Monday, September 01, 2014

It's Monday 9/1! What Are You Reading?

Happy Labor Day! The unofficial end of summer...which makes me happy because it's been a difficult summer. And I love fall! It's my favorite season. Of course, it's supposed to stay in the 90's and humid all this coming week, so it's not quite fall yet...

It's also the official end of my Big Book Summer Challenge for 2014! So, finish up those big books today. However, you still have plenty of time to write reviews of your big books and/or challenge summaries and add them to the Review links list on the challenge page - I still have a couple more to write myself.

It's been a good week for me, getting back into a more normal routine, with both of my sons back at school. They both went to the beach with friends for the holiday weekend, and my husband left to help his Dad move out here (another big change coming for us!), so I spent a lovely, quiet weekend at home alone...with plenty of reading!
  • I am still reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and I have enjoyed every page. I am down to less than 50 pages left, so I plan to finish it today and count it as my 5th and last Big Book of the summer for the challenge. It is an amazing, compelling book - the sort of story that pulls you in so completely that you feel more a part of its fictional world than your own real-life world (as my dreams last night can attest!).
  • I finally started a new audio book, In the End by Demitria Lunetta, a teen/YA post-apocalyptic novel and sequel to In the After. I enjoyed the first book, and the second one has pulled me right in again. With no one else at home, I have been wearing my iPod around the house almost constantly!
  • In addition, my husband and I are still listening to Uncaged, a teen/YA thriller by adult thriller writer John Sandford and co-author Michelle Cook, though we didn't have much time to listen last week, other than when I drove him to the airport. This is book one of a new series called The Singular Menace
  • My husband, Ken, is reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman on his Kindle. I was glad to hear he'd bought this novel, since from everything I've heard about it, he should enjoy it.
  • My 20-year old son, Jamie, started his junior year of college last week, so I'm sure he's no longer able to read 4 books a week, but I have no idea what he's reading now! He'll be home later today, so I'll ask him.
  • Craig, 16, is almost finished with Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, his summer reading assignment. Yes, he already started back to school last week, but he tells me not to worry, he'll finish it before tomorrow when they start to discuss it!

I had a good blog catch-up week and posted two reviews, as well as some other posts:

Review of Emma by Jane Austen, one of my Big Books for the summer

Review of Good Fortune, a teen/YA novel about slavery and my 4th big book

Summary of Books Read in July

Weekend Cooking, with some easy but tasty summer recipes

Snapshot Saturday, with photos from our recent trip to Vermont 

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Weekend Cooking 8/31

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

I have to admit that I haven't been very creative in the kitchen this summer. Most meals have consisted of throwing some meat on the grill and cooking up a couple of vegetables (super simple preparation). Since February, we have been eating a mostly Paleo diet, for medical reasons (no grains, no diary, little sugar), but that doesn't mean bland. I love lots of flavor in my food. Since returning from our recent 2-week camping vacation, I have once again been inspired to turn to some favorite recipes, with a bit more complexity to them. Here are some highlights from the past week or so, all old favorite recipes from Cooking Light:

Last week, I made Cajun Salmon Cakes with Lemon-Garlic Aioli, one of my favorite meals! They are filled with flavor and needed only minor tweaking to be Paleo (I subbed almond flour for breadcrumbs in the cakes and skipped the crumb coating). I paired them with a simple cucumber and tomato salad made with fresh veggies from our local CSA farm. And we splurged on our first corn on the cob of the season (technically, corn is a grain that we are supposed to avoid). It was a delicious summer meal!

My 20-year old son came home from college on Monday and stayed for dinner, so I made a favorite of his that we hadn't had yet this summer: Adobo Flank Steak with Summer Corn-and-Tomato Relish (yes, we cheated on the corn again! Hey, it's summer). Talk about flavor! Wow, this meal has wonderfully complex flavors - it's a real treat! It takes a little bit of planning ahead because you make the spice rub/marinade the day before and let the flank steak marinate for 24 hours, but it is well worth it. I love anything made with chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, but this one is really special. My son, in his first apartment and cooking for himself now, asked me, "Mom is this easy to make?" Not exactly, but it is well worth the effort. I had trouble finding sherry vinegar the first time (which a few years ago seemed to be the new "it" ingredient) but finally found some at Whole Foods.

Another night last week when it was just the three of us again, I made a considerably simpler (but still very tasty) meal we all enjoy: Pan-Seared Tilapia with Citrus Vinaigrette. This goes together super-fast, in about 15 minutes total, but is delicious. I paired it with some sauteed zucchini (plenty of that from the farm this time of year!) and a simple green salad.

I was trying to figure out what to do with the dozen or so bell peppers I had from the farm. They are sweet and delicious but tiny, a mix of red and green. I used my handy Excel spreadsheet for favorite recipes and settled on Roast Chicken with Balsamic Bell Peppers, another recipe that is fairly simple but full of complex, layered flavors. It was just my son and I for dinner that night (though my husband had left-overs after he came home from playing golf), so I went super-simple and skipped a second vegetable. Instead, we had fresh melon from the farm - both watermelon (yellow!) and cantaloupe. Another delicious dinner.

