Friday, February 15, 2019

Middle-Grade Review: The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall

Back in October, I read, reviewed, and raved about The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo by Drew Weing, a fun new graphic novel about a bad-ass child Monster Mediator. Last month, I had the pleasure of reading its follow-up, The Monster Mall. It's just as creepy, cool, funny, and uniquely clever as the first book and an excellent sequel to Margo's adventures.

In this book, new Echo City resident Charles again teams up with Margo Maloo, renowned Monster Mediator, to tackle his new town's toughest issues between monsters and humans. Echo City has a whole diverse monster population that lives just out of sight of its human residents - ghosts, trolls, ogres...and now, in this sequel, imps, blobs, lizard people, and vampires. Margo acts as a very efficient go-between when problems crop up where monsters and humans cross paths. For instance, in this book, some kids move into a new house and think it is haunted, so they call Margo. Then Margo and Charles get called to an old shut-down mall where some young vampires are complaining about the human Goth teenagers who've been hanging around (in an awesome bit of irony).
Sample pages from Monster Mall, copyright Macmillan Publishing

As in the first book, Weing's plots, stories, and drawings are totally original. It's such a clever idea, monsters living unnoticed among humans in their own communities, and he makes the best of it. Margo is a fabulous heroine - smart, pulled-together, and ever-calm, coming up with creative and peaceful solutions to each monster/human problem she encounters. Charles is her trusty sidekick, learning about monsters by her side and writing a blog to help educate human kids. The underlying message is that we can all get along and live together if we'll just take the time to understand and be tolerant of those different from us. Weing's brightly colored drawings are engaging and creative, depicting a wide variety of humans and monsters on pages that just beg to be pored over. It's an absolutely delightful and entertaining series that will be a big hit with middle-grade readers.

120 pages, First Second


Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

You can see additional sample pages from Monster Mall here.


You can purchase The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Fiction Review: True Enough

Last year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to not only review Stephen McCauley's latest novel, My Ex-Life (which was wonderful - review at the link) but also to interview the author for Shelf Awareness and then meet him in person at Booktopia, an annual weekend book event, and even sit with him at dinner. McCauley is a smart, witty writer (and in person, too), and I thoroughly enjoyed both the interview and my time with him at Booktopia. I recently read a novel from his backlist, True Enough, and found it has that same combination of insight and humor that I loved so much in My Ex-Life.

Jane Cody is forty years old, married to her second husband, mother to a 6-year old son, a TV producer for a local Boston PBS station, and...restless. Her husband is kind and caring (as opposed to her self-absorbed, cheating first husband), so why doesn't she feel as happy as she should be? Her precocious son is brilliant but a bit cool, though he is an excellent baker, and her critical mother-in-law lives in their carriage house. Jane likes to keep lists to try to keep her life organized, but many of the items on the lists are lies, like her son's therapy appointments listed as gymnastics and her own therapy listed as facials.
"It was a simple system that caused her problems only when she confused the code and started missing dental appointments and showing up at restaurants for imaginary lunches, both of which had happened in the past three weeks."
In New York City, Desmond is also fortyish, happily partnered up with Russell for five years, and similarly feeling dissatisfied. He's struggling to wrap up his biography of Pauline Anderton, a little-known, only mildly talented singer from the 60's, but feels he's missing something to pull the story together. Desmond accepts a teaching job for one semester at a Boston college, thinking the time away will be good for him and for his book. Since Desmond's new job puts him in the same department as Jane's husband, the two soon meet and decide to produce a series of biographical documentaries for Jane's station, beginning with one on Pauline. Now, they are both searching for something to unlock Pauline's life...and to bring  excitement and satisfaction back to their own lives.

As with My Ex-Life, Stephen's true talent lies in his ability to write sentences that stop you in your tracks, mixing insights into human nature with a clever wit. I am often surprised by the way he says something and find myself laughing out loud while reading his novels. Here's an example of his sense of humor, which is woven throughout the story:
"Earlier in the summer when he and Russell were in a Wal-Mart in New Jersey looking for an air conditioner, someone had stopped him and said: "Excuse me, do you work here?" a comment that continued to echo in his brain like a reproach for his lack of physical grace and intellectual authority."
And here's a simple line showing Stephen's uncanny grasp on human nature: "Maybe, Desmond, thought, true love was an acute form of tolerance."

