Friday, January 30, 2015

Graphic Novel Review: Black Hole


As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been exploring adult graphic novels recently, making my way through the Flavorwire 25 EssentialGraphic Novels list. I previously read and reviewed Blankets and Ghost World. This time, I read Black Hole by Charles Burns. Wow, I hardly know where to start…surreal is the word that comes to mind.

Black Hole takes place in suburban Seattle in the 1970’s and features a group of teens who go to high school together. At least, they used to all go to high school together before an unnamed infection spread through their ranks. The book never outright explains what the infection is, but you can see its effects throughout the graphic novel. It is clearly sexually transmitted (which is why is spreads fairly quickly through the teen population) and affects each person differently. Some of the kids develop grotesque deformities, like giant boils all over their skin or a complete transformation of their facial features into something unrecognizable. For others, the effects are more subtle and easily hidden – one boy has an extra mouth at the front of his neck that he can cover with his shirt (no v-necks!), another gets strange tadpole-like growths hanging off his torso which he can keep hidden under his shirt, and one young woman has a lovely tail that hides beneath her skirt.

The story is told from several different perspectives, some kids who are already infected and others kids who are still (for now) untouched. It is a typical setting of a suburban high school, except for this underlying – and mostly unspoken – epidemic. The teens who are still untouched by the virus or can keep their deformities hidden go to class and have parties in the woods, like any teens. Those who have more obvious effects from the infection have been rejected by their peers (as teens tend to do); some of them are now living in a small enclave in the woods, barely surviving.

Oddly, the teen population doesn’t seem too disturbed by these strange occurrences that surround them. They drink and smoke, gossip with their friends, go to school if they are able to, and hang out with friends – they act like normal teens, only there is this bizarre thing happening all around them. Some – like the girl who sheds her skin periodically – try to pass as normal, until their oddities are revealed to their classmates. I wonder whether the author was using the weird infection as a device to magnify normal adolescent behavior and the struggle to move through the transition time of being a teen into growing up. Just like real kids might ostracize anyone who is different – someone with a physical deformity or even a bad case of acne – these teens exclude those who exhibit these very obvious and grotesque signs of the virus. And, as in real life, kids may try to hide their problems or imperfections and “pass.”

The spreading infection isn’t ignored by the author, though. Certain sections of the novel focus in on one character who’s been recently infected, trying to come to grips with whatever his or her unique and bizarre effects are. Most end up leaving home. There is an odd acceptance of the whole process; I wondered why none of the teens told their parents or went to a doctor – perhaps that’s another symbolic representation of what it’s like to be a teen and to feel isolated and drifting apart from your parents.

Black Hole is wholly unique – I’ve never read or seen anything like it. The drawings are oddly realistic, given the subject matter, and occasionally grotesque. It’s not all ugliness, though – the story includes a couple of love stories. This is definitely not a book for anyone who is easily offended or grossed out, though. There are lots of depictions of drinking, drug use, sex, and graphic nudity – it’s about teenagers, after all!  - plus, of course, the varied effects of the infection. It’s certainly one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, but this surreal graphic novel got under my skin (pardon the pun) and made me think.

Pantheon Books (division of Random House)

Monday, January 26, 2015

It's Monday 1/26! What Are You Reading?


I love Monday mornings - the start of a new week and a bit of quiet solitude for me after a busy weekend. I don't think my solitude will last this week, though - there is a big storm headed this way, so it is likely that my high school son will be dismissed early today and have a snow day tomorrow. Ha ha - just after I wrote that line, my son texted me that he's getting out early!

Anyway, we all had a great reading week:
  • I finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I first read it in 1999, and I re-read it as part of The Posionwood Bible Readalong, hosted by Tanya at Mom's Small Victories, as part of her Travel the World in Books Challenge. It was even better the second time around! This is such a clever book, with intricate layers of emotion and meaning. I am really enjoying the online discussion. Definitely still in my Top 5 of all time!
  • I am determined to read more books from my own shelves this year, especially since I realized during a recent bookshelf clean-out how many amazing books are sitting there patiently waiting for me. So, I picked up one of those next: Wool by Hugh Howey. This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel has been recommended by many of my good friends, so I gave it to my husband last Christmas. He also loved it - and now I am finally getting to it! It's excellent already - compelling from the first chapter.
  • I  finished listening to When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson, a novel that was first published in 1967 and is being re-released on audio, in advance of a new Japanese anime movie adaptation. It's about a lonely, withdrawn orphan named Anna who is sent to a seaside town to live with a kind older couple for a few months. While there, wandering among the sand and water, she meets a girl named Marnie and makes her first real friend. I enjoyed it, especially since the story turned out to have more complexity and mystery to it than I expected. Now, I need to choose a new audiobook to start!
  • I am still reading an adult graphic novel, Black Hole by Charles Burns. I'd heard from several sources that this is one weird story, a sort of sci fi, grotesque, Bodysnatchers kind of novel set in 70's Seattle, but I decided to give it a try since it appears on most lists of Best Graphic Novels. Yup, weird doesn't even begin to describe it!
  • My husband, Ken, finished Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo and said, "Another good one." He's not much into discussing what he reads - that's why I'm in 3 book groups!
  • Now, Ken is reading one of his Christmas gifts from me, The Three by Sarah Lotz. This is one that I also want to read when he is finished (the best kind of gifts!).
  • Jamie, 20, home sick from college, finished Enclave by Ann Aguirre, Book 1 of The Razorland Trilogy, a new post-apocalyptic teen/YA series. Another one I want to read!
  • Next, Jamie specifically searched for the best zombie book he could find because he is totally hooked on The Walking Dead TV show. He downloaded The Apocalypse, Book 1 of the Undead World Series, by Peter Meredith. Reviews compared it to The Walking Dead, so he was sold! 
Last week was a good week for writing and catching up for me. Check out these posts and reviews:
Review of Smile by Raina Telgemeier, middle-grade/teen graphic novel

