Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 7/23: Shenandoah National Park, Part 2


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Two weeks ago, my husband and I enjoyed a short getaway to Shenandoah National Park, one of our favorite places. Last week, I posted some photos of camping and the Stony Man Trail. Here is Part 2, with photos of Bearfence Mountain Trail (one of our faves!) and amazing views:

Ferns along the trail

The trail climbs up, up, up right from the start!

Blue blazes lead you UP the rocks!

We love the rocky trail

My husband - you can make it!

Selfie up on top!

Amazing blue sky views of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Fluffy clouds over the mountains

We are missing that cool mountain air! Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend and staying cool (supposed to be close to 100 today and tomorrow here).

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Nonfiction Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers


Back in 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Katherine Boo published her first book, a nonfiction book called Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and it won the National Book Award. That same year, my son and his friends started college, and their new school, the University of Delaware, selected Boo’s award-winning book as its All-Freshmen-Reads book. With all of that – plus a lot more accolades and publicity – I wanted to read Boo’s book for myself, but it’s taken me four years to finally get to it. I suggested it for one of my book groups, and we discussed it last night. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this compelling, fascinating, powerful story of life in an Indian slum.

Although it is entirely nonfiction, Boo has written her book like a novel, introducing “characters” (who are real people) and following their lives through some incredible events that rocked their community. That community is Annawadi, a ramshackle shantytown with a sewage lake, built by squatters within sight of Mumbai’s big international airport. This real-life Mumbai slum houses 3,000 men, women, and children in 335 tiny, hand-built huts, people living from hand to mouth, literally, trying each day to earn enough money to feed their families.

As the book opens, Abdul, a sixteen-year old boy who earns his living – and supports his 11-person family – by collecting trash and sorting it for recycling, is hiding in the small shed where he runs his trash business. The police are coming for his father and will be looking for him, too, for a crime that neither of them committed. His mother, Zehrunisa, has urged him to hide, while his father, sick with TB, gives himself up to the police. This strategy will allow the family’s main income-earner to remain free for a little while longer. Abdul’s next-younger brother, Mirchi, has bigger dreams than sorting garbage. He still goes to school (their father recently told Abdul, “you didn’t have the mind for school anyway”) and hopes to get a job with a uniform in one of the luxury hotels near Annawadi.

There are many other young people living in close proximity in Annawadi’s huts. There is 15-year old Meena, who dreams of freedom; she’s been promised in an arranged marriage she doesn’t want. Little Sunil, just twelve years old, yearns for a “career” like Abdul’s – he wants to earn enough money so that he can finally stop being hungry all the time and start growing. Manju, a young woman, is an unusual citizen of the slum. She is attending college, with aspirations to be the very first female college graduate from Annawadi. When she isn’t studying herself, she leads a rudimentary school in her family’s hut, teaching eager young children – often teaching them the same things she herself is studying.

Manju’s mother, Asha, has her own aspirations, to both support her intelligent daughter and to boost their family’s income and position. Asha is interested in politics. Currently, she works unofficially for the Corporator, the elected official whose precinct includes Annawadi. She acts as his go-between on the ground, listening to the complaints of residents and trying to resolve them. She hopes to one day be the unofficial slumlord of Annawadi, and from there, move ahead in politics, thus moving her family into the middle-class on the backs of her neighbors.

The One-Leg is another resident of the slum, who rents a tiny room from Abdul’s family with her husband and two small children. Born disabled, her given name is Sita, but no one calls her that. They all call her the One-Leg, and she tries to prove she is worthy and attractive by making herself up and picking up men while she limps around on her crutches. There are no secrets in this community, with tiny huts crammed together, and thin walls between families (the lucky ones have walls; some separate their living spaces with sheets).

Boo introduces the reader to each of these people – and more – while also telling their stories: where they came from, their families, how they scrape by and try to support themselves. Meanwhile, the book starts with Abdul’s father’s arrest and then traces that event back to its origins and follows it through to what happens to each of the people involved. This nonfiction book reads so much like a gripping novel that I had to keep reminding myself while reading that these were real stories and real people. The author is completely absent from the book; it’s not about her experiences in Annawadi but about the residents there.

In the course of getting to know these individuals and following their lives, Boo naturally introduces (through the stories, not through any explanations of her own) issues of economics, politics, criminal justice (or lack thereof), and corruption. Oh, the corruption! It is absolutely unthinkable how corrupt systems are in India (and especially for these people with little money) – bribes are needed to get adequate medical attention, to get decent treatment from the police (I can’t say “fair treatment” because it’s all about who bribes more), and to participate in the justice system, such as it is. For those fed up with American or European politics who think all politicians are corrupt, wait till you hear what’s going on in India!

