Tuesday, August 20, 2019

TV Tuesday: The Widow

Adrift without any of our favorite On Demand shows on network or cable this summer, my husband and I have been trying out some new shows on streaming (we have Netflix and Amazon Prime). I recently wrote here about Hanna, which we both loved, so we decided to try another new show on Amazon, The Widow, a fast-paced thriller that we both enjoyed.

Kate Beckinsale plays Georgia, a widow living a solitary life in a remote corner of Wales and still clearly grieving over her husband's presumed death three years earlier in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when a plane crashed and everyone on board was killed. She sees a news story about a riot from DRC on television, and becomes certain she spotted Will, her husband, on the streets. She flies to DRC herself and connects with one of Will's old colleagues, Judith (played by Alex Kingston, one of our old favorites from the days of ER), in the aid organization where he used to work. She also contacts Emmanuel, played by Jacky Ido, whose wife was also killed on that same flight; the two got to know each other in the days after the crash, while waiting for news of its victims. No one else believes that Will is still alive, but Georgia's friends offer to help her, as she follows leads through DRC and Rwanda. She quickly zeroes in on Pieter Bello, played by Bart Fouche, another person she met in the days after the crash, who seems to be somehow involved. Meanwhile, the audience sees flashbacks and present-day scenes of exactly how the plane crashed (hint: not the way it was reported) and that there was one survivor, Ariel, a man from Iceland, who kept his survival a secret because he knew too much about the crash. Georgia follows clues across central Africa, while one dangerous secret after another is revealed.

We both enjoyed this action-packed international mystery-thriller that is something of a mini-series, telling a complete story in just eight episodes. It's one of those stories that is built on a house of cards of lies, secrets, and illegal activities, so there is plenty of suspense that kept us coming back every night to find out what was going on and what really happened to Will. The acting is good, we liked the characters (except the ones we were meant to hate), and we enjoyed the unusual setting, in places we personally know little about. Some of the motivations and explanations for characters' actions seemed a little far-fetched to us, but we went with the flow. On the other hand, there is a very moving plotline about child soldiers, with an outstanding performance by a young girl, Shalom Nyandiko, that we both found very powerful and well-done. There are lots of surprises in this twisty and entertaining thriller, and we enjoyed this short series filled with adventure and suspense.

The Widow is an Amazon Prime original, so it is available only on Amazon, free with a Prime membership.


Monday, August 19, 2019

Movie Monday: Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood

My birthday gift from my son was lunch and a movie, just the two of us, so we planned a day off last week, before he starts his senior year of college and things get hectic. Since I need to nap in the afternoon, we went to a 10 am showing at a local recliner theater. It was decadent seeing a movie right after breakfast (and having popcorn in the morning)! We saw Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, and we both loved it, in spite of our different ages and experiences. It has been called Quentin Tarantino's love letter to old Hollywood, and it is that - and a whole lot more.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, an actor who has made his career mostly in westerns and other action thrillers, including as the star of a TV western called Bounty Law. Now, he is worried that the best years of his career are over and is upset when director Marvin Schwarz, played by Al Pacino, suggests he move to Italy to star in a "spaghetti western." Rick's best friend and stunt double is Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Their careers rise and fall together, though Rick is a well-known star, and no one knows who Cliff is, but that doesn't seem to bother the easy-going, always-grinning friend. The two hang out at Rick's house, which is next door to the home of director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. For now, Cliff is driving Rick around town, and Rick is trying to get Cliff hired as his stunt double, though Cliff's reputation gets in the way. One day while Rick is working, Cliff picks up a pretty hitchhiker named Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley, and drives her to where she lives, at the Spahn Ranch, which had been rented out for many western movie and TV sets in the past, including Rick's Bounty Law. Since Cliff knows the place, he wants to look around and say hello to the owner, George Spahn, but the ranch is now the home of Charles Manson's "family," and they are not happy about this stranger poking around. As Rick and Cliff continue with their lives, tension builds with Manson and his family in the background.