Most often, though, his wit and wisdom go hand-in-hand, as here:
"Everyone claimed they were too "intense," an amorphous term that usually indicated an obsessive-compulsive disorder they were trying to pass off as a surfeit of intelligence."
This astute and funny writing style makes True Enough a lot of fun to read, while also providing plenty of insight into modern relationships. As Jane and Desmond get to know each other and dig deeper into Pauline's life story, they begin to uncover their own secrets, lies, and true desires. I was happy to go along for the ride.

314 pages, Washington Square Press


Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.
 


You can purchase True Enough from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org


Or you can order True Enough from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Monday, February 11, 2019

It's Monday 2/11! What Are You Reading?

Beautiful white, fluffy snow is falling outside this morning. This is the first of two storms heading our way. My husband hates when it snows, but I grew up in the snowbelt (Rochester, NY), and I like it. It's just right here in Delaware - a few small snowfalls each winter, with some warmer days in between! I'm planning to go for a snowy walk around the neighborhood after I finish this post.

Believe it or not, I had more computer problems last week, after my crisis on Monday was resolved. Now, whenever I try to update my iPod, iTunes locks up, I can't connect to WiFi, and everything comes to a screeching halt. Thankfully, restarting seems to reset the WiFi, BUT...this means I have been unable to load any new audiobooks onto my iPod - talk about a crisis! Luckily, I found one still on there that I hadn't listened to yet, but I need to resolve this problem ASAP.

Here are the books (and audiobooks) we've been reading this week:
  • I finished my next review book for Shelf Awareness, Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson, a Booktopia author from last year. I read and enjoyed his thriller, All the Beautiful Lies, last year for the annual event. This one is also a thriller, about a woman who discovers she's living next door to a murderer. The problem is that no one believes her because she has a history of mental illness that once included paranoia and false suspicions. The real suspense comes from the fact that he knows that she knows! I enjoyed this page-turner that's due out on March 5.
  • Next, I turned to one of my TBR books that I've been dying to get to: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017 and was on every Top Ten list that year. I am so glad I finally got to it because it is just as amazing as everyone said. It's historical fiction but with some fantastical twists added. For instance, the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad underground! Also, each state that Cora, a runaway slave, travels through on her way north has its own unique identity and approach to slavery and race relations. Much of it is chilling and some of it is brutal, but it is also a completely compelling and captivating novel. 
  • So, on audio, I couldn't listen to The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh as planned last Monday because I couldn't get it onto my iPod. Luckily, I realized I still had The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea on my iPod - I had hoped to read it for Nonfiction November and ran out of time. This works out well because I just pitched a book column to Shelf Awareness for Cinco de Mayo that includes this book (and was accepted by my editor), so I needed to read it anyway. It's the true story of an attempt in 2001 by 26 Mexican men to cross the border into Arizona through a desolate stretch of desert known as the Devil's Highway. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and is certainly relevant to the immigration controversies and challenges rocking our nation right now. I'm not very far into it yet, but it's fascinating so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading a paperback I gave him for Christmas: Edge by Jeffrey Deaver. Though we both love Deaver's Lincoln Rhymes series, this is a stand-alone novel, so we were intrigued by it. He is finally recovered from all his recent traveling, so he's able to stay awake for more than a few pages at a time now!
  • Our son, Jamie, 24, is now reading the FINAL book 14 of The Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. This one weighs in at a hefty 1168 pages! He loves this series and has been looking forward to the conclusion. He says this last book is action-packed right from the first chapters, he's down to the last 200 pages, and he's loving it.
Blog posts from last week:
Middle-Grade Review: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson - mystery, history, and realistic fiction all rolled into one!

Fiction Review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer - warm, insightful, very funny novel about love & life

Graphic Memoir Review: Form of a Question by Andrew Rostan - coming-of-age memoir by a young man who realized his dream of appearing on Jeopardy!

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.

