Tuesday, July 25, 2017

TV Tuesday: Master of None

A year or two ago, I watched a couple of episodes of Master of None, a Netflix comedy, enjoyed it, and then got caught up in other shows and kind of forgot about it. I recently came back to it and ended up watching all of the first season episodes in quick succession and moving onto season two. It's a smart, funny comedy that is different from most.

Aziz Ansari, an actor and comedian who was on Parks & Recreation, plays a 30-year old Indian American actor (basically himself) living in New York. When he's not meeting with his agent, going on auditions, and taking bit parts in ads and movies, he hangs out with his friends: Arnold, a very tall guy played by Eric Wareheim; Brian, an Asian-American played by Kelvin Yu; and Denise, a black lesbian played by Lena Waithe. Think of of Master of None as a more diverse version of Seinfeld. Like that famed sitcom, there is plenty of amusing banter among friends and funny discussions about trivial things in their lives.

What really sets Master of None apart from other sitcoms, though, is its cleverness and how it delves into important issues in our world that are seldom talked about openly - all while making you laugh. In season one, episode four deals with the racism Dev encounters every day in his acting career, as someone like him of Indian descent (even though he is 100% American) is only offered parts as a convenience store owner, an IT guy, or "the Indian friend." He and his friends sit in a bar talking about how many black people are allowed on a show before it is considered "a black show." It's achingly honest but also hilarious. In episode seven, Dev and the other males have an eye-opening discussion with the women at their table about how they are treated in everyday life, and how their experiences are completely different than those of the males.

I love the honesty and wit of this wonderful show. After watching a few episodes, I was hooked and just wanted to watch all of them! I just finished watching the first episode of season 2 today, which is a unique show, filmed in black and white, chronicling Dev's adventures in Italy, with the feel of an old-time movie. Ansari is warm and endearing as Dev, and the supporting cast is all great, too. Aziz's real-life parents play his parents on the show! Although it is a comedy, it is also a moving drama, following Dev and his friends through relationship ups and downs, career mishaps, and family challenges, with plenty of laughs along the way.

Master of None is a Netflix original program, so it is available for streaming exclusively on Netflix. Seasons 1 and 2 are currently available there. Season 1 is also available on DVD (and season 2 will follow). I hope there will be a season 3!



Monday, July 24, 2017

It's Monday 7/24! What Are You Reading?

Whew, another packed-full week! 'Tis the season! We took another trip to NY state this weekend, this time to my hometown of Rochester, to visit my step-mother and go to my cousin's graduation party. It was a very short, whirlwind trip - we arrived about 7 pm Friday and left at 8 am Sunday, with two long days of 8 hours in the car on either end! But it was great to see our family and catch up with everyone. There were some cousins at the graduation party that we usually only see at weddings, funerals, and graduation parties! So, lots of fun but also completely exhausting for me.

One of my several birthday treats this weekend!
Oh, and my 52nd birthday was yesterday (yup, spent in the car mostly!), so I also went on a total sugar binge this weekend, with a birthday cake AND an ice cream birthday pie on Saturday, plus extra servings of Abbott's frozen custard (an amazing concoction that originated in Rochester). It was more sugar than I've eaten in the past six months (due to medical problems), so that helped me to feel more exhausted, too...but SO worth it! ha ha Now we are back home - for a while, hopefully - and catching up.
An AMAZING ice cream pie from Abbott's
So, our reading time was limited last week, but we still enjoyed our books:
  • I finished I Am Malala: the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai. I've wanted to read this one for a long time and am glad to finally have the chance. It's been great - fascinating and engrossing - a memoir about a young girl's childhood in Pakistan, her campaign to support girls' education, and the Taliban's shooting of her. Unfortunately, our book group was cancelled last week (in part because I wasn't feeling well enough to manage it), but I am still hoping for a chance to discuss it soon!
  • Now, I am reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I decided on a two-for-one book - this one works for my own Big Book Summer Challenge (see below) and also for my 2017 Classics Challenge, which I am really failing so far! I last read (and loved) this classic novel in my early 20's, so I don't remember much of it and am enjoying it so far.
  • I finished listening to Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin, a YA audio book about a teen girl in a Jewish family in Norway during WWII. I know, I keep saying no more WWII stories, but there are so many in my backlog and so many different angles! In this case, the angle is a story from Norway, which was occupied by the Nazis but not the scene of fighting. It was very good...but now I really am done with WWII novels for a while!
  • Today, I will start a new audio, A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, a new (relatively - I am always a bit behind) middle-grade novel about a boy with autism. I've heard great things about this book, so I am looking forward to it (and no war!).
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading one of my review books, Thousand Cuts by Thomas Mogford, part of the Spike Sanguinetti series. Not sure yet what he thinks of this thriller/detective series.
  • Jamie, 22, finished Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, book 1 of the series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen in the car yesterday (lucky boy - he can read in the car!) It's an epic fantasy of the type he loves that he picked out at his favorite used bookstore recently. He enjoyed it and wants to read more of the series. Not sure if he has started another book yet.
 Last week's blog posts: 
Movie Monday: The Dressmaker - a quirky, dark satire set in 1950's Australia

