Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 5/23

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Another very hectic week but made time for some walks around my neighborhood. Almost everything is green now - no more flowering trees, but some of the flowers in our own yard are blooming. Here are some highights:

Not sure what these are but I love the bright pops of color!

A close-up of the bright pink flowers

Our own irises - they don't last long!

My new azaleas are blooming!

Welcoming summer with nail color Not a Cloud on the Sky!

Enjoy the holiday weekend...and celebrate the unofficial start of summer by signing up for my Big Book Summer Challenge!

Friday, May 22, 2015

My 2015 Big Book Summer

I have just announced the 4th year of my challenge, Big Book Summer Challenge, so I guess I should be the first to sign up!

I really enjoyed tackling some big books the last few summers, and I'm looking forward to doing it again and finally reading some of these bricks that have been collecting dust on my shelf (NOTE: for this challenge, a Big Book is defined as anything with more than 400 pages).

I don't know if I will get to all of these, but I like to have some options to choose from.  These are all currently on my shelves, waiting patiently to be read (along with many others!). I actually chose 6 this year because none of them are 700-1000 pages long, as in some years - these are all in the 400-500 page range:

  • A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, 480 pages (companion novel to Life After Life!)
  • UnDivided by Neal Schusterman, 464 pages
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, 444 pages
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, 440 pages
  • One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus, 434 pages
  • Revolution by Deborah Wiles, 495 pages
I like to alternate between grown-up books and kids/teen/YA books, so I have three of each on this list.  Some of these have been collecting dust on my shelf for many years! I also chose some books that will help me in other challenges this year, like Anne of Green Gables for my classics challenge, plus all of these qualify for my TBR Challenge. I also chose a couple of summer-themed books this year - Revolution and Prodigal Summer - just for added fun. This looks like a long list, but none of the books is over 500 pages, and I suspect the kids/YA ones will go pretty quickly.

I'm so excited for summer now! I do still need to squeeze in 3 more book group selections in June, but I have already kicked off my Big Book Summer by starting A God in Ruins today.

How about you?  Are you up for tackling a Big Book (or two or three) this summer?  Join me and sign up for the 2015 Big Book Summer Challenge!

My Big Book Summer books for this year!

Fiction Review: Get in Trouble

I haven’t read more than a couple of short stories since high school, and I’m not sure I have ever read a whole collection of short stories by a single author. So, when I started reading Get in Trouble, a book of short stories by Kelly Link, for Booktopia last month, I didn’t know what to expect. I needn’t have worried. I was completely pulled into each unique story and thoroughly enjoyed all nine stories in the collection.

Kelly’s stories are all a bit…well, weird (and I know from meeting her that she takes that as a compliment!). Most of them feature a world that is very much like our own, expect that it isn’t, quite. She weaves one or more unique – often supernatural or sci-fi type – elements into what is otherwise a story about human relationships. Her stories include ghosts, life-size animated dolls, real-life superheroes, and all kinds of other strange phenomena that defy easy classification.

In I Can See Right Through You, a famous movie star travels to Florida to visit his best friend/ex-girlfriend on location at her ghost-hunting reality show. Much of the story is about their relationship – past and present – but there is an ever-present tension in the story as the crew (all naked, by the way, since their current show is about an old nudist camp) waits for ghosts to show themselves.

Origin Story takes place mostly in an old, run-down Wizard of Oz amusement park. At first, it seems to be about the relationship between two old high school friends, though it quickly becomes apparent that one of them is a famous superhero and the other has an interesting power of her own. The two friends have deep discussions about life and love, reminiscing about their childhood together, bantering about fairy tales and the Wizard of Oz, but their conversations are also peppered with superhero topics – why tights?, which super powers kids from high school ended up with, and how exhausting it is to be featured in a parade. It’s all very realistic yet somewhat surreal at the same time.

In Two Houses, the entire crew of a spaceship are all woken up from stasis at the same time to celebrate a birthday. They sit around the table in their ship, enjoying the realistic earth settings that the ship’s computer creates for them, and chatting, like you would with good friends. They decide to tell ghost stories, many of them passed down in their families for generations. It gets a bit too scary for some of them, and then there is a Twilight Zone-like twist that makes your head spin.

In Light, the last story of the collection, Kelly pulls out all the stops. There are werewolves, people who drop suddenly into a mysterious sleep and are then stored in a warehouse, and pocket universes that people travel to on vacation or even move to. The main character, Lindsey, was born with two shadows, and her extra shadow eventually spawned a real twin. This is, apparently, not all that unusual, though there is some prejudice against people with two shadows. The story follows Lindsey through a week when her twin brother comes to visit and a hurricane hits her town in southern Florida.

