Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Monday 9/22! What Are You Reading?

I am sitting here in the quiet house, recovering after a busy weekend with house guests, a long-distance soccer game, and cooking many big meals to serve a crowd! It was another week without much time for blogging - I used my limited writing time to work on an essay - but as always, we all made time for reading:
  • I finished The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, a middle-grade novel about a young girl spending the summer with her Japanese grandparents, harvesting wheat in the heartland. Although it's set in the U.S., I counted it for the Travel the World in Books Challenge since it is partly about a different culture. It was a wonderful book, filled with warmth and humor!
  • This week is Banned Book Week, so I chose my next couple of books from the ALA'a Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000 - 2009. First, I re-read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, a classic novel that is always among the most frequently banned books. I hadn't read it since I was 16 and really didn't remember much about it. I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read and really loved the novel! I can see what it's endured for so long.
  • I was intrigued that #2 on the ALA's most frequently banned list was the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, so I figured I should try it and start with the first Alice book that was published, The Agony of Alice (1985). I just started it last night, but Alice is only twelve in this book, so I'm not sure this is one of the ones that was banned! We'll see - if I have time, I may try one of the later books when she's a teen also.
  • I have been listening to The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor, a teen/YA novel by the author of Waiting for Normal, which I loved. I think I am near the end, and it has been excellent so far - a gripping story of a teen girl trying to find her identity amidst conflicting pressures.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Reaper's Run: A Plague Wars novel by David VanDyke and Ryan King. He says it's a twist on the typical apocalyptic series - here, the plague actually heals people. He was perusing the Banned Books List last night for ideas on what to read next, getting into the spirit of the celebration!
  • Jamie, 20, read The Maze Runner by James Dashner last week and then went to see the new movie with his friends on Saturday night. He said both the book and movie were good. He hasn't chosen his next book yet.

Only one post last week:
Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a compelling novel not to be missed!

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, September 20, 2014

Fiction Review: The Goldfinch

I was completely blown away by the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Despite that, when I heard that The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, I wasn’t interested in reading it. The plot description just didn’t sound intriguing to me. Fortunately, one of my book groups chose it for our September selection. I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on this extraordinary, compelling novel. So, I will describe the novel’s premise and plot, as I always do in a review, but you should read it anyway, even if it doesn’t interest you! This is one of those books that is far more than the sum of its parts.

Theo is only thirteen years old when his mother is killed in a horrific bombing that Theo himself miraculously survives. His father left them some time ago and there is no other family nearby, so Theo moves in with the wealthy family of his old school friend. They live in a big Park Avenue apartment, filled with expensive furnishings and surrounded by servants. In this foreign environment, Theo clings to his mother’s memory with the only thing he has to remember her by – a small painting called The Goldfinch that his mother loved.

One of the pleasures of this thick novel is its inherent suspense and many twists and turns, so I won’t say much more about what happens to Theo, except that the painting continues to play a prominent role in his life as he grows up. The novel follows Theo through adolescence to young adulthood and across multiple states and countries. He makes a friend, falls in love, finds a career, and through it all, holds onto some connections that occurred during and after the bombing, as that traumatic event and loss continue to affect every aspect of his life.

Theo is a likeable character who makes a lot of mistakes; you keep rooting for him and hoping he’ll get it right. He is surrounded by a full cast of memorable characters, including his immigrant friend, Boris (the unanimous favorite among my book group), his troubled father, the kind furniture restorer who becomes a friend, the family that took him in, and many others. The story woven around these characters is absolutely captivating, as we watch Theo grow up amid all kinds of challenges.

I mistakenly thought this was a novel about art…and it is, in part, with the painting at its center. However, it’s also a novel about love and loss, about regrets and mistakes, and about how a secret kept hidden can eat you alive. It has elements of romance, suspense, coming-of-age, art history, and is even part-thriller toward the end. In short, it is an epic tale of a young boy growing up and struggling to come to terms with the loss that defined his life. I dreaded starting this huge novel, but once I began reading, I hated to set it down and often read late into the night. The Goldfinch is a compelling, moving story that will stay with you long after you finish it.

771 pages, Little, Brown and Company

P.S. At our book discussion, 9 of the 10 people who'd read the complete book loved it; one said she hated it. So, you can't please everyone, but those are pretty good odds.

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's Monday 9/15! What Are You Reading?

