that sort of defeats the whole point of the story, don't you think?

A Charlie Brown Christmas. What can I say? I love that spindly little tree. I love Snoopy and his crazily decorated dog house. But most of all, I love the scene where Linus recites the Christmas story from the Bible. You just don't get that in today's Christmas productions.

Promo info: Repelled by the commercialism he sees around him, Charlie Brown tries to find the true meaning of Christmas. When he complains about the overwhelming materialism that he sees amongst everyone during the Christmas season, Lucy suggests that he become director of the school Christmas paegent. Charlie Brown accepts, but it proves to be a frustrating struggle. When an attempt to restore the proper spirit with a forlorn little fir Christmas tree fails, he needs Linus' help to learn what the real meaning of Christmas is.

This movie is available on DVD alone, or in a holiday collection that also has A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Now playing on my iPod: Christmastime Is Here (theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas) performed by Vince Guaraldi

#2 Favorite Christmas Game: Apples to Apples

Apples to Apples is my number one all-time favorite game that comes in a box. I was introduced to Apples to Apples a few years ago at a New Year's Eve party. It was so much fun. That year for Christmas I gave it to all my siblings and several close friends for Christmas. Yes, that's how much I like this game. It can be played by any age that can read. There is an Apples to Apples Kids (ages 7+) and an Apples to Apples Jr. (ages 9+) that are easier for younger children but not so easy that adults can't enjoy them too. And it's not that younger children can't play the "adult" version, but they may not recognize some of the iconic references (like Elizabeth Taylor).

Unlike some games where after you use the cards a few times, you know what's coming and you need to buy an update set, the combinations you can make with these cards are endless. You can get by with a smaller expansion pack, but I recommend getting the full Party set.

Promo info: Apples to Apples is the wild, award-winning card and party game that provides instant fun for four to ten players! It's as easy as "comparing apples to apples"... just open the box, deal the cards, and you're ready to play! Select the card from your hand that you think is best described by a card played by the judge. If the judge picks your card, you win that round. And everyone gets a chance to be the judge! Each round is filled with surprising and outrageous comparisons from a wide range of people, places, things and events. Fast moving and refreshing, Apples to Apples is perfect for any get together with family and friends!

If you've never played Apples to Apples, here's a demo video of how the game works.

Fun, huh? Also, I'm pretty sure it turns your children into geniuses AND prevents brain rot in adults.

Now playing on my iPod: Run, Rudolph, Run performed by Bryan Adams

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

#3 Favorite Christmas Picture Book: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1986 (THE award for children's picture books), The Polar Express is a spectacular book about a young boy who discovers the magic of Christmas. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful, and have a dreamy magical quality about them.

Promo info: Late one Christmas Eve after the town has gone to sleep, the boy boards the mysterious train that waits for him: The Polar Express bound for the North Pole. When he arrives, Santa offers the boy any gift he desires. The boy modestly asks for one bell from the harness of a reindeer. The gift is granted. On the way home the bell is lost. On christmas morning the boy finds the bell under the tree. The mother of the boy admires the bell, but laments that it is broken—for you see, only believers can hear the sound of the bell.

Now playing on my iPod: Wonderful Christmas Time performed by Paul McCartney

#3 Favorite Christmas CD: Home for Christmas by Amy Grant

Amy Grant has a beautiful voice. She's the only Christian singer that I really enjoy. It's like she was born to sing Christian music, including Christmas carols. Traditional, classic, contemporary, she does justice to them all, making every carol she sings a memorable one that you want to hear over and over again.

Grant has several Christmas CDs. I like the way she mixes the older traditional carols, with more "choir" type pieces, and throws in some jazzy modern carols as well. She puts a good mix on all of them. A Christmas Album (released 1983) and A Christmas to Remember (released 1999) are both very good, but my favorite is Home for Christmas (released 1992).

Here is the play list for Home for Christmas:
  1. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

  2. It's the Most Wonderful Time Of the Year

  3. Medley: Joy To the World/For Unto Us a Child Is Born

  4. Breath Of Heaven (Mary's Song)

  5. O' Come All Ye Faithful

  6. Grown-Up Christmas List

  7. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

  8. Winter Wonderland

  9. I'll Be Home For Christmas

  10. The Night Before Christmas

  11. Emmanuel, God With Us

  12. Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring
You can hear short clips of each of them here.