All of the stories in the book, despite their weirdness, focus on people and their relationships. I was completely drawn into each new world, pulled into the story and attached to the characters, though each story felt like it ended at just the right time. This was something I’d worried about with short stories – I thought I’d feel suddenly yanked out of the story. Kelly tells each story in a way that feels complete – she packs so much into each one that you feel as if you’ve read a short novel. As you can see from the few descriptions above, she brings ample imagination and creativity to each new world, yet they all feel familiar in some ways. Get in Trouble has opened my eyes to the world of short stories, and I can’t wait to read more – both from Kelly Link and from other authors.

333 pages, Random House

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Books Read in April

Ooops - May 20 already! How did that happen? It's been a hectic month. I finally caught up on my reviews and found time to summarize last month's reading. That was a busy month, too, but I fit in a lot of good books:

Wow, 9 books in a month - that is probably a record for me! I was really pushing toward the end of the month to fit in my Booktopia reading after I got off the wait list. Quite a mix, too - 8 novels and 1 memoir. Seven were for adults and two books were for middle-grade readers (no YA last month). Three audio books and two graphic novels/memoirs. With so much variety, choosing a favorite is almost impossible - there were no mediocre books in April - these were all outstanding! The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey probably affected me the most emotionally.

I traveled all over the world last month in my 2015 Where Are You Reading Challenge! I added 2 new states to my list and 3 new countries/regions internationally. Not a single book from my own shelves for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015 - really need to work on that! I listened to three more audio books for my 2015 Audio Book Challenge, and added one more book to my 2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge. No classics last month (need to work on that one, too). I added 3 new countries/regions to my Travel the World in Books Challenge.

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Graphic Novel Review: Asterios Polyp

I am still making my way through Flavorwire’s list of 25 Essential Graphic Novels and discovered yet another one with surprising emotional depth and quite a philosophical bent: Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. This is a story about a man who loses everything and learns what life is really all about.

As the novel opens, Asterios, the main character, loses everything he owns when his apartment building in NYC is struck by lightning and burns – on his 50th birthday. From the opening panels showing his stylish but trashed apartment before the fire, you get the idea that the fire is not the first bad thing to happen to Asterios but represents hitting bottom. The story then flashes back to fill in a bit of Asterios’ background. He is a well-respected architect whose esteemed designs have never actually been built. He teaches at a university in Ithaca, NY (presumably Cornell) and has experienced great success.

Oh, and Asterios’ story is being narrated by his twin, who died at birth. Yup, just a little weird.

After watching his apartment and all his worldly possessions (except for a watch, a lighter, and a Swiss Army knife) burn, he uses the last of his cash to buy a bus ticket to wherever his remaining money can take him. He ends up somewhere in the Midwest and proceeds to start over – finds a job, a place to live, and even makes some new friends. Interspersed with Asterios’ new life are flashbacks to his old life and the events leading up to the apartment fire.

I didn’t know what to make of this unique graphic novel at first, especially with it being narrated by someone who was never born! But it turned out to be thoughtful and thought-provoking, as Asterios strips his life down to its bare bones and considers what life is really all about. Since he started out as a somewhat snooty, wealthy academic, this requires some deep introspection on his part.

A 2-page spread from graphic novel Asterios Polyp

 The author has a unique drawing style, but it feels like it fits Asterios just right.  A range of styles – from big two-page spreads to geometric shapes to classic comic book panels – keeps your eyes roving across the pages and your mind engaged. All in all, I really enjoyed Asterios Polyp and found it made me think. This is definitely another graphic novel success for my growing list.

Pantheon Books

Monday, May 18, 2015

It's Monday 5/18! What Are You Reading?

I love the quiet solitude of a Monday morning. This weekend was mostly spent cooking and caring for our 17-year old son who had oral surgery on Friday to get his four wisdom teeth extracted. He seems to be healing well and went to school this morning. I've been feeling particularly stressed and overwhelmed lately. Between the oral surgery and my father-in-law's 90th birthday last week, it was a hectic week with little productive time, so I just feel like I am behind on everything. My big accomplishment for the weekend was getting the kitchen island cleared of clutter and paper - woohoo!

