Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Graphic Memoir Review: Persepolis

One of the books I chose to read to celebrate Banned Books Week is Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic memoir. It is the author’s account of growing up in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, a unique child’s-eye view of a specific time and place in history.

Marjane, known as Marji to her friends and family, was just six years old when the memoir begins in 1976. She lived happily with her mother and father in a modern apartment in Tehran. Her parents were Marxists and not very religious, but six-year old Marji frequently talked to God and told her teacher she wanted to be a prophet when she grew up. To that end, she began writing her own holy book, though she only shared it with her grandmother, with whom she had a wonderfully close and loving relationship. She had an ordinary childhood at that point, filled with days at school, playing outside with other kids from her neighborhood, and enjoying quiet evenings with her parents, sometimes playing games like Monopoly.

Then, in 1980, the Revolution began. Marji’s parents, like many other ordinary citizens of Iran, were in favor of the ousting of the Shah, getting rid of the puppet regime they saw as controlled by oil interests, and the Revolution in general. Her parents demonstrated in the street each day, while Marji and her friends played revolutionaries and held pretend demonstrations in the garden. Once the Islamist extremists took over, Marji’s life changed even more dramatically, as she had to begin wearing a veil and complying with the strict rules being implemented, especially for women.  Her life at home became completely different from her life in public. Once the war with Iraq began, amid massive bombing of Tehran and other cities, even her home life was invaded. Things got even more difficult as Marji entered her teen years.

This powerful and emotional memoir works on two different levels: as a young girl’s coming-of-age story and as a fascinating insider’s look at the history of political change in Iran. What makes it all the more fascinating is to see that historical and political shift from the perspective of an innocent child. Protests, violence, getting stopped in the street: these are not typical elements of a childhood. For Marji, though, they became a part of everyday life. She was a very thoughtful child, whose mind was fed by the books her parents give her about Marxism, war, and revolutions. She was forced to live a double life, as were many other Iranian citizens, though she did manage to get kicked out of school for pointing out the obvious contradictions in what her teacher said before and after the Revolution!

Image by Marjane Satrapi
Marjane tells her story in a graphic novel format, with stark black and white drawings illustrating her unusual childhood. Her simple drawings range from playful (my favorite is on the first page, of the little girls in her class at recess, shortly after the veil became mandatory, using their veils in all kinds of creative make-believe scenarios! see image at left) to horrifying, as war, torture, and executions are depicted alongside normal childhood scenes. I was riveted by this unique and powerful memoir from the first page to the last (and then immediately wanted to get her next book!) and found it both informative and very moving. I can’t wait to read more about Marji’s life in her follow-up book, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return.

153 pages, Pantheon (a division of Random House)

Why Has It Been Banned?  I’m always curious to find out what would make people take the drastic step of banning a book. In this case, I assumed it was due to the violence depicted: executions, torture, beatings, and wartime violence. Nope. According to the ALA’s list of Top 10Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2014 (of which Persepolis ranks #2), it has been banned due to: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”. So, maybe “graphic depictions” is about the violence, but really? Amid scenes of torture, people are offended by gambling?? (By the way, I don’t even remember gambling in the book) And how can an honest portrayal of the author’s childhood be “racially and socially offensive”? Like all reasons for banning books, this just floors me. We need more honest looks at other cultures and other political viewpoints in our books. Without that kind of diversity, we end up with a society that is intolerant of differences. I am happy to report that our own school district has not banned this book. In fact, my son will be reading it this year (12th grade) as assigned reading for his World Literature class. I can’t wait to talk to him about it. NOTE: This is not a children's book, though it would be appropriate and educational for older teens.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

TV Tuesday: Mr. Robot

It's TV Tuesday! Each week, I write a review of a TV show that we are enjoying.

This week, I am highlighting a new show that premiered this summer, Mr. Robot. Although its first season is over, all of the episodes are still available free On Demand or on the USA Network website. This is one of the few shows that my husband and I watched with our 21-year old college son this summer - he usually comes home once a week, and the three of us enjoy watching favorite TV shows together (our younger son doesn't have much interest in TV!)