Now playing on my iPod: Grown-Up Christmas List performed by Amy Grant

Monday, December 17, 2007

#3 Favorite Christmas Movie: A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story is so funny—tongues sticking to flag poles, the dog and the turkey, the pink bunny pajamas—even though I know exactly what's coming, I still bust a gut every time I watch this movie. I probably don't need to post a description. Is there anyone who hasn't seen it at least once? But on the off chance that someone has been living under a rock for the past 20+ years, here it is.

Promo info: It's 1940, in northern Indiana. 9-year-old "Ralphie" Parker wants only one thing for Christmas -- an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model BB rifle with a compass in the stock. Between his younger brother Randy and having to handle school bully Scut Farkus, Ralphie doesn't know how he'll ever survive long enough to get the BB gun for Christmas. When Ralph asks his mother for a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, she says, "No, you'll shoot your eye out". When Mrs. Shields, Ralph's teacher at Harding Elementary School, assigns the class to write a theme about what they want for Christmas, Ralph sees a golden opportunity to express his desire to have a Red Ryder BB gun. Ralph gets a C+ on the theme, and Mrs. Shields has written "You'll shoot your eye out" on the theme. Ralph's next plan is to ask Santa Claus for a Red Ryder BB gun, and how does Santa respond? By saying "You'll shoot your eye out, kid." By this time, Ralph has had enough of that. When Ralphie beats up the school bully, he thinks he'll never get the BB gun for Christmas now. But someone may have planned a surprise for Ralph.

Now playing on my iPod: Jingle Bell Rock performed by Hall and Oates
(I used to think these guys were soooo cool. But now... If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of my world shattering. I wonder if their children mock them.)

#3 Favorite Christmas Game: Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan is another game we got for Christmas last year. It reminds me a little of Risk, in that you use strategy to grow your area, but it's a little more complex because your juggling a number of things to create a settlement, and not just moving armies around a board.

Promo info: Players are recent immigrants to the newly populated island of Catan. Expand your colony through the building of settlements, roads, and villages by harvesting commodities from the land around you. Trade sheep, lumber, bricks and grain for a settlement, bricks and wood for a road, or try to complete other combinations for more advanced buildings, services and specials. Trade with other players, or at local seaports to get resources you might lack. The first player to achieve 10 points from a combination of roads, settlements, and special cards wins.

Settlers has several expansion packs and editions, such as Catan Seafarers, Cities & Knights, Settlers of the Stone Age, and Starfarers of Catan, to name just a few.

Now playing on my iPod: I Saw Three Ships performed by Jon Schmidt (breathtaking!)

My Winter Reading Challenge Book List

The Summer Reading Thing 2007 really helped jump start me back into reading regularly. As someone who used to read well over 100 books a year, I'd dropped down to only one or two non-work-related books. That was just depressing.

Getting back into reading for fun, however, was ...well, fun! I continued with the Fall Into Reading (which ends this Friday) over on Katrina's site, although I've been very neglectful of posting actual reviews.

I like to read a minimum of one book a week so I'm going to put 12 books on my list. You'll notice that not all 12 spots are filled right now. That's because I know I'm going to get some books for Christmas and I want to leave space for them. :)

As always, this list is subject to change at the slightest whim.

**I decided to read all of the Whitney Finalists, which means that I need to read a bunch books before the end of this challenge. Yikes! (Some of them I read before this challenge started. They are not on this list.)**

1. Secrets in Zarahemla by Sariah S. Wilson (4)
2. Invasive Procedures by Orson Scott Card & Aaron Johnston (3)
3. How to Have More Than Enough by Dave Ramsey didn't get to but too lazy to renumber everything.
4. Armageddon's Children by Terry Brooks (4.5)
5. Sunshine by Robin McKinley (too sexy)
6. On the Road to Heaven by Coke Newell (3)
7. Beyond the Horizon by Judy C. Olsen (4)
8. The Deep End by Traci Abramson (4)
9. Hunting Gideon by Jessica Draper (3)
10. Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarian by Brandon Sorenson (4)
11. Bullies in the Headlights by Matthew Buckley (3)
12. First Day by Allyson Condie (2)
13. Lights of Mahonri Moriancumer by Phyllis Gunderson (1)
14. The Operative by William Boyd Gardner (3)
15. Book of 1,000 Days by Shannon Hale (4)
16. Desire of Our Hearts by Sariah S. Wilson (4.5)
17. Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George (4.5)
18. Grave Secrets by Marlene Austin (3.5)
19. Hazardous Duty by Betsy Brannon Green (4)
20. How to Take the Ex Out of Ex Boyfriend by Janette Rallison (4)
21. The Independence Club by Rachel Nunes (3)
22. Loyalty's Web by Joyce DiPastena (3)
23. Rise of the Evening Star by Brandon Mull (4.5)
24. Upon the Mountains by Gale Sears (2)
25. Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson (3)
26. Wet Desert by Gary Hansen (2)
27. Unsung Lullabye by Josi Kilpack (4)