As always, we enjoyed our books last week:
  • I finished Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan for my online family book group, and we finally started our discussion! I enjoyed this novel about a young girl growing up in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century who goes to America to earn some money and ends up feeling torn between her husband in Ireland and her exciting new life in NYC. The author responded to one of my Tweets and answered some questions from our discussion. It's always great to hear directly from the author!
  • With my book group commitments finished for the month (well, I missed my neighborhood book group meeting last week), I moved onto some YA - my TBR shelves for kids/teen/YA books are overflowing! I finally started Blue Lily, Lily Blue, book 3 in the Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater. I love this series!
  • I finished listening to Ask the Dark by Henry Turner, a teen/YA novel on audio. It was absolutely riveting, narrated by a boy who often gets into trouble, about a series of missing boys in his town and how he was the only person who could piece together what happened to them. Suspenseful and moving.
  • I started listening to Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, another teen/YA novel, on audio. This was one of my downloads from the first week of SYNC - be sure to check out this great source for free YA and classic audio books all summer long! They feature a new pair of audio downloads (one modern YA paired with one classic) each week. This is only week 2, so you still have plenty of time. So far, I am enjoying this popular YA novel that I somehow missed before.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. He bought it after I read Mosley's amazing novel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey and went to hear Mosley speak for our All-County Reads program. When I showed Ken the long list of books Mosley had written, he decided to try one. This is the first book in the Easy Rawlins mystery series. He said it was great - very well-written - and he is looking forward to reading the next book in the series. We are both new Mosley fans!
  • Ken is going on a business trip this week (a hectic one with quick turnaround), so he chose a short YA novel for his next book. He is reading Enclave by Ann Aguirre, the first book in her Razorland trilogy. Our son recently read this novel and enjoyed it. I still need to read it!
  • Jamie, 20, has been overwhelmed with end-of-the-semester work but is reading Mountain Man by Keith C. Blackmore, a book his dad lent him, to continue his Zombie obsession. A week from now, he will be done with the spring semester - then he can read nonstop for two weeks!
I tried to catch up a bit on the blog last week:
Review of Masterminds by Gordon Kormon, a suspenseful middle-grade audio book

Celebrate Mother's Day with a Good Book!, a reprint of my monthly book column in Vital! magazine

Review of Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, an adult novel I read for Booktopia

Review of Fram by Steve Himmer, another adult novel I read for Booktopia

Saturday Snapshot, with photos of late spring in our neighborhood

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

Our family on my father-in-law's 90th birthday last week

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 5/16

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

I haven't been home on the weekend to participate in Saturday Snapshot in a few weeks. I attended Booktopia, an amazing weekend retreat in Vermont - you can check out the photos from that at my Booktopia post. Last weekend, we visited my Dad, and this week, we celebrated my father-in-law's 90th birthday! It's been busy!

I did find time for a couple of short walks this week in our neighborhood - our temperatures dropped 20 degrees to more normal springtime weather. Here are some of the sights I saw:

The azaleas my husband planted for me are starting to bloom!
It will be a while before my azaleas get this big!

The very last flowering trees in our neighborhood...

Everything is green now - no more blossoms until next spring!
 Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fiction Review: Fram

I read the novel Fram by Steve Himmer for my recent Booktopia weekend. Steve was one of the featured authors there, so I had the honor of meeting him in person and discussing his book with him and 30 other readers, which only intensified my enjoyment of this unique, intricate novel about life, love, marriage…and polar exploration.

Oscar lives a quiet, routine life, working for a secret government agency called the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, begun during the Cold War simply because the U.S. discovered that Russia had one. Oscar and his partner, Alexi, work in a tiny basement office with a blank map of the Arctic on the wall. Their job is to invent Arctic discoveries and developments and then create a paper trail of documents that “proves” they exist, to save the cost of actual polar expeditions. The ironic part is that Oscar has dreamed since he was a little boy of being a polar explorer, so he is living out his fantasies from his neat desk in the basement under a single lightbulb.

During his off-hours, Oscar shares a small apartment with his wife, Julia, though they seem to have been drifting apart during the last few years. Oscar’s polar obsession continues at home, where he frequently checks his phone to watch the North Pole cam (which mostly just shows ice and wind) and peruses his extensive collection of National Geographic magazines.  This quiet, predictable routine is broken one day when Oscar and Alexi are unexpectedly – and suddenly – sent to the Arctic for real.

From there, the novel leaps into a higher gear, with elements of mystery, adventure, and espionage right alongside Oscar’s rich inner life. There are plenty of twists and turns from there, keeping the reader guessing right up until the last sentence (and beyond!). Alongside Oscar’s story are chapters that flash back to other related events: various polar expeditions, lives of Arctic residents, and earlier explorations.

One event in particular is returned to again and again, giving the novel its name and its main theme. An early Polar exploration team, on the ship the Jeanette, got stuck in the ice for the winter and everyone on board perished. A later exploration ship, the Fram, learned from the Jeannette’s mistakes and went to the Arctic planning to get stuck in the ice. The ship was reinforced to take the pressure of the ice into account and the crew stocked enough provisions, planning to get stuck for the winter, and used the natural drift of the ice to travel around and to the Pole. The author uses Fram as an important symbol of Oscar’s quiet, steadfast life and even his stagnant marriage:

Fram was a reminder there was no failure in just staying put. That stillness was its own kind of motion, sometimes preferable to the real thing.”