I just looked back at last week's Monday post where I said I was looking forward to getting back to normal - ha! My father-in-law moved here last week from Oklahoma, so the week was chock-full of helping him get settled. He arrived with a bad toothache, so he and I spent much of the week going to the dentist, oral surgeon, drugstore, etc. (he's fine now). And my husband and I spent the last few days helping him move into his apartment nearby. He seems very happy here so far, glad to not be alone anymore. He is enjoying time with us and getting to know the other residents in his independent living building. There is still a lot to do, but hopefully things will begin to settle down a bit this week.

We didn't have a lot of time for reading last week (and I had almost no time for blogging!), but here's what we're reading:
  • I finished The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, though not in time for my neighborhood book group (I still went). It was an unusual sort of novel - kind of historical fantasy set in Malaysia in 1893 since it takes place mostly in the afterlife as defined by Chinese beliefs. It was unique and interesting and was my first book for the Travel the World in Books Challenge and Readathon.
  • After reading several giant novels for various book groups this past 6 weeks, I was happy to choose anything I wanted to read next. I chose The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, a middle-grade novel about a young girl spending the summer with her Japanese grandparents, harvesting wheat in the heartland. Although it's set in the U.S., I am also counting it for the Travel the World in Books Challenge since it is partly about a different culture. I am loving it so far - the grandmother is hilarious!
  •  I didn't have any time alone last week to listen to an audio book, so I need to start a new one today.
  • My husband, Ken, finished  The Magicians by Lev Grossman on his Kindle and enjoyed it. He's looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy.
  • Now, Ken is reading Reaper's Run: A Plague Wars novel by David VanDyke and Ryan King. He says it's a twist on the typical apocalyptic series - here, the plague actually heals people.
  • I'm guessing Jamie, 20, is still reading The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price by C.L. Schneider, though I'm not sure since he is at college. He was sick last week so might have had more reading time than usual.
 Only one blog post all last week!
Review of In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, a teen/YA graphic novel

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

Teen/YA Review: In Real Life

I am fairly new to teen/YA graphic novels (though I’ve reviewed a few middle grade graphic novels). Earlier this summer, I read This One Summer and really enjoyed it, so I decided to try another YA graphic novel, In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang. It tackles some real-life issues within an engaging story.

Anda is a teen girl who enjoys playing video games. From the opening scenes, we can see that she is part of a loving family but is feeling a bit isolated, having recently moved to a new city. A speaker comes to Anda’s school to talk to the teen girls about online gaming. Girls are seriously under-represented in the world of online games, and the speaker entices the girls in Anda’s class to join a popular online game called Coarsegold and even join her “guild,” a team within the game.

Anda is interested in giving Coarsegold a try, but first she has to convince her parents that it’s safe and will be good for her to be a part of a team. They agree, and Anda is pulled into the exciting game, thrilled to be part of the guild, and loving her new kick-ass avatar.  It’s all fun, until Anda learns that some of the much-maligned “gold farmers” in the game are actually kids from around the world, earning money so their families can eat. All of a sudden, the game is more than just a game to Anda, and she tries to find a way to help a newfound friend on the other side of the world.

This novel works on several levels. It’s an interesting and engaging story of a teen girl who gains confidence and grows through her love of video games. But this book also tackles some important real-life issues: the lack of girls and female role models in the online gaming world and the economic and political issues of gold farming (where players participate in a game only so they can sell things on the black market). Not being a teen or a gamer, I’d never even heard of gold farming before, but this novel provided a good introduction, and the authors included more details in an introduction.

All in all, In Real Life is a compelling story with a likable main character who uses her compassion and intelligence to resolve a problem. Along the way, she improves her self-esteem, makes new friends, and has a lot of fun, too! The illustrations were fun to look at, with the story going back and forth between Anda’s real-world life and her experiences within the game (click here to see some sample pages). I can’t wait to read more YA graphic novels!

175 pages, First Second

Monday, September 08, 2014

It's Monday 9/8! What Are You Reading?

Late start this morning and a busy day ahead! My husband arrives back home today with his Dad, who is moving here to Delaware from Oklahoma. They spent the last week sorting, packing, and moving. Meanwhile, I got a lot done here on my own, but it was also more exhausting doing everything by myself. The dishwasher broke this weekend, we ran out of gas for the grill, and I need to run to the grocery store to stick up for the homecoming. Looking forward to getting back to "normal."