TV Tuesday: Sense8 - an intriguing supernatural show

Teen/YA Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater - action-packed fantasy

Fiction Review: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf - warm, gentle story of aging and love

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?  

You can also follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.

Remember to sign up for my Big Book Summer Challenge! You have plenty of time (until September) to read just 1 book (more if you want) with 400+ pages. Everyone has a chunkster like this (or dozens of them, like me!) on their shelves or TBR list. I hope you'll join the fun! (you don't need a blog to sign up - see the challenge page for details)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fiction Review: Our Souls at Night


I have never read a novel by Kent Haruf before (though I’ve had Plainsong on my shelf for years), so I was thrilled when my neighborhood book group chose his last book, Our Souls at Night, for our June selection. This slim novel is a gentle, poignant story about aging, friendship, and love that we all enjoyed.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbors in the small town of Holt, CO, for many years, though they don’t know each other very well. So, it’s quite a surprise when Addie stops by Louis’ house one May evening with a very unusual proposal. They both lost their spouses (Addie was actually friends with Louis’ wife) years ago and live alone now. Addie says the nights are the worst for loneliness and asks Louis if he would come over and sleep with her at night…no, not that kind of “sleep with”! She is just lonely during the long nights and wants someone to lie next to her, someone to talk to.

Although Louis worries about what people will think, he agrees because he is lonely, too. He walks two doors over to Addie’s house that first night, with his pajamas and a toothbrush in a brown paper bag, and goes back home in the morning. It’s a bit awkward at first, but they soon get used to each other’s company, settle into a routine, and begin to get to know each other better. As Louis suspected, people in their small town do gossip, but Addie says she doesn’t care, and soon Louis adopts her attitude, too. Unfortunately, their grown children do care and are appalled.

This is a warm, gentle, achingly sweet story about reaching for happiness later in life, at a time when it seems like those days are behind you. It’s a brief story – less than 200 pages – that captures that magical summer after Addie’s outrageous proposal. Although Addie and Louis soon grow fond of each other, things aren’t easy for them, and several challenges pop up, some of which they may not be able to overcome. My favorite scenes in the book were with Addie’s grandson, where the three of them, plus a shelter dog and an elderly neighbor, form a makeshift family. Their adventures together made me smile.

Everyone in my neighborhood book group enjoyed this unique novel, and we had plenty to discuss – about aging, loneliness, being a widow, and happiness at any age. It’s a seemingly simple story that has great emotional depth, and it touched all of us. Haruf’s writing is exquisite – spare yet illuminating – and Addie and Louis truly come to life in these short pages. After reading this quiet yet beautiful and moving novel, I am eager to read the rest of Haruf’s novels, especially those set in Holt. I need to find Plainsong on my shelf and dust it off!

179 pages, Alfred A. Knopf 

Our Souls at Night
by Kent HarufTrade Paperback
Powells.com

 Or purchase at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT:
  

Or purchase Our Souls At Night from Book Depository.

Teen/YA Review: The Scorpio Races


I am a big fan of Maggie Stiefvater’s YA novels, though I tried them reluctantly because I don’t normally read much fantasy. However, I ended up loving Shiver and The Raven Cycle and read all of the books in both series. With my Big Book Summer Challenge as extra incentive, I finally read her earlier novel that I missed, The Scorpio Races, last month. I didn’t love it quite as well as her other novels, but I did end up enjoying this unique action-packed fantasy.

The novel takes place on a fictional island called Thisby, which seems to be maybe off the coast of Ireland and is rural, with a small town called Skarmouth. The island would be mostly forgettable except that it harbors an animal found nowhere else: capaill uisce or water horses. These unique creatures are horses that live in the ocean most of the year. The other thing that sets them apart from regular horses is their violence and blood lust, which peaks on November 1, a time of year when they are drawn onto the island of Thisby and eager for the blood of other horses or humans.

