Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TV Tuesday: Stranger Things

Over the past two weeks, since my last TV Tuesday post (and even with a vacation in the middle), my family tried, became obsessed with, and finished a new TV show that I have been dying to tell you about! You've probably already heard about it because everyone seems to be raving about it, so I will add my enthusiasm to the noise. My husband, son, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of season 1 of Stranger Things, a new Netflix show, and can't wait for the next season!

Before I get into the details of plot and character, you should know that one of the most enticing things about Stranger Things is that it takes the best, most beloved 80's movies, puts them in a blender, and spits out an original, compelling TV show. One of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour, described it like "taking a Stephen King book starring kids and having Steven Spielberg produce the movie," and that is a pretty apt description (the link will take you directly to their Stranger Things episode, which I highly recommend). The three of us spotted references, similarities, and homages to ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stand by Me, and The Goonies, just for starters.

The set-up goes like this: it's 1983 in suburban Indiana, and four nerdy pre-pubescent best friends ride their bikes, sleep over at each other's houses, and obsessively play Dungeons & Dragons in one boy's basement for hours. Mike is the boy with the afore-mentioned basement rec room (complete with shag carpeting), Lucas is his best friend who lives next door as part of the only black family in town, Dustin is an adorable chubby-cheeked boy with a medical condition that means he is still missing baby teeth (for which he gets teased relentlessly by the bullies at school), and Will completes the foursome. In the first episode, Will goes missing while riding his bike home one night.

Will's mother, played by Winona Rider (another wink to the 80's), is frantic. She is raising Will and his teen brother, Jonathan, on her own. Police Chief Jim Hopper, played by David Harbour, is an old friend and immediately begins a search for Will, but the boys set off on their own investigation. Meanwhile, a mysterious girl of about the same age, with a shaved head and wearing a hospital gown, shows up suddenly in a local diner after dark, having escaped from a super-creepy secret government facility in town (under the guise of the Department of Energy). The girl, known as El, doesn't talk much, but the boys find her in the woods and keep her safe.

That is all in the first episode, and I won't say more because this is a show that relies on unfolding secrets and mysteries. Some very strange things are going on in this town, and they are going to get worse before they get better. There are three main plotlines: the adults looking for Will, the kids doing their own investigation and search, and eventually, Jonathan and Mike's teen sister also getting involved (plus flashbacks to what is going on at the secret facility). Over the course of 8 episodes, some questions are answered and some mysteries solved, but others remain unclear, paving the way for a suspenseful second season.

Have I mentioned that we all LOVE this show? It is just so addictingly good in so many ways. The tone and feel will remind you of your favorite 80's movies, even though the plot is unique. The kids are all great actors, especially the mysterious El, played by Millie Bobby Brown. Winona Rider and David Harbour are excellent in the main adult roles. The music, pop culture references, and settings all lovingly recreate the 80's. Too young to remember the 80's movies I mentioned? You'll still love this show. Fortunately, we gave our son a solid education in the "modern classics" of the 80's! And if you've enjoyed any of Stephen King's novels that feature kids (his best writing, in my opinion), like IT or The Body (the novella on which the movie Stand By Me was based - not horror), then you will also feel right at home.

Stranger Things takes the best of the movies and stories of the 80's and recreates them for a modern audience, with a nice sense of nostalgia. It's a very suspenseful, action-packed mystery/sci fi combination that will have you saying at the end of each episode (like we did), "We have to watch the next one!"

Stranger Things is a Netflix Original program, so it is available only on the streaming service.





Monday, August 22, 2016

It's Monday 8/22! What Are You Reading?

I missed my Monday post last week while we were in South Dakota on vacation (you can check out the first of my photos), so I have a lot to update! Vacation last week was brief but fun, and now we are busy, busy, busy getting our sons ready to move to college at the end of the week (first time for our youngest).