You may be thinking that this all sounds rather depressing…and certainly, it can be depressing to read about such extreme poverty. But this book isn’t about economics or politics; it’s about people. Boo lets us into the intimate details of these people’s lives, and we get to know them, as we would the characters in a great novel. The people living in Annawadi are not hopeless; in fact, they all have hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The children laugh, play, and joke just as children do all over the world. She shows us that poverty is not just a concept and that each of these people is an individual with their own story. In fact, the author said inan interview that she wants the reader to see hope on every page. Here she explains her goal in writing the book:
Sunil and Sonu have tough, tough lives but if a reader comes away from this book thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I’ll have failed as a writer. They’re cool, interesting kids, and I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity–of the promise our societies squander–but if we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.”

And that is what is at the heart of this book – Boo puts real people, real faces, real hopes and dreams onto the sometimes abstract concept of poverty. With Annawadi, in particular, the reader clearly sees the absurd juxtaposition of the 5-star hotels and international airport right up against this world of raw sewage, little clean water, and scarce food. She takes the reader deep inside someplace that most of us have never been.

My book group had some great in-depth discussions last night about Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There is so much to talk about here, and the stories in the book provide insights into many different aspects of poverty and today’s world. We discussed that the lessons learned from this book are just as applicable here in the U.S. as they are in Mumbai. Everyone agreed the book had been interesting and engaging (ratings ranged from 6 to 10). As a bonus, one of our group is a woman who grew up in India and has actually been to Annawadi, so her observations and insights added more to our discussion.

This book is a perfect example of narrative nonfiction at its absolute best. As someone who reads about 90% fiction, I was completely riveted by this book and its stories. In fact, when rating books in my book groups, I rarely give anything a “10,” but that’s what I rated this one. To me, it was like the best of fiction and nonfiction combined: engrossing stories about interesting people, set against a fascinating backdrop that I knew little about. I learned a lot and loved reading this book – I wish that more nonfiction was written this well and this engagingly, and I can’t wait to see what Boo does next.

244 pages, Random House

 I'm not usually a fan of book trailers, but this one is 100% actual video taken in Annawadi as Katherine Boo spent time there, and the photos & video of this vastly different world are fascinating. See Katherine Boo's website for more photos.



Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Books Read in June


Ha! Only July 20 - I'm catching up on reviews & getting better (a bit!) on my monthly summaries.

June was a good reading month for me with a nice variety:

 
So, six books total in June, all fiction, and almost all of them were YA and middle-grade, which is unusual for me (I normally read a mix). I read my first Big Book of the summer and my first classic of the year (finally!) - see details below. My favorite? Ooh...that's a tough one. These were all good. I think I liked Pax the best - it was a really powerful, unique story about hope, love, and war.

Progress on 2016 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! I (finally) read 2 more TBR books in June for my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge - that's a total of 8 so far this year, which is not very good! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, June was A Book Recommended by Girlxoxo month - um, yeah. Since I didn't look at the monthly topic until just now, that's not so good...BUT she did recommend The Raven Boys, book 1 in the series I finished last month, so that counts, right? No nonfiction last month for my 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, but (drumroll) I finally read a classic for the 2016 Classics Challenge! Woohoo! For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I read books set in Hungary and UK (Wales).  I am also tracking the states my books are set in, even though there is no Where Are You Reading challenge this year - I added 3 new states this month!

Finally, I did my best ever on the monthly Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break (you can join the fun any month without officially joining a challenge). Here's my Bingo card for June - I filled a record 20 spaces!







Books Read & Bingo Spaces:

The Raven King: murder, witch, in a series, grad, waiter/waitress, more than 400 pages
Magnificent Mya Tibbs: accent, empowered female
The Metamorphosis: shelf-love book, father, foreign setting
Bera the One-Headed Troll: garden
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: debut author/novel, super special powers, travel in book, library book, teacher, flowers
Pax: one word title
Free Space!

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

What was your favorite book read in June?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

TV Tuesday: BrainDead

Without a lot of shows to watch during the summer, my husband and I decided to try something new last week. I'd been seeing ads for BrainDead. Frankly, I thought it looked really weird, but it's from the creators of The Good Wife (one of our recently departed favorites!), so we thought we'd give it a try. What followed was one of the oddest hours of television we've ever watched! As strange as it is, though, it is also really, really good - we're hooked!

OK, so try crossing the political drama and satire of House of Cards with the sci fi plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and add in a hefty dose of humor. Got it? No, probably not. This is one show you definitely have to see to understand. Basically, it posits that the reason politicians seem so crazy these days is that a bunch of them have had aliens eat their brains. It makes as much sense as anything else, doesn't it?