Other than this one fantastical element, life on Thisby is pretty normal stuff most of the year, though the water horses do play a role in some people’s lives. There are those on the island who train them and those who ride them in the annual Scorpio Races on the beach on November 1 (and those who bet on the race). The entire island is focused on preparing for the month of October when mainlanders come to Thisby for the excitement of the upcoming race.

Sean Kendrick is one of those who trains water horses. His own father was killed (gruesomely) in the Scorpio Races nine years ago, when Sean was just 10 years old. Despite that, Sean loves the ocean and loves the capaill uisce, especially Corr, a huge, red water horse stallion that he loves to ride and wishes he owned. He has won the Scorpio Races for the past two years on Corr, but for now, he is stuck working for a wealthy man who owns a huge stable where he helps to train both regular horses and water horses.

Puck Connelly is a spirited teen girl who lives with her two brothers, Finn and Gabe, in their ramshackle family home. The three of them were orphaned when both of their parents were killed by a capall uisce that attacked their fishing boat. Gabe, the oldest, works hard, and they sell handmade teapots to tourists, but they are barely scraping by. When their situation becomes even more precarious, Puck decides to ride in the Scorpio Races, to try to win the prize money to both save their home and keep Gabe on the island. The problem? Besides the high chance of injury or death, Puck is also the first girl to ever run the races, and many traditionalists on Thisby are not happy about her participation.

I have to admit that this novel didn’t grab me immediately; it was more of a slow build for me. I was a bit put off by the violence at first. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t normally read a lot of fantasy, so I wasn’t sure about this strange world on Thisby. But, like her other novels, Stiefvater has set a fantasy element – the water horses, in this case – in the midst of a normal-feeling world, which I tend to like better than wholly made-up fantasy worlds. By about the halfway point, I was fully engaged in the story, rooting for both Puck and Sean (though they obviously can’t both win), and eagerly reading to find out what would happen next.

 I connected with the characters right from the start: both Sean and Puck are multi-faceted and likeable, and the supporting characters feel real, too. As in Stiefvater’s other novels, there is plenty of adventure, action, suspense, and even a bit of romance. If you can get past the violence, The Scorpio Races is a fast-paced and exciting read for teens and young adults (and grown-ups, too!).

401 pages, Scholastic


The Scorpio Races
by Maggie StiefvaterTrade Paperback
Powells.com

 Or Purchase from Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT:
 

Or Purchase The Scorpio Races from Book Depository.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

TV Tuesday: Sense8

Our 22-year old son was home for a while when the college semester ended, and we had finished up our spring TV show together (Colony and Travelers) and were waiting for our summer show (Orphan Black!!) to start, so we were searching for something new that he, my husband, and I could all enjoy together. We settled on Sense8, a Netflix show, and quickly got hooked on its intriguing supernatural premise.

The first episode or two of Sense8 is a bit confusing (but stick with it) because a lot of different characters are introduced and there is no connection between them at first. Sun, played by Doona Bae, is a young professional woman in South Korea whose father doesn't recognize her accomplishments because she is female. Jamie Clayton plays Nomi, a trans woman living happily in San Francisco with her partner when things go terribly wrong on Pride Day and she ends up in the hospital. Kala, played by Tina Desai, is a beautiful Indian woman engaged to a very eligible bachelor who she is not certain she is in love with. Riley Blue, played by Tuppence Middleton, is a blue-haired DJ in London who may be in too deep with her drug dealing boyfriend. Max Riemelt plays Wolgang, a young German man struggling with his background as the son of a criminal. Miguel Angel Silvestre plays Lito, a handsome Brazilian actor who is a sex symbol on screen but harbors his own secret in his private life. Will, played by Brian J. Smith, is a practical-minded cop in Chicago who can't make sense of what he's just seen. Finally, Capheus, played by Aml Ameen, is a matatu (van) driver in Nairobi, a jovial man known as Van Damme for his obsession with the actor (and his colorful van's motif) whose mother is seriously ill.

Whew - see what I mean about confusing at first? But within a couple of episodes, you get to know each of these characters better. All eight of them see the same vision at the start of episode one, of a woman, played by Darryl Hannah, in a churchyard. Gradually, after that, they each begin to see the world through one of the other eight's eyes, seemingly transporting through time and space to a world very different from their own. In this way, they begin to become aware of each other, especially when one of them is in trouble or in danger.

We have watched 4 episodes so far, and it is more and more engrossing. Exactly what gifts and powers the eight disparate people possess is still somewhat of a mystery - to the viewers and to the eight "sensates" themselves - but we want to see more to find out what unfolds. Single sentence summaries of the show indicate that there are powerful people who want to stop these eight, but we haven't gotten to that point yet in the plot.

