Thursday, June 23, 2016

Teen/YA Review: The Mystery of Hollow Places


I recently listened to The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos on audio. I enjoyed this teen/YA novel that is a unique mix of mystery and family drama.

Seventeen-year old Imogene has never known her mother, who left her and her father when Imogene was just a baby. All she knows is the bedtime story her father used to tell her, about how they met. He was a medical examiner, and her mother was a woman who came to identify the body of her dead mother. He romanticized the story and added a touch of magic. Now, Imogene lives with her father and her stepmother, Libby. Imogene’s father left the medical profession and is now a well-known author of medical mysteries starring a forensic pathologist.

But now, Imogene’s father is missing. She and Libby wake up one morning to find him gone without a trace. He left only one thing, on Imogene’s bed – a special object that was associated with the bedtime story he always told her about her mother. Imogene is convinced that it’s a clue he left to tell her that he went to find her mother. She decides to track down her father – and maybe her mother, too? – on her own, using what she’s learned from reading her father’s novels and trying to think like his protagonist. Imogene is a private person and doesn’t want to share all this family saga, but she reluctantly asks her best friend, Jessa, to help her. Imogene’s search has some dead ends but also leads her to places and people she never expected.

This novel has an intricate and unique storyline that imbeds a classic mystery – with clues, leads, and trails to follow – into the center of an unusual family drama. Imogene clearly needs to know more about her mother, who forms a part of her identity and whose absence has never been explained. Meanwhile, at home, her stepmother, Libby, tries to get closer to Imogene and be her mother, but Imogene is resistant to her advances. In contrast, she sees Jessa’s family who seem like a completely normal, ideal-type American family. There’s even a touch of romance here, as Imogene has had a crush for many years on Jessa’s older brother.

The story follows Imogene as she tracks down clues, investigates her family’s past, and tries to figure out where her mother went all those years ago, and where her father went recently. At the same time, though, she must navigate normal adolescent challenges – school, boys, the prom. It’s clear that solving these mysteries is about more than just finding her father; it’s about figuring out who she is and why her mother left. This intricate blend of mystery, family drama, and teen life is compelling and full of unexpected twists and turns.

HarperChildren’s Audio

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

TV Tuesday: The Fosters

With both of my sons home for summer, TV is very action/thriller-oriented right now (I'm the only female in the household!) and time to watch "my" shows is very limited. So, when I had a rare lunchtime to myself last week and was looking for something to watch, I wanted some "comfort TV." I wanted something that would remind me of the glory days of Parenthood (one of my all-time faves) or my more recent discovery, The Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce (only season 1 is available on Netflix and I finished it). I was thrilled to discover that one of my old favorites is on Netflix - all of its seasons - so I could catch up.

The Fosters is a wonderful family drama set in California. If you think that there's not enough diversity on TV, then this show is for you! Stef and Lena are a lesbian couple with a group of pre-teen and teen kids who are a mixture of natural, adopted, and foster (of multiple races)...and their family keeps growing! Stef, played by Teri Polo (who I just discovered is from Delaware, where we live), works as a police officer. Her ex-husband, Mike (played Danny Nucci), who is also a police officer, lives nearby - he later gets into fostering, too! They had a son together, Brandon (played by David Lambert), who is now in his late teens and lives with Stef and Lena. Lena (played by Sherri Saum), works as vice-principal at a local charter school, where Brandon attends, along with his adopted brother and sister, Jesus (played by Jake T. Austin) and Mariana (played by Cierra Ramirez), who are twins and a year younger. Stef and Lena adopted the twins when they were just toddlers.

Into this mix, in the first episode, comes Callie, a troubled teen just out of Juvie. Callie comes to Stef and Lena on a temporary basis, while the system tries to find her a new foster home. Callie has a single-minded purpose: to get her little brother, Jude, out of his foster home, where their foster father is abusive. Stef insists to Lena that they can't possibly take in any more kids, but after getting to know Callie and Jude, they agree to find a way to add them to their family.

The Fosters is a typical family drama in that awful things keep happening to this poor family! But the show also has a good sense of humor, which keeps it entertaining and not depressing. Additional foster kids come in and out of their lives, and Callie - who has had some terrible experiences in the system - continues to get into trouble, though she is clearly a good kid. You'll be rooting for her from the very first episode. I think what I like best about this show is the quality of the writing and the acting, especially the kids. When I started watching it, I admit to a bit of a bias, thinking that maybe an ABC Family show might not be of very high quality...but I was wrong. Now I am midway into season 3 and absolutely thrilled to have found it available on streaming, so I can get back to it. And I see that season 4 has just started...oh, boy! If you are looking for a replacement for Parenthood or The Gilmore Girls - a warm, funny, moving family drama - this is for you.

The Fosters is an ABC Family show (now called Freeform). Some recent episodes plus new season 4 episodes are available free on Freeform, as well as on cable On Demand. Netflix streaming has all seasons of The Fosters available - yay! It is also available on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $24.99 for a season (which usually contains 20 or more episodes).

Have you seen The Fosters yet? What's your favorite family drama?

Just watch this trailer - you'll be hooked! Makes me want to watch it all over from the beginning.






Monday, June 20, 2016

It's Monday 6/20! What Are You Reading?