Fram is not just an action novel set in the Arctic – it has some of those elements, but it is also a very thoughtful and thought-provoking novel. The author uses Oscar and his unusual experiences to delve into the mysteries of life and love and the intricacies of marriage. In fact, I loved the way that Steve characterized Oscar and Julia’s marriage, with all of its inside jokes that brought them together and secrets (Oscar’s job is top-secret) that pulled them apart.

What starts out as a tongue-in-cheek look at government bureaucracy turns into a race to the Arctic complete with evil people and agencies in the shadows. I thoroughly enjoyed every page of Fram – its suspense, its original story, but mostly the very clever, intricate, and thoughtful way that all of its disparate pieces come together. I can’t wait to read more from Steve Himmer.

288 pages, Ig Publishing

P.S. If, like me, you aren’t thrilled with the way the novel seems to end, take heart! When I asked about it at Booktopia, Steve said that the ending is open to interpretation…so I decided to choose the ending I wanted!

Steve Himmer at Booktopia

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fiction Review: Rainey Royal

When asked if Rainey Royal is a novel or a series of short stories, author Dylan Landis smiled slyly and said, “It’s a novel…told in stories.” I had the honor of meeting Dylan – and of discussing her book with her and 30 other readers – when I recently attended Booktopia. I thoroughly enjoyed both listening to the audio book of Rainey Royal and having a chance to meet the author.

Rainey is a fourteen-year old girl living in Greenwich Village with her father in the 1970’s when the novel opens. Their 5-story townhouse is a bit more crowded than that, though. Rainey lives with her father, Howard, who is a renowned jazz musician; his best friend, Gordy; and an ever-changing parade of young musical acolytes who are thrilled to play (and play) with the great Howard Royal. It’s not exactly a healthy environment for a young girl, and Howard is not much of a father. To make matters worse, Gordy makes her feel uncomfortable by tucking her in at night and always being just a little too close. It is all together a creepy and disturbing situation.

Rainey seeks comfort – and some semblance of a family – outside of the house. Her mother left, but she visits her grandmother, Lala, (who owns the townhouse) in an old folks’ home, tries to connect with her mother’s sister, and most of all, leans on her best friend, Tina. At school, Rainey and Tina are bullies and sport a tough outer shell, but at least they have each other. Rainey’s other comfort is her art, and she strives to feed her creative tendencies, even while other destructive forces within her often lead to dangerous behavior.

As the author explained at Booktopia, Rainey’s story is told in a series of fourteen interconnected stories that together make up the narrative of Rainey’s life, following her from adolescence into young adulthood. That narrative is powerful, moving, and often disturbing, but you keep rooting for Rainey. Her circumstances are so dysfunctional that she is often led to act in rebellious – even criminal – ways, but you can also see the hurt child underneath all that bravado. As I was listening to the audio book – beautifully read by Jorjeana Marie – I alternated between wanting to shake Rainey and wanting to protect her.

Dylan perfectly captures the experience of being an adolescent girl. Even though I grew up in a normal, loving family very unlike Rainey’s, I recognized and related to some of her struggles to fit in and find her place in the world. Young girls often feel powerless, which is certainly true for Rainey at home, yet they are beginning to discover that they yield some unexpected power through their sexuality, bodies, and confidence (even when it is a false front), as when Rainey gets in trouble at school for making the male teachers feel uncomfortable just by the way she looks at them. This is a coming-of-age story that feels both foreign and familiar at the same time.

I have never read a novel quite like this before. Of course, its structure is unique, telling Rainey’s story in a series of interrelated narratives, but its uniqueness goes further. Dylan pulls you deep into Rainey’s life, with achingly beautiful prose, making you care about her and wanting to save her. This is one of those pieces of fiction that wraps itself around you and brings you wholly into its world. Dylan said she wrote this novel because she’d previously written a short story with Rainey as a supporting character, and she just couldn’t get her out of her mind. I understand completely because that’s just the way I felt listening to Rainey Royal

Dylan Landis at Booktopia

SoHo Press
Blackstone Audio  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Celebrate Mother's Day with a Good Book

This is a few days late, but I was out of town this weekend - it's always a good time for a good book about a mother! What are your recommendations?

(This article is reprinted from my monthly book column in Vital! magazine)

Motherhood is a ripe topic for all sorts of books, from memoirs to novels. Here are some of my favorite books about mothers of all kinds:

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein – this first memoir of three, written when the author was 93 years old, details his early childhood in England in the 1910’s, where his street had Jewish families on one side and Christian families on the other; Harry’s mother played an important role in holding the family together during difficult times.