The multi-cultural cast are all very good, and you quickly form a bond with all eight sensates, seeing their challenges and flaws as well as their talents. The action moves around from one character (and one place) to another, but quite soon, they begin interacting with each other, as the story becomes more intricate. I hope I haven't made it sound too complicated because by the end of the second episode, you have a good idea who each character is and how he or she lives. The show also has a wonderful soundtrack (see Amazon link below), and after episode 4, you will be singing "What's Up" for weeks (we were!).

Sense8 is a Netflix original program, so it is available exclusively on Netflix. I see that the first season has 12 episodes, and there are already two seasons on Netflix, so I can't wait to see what happens next! Note that Netflix just announced last month that the show has been cancelled after its second season, with possibly a single 3rd season episode finale in 2018 to wrap things up.



Monday, July 17, 2017

Movie Monday: The Dressmaker

Last week, I reviewed a movie I watched while my husband was away recently: Me Before You, based on the best-selling novel. That same week, I watched another movie that is a book adaptation: The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet.

Kate plays Tilly Dunnage, a woman in the 1950's returning for the first time in decades to the small, rural town in Australia where she grew up. It's a tiny, insular town where everyone knows everyone else's business. When Tilly arrives, she finds her mother, Molly (played by Judy Davis) in terrible shape: physically frail, barely cognizant and living in squalor. Tilly, always beautifully dressed and in full make-up, sets to work clearing out and cleaning up the decrepit house. It immediately becomes obvious that Tilly is not well-liked in the town, as townspeople gossip about her return and some dark secret from the past about why she left.

Tilly ignores the gossip and not only takes care of her mother but sets up shop as a dressmaker. She worked in fashion houses in Paris and Milan, so she brings haute couture to the Outback and transforms the plain women of the town, one by one. She is extremely talented and is soon a much-revered dressmaker, though the townspeople still gossip. Details of Tilly's childhood, the reason why she left, and the reason behind her cool reception in town gradually become clear. Tilly really has only one ally in town besides her mother: the handsome Teddy (played by Liam Hemsworth), whose family are also outcasts in town.

Tilly and Teddy become closer, as details of Tilly's and the town's history are slowly revealed, and the women of the town become more and more glamorous. Tilly is not one to forgive and forget, though, and as she remembers how various townspeople wronged her as a child, she plots revenge against each of them.

The tone of this movie is much different than I expected. Rather than a straightforward drama, there is actually a good bit of dark humor and satire here. Yes, there is also tragedy and sorrow, but often there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the story. Colors in the film are super-bright and vibrant (especially after Tilly dresses the town's women in gorgeous fabrics) in contrast to the dull sameness of the surrounding countryside and decrepit town. The seemingly sweet story of the transformation of the town's women is underlaid with the dark backstory and Tilly's behind-the-scenes scheming. I was pleasantly surprised by the dark humor and enjoyed the film overall. Kate Winslet is wonderful in it, as are her supporting cast, including Hugo Weaving as the flamboyant, cross-dressing town police officer, who is thrilled with Tilly's fashion sense.

The Dressmaker is currently available on DVD and is available for streaming free for Amazon Prime members (or $3.99 to rent or $12.99 to purchase for non-Prime members). It is only available on DVD through Netflix.



    

It's Monday 7/17! What Are You Reading?

Is it really July 17th already? How is that possible? We spent the past 4 days traveling up to northern NY state (the town of Potsdam) for my 30th reunion at Clarkson University. Except we didn't actually set foot on campus! I spent all my time at my old sorority house, catching up with old friends, meeting new ones, and laughing a LOT. Lots of old stories floating around, but we also got laughing when we realized we were chatting about colonoscopies and menopause - times change! It was really great to see my old friends, and my husband and I traveled with our camper, so we enjoyed some nice days in gorgeous NY state parks, too (plus a fair amount of rain). We ended up driving back all in one day (which is a lot) and got home last night.
Me with 3 of my fellow '87 graduates on our porch!
So, lots of socializing this weekend, but we always find time for books, too! Here's what we've been reading:
  • I am still reading my only summer book group book, I Am Malala: the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai. I've wanted to read this one for a long time and am glad to finally have the chance. It's been great - fascinating and engrossing - about a young girl's childhood in Pakistan, her campaign to support girls' education, and the Taliban's shooting of her. I will probably finish it tonight.
  • I am still listening to Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin, a YA audio book about a teen girl in a Jewish family in Norway during WWII (I know, I keep saying no more WWII stories, but there are so many in my backlog and so many different angles!). At the start of the novel, the war hasn't really affected her and her family yet, but that is starting to change now.
  • On our road trip, my husband and I finished listening to Exo by Fonda Lee, a teen/YA sci fi novel. It takes place about 100 years after an alien race has colonized Earth, Some people were selected to work alongside the aliens and help them, while others (known as Sapiens) have resisted the alien invasion and continue to fight against them. We both enjoyed it - a classic sci fi story with plenty of action and suspense.
  • My husband, Ken, finished reading Dust by Hugh Howey, book 3 in the Wool series, which I am dying to read! I just finished book 2, Shift, last month and want to read this one next, while the first two books are still fresh in my mind. This is Ken's 2nd Big Book of the Summer, and will be my third!
  • Now, Ken is reading one of my review books, Thousand Cuts by Thomas Mogford, part of the Spike Sanguinetti series. He's just started it, so no word yet on how he likes this thriller/detective series.
  • Jamie, 22, is still reading Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, book 1 of the series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It's an epic fantasy of the type he loves that he picked out at his favorite used bookstore recently. He says it's great so far.
 Last week's blog posts:
Movie Monday: Me Before You - a romance based on the best-selling novel