Sometimes it takes me a bit to get around to writing a review. In the meantime, here's a quick rating system:

0 = HATED. Could not even finish it. (These books I don't bother to put on the list here.)
1 = Didn't like. Cannot recommend to other.
2 = Didn't like—but other people might.
3 = Ambivalent. Liked some things about it; not others. Probably won't read again.
4 = Liked. May read again sometime.
5 = Loved! Own or want to own; will read again and again.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

2007 Winter Reading Challenge

No, it's not too late to sign up! Even though the Winter Reading Challenge officially started on December 22nd, and the deadline for the Grand Prize was December 29th, you can still join us for the challenge. As long as you are signed up, you are eligible for the intermittent prizes.

Winter is upon us and there's no better way to spend a cold and snowy day than snuggled up with a good book.

So, time for a reading challenge!

Here are the details:

Who: The 07/08 Winter Reading Challenge is for anyone who needs a little incentive to read.

What: A winter reading challenge for everyone. Set your goals and track your progress. No goal is too small; no ambition too great.

When: December 22, 2007 through March 19, 2008

Where: The blogosphere. Post your winter reading list on your blog then link to that specific post page using the Mr. Linky below.

Why: What? We need a reason?

How (aka the detailed details):

1. Make a list of books you’d like to read during the winter. Check your bookshelves and nightstands for unread (or unfinished) books. Go to the library. Browse your local bookstore or Check book lists from other reading challenges. Ask your friends and neighbors for suggestions. Encourage them to join as well. Start a group where you all read the same books. That’s cool too.

2. Set your goal. There are 12 weeks of winter. If your goal is to read one book this winter, that’s great. If your goal is to read 12 books, or even 24 books, that’s great, too.

*Once again, I’d like to suggest that we stretch a little. If you normally read fiction, put at least one non-fiction on your list (and vice versa). Or try a genre you don’t usually read. (I may have to read another romance.) Or try a new author chosen totally at random. But most importantly, make your list FUN so you'll want to read!

3. Write your blog post defining your list. If you have all your books nearby, you could stack them up, take a photo and post it. If you’ve really got time on your hands, provide a link to for each of your titles. Totally up to you.

4. Come back here and sign up through Mr. Linky below. Let’s support each other in this fun winter reading challenge. Visit the blogs of other participants and POST COMMENTS! We all love comments. Also, please leave a comment on this post when you sign up, so I'll know to go check out your list.

(I promise I will visit the site of every participant and post a comment on your book list post, your book review post(s), your recap post, and at least one other post, unrelated to the Winter Reading Challenge.)

5. Feel free to post the Winter Reading Challenge image in your sidebar and/or in your post. Please link the image back to this post.

6. Regularly (as totally defined by you) update your posted reading list on your original blog post. Change the color of the text or cross through them as you finish each book. Also, feel free to change your list as desired. If you start reading a book and decide you don't like it, take it off your list. If you hear about a great book, add it to your list. If you decide your list is too long, shorten it. Remember, this is supposed to be fun—not a chore.

7. Almost Entirely Optional: Post reviews of the books you read on your blog. Use the Mr. Linky on Winter Reading Challenge Review page to link back to your reviews. (This is entirely optional, but required if you want to win the Grand Prize.)

8. At the end of the challenge, write a recap post telling us about your experiences in pursuing your reading goals. I’ll have a list of questions for you to consider answering and another Mr. Linky to be posted the last week of winter (sometime around March 13th).

9. And yes, there will be PRIZES. There will be intermittent prizes throughout the challenge. I'm trying to work out some donated books. If you're an author and would like to donate a prize (and ship it to the winner) let me know. (If I don't get the donations, some of the prizes will be gently read copies from my personal library that I'm trimming down.) There will also be a grand prize consisting of a $10 Gift Card to either Barnes and Noble or Borders (winner's choice).

Grand Prize Eligibility Requirements:
  • Join the Winter Reading Challenge by posting your reading list on your blog and signing up using the Mr. Linky below by midnight (MST) on Saturday, December 29th, 2007.

  • Post at least one book review and use the Mr Linky here to share it with us.