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls – another memoir, this one about parents who failed to protect and care for their children. The author’s mother was artistic and a free spirit but not much of a caregiver.

Half-Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls – sort of a prequel to The Glass Castle, this is a semi-fictionalized account of Wall’s grandmother, Lily, and her life as a daughter, sister, school teacher, and mother.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – one of my all-time favorite novels is the story of a family who travels to the Congo in 1959 as missionaries, in a year that changes all of their lives forever. The mother’s poignant look back on that time and its effect on her children is particularly moving.

The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver – two more favorites from Kingsolver, these heart-warming novels are about a girl who grows up in rural Kentucky with a single mother, moves to Arizona, and whose life is forever changed when she becomes the adoptive mother of an abandoned Native American child named Turtle.

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt – the multi-faceted story of a Jewish, divorced, single mother in 1950’s suburbs struggling to raise her son amidst prejudice when the unthinkable happens and her son’s best friend disappears. Both a mystery and a family drama.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – follows the challenging life of Hattie and her children, starting in 1923 in segregated Georgia through their struggles in a poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia. The novel is raw, emotional, and compelling, as Hattie faces adversity again and again.

Hope’s Boy by Andrew Bridge – the heart-breaking but ultimately triumphant memoir of the author’s childhood, split between his grandmother, his very young mother recently released from prison, and the foster-care system. This story speaks to the unbreakable tie between mother and child.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh – though on the surface, this is a novel about a young girl named Victoria who grew up in and aged out of the foster care system, at its heart is the life-changing effect that a foster parent can have on a child’s life and how Victoria ultimately uses that love to save herself.

(This article is reprinted from my monthly book column in Vital!, The magazine for Active Older Adults, available free in public places like libraries and drugstores in Delaware and North Carolina)
What are your favorite books about mothers?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Middle-Grade Review: Masterminds

Having read and reviewed middle-grade books for over a decade now, I am familiar with the name of author Gordon Kormon, who has written over 50 middle-grade and teen novels, and my son read some of his books, but somehow I missed them. I finally had my chance to experience Kormon’s work when I listened to the audio book Masterminds, his latest action-packed middle-grade novel.

Eli Frieden is thirteen years old, living a pretty normal life with his best friend, Randy, in Serenity, New Mexico. Except that life in Serenity isn’t exactly normal. Eli and Randy and the other 28 kids who live there know they are very lucky to live in the town voted as “#1 in the USA for standard of living.” Their parents and teachers often remind them that Serenity is a unique and wonderful place to live – with no crime, no poverty, and no unemployment, where honesty and integrity are valued over everything else.

One day, Randy convinces Eli to go along on one of his crazy schemes and they ride their bikes out of town toward the surrounding national forest. Something horrible and unexpected happens, though, and soon Eli and his friends begin to suspect that perhaps everything isn’t quite as perfect in Serenity as they’ve always thought. Eli’s dad is the mayor, so he has to keep his growing suspicions to himself, but the kids don’t really know exactly what is going on…just that something is not quite right.

Each chapter is narrated by a different kid in town, from among Eli’s friends and classmates who are all around 12 or 13 years old. On the audio, there is a different actor for each kid’s voice, which really added to my overall enjoyment of the production. The suspense builds with each surprising new twist, as the kids try to figure out exactly what is going on in Serenity.

I loved this action-packed middle-grade novel with a unique plot, and the audio book was a lot of fun to listen to. Kormon has written a fast-paced, suspenseful story with in-depth characters and plenty of surprising twists and turns to keep you guessing. In fact, I rarely feel compelled to read series – I often finish the first book and think, “I enjoyed that, but I don’t need to read more” – but this time, I can’t wait for book 2 to find out what happens next to Eli and his friends!

HarperChildren’s Audio

Monday, May 11, 2015

It's Monday 5/11! What Are You Reading?

Whew, what a week! I started the week on a high from my amazing Booktopia weekend in Vermont - exhausted but happy. Then, I got a slew of bad news on Wednesday. First I heard that an old friend has stage 4 lung cancer and that it has spread to her brain. I hadn't seen her in a while, but that hit me hard because she is my age, has three sons about the same ages as my sons, has never smoked, and is such a vibrant woman, full of life. An hour later, I got even worse news - that my Dad, who's been fighting stage 4 melanoma for almost a year, had developed sudden balance problems and a head MRI revealed multiple cancer lesions in his brain. They are going forward with radiation, which started immediately last week, and he will probably need brain surgery to remove the largest tumor. He had been stable with his treatment for so long that this really came as a shock to all of us. We changed our plans to spend Mother's Day weekend with my mom (who completely understood and was very supportive) and instead left a day early and drove all the way to Rochester (NY - my hometown) to spend the weekend with my Dad and his wife. He was feeling OK this weekend, just very tired, and we were all so glad that we got to spend that precious time with him.