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

What are you and your family reading this week?   
Winter Wonderland Outside This Morning
 

Friday, February 08, 2019

Graphic Memoir: Form of a Question

One of the graphic novel-form books I enjoyed last month was Form of a Question by Andrew J. Rostan and Kate Kasenow, a coming-of-age memoir that weaves in the author's love of the game show Jeopardy and his experiences competing on the show.

The memoir opens when Andrew is a very young child, not yet in school, and yelling out the answers to Jeopardy while sitting on his grandfather's lap. It's clear that the two of them have a very close relationship...and that Andrew is an extremely smart little kid! His parents and grandparents have always encouraged Andrew's incessant curiosity and precocious intellect, so it's a bit of a shock when he starts school and is surrounded by other kids who don't appreciate his big words and constant questions. Andrew often feels like a misfit, and that feeling continues somewhat into college, though he does makes some friends and even has a girlfriend - or two. He struggles throughout college with overthinking things - what he should do with his life, which girlfriend is better for him, why he can't just relax and not worry, like so many others on campus. The story builds to its grand finale - Andrew's appearance on Jeopardy, something he has wanted since he was a small child.
Sample page from start of Form of a Question

Jeopardy is a theme that runs throughout this unique memoir, with behind-the-scenes facts about the show, its contestants, and what it takes to win woven in throughout the narrative of Andrew's life. His growth from child to teen to adult is a relatable coming-of-age story, filled with the uncertainties and awkwardness that most of us have felt at one time or another, though Andrew makes it very personal. The illustrations help tell the story, with realistic, black and white drawings that are highlighted with splashes of primary colors. By the end of the memoir and the end of his Jeopardy appearance, Andrew has learned some important life lessons and figured some things out, with the help of his friends and his beloved grandfather, who is never far from his mind. It's an interesting and entertaining graphic memoir, and as someone who watches Jeopardy most evenings, I also found it fascinating!

128 pages, Archaia


Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Check out a few more sample pages from the memoir here.


You can purchase Form of a Question from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
 Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order Form of a Question from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Fiction Review: Less

My husband gave me the novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer for my birthday last summer, and in my usual rush to read older book gifts by the holidays, it was my first book finished in January! This 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction surprised me because I think of books that win that prize as serious tomes. Less is a warm, insightful, and very funny book that explores love and life.

Arthur Less is approaching fifty and clearly having some problems with that milestone. When he receives a wedding invitation from Freddy, his recently ex-boyfriend of nine years, he decides to leave town so that he has an excuse not to go. But to just go on a single trip that week would be too obvious, so Arthur, who is a mildly successful but not well-known novelist, puts together a year-long trip around the world by accepting a bunch of decidedly second-rate invitations that he's been ignoring. He starts in New York City, with an unpaid job to interview a famous science fiction author, H.H.H. Mandern, whose next best-selling novel is about to be released. From there, he is attending a conference in Mexico City, where - unbeknownst to him - the wife of his long-time lover, Robert (who was before Freddy), is also invited. Then, he will head to Turin, Italy, where he has been nominated for a literary award he's never heard of for one of his novels that was translated into Italian. He will spend the winter in Germany, teaching a writing course at a college in Berlin; both Arthur and the college think that he is fluent in German, but it turns out he learned German from a teacher who'd never been there herself. His next stop is for pleasure rather than work: spending a luxurious week in Morocco on an expedition through the Sahara to celebrate the 50th birthday of a friend of a friend (and Arthur's 50th is the same week). Arthur will then focus on his next novel at a writing retreat in India. He will cap off this worldwide journey with a stop in Japan, to research and write an article for an in-flight magazine on a particular Japanese cuisine. Finally, he will return home, with the dreaded wedding long past.