We both loved this movie, though as my son whispered to me during the first half of it, "this isn't like the usual Tarantino movie!" He was referring to the graphic violence that Tarantino is known for in films like Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Django Unchained. And he's right...until the last scene in the movie, and then we said, "oh, yeah, this IS a Tarantino movie!" But for much of the film, the renowned director has recreated the Golden Age of Hollywood in a way that completely immerses you in the darkened theater (this is a great movie to see on the big screen) with the sights and sounds of 1969. Sure, he's got the cars and fashions, but he goes way beyond that, with classic Hollywood places, billboards, and neon, plus the sound background of 1969, not just in the music in the soundtrack, but in ads heard and the patter of the radio DJ playing songs barely remembered while Cliff drives around town in his car. It's all just so much fun. Of course, most of us remember what happened on August 9, 1969, and the presence of Charles Manson and his crew provide an ominous threat behind the scenes, but Tarantino has some unexpected and clever surprises in store for the audience.  And, of course, the all-star cast is just outstanding, especially DiCaprio and Pitt. Besides the actors I mentioned above in major roles, there are plenty of other big-time stars in minor roles, including Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, and Luke Perry in his last role. In addition, many Hollywood stars of the time are depicted, like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen. The historical aspect was lost on my son (though I filled him in a bit), but we both still thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this engrossing, funny, gripping two-and-a-half hour immersive experience that left us with smiles on our face and still talking about the movie days later. Highly recommended. Oh, and be sure to hang around for the credits for a bonus scene.

Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood is currently showing in theaters. You can check for local showtimes and locations and buy tickets (go for those recliner seats!) through Fandango:




You can also pre-order Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood on streaming and DVD (both due out sometime in mid-fall) through Amazon.And don't forget that fabulous movie soundtrack, which includes both music and classic ads and is available now (you can listen to a sample of the album at that link).



It's Monday 8/19! What Are You Reading?

I know this is an unpopular opinion and makes me sound like an old grump...but I am SO glad the end of August is approaching and summer is almost over! Friends are posting on Facebook about how they never want summer to end, but I have had enough of this unbearable heat and humidity. This week, we are back in the mid-90's with the heat index back over 100. I miss my walks! I miss my outdoor time! I want to wear jeans and sweatshirts and SOCKS again! OK, I am done ranting. Just two more weeks...

Meanwhile, we had another crisis-filled week with several issues with family members and lots of rushing around and emotional stress. Our sons left on Friday for their annual week with my mom and her husband (and their cousins), sailing to Block Island, RI, aka The Grandchildren's Cruise! This is the highlight of the summer for them every year, even though they are both now in their 20's, and all crises seemed to be resolved by the time they left, so hopefully, they will have a wonderful and relaxing week. And I have five weekdays alone in the house with plenty of quiet time for writing! My husband and I did have to cancel our planned weekend getaway because his elderly father has been sick, but we managed to have some fun this weekend, having dinner with good friends and going to see The Art of Racing in the Rain, adapted from a novel that we both loved. The movie was excellent (I sobbed my eyes out), and on Sunday, we went out for breakfast and then to a local museum we'd never been to before, The Brandywine River Art Museum, which features the work of local artists, especially three generations of Wyeths. We really enjoyed it, and N.C. Wyeth's many stunning book illustrations (especially from Treasure Island, which we read with our kids) were our favorites.


So, the week ended well. One good thing about summer is my Big Book Summer Challenge, which we are all enjoying here. Here's what we've been reading:

I am still reading the fast-paced, post-apocalyptic thriller, The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin, which is the third and final book in the trilogy that began with The Passage and The Twelve, about a government experiment gone wrong and a really nasty virus that turns people into vampire-like (but not exactly vampires) "virals." I love this series, as do my husband and son (my husband already finished it, and my son, like me, finished the first two). I am LOVING this book, even more than the second one! It begins just three years after The Twelve ended, and though I learned my lesson and read a long synopsis of the last book online before I started this one, it did a decent job of reminding me how the last one ended and who everyone was (this time I knew to look for a list of characters at the back). It's engrossing and compelling, the kind of book that's making me stay up too late every night and talk out loud to the book (which my husband finds hilarious). It's so much fun to get completely absorbed in a novel like this!

On audio, I finished listening to another Big Book, Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman, a YA book based on the real-life lives of Vincent Van Gogh and his beloved younger brother, Theo. This was a freebie from SYNC this summer. I have heard great things about this book, but I enjoyed it even more than I expected to. It's a fascinating biography of Van Gogh, but it is also an in-depth look at his family and his childhood and of the time (Europe in the 1860's-90's). It's so interesting to hear how his artistic talent and career began but also how his mental illness began to show small signs even from childhood. References to particular paintings as his artistic talent grows kept sending me to my laptop to look at them, though once I realized there were drawings in the print version, I requested it from my library and pored over it - some books just demand both audio and print! The book is based on over 600 letters between the brothers and between them and other members of the family. I was so inspired that I used a birthday gift card to buy myself some Starry Night sneakers this week.