Happy Official First Day of Summer, Summer Solstice, and the Longest Day of the Year (at least in the eastern hemisphere)! You know what that means? More time to read today! Also, there's still plenty of time to sign up for the 2016 Big Book Summer Challenge! (you only need to plan to read one book of 400+ pages before September to participate).

We had unusually temperate, lovely weather this weekend (as opposed to super hot & humid), and we made the most of it. Our sons were at Firefly, a huge 4-day musical festival here in Delaware, with their friends, so my husband and I took off on our own camping weekend. We drove a few hours away into the mountains of northern Maryland (part of the Appalachians) and enjoyed hiking and lots of quiet time...and yes, lots of reading!

Here's what we've all been reading:
  • I finished The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater, the fourth and final book in her The Raven Cycle series, which I have been wanting to get to since it was released in April. It was great, just like the first three, with an excellent wrap-up to the series. This was my first Big Book of the Summer - woohoo!
  • My reading timing with our weekend away was just a little bit off - I have 2 book group books to read in the next two weeks, but my first one wasn't in at the library yet. So, I needed something very short this weekend and decided it was about time to read a classic (since I joined a one-classic-per-month challenge & haven't read any yet this year!). So, I read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, a novella that both of my sons had to read for their World Lit class in high school. This was my first taste of Kafka, and it was well-written, engaging, and surprisingly funny.
  • Home last night and still without my next book group book (I just picked it up this morning!), I started another super quick book, Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard, a middle-grade graphic novel that is due out on August 2. I'm about halfway through, and so far, it is wholly unique, interesting, and with richly imagined drawings. I already love little Bera.
  • I finished listening to The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal Allen & Eda Kaban, a middle grade audio book and the start of a new series with a spunky 4th grade heroine and a fun, cowgirl setting in Texas. I need to start a new audio today.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading When Darkness Falls by James Grippando, a paperback thriller that I put in his Christmas stocking. Just in time because I gave him 3 new books for Father's Day yesterday that we both can't wait to read!
  • Jamie, 21, finished re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth and is still reading book 3, Paths of Air. Not much reading time at a 4-day music festival with friends! He may have finished this one by now, but he is still asleep so I can't ask him.
 Last week's blog posts (wow, I managed a lot for being offline for 3 days this weekend!):
Movie Monday: Captain America: Civil War, the latest Avengers movie

TV Tuesday: Stitchers, a young team of brilliant scientists solves crimes with sci fi tech

Fiction Review: The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood, reviewed for Publishers Weekly

Teen/YA Review: My Name Is Not Friday by Jon Walter, a free black boy during the Civil War is sold into slavery

Fiction Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, an engrossing story of connections

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.


Join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) to participate. Join the fun & sign up today!


Friday, June 17, 2016

Fiction Review: A Tale for the Time Being


I’ve been hearing rave reviews of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ever since its release in 2013, including being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I’ve wanted to read it since and finally found some extra motivation when my library chose it for its May book discussion (which I sometimes go to when I can fit it in). I missed the discussion (no surprise) but finally got to read this unique novel and find out what all the fuss was about. I loved this story about connections between a teen girl in Japan and a woman writer in British Columbia.

Nao is a teenage girl sitting in a Japanese French Maid Café (this is seriously a real thing, much to my amazement), writing in a journal. She and her parents are all pretty miserable, and her father is suicidal. They used to live in Sunnyvale, California, where her father had a job with a growing tech company, so Nao grew up mostly American. When the dot-com bubble burst and her father lost his job, the family had to return to Japan. Not able to find a job there either, he is depressed and suicidal, and the family lives in a tiny 2-room apartment in a run-down part of Tokyo. Nao’s classmates bully her relentlessly – and cruelly – for being the new girl and an outsider.

On the other side of the world, Ruth, a second-generation Japanese American woman and a writer, is walking along the beach on the small island in British Columbia where she lives with her husband, Oliver. She finds a curious item washed ashore and encased in several layers of plastic bags and a Hello Kitty lunchbox. When she takes it home and opens it, she finds Nao’s journal. She begins to read it aloud, with Oliver listening, and they are both immediately entranced by Nao’s story and her plights.

The novel continues back and forth, with alternating chapters between Nao and Ruth. Nao doesn’t know to whom she is writing, but she hopes that someone will someday read it. Her chapters are wholly from the journal, so the reader is experiencing Nao’s story in exactly the way that Ruth is experiencing it. As she reads, Ruth becomes more and more concerned about Nao. With her father’s failed suicide attempts and her own ever-escalating bullying, Nao is considering suicide herself. Ruth is alarmed and wants to somehow find her, but Oliver points out that they have no way of knowing when this journal was written or how much time has passed since.

The one saving grace in Nao’s life is her great-grandmother, Jiko, who is 104 and a Buddhist nun. In her youth, Jiko was a revolutionary, an anarchist and a feminist (at a time when both were rare and dangerous). In fact, Nao starts the journal with a plan to write Jiko’s life story in it. She spends a summer at the tiny Buddhist temple on top of a mountainside where Jiko lives and gets to know her great-grandmother. That summer changes her life.