Here's what we've been reading:
  • I just yesterday finished my third Big Book of the Summer, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a novel I have been wanting to read ever since its release and that's been sitting on my bookcase since Christmas. WOW. What an amazing, completely original book! I've never read another novel like it. It's a series of separate stories that link together in unexpected ways, like a jigsaw puzzle you put together without knowing what the final picture will be. I will attempt to write a cohesive review this week, though I really just want to shout, "You must read this amazing book!" to everyone.
  • I just started a new review book for Publishers Weekly last night, Moor by Gunther Geltinger, a novel translated from German. I'm a bit cautious because the word "experimental" was used on the back cover blurb! It sounds intriguing, though, about a teen boy with a severe stutter who lives with his mother, with a heavy focus on nature. I'll let you know!
  • On the audio front, I finished listening to Dreamology by Lucy Keating, a teen/YA audio book that was far more intriguing and engrossing than I expected. It explores the line between dreaming and reality when a teen girl starts at a new school and meets face-to-face with the boy she's been dreaming about for years. 
  • Now, I am listening to Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, another teen/YA novel. This one is set in the UK and focuses on three generations of women in one family who all carry secrets. Teen Katie's life changes dramatically when Mary, her previously unknown grandmother, comes into their lives unexpectedly. Mary has dementia and requires a lot of care, and Katie's mother, Caroline, doesn't talk much about the past. It's excellent so far.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Shift by Hugh Howey, book 2 in the Wool series. He and I both LOVED Wool (review at the link), which several friends had said, "you must read!" They were right! I gave Ken the second book for Father's Day, and I can't wait to read it, too!
  • Now, Ken is reading The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin, the third and final book in the trilogy that started with The Passage (followed by The Twelve). This was another Father's Day gift that we are both eager to read! 
  • Jamie, 22, got a new Kindle Paperwhite for his birthday last week and re-read Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, book 1 in the Stormlight Archive and then read book 2, Words of Radiance. The first one was 1200 pages long, and the second one was 1300 pages, so he is definitely in the Big Book Summer groove! Good fodder for very long days of air travel.
  • Now, Jamie is re-reading an old favorite series, another one by Brandon Sanderson, the Mistborn trilogy. Has has finished Mistborn and The Well of Ascension, and is reading book 3, The Hero of Ages. These few weeks between summer session and the start of fall semester are his reading time!
  • Craig, 18, has been reading his All-Freshman summer reading book, When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. Ironically, he read this same book for his summer reading assignment when he was entering his freshman year of high school. He doesn't enjoy reading much but is so excited to start college that he doesn't seem to mind re-reading this one! I think he's finished it...?
A few posts from the past two weeks, in between trips:
Movie Monday: Star Trek Beyond, a great addition to the canon!

TV Tuesday: What We're Watching This Summer, a summary of our favorite shows this season

Summary of Books Read in July - a good reading month for me!

Fiction Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a classic journey into the unknown

Teen/YA Review: Dreamology by Lucy Keating, a romance that explores the line between dreaming and reality

6 Amazing Hikes in Shenandoah National Park, my first article on My Itchy Travel Feet website

Saturday Snapshot: Black Hills of South Dakota, Part 1 - highlights from our recent trip

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.


Just two week of summer left, so if you are participating in the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge, be sure to post your Big Book reviews on the challenge page!
 
My family and I at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, SD

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 8/20: Black Hills of South Dakota


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

We just returned from a short vacation to one of our favorite places on earth: the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Besides the fact that we have family there, it is an amazingly beautiful place with so much to see and do. It's a bit out of the way but well-worth the trouble to get there! I'll share some of my photos over the next few Saturdays. First, a few from traveling there and back, the famed Mount Rushmore (though that is far from the only attraction in the area!), and other highlights:

Sunset from plane over OK/NE

Mount Rushmore, as seen through a tunnel
The beautiful Sylvan Lake - one of our favorite spots!

Mt. Rushmore framed by Black Hills pines

The view from our breakfast table - Legion Lake
More wildlife pics to come - this big guy was right near our cabin!

Hazy view of Chicago from the plane

Hope you are enjoying this late summer weekend!

Friday, August 19, 2016

New Article: 6 Amazing Hikes in Shenandoah National Park

As a freelance writer, I frequently write about travel and the outdoors. In the past, most of my travel writing has focused on family travel, but now that our sons are grown, I am branching out a bit.

My first (hopefully of many!) article on the website My Itchy Travel Feet was published today:
6 Amazing Hikes in Shenandoah National Park.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know how much we love the outdoors, camping...and Shenandoah!

I am excited to begin a new relationship with My Itchy Travel Feet and see both my article and my photos on their website. I hope to share more of our travel and outdoor adventures with their readers.

It's the 100th anniversary of our National Parks - which one is your favorite?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Teen/YA Review: Dreamology


When I chose the teen/YA novel Dreamology by Lucy Keating as my next audio book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In some ways, its synopsis sounded like just another teen romance, but I was pleasantly surprised by its originality, depth, and hint of the paranormal.

Alice has been dreaming of Max for as long as she can remember, ever since she was a little girl. Max used to be her friend and playmate in her dreams, as they enjoyed fantastical adventures together, in castles, on hot air balloons, and building with giant Legos made of chocolate. In recent years, though, since Alice became a teen, she and Max have become even closer and their relationship even more special, though it exists only in her dreams.

Now, Alice and her dad have moved from NYC back to Boston, where they lived when Alice was little. It’s a big adjustment for Alice, but she gets an even bigger shock when she walks into her first class on her first day in the new, exclusive private school. Max – her Max – is sitting there in her class, in real life. She has spent many hours with him in her dreams so she’d know him anywhere. But how can her dream be sitting right here in front of her?