Now, I have moved onto one last Big Book on audio, The Desert Sky Before Us by Anne Valente. I received an ARC of this book for possible review in the spring, and I was interested in it but didn't have the time to fit it in, so I was glad to also get the audio for review this summer. It's the story of two very different sisters who take a road trip, arranged by their mother before her death, to travel from Illinois to Utah, where they have permission to have a second funeral. Their mother was a paleontologist, one sister is a former race car driver, and the other one just got out of prison for arson. The reader knows from the start that both sisters have secrets, though I suspect that more secrets will be revealed. I was most enticed by the road trip aspect of this novel, and it is even better than I hoped so far.

My husband, Ken, decided to read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein before we went to see the movie. I read this wonderful novel back in 2009, about a year after its release and absolutely loved it. I didn't remember all the plot points (until we saw the movie Saturday), but I remembered laughing and crying and writing down quotes - all signs of a great book for me. It's narrated by a dog named Enzo (not usually my thing, but this is an outstanding book - see my review at the link) whose owner, Denny, is a race car driver. My husband also enjoyed it very much last week, and he finished it on Friday so that we could see the movie this weekend. The movie was also excellent (more laughter and more tears!), and our two friends who had not read the book enjoyed it, too. Movie review coming next Monday here.

Now, Ken has turned his attention back to Big Books, though he's not sure if he'll finish this one by Labor Day in two weeks. He's reading Creole Belle by James Lee Burke, a prolific and well-loved novelist that neither of us has ever read before. I bought this one for him for Father's Day at Northshire Bookstore during Booktopia because I was looking for a new thriller series he might enjoy. The series features Detective Dave Robicheaux on the Gulf Coast and from what I read, it sort of combines elements of westerns and thrillers. There are more than 20 books in this series, but I chose this one because it was recommended by the booksellers and it is set in New Orleans, where we used to live. We always enjoy reading books set in our favorite city, and my husband also lived in the Houston area for almost ten years, so I think he'll really like the Gulf Coast setting.

Our 24-year old son, Jamie, is enjoying Death's Merchant, book one in the Common Among Gods series by Justan Henner. He says it's a really original story about gods and humans, but not the familiar Greek or Roman gods. I see it's been described as an "epic fantasy" and "1200-page doorstopper full of captivating characters and humor." Yup, that sounds right up his alley! I can tell he's enjoying it because he's been reading a lot. He won't have a lot of reading time out on the boat with his younger cousins this week, but I'm sure he'll fit in a little bit!




Blog posts from last week:
Fiction Review: Three New Novels - a catch-up post with reviews I wrote for Shelf Awareness of three new novels that I enjoyed.

Teen/YA Review: Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman - wonderful biography of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother.

Saturday Snapshot: Still Hot, Hot, Hot! - photos from our local nature center in full summer lushness.

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

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

What are you and your family reading this week?

Just two weeks left (until September 2), so if you've been participating in the Big Book Summer Challenge, finish up your Big Books and post reviews and/or in the Goodreads group. If you haven't signed up yet but want to join the fun, there is still plenty of time to fit in a Big Book before summer ends, especially a 400-500 pager. All the details, including the link to the Goodreads group are on the Big Book Summer Challenge page.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Saturday Snapshot: Still Hot, Hot, Hot!

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at A Web of Stories (same host as always but with a new blog - check it out!).

After our lovely, cool camping trip to Rickett's Glen State Park a few weeks ago, I was determined to keep enjoying the outdoors at home, in spite of continued heat and humidity. I'm trying, but it is still so uncomfortable here! One day last week, I left the house right after breakfast for a short hike at our local nature center "before it got too hot." It was already jungle-like outside, with unbearable heat and humidity plus loads of tiny, biting gnats in the air, so I can't say it was a very enjoyable hike...but it was still beautiful! Everything is green and lush. Here are a few highlights from our lovely Ashland Nature Center in Delaware, in hot August:

Stairs to the start of the trail

Flowers in full bloom in the butterfly garden

Path through the lush greenness
Boardwalk is overgrown now but we used to look for tadpoles here when kids were small!

One of Delaware's two covered bridges

Boardwalk through the trees

Hope you are enjoying the weekend and staying cool! (we plan to hit the movie theater later today)

Friday, August 16, 2019

Teen/YA Review: Vincent and Theo

I want everyone to read this marvelous, award-winning book and feel that my post title is misleading because although this fascinating history about the lives of Vincent Van Gogh and his brother is written and published as a YA book, it will appeal widely to adults as well. To be clear, I am not much of an art enthusiast and really know very little about art, though I can recognize a few of Van Gogh's best-known paintings and like them. But I kept hearing great things about Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman, so I downloaded a free audio from SYNC this summer. I loved every minute of this engrossing audio book, and when I realized the print edition has drawings and paintings in it, I got a copy from my local library and pored over that as well.