Laurel Healy, a young woman who grew up in Washington, DC, reluctantly returns to her hometown to earn some money so that she can return to her real passion: making documentaries about obscure types of music in isolated places. Laurel is not all that happy to be back and really hates politics. The rest of her family, though, are DC-insiders. Her father, Dean, played by Zach Grenier (The Good Wife's David Lee), has worked in politics all his life and agrees to give Laurel the money she needs to finish her current documentary if she will work in her brother's office for 6 months. Her brother, Luke Healy, played by Danny Pino, is a Democratic Senator.

Right from Laurel's first day as Constituent Coordinator, it is as she feared: politics as usual, with back-room deals, extremist views, and power-hungry members of Congress (including her brother). To make matters worse, Congress can't agree on a budget and is about to shut-down the government. To try to avoid that and keep thousands of people in DC working, Laurel agrees to meet with Gareth Ritter, played by Adam Tveit from Graceland, a staffer for Republican Senator Red Wheatus (played hilariously by Tony Shalhoub), who is on the opposite side of the budget crisis.

Meanwhile, something very strange is going on in DC. Some aliens that look like ants have escaped from a meteor that was delivered to the Smithsonian. They crawl into people's heads through their ears and either eat up (and spit out) a good portion of their brains or their brains explode. Really. And to top it all off, Laurel keeps hearing "You Might Think" by The Cars playing.

Yes, it's just as weird as it sounds! But somehow, despite the complete goofiness of the concept, it works. The acting is excellent: Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a great job as smart, good-hearted Laurel, and the rest of the cast is great, too. The writing is top-notch; you can tell it shares a pedigree with The Good Wife. It manages to be a political satire, a sci fi mystery, and a comedy all at once. Oh, and there is even some romance in it, as Laurel and Gareth are clearly attracted to each other but on opposite sides of the aisle. We have now watched three episodes, and it just gets better and better. You have to at least try 2 episodes, minimum, so you can hear the hilarious little "previously on" song they sing at the beginning of the show!

I know it sounds incredibly strange, but you have to trust me on this one. Give it a try - it is oddly compelling and very funny.

BrainDead is currently airing on CBS Mondays at 10 pm and all three of the current episodes are available On Demand (I think episode #1 comes off Demand on 7/24, so hurry up!). All episodes are also available for free on Amazon Prime or for $1.99 an episode for non-Prime members (link below). They are also available on CBS All Access, if you are a member (since when do the networks require membership to watch their shows?).




Monday, July 18, 2016

Movie Monday: Room

I absolutely loved the novel Room by Emma Donoghue when I read it in 2011 (my review at the link). It lived up to all its hype - and more - and kept me captivated. My husband read it and loved it, too. When the movie came out last year, I was dying to see it and hoped to go with some book group friends, but I didn't get a chance while it was in the theater. I finally had my chance last week when my husband and I found it free on Amazon Prime. It was wonderful and loved up to the promise of the book.

The movie follows the book's story quite closely (Emma Donoghue also wrote the screenplay). A young woman, played fabulously by Brie Larson, has been held captive in an 11-foot by 11-foot room for 7 years. During that time, she gave birth to a boy named Jack, played remarkably by young Jacob Tremblay. Ma, as Jack calls her, has done a great job of bringing Jack up under these horrific conditions. Jack was born in the room and has never left it, so he doesn't realize there is anything else. He's happy and healthy, full of fun and very smart. Ma has kept up a nice routine for the two of them, with time for learning, exercise, and play.

As the movie opens, it is Jack's 5th birthday. He is full of questions, bright and curious, and he and Ma enjoy a small celebration. Their captor, known only as Old Nick, comes to visit during the night. Ma has put Jack to bed inside a large wardrobe, as usual, so that he won't know what's going on. Jack is getting older, though. He asks more questions, watches through a crack in the wardrobe, and one night, Old Nick sees him (Ma is usually careful to keep him out of sight). Ma begins to realize that Jack is growing up, and this room is no longer enough. Thus begins a dangerous period of trying to plan an escape from a place she previously thought was inescapable.

Just like the book, the movie is tense and filled with suspense, but it is also warm and tender. Because the story is shown from Jack's perspective, his innocence pervades the tone, keeping it from being too dark or disturbing (though, of course, the situation is still disturbing). It's a completely unique story, filled with hope and love, about healing and moving forward. We both loved it and thought it was an excellent adaptation of the book.

NOTE: If you have not yet read the book and want to, then skip the movie trailer for now - it gives away pretty much the whole story. I've been careful to avoid spoilers in my review here and in my book review.



Room is currently available for free on Amazon Prime (or available to rent for $4.99 if you don't have a Prime membership) or on DVD.


It's Monday 7/18! What Are You Reading?

Back to semi-normal around here last week. We came back from our mini vacation at Shenandoah National Park (first round of photos here), our sons came back from sailing with their grandparents, and our older son moved back to campus to start summer session. It's been busy around here, but we are enjoying summer, too.