Alice calls her best friend back in NYC, Sophie, to discuss her news. It is definitely the same Max from her dreams. At least, he looks the same, though he doesn’t quite act the same. In real life, Max is sometimes sullen and complicated…and he has a girlfriend. To complicate matters further, there is another boy, Oliver, at school who greets Alice warmly her first day and who feels like her only friend in this new place. But Alice loves Max.

Alice tries to make sense of her dreams coming to life, but nothing makes sense in this scenario. Eventually, as she searches for answers, she also finds that elements from her dreams start to bleed into her real life – crazy, dreamlike fantasy things that can’t possibly be real. As she gets to know the real Max, the mystery deepens, and she is desperate for answers.

I enjoyed this debut novel with a very unique plot and realistic, fully-formed characters. Their real-life interactions were engaging, and the concept of Alice’s dreams becoming reality was fascinating. Suspense built, as I wondered, like Alice, what could possibly be going on. I enjoyed the slight paranormal angle to the story, though there is a quasi-scientific explanation. The resolution of Alice’s problem was a bit too pat, but that didn’t dampen my enjoyment. I was completely absorbed in this original story with elements of romance, friendship, loss, and suspense.

HarperChildren’s Audio

You can listen to a sample of the audio at the Amazon link below: 


Friday, August 12, 2016

Fiction Review: Heart of Darkness


I signed up for the 2016 Classics Challenge – with its goal to read one classic book each month of the year – and was failing miserably! As of June, I had not read a single classic. So, I read the shortest one I could find at home, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (less than 60 pages!). By the end of July, I was desperate to once again at least squeeze in a short classic, so I chose to re-read the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which I last read in 10th grade. I remembered liking it back then, and I enjoyed reading it again as an adult.

There’s always a bit of conundrum with a review of a classic: does everyone already know the plot synopsis? This one is particularly well known, as it is very frequently taught in high school and college English classes. It was also the basis for the Academy-Award winning movie Apocalypse Now (I just learned that & have never seen the movie), and – little-known fact – also the basis for the movie Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, which I did see (though my friends didn’t believe me when I said it was based on Heart of Darkness!). Just in case you missed those movies and your schools didn’t teach the book, I will avoid spoilers, though its conclusion is probably known to most.

Heart of Darkness is framed as a story told by one of the main characters, Charles Marlow. As the novel opens, he is onboard a ship in London, sitting on the River Thames, waiting for the tide to turn with his shipmates. He regales them with a story of another journey that he took some years ago. The rest of the novella is that story. Marlow was hired by a Belgian ivory-trading company to pilot a ship up a wide river through the densest jungles of the Belgian Congo (what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo). He encounters many challenges and adventures along the way, including severe damage to his ship and angry natives shooting at them with arrows and spears.

The goal of Marlow’s journey in the Congo is not only to bring ivory back from the interior of the region but also to rescue a man named Mr. Kurtz who is in charge of an outpost. Kurtz is commonly regarded as the best manager they have, but disturbing rumors say that he is now very ill and needs to be brought out immediately. The further Marlow goes, the more he hears about Kurtz, until he – like many others working for the company – is in awe of this great man he’s never met.

Like most classics, Conrad’s novella is not just an interesting story; he was trying to make a point (or several of them), hence its extensive analysis for the past 100+ years. Heart of Darkness is all about the thin line between civilization and savagery or wildness. Conrad uses the story to show that everyone has a savage center, that this wildness is a part of human nature. He shows that the trappings of “civilization” are all that separate us from our wild nature, and, in the absence of civilization, humans will quickly devolve into a baser form.

There has been a lot of controversy over the years about Heart of Darkness being racist and showing a very defamatory, warped view of the African continent and the African people (whom he describes throughout the novella as savages). Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, is an especially vehement opponent of Conrad who first spoke out in 1975 against the novella because of its racial stereotypes. In fact, his novel, Things Fall Apart, is said to be in direct response to Heart of Darkness, presenting a far more accurate view of central Africa and its people.

For my part, I took the novella for what it is: a story written in 1899 about human nature, set on a continent that was unknown and quite mysterious to white Europeans like Conrad. That’s the way that people back then saw Africans, and yes, it’s deplorable by today’s standards, but it is accurate in terms of the perceptions of the time, much like reading historical fiction about white Europeans coming to America; they also saw Native Americans as savages. Of course, we know better today and are rightfully appalled by the way the native population was treated. To me, Heart of Darkness is that same kind of outdated historical perspective (same with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, too): we can read it today, recognizing that it was of its time, and still find value in the story and the writing itself and the points that Conrad was trying to make about humanity.