Mr. Robot is a twisty and suspenseful show about computer hackers and conspiracies. Elliot, played beautifully and cryptically by Rami Malek, is a socially anxious computer programmer who works for a computer security firm. His childhood friend Angela works alongside him and is one of the few people that Elliot can comfortably interact with. Elliot is contacted by a mysterious anarchist hacker organization, headed by a man known only as Mr. Robot, played by Christian Slater. Mr. Robot wants Elliot to join his team, and although Elliot has some misgivings and questions, he gets involved with them because he agrees with their conspiracy goals - to bring down the ever-present E-Corp, known by Elliot and throughout the show as Evil Corp. They represent all the paranoia Elliot feels about the Big Brother-type world we live in, and they are also responsible for the death of Elliot's father and Angela's mother. Carly Chaikin, who we loved in Suburgatory, also co-stars as one of the other hackers working for Mr. Robot. In each episode, the plans to bring down Evil Corp progress, all while Elliot tries to keep up appearances in his day job and maintain his friendship with Angela. Through it all, we also see Elliot's weekly mandatory meetings with a therapist, though we don't know why.

The show is filmed in a jerky, realistic way in New York City, almost as if from a handheld camera. Elliot narrates the show in a voice-over in which he talks directly to the audience. This approach and the cinematography add to the jumpy, paranoid feel of the story. All in all, it feels more like a movie than a typical TV show, and all three of us have been hooked right from the start. We still have a couple of episodes left to watch, so no spoilers, please! We've already been blown away by some major plot twists that we never saw coming, and we can't wait to see how the season ends.

If you've seen Mr. Robot, what did you think?

What are your favorite TV shows now?

Here's a short preview of Mr. Robot:

Banned Books Week 2015

This is Banned Books Week, a week set aside to celebrate the freedom of speech and the freedom to read whatever you want. Here's more information on Banned Books Week from the American Library Association (ALA).

It's also a great time to read for yourself some of the books that have been challenged or banned. Many of them are classics or highly regarded modern books, and by reading and reviewing them, we can bring attention to some great literature that should be available for all to read.

The way I see it is that it is perfectly OK not to like a book or even to be offended by a book - if that's the case, then you don't have to read it. However, it is not OK to ban a book and remove it from libraries or schools so that no one can read it. In the case of kids, I think that it should be the parents' role to decide what books are appropriate for their kids, not random citizens whose values may be entirely different than yours.

Often, books for children or teens are banned because they deal with difficult topics - violence, abuse, homosexuality (or any kind of sexuality), racism, etc. While parents can decide what is age-appropriate for their own kids, I think it's important for kids and teens to read books that deal with these kinds of difficult topics. All of this - and more - is a part of life, and kids and teens should be exposed to a wide range of real-life issues. Books are a safe way to bring these difficult topics up and can often spark useful discussions with parents, kids, classmates, and teachers.

The ALA has published lists of the most frequently banned books by decade, including the latest decade, 2000-2009. They also have lists of most frequently banned books for each year, from 2001 - 2014.

I like to use these lists each year to choose books to read to celebrate this week. Two years ago for Banned Books Week, I read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Both were absolutely amazing books!

Last year, I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (last time I read it, I was only 16) and The Agony of Alice  and Dangerously Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (this series is #2 in the top banned books of 2000 - 2009).

This year, I went to the Top 10 lists at the ALA site and chose Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, #2 on the list of most frequently banned books in 2014, and Looking for Alaska by John Green, #7 on the list of Top 10 banned books in 2013. Both books were incredible - powerful and important, each in their own way.

Come back here later this week for reviews of:
  • Persepolis - Thursday
  • Looking for Alaska - Friday

For more information, links, and fun ways to celebrate Banned Books Week, check out Sheila's blog, Book Journey.