Here's what we've been reading this past week:
  • I finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tarrt last Monday. It was an amazing book, from the first page to the last. Despite its almost-800 pages, it was so compelling I could hardly stand to set it down. We had a great discussion of it at my book group last week - 9 people liked or loved it, and 1 person hated it. I'll try to write a review this week.
  • I finished an audio book, In the End by Demitria Lunetta, a teen/YA post-apocalyptic novel and sequel to In the After. I enjoyed the first book, and the second one has pulled me right in again and provided a satisfying conclusion.
  • I started - and finished! - another teen/YA audio book last week: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson. This was an unusual novel - I'm not sure quite how to categorize it - about a teen girl growing up in the midst of a serial killer on the loose in her small town. The ending was not at all what I expected - still thinking about that...
  • I started reading The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo for my neighborhood book group. It's different than I expected but good so far. Kind of historical fantasy set in Malaysia in 1893 - it takes place mostly in the afterlife as defined by Chinese beliefs. Unique and interesting so far. This is my first book for the Travel the World in Books Challenge and Readathon.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman on his Kindle, though I am guessing he didn't have very much reading time last week, with all the work they had to do! 
  • Last time I checked, Jamie, 20, was still reading The Crown of Stones: Magic-Price by C.L. Schneider. His reading time came to a screeching halt when he went back to college.
  • Craig, 16, finished Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. He and his friends who slept over this weekend admitted it wasn't too bad for a summer reading assignment!
I only wrote one review last week but squeezed in some other posts as well:
Review of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, a teen/YA that everyone should read!

2014 Big Book Summer Challenge Wrap-Up - my own big book reading this summer 

Travel the World in Books Challenge and Readathon - my sign-up
Snapshot Saturday - a few beach photos from August

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, September 06, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 9/6

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

One last Snapshot Saturday devoted to vacation pictures. After our 2-week camping trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, we came home, quickly did laundry, and left again for a weekend at the beach with my extended family. Here are just a few photos from Wildwood, NJ, a classic vacation spot on the Jersey Shore where my family has gone for several generations:

The wide, wide Wildwood beach in the morning - a rare quiet moment!

The start of Wildwood's famous 2-mile boardwalk - again, a rare quiet moment!
My husband and I riding bikes on the boardwalk.

A multi-color view of my mom, sister, cousins, niece, and I!

My sweet nephew chasing the seagulls, just like his mom used to do!
Hope you are enjoying a nice weekend!

Friday, September 05, 2014

Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge and Readathon

Now that my own Big Book Summer Challenge has ended, I've decided to add a new challenge to my current Reading Challenges: the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, co-hosted by one of my favorite bloggers, Tanya of Mom's Small Victories.

The rules are pretty simple because you make your own rules! The general idea is to challenge yourself to read books either set in other places, about other cultures, or by authors from other places/cultures, and you set your own timing and goals. Since I normally participate in annual challenges, I've chosen an odd timing for my goals of about 16 months, just so it'll coincide with my other Reading Challenges that will start in January and end in December 2015:

  • To read at least 10 books set in other places/cultures by the end of 2015

I'll track my progress on my main Challenge Page - I already track where my books take place for the Where Are You Reading Challenge anyway.

OK, I guess that's it - easy-peasy. If you want to sign-up yourself, just use the above link and choose your own goals.

Now, they are also hosting a Readathon within the challenge: Travel the World in Books Readathon, running from September 1 - 14. I'm a bit late, but it's been a busy week! This works well for me because I am already reading The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo for my neighborhood book group next week - it is set in Malaysia and about Chinese culture, so it's a perfect fit. No idea what I'll read after that, but I have overflowing TBR shelves to choose from!

It's not too late for you, either - head over and sign up for the Readathon and be eligible for their giveaways (better late than never is pretty much my life motto!)

Teen/YA Review: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

I read Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick this spring and loved how the book dealt with mental illness in such an entertaining yet educational way. In Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, a teen/YA novel, Quick accomplishes the same amazing thing – he takes a difficult, sensitive topic and deals with it in an honest, warm, and even humorous way. This is an emotionally powerful novel for both teens and adults that has stuck with me strongly in the two months since I listened to it on audio.

The novel is narrated by Leonard Peacock himself (yes, that’s his real name), on his 18th birthday. He doesn’t expect anyone to remember his birthday, but he has his own plans for commemorating it: shooting first his ex-best friend/current bully, Asher, and then himself with his grandfather’s old gun from WWII. It’s clear from the start that Leonard is hurting and has been tormented somehow by Asher, but his past, his pain, and his motives only gradually come to light.

Along with the gun, Leonard also fills his backpack with four gifts that he has carefully wrapped for the four people he considers friends. He wants to leave each of them something meaningful to remember him by, as a thank you and a kind of apology for “not sticking around longer,” as he puts it. Those friends who’ve touched his life include a grumpy, elderly neighbor with whom he watches old Humphrey Bogart movies; a violin prodigy at his school whose music has touched him; a gorgeous teen girl he has a crush on who is an Evangelical Christian and wants to convert him; and his Holocaust Class teacher, whom Leonard suspects has secrets of his own.