Now, the week is almost over, and I still have a bag full of hot peppers from the farm - mostly jalapenos but a few other varieties as well. I plan to make fresh salsa when my son gets home from the beach (I also have lots of tomatoes left!). Any other ideas for cooking with hot peppers?

Hope you are enjoying a week filled with good food and cooking fun!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Snapshot Saturday

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Vacation photos, Part 2! Last week, I posted pictures of our camping trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We spent our second week in northern Vermont, near Waterbury at Little River State Park (conveniently located a couple of miles from the Ben & Jerry's factory!). I loved Vermont and would love to go back and explore more. Here are a few highlights:

Cloudy sunset over Waterbury Reservoir at Little River SP

The best part of camping - evening campfires!

My sons kayaking on Waterbury Reservoir - perfect day!

The view from my kayak

Our beloved pop-up - home away from home!

Me in front of gorgeous Moss Glen Falls

Hope you are having a lovely Labor Day weekend!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Good Fortune

My Big Book Summer Challenge is helping me tackle some of the books that have been sitting on my to-be-read shelves for far too long! For my third Big Book of the summer, I read Good Fortune by Noni Carter, an emotionally powerful teen/YA novel about a young girl in the early 1800’s, from the time she is stolen from her African home through her slavery in Tennessee and into her young adulthood.

The prologue provides a glimpse into the distant memories of 4-year old Ayanna, as her happy childhood in Africa was suddenly and violently disrupted when she and her brother were captured by slave traders and watched their beloved mother die. Then, the novel moves forward to 1821 when Ayanna is now known as Sarah and is a strong 14-year old working in the fields on a plantation in Tennessee. Her adoptive mother, Mary, cares for her like one of her own, and she is very close to her adoptive brother, Daniel, two years older than her, though she still misses her real mother and brother.

Mary works hard to convince Missus to give Sarah a place as a house slave, so she won’t have to do the back-breaking work out in the fields under the hot sun anymore. However, Mary and Sarah are both well aware that there are dangers inside the house, too, as Sarah approaches womanhood and begins to attract attention from Masta Jeffrey, the oldest son of the plantation owner. In addition, beatings are still a possibility for house slaves as well as field hands, sometimes for the smallest mistake or misunderstanding. Sarah struggles with cooking and other household chores, but she finds she enjoys her time caring for the younger children of the household. As they attend school and learn to read, Sarah begins to secretly learn with them…but if anyone were to find out, Sarah’s life would be in danger, as it is illegal for a slave to read or write.

This powerful, moving novel follows Sarah through her life as a teen and into adulthood. As Masta Jeffrey’s advances become more frightening, she and a few others on the plantation consider escaping to the north, though life for free blacks isn’t the ideal that many imagine it to be. Through all of her adventures, though, Sarah’s greatest passion is not only to learn to read but to get an education and to keep learning.

Good Fortune is a gripping, heart-breaking, and heart-warming story about a girl who is driven by a passion to learn. It’s also about her search for her identity, as she struggles with flashes of memory from her early life in Africa, yearning for her birth mother and brother, and being known by different names. At times, it is a difficult story to read, including scenes of slaves being brutally whipped and other life-threatening dangers Sarah encounters. But Sarah’s passion and spirit bring a strong element of hope and optimism to the book. It’s a fast-paced, exciting, and powerful story that I could barely stand to set down.

NOTE: Yearning to know more about what really happened to slaves and free blacks during this time period (as most novels about slavery are set closer to Civil War times), I was glad to see that the author included a Fact vs. Fiction section in the back to answer exactly those kinds of questions.

470 pages, Simon & Schuster


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Books Read in July

No, I didn't mis-type that post title - even though it is the end of August, I am just now summarizing my Books Read in July! We were away most of August, so I am still catching up.

This is a quick summary because I only finished 3 books in July:

As you can see, despite the lateness of this summary, I am still catching up on reviews! I spent most of the month reading Emma which took longer than I expected to finish. So, I read all fiction in July, but a nice mix with 1 adult, 1 teen/YA, and 1 middle-grade (and two of them audios). My favorite book of the month was Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock - an amazing, powerful book that should be required reading for all teens and all adults! I still think about it and its main character.

I added two new states and one new country to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 this month. I read just 1 book from my TBR shelves for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge in July, but I feel like it should count for more. Emma had been sitting on my TBR shelves for probably 10 years! I listened to two more audio books for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge, bringing my total to 12, so that one's going well so far. And I finally added one more classic to The Classics Reading Challenge.