How are you celebrating Banned Books week?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Monday 9/28 - The Words

Last week, I started this new feature with weekly movie reviews. My husband was out of town last week, so I chose a movie with absolutely no action, shooting, or car chases. This movie is perfect for book lovers, readers, and writers:

I watched The Words, an intricate story within a story within a story. The film opens with Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, an acclaimed author reading from his latest novel at a posh event in NYC. The action then shifts to the story that Hammond is reading, about a struggling young writer named Rory Jansen, played by Bradley Cooper, and his beautiful longtime girlfriend Dora, played by Zoe Saldana. Rory wants to be a novelist, but his father is urging him to join the family business or at least "get a real job" so he can support himself. Rory spends years working away at a literary novel and finally sends it out. It is rejected by every agent in NY, though one agent calls him into his office to explain that it's a beautiful piece of writing but won't sell. Rory finally gets a ground-level job as mail boy at a large literary agency and asks Dora to marry him. They honeymoon in Paris, where Rory admires an old leather briefcase in an antique shop, so Dora buys it for him. After returning home, Rory discovers a manuscript hidden in the old case, about a WWII American soldier stationed in Paris who fell in love with a young French woman - and at that point, the action switches again to that story, as Rory reads about the young man and woman in Paris and is brought to tears by the beautifully written story. Frustrated that he can't seem to write anything himself, Rory starts to retype the old manuscript in his computer, just to feel the perfectly written story come through his fingertips. Dora finds the file the next day, assumes that he wrote it, and urges him to submit it. The novel is published and both it and Rory became a huge success. He tries to forget his guilt over copying the manuscript, until he meets an old man who claims that he wrote the story, back in Paris decades ago.

This is a story told in layers, as Clay narrates his novel about Rory and Rory copies the story about the then-young man in Paris. But mostly, it is a story about an ethical dilemma and the aftermath of ignoring your conscience. Though its main topic is plagiarism, this movie isn't just for writers. It's about life and dreams, decisions and consequences. The acting is all top-notch, as you might have guessed from the all-star cast, and the plot is unique and intricate. Though I set out to choose a movie different from the thrillers we usually watch, The Words has its own kind of suspense, as you wonder whether Rory will get away with his crime, how he'll fix things with the old man, and what Clay's own story is. It kept me riveted - and guessing - right up until the end.

Have you seen any good movies lately?

It's Monday 9/28! What Are You Reading?

You're probably getting sick of hearing this (I certainly am!), but I spent another week sick. I had a few days in the middle where I felt a little but better then got a whole lot worse again on the weekend. This has been going on for a month now, and I've had enough of it! Here's to a better October.

The upside is that I have had a LOT of reading time this month (though I've fallen way behind on my reviews). Here's what my family and I have been reading this past week:
  • I finished The Martian by Andy Weir this weekend. It was just as good as everyone said, with great suspense and a surprising sense of humor for a sci fi thriller. I can't wait to see the movie!
  • I also finished reading Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic memoir, for Banned Books Week (this week!). It is a child's view of living through the Iranian Revolution, and it was absolutely stunning - very powerful. Look for my review at the end of this week.
  • And I finished listening to my other Banned Books Week choice, Looking for Alaska by John Green. What an amazing book! Filled with humor but also tackling serious issues and emotions, it is my favorite John Green novel so far. I will also review that one this week.
  • Now, I am reading my first review book for Publisher's Weekly, A Paper Son by Jason Buchholz, a novel that goes back and forth between a present-day elementary teacher in San Francisco and the story of a family who moved back to China in 1925, with a touch of magic linking the two stories. I'm really enjoying it so far - the story and the writing pulled me right in.
  • Today, I will also start a new teen/YA audiobook, The Cemetery Boys by Heather Brewer, which sounds like a perfect fit for October and my R.I.P. X Challenge.
  • My husband, Ken, started The English Girl by Daniel Silva, a novel he got from our library's summer reading program. He was enjoying it but left it on the plane on his way home from a business trip! We've requested a copy from the library (ironically) so he can finish it.
  • Meanwhile, Ken is now reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, a fantasy novel about a young magician that our son loved and urged him to read.
  • Jamie, 21, is still reading Valour by John Gwynne, Book 2 of The Faithful and the Fallen series - he's enjoying this fantasy series and is trying to make more time for reading this semester.
I didn't have the energy to catch up on book reviews toward the end of the week, as I had hoped, but I did manage a few posts at the start of the week - as you can see, I've been adding TV and movie reviews to my blog lately:
Movie Monday: Coherence, a mind-bending sci fi movie we loved

TV Tuesday: The Wire, an older HBO show on Amazon Prime we are hooked on!