Controversies aside, Heart of Darkness is a classic for a reason: it’s an original, interesting story with plenty of complexities to think about (or discuss if you are in English class!). In fact, the copy I read was the same copy I had from 10th grade, and I enjoyed reading all of my notes in the margins and underlining about symbolism, metaphors, and parallels (though I couldn’t figure out what “p.d.” meant – any guesses?). It is a suspenseful adventure tale of a journey into the unknown…and of man’s inner journeys.

132 pages, Bantam Classic

   

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Books Read in July

View from Bearfence Mountain, Shenandoah National Park
Woohoo! I'm writing my monthly summary, and it's only the 10th of the month! I finally caught up on reviews. Good thing because with travel and moving our sons to college at the end of August, this month is about to get really busy.

I had a good reading month, with a total of 6 books finished:



Six books in all, and a nice variety of middle-grade, YA, and adult...and even a nonfiction book (a rarity for me)! Half of my books were audio. My favorite is an easy choice this month: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It was easily one of my favorites read so far this year and maybe ever. I actually rated it a 10 in my book group, which I very rarely do. It's nonfiction but written like a novel, and I highly recommend it.

Progress on 2016 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! I read 2 more TBR books in July for my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge - that's a total of 10 so far this year, which is not very good! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, July was LOL month - and I didn't read anything even remotely funny! All serious topics - fail. I added 1 more nonfiction book to my 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge for a total of 8 so far this year, but no more classics for the 2016 Classics Challenge. For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I read a book set in India.  I am also tracking the states my books are set in, even though there is no Where Are You Reading challenge this year, and I added 2 new states - NM and CT -  this month.

Finally, I filled 12 spaces on my monthly Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break (you can join the fun any month without officially joining a challenge). Here's my Bingo card for July:


My books filled these spaces:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Award-winning, Shelf-Love (TBR) book
The Secret Language of Sisters - Siblings, Geek, First kiss
Snow Falling on Cedars - Opposites attract
Masterminds: Criminal Destiny - In a series, Daredevil
Isra Isle - Paperback book, LGBT
The Memory of Light - Cowboy/western
Free space

Believe it or not, this is one of THREE book bingo games I am playing this summer - it's getting confusing!

What was your favorite book read in July? 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

TV Tuesday: What We're Watching This Summer

A lot of our summer TV shows have been wrapping up, so I thought it might be fun to talk about what we've enjoyed watching this summer. Plus, we are in need to some new shows to check out, so recommendations are welcome!

Here's some of what we've been watching this summer, with links to my past reviews (all reviews include trailer video clips and where to watch):

Watching With My Husband and 22-year old Son:

Wayward Pines
This super-creepy sci fi show is filled with twists and turns and is a favorite among all three of us. We just watched the season 2 finale - which was once again an ending that made us think, "what the heck is going to happen next season?" I guess that's the point. 

Colony
Technically, not a summer show - I think it aired last winter - but we have been catching up on it On Demand this summer.  It's a post-apocalyptic story set in L.A. after aliens have taken over, starring one of our favorite actors, Josh Holloway (who played Sawyer on Lost). We just finished the season finale and can't wait for season 2 next winter!

Mr. Robot
The three of us watched season 1 together last summer and have been eagerly awaiting season 2. It's a bit confusing so far (we're on episode 4), but when isn't this show a little confusing? There's always a lot going on in this totally unique show about a group of hackers intent on bringing down big corporations. It's got a completely unique tone, feel, and approach.


Watching with My Husband:

The Last Ship
One of our favorite shows! We both love this post-apocalyptic naval drama starring Eric Dane (aka McSteamy from Grey's Anatomy). Now in its third season, it just gets better and better. I think (I hope) there are still a couple of episodes left before the finale, but we must be getting close to the end of the season.

Aquarius
We are currently watching season 2 of this intriguing show starring David Duchovny as a homicide detective in 1960's L.A. who crosses paths with Charles Manson. So good! It seems to be on hiatus because of the Olympics but should be coming back afterward.

Orange is the New Black
We are both SO HOOKED on this amazing show! It's an incredible ensemble cast set in a women's prison in upstate New York, based on a true-life memoir of a pampered, white, wealthy young woman who spent a year in prison. It's filled with emotional drama but is also often really, really funny. We just finished season 4, which was even better, and are in mourning until a new season comes out. This season started with a lot of laughs and ended with sobbing tears (mine) and a huge cliffhanger.

The Wire
With many of our summer shows wrapping up, we went back to an old favorite, The Wire, which we have been watching on Amazon Prime. This show about the drug trade, projects, and police of Baltimore is just SO good! Every season is different, and they just get better and better. We are currently watching season 4 (only one episode left!), and this one focuses on the children in West Baltimore and a new mayor who wants to change things. It is an incredibly good show with an amazing ensemble cast and a new angle every season.