What was your favorite book(s) read in July? 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fiction Review: Emma

Emma by Jane Austen was my second Big Book of the Summer, and had the distinction of being one of the books that has sat on my TBR shelf the longest. I bought it perhaps 7 or 8 years ago (maybe even 10?) and never seemed to find the time to read it. While I was reading it last month, I heard from people saying it was their favorite Austen and from others proclaiming it their least favorite. As my first-ever Austen (I know, can you believe it?), I have nothing else to compare it to. Overall, I found it difficult to get through, especially the first half. I didn’t care much for the story or its main character at first, though both grew on me after a while.

For those who have lived in a cave for the past 200 years (and never saw any of the movie adaptations), Emma is about a wealthy young woman in nineteenth-century England who lives in an estate near a country town. She cares for her sickly father and otherwise spends her time gossiping with her neighbors at social functions. Since her mother died when she was young, Emma and her sister were brought up by a young governess who grew into a good friend and has recently left the family to get married and start her own family. Emma is a bit of a busybody, often getting involved in ill-advised matchmaking and then later regretting it and swearing to never do it again. Emma herself says she has never been in love and has no plans to marry, despite her penchant for trying to marry off all her friends.

Austen provides plenty of detail on the lives of Emma and her friends and neighbors, and if you like this sort of period drama (fans of Downtown Abbey?), then this is a great book for you. The characters come alive with Austen’s clever and descriptive writing, and you soon feel as if you know them. Some people told me Emma is Austen’s funniest book – I even recall people telling me it was laugh-out-loud funny. I didn’t find it all that humorous for my taste, though many aspects of the novel are mildly amusing. It is clear that Austen is writing about this high country society with tongue in cheek and gently poking fun at Emma’s sensibilities.

Overall, Emma wasn’t really my cup of tea, although both the novel and its namesake character grew on me. I found the second half of the novel far more interesting and had more trouble setting it down. Emma herself starts out as incredibly arrogant and condescending, often making assumptions about people based on their level of wealth and their “place in society.” I know this takes place a long time ago, in a different era, but I still have no patience for that sort of attitude! By the end of the novel, though, Emma does learn and grow, becoming a more likeable character.

So, by the end of the novel, I liked it but still didn’t love it. I think that is just a matter of taste; period dramas aren’t my favorite kind of movies, either. I did develop an appreciation for Austen’s writing, and she surprised me with some plot twists I didn’t see coming (though others were obvious). Overall, I am glad to have finally read a Jane Austen novel and to have one less author on my Authors I Can’t Believe I’ve Never Read list.

487 pages (plus notes, interpretative notes, an introduction, and other extra material), Pocket Books

NOTE: One classic novel set in the English countryside in the 1800's that I really did enjoy, more than I expected to, was Middlemarch by George Eliot. I was pleasantly surprised by her  clever writing and how relevant her observations of life in 1829 were to the modern world.


Monday, August 25, 2014

It's Monday 8/25! What Are You Reading?

Things are finally slowing down a bit here and gradually returning to normal (whatever that is!). On Friday, I helped my 20-year old son move into his first apartment, ready to start his Junior year of college tomorrow. My younger son starts his Junior year of high school on Wednesday, and THEN things will really settle down for me. Hopefully, I can begin to get back into some more regular blogging and reviewing habits this week.

We always enjoy our books, even (especially) when things get hectic:
  • I am still reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, for an upcoming book discussion the first week of September. I am a little less than halfway and loving it. The story and characters are just so compelling; I'm staying up way too late each night reading!
  • Although my husband and I are still listening to Uncaged, a teen/YA thriller by adult thriller writer John Sandford and co-author Michelle Cook, we didn't have any time alone together last week to listen. This is book one of a new series called The Singular Menace
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle, book 1 of The Origin Mystery series, on his Kindle. He says it has grown on him, and he's enjoying it. 
  • Jamie, 20, was reading The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price by C.L. Schneider when he left home - I have no idea if he's finished it or not. He has been reading like crazy all summer, so the start of classes tomorrow will certainly slow him down.
  • Craig, 16, FINALLY started his summer reading for school! His class was assigned Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I kept telling him he'd actually like this school-assigned novel, and he has grudgingly admitted it's not too bad. Not sure if he'll finish by Wednesday!
No time for reviews last week, in the flurry of shopping, packing, laundry, and doctor's appointments, but I did manage a couple of posts this weekend:

Snapshot Saturday, with a few photos from our time camping in the White Mountains of NH

Weekend Cooking, with an easy foil dinner, adapted for home from our camping trips

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.  

NOTE: This is the last week for the Big Book Summer Challenge, so finish up those big books! Remember to post links to your big book reviews on the challenge page (you can continue to post review links after September 1).

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weekend Cooking 8/24

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

Wow, I haven't been home and/or had the time for a Weekend Cooking post since May - gives you some idea of what our summer's been like!