As you might have guessed, things don't exactly go according to plan for Arthur. In fact, this is one of those stories where everything that could go wrong, does. Far from becoming tedious or depressing, though, Arthur's adventures are constantly surprising and hilarious. His challenges are never predictable and often had me laughing out loud and wanting to read passages out loud to my husband (he loves when I do that while he's trying to read his own book). Greer has a way of inserting humor into every situation, as in this one line from Arthur's attempt to drive to a remote location in Japan:
"Less is grateful the signs are clear because the GPS, after giving crisp, stern directions to the highway, becomes drunk on its own power outside the city limits, then gives out completely and places Arthur Less in the Sea of Japan."
Arthur is an endearing character, authentic and sincere, and as he's traveling across the globe and experiencing one crazy thing after another, he's also musing about his past and about love and life. The novel is narrated by an invisible third-party, someone who clearly knows Arthur well and knows all the details of this wild ride but who is removed enough to provide insights into Arthur's thoughts and actions. I enjoyed every moment of Less and look forward to reading more from this award-winning author.

261 pages, Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Audio


Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.


Listen to a sample of the audio.


You can purchase Less from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order Less from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Middle-Grade Review: The Parker Inheritance

My first audiobook of the year (yes, I'm behind on reviews!) was The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, a middle-grade novel that I'd heard good things about. This award-winning novel combines history, mystery, and realistic fiction.

Twelve-year old Candice is stuck in boring Lambert, South Carolina, with her mother for the summer. They are staying in her grandmother's old house, while their own house in Atlanta is being remodeled. Candice doesn't know anyone in town, and her mother is often busy writing novels, so Candice spends a lot of time reading and making trips to the library for more books. Her summer improves considerably after she meets Brandon, who lives across the street and is just as much of an avid reader as she is. The two begin sharing books and soon become friends. When Candice discovers a mysterious letter in the attic, inside a puzzle book her grandmother left for her, their summer suddenly becomes much more interesting. The letter outlines a mystery and treasure hunt surrounding a woman named Siobhan Washington who lived in Lambert decades ago. Apparently, there was some kind of incident and a string of injustices, which led the letter writer to hide a treasure somewhere in town. Candice's grandmother tried to follow the clues and solve the mystery, but she failed (publicly), so now it is up to Candice and Brandon. As they slowly solve the puzzles and figure out the clues, they learn all about the town's history, including some shameful secrets that have been buried for too long.

This suspenseful, educational, and entertaining novel has been compared to The Westing Game - and in fact, that classic children's mystery novel is a part of the story, as Brandon explains the similarities to Candice. I've never read it myself, but I remember my son (who "hates" to read) reading it for school and loving it, telling me all about it. This modern story has that same sort of mystery leading to a hefty inheritance, but here history and current issues facing kids are woven into the story. Young readers will learn all about Jim Crow laws, segregation, and discrimination in the South in the 1950's and 60's, alongside the protagonists. Meanwhile, Candice and Brandon face their own problems, including bullying, parents' divorce, and more. I listened to The Parker Inheritance on audio, and thoroughly enjoyed it, with the narrator's distinct (but easy-to-understand) Southern drawl making me feel like I was in the midst of the story. It's a complex but fast-paced novel that moves along quickly as the two new friends try to solve a decades-old mystery.

352 pages, Arthur A. Levine


Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.


Listen to a sample of the audiobook.


You can purchase The Parker Inheritance from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order The Parker Inheritance from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Monday, February 04, 2019

It's Monday 2/4! What Are You Reading?

I'm writing this Monday evening because I have just lost another whole day to computer problems - this is getting frustrating! How do you like this Catch-22? My laptop couldn't connect to our WiFi (suddenly and randomly since I got it for Christmas) and none of the tricks I'd learned from Apple Help or the Genius Bar were helping today. It seemed the only way to fix the problem was to upgrade my system...but to do that, I had to be connected to the internet. See how that works? So, I am in a coffee shop (I could connect to their WiFi) and my system upgrade is finally finished. Now, I need to go back home and see if I can connect there - otherwise, it's back to the Genius Bar tonight (I really don't want to go out tonight!).

...Yay!! I am back at home - gratefully in the recliner with my feet up - and connected to our home WiFi! According to everything I've read, upgrading the system should do the trick. I cancelled my Genius Bar appointment. Not leaving the house again!

So, that's kinda what my week was like. I actually got a lot of writing work done last week - I focused on getting ahead with my freelance assignments so I could finally make some progress on my book in February. I had a very productive week, but that put me behind with e-mails and blogs (sorry to those I didn't get to last week) and support groups...and then this connectivity problem got worse over the weekend, so I couldn't catch up.