BrainDead
With some of our favorites wrapping up, we were looking for something new and stumbled onto a new favorite from the creators of The Good Wife. This is the strangest show you will ever see...but also one of the best! Believe it or not, it combines political satire with a sci fi alien plot. It is totally addictive, and we can't wait for each new episode!

I also watch some shows on my own at lunchtime, like my current obsession, Feed the Beast on AMC starring David Schwimmer...but alone-time is rare this summer!

What have YOU been watching this summer? What should we watch next with all of our summer shows wrapping up?

Monday, August 08, 2016

Movie Monday: Star Trek Beyond

We actually went to the theater two weeks ago. That used to be an extremely rare occasion - maybe once a year - but we have been trying to get out a bit more. Cinemark theaters nationwide have Discount Tuesdays, where all movies (except 3D) all day are just $5.25 (which seems a whole lot more reasonable to me), so we try to take advantage of that. Two weeks ago, my husband and I went to see Star Trek Beyond and absolutely loved it!

Star Trek Beyond picks up where Star Trek Into Darkness left off, as the third in the prequel Star Trek movies featuring young versions of crew on the original Star Trek TV series. The Enterprise is in the third year of its 5-year exploration mission when it stops at a huge space station called Starbase Yorktown for resupply and shore leave. What the rest of the crew doesn't know is that Captain Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is thinking of giving up command of the Enterprise and has applied for the job of Vice Admiral of Yorktown. He has recommended Spock, played by Zachary Quinto, for the captain's job, and is trying to figure out how to tell him. Meanwhile, Kirk doesn't realize that Spock is also thinking of leaving the Enterprise, after getting the upsetting news that Ambassador Spock (who, I believe, is him in the future, right?) has died. He is also trying to figure out how to tell Kirk of his decision.

While on leave, though, an emergency comes up, and the Enterprise is called upon to cut its leave short to respond. A female named Kalara has come to the Starbase on an escape pod and says that her ship and shipmates are stranded on a nearby planet called Altamid. After a harrowing journey through an asteroid field, the Enterprise arrives on the planet to investigate, with Kalara along. As you might expect, things don't go quite as planned, and there are plenty of surprises awaiting the Enterprise crew on this strange planet.

My husband and I both really enjoyed this movie. Of course, it is filled with sci fi action, adventure, and thrills, but it also has plenty of humor and emotional drama in it, too. That's kind of Star Trek's modus operandi, right? We both thought that these younger actors did a fabulous job of capturing the essence of the characters from the original show, even more so than in the first two prequels. In fact, that's where some of the humor comes from, if you watched the original, in hearing those quintessential Star Trek lines, like Bones saying, "Damn it, Kirk, that will never work!" or Scotty calling, "I'm givin' it all she's got, Captain!" They all really hit those familiar characters perfectly.

In fact, the way my husband described the movie as we were walking out was, "It was like one of the best episodes of the original TV show, only movie-length." I see that Richard Roper said almost the exact same thing in his review! Both my husband and Roper meant it as the highest compliment. I wasn't quite as big a fan of the original series as my husband, though I watched it often enough with my family on Friday nights (in repeats by then). The two of us together watched - and loved - Star Trek Next Generation in the 80's and 90's. So, this was right up our alley.

For those who are not as "into" Star Trek, there is still a lot to like in this movie - it's an action-packed sci fi adventure with a great sense of humor (I really don't like action movies without humor!). But for those fans like us who have watched it for decades, it is an especially fun ride, filled with little nods and winks to the original while also adding a whole new intriguing story to the canon. Note that this was the last Star Trek movie for Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov, since he recently died in a car crash; the film was dedicated to his memory.

Star Trek Beyond is currently in theaters, with its DVD scheduled for release in November 2016 (probably to coincide with its availability on streaming services). This is a great one to see on the big screen, if you can manage it.




It's Monday 8/8! What Are You Reading?

Whew, just back from a whirlwind weekend road trip! We spent 15 hours in the car for a 24-hour visit to Rochester, NY, my hometown. Yeah, it was kind of crazy but well worth it to squeeze in some overdue family visits with my dad's wife (and her new house!) and a quick stop on our way out of town with my aunt & uncle and cousins.