Here's what we've all been reading this past week:
  • I am still reading a book group selection, Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson. I have never read this award-winning novel before (though I saw the movie adaptation years ago), even though it's been on my Kindle for years. It's a very descriptive novel about a Japanese-American man accused of murder in the years after the Japanese Internment and the events leading up to that time. It takes place on an island off the coast of Washington, and the setting is vividly described, almost like another character in the story. I'm enjoying it so far, but it is a dense book, so it's slower going than I expected.
  • I am still listening to The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice, a teen/YA novel about one of two sisters who is paralyzed in a car crash and has locked-in syndrome. I'm almost finished, and it's been very good. I texted with my 18-year old cousin yesterday about it - I gave her a copy of the same book (I had both book and audio) when she visited last month. She enjoyed it, too, and we are both determined never to text and drive or text someone else who is driving!
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a book I enjoyed for book group last year (my review at the link) and heard the author speak for our local library's All-County Reads program this spring. He's been wanting to read it for a while and seems to be enjoying it.
  • I don't know what Jamie, 21, is reading right now, though I'm sure he read on the sailboat (not so much time for reading now that he's back in school). I was just going to text him and ask, but he's in class right now - is that a good enough reason to interrupt his class, to ask what he's reading??
Lots of blog posts last week, trying to catch up after vacation:
Movie Monday: Twinsters, a joyful documentary about two people finding each other

TV Tuesday: The Last Ship, one of our favorites, a post-apocalyptic story filled with drama

Middle-Grade Graphic Novel Review: Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard, a warm adventure story

Teen/YA Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, a strange, supernatural story with plenty of suspense

Saturday Snapshot: Shenandoah National Park, Part 1 - pics from our recent trip - camping & hiking Stony Man Trail - more next week from this amazing park!

Middle-Grade Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker, a warm, suspenseful, intricate story of the unbreakable bond between a boy and his pet fox

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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


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


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Middle-Grade Review: Pax


I recently listened to the middle-grade novel Pax by Sara Pennypacker. I’ve never read any of her books before but really loved Pax. This exciting, warm, intricate novel about the bond between a boy and his pet fox kept me riveted right from the first chapter.

Peter found a newborn fox kit when he was just weeks old, with his family killed. The other kits in the nest had already died, but one was still alive, though weak, when Peter took him home and nursed him back to health. He named the fox Pax, and the boy and the fox were inseparable. Having grown up in captivity, Pax knows nothing of life in the wild, and he loves Peter – and feels protective of him – just as much as Peter feels for Pax.

As the story opens, however, Peter and Pax are being torn away from each other. There is a war going on, and Peter’s father has enlisted. While he’s away, Peter will go to live with his grandfather, so Peter’s dad says they have to take Pax back to the wild. He drives to nearby woods and makes Peter toss a toy as far as he can for Pax to chase. When Pax comes back with the plastic soldier in his teeth, Peter and his father are speeding down the road in the car. Both Peter and Pax are heartbroken, and Pax is also very confused by this unexpected turn of events.

Peter knows immediately that it was the wrong thing to do. He sneaks out of his grandfather’s house his very first night there to go back for Pax, but the spot where they left him is 300 miles away, near Peter’s home. The distance doesn’t matter to Peter; he is determined to find his fox.

Meanwhile, alone in the fields and forest, Pax feels scared and confused. He’s never lived in the wild and doesn’t even know how to find food (his favorite is peanut butter), and the other animals he encounters are not always friendly. But Pax is just as determined as Peter to be reunited with his boy, and he hangs onto the plastic toy soldier with Peter’s scent on it and decides to wait for Peter to come back.

Chapters alternate between Peter’s and Pax’s points of view. That might sound odd, hearing a story from the perspective of a fox, but Pennypacker makes it work beautifully. Both characters have warm, endearing voices that make you care about them. Peter encounters significant hardships on his long journey, though he meets a hermit who lives alone in the woods who helps him, both physically and emotionally. Pax meets serious challenges of his own, in his struggle to survive in the wild, but he also makes new friends among some other orphaned foxes who help him.

The war is also a significant theme in the novel, occurring right near where Pax was left and where Peter is headed. The animals’ reactions to this human concept of war are particularly intriguing, as the other foxes try to explain to Pax what is happening. The time and place of the story are left intentionally vague; its lessons about friendship and war apply to the past as well as the present and the future.

This unique novel was absolutely compelling – I finished listening to it in record time, scarcely removing my earbuds! It is a story of friendship – between Peter and Pax but also between humans – and of survival. This is a tale of adventure and suspense, but it is also warm and heart-breaking at times. Pax’s role in the story and his relationship with Peter reminded me somewhat of Kate DiCamillo’s novels, like Flora & Ulysses and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which is a big compliment!  I loved every minute of this tense yet hopeful story about friendship, love, war, and peace.