3 Mini Reviews of Audiobooks for Teens/YA, 2 thrillers and 1 realistic fiction

2014 Reading Challenges Wrap-up (finally!)

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

2014 Reading Challenges Wrap-Up

Since January is almost over, I guess it's about time I finally wrapped up my 2014 Reading Challenges!

I chose a nice mix of reading challenges last year and really enjoyed them. With some, I didn't meet my goals and with others, I far exceeded my goals. A good reading year, in any case! Check out my Top Ten lists of best books I read in 2014.

You can see all the detailed lists of the books I read for each challenge on my 2014 Reading Challenges page, but here is a brief summary:


Big Book Summer Challenge: This was the third year that I hosted my own challenge, Big Book Summer Reading Challenge, and I plan to host it again in the summer of 2015. I love this challenge because it gives me some incentive to finally read the larger books that tend to pile up on my TBR shelves. You can check out my Big Book Summer Wrap-Up post. Here are the 5 Big Books I finished this summer for the challenge:
  • Emma by Jane Austen, 487 pages (I had never read a Jane Austen before!)
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, 538 pages
  • Good Fortune by Noni Carter, 482 pages
  • Unsouled by Neal Schusterman, 404 pages
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, 771 pages

I enjoy this challenge every year. I read books this year that took place in 27 different states (same as 2012 and 2013!) and 9 different countries. You can see my full list of states and countries and books on my 2013 Challenges page. She is hosting it again this year if you want to join the fun!


 This is the challenge I most need each year because I don't have a TBR pile but an entire TBR bookcase! However, I fell short of my goals this year. I signed up for the First Kiss category (21-30 books), but I only read 13 books from my TBR shelves! No wonder they get more and more full. Pretty dismal, since I managed to read 26 TBR books the year before.


2014 Audio Book Challenge, hosted by The Book Nympho
In contrast, I rocked this challenge last year! My goal was to listen to 10 -15 audio books in 2014 (Stenographer level), but I ended up listening to a whopping 26 audios! Woohoo! In 2013, I only listened to 14 audio books, so this was a huge improvement. Much of the increase is due to the switch from mostly CD-format audio books to digital downloads. With my iPod and ear buds, I can listen while walking or cooking or doing dishes, etc.



Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014, hosted by The Introverted Reader
I signed up for Explorer level (6 -10 nonfiction books) and ended up reading 8 in 2014, so mission accomplished! I would still like to read more memoirs because I enjoy them so (and have a bunch collecting dust on my TBR shelves!).


The Classics Reading Challenge 2014, hosted by Thoughts At One in the Morning
I always want to read more classics but have trouble finding the time, so this challenge was right up my alley. I read 4 classics this year. That's not a huge accomplishment, but a couple of them - Emma and Frankenstein - I'd been meaning to read for many years, so I was glad to finally get to them.
  1. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  2. Emma by Jane Austen 
  3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 
  4. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley




Travel the World in Books Challenge, hosted by Mom's Small Victories
Back in September 2014, I added this new challenge which runs through December 2015. My goal was to read 10 books set in other places/cultures, and I have already read these 5, so this one is going well so far:
  1.  The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
  2. The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata (immigrants, Japanese culture, transient workers)
  3.  Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (takes place in Switzerland, Germany, France, Russia, and the Arctic)
  4. Haunters by Thomas Taylor (UK and Switzerland, WWII) 
  5. Hild by Nicola Griffith (England 7th century)

I enjoyed my reading challenges in 2014. Now comes the fun part - choosing new challenges for 2015! I better get moving...