OK, deep breath. Soooo...here's what we've all been reading this past week!
  • I finished reading True Enough by Stephen McCauley and enjoyed it very much. Last year, I read and loved his latest novel, My Ex-Life, and also got to interview him for Shelf Awareness and then meet him in person at Booktopia. He has a real talent for writing insightful but humorous stories about real life. This novel is about a 40-year old wife, mother, and TV producer who is feeling dissatisfied with her life and a gay man who is feeling similarly unsettled and is working with her on a project. 
  • Next, I picked up my next review book for Shelf Awareness, Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson, coincidentally another Booktopia author from last year! I read and enjoyed his thriller, All the Beautiful Lies, last year for the annual event. This one is also a thriller, about a woman who discovers she's living next door to a murderer. The problem is that no one believes her because she has a history of mental illness that once included paranoia and false suspicions. The real suspense comes from the fact that he knows that she knows! I'm right at the end - will finish it tonight - and it's been a real page-turner.
  • In between, I read a graphic novel, Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen. It's about the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, from the perspective of a teen boy who is caught in the middle of it. He is Hutu, but some of his closest friends and neighbors are Tutsi. It is a dark, harrowing story. I certainly learned a lot, and it's an excellent graphic novel, in terms of conveying the story through the text and pictures, but it was brutal and difficult to read. It made me realize how little I know of this part of recent history and made me want to read An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina (the autobiography that the movie Hotel Rwanda was based on) - it was in my stack for Nonfiction November, but I didn't get to it.
  • Yes, I finally finished listening to All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, a favorite author of mine, on audio. Someone on Facebook described it as surreal, and that says it all. I'm not even sure how to describe it! It's about a Mexican-American family who live in the Colorado desert in 1962 and can perform miracles. Pilgrims visit them in search of miracles, but there are very odd side effects. I'm not a huge fan of magical realism, and this is definitely that, but Stiefvater's writing talents kept me listening, and - as always with her novels - I ended up invested in the characters and wanting to find out what happened.
  • My next audio book is The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh, though I just discovered that it didn't download to my iPod like it should have (more symptoms of the same computer problems, I think). According to the blurb, it's a dark twist on witness protection, where an isolated town in Texas is entirely populated by both criminals and those who've witnessed crimes, all of whom have had their memories wiped. I'm intrigued! Will have to try the download again and start it tomorrow.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading a paperback I gave him for Christmas: Edge by Jeffrey Deaver. Though we both love Deaver's Lincoln Rhymes series, this is a stand-alone novel, so we were intrigued by it. He did take it on his Europe trip but didn't read much and was exhausted when he tried to read, so he started over at the beginning last Saturday...and only managed a few pages each night this week before falling asleep (often with the book still in his hand!). It's a long book, so it could take a while at this rate.
  • Our son, Jamie, 24, is now reading the FINAL book 14 of The Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. I was wrong when I said he finished the series with book 13 - there is one more, weighing in at a hefty 1168 pages! He loves this series and has been looking forward to the conclusion. He says this last book is action-packed right from the first chapters, and he's loving it.
Last week's blog posts and book articles:
TV Tuesday: The Rookie - a cop show with Nathan Fillion, with warmth and humor as well as action

Fiction Review: The Rent Collector by Camron Wright - fictional story about a real-life family in Cambodia that my book group loved!

Fiction Review: Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen - twisty time travel plus family drama

A Bookish Chinese New Year - my latest book column in Shelf Awareness, highlighting three excellent novels about Chinese immigrants

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.

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

What are you and your family reading this week? 

Just the two of us for our Superbowl "party" - leftovers tonight!

Friday, February 01, 2019

Fiction Review: Here and Now and Then

Longtime readers of my blog know that I LOVE time travel stories! I have raved here before about novels like The Time Traveler's Wife, Outlander, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and one of my all-time favorite books ever, Replay (not technically time travel but similar).

So, when I was perusing the list of possible February review books for Shelf Awareness and read about Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, I got pretty excited. I e-mailed my editor and told him this book sounded like it had been written just for me (and probably used way too many exclamation points), and he sent me a copy. I was right - I loved this book!