We spent two weeks this month on vacation, camping in New Hampshire and Vermont (you can check out some of my NH photos on my Snapshot Saturday post). One of our favorite camping meals is a Foil Dinner. It's very simple but incredibly tasty! You just take some heavy-duty foil, spray it with cooking spray and add ground beef or turkey (or chicken sausage or whatever kind of meat you like) with a bunch of chopped veggies. Season it simply with salt and pepper, maybe a bit of oregano or thyme. Then wrap it up tightly in double foil and place it directly on hot coals in the campfire. We cook it for about 20 minutes, flip it (carefully!) and cook it for another 20 minutes. By then, you can hear it sizzling inside the foil packets, and the smell is mouth-watering. It's just simple ground beef and veggies, but it tastes so good!

We had that twice while we were camping, and on the way home, I saw a recipe in Redbook Magazine's September issue for a similar dinner that you can make at home. I never thought of doing the same thing on the grill (you can also use a 400 degree oven)! This was a recipe by Carla Hall, of the TV show The Chew, for what she called Campfire-style Shrimp (guess we didn't invent the campfire foil dinner!). In her version, she used shrimp, along with cherry tomatoes, red onions, fresh thyme, and small pieces of corn on the cob. I did something similar this week with shrimp, using the veggies we had on hand from our local farm CSA: cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, red onion, and mini Yukon Gold potatoes. It was delicious!

And now I know we can make our favorite camping meal - plus lots of other variations - right at home, anytime.

I hope you are enjoying good food this weekend!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday Snapshot 8/23

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

It's been a couple of months since I've been home on a weekend and had the time to post for Snapshot Saturday! I thought I'd share some vacation photos, from our recent two weeks spent camping in New Hampshire and Vermont, two beautiful states filled with mountains, forests, and lakes. This week, I will choose a few photos from NH's White Mountains:

My son at the river running through Dolly Copp Campground

Crystal Cascade, White Mountains

View from the top of Mt. Washington, with road we took up

Stairs Fall. White Mountains

My sons, just below Coosauk Fall

Top of Bald Mountain - my sons & husband taking a break

My son and I at Artist's Bluff

Riding the Wildcat Mtn. ski lift up for ziplining

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Monday, August 18, 2014

It's Monday 8/18! What Are You Reading?

I'm back! Did you miss me? Oh, didn't notice I was gone, huh? lol

I have been offline for most of the past three weeks, first on a camping vacation in NH and VT with my husband and sons, which was absolutely lovely - lots of mountains, waterfalls, campfires, and a bit of Ben & Jerry's! (watch for some photos on Snapshot Saturday) Then we unpacked all the camping stuff, repacked beach stuff and spent a weekend in Wildwood at the Jersey shore with extended family, a fun but exhausting couple of days. It was great to see everyone and relive our childhood memories of vacations in Wildwood.

So, now I am trying to get back into my usual routines, starting with a Monday What Are You Reading post. The 600 unread e-mails and dirty laundry can wait.

We read a LOT over the past 3 weeks, especially my oldest son who can read in the car without getting sick. Here's a recap:
  • I finished my third Big Book of the Summer, Good Fortune by Noni Carter, a teen/YA novel about a young African girl who is stolen from her homeland and brought to the US into slavery and following her into young adulthood. It was excellent - compelling and eye-opening.
  • I also read my fourth Big Book of the Summer, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, a novel I chose for our online family book group. It was a good summer book, starting with a group of friends who meet at summer camp when they are teens and following them through their adult lives.
  • And now I am reading another Big Book, though I may not finish it in time for the challenge. One of my book groups chose The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt for early September. Ironically, this book is even bigger than the books I've been reading all summer for the Big Book Summer Challenge!
  • I also squeezed in a teen/YA graphic novel between the big books: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, a great gaming story that addresses some serious real-life issues.
  • My husband and I continued listening to Uncaged, a teen/YA thriller by adult thriller writer John Sandford and co-author Michelle Cook. This is book one of a new series called The Singular Menace. We are enjoying it but didn't have much time alone in the car to listen (our sons don't like listening to audio books anymore).
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Hurt Machine, a Moe Prager mystery by Reed Farrel Coleman, on his Kindle and enjoyed it.
  • Next, Ken read City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare, book 2 of The Mortal Instruments series, one of our son's favorites. He really enjoyed it and wanted to read book 3 right away, but we didn't bring it with us.
  • Instead, Ken chose another book on his Kindle, The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle, book 1 of The Origin Mystery series. He said the science in this science fiction novel is a bit lacking in credibility, but he's trying to go along for the ride and enjoy the story.
  • Jamie, 20, finished 4 long books and is on his fifth! He read A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan, book 1 of The Sorcery Ascendance Sequence. Next, he read Merlin by Stephen R. Lawhead, book 2 of The Pendragon Cycle, a classic Merlin series we got him started on last year. Switching to another classic character, he read Wolfshead by Craig Charlesworth, a novel about Robin Hood. Next, he read Blood and Iron (The Book of the Black Earth) by Jon Sprunk, a new epic fantasy series that is right up his alley. And, finally, he is now reading The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price by C.L. Schneider, which he was glued to even on the beach with his cousins all around! It's great that he loves reading so much - he's trying to cram in as much as he can before school resumes next week. I'm sure he will make good use of the Amazon gift cards he got for his birthday this weekend!
With no computer or internet, I didn't write many new blog posts, but I did manage a couple of reviews before we left and another one last week in between trips:

Review of UnSouled by Neal Schusterman, book 3 in the amazing Unwind teen/YA series

Review of Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, another great teen/YA novel

Review of P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widows by Caroline Lawrence, a middle-grade mystery series set in the Old West

And I gave my teen cousins a bagful of books this weekend, including Endangered. I love sharing great books with friends and family and especially young people!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Middle-Grade Review: P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widows

When my oldest son was in middle school, one of his favorite series was Caroline Lawrence’s The Roman Mysteries, featuring four friends in Ancient Rome solving mysteries Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew-style. Now, Lawrence has turned her considerable mystery-writing talents to a new historical realm, the American Old West, with similar exciting results.

I recently listened to P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widows on audio and met P.K., a 12-year old detective, for the first time (though this is the third book in the series). P.K. is an orphan who lives in Virginia City in the Nevada Territory in the early 1860’s. Kidnapped and taken to Chinatown, P.K. is forced to take on an unusual case, tracking his abductor’s fiancĂ©e to Carson City and keeping an eye on him. P.K.’s friend, Jace, is in Carson City and seems to be in danger of falling for a “Black Widow,” whose previous husbands have all died suspicious deaths.

The journey itself is wrought with danger. Once in Carson City, P.K. must don many disguises and sneak into the newly formed territorial Legislature in order to keep up with his target and find out what he’s up to. Like any good mystery, the plot twists and turns as P.K. gets into one difficult situation after another, until finally, in order to save his own life, he must give up his most closely guarded secret.

The audio book was engaging and well-done, with the narrator using different voices for different characters. P.K.’s voice has a decided Western twang that I got used to pretty quickly. The audio quickly captured my attention and kept me interested. The print and Kindle editions include some fun maps at the beginning to help set the scene.

As with The Roman Mysteries, Lawrence has created another unique blend of mystery and historical fiction for young readers that is fast-paced and interesting. P.K. Pinkerton is a likeable main character that both male and female readers will cheer for. The historical details are not only accurate but made me want to learn more (I looked up Nevada Territory and Carson City after finishing the book!), and the mystery provides classic suspense and surprises. I’m sure that the P.K. Pinkerton books will find a whole new group of young fans (but be sure to tell your middle-grade mystery lovers about The Roman Mysteries, too!)

304 pages, Putnam Juvenile/ Listening Library

P.S. I started with book 3 and had no trouble catching up, but mystery fans may want to start at the beginning with P.K. Pinkerton and the Deadly Desperados.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Endangered

Many years ago, I read Michael Crichton’s novel Congo about a gorilla named Amy who learned sign language, and it quickly became my favorite Crichton book (and is appropriate for teens and YA readers, too). So, when I heard about Eliot Schrefer’s YA novel, Endangered, about a teen girl in a bonobo (a type of ape) sanctuary in the Congo, I was sold. Seeing that it was a National Book Award finalist sealed the deal. I was completely captivated by this fast-paced adventure story.

Teen Sophie lives in the U.S. with her Dad for most of the year, but she spends her summers back in her native Democratic Republic of Congo (known as Congo here, for convenience) at her mother’s bonobo sanctuary. Bonobos are the type of ape that is closest to humans, and this country is the only place in the world where they exist in the wild. On her way to the sanctuary from the airport, Sophie rescues an infant bonobo (though the way in which she does it is against her mother’s rules). She names the helpless and abused baby Otto, and the two quickly becomes inseparable as she works to nurse him back to health.

Meanwhile, the country around them erupts into a violent revolution, and the sanctuary (and everything else) is attacked. Now Sophie must save Otto’s life in a very different way, while trying to protect her own life, as they are forced into hiding in the jungle. Sophie is trapped in the midst of a coup and surrounded by violence and must find a way to safety – wherever that may be.

This unique novel in a foreign setting starts out as a gentle tale of love and connection between Sophie and Otto that turns into a nightmare chase. It is filled with suspense and action and is absolutely compelling from the beginning to the end. I could hardly put it down and finished it in just a few days, compulsively turning the pages and hoping that Sophie and Otto would be OK.

The setting here is exotic, exciting, and terrifying and provides a fascinating glimpse into a completely different world for most YA readers. I certainly learned a lot about Congo, its violent history, and what it might be like to try to survive in the midst of a revolution. Sophie and Otto are both likeable characters that I was rooting for to the very last page. It’s a gripping and suspenseful story with a lot of heart, unlike any other I have read.

 250 pages (plus some extras about the author and bonobos), Scholastic


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Free Audio Books All Summer!

Have you heard about SYNC?