Vincent Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853 to parents Anna and Dorus. Younger brother Theo came into his life four years later, followed by other brothers and sisters, but Vincent always had a special bond with Theo. The two brothers would take long walks outdoors as children and as they grew, had long talks about their lives and their futures. Though Vincent's path in life was a windy, oft-changing one, Theo started working in the art world when he was still a teenager, working for galleries first in the Netherlands and later in Paris, in the heart of the art scene. Meanwhile, Vincent moved around Europe, working as a teacher, wanting to be a minister, and only gradually focusing on the drawing and painting he had done since childhood, carefully and slowly honing his craft through lessons, mentorships, and lots and lots of practice. Eventually, Vincent and Theo lived together in Paris, as Vincent's talent grew and, more slowly, his reputation built. Of course, his mental illness (he is thought to have probably had bipolar disorder) also grew during those years, though he fought hard against the "melancholia" that sometimes gripped him and recognized the importance of sunlight and nature in his life. Even when they were living in separate cities, Vincent and Theo stayed connected through constant, often daily letters. Theo was not only close to Vincent personally but worked hard to promote his work in the art world. The dedication in this book reads, "The world would not have Vincent without Theo."

This engaging, fascinating story of two brothers who cared so deeply for each other (in spite of not always agreeing) is told beautifully. The author based the book on more than 650 letters between the brothers and between them and other friends and family, and she uses their own words to bring their lives to life on the page. The book is framed as a series of Galleries, each representing a certain phase in their lives (and in Vincent's art, too), and the print book is filled with Vincent's drawings and rough sketches (with a section in the middle with full-color photos of some of the paintings mentioned in the book). The end of the print book is filled with additional information: people in their lives, a timeline, author's note, and bibliography. Learning the background of such a famous painter is fascinating, as is the history behind some of his well-known works of art, and I was often setting down my audio book to pick up my laptop and look at the paintings. But, this is ultimately a story of unwavering dedication and love between brothers that is tender and loving and often, heart-breaking. Despite my usual lack of interest in art, I was completely engrossed in this compelling book, both listening to it and perusing the drawings in the print edition. I was so inspired that I bought myself a pair of hand-painted sneakers based on The Starry Night!

427 pages, Henry Holt and Company

Dreamscape Media (audio)




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

Do yourself a favor and listen to this sample of the compelling audio book. It begins with a prologue and gives you an idea of how the story is told from the brothers' perspectives.


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

Or you can order Vincent and Theo from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Fiction Review: Three New Novels

With such a busy spring and summer here, I got a little bit behind in sharing my book reviews that appeared on Shelf Awareness, so here is a little catch up. I reviewed these three novels this spring. They are each very different from each other, but I enjoyed them all.

A Good Enough Mother by Bev Thomas (full review at the link) is a slow-burn psychological thriller. Ruth is a therapist who works in London for the National Health Service, but she is suffering at least as much as her patients because her own son went missing a year ago. When a young man is assigned to her reminds her of her son, she knows she should ask another therapist to take the case, but she is drawn to helping him. You know all along that something bad is going to happen, but the tension of this suspense novel keeps you reading, with flashbacks to before her son's disappearance and plenty of creepy foreshadowing.

Abi Maxwell was one of the wonderful authors featured at Booktopia 2019 in Vermont this May, and I had the chance to read and review her second novel, The Den, in time for the event (full review at the link). This is the story of two sets of sisters, set 150 years apart on the same piece of land in New England, one modern story and one historical one that are interwoven in a clever way. You can read the details in my review; I enjoyed this atmospheric and intriguing novel. I also enjoyed meeting Abi at Booktopia and talking to her about the novel (including that haunting picture on the cover!). Now, I'm interested in reading her first novel, Lake People.

Last Day by Domenica Ruta (full review at the link) is an entirely different kind of novel. The world that Ruta has created in this novel is pretty much the same as ours, with one big difference: every year on May 28, the whole world celebrates Last Day. This unique holiday assumes that the world will end the next day, and while some cultures still celebrate the spiritual aspects of the day, in the modern Western world, the day is mostly celebrated with beer and barbecues and all kinds of excess. Despite the oddity of the plot, this is a character-driven novel, about several different people in the Boston area whose paths cross on this particular Last Day. It's a thoughtful novel that I enjoyed.