It's about a guy from 2142 who works as a time travel cop. He goes back to 1996 and gets stuck there. Eventually, he marries and has a daughter and is living happily there, when - surprise! His old team finally comes for him. They whisk him back to his own time, where his fiance is waiting. By now, though, his family back in the early 21st century feels more real to him than his life in his own time. When he finds out his daughter is in trouble in the past, he pledges to find a way to help her.

This novel has everything that I love about time travel plots: it's twisty, thoughtful and thought-provoking, suspenseful, and even heartwarming (and heartbreaking), combining the warmth of family drama with the action of a thriller.

My review was published at Shelf Awareness today so check it out.

336 pages, Mira


Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

There's an audiobook version! It sounds great - listen to a sample here.


You can purchase Here and Now and Then from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order Here and Now and Then from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Fiction Review: The Rent Collector

My neighborhood book group met this month to discuss a novel I'd never heard of before, The Rent Collector by Camron Wright. This fictional story about a real-life family in Cambodia garnered one of our highest ratings ever, and everyone in the group enjoyed it.

Ki Lim and his wife, Sang Ly, live at Stung Meachey, the largest garbage dump in Cambodia, located in the city of Phnom Penh. Their sixteen-month old baby, Nisay, is very ill, with chronic diarrhea and a poor appetite, making him lethargic and unable to keep food down. They have taken him to some of the clinics run by Western doctors nearby, and their medicine seems to work, but when he finishes it, his symptoms return. Ki Lim makes his living by sorting through trash and selling whatever is recyclable or using whatever is salvageable. It sounds like a tough existence, and it is, but Sang Ly has a positive attitude:
"I don't intend to portray the place  as miserable or entirely without joy. On the contrary - in spite of its hardships, there are slivers of time when life at the dump feels normal, almost beautiful. Pigs forage in the dirt lanes, children pick teams and play soccer, mothers and fathers banter about their day, babies are born, life presses on."
The rent collector at the dump is named Sopeap Sin, though most people just call her The Rent Collector or, behind her back, The Cow. She's an angry and bitter woman, but Sang Ly discovers an unexpected side to her. When she finds a children's picture book in the dump and brings it home for Nisay, Sopeap spots it when she comes for the rent, and her whole countenance changes. Sang Ly can see that Sopeap knows how to read - a rarity in Cambodia - and she tells her she can have the book if she will teach her how to read. Thus begins a series of lessons, first in literacy and then in literature, that change the lives of all involved.

The real-life backstory of this novel is just as fascinating as the fiction. Ki Lim, Sang Ly, and Nisay are a real family who really did live at Stung Meachey, and the details of their life there are true. The author's son made a documentary called River of Victory about the dump and its residents, and through that, the author came to know of the family. In fact, there are even real-life photos of them and the dump and its other residents at the back of the book (read the print book so you can see the full-color photos). I also learned a lot about Cambodia's history from this novel. The story of Sang Ly learning to read is the fictional story that Camron Wright built around the bones of facts. The passages about Sang Ly's reading lessons include literary excerpts from around the world and discussions between her and Sopeap about stories and their meaning, which any book lover will enjoy. Here, they talk about a Cinderella-like story from Cambodia, and its replication in every culture on earth:
"Sang Ly, the desire to believe, to look forward to better days, to want them, to expect them - it seems to be ingrained in our being. Whether we like it or not, hope is written so deeply into our hearts that we just can't help ourselves, no matter how hard we try otherwise."
The novel is filled with beautiful passages like that, and I tabbed many pages to transfer to my Quote Journal. Along the way, as they explore literature, Sopeap's story comes out, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. This novel is a beautiful, moving story about life, hope, and the power of books, and I highly recommend it.

See this website for a video trailer of the documentary, River of Victory, plus photos and more information.

288 pages, Shadow Mountain


Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

You can purchase the DVD of the documentary, River of Victory (which also includes a follow-up film, Finding Sang Ly, which follows the main character afterward) at Amazon - I just bought it for myself!



Listen to a sample of the audiobook of The Rent Collector.