Review of Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, a teen/YA audiobook

Summary of Books Read in August (told you I was behind!) - 7 great books

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Books Read in August

 I am late as usual with my monthly reading summary, though I have a good excuse this time! I have been very sick and am just starting to come back to life & catch up on my reviews (among a million other things I got behind on!). I am excited to finally do this summary because I made some good progress on my reading challenges in August. Here's what I read:

  • What Waits in the Woods by Kieran Scott, teen/YA novel (NY) - review to come

So, I read seven books total, which is quite a bit for me! They were all fiction (pretty normal for me), but I read a nice mix of adult, YA, and middle-grade novels - some books and some audio. I enjoyed all of these. My choice for favorite book of the month is a tie between Anne of Green Gables and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I loved both of them and never wanted them to end!

Update on 2015 Reading Challenges:
For my 2015 Where Are You Reading Challenge, I added just 1 new state (Missouri) and 1 new country (Canada) to my list. I finally made some TBR progress and read 3 books from my own shelves for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015! I listened to two more audio books for my 2015 Audio Book Challenge, and added no books to my 2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge. I read 2 classics last month - woohoo! - for my Back to the Classics Challenge. I added Canada to my Travel the World in Books Challenge (does that count?). And I read two more big books for my own Big Book Summer Challenge and met my goal of 6 big books this summer - hey, that's the important one, right?

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Teen/YA Review: Bone Gap

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby was just nominated for the National Book Award. It is the only YA book on the award’s long list that I have read so far – I listened to it on audio last month. I mostly enjoyed this compelling story, though I was a bit jarred by the sudden presence of magic/supernatural occurrences toward the end.

Finn is an older teenage boy living in a small rural town with his older brother, Sean. The two live alone – their parents have been out of the picture for quite some time. Seam dreams of going to medical school, but for now, he works as an EMT in town to support their small family. Most members of the community consider Finn odd and have nicknamed him Spaceman and Moonface because he tends to stare into space and not look people in the eyes.

Finn and Sean’s quiet life is interrupted one night when they find a beautiful young woman hiding in their barn. She’s been badly injured, in what looks to Sean like a classic case of abuse, so they take her in and care for her. Roza speaks mostly Polish and is a kind, scared woman who quickly finds a place in Finn and Sean’s hearts and in their spare room. The three are happy together in their new little family when the unthinkable happens: Roza is taken away by a mysterious man in a black SUV.

Finn was the only witness to the abduction, and he’s not even 100% sure it was an abduction because Roza told him it was OK, even though it looked to Finn as if she was taken by force. Finn blames himself because he can’t describe the man to the police, but he is determined to find out what happened to Roza. His best friend, Miguel, tells him it’s not his fault, but he feels responsible. Meanwhile, Finn gets to closer to Petey, a local girl who keeps bees with her mother, and with whom he falls in love.

That’s how the book seemed to me for the first two-thirds or more: like a realistic drama with a bit of mystery and suspense to it, populated by interesting characters. I was completely pulled into this world, riveted by the story, and couldn’t wait to find out what had happened to Roza. Then, I began to notice odd things in the narrative that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. It took me a while (probably longer than it should have!) to finally figure out that there was an otherworldly element of magic or the supernatural at work here, and toward the end, that magical realm became far more clear.