P.S. The audio book was excellent - you can listen to an audio sample at the Amazon link below. Just click the "listen" button.

HarperChildren’s Audio

Saturday Snapshot 7/16: Shenandoah National Park, Part 1


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Last week, with our sons away, my husband and I enjoyed several very relaxing days at Shenandoah National Park, camping, hiking...and lots of reading! Here are some highlights from the first 2 days and our hike on Stony Man Trail, leading to some magnificent views:

Enjoying the campfire at our campsite at Lewis Mountain

"Two roads diverged in a wood..."

Mountaintop Selfie with Amazing Views!

View to the south from Stony Man

View to the north - see Skyline Drive?

Clouds and mountains

Relaxing by the fire with a great book!


More photos from the trip next week!

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Teen/YA Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


I’ve wanted to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs ever since its release in 2011. Now, there are two sequels to complete the trilogy and a movie coming out on September 30! So, I’m glad I finally had a chance to read this popular and well-received book. It is, without a doubt, the most unusual – peculiar? – book I’ve ever read! But this teen/YA supernatural fantasy is also suspenseful and compelling.

Sixteen-year old Jacob grew up listening to his grandfather’s fantastical stories of growing up among monsters. According to Grandpa Portman, he’d had to leave Poland at age twelve to go live in an orphanage in Wales, with enchantments to keep its young residents safe from monsters. Oddly, Grandpa claimed that the other children in the home had all kinds of special powers, making them what he called “peculiar.” Grandpa even had a box of old snapshots that he shared with Jacob of his old friends: an invisible boy (which looked like an empty suit of clothes in the photo), a girl levitating off the ground, and a brother and sister so strong they could lift boulders in the air with ease. There were plenty more crazy photos, with an even crazier story accompanying each one.

Jacob fully believed everything his grandfather told him when he was young, but when classmates began teasing him about believing in fairy tales at school, he gave up his childish beliefs. He asked his dad about Grandpa’s stories, and he explained that they were just exaggerations, built on a horrible childhood. There had been real monsters then – the Nazis – and his dad explained that the children’s home in Wales probably seemed like a paradise and safe haven compared to Poland at the time. He further guessed that the childrens’ only real peculiarity was their Jewishness back then.

When a family tragedy occurs, Jacob and his father head to Wales to find out more about Grandpa’s childhood. Although his dad is more interested in the unusual birds inhabiting the small island off the coast (he’s an ornithologist), Jacob explores on his own. He finds the old house on the deserted side of the island, crumbling and decrepit, and digs through it for clues to his grandfather’s time here. He finds more odd photos and even his grandpa’s old room. Oddest of all, though, is the possibility that some of the same children might still be here, in hiding.

I won’t divulge any more of the plot (and was careful to stay away from spoilers even in this brief synopsis) because one of the delights of this unique book is in uncovering its secrets one by one. Jacob’s explorations become more and more dangerous, as he digs into the secrets of the past…and the present. The climax of the story coincides with an enormous storm hitting the island, adding to the suspense.

Back cover of Miss Peregrine's Home...
I haven’t yet mentioned the most amazing and unique thing about this book. The photos – that Jacob’s Grandfather shows him and that Jacob later finds in the house – are real. Real-life real. The author found them by scouring through thousands and thousands of vintage photographs and includes several dozen of them in the book, to illustrate the story. He basically discovered these unusual photos and then built the story around them, a fact that made the book all the more fascinating to me.

Reading this supernatural fantasy tale is a singular experience, and I found myself studying each photo as it appeared. I was also completely engrossed in the original story and was rooting for Jacob to find some answers for himself. The novel is full of adventure and suspense, supernatural surprises, and a bit of magic, but it is all wrapped up in a gripping story of a modern teen, trying to come to terms with his family history and his own place in the world. I loved every minute and can’t wait to read books two and three…and see the movie, of course!

348 pages, Quirk Books

I was going to include the movie trailer here in my blog post, but I think it gives away far too much of the plot, if you haven’t read the book yet. So, go enjoy the book first (before September 30)!

If you have already read the book, check out the movie trailer at this link. It looks like they’ve taken a few liberties with the story, but Tim Burton is the director, so he adds his own brand of magic.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Middle-Grade Graphic Novel Review: Bera the One-Headed Troll


I started reading graphic novels a few years ago and have enjoyed them very much. It’s nice to be able to squeeze a short book into the cracks between my longer reads and linger over the pictures. Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard (I believe the first graphic novel by this picture book author/illustrator) is a fun, unique, and warm adventure story for middle-graders about a humble, kind-hearted troll.