TV Tuesday: Fleabag - funny, moving, outrageous British dramedy

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?  

You can also follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page


Remember to sign up for my Big Book Summer Challenge! You have plenty of time (until September) to read just 1 book (more if you want) with 400+ pages. Everyone has a chunkster like this (or dozens of them, like me!) on their shelves or TBR list. I hope you'll join the fun! (you don't need a blog to sign up - see the challenge page for details)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

TV Tuesday: Fleabag

With my husband and sons out of town two weeks ago, I had a quiet five days to myself at home, so I wanted to indulge in some "me time," enjoying something new on TV. I discovered Fleabag, a short British Amazon series. It looked like a funny, sexy comedy - perhaps along the lines of Chewing Gum (which I loved) - but it turned out to also have plenty of depth to it.

Fleabag is adapted from an award-winning play, and its lead actress, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, starred in and wrote both the play and the TV series. She plays an unnamed single woman, living in London, looking for love, and caught up in the crises of her daily life. Her sister, Claire, is seemingly perfect, married to a handsome American, thin and pretty, and with a life that seems perfectly put together. Though they don't have a lot in common, the two sisters do sometimes come together, in grieving for their mother, being disgusted by their inappropriately blunt stepmother (who was/is godmother to the narrator), and rolling their eyes about their inept father.

The narrator, who I guess can be referred to as Fleabag, also has an on-again, off-again relationship with a boring guy named Harry and a string of hilarious encounters (during the off periods) with other guys, including a man she meets on the bus who has teeth like a rabbit and a late-night booty call in the first episode who wants anal sex. Shortly into the first season, we also find out that Fleabag recently lost her best friend and business partner in an accident, which suddenly puts everything else into perspective and adds a significant layer of emotional depth.

The first season is only six half-hour episodes long (as is more the norm in the UK), but there is a lot packed into those three hours of television. Fleabag often looks directly into the camera to share an aside with the audience (or sometimes, just a look that says it all), again reminding me of Chewing Gum. The overall result here is a fascinating main character with interesting supporting characters, moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, and moments of quiet introspection, too. It's the life of a modern woman, with all of its complexities and challenges (and more laughs than in a typical life!). This mix of humor and real-life emotion reminds me very much of another British Amazon show that my husband and I enjoy, Catastrophe. Just watching the trailer (below) reminded me again of how much I enjoyed this funny, moving, outrageous show - and it's perfect for binging.

The 6 episodes of season 1 are available on Amazon Prime. I was very excited to see that a season 2 is planned for 2018 - I can't wait!




Monday, July 10, 2017

Movie Monday: Me Before You

My husband was away for a week recently, and my sons were on vacation, so I had five days all to myself! A couple of evenings, I watched movies - choosing girly movies that the rest of my male household would never watch with me.  On my first evening alone, I chose Me Before You, a movie adaptation of a novel by JoJo Moyes I have wanted to read for years.

Me Before You is a sweet romance (that's why my husband and sons wouldn't be interested in it!). Sam Claflin plays ruggedly handsome, wealthy Will. At the start of the story, Will is at the top of his game - happy, successful, and engaged to a beautiful woman. On the other side of town, Lou, played by the adorable Emilia Clarke, lives in her childhood bedroom in her parents' house, to help them out. When she loses her job at the local cafe, the whole family is worried about the loss of her income.