The SYNC YA Literature website is offering two new free audio books each week all summer! Every week, they pair one current YA book with a classic of a similar theme, and both are available for free download.

I downloaded - and loved - Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick a few weeks ago, and I just finished downloading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson to take on our upcoming roadtrip. My sons, now 16 and almost 20, say they've outgrown listening to audio books with us, but I still hope to entice them!

So, pop by the site, and sign up for their e-mail or text updates so you can find out which titles are being offered each week. I love this!

Teen/YA Review: UnSouled

The creepy cover on UnSouled, the third book in the Unwind series by Neal Schusterman, says it all: you are in for more fast-paced freaky future fun here! My husband, son, and I all love this dystopian series that spawned a new literary term, dystology, and book three continues to deliver.

I’m going to stick to a very vague and brief plot summary, for those people (poor souls) who haven’t yet read any of the Unwind series, so you can start at the beginning with Unwind, with no spoilers. The series takes place in the future, when a great war, The Heartland War, was settled with a document called the Unwind Accord. It states that life begins at the moment of conception, but that during the turbulent teen years, parents have the ability to “unwind” their unruly teens. New technology makes it possible to transplant every part of the human body so that technically, an unwound teen isn’t dead; they’ve just been redistributed. The novel is sprinkled with advertisements and paid political ads that give you an idea of just how far this society has gone: the latest law up for vote is designed to allow criminals to be unwound. You can see what a slippery ethical slope it all is.

Within this chilling future landscape, the main characters of the series are all teens who were designated for unwinding but managed to escape and band together. Connor, Lev, and Risa are all familiar characters from the very first book, with other kids highlighted in this book who were introduced in book 2, as well as Cam, a very unique teen who is a product of this brave new world. They are all still being chased by the authorities and are looking for places where they can stay safe, while also trying to figure out how to bring about the demise of unwinding once and for all. In this third book, we also meet the original inventors of the technology that made unwinding possible, a husband and wife team who were appalled at how their unique technology was used.

Neal Schusterman is one of my favorite teen authors, and this is hands-down my favorite series of his. The characters are very real, and the setting feels chillingly real also. He subtly connects this horrific world with real things going on in our own world today, making it all seem very possible and all the more creepy. Schusterman himself said he only planned on Unwind being a stand-alone novel, but he found this world so compelling that he couldn’t leave it alone. The one book became a trilogy and now a dystology. As with the previous two books, UnSouled is fast-paced and full of action, as the story moves between various characters. This series has everything for both boys and girls (and adults!): suspense, action, mystery, and even a bit of romance. We can’t wait to see how he wraps it all up in book 4 (already scheduled for release on October 14, 2014)!

404 pages, Simon & Schuster

And a movie adaptation is already in the works!!


Monday, July 28, 2014

It's Monday 7/28! What Are You Reading?

We enjoyed our quiet week alone while our sons were off sailing with my mom and her husband on their annual grandkids' cruise with my niece. This year brought a new development: I didn't have to drive them back and forth to CT - they drove themselves! Wow, what a concept. My youngest son is enjoying his newfound freedom...and so am I, with no longer needing to spend all day driving him places!

We all enjoyed lots of reading last week:
  • I finally finished my second Big Book of the Summer, Emma, my first-ever Jane Austen novel. It was definitely a long one. I struggled through the first half and really hated Emma herself, but I took your advice and stuck with it, and both the novel and its main character got better!
  • I started my third Big Book of the Summer, Good Fortune by Noni Carter, a teen/YA novel about a young African girl who is stolen from her homeland and brought to the US into slavery. It is excellent so far...and moving much more quickly than Emma did!
  • My husband and I continued listening to Uncaged, a teen/YA thriller by adult thriller writer John Sandford and co-author Michelle Cook. This is book one of a new series called The Singular Menace, and it's been excellent so far, but we need more time in the car together to finish it!
  • I started - and finished - listening to Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick on audio. This is an excellent YA novel by the famed author of Silver Linings Playbook, showcasing the same talent to tackle difficult subjects with heart and humor. It's about a teen boy who plans to kill the bully who's been tormenting him and then himself. It is especially eye-opening because you start out being disgusted by what he's planning and end up feeling bad for him and wanting him to get help. Most startlingly, some people in his life suspect he may be suicidal but don't do enough to help. Haunting and compelling.
  • My husband has been reading The Hurt Machine, a Moe Prager mystery by Reed Farrel Coleman, on his Kindle. He says it's good so far.
  • Jamie, 19, finished The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn trilogy that he recently enjoyed. It was over 1200 pages and is book one of The Stormlight Archive series. He enjoyed it very much.
  • Jamie did a lot of reading on the boat! Next, he read The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin, book one of the Chronicles of the Necromancer series, and another hefty one at 640 pages. Too bad he;s not doing the Big Book Summer Challenge with me!
  • He is now reading The Wise Man's Fear by one of his new favorite authors, Patrick Rothfuss. This is The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day Two, and he is loving it so far, making his way through another almost-1200 page novel! He usually brings an extra duffle bag filled with books on our vacations.