What challenges did you enjoy in 2014 and which ones do you recommend (or host!) for 2015?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mini Reviews: 3 Teen/YA Audio Books


I still have a small backlog of reviews of books I read in 2014, so I thought I’d catch up for the new year with some mini reviews. I listened to all three of these teen/YA novels on audio: The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor, Uncaged: The Singular Menace, Book One by John Sanford and Michelle Cook, and The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi. I enjoyed the first two very much and recommend them, though I struggled with the third one.

The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor
Since I loved Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor, I was very much looking forward to listening to her latest teen/YA novel, The Things You Kiss Goodbye. It shared that same emotional depth and realism of her earlier novel and kept me captivated from beginning to end.

Bettina Vasilis has a tough time as a teenage girl in a very traditional Greek family. Her father, affectionately known as Bampas, is over-protective and strict and expects her to grow up to be a wife and mother. Bettina is lonely after her best friend moves away, until she attracts the attention of star basketball player Brady Cullen. Typically a loner, Bettina suddenly finds herself among the popular crowd, included (though not accepted) as Brady’s girlfriend, but her relationship with Brady takes some unexpected turns.

Meanwhile, Bettina meets Cowboy, an older car mechanic who is gentle, caring, and a bit mysterious. Bettina’s friendship with Cowboy grows as she comes to care about him. When unexpected tragedy hits her life, Bettina must face her true feelings, be honest with her family, and decide who she really is. I was pulled into this emotional and realistic coming-of-age story about image versus reality, love, and being true to yourself.

HarperChildren's Audio


Uncaged: The Singular Menace, Book One by John Sanford and Michelle Cook
My husband and I enjoyed listening to this fast-paced YA thriller by renowned adult thriller writer John Sanford during our summer car trips.

Shay and her brother Odin have been brought up in foster homes, but when Odin goes missing after getting involved with some animal rights activists, Shay takes off to find him. Odin’s group’s efforts to save some research animals and bring attention to their plight turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg, and their rescue effort sets some very powerful people against them, from the sinister corporation Singular.

In searching for her brother, Shay meets up with a ragtag group of misfits in Los Angeles, struggling to live on their own and turn their lives around. Singular has some scary people working for them, determined to find Odin and his friends and keep their research secret, but Shay’s new friends have skills of their own. What follows is a fast-paced, exciting chase across California and Oregon, with Shay not only wanting to save her brother but also hoping to bring Singular down once she realizes what they are up to. Like Sanford’s adult novels, Uncaged is a classic thriller, filled with suspense and a convoluted plot, and it is the beginning of a new series.

Listening Library
 

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi
I started listening to The Doubt Factory with high hopes because our family had listened to Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker on a family road trip a few summers ago and loved it. I wanted to also love The Doubt Factory, but I was quite disappointed and barely able to make myself finish it.

The first half of the novel, Part 1, was interesting and engaging, with a unique and suspenseful plot. Teenaged Alix is sitting in her AP Chem class at her private school when her normally predictable life suddenly begins to change. There are several incidents at school that disrupt the normal routine, and then Alix seems to get her own stalker.  She has no idea what is going on, the attractive and mysterious young man tells her that everything about her life is a lie and that her father is behind some terrible things.

I don’t want to give away the suspense here, but suffice is to say that the underlying plot of this novel is all about evil corporations doing horrific things. There is a special emphasis on the evil PR firms that represent them and intentionally spin their horrific things into PR gold. For me, the second half of the novel really slowed down – to a crawl – and became far too preachy. The story lost its suspense and momentum and got bogged down in what is clearly an important issue to the author. However, he hits his readers over the head with the lessons and conspiracy theories. There are long passages within the book – repeated several times – that are just lists of evil (real-life) corporations and their evil CEO’s. I used to work for one of those corporations, and I just don’t believe there are that many people in the world with such truly evil intentions and a huge conspiracy to cover them up. The premise and the preaching became too much for me, and I barely cared what happened to Alix by the end – I just wanted to be done with it. It felt like the author sacrificed the story for the lesson.

 Listening Library

         

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: Smile


I have been reading more graphic novels this past year and thoroughly enjoyed Raina Telgemeier’s Drama and Sisters. Now, I finally got back to her earlier and most successful graphic novel (actually, a graphic memoir), Smile, and liked it just as much as her others.

Smile takes place in the years before Sisters and, like that other graphic memoir, is a story from Raina’s own childhood. It focuses on Raina’s adventures in orthodontia, which were far more extensive than most kids’ experiences just getting braces. It begins when Raina is twelve years old, and she knocks out her two front teeth in a freak accident, tripping in the road on a dark night, playing around with her friends after a Girl Scout meeting.

That accident changes Raina’s orthodontic plan from a mere set of braces to an elaborate years-long plan to somehow rebuild her smile. Along the way, she suffers through a lot of pain and discomfort, as well as embarrassment from being the kid in middle school with no front teeth! It’s a slow, difficult process.