The entire novel takes place in a single day. At first, Leonard’s joking, brash voice is only disturbing, even disgusting, to the reader, as he plans his murder/suicide. Soon, though, you realize that underneath the bravado, Leonard is scared and feeling hopeless, having been humiliated (by exactly what, we don’t know), and feeling as if this is the only way out. His father left, his mother mostly lives in Manhattan, 2 hours away, to further her fashion career and spend time with her boyfriend, and Leonard truly feels abandoned.

At this point, you are probably thinking that this sounds like a horribly depressing book, but it isn’t. Quick’s talent is to take a rarely-discussed subject, like teen suicide, and open it up to the sunlight, investigating it with warmth, humanity, and even a bit of humor. As Leonard goes about his day, the reader is not only eager to find out what’s behind his desperation but also hopeful that one of Leonard’s gift recipients – or anyone else he comes in contact with that day – will see his desperation and reach out to help him, to save him. You can tell that deep down inside, this is what Leonard wants, too. That sense of hope, alongside desperation, pervades the entire book.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is one of the most emotionally powerful novels I’ve ever read. It touched me deeply, and I still think about it and its characters, months later. Hearing the story on audio, narrated by Leonard himself, was especially powerful, though I see that the paper book has its own advantages, as Leonard has heavily footnoted his narrative (the footnotes were read on the audio, though I didn’t realize they were footnotes). The story moves along quickly, with suspense building as Leonard gets closer and closer to his final goal for that day, with the reader thinking that surely someone will notice and reach out to him.

Teen shootings and suicides are rampant in our modern world, so there must be a lot of Leonard Peacocks out there who need someone to notice their pain and reach out to help them. This warm, moving, important novel should be required reading for everyone on the planet.

Hachette Audio
(I downloaded this audio book free through the SYNC program - be sure to check it out next summer!) 

Matthew Quick's introduction to his novel:

Listen to an audiobook excerpt here


Tuesday, September 02, 2014

2014 Big Book Summer Challenge Wrap-Up

Yesterday was Labor Day here in the U.S., the unofficial end of summer...and the official end of my 2014 Big Book Summer Challenge!

At the start of the summer, I set out a plan to read 6 Big Books (i.e. over 400 pages) this summer - you can check out my proposed list here.

As of bedtime last night, I read the last page of my 5th Big Book for the summer! I had to make some changes to my plans when I discovered that one of my book groups chose The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt to discuss on September 4. So, I subbed that for my last two (since it is almost 800 pages!). It was a good swap - I loved The Goldfinch, and now I am all ready for our discussion on Thursday.

So, here are the 5 Big Books I read this summer:
  • Emma by Jane Austen, 487 pages (I have never read a Jane Austen!)
  • 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 enjoyed all of these! I haven't written reviews yet of The Interestings or The Goldfinch because I like to wait until after book discussions, so I can include broader perspectives besides my own opinion. So, look for those two next week.

Did you read any Big Books this summer?

If you signed up for the Big Book Summer Challenge, be sure to stop by the challenge page and leave links to your big book reviews and/or your wrap-up post (though a wrap-up isn't required). Hope you had fun reading your big books this summer - I did!

Monday, September 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of Books Read in July

Weekend Cooking, with some easy but tasty summer recipes

Snapshot Saturday, with photos from our recent trip to Vermont 

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Weekend Cooking 8/31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Snapshot Saturday

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

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

Cloudy sunset over Waterbury Reservoir at Little River SP

The best part of camping - evening campfires!

My sons kayaking on Waterbury Reservoir - perfect day!

The view from my kayak

Our beloved pop-up - home away from home!

Me in front of gorgeous Moss Glen Falls

Hope you are having a lovely Labor Day weekend!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Good Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

470 pages, Simon & Schuster


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Books Read in July

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fiction Review: Emma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, August 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weekend Cooking 8/24

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you are enjoying good food this weekend!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Saturday Snapshot 8/23

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

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

My son at the river running through Dolly Copp Campground

Crystal Cascade, White Mountains

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

Stairs Fall. White Mountains

My sons, just below Coosauk Fall

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

My son and I at Artist's Bluff

Riding the Wildcat Mtn. ski lift up for ziplining

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Monday, August 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

304 pages, Putnam Juvenile/ Listening Library

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