So, that finally catches me up (and I can finally close those windows in my browser!).

Have you read any of these books yet? Or any other new releases that you enjoyed recently?

Monday, August 12, 2019

It's Monday 8/12! What Are You Reading?


Whew, busy week...and an even busier one ahead! I got lots of writing done during the week and finished an article that was due, plus errands, groceries, etc. This weekend was a major shopping expedition to Target, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods (all clustered together about 30 min away), though it was far easier with my husband along to help! We recently found out that our son is gluten intolerant (possibly celiac), so although we normally eat Paleo, we weren't too strict about the grains side of it (especially him, as a 24-year old!). Lots of changes now, so we tried to get him plenty of easy gluten-free options. Sunday, since it was "only" low 80's and slightly lower humidity, we did some much-overdue yard work, but I went WAY past my limits (I have a chronic illness that restricts me). So, the front bed looks better, and I weeded most of it, but I was wiped out afterward. And, did you know that Saturday was National Lazy Day?? (thanks, Twitter) We should have celebrated that special day!

Of course, we always enjoy our books! Here's what we've been reading this past week:

Last week, I mentioned that I was struggling with a Big Book for my summer challenge (from my big pile!), a classic I have wanted to read for years, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I was finding it repetitive and tedious and really was not enjoying it. I rarely set a book aside without finishing it (it's a high bar for me, like I did set aside the one that was narrated by a pond when the mother began having sexual fantasies about her 13-year old son - yup, I'm out.) I posted polls on Facebook and Twitter and was inundated by responses basically saying, "Life's too short and there are too many great books out there"! So, a little more than halfway through Catch-22, I set it aside. I may pick it up again later, but the relief I felt was a sign that it was the right move for me.

So, my next Big Book selection was in the total opposite direction - a fast-paced, post-apocalyptic thriller, City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin, which is the third and final book in the trilogy that began with The Passage and The Twelve. I love this series, as do my husband and son (my husband already finished it, and my son, like me, finished the first two). I am LOVING this book so far! It begins just three years after The Twelve ended, and though I learned my lesson and read a long synopsis of the last book online before I started this one, it did a decent job of reminding me how the last one ended and who everyone was (this time I knew to look for a list of characters at the back). It's engrossing and compelling, the kind of book that's making me stay up too late every night and read at random times when I would normally feel the need to be productive!

On audio, I am still listening to another Big Book, Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman, a YA novel based on the real-life lives of Vincent Van Gogh and his beloved younger brother, Theo. This was a freebie from SYNC this summer. I have heard great things about this book, but I am enjoying it even more than I expected to. It's a fascinating biography of Van Gogh, but it is also an in-depth look at his family and his childhood and of the time (Europe in the 1860's-90's). It's so interesting to hear how his artistic talent and career began but also how his mental illness began to show small signs even from childhood. References to particular paintings as his artistic talent grows keep sending me to my laptop to look at them, though I just realized there are drawings in the print version, so I requested it from my library - some books just demand both audio and print! The novel is based on over 600 letters between the brothers and between them and other members of the family.

My husband, Ken, just finished a thriller with a great sense of humor, August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones. I met Jones at Booktopia this year, and my husband and I both enjoyed his second novel in the series, Lives Laid Away, so I bought book one while I was there. It was perfect for his short business trip last week, and he enjoyed it very much, even more than the second one. Now, it's my turn next! This will definitely be among my fall reads during the RIP Challenge.
Our 24-year old son, Jamie, is enjoying Death's Merchant, book one in the Common Among Gods series by Justan Henner. He says it's a really original story about gods and humans, but not the familiar Greek or Roman gods. I see it's been described as an "epic fantasy" and "1200-page doorstopper full of captivating characters and humor." Yup, that sounds right up his alley! I can tell he's enjoying it because he's been reading a lot.






 Blog posts from last week:
TV Tuesday: Hanna - combination thriller and coming-of-age story - totally unique and compelling

Fiction Review: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd - an original post-apocalyptic story

My Summary of Books Read in July - it was a Big Book reading month!

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

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

What are you and your family reading this week?