I enjoyed the complex connections and back-and-forth style of this wholly unique novel. Because of Jiko’s influence, there is quite a bit of Buddhism included in Nao’s journal (and further explained in appendices). In fact, the title of the book comes from the writings of a Zen Master from the 1200’s. I loved the bits of philosophy worked in among Nao’s and Ruth’s stories (man and nature is also an ongoing theme here) and especially the way that their two stories intertwined. A Tale for the Time Being is a moving, powerful story about life and time, peopled by interesting characters, that makes you think. What more could you want from a novel?

403 pages (plus appendices), Viking Press

[If you haven’t yet joined the Big Book Challenge, this would be a great book to read for it!]

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Teen/YA Review: My Name Is Not Friday


I recently listened to My Name Is Not Friday by Jon Walter on audio. I hadn’t heard of Walter before and discovered this is his first teen/YA novel, following a successful middle-grade novel, Close to the Wind. This new novel is set during the Civil War and told from the perspective of a free black boy who is sold into slavery. It’s a fascinating and compelling historical novel.

Twelve-year old Samuel lives in an orphanage in east Tennessee with his little brother, Joshua. Their mother died giving birth to Joshua, leaving the boys alone. They were taken to an orphanage run by Father Mosely for free black boys who’d been orphaned. For six years, the two brothers grow up together there, working and taking classes and walking to Mass in borrowed pairs of shoes. Samuel gets along well with the other boys and with Father Mosely, but Joshua is always getting into trouble. Samuel loves reading and learning and hopes to become a teacher himself one day, but he just can’t get Joshua interested in schoolwork. One day, when Father Mosely accuses Joshua of a terrible act, Samuel takes the blame; he just can’t stand to see his brother punished again.

Samuel’s punishment, though, is far more than he’d bargained for. Without knowing what’s going on, he is sent away, given a new name (Friday), and sold at a slave auction. There, he is purchased by Gerald, a boy about his age, and his mother, Mrs. Allen, and taken to their plantation in Mississippi. Samuel is suddenly immersed in a world completely foreign to him. Mrs. Allen runs the busy farm while her husband is off fighting in the war. Gerald seems to want to be his friend, but the other slaves warn Samuel – now Friday – and explain that his role on the farm is to do what their owners tell him.

Friday is put to work part-time in the fields and part-time in the house, since he is well spoken. He discovers that none of the other slaves know how to read and realizes he must keep his own reading skills a secret. Friday (still Samuel in his heart) becomes accustomed to life on the farm and becomes a part of the community there, but he never stops thinking about getting away and finding his brother. Meanwhile, the war continues, and things are not looking good for the South.

This was a completely engrossing story, right from the first page, where we meet Samuel while he is blindfolded and being carried on the back of a mule to the auction by a slave trader. It puts the reader right in the middle of the experience of slaves during this tumultuous time period, while also showing some perspectives of slave owners and those fighting (and involved tangentially) in the Civil War. We watch with suspense as Samuel makes the journey from a free boy to a slave…and hopefully, some day, back again. Samuel and the other slaves are interesting and well-developed characters, as are the white characters in the novel. Like the best historical fiction, this novel transports the reader to a different place and time, while also telling an intriguing story.

Scholastic Audio

NOTE: At first, I thought that perhaps this was a middle-grade novel because of the age of the protagonist, but it is definitely meant for teens and young adults, as Walter doesn’t shy away from a realistic portrayal of both slavery and the war. Some scenes are quite graphic and disturbing (as is appropriate for an accurate book about slavery and the Civil War), though the overall tone of the novel is one of hope and strength.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Fiction Review: The Book That Matters Most

Way back in my March Book Summary, I mentioned that I'd read and reviewed The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood for Publishers Weekly. They just published my review, so I'm sharing the link here. It will be released in August.

This was my first Ann Hood novel (she also wrote The Obituary Writer and The Knitting Circle), though I'd heard good things about her books. I don't know why, but I sort of expected The Book That Matters Most to be light and insubstantial, but I was pleasantly surprised by its complexity and depth. It interweaves a year of book group discussions with a woman's efforts to overcome her recent divorce and also works in side stories about her daughter's mis-adventures in Paris and the deaths of her mother and sister when she was young. I was completely engrossed in the story and enjoyed seeing the emotional growth and healing of the characters develop. There were plenty of surprises in the plot, and I love stories where disparate threads come together in the end.

Have you read any Ann Hood novels? 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

TV Tuesday: Stitchers

Last week, with all of our favorite spring shows wrapping up and June beginning, I looked up start dates for some of our favorites from last summer. I was surprised - and alarmed - to see that one show we loved, Stitchers, had actually come back for its second season in March! Luckily, all of the season two episodes are still On Demand, so we settled in for some binge-watching and are almost finished with season two now.

Stitchers is an ABC Family show (and BTW, did anyone else know that ABC Family has renamed themselves FreeForm? News to me as of 5 minutes ago) that combines a suspenseful crime drama with some sci fi and a hefty dose of character development and drama, too. We were hooked from the first episode.

The show focuses on a secret government program within the NSA. A new technology allows the team to take a recently dead body and "stitch" a live team member's consciousness into its brain in order to retrieve memories. In this way, they hope to use the technology to solve crimes (especially murders) that were previously unsolvable. Maggie, the team's leader and a former covert operative, recruits a young woman named Kirsten to be the one to stitch into bodies. Kirsten has a disorder where she doesn't feel emotions, so her calm, detached demeanor makes her perfect for the job. Other team members include Cameron, a brilliant young scientist; Linus, who handles communications technology; and a local police officer, Detective Fisher, to handle the law enforcement side of things. They also recruit Kirsten's roommate Camille, played by Allison Scagliotti (who we loved on Warehouse 13), to help with the program. All of these characters, except for Maggie and Fisher, are young, brilliant scientists.