So, now I am back home, surrounded by mess and a lengthening to-do list but feeling like everything is a bit surreal. It's amazing how everyday life continues even in the wake of such terrible news.

As always, we still found time to read, taking comfort (and finding escape) in our books:
  • I am still reading Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan for my online family book group. We were  supposed to begin discussing it a week ago, but I still haven't finished! I've been enjoying this novel about about a young girl growing up in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century who goes to America to earn some money and ends up feeling torn between her husband in Ireland and her exciting new life in NYC.
  • I am still listening to Ask the Dark by Henry Turner, a teen/YA novel on audio. It's riveting so far, narrated by a boy who often gets into trouble, about a series of missing boys in his town and how he was the only person who could piece together what happened to them. Excellent so far.
  • My husband, Ken, finished a thriller I gave him for Easter, Silken Prey by John Sandford. It's the first Sandford novel he's read (I heard about the Prey series on the Books on the Nightstand podcast), and he said it was OK but not great - plenty of fast-paced suspense but not a lot of depth. My dad likes the Prey books, so Ken finished it this weekend and left it for him to read...along with a stack of others he's recently read. I come from a reading family!
  • Ken has now started Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. He bought it after I read Mosley's amazing novel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey and went to hear Mosley speak for our All-County Reads program. When I showed Ken the long list of books Mosley had written, he decided to try one. This is the first book in the Easy Rawlins mystery series.
  • Jamie, 20, has been busy with school but is reading Mountain Man by Keith C. Blackmore, a book his dad lent him, to continue his Zombie obsession. Two more weeks and he can go on a reading binge when the semester ends!
No time for reviews last week, but squeezed in a couple of blog posts before we left:
Summary & Photos from Booktopia Vermont 2015

Free Audio Books for Summer at SYNC!

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, May 08, 2015

Free Audio Books for Summer at SYNC!

It's that time of year again!

Every summer SYNC provides FREE downloadable audio books for teens (and adults!). Every week features a new pairing: one current YA title paired with a similarly themed classic.

This week's selections, available from May 7 - 13, are:
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I downloaded a few last summer but got started too late and missed some good ones, so this year, I am starting early this year! And did I mention it's FREE? It takes a few minutes to download their software, but it is easy and well-explained. You can also sign up for reminders so that you are alerted of the weekly titles.

So, head on over to SYNC and get ready for a great summer filled with fantastic audio books, both modern and classic!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Booktopia Vermont 2015

My mom and I at Booktopia
Last weekend, I had the most amazing experience and finally got to do something I've dreamed of for the past five years - attend Booktopia, a weekend book retreat hosted by my favorite book podcast, Books on the Nightstand. I asked my mom to join me, as a joint birthday gift for the two of us (we both have milestone birthdays this year). I had high expectations, but they were exceeded. It was a weekend filled with great books, wonderful authors, amazing readers from all over the country (plus a few from out of the country), and all kinds of bookish fun - all in lovely Manchester, VT. It is aptly named - a book lover's dream!

Ann & Michael, hosts of Booktopia and Books on the Nightstand podcast
We kicked off the weekend with a Friday evening reception at the Inn at Manchester (in their Celebration Barn - it is Vermont, after all). We started with a Speed Chat - switching tables every 10 minutes to discuss a book-related question and meet new people. It was so much fun! Like book group on steroids. After dinner, we did a Yankee Swap - with books! Everyone brought one wrapped book, and everyone ended up with a new book to take home!

Finally, we played a new game, Bring Your Own Book, that started as a Kickstarter campaign and will be released soon - it's like Apples to Apples with books. The whole evening was a blast - we talked until we were hoarse, laughed like crazy, and made lots of new friends.

Some of our new friends with their new books after the swap!
Saturday was filled with small group author discussions. There were 8 authors at Booktopia, and they hung out with the readers all weekend - it was a unique experience! Here are the authors and the books of theirs we discussed:
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (short stories)
  • Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis
  • Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell
  • Fram by Steve Himmer
  • Sweetland by Michael Crummey
  • An Exaggerated Murder  by Josh Cook
  • Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
(I will be reviewing several of these books in the coming weeks)

Each discussion session included about 30 readers, so it was an intimate setting, and we had a chance to really get to know each one and discuss their books in depth. For someone like me who loves book groups, this was nirvana!

Author Michael Crummey at the Celebration of Authors
Saturday evening, the weekend was topped off with a Celebration of Authors at Northshire Bookstore (an incredible, huge independent bookstore). Each author gave a 10-minute talk and then we all got to shop and spend our gift cards ($50 of our registration fee came back to us in the form of a gift card), and the authors were available to sign their books. I was thrilled to finally meet Cristina Henriquez in person, and she was happy to meet someone else from Delaware!