This is more than a story about teeth and orthodontia, though. It’s a story about growing up, finding out who you are, finding the right group of friends, and becoming a teenager. Raina has extra obstacles to face, given her unique dental situation, but the other challenges she encounters are things that will be familiar to any adolescent: trying to fit in, wanting to be cool, having a crush, and finding friends who like you just the way you are.

As with Sisters, Telgemeier perfectly captures the agonies and joys of adolescence and growing up. Her colorful drawings are realistic and filled with details that complete the story. She remembers exactly what it is like to be a young teen and depicts those experiences with warmth and wit.

214 pages, Scholastic

Monday, January 19, 2015

It's Monday 1/19! What Are You Reading?


Monday morning...and the sun is coming out! Hurray! We had a dark, rainy Sunday - relaxing but kind of depressing. I am ready for Monday morning, a new week, and some sunshine.

Last week was very busy for me, but we all read a lot:
  • I am still reading an old favorite, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I first read it in 1999 and have considered it one of my top 5 books ever since. I am re-reading it as part of The Posionwood Bible Readalong, hosted by Tanya at Mom's Small Victories, as part of her Travel the World in Books Challenge. It is just as good as I remember it - compelling, intriguing, and so very clever. It is perfect for a book discussion because it is such an intricate, multi-layered story. If you've never read it before (or even if you have!), there's still plenty of time to join the January Readalong and enjoy this unique and powerful novel about a Southern Baptist missionary family living in the Congo in the 1960's.
  • Last week, I did something I rarely do: set a book aside without finishing it. I started listening to The Secret Sky by Atia Abawa, a teen/YA audio novel set in rural Afghanistan. I liked the characters and was enjoying the story and learning about a different culture...and then it began to get violent. I talked myself through the first bad spot and thought I could handle it, but when a parent in the story became horrifyingly abusive, I had to turn it off. I was having a rough week and struggling myself, and I just couldn't bear to listen any more.
  • Instead, I started an new audio book that was pretty much the exact polar opposite - a very gentle, quiet story. I am listening to When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson, a novel that was first published in 1967 and is being re-released on audio, in advance of a new Japanese anime movie adaptation. It's about a lonely, withdrawn orphan named Anna who is sent to a seaside town to live with a kind older couple for a few months. While there, wandering among the sand and water, she meets a girl named Marnie and makes her first real friend. I think there's a bit of a mystery coming in the story, too. It's just what I needed: a sweet, gentle story of friendship and healing.
  • I finished Smile by Raina Telgemeier, a middle-grade/teen graphic memoir about orthodontia and growing up.
  • And I started a new adult graphic novel, Black Hole by Charles Burns. I'd heard from several sources that this is one weird story, a sort of sci fi, grotesque, Bodysnatchers kind of novel set in 70's Seattle, but I decided to give it a try since it also appears on most lists of Best Graphic Novels. Yup, it is very weird so far!
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo, though he set it aside temporarily last week in favor of a Kindle book while he was traveling.
  • While he was away on a business trip (and sick with a stomach virus), Ken read Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff on his Kindle. I'm not sure if he finished it yet.
  • Jamie, 20 and still home sick with mono, finished The Passage last week, then immediately started on The Twelve and finished that. My dad just finished reading The Passage that we gave him for Christmas, too. Jamie said he prefers straight-forward fantasy, but he did enjoy the two novels (he must have - he read them both in under two weeks!).
  • Jamie is now reading Enclave by Ann Aguirre, Book 1 of The Razorland Trilogy, a new post-apocalyptic teen/YA series. I may have to borrow that one when he's done.
 Several blog posts last week:

Review of Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, a thriller

Review of Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt, an adult novel

 My Best of 2014 and Year-End Summary, my Top Ten favorite books read in 2014

8 Movies From Books Coming in 2015

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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



Saturday, January 17, 2015

8 Movies-From-Books Coming in 2015

It looks like the trend in adapting books into movies will continue to thrive in 2015!

I enjoyed this overview from Shortlist.com of 8 Books To Read Before They Become Movies in 2015.

The Martian is already on my TBR shelf - I gave it to my husband (and my father and stepfather) for Father's Day last year, and they all loved it. I didn't know it was being made into a movie...now I want to be sure to get it so I can see the movie, too!


I just set Dark Places by Gillian Flynn aside, but maybe I should put it back on the TBR shelves, since it is also being made into a movie. I read Flynn's Sharp Objects this fall and loved it (see my Top 10 Reads of 2014 List). My husband said that Dark Places is darker and more graphic, which is why I set it aside.

Which of these 8 books have you read? Which movies are you looking forward to? Have you heard about other book adaptations coming to the big screen this year?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Fiction Review: Is This Tomorrow

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Last spring, author Caroline Leavitt visited our tiny local bookstore. Although I missed her talk, I was intrigued by all the discussion among locals and the bookstore owner about her novels. I bought one of them, Is This Tomorrow, for my mother and stepmother for Mother’s Day, and they both enjoyed it. I finally had a chance to read it myself and was riveted by the multi-faceted novel about family, friendship, and loss.