Like any crime show, in each episode, there is a new murder or other crime to solve. The difference is that this team looks at regular evidence but also "stitches" into the dead body to recover memories leading up to the death to help them figure out who the culprit(s) are. The show is action-packed and full of suspense, as the team races against time (there is a limited time when stitching is viable) to solve the latest case. In the second episode, viewers find out that Kirsten's father - who disappeared when she was young - was somehow involved in the Stitchers program, and that becomes an on-going plotline as well, as she searches for answers to her own past. In addition to the crime and sci fi elements, there is plenty of character drama, too.

Like I said, we were hooked from the first episode. Admittedly, this is one of those premises where you just have to ignore the supposed technical explanations and go with the flow - this is, after all, science fiction. There are several aspects of the show that you could pick on if you wanted to - especially the youth and attractiveness of the main characters (all brilliant scientists) and the stitching process itself. The character of Kirsten seems cold and unappealing in the first episodes, but her character really grows and develops over the course of two seasons. In fact, all of the characters - and the on-going plot - continue to develop throughout these first two seasons, so this is one of those shows that gets better as it moves forward and benefits from watching at least a few episodes before deciding if you like it. We just chose go with the flow, and we've thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced, suspenseful episodes and the overall plot arc. We have just a couple of episodes of season two left, and we can't wait to watch them this week!

All episodes of both season 1 and season 2 of Stitchers are currently available for free on the FreeForm (formerly ABC Family) website. We've been watching season 2 for free on our cable On Demand; our cable company has it up until April 24 (hurry and you can binge the whole season like we have!). It is also available on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $14.99 for a full season (links below).



    

Monday, June 13, 2016

Movie Monday: Captain American: Civil War

I vowed not to watch anymore superhero movies after a glut of them with my husband and two sons a couple of years ago, but I made an exception for this one for several reasons last week: my friends on Pop Culture Happy Hour (one of my fave podcasts) assured me it was one of the better superhero movies, with a fully developed plot; I do enjoy seeing Robert Downey, Jr. in movies; and it happened to be showing at the best time for us in our local theater last week when we went for $5 Tuesdays (a rare event for us to go to the theater!). So, we saw Captain America: Civil War on the big screen.

First, the title is somewhat misleading. Though Captain America does play a large role in this movie, it's not all about him. This is truly an ensemble cast of superheroes. In fact, as the title does accurately depict, it's about a civil war among superheroes.

Apparently, the Avengers created a lot of chaos and damage the last time they saved the world. The world is getting kind of fed up with having to clean up their messes after they swoop in to save the day. In particular, one country, Sokovia, where the latest destruction occurred (see last Avengers movie, apparently) now leads efforts internationally to reign in the superheroes and give them some oversight. In fact, representatives of over 100  countries are gathering in Vienna to sign the Sokovia Accords, which will create a UN panel to oversee the team and determine when and where they should be called in to help.

This causes a rift among the Avengers. Some, including Tony Stark aka Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., are wracked with guilt over what happened in Sokovia and agree that there should be some oversight of them. Others, led by Steve Rogers aka Captain America, played by Chris Evans, are against any kind of oversight and believe the Avengers should continue as they have been - dispatching themselves whenever and wherever they see a need for their services. The Avengers each choose sides on this conflict and are splintered by the disagreement.

Meanwhile, the building where the Sokovia Accords are to be signed is bombed, and it seems that Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier is responsible. Captain America firmly believes that his old war buddy is innocent or was set up, but the Iron Man team thinks he's letting his personal feelings interfere and that they should be  - carefully and responsibly - trying to capture Bucky. As you might have guessed, multiple fights, chases, and battle scenes ensue as the two sides of the Avengers each seek different resolutions, including one really cool battle (even I had to admire it) between the two factions of superheroes, with some extra muscle they each pulled in to help. In fact, the highlight of the movie was when Tony Stark visits a very young Peter Parker, who is just starting out as Spiderman and is mostly unknown, and recruits his help.

That complicated synopsis is just the tip of the iceberg. When PCHH said this movie has plenty of plot behind it, they weren't kidding. It's a very complex plot, and sometimes we weren't entirely following it. In fact, there were a bunch of characters whose superhero names were never spoken during the movie but it was assumed the audience would know (we didn't). This is the downside of skipping a couple of years' of superhero movies; this one, as is true of others, relies heavily on past Avengers' movies. My husband and I kept whispering to each other, "Wait, who is THAT?" There were some characters with a fair amount of screen time whom I didn't know until 10 minutes ago when I looked the movie up on IMDB to write this review!

Our approach was to just go with the flow. We tried not to get annoyed when we didn't know who someone was, and most plot points were eventually explained. We just went along for the ride. And it's quite a ride! Nonstop action, plenty of battles, plus a bit of character development for the more major characters and a good dose of humor. That last element is - for me - what makes the difference between an incredibly boring, barely watchable superhero movie and one that I can enjoy. Of course, there is plenty of humor from Robert Downey, Jr, in his usual wise-cracking mode as Tony Stark, but the best moments in the movie come from a surprising source: Tom Holland as the very young Spiderman, on his first big gig and (over)eager to impress "Mr. Stark."