You can purchase The Rent Collector from an independent bookstore, either locally or online, here:
 Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or you can order The Rent Collector from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

TV Tuesday: The Rookie

We don't watch a lot of police dramas, but when we saw that Nathan Fillion was going to be in a new one called The Rookie this fall, we gave it a try. We loved Fillion in Castle - and of course, also in Firefly - and we weren't disappointed in his latest role. The Rookie is a cop show, yes, but with plenty of drama and humor as well as action.

Fillion plays John Nolan, a rookie cop who is 40 years old. His life recently fell apart when he and his longtime wife divorced after their son went to college, and John decided to do something completely different from the construction work he'd done all his career. He moved to LA, graduated from the Police Academy, and is now an official rookie (or "boot" as the experienced cops call them) with the LAPD. His fellow rookies are Lucy Chen, played by Melissa O'Neil (whom we enjoyed in Dark Matter), and Jackson West, played by Titus Makin, Jr, whose father is in charge of Internal Affairs. In each episode, each rookie is teamed up with an experienced officer, and the two of them go out on patrol and encounter a wide variety of situations, from motor vehicle violations to domestic situations to gun-filled drug deals. Sergeant Wade Grey, played by Richard T. Jones, oversees the patrol officers, and Captain Zoe Anderson, played by Mercedes Mason, is in charge of the whole department. No one else knows it (yet), but John and Lucy have been seeing each other.

This is not your typical gritty police drama. Though the officers often run into challenging situations and danger, there is a lightness and sense of humor that runs throughout the show and makes it a whole lot of fun. That's not to say it doesn't sometimes delve into serious issues - like one officer's wife who used to be in Vice and is now a drug addict on the streets or when John is involved in the shooting of a civilian - but it always tackles these difficult topics with warmth and humanity. If you've seen Fillion in anything else, you know he plays the goofy, wise-cracking guy often (and well), and you see some of that here, too, though with a serious desire to become a good cop and a layer of sensitivity underneath, especially when it comes to Lucy or his son. There are plenty of jokes about the 40-year old rookie, but it's not a one-joke show - there is gentle humor woven throughout. The combination of police action, interpersonal drama, and humor is just right, and we have been loving the show since its premier in the fall. In fact, our 24-year old son was home sick last week and looking for something to watch, so I suggested The Rookie, and he binged all of the episodes!

The Rookie is currently airing on ABC at 10 pm Eastern time, and I know that all 11 of its episodes so far, back to episode 1 (#12 airs tonight) are available On Demand because my son just watched them all last week! They are all also available for free on the ABC website. You can also purchase The Rookie on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $34.99 for the first season (looks like it will be 20 episodes total).



Monday, January 28, 2019

It's Monday 1/28! What Are You Reading?

Super busy week last week! My husband was still away on a business trip to Germany, my older son moved back to his girlfriend's for spring semester mid-week, and I worked WAY too late each evening! When my husband is home, he and I have a relaxing evening routine that we both enjoy. I close the laptop by 7:30 pm and lie on the couch. He and I watch two TV shows together and have some herbal tea and a bit of dark chocolate. We turn the TV off at 9:30 and go up to bed, where we read for an hour before turning the light off at 10:30. This works out just right and helps me to unwind in the evening and get enough sleep. But without him here, I tend to keep working until 8 pm or later, then I'm exhausted (due to my chronic illness) and my mind is still "on" and I end up staying up too late reading, so I'm even more worn out the next day. It's a vicious cycle! So, it's nice to have him back now and be settling into our routine once more. Though I'm still staying up too late reading...