The novel opens in 1956, in a suburb of Boston. Ava rents an older, small house in this otherwise newer suburb with cookie-cutter homes and lives there with her twelve-year old son, Lewis. As far as her neighbors are concerned, Ava has three strikes against her: she is Jewish, divorced, and works outside the home. She is striving to make a nice life for herself and Lewis, but it is a struggle. There is only one other mother on the block who actually likes Ava and has made her feel welcome: Dot Rearson, the only other husband-less woman in the neighborhood. But Dot’s husband died, so her singlehood is more acceptable to the neighbors.

Dot’s two children, Jimmy and Rose, are Lewis’ best friends…they are his only friends, but two good friends are really all a kid needs. They are inseparable and call themselves The Three Mouseketeers, roaming the neighborhood, riding bikes, planning their lives, and sharing secrets.

Then, the unthinkable happens. One sunny day, Jimmy just disappears from their tranquil neighborhood. Ava was the last person to see him, and now he is simply gone without a trace. Jimmy’s disappearance transforms the neighborhood – it is no longer the safe, protected place they all thought. Police can’t find a trace of Jimmy, and the neighbors form watch patrols and gather their children close, living in a state of fear. Ava blames herself, since she was the last to see Jimmy, but there is plenty of guilt to go around. Rose and Lewis think it is their fault for not showing up to meet Jimmy when they said they would that day, and of course, Dot harbors her own mother guilt. Their lives quickly unravel.

The second half of the novel takes place about ten years later, when Lewis and Rose are young adults, each scarred from the childhood disappearance of Jimmy. Each of the characters has to find his or her own peace and somehow come to terms with what happened years ago.

Is This Tomorrow is an emotionally complex novel with a mystery at its center. I was riveted from the first page by its suspense and found the story compelling right until the end, but there’s more to this novel than an intriguing mystery. The author carefully follows each character, examining the different ways they each cope with their loss, and how the tendrils of that one event affect each one through the rest of their lives. She makes you care about the characters. I also found the setting fascinating – she provides such detail of the time and place that the setting is almost like another character in the book. I was totally pulled in by this well-written and captivating story and look forward to reading more by Caroline Leavitt.

349 pages, Algonquin Books

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best of 2014 and Year-End Summary





I realize everyone else posted their Best Books of 2014 Lists weeks ago, but hey, I always seem to be behind. Things this January have been especially hectic and difficult at our house, but I still wanted to share my favorite books read in 2014.


I've got 2 lists in this post, Top 10 Adult Books Read in 2014 and Top 10 Kid/Teen/YA Books Read in 2014. Note that these are both lists of my favorite books that I READ in 2014 - only a few of them were actually released in 2014 (again, always behind...).  If you want to look back, check out my Best of 2013 post from last year.

All together, I read 78 books last year (that's 1 less than in 2013). Here's the break-down:

  • 27 were adult fiction
  • 34 were teen/YA fiction 
  • 11 were middle-grade fiction
  • 6 were nonfiction
  • 8 were graphic novels
Of the 78 books, I listened to a whopping 25 of them on audio.


Drumroll please....my Top 10 Kid/Teen/YA Books Read in 2014 (in the order I read them) were:
And, my Top 10 Adult Books Read in 2014 (in the order I read them) are:
As I mentioned, I listened to 25 books on audio this year - a record for me! - but it was easy to choose my two favorite audio books of the year: Us by David Nicholls for adults and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson for all ages. Both were amazing books in their own right, but their audio versions were extra-special and highly recommended.

Matthew Quick appears on both of my top 10 lists this year - perhaps a first! - and these two powerful, funny novels made me want to read everything he has written...ever.

And for the second year in a row, one of my top 10 books of the year was also the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction (The Goldfinch this year), so I guess the Pulitzer committee knows what they are doing.

What were your favorite books read in 2014? Do you agree with my choices? I'd love to hear which books were the highlights of your reading year!

I'm looking forward to more great books like these in 2015.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fiction Review: Sharp Objects


I read Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn back in October as part of my annual spooky reading spree and was surprised to realize last week that I’d never written a review of it because I really liked it. In fact, I liked Sharp Objects much better than Flynn’s more well-known novel, Gone Girl.

Camille Preaker is a young woman who works for a lower-tier newspaper in Chicago. Her boss, Curry, hears about two murders of young girls in a small Missouri town and wonders if it might be a serial killer story. Always on the lookout to break a big story that the larger Chicago papers might miss, Curry sends Camille to the little town of Wind Gap, MO. He knows that Camille is originally from Wind Gap and hopes that might give her an “in” with the locals that other reporters won’t have. What he doesn’t know is why Camille left Wind Gap and never looked back.