So, lots of action, a complex plot, and some good laughs - all in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours (actually a bit more). And if you are a fan of superhero movies and the Avengers anyway, then certainly, this is a movie you'll love.

[For those in the know, the other superheros in Civil War (and the all-stars who played them) include Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen), Falcon (Sam Wilson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and introducing Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who will have his own movie later this year.]

Captain America: Civil War is now out in theaters (we are rarely so current on movies!).




It's Monday 6/13! What Are You Reading?

Wow, what a quiet week here! With both sons off on trips with their friends, the house was unbelievably quiet...which was just what I needed after the crazy, chaotic graduation week.

So, I devoted my week to catching up and getting back in the groove of blogging.

Now, both boys (young men now, really) are back home, the TV is on nonstop, and the house is noisy and chaotic again - but it's nice to have them home. They leave again in a few days for the Firefly music festival here in Delaware. They are making the most of summer vacation!

Here's what we all read last week:
  • I am still reading The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater, the fourth and final book in her The Raven Cycle series, which I have been wanting to get to since it was released in April. It's great, just like the first three, and I can't wait to see how it all wraps up! I have less than a hundred pages to go. This is my first Big Book of the Summer.
  • I've been listening to The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal Allen & Eda Kaban, a middle grade audio book. This is the start of a new series with a spunky 4th grade heroine and a fun, cowgirl setting in Texas.
  • My husband, Ken, read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, another of the books we inherited from my dad (I listened to this one on audio years ago) - it's an uncharacteristically brief novel for King (suspense, not horror), about a young girl who gets lost in the woods.
  • Now, Ken is reading When Darkness Falls by James Grippando, another of my dad's books. This one is a thriller.
  • Jamie, 21, finished re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth and is still reading book 3, Paths of Air. Not much reading time for a 21-year old on a Caribbean cruise with his friends!
 I worked on blog catch-up last week:
Movie Monday: A Walk in the Woods, adaptation of Bill Bryson's memoir

TV Tuesday: Humans, a unique and compelling TV show

Summary of Books Read in April - yes, April! Catching up...

Fiction Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez - family drama, story of first love, and a peek at the lives of modern immigrants

Middle-Grade Review: Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart, a story of family & friendship set in 1890's Washington

Saturday Snapshot 6/11: It's Summer!
 
What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.


Join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) to participate. Join the fun & sign up today! 



Saturday, June 11, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 6/11: It's Summer!


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Wet & cool has given way to hot and humid (though we still had some cool-ish days this week), and spring blooms and h=turned into lush summer greenery. A few photos from a hike at our local nature center this week (plus one from our yard & one from my son's graduation!):

Our irises bloomed last week: gorgeous but brief


Beginning of the trail at the nature center

Boardwalk through lush marsh & woods

Me, enjoying a hike!

Cool stream passing along the trail
My son's high school graduation last Saturday!

Hope you are enjoying a great weekend!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Middle-Grade Review: Some Kind of Courage

I recently listened to the middle-grade novel Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart on audio and was riveted by the fast-paced drama about a grieving but brave boy set in 1890’s Washington state.

Joseph is a young boy who has lost everyone he cared about. His mother and sister died of illness, so it was just him and his pa. Then his father died, too, in a terrible accident. Joseph was left to live with Mr. Grissom, a man who treated him like slave labor. When Mr. Grissom sells Joseph’s horse, Sarah, to a traveling horse trader, it’s the last straw. Joseph makes a break for it, taking the money from the sale of the horse and his pa’s gun (which Mr. Grissom had taken) and heading off on his own after the horse trader. Sarah is the only family Joseph has left, and he is determined to get her back.

In the first town he stops in, Joseph learns where the horse trader was headed and also meets a young Chinese boy who seems to be all alone, too. A shopkeeper explains that the boy came into town with some adults who all died of illness, leaving him on his own. Although the boy speaks no English – and Joseph certainly doesn’t speak any Chinese – Joseph manages to convey an invitation to him, and the boy joins him on his journey.

The two young boys encounter a lot of danger along the way – both animals and people, bad weather, Indians, and eventually, the horse trader they are following, who turns out to be unscrupulous. Despite the language barrier, a friendship gradually forms between the two very different boys, and they help each other through the challenging journey. Joseph’s quest to recover Sarah is single-minded, and he is determined not to fail.

I enjoyed this Old West adventure, set in a time and place that is not often covered in fiction. The historical details were interesting throughout, but this novel is also action-packed and full of drama. Joseph’s parents brought him up to be a kind and tolerant boy, unlike many of the people he encounters on the road, so readers see the kinds of prejudices that existed at that time (as now) against those deemed different and the respectful way that Joseph deals with others. This is a rousing adventure, but with plenty of heart, a story that is ultimately about family and friendship.

Scholastic

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Fiction Review: The Book of Unknown Americans


I was interested in reading The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez when I first read its plot synopsis but even more eager to read it when I heard it was actually set here in Delaware, where we live. It’s the second smallest state in the nation (and few people know where it is), so it’s rare for books to be set here. Last spring, I had the honor of meeting Cristina at Booktopia VT and talking to her about our shared state. This enticing novel finally made its way to the top of my overflowing TBR stacks, and I thoroughly enjoyed the heartfelt, moving drama set in an immigrant community, as did all the members of my book group.