Bera the troll is a bit ugly-looking, with her sharp teeth, pointy ears, and pupil-less eyes, but she has a big heart. She lives on a small island all by herself, with her owl, Winslowe, for company. She is the official pumpkin gardener of the Troll King and is just finishing up her annual harvest of pumpkins when the story opens. After seeing off the foxes in a boat that came to deliver her harvest to the King, Bera hears a strange wailing sound. She follows it to the other side of the island and discovers a human baby floating in a pot, being fought over by some cruel mermaids (yes, in this story, mermaids are ugly, nasty things).

Bera finds out that the evil Cloote, former Head Witch of the Troll King, is after the baby, so she decides to keep the human baby safe. She doesn’t know what to do with a human baby and is only a humble pumpkin gardener, so she and Winslowe travel across the water to the main islands to consult Wulf the Dragon Master, even though Bera has never been off her tiny island before. She and Winslowe – with the baby – set off on their adventure, seeking the expert advice of one legendary hero after another.

Bera and Winslowe continue their quest to return the baby to the human village, even though one hero after another seems unable to help. Little by little, Bera realizes that maybe she is the hero this baby needs, as they continue traveling. The threesome encounters all sorts of dangerous creatures and even gets some unexpected help (my favorite good guys are the hedgehog brothers). The ending is very satisfying.

A page from Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard
Bera makes a wonderfully unexpected, kind heroine. I loved her right from the start! It’s a very creative story that the author says was inspired by Norse fairy tales and illustrations by Arthur Rackham and Maurice Sendak. The pages of the book are covered with imaginative drawings, done mostly in shades of brown, with some occasional splashes of yellow. I enjoyed this delightful graphic novel from beginning to end. It’s the best kind of adventure story, where the hero doesn’t know she’s a hero and discovers herself on her journey.

This book is labeled for ages 7 – 10 and might work well as a read-aloud for slightly younger kids, too.

126 pages, First Second Books

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

TV Tuesday: The Last Ship

Summer is kind of a low season for TV - especially this year with Graceland cancelled (one of my favorites) - but there is one summer show that we love. The Last Ship just came back for its third season, and it just gets better and better, with an intriguing & unique story, high drama, and a great cast.

The Last Ship begins with a viral pandemic outbreak. The show follows the crew of a Naval Destroyer called the Nathan James, which was on a top-secret research mission in the Arctic when the pandemic hit. In fact, their mission, unbeknownst to them, involved the virus that caused the pandemic. On board their ship is Rachel Scott, a world-famous virologist who needed to go to the Arctic to look for a primordial version of the virus in order to create an effective vaccine. By the time that mission is complete, the whole world has gotten sick, and chaos has broken out.

Rachel finally tells the captain, Commander Tom Chandler, played wonderfully by Eric Dane (who could have guessed that McSteamy from Grey's Anatomy would make such a good military man?), what's going on, both with their mission and with the rest of the world. By now, millions of people have died, including the U.S. President and Vice-President, and Rachel's goal to create a vaccine has become even more important. Having been completely isolated in the Arctic, the crew of the Nathan James is healthy and not at risk as long as they stay out at sea. So, now they are a floating crew of survivors, tasked with nothing less than saving the world.

It's not as simple as Rachel just doing her work to create the vaccine, though, because chaos and anarchy are in full force all over the world. There are evil forces that want to capture Rachel and the vaccine for themselves and keep it from the rest of the world. Most of that happens in the first episode or two! From then on, it is a fight to survive...and to save the world.

My husband and I both love this show. It is an intriguing plot, with lots of twists and turns and plenty of action and suspense. The cast is incredible, and you quickly grow to care about them. The second-in-command, XO Mike Slattery, is played by Adam Baldwin. Plus, there is a full crew of excellent actors. This is truly an ensemble show, though I haven't had any trouble keeping track of the characters. The overall quality of the show is excellent, from the very first episode through the current third season, in which the world has changed dramatically, but the Nathan James is still of central importance. We can't wait to see what happens next!

Seasons 1 and 2 of The Last Ship are available on Hulu (with subscription), through Netflix DVD service (not but streaming), and on Amazon Prime for $1.99 an episode or $14.99 a season. Our Cable on Demand currently has the last 5 episodes of season 2 and all episodes so far (5) of season 3, as does the TNT website.



Monday, July 11, 2016

Movie Monday: Twinsters

Two weeks ago, ALONE in the house for an unheard-of four days, I was choosing a movie to watch. I decided to choose a documentary because it's been a long time since I'd watched one. I found Twinsters on Netflix and thoroughly enjoyed this fateful, mind-bending true story.