Friday, August 09, 2019

Books Read in July

July was all about my Big Book Summer Challenge! Here's what I finished reading last month:



So, I read 5 books in all in July, and all of them were Big Books (i.e. over 400 pages), even my audios! It was an all-fiction month for me, which I always enjoy, with a mix of adult and middle-grade/teen books. Two of the five were listened to on audio. I'm going to cheat and choose TWO favorites because this was my second time reading The Time Traveler's Wife, and it is still in my Top 5 Favorite Books of all time and still made me sob uncontrollably, even though I knew what was coming. Since I already knew that one was a favorite, I also want to give some love to If You Want to Make God Laugh, another wonderful novel from the author of Hum If You Don't Know the Words that I read in record time and loved.

Progress in 2019 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges:

Mount TBR Reading Challenge - Just 2 of my 5 books were from my own shelves, low for a Big Book Summer month, but one was brand-new and I'm not counting audios (though the challenge allows you to) because they don't take up physical space! However, I should get extra credit for Fly By Night which sat on my shelf for 11+ years!

Monthly Motif Reading Challenge - July was Through the Years month, to read a book that has something to do with time, so of course The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was a perfect fit.

Back to the Classics Challenge - No new classics this month - I tried to get through Catch-22 but set it aside about halfway through.

Monthly Keyword Challenge - I didn't read a single book with any of the monthly keywords in the title...again, for the 7th month in a row! Nope, not one all year so far. Clearly this challenge wasn't a good choice for me.

Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2019 - No nonfiction last month.

Diversity Reading Challenge - Two of my books were diverse.

Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge - I added a second book set in South Africa (both by the talented Bianca Marais!).

2018 Literary Escapes Challenge - I added 2 new states: Illinois and Virginia.
2019 Big Book Summer Challenge - I added five more Big Books for a total of 7 so far this summer.
Finally, Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - not really a challenge per se, but a fun game that I play each month. I filled in 17 squares in July - not bad for 5 books:

Spaces Filled In:
Airborn - in a series, death/murder, audio book
The Time Traveler's Wife - travel - space/time/distance, read a physical book, made into a movie
Fly By Night - spy, thief, shelf love
The Book of M - dual or multiple POV,  free book, not in a series
If You Want to Make God Laugh - BBQ/grilling/cookout, foreign country, pet
All Books! - long - over 400 pages
Free Space

What was your favorite book read in July? 

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Fiction Review: The Book of M

When The Book of M by Peng Shepherd was first released last summer, and I heard the post-apocalyptic story being compared to Station Eleven and The Passage (two of my favorites), I was eager to read it. By the end of the year, it had appeared on several Best of 2018 lists and accrued other recognition. This summer, I finally had time to listen to this unique novel on audio, as part of my Big Book Summer Challenge. It lived up to my expectations and kept me captivated.

The novel begins a couple of years after a very odd apocalypse and follows several different characters, also flashing back to the beginnings of the tragedy, when a man in India lost his shadow one bright, sunny day. Soon, he began to lose his memory, as the world looked on, and his condition quickly spread to others. In a short time, this strange phenomena spread all over the world, with millions of people losing their shadows and then, gradually, their memories. Ory and his wife, Max, have survived so far, in a remote hotel in a wooded area near Washington, DC. They had been attending a wedding when the disaster hit their area, so the wedding party and guests and hotel staff holed up in the facility, until one by one, they each succumbed and wandered away (or worse). Ory and Max are the only ones of their friends left at the hotel, but Max lost her shadow recently, so the two of them are watching and waiting for her to start losing memories. Worried that she might become dangerous to Ory, Max leaves, but Ory sets off in search of her. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a young woman named Naz who came to the US to train for the Olympic archery team, is terrified and alone as the disaster unfolds around her. Eventually, they each find others and all parties make their way to New Orleans, where strange rumors provide hope.

The novel mostly goes back and forth between narration from Ory and from Naz, with some other narrators, like Max, popping up at certain points. In this way, readers get to see the worldwide tragedy unfold from different perspectives and see its personal costs up close, even from the shadowless, as they struggle to maintain their memories and humanity. Slowly and gradually, the story becomes one of a quest, as the different parties all head to New Orleans in very different ways, while the reader also gets the perspective of the main character there who is the source of the strange rumors. It's intriguing right from the very first page, and the suspense builds, with plenty of action to keep the reader interested. As in any post-apocalyptic story, there is a lot of conflict and violence (fiction writers paint a pretty bleak picture of humankind after a tragedy!). The underlying concept is wholly unique and thought-provoking, though: losing memory as a result of losing shadows. The reasons behind the catastrophe are never found, but it provides plenty of fodder for a fascinating post-apocalyptic tale. Some very strange results of this phenomena occasionally veer into the fantastical. I was riveted by the audio production, which uses a male and female narrator, from beginning to end. This original novel provides plenty of depth and character interplay in the context of a compelling story, with growing tension that kept me rapt.