Lou finally finds a new job at the huge castle in town (this is England). The wealthy Traynors are looking for a companion to help with their son, who was paralyzed in an accident. You guessed it - that scruffy-looking guy in the wheelchair is Will, but now he is sullen and depressed about the turn his life has taken. He has a muscular physical therapist/caregiver to help with the big stuff, but Will's parents want Lou to spend time with their son, to keep him company and get him re-engaged with life.

The plot from that point on is pretty predictable, but it's still an emotional movie and surprisingly fun. Much of the fun comes from Lou herself, who dresses in bright primary colors, wild patterns, and often wears her hair in braids or little pigtails. She is full of life, always smiling, and a good foil to Will's dark moods. She comes up with a plan to try to show Will that his life can still be full of joy and worthwhile.

As I said, the plotline isn't terribly surprising, but the story is well-executed, warm, and fun. The two main actors are both charismatic and engaging and pull you into their story. I recall hearing some complaints from fans of the novel when the movie first came out, but I can't speak to that since I didn't read the book. I did have one problem with the movie - its ending. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say here that complaints from disabled people about the movie's ending and its message are definitely valid. Generally, though, up until that point, I enjoyed it. It made me smile and laugh and - yes, I cried, too. It was a mostly entertaining evening, though I would have preferred a different ending.

Me Before You is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon (free for Prime members; others can rent it for $2.99).



   


It's Monday 7/10! What Are You Reading?

Whew, super busy weekend, so no time for blogging. Our sons came home from their 2-week long trip (on their grandparents' sailboat) late Friday night, so we are back to our normal level of noise, mess, and chaos...but it is great to see them again! We were awakened at 2am Friday with an emergency from my father-in-law, so my husband spent the rest of the night in the ER with him (he is fine now). We went with our sons and some old friends to our favorite local Cajun/Creole cafe Saturday - we used to live in New Orleans, and the husband/wife chef-owners of this place also lived there and each cooked for our two favorite restaurants there! So, their food is truly authentic (as opposed to most so-called Cajun restaurants) and really delicious. Sunday, we had all of us here, including my father-in-law, for a big dinner. And next weekend, my husband and I hit the road again...this time for my 30th college reunion! So, that should be fun, but it will be a very busy week getting ready.

Of course, we always have time for our books - here's what we've been reading this past week:
  • I finished reading a review book for Shelf Awareness, Exposure by Lisa Scottoline. I think I've only read one other novel (her first) by this very popular author. I enjoyed this legal thriller that is part of her Rosato & DiNunzio series. It was a slow build in the beginning, but past the halfway point, the pace was very fast and packed with action and suspense. It's about a case involving a close family friend of Mary DiNunzio that starts out as a simple wrongful termination case, but blows up into something much bigger and more complex.
  • Now, I am reading my only summer book group book, I Am Malala: the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai. I've wanted to read this one for a long time and am glad to finally have the chance. It's great so far - fascinating and engrossing - about a young girl's childhood in Pakistan.
  • I finished listening to The Risen by Ron Rash on audio. I have wanted to read a Rash novel for ages! This one, like most of his, takes place in Appalachia, in the mountains of North Carolina. The action shifts back and forth between 1969, when the narrator and his older brother met a beautiful girl while fishing at the creek, and present day, when his life has fallen apart and he sees in the newspaper that the girl's body was found near that same creek. It was very good, with excellent writing and a riveting plot. Now I want to read more Rash novels!
  • I started a new audio, Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin, a teen/YA novel about a teen girl in a Jewish family in Norway during WWII (I know, I keep saying no more WWII stories, but there are so many in my backlog and so many different angles!). At the start of the novel, the war hasn't really affected her and her family yet, but I suspect that will change.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Dust by Hugh Howey, book 3 in the Wool series, which I am dying to read! I just finished book 2, Shift, last month and hope to read this one as soon as Ken is finished with it, while the first two books are still fresh in my mind. This is Ken's 2nd Big Book of the Summer, and will be my third!
  • Jamie, 22, has returned from his trip with his brother, cousins, and grandparents. He finished reading Dune by Frank Herbert, the classic sci fi novel. Jamie read Dune once before, but he was very young (about middle-school age) so he enjoyed re-reading it. Next, he read Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, a sequel that his dad lent him. 
  • Now, Jamie is reading Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, book 1 of the series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It's an epic fantasy of the type he loves that he picked out at his favorite used bookstore recently.
 Last week's blog posts:
Books Read in May (yes, May, but I'm catching up!) - 9 books in all

Fiction Review: The World To Come by Jim Shepard - short stories based on real-life disasters

Teen/YA Review: Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz - unique, suspenseful story of kids' role in WWII

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?  