Samantha Futerman, a 25-year old actress living in L.A., had had a few significant TV and movie roles and had a growing following for her YouTube videos. In 2013, across the world in France, some young people were enjoying one of Samantha's videos when they noticed that she looked exactly like their friend, Anais Bordier. They watched more of the videos and showed them to Anais; the whole group was astounded by how much the two young women looked alike. Anais did some online searching and discovered that she shared a birthday with Samantha - November 19, 1987 - and that, like her, Samantha was adopted as a baby from South Korea.

Anais reached out to Samantha online - tentatively at first - and the two women began getting to know each other via video chats. The similarities between them were startling, even though Samantha had grown up in America and Anais in France. They contacted an agency that helps adopted children  find their birth parents and found a specialist on twins within the organization who recommended DNA testing, in addition to the adoption research. Eventually, the two young women and their families and friends met face-to-face in London, while they waited for the results of their DNA tests.

I won't give away how it ends, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable journey to watch these two young women get to know each other and find out more about their backgrounds. Samantha and Anais are both very sweet, endearing women, and watching them unravel the secrets of their lives is a joy.

Samantha wrote the documentary herself, and she and her friend, Ryan, directed it. Much of it is put together from real-time video chats between her and Anais, and videos friends and family took when they met. It's a charming and joyful (and fascinating) 90-minute documentary, perfect if you are looking for something light and life-affirming.

Twinsters is available free on Netflix or for $2.99 to rent on Amazon Prime.




It's Monday 7/11! What Are You Reading?

Ahhh...we enjoyed a lovely few days last week at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, one of our favorite places (see my Saturday Snapshot with photos from past visits) - it's a gorgeous park with such varied terrain - waterfalls, forests, rocks, and amazing views. It was wonderfully cool up on top of the mountain (as opposed to at home, where it was super hot and humid). We took two short hikes to incredible viewpoints and enjoyed some downtime camping...with lots of time for reading! Photos to come on Saturday. I also met up with an old friend who I've known since first grade & hadn't seen in over 30 years - lots of fun!

So, lots of reading last week but very little blogging:
  • While camping, I finished Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. This engrossing nonfiction book won the 2012 National Book Award and was on the NY Times Top 10 List for 2012. It was chosen as the All-Freshmen-Reads book when my son started college 4 years ago, and I've been meaning to read it ever since. It lived up to its hype - and more. It's a beautiful narrative story set in the slums of Mumbai that reads so much like a great novel that I had to keep reminding myself that it was real and these were real people. Stunning & powerful - highly recommended.
  • Next, I started another book group selection, Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson. I have never read this award-winning novel before (though I saw the movie adaptation years ago), even though it's been on my Kindle for years. It's a very descriptive novel about a Japanese-American man accused of murder in the years after the Japanese Internment and the events leading up to that time. It takes place on an island off the coast of Washington, and the setting is vividly described, almost like another character in the story. I'm enjoying it so far. 
  • I am listening to The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice, a teen/YA novel about one of two sisters who is paralyzed in a car crash and has locked-in syndrome. It's good so far, though I didn't listen to it at all while we were away. I'll get back to it today.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. This was the first Follett novel I ever read (many decades ago), and I think I have read it 2 or 3 times by now. I couldn't believe my husband had never read it before. It's an excellent spy thriller that was later made into a very good movie. He enjoyed it and now wants to watch the movie again!
  • Ken had to choose his next book from what was already downloaded onto his Kindle (no WiFi in the woods!), so he started reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a book I enjoyed for book group last year (my review at the link) and heard the author speak for our local library's All-County Reads program this spring. He's been wanting to read it for a while. This is unusual, both of us reading nonfiction this month!
  • I have no idea what our 21-year old son read last week while away on his grandparents' sailboat, but I know he enjoyed some free time for fun reading finally! Summer classes start today.
Just one blog post last week, other than Monday's:
Fiction Review: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, a classic novella that surprised me
What are you and your family reading this week?    

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


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


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Fiction Review: The Metamorphosis


I signed up for the 2016 Classics Challenge this year, with the goal to read a classic every month. Suddenly, it was June, and I had not yet read a single classic! June was already filled with reading obligations for book groups and reviews, but I was determined to fit one in. I chose the shortest classic on our bookshelves, The Metamorphosis by Frank Kafka, a novel that both our sons had read in their senior year of high school World Lit class. They’d both enjoyed it (even the one who says he doesn’t like to read), and I’ve never read Kafka before. I found this short novella surprisingly engrossing, clever, and even funny.

Hearing about the plot of The Metamorphosis before (a man turns into an insect), I’d always imagined some sort of lengthy, grotesque change process that took most of the novel to complete. Nope. In the first sentence of the first page, it simply says, “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” That’s it. Metamorphosis complete.