So, back to reality now! Trying to catch up after a weekend offline. Looks like 162 new e-mails - not too bad. Not a lot of time for reading last week (I can't read in the car), but here's what we've been enjoying:
  • I finished Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a novel I last read in 10th grade. I probably didn't have time for an extra book but wanted to squeeze in another quick classic this summer. I enjoyed it very much, including my notes all over the pages from high school!
  • Now, I am onto my third Big Book of the Summer, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a novel I have been wanting to read ever since its release and that's been sitting on my bookcase since Christmas. It is so far just as strange as I'd heard but it's definitely getting interesting!
  • I've been listening to Dreamology by Lucy Keating, a teen/YA audio book that's been far more intriguing and engrossing than I expected. It explores the line between dreaming and reality when a teen girl starts at a new school and meets face-to-face with the boy she's been dreaming about for years. I am getting close to the end and enjoying it very much.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Shift by Hugh Howey, book 2 in the Wool series. He and I both LOVED Wool (review at the link), which several friends had said, "you must read!" They were right! I gave Ken the second book for Father's Day, and I can't wait to read it, too!
  • Jamie, 21, is re-reading Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, book 1 in the Stormlight Archive so that he can next read book 2, Words of Radiance. The first one is 1200 pages long, and the second one is 1300 pages, so he is definitely in the Big Book Summer groove! But the poor boy picked up the wrong book by mistake when packing for the weekend so had to endure a 7-hour car ride without a book (he can and does read in the car!).
  • Craig, 18, has been reading his All-Freshman summer reading book, When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. Ironically, he read this same book for his summer reading assignment when he was entering his freshman year of high school. He doesn't enjoy reading much but is so excited to start college that he doesn't seem to mind re-reading this one!
 Just a few blog posts last week before we left for the weekend:
TV Tuesday: Feed the Beast, a new drama starring David Schwimmer about grief, the Mob, and opening a restaurant

Teen/YA Review: The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice, a moving story of one sister seriously injured in a car accident

Teen/YA Review: The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork, a powerful story of teen depression and suicide, with a focus on hope and healing

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.


We are in the last month of summer now, but there is still time to join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge - five weeks of summer left! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) before September to participate. Join the fun, choose your Big Book(s) & sign up today!


Thursday, August 04, 2016

Teen/YA Review: The Memory of Light


I loved the teen/YA novel Marcelo in the Real World, a story about a teen boy with autism, by Francisco X. Stork, so when I heard he had a new novel out this year, I snatched it up! I just finished listening to The Memory of Light on audio, and I was once again blown away by the author’s ability to deal with serious real-world issues in an honest and powerful way.

As the novel opens, fifteen-year old Vicky Cruz wakes up in a hospital, after trying to commit suicide by swallowing a bunch of her step-mother’s pills. She is only alive because her nanny, Juanita, found her and called 911. Vicky loves Juanita with all her heart and is upset and ashamed that she found her – that’s not what was supposed to happen. She was supposed to be dead by now, swallowed up in a black silence. Vicky doesn’t even know how to explain to Juanita why she did it because she doesn’t fully understand herself, but she knows she will try again if she goes back home now.

So, although her father and step-mother want her to come home immediately, Vicky opts to stay in the hospital for now. In the psychiatric ward, she meets a small group of other teens also living there and undergoing treatment. First, she meets Mona, her talkative and energetic roommate who also tried to commit suicide and refers to the act breezily as, “doing the deed.” E.M. is an angry boy with a violent past who doesn’t say much in group therapy sessions. Gabriel seems like a kind and caring boy, with no hint as to why he is in the ward. Dr. Desai, a petite woman in a sari, is helping all of the teens with both individual counseling and group sessions.

Little by little, Vicky begins to open up and talk about her feelings and the problems that led to her suicide attempt. She learns about depression, something she didn’t even realize she had. At one point, Dr. Desai gets permission – from both the hospital and their parents – for the four teens to come out to her ranch for two weeks. It’s a beautiful place in the country where she often brings damaged teens to heal. Although the ranch helps in many ways, things fall apart at one point, and the teens are separated.

For Vicky, this means being sent home, even though she is scared to face her “real” life without her support system and to return to the world that led to her suicide attempt in the first place. She reluctantly returns home and to school, trying to remember the things she learned from Dr. Desai and the others. When a crisis hits one of her new friends, Vicky must decided whether to obey her father or defy him and go help. Slowly, gradually, things improve for Vicky, until she begins to feel like maybe she might be able to manage this life and keep living.

This was a powerful story, based in part on the author’s own experiences with depression as a teen and young adult. A young person in my own life – someone that I care for very much – has been dealing with suicidal thoughts, so this novel was especially resonant for me. Based on those experiences, I think that Vicky’s hospital stay was somewhat idealized – I wish that psychiatric wards all worked like this one did and that all doctors in charge of them were like Dr. Desai. However, the author may have done that on purpose to show troubled teens how support like this can help. In the epilogue, he explains that he was helped by a hospital stay while in college himself. I thought it was very realistic, though, that Vicky seemed to have a wonderful life from the outside, so no one knew how much she was suffering inside. It was an excellent, clear depiction of depression.

While this kind of positive hospital experience – and field trip to a beautiful ranch – may not be the standard of care today (though its should be), I think it’s important to the story, to show the path to recovery and healing for Vicky and others like her. In fact, despite its somber subject matter, this is not a dark book. Its honest and eye-opening look at depression and suicide provides insight for those of us with loved ones suffering and hope that things might be get better for those young readers with feelings similar to Vicky’s. It is a moving, candid story about a subject that is not talked about enough, with a focus on hope and healing. This novel should be required reading for all teens and anyone who cares about them.