You can also follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page

Remember to sign up for my Big Book Summer Challenge! You have plenty of time (until September) to read just 1 book (more if you want) with 400+ pages. Everyone has a chunkster like this (or dozens of them, like me!) on their shelves or TBR list. I hope you'll join the fun! (you don't need a blog to sign up - see the challenge page for details)

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Teen/YA Review: Projekt 1065


I have often said here recently that I have overdosed on World War II novels, and I do seem to have read a LOT of them. I ignored my misgivings, though, and jumped into the audio book of Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz, mainly because I found Gratz’s YA novel Code of Honor so compelling when I listened to it last year. I’m glad I gave Projekt 1065 a chance because it was also engrossing, suspenseful, and very emotionally powerful.

This is a different kind of WWII story, told from the perspective of a young teen boy. Michael O’Shaunessey lives in Nazi Germany, but he is not German (as you can probably tell from his name!). His father is the Irish ambassador in Germany, and he and his family have been allowed to stay since Ireland has remained neutral during the war (something I didn’t know). However, while his parents are busy hosting dinner parties for high-ranking Nazi officials, behind the scenes they are actually acting as Allied spies. Michael himself has had some minor involvement with their spy work, when necessary.

At school, though, Michael must act like a good Nazi, and that means being a member of the Hitler Youth, as all boys his age are required to do. He hates their violent “games,” book burnings, and cruel taunting of anyone different. He befriends a boy who is often teased and enjoys going to his house after school, but when he discovers that his friend’s father is working on Projekt 1065, a top-secret Nazi project to develop the first jet airplane, he may need to use his new friendship to gather information that could change the outcome of the war.

When an Allied pilot is shot down near Michael’s school, his Hitler Youth group is put to work searching for him. This development, plus the Projekt 1065 plans, becomes an Allied emergency when additional secrets come to light, and Michael is the only one who can help. He realizes he must become an even more ardent supporter of the Nazis in order to get into the inner circle of the Hitler Youth.

This story is absolutely spellbinding right from the start. Gratz takes the reader into the world of ordinary children living in Germany during WWII, the Nazi-influenced schools, and the inner workings of the Hitler Youth. The audio was excellent, with a range of accents provided by talented narrator Dan Bittner, who also read Gratz’s Code of Honor.

Tension builds to an almost unbearable level as Michael is pulled into the center of the action and plays a role in the outcome of the war. If you think that the involvement of children and young teens in the war to that extent is unrealistic, Gratz explains in an author’s note that the Nazis sent boys as young as 16 to the front lines, had a tank division made up entirely of Hitler Youth, with kids between age 12 and 16, and had preteen girls and boys manning anti-aircraft guns, as happens in the novel (and Projekt 1065 was real, too). It’s horrifying and hard to believe today, but it really happened. Gratz brings that history alive here, in a compelling, suspenseful, and action-packed story that will keep readers riveted.

320 pages, Scholastic

NOTE: Although Scholastic lists this novel for middle-grade readers, I recommend it for older kids, teens and young adults. There is a great deal of realistic violence and tense action.


 Listen to an audio sample:


Purchase from Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT:
 

Or purchase Projekt 1065 from Book Depository.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Fiction Review: The World to Come

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I don’t read a lot of short story collections, but Booktopia is always a good motivator for me to try one, as it was in 2015 with Kelly Link’s wonderful collection, Get inTrouble. Booktopia 2017 was no exception, and I recently finished reading The World to Come, a collection of historical fiction short stories written by Booktopia guest Jim Shepard.

This is an unusual collection of short stories in that most of them focus on real-life disasters, many of them little known. From an enormous volcanic eruption in 1600 BC to a destructive modern-day train derailment of oil tankers, there are all sorts of disasters covered in these stories, based on real-life events. In each case, the author focuses in on one fictional character at the center of the event, delving into his or her thoughts, feelings, and actions. A couple of the stories focus more on intimate situations, perhaps tragic to single person but not historical disasters.

Each story is intricate, moving, and very personal, even if it is based on a catastrophe that affected thousands of people. The magnifying glass is held up to a single person’s state of mind, as a way of looking at the larger event. One thing’s for certain: there are no happy endings here.

One of the stories that was the most shattering to me was HMS Terror, about the ships that were a part of the ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic in 1845, led by Sir John Franklin. In real-life, the wrecks of these ice-bound ships were only just recently discovered, so deeply buried were the abandoned vessels. Evidence of its crew was just discovered in the region in the 1980’s and 90’s. The story takes place at the time of the expedition, with the crews of the ships confident of the success of their mission. Shepard’s story is told through the diary entries of one man, Lieutenant Edward Little, who documents the doomed expedition in his personal journal. You know from the beginning things won’t end well, but the details and manner of his and his crewmate’s demise is still shattering, though filled with suspense and tension.