Camille obediently drives back to her hometown, with her sense of dread growing all the way. When the reader is introduced to Camille’s mother, step-father, and half-sister, Amma, we begin to understand her dread. This is one screwed-up family. As Camille tries to deal with old issues while staying at her mother’s house, she also does her job and begins to investigate the recent horrific murder, as well as the year-old case. The local police chief is not too happy to have a Chicago reporter hanging around, questioning him, but Camille is persistent.

Bit by bit, as Camille investigates and begins to unravel the murder cases, the reader begins to see glimpses of Camille’s own closely held past. With her strange family, it’s no wonder she did a recent stint in a psychiatric hospital, though the exact reason for it isn’t immediately revealed. It is the combination of murder mystery and the mysteries of Camille’s own past that make this unique novel so incredibly compelling. I was hooked right from the first chapter.

The whole story is engaging, twisty, and very clever, but it’s Camille herself who holds the novel together. That is a big part of the reason why I liked Sharp Objects better than Flynn’s more popular Gone Girl. There wasn’t a single likable character in Gone Girl that I could root for. In contrast, despite Camille’s many flaws, I was rooting for her right from the beginning, and my empathy for her only grew, even as her problems and addictions were revealed. She is a flawed character but very real.

The plot itself will keep you up far past your bedtime, as it did me. It’s an excellent and suspenseful mystery, with plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing right until the end.  That, combined with such a unique leading lady as Camille, made Sharp Objects a fabulous thriller that I thoroughly enjoyed and one of my top 10 books read in 2014.

252 pages, Broadway Paperbacks

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


A dark, dreary Monday morning here - we have rain, sleet, I think a bit of snow early this morning, and very slippery roads. I had to go out in that mess this morning for a doctor's appointment, but the silver lining is that I had extra reading time while in the waiting room! Back home now, grateful to be inside our cozy house and a hot cup of herbal tea next to me.

We've all had a good reading week:
  • I finished Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt (though not in time for my book group - I left the room when they discussed the ending!). I liked it very much and thought there were a lot of different, interesting aspects of it to discuss. It starts in the 1950's in a middle-class suburb of Boston, where a divorced Jewish mother is raising her son. When her son's best friend goes missing, the lives of all who knew him well are dramatically changed forever.
  • Next, I moved on to an old favorite, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I first read it in 1999 and have considered it one of my top 5 books ever since. I am re-reading it as part of The Posionwood Bible Readalong, hosted by Tanya at Mom's Small Victories, as part of her Travel the World in Books Challenge. So far, it is just as good as I remember it - compelling, intriguing, and so very clever. If you've never read it before (or even if you have!), there's still plenty of time to join the January Readalong and enjoy this unique and powerful novel about a Southern Baptist missionary family living in the Congo in the 1960's.
  • I started a new audio book and am enjoying The Secret Sky by Atia Abawa, a teen/YA novel set in rural Afghanistan. It is engaging and emotionally powerful so far.
  • I also started a new graphic novel and am almost finished: the highly-regarded Smile by Raina Telgemeier, a middle-grade/teen novel about orthodontia and growing up. It's excellent so far, just like Sisters and Drama were.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Just After Sunset, a book of short stories by Stephen King.
  • Ken is traveling this week, so he chose a smaller paperback book to bring with him, Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo. He has enjoyed Nesbo's novels in the past, so I gave him this one for Christmas.
  • Jamie, 20, finished reading The Passage by Justin Cronin, a novel we've been telling him he'd like for years! He had some minor complaints (just because he prefers straight-up traditional fantasy), but he immediately started its sequel, The Twelve, so I think he's enjoying this complex thriller/sci fi/fantasy series.
I kept up with plenty of blog posts last week:
Summary of Books Read in December (2014 Year-End Summary coming this week!)

Review of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, adult fiction

Review of Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, a graphic novel for adults and YA

Saturday Snapshot, with some really cool sky photos

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 1/10


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

I'm having a productive bookish weekend so far - cleared off some of the unread books on my TBR bookcase (yes, an entire bookcase) and sent my husband off to the library's used book donation site with a big box full. Shedding clutter!

Anyway, here are some really cool sky photos from my neighborhood last week - just one of those days when the sky looked more interesting than everything on the ground!

A sundog!

Bare branches against blue sky & wispy clouds

Amazing clouds patterns that day

3 parallel jet trails over our neighborhood!

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend!

Friday, January 09, 2015

Fiction Review: Ghost World


As I’ve mentioned recently here, I have been exploring the world of graphic novels, especially those for YA and, for the first time, those for adults. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes is one graphic novel that often shows up on Best Of lists, including the Flavorwire 25 Essential Graphic Novels list I have been making my way through. So, I requested it from my library and read it recently. I can see why it is so highly acclaimed, though I didn’t like it as well as others I have recently read.