As the book opens, Alma Rivera, her husband, Arturo, and their teen daughter, Maribel, have just left everything and everyone they know behind in Mexico and traveled 30 hours in a pickup truck from the border to arrive in Delaware. Arturo’s new job waits for them, just over the border in Pennsylvania. In Mexico, Arturo ran his own very successful construction company, but here in the U.S., he will be laboring 10 hours a day on his feet in a pitch-dark, dank mushroom farm. The family felt they had no choice because Maribel had suffered a brain injury from an accident, and the options for her in Mexico were limited. So, they traveled thousands of miles to enroll her in a special school that they hope can help her to recover some of her brain function.

The tiny, run-down apartment they move into is a far cry from their beautiful home in Mexico, but they try to settle in to their new lives. They gradually meet their neighbors in the apartment complex, all Spanish-speaking immigrants themselves. The Toro family is especially welcoming, and their teen son, Major, feels an immediate connection to Maribel, despite her limited ability to communicate. Bullied at school and feeling like an outsider himself, he sees a kindred spirit in Maribel.

Although the Riveras and the Toros are the main characters in this novel and most chapters are narrated by a member of those two families, along the way, we also get the stories of other immigrants living in the apartment complex. They come from a wide variety of countries throughout Central and South America (and are understandably annoyed when they are all called “Mexicans”), and they each came to the United States for a different reason. What they all have in common, though, is wanting a better life…though few of them are better off here in the U.S. than they were in their home countries. They work in menial jobs (often very different from their chosen careers), live in the run-down apartment complex, and endure terrible prejudice.

In this way, Henriquez tells the story of two families – and specifically of the love between two misfit teenagers – but she also tells the story of a broad and diverse group of people who have all been typecast in their new lives in America. There are stories full of hope, stories full of tragedy, and everything in between. The one bright spot in most of their lives is the community – the family – they have built here among each other, far from their real families.

My book group overwhelmingly enjoyed this novel, and our discussions were far-ranging. The book works on two levels: as an intricate, well-told story of families and first love and as a rare peek into an insular community that is often misunderstood. This novel makes you both feel and think. Our discussion ran the gamut from details about the story itself to the bigger picture of immigrants in America today. The fact that it was set right here in our own town – including many recognizable landmarks and the immigrant community we see every day – made it all the more powerful and thought-provoking. This compelling story will keep you turning the pages, wanting things to work out for the characters…and it will also make you think.

286 pages, Vintage Contemporaries

Me Meeting Cristina Henriquez at Booktopia VT 2015

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Books Read in April

Yes, you read that right - April. This is a lateness record even for me! May was crazy busy, but now that we are past our son's graduation, I am trying to catch up!

I didn't want to skip my April summary completely, though, because April was an amazing reading month for me. I read a total of 9 books, which is a LOT for me (which partly explains why it took me so long to finish all my April reviews). Here's what I read:

 
  • Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle & Emily Jenkins, middle-grade audio 
  • The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick, middle-grade audio (New Hampshire)
  • Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz, adult fiction/suspense (Colorado)

Wow! So, how did I manage a record-setting reading month? Well, Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon was in April, which helped. I listen to a few middle-grade audios which tend to be shorter than YA or adult. And one of my books, Blog, Inc., I started last September and finally finished! Of the 9 books I read, 2 were nonfiction (rare for me), 1 was YA, and 3 were middle-grade (and also audio). It was a nice variety of books, all enjoyable!

Progress on 2016 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! Still not much progress on my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge - only two of these NINE were TBR books from my shelf! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, April was Best of the Best month (award winners) - The Life We Bury won multiple awards. I read two more nonfiction books for my 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, but STILL no classics for the 2016 Classics Challenge! For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I read books set in Poland and Mexico.  I am also tracking the states my books are set in, even though there is no Where Are You Reading challenge this year - I added 4 new states this month!

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

TV Tuesday: Humans

Last fall, my husband and I started watching Humans but only got halfway through the season when it was pulled from our cable's On Demand. So, we were thrilled when it was recently added to Amazon Prime! We re-watched the first episode and then realized we didn't remember much and ended up watching the entire season in less than two weeks.

This brilliant joint project between American AMC and British Channel 4 is an engrossing sci fi series with a great cast.  The show is set in London in the present or near future in a world where robots have become so advanced, they are almost impossible to tell apart from humans. These Synthetics or Synths have become an integral part of human life, working at manual jobs, in people's homes as servants, and even working as prostitutes.

In the first episode, we meet a normal suburban family who has just gotten their first Synth. Husband Joe is exhausted by wrangling the three kids and the house while his wife, Laura, works as a lawyer with frequent trips out of town. So, one day on a whim, he buys a Synth to help around the house. They name her Anita, and she is an instant hit with adorable little Sophie. Teenaged Toby is taken with her as well but for entirely different reasons, as he quickly develops a crush on the beautiful feminine Synth. Teen daughter Mattie, though, who is a very skilled computer programmer, is distrustful of the Synth. Worst of all, when Laura returns from her business trip, she is furious that Joe made this decision without her, a bit creeped out to have a Synth in the house, and soon also quite jealous at the way her family comes to depend on Anita.