  • Post a recap of your Winter Reading Challenge experience on your blog and link through the recap Mr. Linky by midnight (MST) on Wednesday, March 26th, 2008 (one week after the challenge ends). (Recap page will be posted in March.)
Note: You can join the Winter Reading Challenge at any time; deadlines are only for prize eligibility.

Okay, that’s it. Let’s get reading!

Note: Occasionally, the Mr. Linky may disappear. This is due to Blenza having exceeded their bandwidth. Hopefully it will come back before too long. Sorry. If Mr. Linky is not here when you come to sign up, post a comment and I'll notify you when it's back.

Winter Reading Challenge Images

At the bottom of this post are images for the Winter Reading Challenge in two sizes. You are welcome to use them on your own blog. Please link them back to the main page for the 2007 Winter Reading Challenge.

Instructions for doing this using Blogger are below. If you use another blog program, you're on your own—although many of them will work similar to this.

Instructions for adding the images to your Blogger post:
  1. Right click on the image you want to use.

  2. Select "Save Image As"

  3. Save the image to your hard drive.

  4. Upload the image to your blog post by clicking on the Add Photo icon (looks like a picture of a mountain).

  5. Select the image and click on the Link icon (looks like a picture of a chain link).

  6. Use this URL address:

To add the image to your Blogger sidebar:

Use the Template/Page Elements to add an HTML/JavaScript box to the sidebar.

The link to an image source that will fit in your sidebar is:

If you need more detailed instructions, go here:

200 px image:

400 px image:

#4 Favorite Christmas Picture Book: Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury

I love Jan Brett. She is an excellent illustrator and I'm not the only one who thinks so. She has sold over 12 million books! Brett excels at bright, colorful, detailed illustrations against a soft natural background. Her animals and trolls are expressive and endearing, and she often features girls in her stories. Her stories have a strong Scandanavian influence. Many of them take place outdoors in the winter snow, so they make wonderful Christmas stories.

Bret is perhaps best known for the way she formats her illustrations. She creates a two-page illustration, bordered on either side with windows or smaller scenes that add fun and depth to the main story.

Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury has her very best Christmas stories under one cover. Titles included in this collection are:
  • The Night Before Christmas

  • The Wild Christmas Reindeer

  • Christmas Trolls

  • Trouble with Trolls

  • The Twelve Days of Christmas

  • The Hat

  • The Mitten

I prefer to buy the books separately, rather than all in one collection—simply because it looks more impressive on the shelf and the thickness of the book doesn't intimidate the children. (Descriptions below are promo materials from various websites.)

The Night Before Christmas. It is signature Jan Brett, a story told in the text with another story told in the bright, detailed pictures that frame the larger images. The poem by Moore is familiar and Brett breathes new life into it with her interpretation. Set in the not too distant past, Father in his stocking cap watches St. Nick go about his business. Two young elves have stowed away in St. Nick's sleigh and do cause some slight mischief, but nothing St. Nick can't handle.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer. Little Teeka thought she had to be firm with the reindeer to get them ready for Santa's important flight, but when her bossy yelling only got their antlers tangled up, she knew she had to try something different. After a few false starts, Teeka discovers the best way to get Santa's reindeer ready for Christmas Eve.

Christmas Trolls. Christmas is Treva's favorite time of the year. But this year, decorations and presents are mysteriously disappearing. When Treva follows a small creature making off with the Christmas pudding, she discovers two irresistible trolls who think they can steal Christmas. She shows them how to truly have Christmas, and it seems the two squabbling rascals learn the lesson.

Trouble with Trolls. Treva's trouble with trolls begins when she climbs Mount Baldy with her dog Tuffi. The trolls who live there long for a dog, and they try to kidnap him. But Treva is brave and quick-thinking. She outwits one troll after another until she reaches the very top of the mountain, where five trolls are waiting--and they want her dog! When Treva and her dog Tuffi are set upon by these nasty creatures with dognapping on their minds, the girl dissuades the little folk by offering them other belongings in Tuffi's stead. And, ingenious child that she is, Treva retrieves her goods and also saves her pet before adventure's end.

The Twelve Days of Christmas. The Twelve Days of Christmas has long been a holiday favorite. A straightforward beginning to a carol grows increasingly complicated as both the list of presents and the numbers involved accumulate. Brett's lavish treatment of the song portrays various levels of meaning; she has illustrated the fantastic gifts in outrageous splendor (seven swans swim in folkloric Russian headdresses), turned them into a border of tree decorations, included a menagerie of animals carrying banners with "Merry Christmas'' in different languages, and set into the outer edges of each page an ongoing story about a family's preparations for the big day itself. In the final frame, the decorated tree serves as the centerpiece for their own caroling.