The interesting part isn’t the change itself (which is never explained) but what happens next. The author simply imagines, “what would happen if one day you woke up and were a giant bug?” (some experts say Gregor turns into a cockroach; others say the translation implies a bedbug; some say just a general beetle). It’s an interesting line of thinking. First, Gregor must himself realize what has happened and get used to his new body. He can scamper across the walls and ceiling but can’t open his bedroom door. He is understandably worried about being late to work that first morning (cue tongue-in-cheek humor).

Soon, Gregor must also deal with the reactions of his family members. A young man working as a salesman, he lives with his mother and father and sister. First concerned that Gregor is unwell because he hasn’t gotten up yet, they soon discover what has happened and then vacillate between concern and disgust. Interestingly, no one really wonders how this bizarre thing happened. Soon, their worries grow because Gregor was the main breadwinner in the household. His retired father must return to work, his mother and sister take in sewing.

Through all this family drama, Gregor is still a giant bug and must deal with the problems of daily existence. His sister thoughtfully leaves food out for him on the floor of his room, but he doesn’t find that kind of food very appealing. His room becomes filthy because no one wants to come in and clean it. He loses his job quite quickly after a visit from his boss that first day. Gregor simultaneously worries about the effects of his strange predicament on his family, as well as the practical concerns of learning how to live as a giant bug in his bedroom.

I think you can see, even from this brief synopsis, that the absurdity of the situation – and the very straightforward way both the author and the main character consider it – lends itself to humor. To this mix, Kafka adds his dry, witty way of describing scenes that are completely fantastical in perfectly normal tones. It’s not just a comedy, however. It’s a tragedy as well, as Gregor adjusts to his new life and realizes he’s probably not ever going back to his old form. In this way, Kafka somehow manages to explore human emotions (both in Gregor and in the responses of those around him) through the guise of a giant insect. I found the combination both thoughtful and a lot of fun to read, and I thoroughly enjoyed this wholly unique story told in such a calm, even way. The Metamorphosis was a pleasant surprise for me, thoroughly entertaining and compelling. At less than 60 pages, I bet you have time to read this classic novella, too!

55 pages, Bantam Classics

Monday, July 04, 2016

It's Monday 7/4! What Are You Reading?

Happy 4th of July, if you are in the U.S.! Enjoying a quiet morning before a busy evening with friends & family & fireworks.

I was ALL ALONE in the house for 4 days this week & thoroughly enjoyed every minute! Did some writing, sent some pitches to new markets, and of course, plenty of reading & blogging...and very little cooking, dishes, and laundry!

Here's what we've been reading this week:
  • I finished Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, a highly acclaimed YA best-seller. The author combines a completely original story with some really weird old photos with great effect. It's about a modern-day teen boy discovering the very strange place where his grandfather lived as a child. It took some very unexpected turns! It was not a big hit in my book group, but most of the members rarely read either YA or fantasy - I was surprised when they chose this one. A few of us really enjoyed it and are planning to read the sequels.
  • I am now reading another book group choice, though I will miss the discussion this week: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. This nonfiction book won the 2012 National Book Award and was on the NY Times Top 10 List for 2012. It was chosen as the All-Freshmen-Reads book when my son started college 4 years ago, and I've been meaning to read it ever since. It is living up to its hype - and more. She has written a beautiful narrative story set in the slums of Mumbai that reads so much like a great novel that I have to keep reminding myself that this is real and these are real people. Stunning & powerful.
  • I finished listening to Pax by Sara Pennypacker, a middle-grade novel about the friendship between a boy and a fox that he raised from an orphaned baby kit. The two are separated and trying to find their way back to each other. It is just as good as I had heard, with chapters alternating between the boy's and the fox's points of view - reminded me of a Kate DiCamillo novel (yes, that good).
  • I think my next audio will be The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice, a teen/YA novel about one of two sisters who is paralyzed in a car crash and has locked-in syndrome.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. This was the first Follett novel I ever read (many decades ago), and I think I have read it 2 or 3 times by now. I couldn't believe my husband had never read it before. It's an excellent spy thriller that was later made into a very good movie.
  • I have no idea what our 21-year old son is reading because he's been away on his grandparents' sailboat this past week, but I know he is enjoying some free time for fun reading finally!
Last week on the blog:
TV Tuesday: Wayward Pines, a super creepy dystopian sci fi thriller

My Summary of Books Read in May - a good reading month!

Fiction Review: Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran by Nadia Shahran - an engrossing, powerful novel about women in Iran

Teen/YA Review: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater - the 4th & final book in the series

Middle-Grade Review: The Magnificent Mya Tibbs by Crystal Allen - a new series with a spunky new Texan heroine

Saturday Snapshot: Shenandoah National Park, 2004 - 2015 - one of our favorite places!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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


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