Last week wasn't quite the productive catch-up week I envisioned (is it ever??), but I did write two reviews:

Review of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer, an emotionally moving novel

Review of Gypsy Davey, a teen/YA novel by Chris Lynch

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

There are still 5 weeks of summer left, so plenty of time to participate in my Big Book Summer Challenge! You only need to read one book, 400 pages or more, this summer to participate, so join the fun! If you've already signed up, remember to stop back by the challenge page to link to your Big Book reviews!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Gypsy Davey

Apparently, Chris Lynch is an award-winning YA author, but I’d never read any of his books before. So, I recently jumped at the chance to read Gypsy Davey, a slim novel about a seriously dysfunctional family and a unique boy.

Twelve-year old Davey has had a rough life, to put it mildly. His mother is neglectful and not very prone to mothering, and his father is mostly absent, though he occasionally shows up to have fun with his kids and then disappears again. Davey’s sister, Jo, has been acting like a mother to Davey since she was seven, and he was just two. But now Jo is a mother herself, at only seventeen, and seems to be following in her own mother’s footsteps, filled with anger and resentment and not much affection.

Although it is never spelled out, Davey seems to be autistic. In any case, he doesn’t interact with the world the way other people do. He tends to retreat into himself and engages in repetitive behaviors. Jo has always been his protector, but now she has her own baby to take care of. Davey does find relief and escape on his bike. He rides for hours and feels like he can think more clearly when he is moving.

Although Jo is already disillusioned by motherhood (perhaps because she has been playing the role of mother since she was 7), Davey adores his new cousin, Dennis, and is surprised to find that he’s quite good at taking care of him. That’s good because when Davey comes over after school, Jo sometimes takes off, much like their own mother did. Davey loves taking care of Dennis so much that he’s beginning to think that maybe someday he will find someone to love and have a baby of his own to take care of…and he’s pretty sure he’ll be a good father.

The chapters alternate between Davey’s perspective, which is a sort of stream-of-consciousness kind of of thing, and a third-person point of view to fill in the details of the story, often looking back at Jo and Davey’s past. I realize that it may sound like a pretty depressing book from the plot description, but Davey is a great narrator. Getting a peek into what and how he’s thinking is fascinating, despite the blatant neglect he suffers from. Ultimately, Davey is optimistic and hopeful about the future, which makes the reader hopeful as well. Lynch accomplishes quite a feat by packing such a full and powerful story into so few pages.

151 pages, Simon & Schuster


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fiction Review: Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots

My local bookstore, The Hockessin Bookshelf, hosts a unique kind of monthly book discussion called Eat, Drink, Read, where a local chef makes food based on the selected book while the attendees discuss the book…and enjoy the fabulous food! My mother and I attended the June meeting where Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer was discussed. I’m so glad we chose that month to participate because otherwise, I may never have read this compelling, intense, and heartfelt novel about family.

Fourteen-year old Lorca has been suspended from school. Her cold, distant mother is a successful professional chef with her own restaurant and little time or affection for her daughter. At a time when Lorca clearly needs help, love, and comfort, her mother’s response is to tell her she will be going to boarding school next semester. Lorca feels alone and desperate, with no one to turn to.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, elderly Victoria is grieving and lost after her beloved husband’s death. She feels guilty, thinking she could have treated him better, and agonizing over a long-ago loss of which she and her husband never spoke. Victoria is also a chef and used to run a small family restaurant specializing in Iraqi food. She and her husband were both Iraqi Jews who fled to the United States just before World War II. Like Lorca, Victoria feels all alone in the world now.

When Lorca overhears her mother describing her best meal ever as masgouf, an Iraqi fish dish, Lorca signs up for cooking lessons with Victoria, in the hopes of learning to make her mother’s favorite dish and thus making her love her and want to keep her at home. The two lonely, aching women bond over food, while each tries to come to terms with her own personal demons.

Warm and compelling, this novel packs a powerful emotional punch, with secrets and twists around every corner. Food plays an important role in the novel (making it perfect for our lunch/book discussion!), as a source of comfort and nourishment, as well as a link to Victoria’s past. The author even includes some recipes (two of which the chef made for us).

This novel also covers some very difficult topics related to loss and love. Most difficult of all, however, is that Lorca engages in self-harm, a somewhat common but hidden practice in our world that is rarely talked about openly. The publisher never mentions this in the plot description on the book’s cover, even though it happens in the novel’s first pages, and I can understand why. This book is so wonderful and has so much to offer that I wouldn’t want people to pass it by simply because it deals with such a difficult topic. Everyone at our lunch/discussion agreed that the author handles the topic perfectly – she doesn’t make you pity Lorca or feel disgusted by her. Those passages dealing with her harming herself are difficult to read, no question, but I felt nothing but empathy for Lorca and was rooting for her to find help and the love she craved.