Here's what we've all been enjoying reading this past week:
  • I am still reading True Enough by Stephen McCauley - because I needed something warm, fun, and funny after the excellent but difficult Being Mortal, and I knew Stephen would deliver! Last year, I read and loved his latest novel, My Ex-Life, and also got to interview him for Shelf Awareness and then meet him in person at Booktopia. He has a real talent for writing insightful but humorous stories about real life. Just what I needed! This novel is about a 40-year old wife, mother, and TV producer who is feeling dissatisfied with her life and a gay man who is feeling similarly unsettled and is working with her on a project. I'm enjoying it.
  • On audio, I am listening to All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, a favorite author of mine. It's....very different. Someone on Facebook described it as surreal, and that says it all. I'm not even sure how to describe it! It's about a Mexican-American family who live in the Colorado desert in 1962 and can perform miracles. Pilgrims visit them in search of miracles, but there are very odd side effects. I'm not a huge fan of magical realism, and this is definitely that, but Stiefvater's writing talents are keeping me listening.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading a paperback I gave him for Christmas: Edge by Jeffrey Deaver. Though we both love Deaver's Lincoln Rhymes series, this is a stand-alone novel, so we were intrigued by it. He did take it on his trip but didn't read much and was exhausted when he tried to read, so he started over at the beginning Saturday!
  • Our son, Jamie, 24, is now reading the FINAL book 14 of The Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. I was wrong when I said he finished the series with book 13 - there is one more, weighing in at a hefty 1168 pages! He loves this series and has been looking forward to the conclusion. He says this last book is wonderful and action-packed right from the first chapters.

Blog posts last week:
Favorite Movies Watched in 2018 - my annual roundup of my favorites & list of everything I watched, with reviews.

Nonfiction Review: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande - a powerful, important book about illness, end of life, and dying.

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.

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

What are you and your family reading this week?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Nonfiction Review: Being Mortal

I was happy to hear that one of my book groups chose Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande as our January selection because it's a book I've been meaning to read since its release in 2014. This thoughtful book written by a surgeon about aging, serious illness, and dying is sometimes difficult to read but also very, very important. I learned a lot from it, and it opened my eyes about several topics related to end-of-life issues.

The author weaves together a variety of threads, all about mortality: what is taught to doctors in medical school (almost nothing); stories of his own or other doctor's sick, elderly, and dying patients; interviews and time spent with experts; and his own very painful and personal story of his father's long illness and death. He discusses in detail the way that the medical community today deals with serious illness, aging, and approaching death; for the most part, they seek to prolong life for as long as possible, even if that is not in the patient's best interests. Technology has perhaps outpaced humanity in this realm - just because we can artificially prolong life doesn't always mean we should - and the patient's wishes are often not taken into account. Gawande also delves into the subject of assisted living and nursing home care, which is an eye-opening discussion. Through visits, interviews, and research, he describes the current - mostly deplorable - state of these institutions. As depressing as some of those passages are, the author also searches for and finds many people and organizations who are working hard to change that status and highlights some of the most innovative and exciting developments in the field. Caregivers are not overlooked here; the challenges and difficulties facing close family members are explored as well. And, yes, he examines the difficult topic of death itself, with input from patients, doctors, and hospice workers on what happens currently and what should happen ideally. Woven throughout the narrative is his own story of his father's journey, from terminal diagnosis through increasing symptoms, the need for greater care, hospice, and finally, death.

This is often a difficult book to read, in part because, as seen in the huge turnout for my book group and extensive discussion we had, every reader has his or her own personal story: of a loved one's illness or aging, serious illness in oneself, and/or the difficult and prolonged death of someone close. For me, much of this book brought back painful memories of my dad's death from melanoma a few years ago. Though he was fortunate to stay in his home until his last week, and we were fortunate to have a full  - mostly good - year with him after his diagnosis, that last week in hospital hospice (which is nothing like the wonderful at-home hospice described in the book) was difficult and painful for all of us. In addition, I related to some passages about serious illness because, though I am not dying of cancer or some other degenerative disease, I am living with chronic illness, which has some similarities. Finally, my 93-year old father-in-law is currently in an independent living apartment but having more and more trouble moving around and approaching the day when he will need more care than we can provide. Our discussion in book group was interesting, engaging, and in-depth, and it seemed that everyone had their own story to tell. While some aspects of the book were depressing, to consider the poor state of institutions today and how patients' best interests are not always the first consideration, it was also hopeful to hear about some of the people trying to make things better and the innovations in nursing home care and hospice. All in all, though it is sometimes a difficult read, this is a powerful, thought-provoking, and important book that everyone should read, so that we can all help to make the world a better place for the sick, elderly, and dying - a group that every one of us will join one day.

263 pages, Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt & Co)

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Listen to a sample of the audio book.


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