Scholastic Audio

NOTE: If you or someone you love is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or reach out to a doctor or other trusted healthcare professional. Here is more information on teen suicide, including more links and resources.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Teen/YA Review: The Secret Language of Sisters

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In July, I listened to the teen/YA audiobook The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice. This was the first book I have read by Rice, and I enjoyed the moving story of the bond (and challenges) between two sisters when disaster strikes.

Fourteen-year old Tilly is impatiently waiting for her sixteen-year old sister, Roo (short for Ruth Ann), to pick her up at the library. She wants to be in time to stop by the cemetery where their father is buried on the way home, to see the owls fly out for the night, so she keeps texting her sister irritably. Roo’s last text was “Be there in 5 min,” but it’s been over an hour since then. Finally, Roo’s boyfriend, Newton, drives up to the library to pick her up, and Tilly finds out that Roo has been in a car accident and is in the hospital. Life for the two sisters has forever changed.

Although Roo seems OK initially, she has a seizure and ends up in a coma-like state. Doctors think she is completely non-responsive, but Roo can hear and understand what is going on around her. She can’t move or talk, though, so everyone just assumes she is in a coma and might have suffered brain damage. Frustrated, Roo doesn’t know how to let her family, friends, and doctors know that she is in there. Her only hope is that Tilly – her sister and best friend – can figure it out.

Tilly, for her part, is understandably upset over what has happened to her sister. To make matters worse, it gradually becomes clear that the accident occurred while Tilly was texting Roo, so she feels horribly guilty and at fault. All of these difficult feelings come on top of some typical sibling rivalry stuff: Tilly sees Roo as perfect – a straight-A student who is headed to Yale and is beautiful and in love with her boyfriend. Roo is also a talented photographer. Tilly sees herself as completely lacking – the ugly duckling sister who struggles with school and has no special talents. Her feelings of guilt over the accident bring all these inadequacies to the surface. Additional guilt comes as she and Newton become close, bonding over their shared experience of caring about Roo.

This is an intense and emotional story about the relationship between two sisters and how a disaster affects a family, but I was also fascinated by the details of Roo’s medical condition – called locked-in syndrome – and the new technologies available that might possibly help Roo (which also adds an air of hope to what could otherwise be a depressing story). A few years ago, I read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby (highly recommended – review at the link), a real-life story of a man with locked-in syndrome, so that added a sense of reality to this fictional story for me.

Chapters alternate between Roo and Tilly, so the reader hears the perspectives of both sisters. This is especially helpful in making Roo into a full character, instead of just a body in a bed, but it also serves to provide a different view of Tilly, who sees herself as a mess but is beloved by Roo. There is a lot going on in this book – grief, family drama, friendship, love – but the emphasis is on healing and recovery, not only for Roo but for Tilly, too. It’s a compelling and powerful story that kept me listening raptly.

Scholastic Audio

P.S. My 18-year old cousin also read this novel this summer and loved it, too! She and I both said we will never text and drive after reading this!

You can listen to an audio sample at the Amazon link below:

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

TV Tuesday: Feed the Beast

I recently finished watching season 3 of The Fosters (one of my faves) and season 2 of The Mysteries of Laura, so I was at loose ends for a show to watch on my own, on the rare occasions I am alone! I ran through my list of shows to try (ever-growing) and remembered Feed the Beast, starring David Schwimmer, which started in June. I've watched four episodes now and am enjoying it.

Schwimmer, of Friends Fame, plays Tommy Moran, father of an adorable 10-year old boy named T.J. Tommy's wife and T.J.'s mother died recently in a car crash, and both father and son are suffering. Tommy is clearly depressed and drinking too much, and T.J. hasn't spoken since his mother's death. Meanwhile, Tommy's old friend, Dion (played by Jim Sturgess), gets let out of prison early. Before he's even released (while changing his clothes), Dion has already done coke and had sex with his lawyer, so you know this guy is bad news.

Tommy, his wife, Rie, and Dion had planned to open their own restaurant in the Bronx. Dion is an excellent chef who cooked for the guards in prison (they hated to see him leave), and Tommy is world-class sommelier (wine expert). Rie had drawn up designs for their restaurant, but with her death, Tommy gave up on his dream. He and T.J. are living in the old warehouse they had planned to restore for the restaurant. Dion finds Tommy when he gets out of prison and immediately begins to convince him to resurrect their dreams.