Me with Cristina Henriquez at Northshire Bookstore
We capped off the weekend by going out to dinner in Manchester with a few of our new friends (we had many excellent meals in Manchester). The weekend was amazing from beginning to end! We listened to more Books on the Nightstand podcasts on the way home and talked nonstop about all the fun we had. It was a unique experience - so much fun!

Have you ever attended a book-related event?

Monday, May 04, 2015

It's Monday 5/4! What Are You Reading?

Wow, where to start? This weekend was the highlight of my 46-year reading life! Seriously. My mother and I attended Booktopia, an event hosted by the Books on the Nightstand podcast, and it was just amazing! Held in picturesque Manchester, VT, there were 80 avid readers/book lovers, 8 authors who hung out with us all weekend, and 2 hosts, plus an incredible bookstore, Northshire Bookstore. It was so much fun! I will post a full summary with lots of photos tomorrow.

I spent most of my weekend talking, not reading, but we did make some time for reading last week:
  • I am almost finished with Get in Trouble by Kelly Link, a book of short stories. Kelly was one of the authors at Booktopia this weekend, and I loved meeting her. I can't remember the last time I read a collection of short stories, but this one completely pulled me in. Her stories always have an element of weirdness - a touch of science fiction or fantasy or magic - but they are also about human nature and relationships and real life. I have one more story to go and then I plan to investigate some of her earlier collections.
  • As soon as I went to Kelly Link's session this weekend, I set her book aside (reluctantly!) to start Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan for my online family book group. We are supposed to begin discussing it today, but I am a bit behind because of Booktopia. It is good so far, about a young girl growing up in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century who will (according to the prologue) immigrate to America.
  • I finished listening to Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, another Booktopia selection. This is an adult novel about a fourteen-year old girl growing up in the 1970's with her father who is an immature, musical genius who has turned their home into a kind of musical commune. Rainey understandably acts out in ways that make you both want to throttle her and protect her at the same time. It was captivating, and I loved meeting the author this weekend. Review coming soon!
  • On the way home last night, I started listening to Ask the Dark by Henry Turner, a teen/YA novel on audio. It's riveting so far, narrated by a boy who often gets into trouble, about a series of missing boys in his town and how he was the only person who could piece together what happened to them. Excellent so far.
  • My husband, Ken, has been reading a thriller I gave him for Easter, Silken Prey by John Sandford. It's the first Sandford novel he's read (I heard about the Prey series on the Books on the Nightstand podcast!), and he's enjoying it so far - nothing too deep he said, just fast-paced fun.
  • Jamie, 20, has been busy with school but is reading Mountain Man by Keith C. Blackmore, a book his dad lent him, to continue his Zombie obsession. He would have loved meeting Kelly Link this weekend!
 I was away and offline half the week, but I posted a couple of reviews before I left:
Review of Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, a middle-grade audio novel

Review of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley, a haunting adult 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

Me with Cristina Henriquez at Northshire Bookstore this weekend

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fiction Review: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Until recently, I had never heard of prolific author Walter Mosley before – a stunning omission since I found out he’s written over 50 books! His novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, was chosen as our All-County Reads selection for this spring, a book-centric event I always enjoy. I picked up a copy of the novel at the library and read it before going to hear Mosley speak. I was blown away by this powerful novel about family, aging, and memory.

As the novel opens, Ptolemy Grey is ninety-one years old. He lives alone in a junk-filled, decrepit apartment and spends much of his time mentally living in the past and afraid of a myriad of threats in the present. Ptolemy is very isolated, except for his grandnephew, Reggie, who visits every few days and accompanies him to the grocery store and bank. He’s very confused when Reggie doesn’t come by for days and finally an unfamiliar teen boy shows up at his door. He turns out to be Hilly, Ptolemy’s great-grandnephew, though even after the boy explains this, Ptolemy remains confused.

Reggie, the one person Ptolemy trusts and relies on, has died in a drive-by shooting. Ptolemy is even more confused than usual, as he accompanies Hilly to Reggie’s funeral. Ptolemy has plenty of nieces and nephews and other family members who seem familiar at the funeral, but their names and relationships to him swim in and out of his understanding. Two things stand out to him that day, though: Reggie’s two small children whose mother leaves the funeral to be with her boyfriend and 17-year old Robyn, a friend of the family who’s been staying at the house with Ptolemy’s grandniece since her own mother died.