Meanwhile, we see glimpses into other lives nearby, both Synth and human. George, an elderly man (played by William Hurt), has memory problems and relies on his equally-aging (and malfunctioning) Synth, Odi. The Health Service wants to replace Odi, but he has become like a part of the family to George. We see a pair of police officers who are tasked with investigating any crimes related to Synths (which are rare), and one of them goes home to a handsome Synth physical therapist in his house who is helping his wife recover from a car accident. Most intriguingly, we are introduced to a young man named Leo who seems to have a sort of family made up of Synths that are unlike the typical ones. He refers to a Synth named Max and another named Fred as his brothers, and in the first episode, visits a prostitute Synth named Niska, promising that he is trying to break her out. These unusual Synths that Leo knows seem to be more human-like, even able to feel pain.

Believe it or not, most of that is all packed into the first episode or so! There is a lot going on here, but it all comes together, with surprises and plot twists around every corner. Humans works on two different levels. It's a fast-paced, action-packed sci fi tale about the Synths themselves, their development, and whether or not they might be a danger to humans in some way. At the same time, though, the show also has a more thoughtful, emotional side. It focuses on how the Synths interact with humans (like how George relies on Odi or Laura is jealous of Anita) as well as the relationships  between humans. In addition, woven throughout are intriguing moral questions about the Synths and the ways they are used by humans, especially as we get to know those in Leo's family who seem to be conscious.  It's a compelling and intricate story with many layers that kept us watching every night until we'd finished the first season!

Season 2 of Humans is in production now and due out in 2016 in the UK and 2017 in the US (uh-oh, we may have to re-watch season 1 for a third time!). Season 1 is currently available for free on Amazon Prime. Watching the trailer makes me want to watch the whole season again now!



Monday, June 06, 2016

Movie Monday: A Walk in the Woods

Last week, with most of our favorite TV shows finished with their winter or spring seasons and summer TV shows not yet started, my husband and I decided to watch a movie one night. We chose from among the free movie options on Amazon Prime and settled on A Walk in the Woods, a movie based on Bill Bryson's hilarious memoir of walking the Appalachian Trail with a friend. We had both loved the book and also used to be avid backpackers ourselves. It turns out that those two things kept us from really loving this movie. It was light and pleasant but not much more.

In the movie, Robert Redford plays Bill Bryson (a real-life famous author whose memoirs and nonfiction books are often hilarious and always informative). The movie departs from the book in quite a few ways, so I will focus on the movie's plot here. Faced with aging and attending a friend's funeral, Bill decides to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. His wife, played by Emma Thompson, is not at all happy with his decision and is concerned about his safety, but he can't be dissuaded. He calls every friend he can think of, old and new, to find someone to accompany him, but most of them think he's crazy and have no desire to join his ill-conceived mission. One friend, though, does respond: Stephen Katz, a childhood friend from Iowa, who has had the opposite life that Bill's had, filled with trouble with alcoholism and the law, and never leaving their hometown. Katz is played by Nick Nolte, who is - by far - the highlight of the movie.

So, the two old friends (and I do mean OLD) fly to Georgia and set off on the AT. They hike along, meeting other hikers, encountering a few minor problems, with plenty of beautiful montages of scenes along the AT and some adventures off the trail as well.

I think this movie would probably be far more enjoyable if you have NOT read Bryson's book and if you have no experience of backpacking yourself. For us, the departures from the book made no sense and the two characters' experiences were so far off from reality as to be distracting. For starters, Bryson was in his 40's when he tried hiking the AT, not his 70's. I read that this was Redford's project, though, so obviously, he couldn't play the lead if it were a guy in his 40's. The part that really didn't make sense to us was that the funniest parts of the book don't appear in the movie - all the trouble and challenges Bryson and Katz encountered in trying to hike 10-12 miles a day with heavy packs with absolutely no experience and no preparation at all. In the book and in the movie, Katz was especially out of shape, so this led to some hilarious passages in the book (all told in Bryson's exaggerating style). In the movie, they just jumped right into hiking 10 miles a day carrying packs (which weren't nearly big enough for long-distance backpacking) with very few problems - two out-of-shape men in their 70's! OK, I'm done with with the rant.

So, why is this movie still enjoyable and not a total disaster? Because of Nick Nolte. He's always been a favorite actor of mine, and he does his thing here - acting like the gruff but lovable guy who's always getting into trouble. All of the laughs in the movie are his, and it's fun, as always, to watch him. Overall, the movie (much like the severely airbrushed photo on its cover!) is light and shallow, with a few thoughtful moments toward the end. It has some funny moments but is lacking in the kind of belly laughs induced by the book it is based on. It was a pleasant hour and 45 minutes with a few laughs, but I'm glad it was free! It actually had decent user ratings on Amazon and Redbox, so perhaps we were biased from our own experiences and enjoying the book so much.

A Walk in the Woods is available for streaming free on Amazon Prime and is available on DVD through both Netflix and Redbox.

If you are interested in reading some of Bryson's books, A Walk in the Woods is very funny and definitely recommended, but my favorite of his is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, about his childhood in the 50's in Iowa.