496 pages, William Morrow Paperbacks
HarperAudio


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

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Listen to a sample of the excellent audio book, in an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, from Ory's perspective.


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

Or you can order The Book of M from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

TV Tuesday: Hanna

Earlier this summer, without much of interest on cable, my husband and I turned to streaming and finally watched Hanna, an Amazon Prime show he'd been bugging me to try. He was right - it was amazing! This unique and suspenseful show was engrossing, and now we can't wait for season two.

In the opening scenes of Hanna, Eric, played by Joel Kinnaman, rescues a baby from some sort of isolated institutional facility in Romania. He tries to escape with a woman (clearly, the baby's mother), but the car is blown up. We next see Eric living in a cave in the woods with a teenage girl named Hanna, played by Esme Creed-Miles. He has brought her up there, in the middle of a deep forest in Romania, and is training her intensely: for strength, agility, self-defense, and even in multiple languages. The two have formed a father-daughter bond. One day, Hanna ignores his frequent warnings and goes further than she's ever been allowed to go before. She meets another person (she's never seen anyone but Eric before), a teen boy working in the lumber industry, helping with his dad's business. Hanna begins to experience normal life for the first time, including her first taste of Snickers(!), but her journey outside their boundaries attracts some unwanted attention. Soon, there are military-types after both she and Eric, and they are each forced to go on the run separately. Eric has drilled her as to what to do in this sort of situation, so Hanna is curiously adept at fleeing through various countries and evading capture, though sweetly naive in just about everything else. A woman named Marissa, played by Mireille Enos, is an ex-CIA agent heading up the forces looking for the two runaways, as she tries to cover up something from her past.

Hanna oddly combines a sci fi-type thriller with a funny coming-of-age story, but it works beautifully. The stories of Hanna's beginnings, why she is unique, and who is after her are revealed gradually throughout the first season. She and Eric, both separately and together, are chased all over Europe (and a bit of Africa, too) by Marissa and her team, as Eric scrambles to make contact with old friends and get some help. Many of the episodes are action-packed and suspenseful (and sometimes quite violent), but there are also sweet and often hilarious scenes of Hanna experiencing the outside world for the first time, making her first friend, and testing out what it feels like to be a normal teen-ager. All of the acting is excellent, and it's wonderful to see Enos and Kinnaman back together on screen (though on opposite sides now) - we loved the duo in The Killing (another great show). But Creed-Miles steals the show as Hanna, giving an intense performance where she is alternatively scary strong and sweetly innocent. In all, it is highly entertaining and wholly addictive. We were hooked after the first episode and can't wait for a second season.

Hanna is an Amazon Prime original, so it is only available on Amazon (note that there was also a movie based on the same basic framework called Hanna from 2011, but the link will take you directly to the new TV show).



Monday, August 05, 2019

It's Monday 8/5! What Are You Reading?

This will be a two-week update today because last Monday I was camping at Rickett's Glen State Park in the lovely, cool Pocono Mountains of PA with friends. It was a much-needed, relaxing getaway for a few days (you can see some photos here). I was not only not online, but we didn't even have basic cell service up there. Just hiking, kayaking, campfires, good food, great company, and - of course - books!


Here's what we've all been reading the past two weeks, with lots of progress in the Big Book Summer Challenge:

I finished reading the newly-released If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais in record time. Bianca is a two-time Booktopia author, and I absolutely loved her first novel, Hum If You Don't Know the Words, a contender for my favorite book of the year. As with that first novel, this new one is also set in South Africa, though just after apartheid in this case, in 1994, when Nelson Mandela has just been elected and AIDS is beginning to tear across the country. Three very different women narrate the novel. Seventeen-year-old Zodwa lives in a squatter camp just outside of Johannesburg with her mother and is pregnant. Ruth, a wealthy white middle-aged woman has a breakdown and her husband leaves her. In Zaire, disgraced former nun Delilah gets some horrible news that leads her to leave the orphanage where she works and the children who need her to race back to South Africa. These three stories come together, and for fans of Hum, Beauty and Robin even make cameos here. It was wonderful, and it went by too fast! It counted for my Big Book Summer Challenge.