From that day on, Robyn and Ptolemy begin a unique and powerful friendship. When Robyn takes Reggie’s place and comes to Ptolemy’s apartment the next day to see if he needs anything, she’s not overwhelmed by the mess like most people. Instead, she immediately begins to clean things up, assuring Ptolemy that she won’t get rid of anything he wants to keep. He’s suspicious at first and watches her carefully, but Robyn works hard, first restoring Ptolemy’s bathroom to clean, working order and then tackling the rest of the apartment over the next days and weeks. Through this process, Ptolemy comes to trust Robyn. He knows he wants to help the orphaned Robyn somehow, as well as Reggie’s young children, but things have a way of slipping in and out of his mind.

Although the novel is written in the third-person, the narration shows the inner workings of Ptolemy’s confused brain. He often drifts back to the distant past, to his own childhood, when an uncle/family friend named Coydog was both friend and mentor to Ptolemy (then known as L’il Pea), passing along all kinds of wisdom to him that now comes back to him in bits and pieces – and providing the reader with insight into Ptolemy’s earlier life. In the present, Ptolemy is often afraid of his surroundings and the people around him: scary Melinda, the drug addict who always asks him for money, as well as anyone unfamiliar to him.

When Robyn takes Ptolemy to a doctor to try to help him with his failing memory, he is presented with a unique opportunity that might possibly give him a temporary glimpse into the sharp mind he used to have. There are significant risks, but Ptolemy knows that there are important things he must take care of while he still can…if only he could remember exactly what they are.

This novel is moving and emotionally powerful in so many ways: the insight into Ptolemy’s fading mind, the joyful friendship between him and Robyn, the acute pain of growing old and becoming dependent. I couldn’t help but think of my own father-in-law who is 90 years old and whom we recently moved near us, and I wondered whether he is experiencing some of these same powerful, painful changes as Ptolemy.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a thoughtful drama about family, memory, and aging, but it is also something of a fantasy about medical miracles that come with strings attached, making you wonder what you would do in Ptolemy’s situation. Mosley brings the characters and the settings to life in a very real way, through dialogue, dialect, observations, and all the senses. His writing moved me greatly, and I still find myself thinking about Ptolemy and his world, almost a month after finishing the novel. I can’t wait to read more from Mosley.

277 pages, Riverhead Books

Look for my upcoming post on Walter Mosley’s excellent talk for our All-County Reads program.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Middle-Grade Review: Fish in a Tree

I recently listened to the middle-grade novel Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt on audio and thoroughly enjoyed it. This realistic, smart novel is all about not fitting in and learning that it’s OK not to be like everyone else.

Sixth-grade Ally is struggling. Her classmates all think she is dumb, and her teacher and principal think she is a troublemaker. The truth is that Ally has serious difficulty reading but has never told anyone. She is smart, so she’s been good at hiding her disability for years, though misunderstandings caused by it often get her into trouble. Ally has plenty of strengths, too – she is very good at math and problem solving and can visualize things in her mind in a way that makes her an excellent artist. But most people don’t notice those strengths hiding behind her problems.

Things change when Mr. Daniels becomes her new teacher, subbing for their regular teacher who went on maternity leave. Mr. Daniels is different from the other adults at Ally’s school. He doesn’t see her as a problem or a troublemaker. Instead, he seems to be the first teacher ever to understand what’s really going on with Ally. He does things differently in the classroom, too, assigning kids to work in teams so that Ally finds her first real friends, emphasizing problem-solving in a way that shows off Ally’s strengths, and coming up with fun, unique projects for the class. He also begins to work with Ally privately after school, to help her develop strategies to make reading easier.

I really enjoyed this insightful, sensitive story and its brave but misunderstood main character. Kathleen McInerney does a great job narrating the book as Ally, and the author portrays dyslexia in a realistic and enlightening way. I loved Ally right from the beginning and was so angry with the adults around her who failed to see that she had a learning disability. I couldn’t understand how they could all be so dense, but apparently, this is a very common way for kids with dyslexia to be treated.

Hunt herself has dyslexia and had a sixth grade teacher (on whom she based the wonderful Mr. Daniels) who finally recognized her disability and got her the help she needed. After finishing the book, I heard on the news that less than 30% of kids with reading disabilities are diagnosed and receiving school services to help them! I was astounded by this startling statistic and hope that books like Fish in a Tree will help to build awareness of this often-treatable problem.

Fish in a Tree is a novel about a very important subject, and I learned a lot from it. In addition to dyslexia, the novel also deals with bullying, friendship, and dealing with an absent parent (Ally’s father is on active duty in Afghanistan). However, it is also a very entertaining and enjoyable story about a young girl learning that it’s OK to be different and figuring out how she fits into her world.

Listening Library

For more information on diagnosing and treating dyslexia, see the website Learning Inside Out.