Ghost World is a coming-of-age story about two young girls who have grown up together and have been best friends. Enid and Rebecca have recently graduated from high school, and they are at loose ends, stuck in a kind of limbo between the artificial world of high school and the real world of adulthood. They spend a lot of time wandering around the streets of their city and sitting in diners, in a quest for the most ironic, pathetic diners they can find.

Enid and Rebecca are the very definition of snarky. Their favorite pastime is making fun of people and making up crazy stories about strangers (and sometimes friends). They are bored and unsure what to do with their lives and living in a kind of apathetic, unproductive fog that – for most people – only occurs at that particular age. They sometimes have fun together but neither of them is particularly happy. Eventually, by the end of the novel, they will both reluctantly move forward with their lives.

I didn’t relate directly to Enid and Rebecca  - I was more of a wild partying/ goal-driven teen (admittedly, a strange combination in itself)  - and am now much too old for the target audience of this graphic novel anyway! But I can see that it is a realistic, sharp, funny depiction of that in-between age where teens hover on the brink of adulthood, anxious for something to happen but not quite willing yet to completely give up their carefree childhoods. This graphic novel is the very definition of teen angst, and it shows beautifully how young adults sometimes use a sharp tongue to cover up their own anxieties and insecurities.

Besides perfectly capturing these coming-of-age moments, Ghost World is also entertaining and often funny (though, be warned, that like most 18-year olds, Enid and Rebecca can be pretty raunchy!). Although I prefer the less snarky coming-of-age story in Blankets by Craig Thompson (another graphic novel I recently read), I can see the appeal of the sarcastic, awkward tone of Ghost World, especially for its target audience. In fact, I read that it was made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch, and I would definitely like to see Enid and Rebecca come to life on the screen.

80 pages, Fantagraphics Books

     

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Fiction Review: Life After Life

--> I was enticed by the plot description of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as soon as it was released in 2013: a woman keeps reliving her life, being reborn again – always on February 11, 1910 – every time she dies. Between that and all the rave reviews, I knew that this would be a very special novel. I kept trying to convince my two book groups to choose it, but another book always got more votes. I finally found time to read it two weeks ago, the perfect ending to 2014 and the perfect book to start off the new year! I was completely captivated by this unique story from the first page to the last.

Ursula is born on February 11, 1910, in a rural town in England, into a loving family of her mother and father and older brother and sister. At least, most of the time she is born on that day – sometimes she dies in childbirth, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck during a snowstorm that prevents the local doctor from arriving to help. Thus begins the unique and wondrous repeating life of Ursula. Each time she dies – whether while being born or later in life – she starts over, on an identical snowy February day in 1910.

Ursula doesn’t remember these multiple lives, though she often has a sense of déjà vu that worries her mother and fascinates the psychologist her mother hires. And sometimes, she has a strong feeling to act in a certain way at a particular moment, not realizing that vague past memories are telling her that this moment is a critical turning point for her or her loved ones.

So, Ursula’s life goes on (and on). She enjoys an idyllic childhood with lots of sisters and brothers, playing in the meadows and woods around her home. Adolescence brings with it the usual growing pains, plus some of those critical turning points in her life. As an adult, Ursula lives through the horrors of World War II, living in London during the Blitz in most of her lives, and Atkinson’s attention to historical detail is riveting. Each of her family members grows up to live his or her own life, too.

I was riveted by Ursula’s story right from the beginning. One of the things that most fascinated me about this book (or any novel that plays with this sort of re-living theme) is how thought-provoking it was. Of course, the reader’s thoughts automatically turn to, “What if it this happened to me?” In this case, though, I was also captivated by the turning points in Ursula’s lives and the many different paths that her life took. A tiny, trivial decision – whether or not to take a walk on a lovely spring day, for example – could turn out to affect many people’s lives for many years to come. It’s endlessly fascinating to consider – and actually see in this case – the path not taken. As I suspected, this would be a wonderful book to discuss with a book group.

In some cases, Ursula’s many deaths are easy for her to avoid in the next life (thanks to those strange “feelings” and urges she gets). At other times, she lives through the same moment many different times, with different actions still ending with the same result. That’s an old time-travel tenet, that sometimes fate is stubborn and things will still end up the same way no matter what you do. In other cases, all it takes is a minor change in Ursula’s actions or those of someone near her, to save her life and drastically change its direction.

In addition to examining these small moments in one person’s life, the novel also looks at the bigger picture of world events. What’s the #1 thing people say they would do if they could go back in time? Kill Hitler before the Holocaust takes place, right? Atkinson plays with that common daydream in a unique way. The novel opens in 1930, with Ursula as a young woman in a café in Germany, sitting with Hitler, apparently quite familiar with him, and suddenly removing a gun from her purse and shooting him. How can you not read more after that opening?