The Hat. A little hedgehog, appropriately named Hedgie, finds himself stuck in a stocking, which has blown off the clothesline. As the barnyard animals laugh and poke fun at Hedgie's new "hat," Hedgie convinces them that everyone needs a winter hat to keep warm as the cold months approach. When Lisa, the clothing's owner, realizes that her stocking is missing, she tracks down Hedgie to take it back, only to discover that all the animals in the farm are now wearing clothing articles from her clothesline! In the end, Lisa has to run around the farm, retrieving her clothes from the animals.

The Mitten. Baba, Nicki's grandmother, knits pure white mittens for him, even though she is afraid that he will lose them in the snow. Sure enough, the first time Nicki is out, he drops one and some animals promptly move into its snug wool interior. First comes a mole, then a rabbit, a hedgehog, an owl, a badger, a fox, a bear and, finally, a mouse. That mouse tickles the bear's nose and he sneezes, dislodging all of the animals at once. Nicki finds his mitten, and takes it home, but Baba is left to wonder about how it became so enormously stretched out.

These are by no means all of Jan Brett's Christmas titles. I recommend you visit your local bookstore or library and browse them all.

Now playing on my iPod: Winter Wonderland performed by Anne Murray

#4 Favorite Christmas CD: The Nutcracker

I know I talked about The Nutcracker in the movie section, where I recommended it for the dancing. Here, I'm recommending it for the music.

If you've never listened to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, you owe it to yourself to do it. Now. There are so many versions of this musical dream that I suggest you go to your local CD shop and listen to a few, then select the one you like best. Or you can get this one here. It's the complete ballet performed by the Utah Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maurice Abravanel.

Now playing on my iPod: Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy (danced by the Bolshoi Ballet)

#4 Favorite Christmas Movie: Elf

I am not a fan of Will Ferrell. I don't like any movie he's ever been in.

Except this one.

For once, Ferrell shows a little restraint and doesn't insist on going over the top in every. single. scene. All the actors in this movie did a good job.

Elf is sweet story, but not sappy. It's also clean, something the entire family can watch—which is amazing because there's a "shower" scene and a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (which is a little racy if you really listen to the words; but I like the song anyway because of the interplay of words and harmony. Both the shower scene and the song are linked to below.)

Promo info: With genuine charm and the immense likability of its star, Elf gives holiday cheer a good name. Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, a human raised by elves at the North Pole. But the over-six-foot-tall Buddy literally does not fit in, and he ventures to New York (via the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, the sea of swirly, twirly gum drops, and the Lincoln Tunnel) where he is reunited with Walter, his biological father (James Caan), a children's book editor, who was not aware of Buddy's existence. Clad in yellow tights and a whimsical elfin coat, Buddy's childlike enthusiasm for all things sugar and all things Christmas converts cynics like Walter, melts the heart of Jovie (indie queen Zooey Deschanel), a wary department store clerk, and inspires the faith that is needed to power Santa's sleigh.

Now playing on my iPod: Baby, It's Cold Outside performed by Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in a scene from Elf

#4 Favorite Christmas Game: Ticket to Ride

I was introduced to Ticket to Ride last year—just in time to get it for Christmas. This is a strategy game where you build train lines across the game board.

Promo info: Ticket to Ride USA is a cross-country train adventure in which players collect and play matching train cards to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America. The longer the routes, the more points they earn. Additional points come to those who can fulfill their Destination Tickets by connecting two distant cities, and to the player who builds the longest continuous railway. The object of the game is to score the highest number of total points.

There is also a Ticket to Ride Europe. (I actually like this version better because you can do tunnels.)

Promo info: From the craggy hillsides of Edinburgh to the sunlit docks of Constantinople, from the dusty alleys of Pamplona to a windswept station in Berlin, Ticket to Ride Europe takes you on an exciting train adventure through the great cities of turn-of-the-century Europe.

The second installment in our best-selling Ticket to Ride series of train adventures, Ticket to Ride Europe takes you into the heart of Europe. In addition to the new board map, Ticket to Ride Europe offers you brand new game play elements including Tunnels, Ferries and Train Stations. We've also upgraded you to First-Class accommodations with larger cards, new Train Station game pieces, and a lavishly illustrated game board.

They also have some expansion packs.

Now playing on my iPod: That's What Christmas Means to Me performed by Paul Young
(This is a really cool song. I heard it for the first time on Saturday. Hope you take a minute to give it a listen.)