         

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Not much time for books or blogging last week. Our youngest son graduated from high school on Saturday, we had 6 family members staying with us for the weekend, and we hosted a party Saturday evening with 50 guests! So, my week was spent preparing for all of that revelry. It was a great weekend (though exhausting). Yesterday, everyone left one by one - family back to Rochester, oldest son off on a cruise with his friends, youngest son off to the beach with his friends (a Delaware tradition for grads), Mom to the train station.
This morning, I am enjoying the quiet solitude (can hear the birds singing outside) and starting to resume normal life. I have a lot of catch-up work to do!

Here's what we read last week - when we found a spare moment!
  • I finished - and really enjoyed - A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, an intricate, interwoven story about a Japanese teenager and a woman writer in British Columbia (I love stories about connections). 
  • I also finished Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi. I was inspired to read this wonderful memoir sequel by two things: my son's World Lit class just read Persepolis (which I read and loved last year), and I joined Emma Watson's feminist book group on Goodreads, Our Shared Shelf (oh, yeah, Emma and I are best buds now), and her choice for June is Persepolis, so I wanted to read the second volume. It was just as good - and fascinating - as the first. This second volume focused on Marji's coming-of-age, her adolescence, and moving into adulthood.
  • Now, I am reading my first Big Book of the Summer! I started The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater, the fourth and final book in her The Raven Cycle series, which I have been wanting to get to since it was released in April. It is nice to be back among Blue, Gansey, and the rest of the group.
  • I finished listening to The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos on audio, a teen/YA novel with a unique plot. The 17-year old main character is looking for her mother, who left when she was very young, and her father, who just recently disappeared. Her dad writes medical mystery novels, so she is using what she's learned from his novels to track down these two very personal mysteries of her own. It was good - both a mystery and an intricate look at relationships and family. 
  • My husband, Ken, just finished The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which I gave him for Christmas. We have enjoyed the first few episodes of the TV adaptation on Amazon Prime, so I thought he'd like the novel. He says it's completely different from the TV show. I haven't heard his final thoughts on the book yet since I was already asleep when he finished it last night!
  • Jamie, 21, finished re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth and then finished book 3, Paths of Air. He is now on break from college for the next 5 weeks and planning to read a LOT! He loaded his phone up with a bunch of Kindle books before he left on a Caribbean cruise yesterday, but I don't know which ones he chose.
  • Craig, 18, was the high school graduate this weekend, and I can assure you that he will not read anything at all until he starts college in the fall!
No blog posts last week, other than my Monday post. I will be catching up this week, so check back!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.


Join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) to participate. Join the fun & sign up today! 


Monday, May 30, 2016

It's Monday 5/30! What Are You Reading?


Aauggh! How is it possibly Memorial Day, with June 2 days away, already? Last week, it was raining and cold - I wore a sweater out to dinner with friends. This weekend, it was 90 and humid, and I wore shorts out to dinner (with the same friends!). The weather craziness made the onset of summer seem even more abrupt. We spent much of the weekend preparing for next weekend's big event: my son's high school graduation. We planned a small party that is now up to about 40 people! Eeek!

More importantly, this weekend was the official kick-off for my annual Big Book Summer Challenge! Click on the link to read the rules (super easy for summer!) - you only need to read at least 1 book of 400 pages or more to participate. Join the fun!

Here's what we've been reading this week:
  • I am still reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, which I had to temporarily set aside to get my review book read on time. I am loving it so far - an intricate, interwoven story about a Japanese teenager and a woman writer in British Columbia (I love stories about connections). I have become very attached to the two main characters! It's a long book, but I am almost finished and still enjoying it.
  • I rarely read two books at once, but I make an exception for graphic novels. My requested Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi came in at the library. I was inspired to read this wonderful memoir sequel by two things: my son's World Lit class just read Persepolis (which I read and loved last year), and I joined Emma Watson's feminist book group on Goodreads, Our Shared Shelf (oh, yeah, Emma and I are best buds now), and her choice for June is Persepolis, so I wanted to read the second volume. Just as good - and fascinating - as the first so far.
  • I have been listening to The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos on audio, a teen/YA novel with a unique plot. The 17-year old main character is looking for her mother, who left her and her father when she was very young, and her father, who just recently disappeared. Her dad writes medical mystery novels, so she is using what she's learned from his novels to track down these two very personal mysteries of her own.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which I gave him for Christmas. We have enjoyed the first few episodes of the TV adaptation on Amazon Prime, so I thought he'd like the novel. He says it's completely different from the TV show. It's good that he's reading his Christmas gifts because it's almost Father's Day, and I've already chosen his new books!
  • Jamie, 21, finished re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth. Now, he's started book 3, Paths of Air. With finals the past two weeks, he hasn't had much reading time. He finishes exams tomorrow, and then he can relax and read nonstop!
Last week's blog posts - there won't be much time for blogging this week or next!
TV Tuesday: The Night Manager, a British import, a spy thriller starring Hugh Laurie

Middle-Grade Review: Upside-Down Magic, a fun magic novel that tackles some important real-life issues

Middle-Grade Review: The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick, a compelling sci fi novel

2016 Big Book Summer Challenge - join the fun!

My Big Book Summer - Check out the Big Books I plan to read this summer

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.


Join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) to participate. Join the fun & sign up today!