In the title story, a pioneer housewife in rural New York lives an isolated existence with her taciturn husband. She has endured unspeakable loss, and her loneliness and seclusion are broken only on Sunday afternoons, when a neighbor, Tallie, makes the trek over to her farm. The two bond over long talks in the warm kitchen. This story is also told through diary entries from the narrator because, as she explains, about their farm ledgers:
“But there is no record in these dull and simple pages of the most passionate circumstances of our seasons past, no record of our emotions or fears, our greatest joys or most piercing sorrows.”

The women’s happiness is short-lived, though, when Tallie’s husband takes her away and tragedy occurs.

Another story in the collection that packed a big emotional punch for me was Telemachus, about the HMS Telemachus, a British Royal Navy submarine in the waters of the Pacific in 1944. A gunner’s mate, bunking among the torpedoes with his colleagues, tells the story of the sub’s long ordeal, spending endless months hiding deep in the water, staying out of view of the enemy while also trying to sneak up on enemy ships to sink them. His account is gritty and real, with gruesome descriptions of the moldy clothes that resulted from the constant moisture, the carbon-dioxide-filled air, and the tinned mutton they survived on.

Each of the ten stories in this collection, whether two or 35 pages long, presents a close-up view of a single person in the face of colossal challenges or tragedies, delving into the background, dreams, and thoughts of that person. Despite this common thread, each story is completely unique and engrossing, peopled by relatable characters that seem like ordinary folks, stuck in extraordinary circumstances. Each of them presents a human perspective that we rarely get when we hear of disasters, big and small, in the news. After reading each story, I was driven to look up the historical details online (when I could find them) to learn more. Although the subject matter carries a feeling of dread (I might have preferred to read the stories separately rather than one after the other), each story provided its own riveting, moving portrayal of humanity.

258 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

The World to Come: Stories
by Jim ShepardHardcover
Powells.com

 Or purchase from Northshire Bookstore, host of Booktopia:

  

Or purchase The World to Come from Book Depository.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Books Read in May

No, that's not a typo. It's July 5, and I am only just now summing up the books I read in May! I get behind like this every summer - travel, kids home, etc.

The other reason it took me so long to finish writing all my reviews from May is that I read 9 books that month! That's a record month for me. Here's what I read in May:




 
 
  • The Baby by Lisa Drakeford (UK) - audio, teen/YA
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Sahara Desert - Africa) - fiction
  • NewsPrints by Ru Xu - middle-grade & teen fiction, graphic novel
 
Wow, a huge reading month for me! I finished up my Booktopia reading, then jumped into book group choices and review books, with a few of my own choices thrown in. I read two nonfiction books, which is unusual for me, and the rest were fiction. Five of my books were for adults and the other four were for children or teens/YA (though I always have trouble categorizing The Little Prince). I listened to three audio books in May (and my husband and I gave up on another one not listed here after listening to half of it). I enjoyed all nine books, and some were really outstanding. The Hate U Give takes the prize for my favorite from May because it is not only a riveting, engrossing book (and amazing on audio) but also very powerful.

Progress on 2017 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! Only 2 of my 9 books were from my own shelves for my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge - bringing my 5-month total up to only 10. That's dismal, and my shelves are getting buried! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, May was Book to Movie month and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood has had several movie and TV adaptations made. I am dying to see the new TV show based on it, but we don't get Hulu - might have to sign up just for that!  I FINALLY read another classic for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge - The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. That brings my grand total for the year so far to...2. I had hoped to count The Handmaid's Tale as well, but this challenge only counts books published more than 50 years ago as classics. I slotted all 9 books into categories for my Well-Rounded Challenge, but that is getting tougher as the categories fill up. For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I added northern Africa/Sahara Desert. For my 2017 Literary Escapes Challenge, I added two more states: Massachusetts and South Dakota.

Finally, Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - not really a challenge per se, but a fun game that I play each month! Here is my Bingo card for May, with 20 squares filled in - one of my best months!

Books fit in the following squares:
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk - marriage/wedding, multi-word title
Books for Living - read a physical book, baking/cooking
Everybody's Son - free book, transformation, red cover
NewsPrints - in a series, nerd/geek
The Hate U Give - audio book
The Handmaid's Tale -  forbidden/inappropriate romance, shelf-love book (TBR)
The Journey of Crazy Horse - historical, library book
The Little Prince - not a new release, extraterrestrial
The Baby - drinking tea, secrets, dual narration

Free Space

What was your favorite book read in May?