That was a hard act to follow, so I next picked up another Big Book (from my big pile!), a classic I have wanted to read for years, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. It was first published in 1961 and is a satirical look at war, from the perspectives of a group of men serving overseas. I am just over half-way through this one, but...I'm not loving it. The much-touted humor is a bit too pie-in-the-face style for me; I tend to prefer a subtler, more clever humor. I am also irritated by the way the author characterizes the few women in the novel; they are all there for purely sexual purposes and are very one-dimensional. I understand this is satire, and certainly parts of it are clever, with shades of M*A*S*H, but I am finding it a bit repetitive and tedious. To be honest, I'm not really enjoying it. So, here's my big question - Should I finish reading Catch-22 or give up and move onto something more my style? I am really torn. It's a classic I've wanted to read for ages, but I think I've read enough to get the idea of it. On the other hand, I hate to give up after reading 250+ pages...but I don't really want to invest yet another week in it. What do you think?

On audio, I finished listening to another Big Book: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd, a novel that was released about a year ago that I have wanted to read ever since I heard about it. It's a post-apocalyptic tale about a mysterious condition that quickly spreads across the world. It causes people to lose their shadows, which oddly also causes them to gradually lose their memories. The author uses multiple narrators, all living in this strange post-apocalyptic world (with some flashbacks to how it all happened) and trying to escape its effects. This novel made it onto a bunch of Best of 2018 lists and has been compared to The Passage and Station Eleven, two books I loved. It was an original and gripping story with plenty of suspense and imagination. I enjoyed it very much, though I did get annoyed that the author got some facts about New Orleans wrong!


Now, I have moved onto another Big Book on audio, Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman, a YA novel based on the real-life coming-of-age of Vincent Van Gogh and his beloved younger brother, Theo. This was a freebie from SYNC this summer. I have heard great things about this book, but I am enjoying it even more than I expected to. It's a fascinating biography of Van Gogh, but it is also an in-depth look at his family and his childhood and of the time (Europe in the 1860's-70's). It's so interesting to hear how his artistic talent and career began but also how his mental illness began to show small signs even from childhood. The novel is based on over 600 letters between the brothers and between them and other members of the family.
My husband, Ken, finished his massive third Big Book of the summer, The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund, which I picked out for him at Northshire Books (recommended by the booksellers there) at Booktopia this year. It's a Swedish thriller about a serial killer. On the cover, it says, "the most disturbing book you'll read this year," and he says that was absolutely true! He says it makes it sound as if most of Sweden's citizens are child abusers; I didn't realize this one dealt with kids or I might have chosen something different, but he stuck with it and says it was suspenseful and intriguing. He was puzzled when the mystery seemed to be solved less than halfway through, but he kept reading and was engrossed right up until the end. All in all, it seemed like a satisfying (though disturbing) read.




After that long, dark book, Ken needed something lighter - and shorter! He picked a thriller with a great sense of humor, August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones. I met Jones at Booktopia this year, and my husband and I both enjoyed his second novel in the series, Lives Laid Away, so I bought book one while I was there. Ken's on a short business trip this week, so this engaging mystery/thriller (and small paperback) was a perfect choice! I'm sure he's enjoying it - and I want to read it next.
 
Our son, Jamie, 24, read the first book in a new-to-him series, An Assassin's Blade trilogy by Justin DePaoli, described as a dark epic fantasy. He says the books are shorter than what he usually reads and not as well-written as his favorites, but he enjoyed it. He had a very busy and exhausting couple of weeks so not a lot of reading time.

Jamie is back home now and diving into a new book, Death's Merchant, book one in the Common Among Gods series by Justan Henner. He says it's a really original story about gods and humans, but not the familiar Greek or Roman gods. I see it's been described as an "epic fantasy" and "1200-page doorstopper full of captivating characters and humor." Yup, that sounds right up his alley! I hope he'll have more reading time this month.


Blog posts from the last two weeks:
Middle-Grade/Teen Review: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel - award-winning adventure & great on audio

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge - intriguing adventure set in a made-up world

Fiction Review: If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais - wonderful novel about three women in South Africa in 1994 whose very different lives come together

Saturday Snapshot: Rickett's Glen State Park, PA - beautiful park filled with waterfalls and a lake

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

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

What are you and your family reading this week?

There's still time to sign up for the Big Book Summer Challenge! It's easy-going, like summer - you only have to read one book of 400 or more pages between now and September (though you can, of course, read more!) - a month left to go! It's lots of fun and a great way to add extra enjoyment to your summer! All the details are at the link - you can sign up there if you have a blog or, if not, just leave a comment on that page or sign up at the Goodreads group linked from that page. Join the fun!