What Tommy doesn't know is that Dion owes a mobster $600,000 and is being threatened to pay or else. The mobster, Patrick Wolchek (played by Michael Gladis, a familiar face from Mad Men), also threatens to hurt Tommy and T.J. if Dion doesn't pay up. So, although Dion does want to bring their dreams to life and open his own restaurant, he doesn't tell Tommy that the need to earn a lot of money quickly is life-threateningly urgent. Desperate for start-up capital, Dion convinces Tommy to ask his estranged father, played by John Doman from The Wire, to invest in their restaurant. That raises a whole new set pf problems, since Tommy's father is a horrible bigot, and T.J. is multi-racial.

So, you can see, right from the first episodes, that there is a lot going on in the show. There is also grief counseling for Tommy, a possible future romantic interest, bullying at school for T.J., and Dion's drug problem. It's a complex, intricate web of challenges and secrets. I had never seen David Schwimmer do anything but comedy before, but this is a serious drama, tackling issues of death, being a single parent, starting a new business, family....and yeah, and the Mob.

I'm enjoying the show so far and am interested to see where it goes. The main characters are in peril right from episode 1 (whether they all know it or not), so there is some suspense in addition to drama. You know that Dion's lies and secrets will eventually get the main characters in serious trouble, but you are still rooting for things to work out, especially where Tommy and T.J. are concerned. I also love delicious food and cooking, so I'm finding that aspect interesting as well, as they plan their restaurant.

Feed the Beast is an AMC show still currently airing its first season - tonight is the season finale. All episodes are available On Demand (until 10/1/2016) and free on the AMC website. It is also available on Amazon Prime for $1.99 an episode or $17.99 for the season (link below).



Monday, August 01, 2016

It's Monday 8/1! What Are You Reading?

Yikes, noon already! And August! I've spent the morning trying to figure out my sons' tuition payments, financial aid, 529 accounts, and student loans (my head is spinning) and writing a review that is due today. Also, the TV is on because my college son is back home for a few weeks and is home sick today (TV on means writing is impossible!). So, that's why my post is late.

It was a crazy busy week - shopping for my younger son's dorm room and helping our older son move out of his apartment - but we always find a little time for reading! Here's what we are reading:
  • I finished a review book for Publishers Weekly, Isra Isle by Nava Semel. It's (in part) an alternate history, based on a historical fact. In 1825, a Jewish man named Mordecai Noah bought Grand Island, NY (a bit of land just south of Niagara Falls) from the Native Americans. He wanted to start a Jewish state...but no one came. This novel imagines what would have happened if it had worked, and Jews had had a safe haven way back then. I grew up in Rochester, NY, and often visited Grand Island - its real-life history includes an amusement park called Fantasy Island! - so it was especially intriguing to me. All in all, it was a very interesting and thought-provoking novel, though the author uses a free-form narrative style without quotation marks and a lot of symbolism, so it was a bit confusing at times. Worth reading, though.
  • Now, I'm trying to squeeze in a classic before moving onto my next Big Book, so I started Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a novel I last read in 10th grade. I probably didn't have time for this extra book, but I am enjoying it!
  • I just finished listening to The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork, a teen/YA novel about a serious topic. It's about a teen girl who tries to commit suicide and her slow, difficult journey of healing and recovery. It was moving and powerful, all the more so for me because a young person close to me has been suicidal. Highly recommended.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Shift by Hugh Howey, book 2 in the Wool series. He and I both LOVED Wool (review at the link), which several friends had said, "you must read it!" They were right! I gave Ken the second book for Father's Day, and I can't wait to read it, too!
  • Jamie, 21, is re-reading Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, book 1 in the Stormlight Archive so that he can next read book 2, Words of Radiance. The first one is 1200 pages long, and the second one is 1300 pages, so he is definitely in the Big Book Summer groove!
Last week's blog posts:
 TV Tuesday: Aquarius, a creepy 60's detective show about Charles Manson starring David Duchnovy

Middle-Grade Review: Masterminds: Criminal Destiny by Gordon Kormon, a thrilling sequel!

Fiction Review: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, a 1950's courtroom drama with serious implications for our world today

Saturday Snapshot 7/30: A Summer Walk - blue skies and summer blooms

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.


There is still plenty of time to join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge - six weeks of summer left! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) before September to participate. Join the fun, choose your Big Book(s) & sign up today!


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 7/30: A Summer Walk


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

It's been unbearably hot and humid here, so I haven't been spending much time outside. One morning, about two weeks ago, I thought I'd get out nice & early to take a walk around my neighborhood before it got too hot...too late! At 10 am, it was already into the 90's. I did, however, manage a short walk and took a few photos of the  blue sky and colorful summer blooms along the way:

Green leaves and blue sky

I love my neighbor's wildflower bed.

Shades of pink side by side

Brilliant yellows

A blue sky day

Don't know what these little blue flowers are but I want some!




Hope you are enjoying a great weekend!