One reviewer summed up the novel by saying (I’m paraphrasing) that it is about the family you are born into and the family you find for yourself, and we all agreed that was a perfect summation. Despite the difficult subject matter, this is a gripping story that is ultimately hopeful and uplifting, about healing and people in need who find each other. The multi-dimensional characters have stuck with me strongly in the month since I finished the book. Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is a profoundly moving novel, and I am so glad to have read it.

352 pages, Mariner Books

NOTE: The Amazon link included below includes an interesting interview with the author - 


Monday, July 21, 2014

It's Monday 7/21! What Are You Reading?

Another hectic week with not a lot of time for reading. We went to go visit my dad who is recovering from surgery for cancer about mid-week, and then our sons took off for their other grandparents' house for their annual week on the sailboat with them. So, long days on the road for all of us. This is supposed to be my quiet get-caught-up week, but I have an out-of-state doctor's appointment today (I have Lyme disease again) and have to renew my driver's license at the DMV tomorrow - good times!

Anyway, we did manage to squeeze in some reading last week, amidst the chaos:
  • I am still reading my second Big Book of the Summer, Emma, my first-ever Jane Austen novel. Those of you who told me last week to stick with it were right - I like it better now, and Emma herself is becoming more tolerable! I only have about 50 pages left.
  • I finished a middle-grade audio book, P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widow by Caroline Lawrence, part of a mystery series set in the Old West that I enjoyed.
  • With our sons driving in a separate car, my husband and I were free to listen to an audio book on the way to Rochester! Our sons, now 16 and almost 20, don't like to listen to books with us on car trips anymore - they are all about their music. My husband and I listened to Uncaged, a teen/YA thriller by adult thriller writer John Sandford and co-author Michelle Cook. This is book one of a new series called The Singular Menace, and it's been excellent so far. We're at least 3/4 of the way through it, and it's been fast-paced and suspenseful, a great choice for a long car ride.
  • My husband, Ken, finished reading Raylan by Elmore Leonard on his Kindle, a book based on the character from the Justified TV show, which he loves. We recently bought this novel for both of our fathers, and my dad was talking about it during our visit. It's been a big hit all around, and Ken enjoyed it, too!
  • Jamie, 19, is still reading The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn trilogy that he recently enjoyed. This one is over 1200 pages and is book one of The Stormlight Archive series.
 No time for writing any reviews last week, but I managed a couple of blog posts:

Summary of Books Read in June

Trailers for Before I Go To Sleep and Gone Girl Movies (can't wait!) 

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

There are still 6 weeks of summer left, so plenty of time to participate in my Big Book Summer Challenge! You only need to read one book, 400 pages or more, this summer to participate, so join the fun!If you've already signed up, remember to stop back by the challenge page to link to your Big Book reviews!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

New Trailer for Before I Go To Sleep

There are so many movies coming this year that are adapted from books! I shared the trailer for The Giver last month. The latest trailer released is for Before I Go To Sleep, a creepy thriller by S.J. Watson from last year that I actually liked better than Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's best-seller that received more hype. Both movies look great, though!

Here is the trailer for Before I Go To Sleep, to be released on September 12:

And here's the trailer for Gone Girl, to be released October 3:

Plenty for both book lovers and thriller lovers to look forward to in the theaters this fall!

What movie adaptations are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Books Read in June

Whew, where did June go? We've had a rough summer so far, with all kinds of family emergencies and extra health problems. Thank goodness we always have our books for comfort and distraction. June was an outstanding reading month for me! Here's what I read last month:

  • Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, fiction (NY)
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, teen/YA audio (MA)
  • UnSouled by Neal Schusterman, teen/YA novel and my first Big Book of the Summer (CO)

  • Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer (NY, Iraq)
  • Endangered by Eliot Schrefer, teen/YA novel (Dem. Republic of Congo)

In my reading journal, I mark a * next to any book that I thought was really outstanding...and every one of these books read in June got a * - a very high-quality reading month! Wow, choosing a favorite is really hard. They were all so good and all so different. Hmmm...I refuse to choose a favorite for last month - just read them all! I can tell you that We Were Liars was the most suspenseful, UnSouled the creepiest, Endangered the fastest-paced, and Tell the Wolves I'm Home and Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots were both heart-breaking but also life-affirming and hopeful.

It was an all-fiction month, with one listened on audio. Three were teen/YA novels, and two were adult novels, though interestingly, both had teen girl narrators. As you can see from the lack of links above, I am behind in my reviews - just no time for writing lately, but I hope to catch up during some much-needed down time next week.

I added just one new state and two new countries to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 this month. Oh, dear - I didn't read a single book from my TBR shelves for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge in June - I am really doing poorly on that one, and my shelves are piling up! I listened to one more audio book for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge, bringing my total to 10 in 6 months, so that one's going well so far. No nonfiction books last month, and no classics.

What was your favorite book(s) read in June?