With all those multiple lives and storylines, it could have been a confusing story, but Atkinson labels each chapter with the date, starts over in February 1910 whenever Ursula starts over, and includes a table of contents at the front that is very handy if you do need to go back and remind yourself of what happened on a certain date in a previous life.  She also does a great job of keeping the story from becoming redundant. Once you are familiar with Ursula’s early life, the author just stops quickly at certain key points to remind you where Ursula is and then continues the story of Ursula’s latest life wherever it departs from the previous ones.

From the historical what-ifs to the minute details of one person’s life, this novel is absolutely compelling from beginning to end. It was one of those rare books that I wanted to read in big gulps so I could find out what happened but that I also wanted to slow down toward the end so that I could make it last. It is a chest-hugger book, the kind that I finished with a big sigh and just clutched it to my chest (yes, I am a giant book nerd). Life After Life combines realistic fiction with historical fiction and a dose of the supernatural into an epic, amazing story of how one woman’s life can change the lives around her, and even the world, and how the smallest decisions can be major turning points in a life.  It is one of my favorite books read in a long time!

NOTE: The day I finished reading Life After Life, I heard on one of my favorite book podcasts that Kate Aktinson has written a companion novel, A God in Ruins, that focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy. The new novel will be released in May 2015. I’ve already told my husband that I want it for Mother’s Day!

529 pages, Back Bay Books

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Books Read in December





December was a typically busy holiday month, but with audios and graphic novels, I still managed to read six books last month:

  • Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge, teen/YA graphic novel (NYC)
  • Us by David Nicholls, audio book novel (England/Europe)
  • Hild by Nicola Griffith (England)



Out of six books, 3 were for adults, 2 for teen/YA, and one for children. Three were audios (even in a busy month, I can still listen!) and two were graphic novels. I enjoyed them all, but Us was by far my favorite - a wonderful, moving, funny novel that was excellent on audio.

I spent much of my reading month immersed in England, and I added no new states or countries to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 (end of the year is always tough for adding new locations). I read not a single book from my TBR shelves in December for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge, making it a truly dismal year for TBR reading! I listened to three more audio books for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge for a total of 26 last year - woohoo! No more nonfiction books for my Nonfiction Reading Challenge, nor any more Classics. And for my new Travel the World in Books Challenge, just started in September, I'm going to count Hild, because although it was set in England which I'm familiar with, it took place in the 7th century, and it was definitely eye-opening learning about that place in that time.

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

Monday, January 05, 2015

It's Monday 1/5! What Are You Reading?


Happy New Year!

Ah, first Monday of the new year...my favorite time of year! I love the feeling of a fresh start and a new year. My husband went back to work, my high school son went back to school (after both the holidays and two weeks off due to concussion in December). All that's left is to get my college son back on his feet after mono (and now bronchitis), then my life will return to normal. Normal? What's that??

Reading is one constant in our lives - no matter what else happens, we always have our books for comfort! Here's what we've been reading this past week:
  • I finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a highly-acclaimed novel that I've wanted to read ever since it came out last year. What a way to start the new year! I loved this novel. The unique story - of a woman who keeps dying and being reborn - and the characters completely pulled me in. It was one of those rare books that I couldn't wait to finish to find out what happens but also never wanted it to end. I think it was my favorite book of the past year and in my Top Ten of the decade, too! And I just heard this weekend that a companion novel about Teddy will be released in May - I already told my husband that's what I want for Mother's Day.
  • I read another graphic novel this week, continuing my goal to explore grown-up graphic novels. I read Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, a renowned coming-of-age graphic novel that was made into a movie. It was OK but a bit too teenage angst-y for me. I liked Blankets by Craig Thompson better. My explorations continue!
  • I started Is This Tomorrow by Carolyn Leavitt for one of my book groups this week. I was a little late starting it and worried nothing would be good enough after finishing Life After Life, but it is actually very good, and I am enjoying it so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Stephen King's Just After Sunset, a book of short stories that my Dad lent to him (we are a whole family of readers!).
  • Jamie, 20, still home sick, is reading The Passage by Justin Cronin, a book we have been telling him he'll love for years! We also sent it to my Dad for Christmas, so he and Grandpa are probably reading it at the same time. Jamie is enjoying it so far.
  • Craig, 16, normally doesn't read for pleasure, but the restrictions from his concussion had him turning to audio books last month. His restrictions were mostly lifted last week, but I was pleasantly surprised that he still wanted to listen to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Perhaps something good will come from this concussion!
Big blogging week for me last week, with 5 posts, including 3 reviews:
Review of Blankets by Craig Thompson, a graphic novel for adults

Review of Love From Paddington by Michael Bond, an audio book for children

First Book of the Year 2015!

Review of Hild by Nicola Griffith, a historical novel set in the 600's

Saturday Snapshot, with photos of a lovely hike on a rare warm day

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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


Happy New Year!