I don’t mind magic or supernatural occurrences when I know they are a part of the story – a time travel plot, for instance, or a ghost within the story – but in this case, it took me by surprise and felt rather jarring to me. I felt as if I was reading one book (and enjoying it) and then suddenly was thrust into an entirely different story. Reading others’ reviews and descriptions of Bone Gap, I can see a few others who felt the same way that I did but many more readers who saw the magical signs much earlier than I did and enjoyed that aspect of the story. So, maybe it’s just me, and perhaps I would have felt differently if I’d have read a summary ahead of time and knew what to expect.

Clearly, the novel is very well-written, hence its National Book Award nomination, and everyone seems to agree that it has interesting characters and an engaging, unique plot. Beyond that, I think how much you like this book will depend in part on how much you like magical realism. Two blogging friends at My Head is Full of Books and Library Matters (their reviews at the links) pointed out to me that the novel is based on the myth of Persephone. I know nothing about mythology, so perhaps knowing that myth would have deepened my appreciation of the book and its multi-layered meaning. Overall, I enjoyed the compelling story and unique, interesting characters but definitely liked the first part of the book better than the last part.

HarperChildren’s Audio

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TV Tuesday 9/22 - The Wire

My husband and I usually watch two TV shows each evening (and sometimes Jeopardy, too!). That's our time together, and we enjoy watching favorite shows. I also watch something on my own (something with no action or suspense - ha ha!) at lunchtime.

So, I thought why not add some TV reviews as well as my weekly movie reviews? So, here we go - TV Tuesday! Each week, I will highlight a different TV show. Between TV seasons the past few weeks (and with me so sick), my husband and I were searching for something new to watch, so we settled on a decade-old HBO series that we'd heard great things about (and that is available for free now on Amazon Prime):

We started watching The Wire last week, and we are completely hooked now! The show takes place n Baltimore (a city close to us) and focuses on the drug trade in the projects there. Both the Homicide and Narcotics departments of the Baltimore Police Department are interested in a particular drug dealer who controls a whole area and whom they suspect is responsible for at least a dozen murders. A judge notices this activity and requests that the Baltimore PD set up a special commission to take down this gang leader. The police department heads aren't thrilled with this order, so they reluctantly comply, donating some of their worst dead weight officers to the cause. This ragtag group is given a basement office and sets out to try to catch one of the city's most notorious and untouchable criminals.

Dominic West does a great job as Detective McNaulty, the Homicide detective that started this whole thing and is completely obsessed with catching this guy. Two of our favorite actors from Treme (another amazing show!), Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters, star as other detectives, and Sonja Sohn is excellent as the lead Narcotics officer on the case. The show alternates between the points of view of the people involved in the drug trade (some of them just kids) and the police officers investigating, so you see both perspectives, as well as the officers' private lives. The show has really grown on us, and by the third episode, we were liking it more and more. The acting is excellent, the gritty setting is very realistic (luckily, we haven't seen much of this side of Baltimore before), and the twisty, intricate plot has sucked us in completely. Given the subject matter (and its origins on HBO), there is some violence and lots of swearing. So if that bothers you, this show is probably not for you. If it doesn't bother you, then the scene where McNaulty and his partner investigate a crime scene for 10 minutes using only the f-word is pretty hilarious!

That's what we're watching this week. What TV shows are you enjoying in between the summer and fall seasons?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Movie Monday: Coherence

I was still very sick last week (perhaps finally starting to perk up a bit today? maybe?), so I watched a LOT of TV and read a lot. I really tried to rest and stop trying to get things done (tough for me!), so one day I indulged in a couple of old 80's movies: Dirty Dancing and Flashdance. What fun! Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite movies of all-time and the music and dancing in both put a big smile on my face - just what I needed.

This weekend, my husband and I watched a sci fi movie on Amazon Prime, Coherence, that I couldn't wait to tell you about! It was so mind-blowingly good. This quiet little movie has the kind of twisty plot that I love, the kind that you often encounter in time travel movies, though this was different. It starts out with a rather mundane scene - eight friends gather together for a dinner party. You gradually get to know them a bit, as they come in and reconnect and chat over wine and dinner. One topic of conversation is a comet that is passing extremely close to earth that night. Em says that she read about weird things happening the last time a comet came this close, about 100 years ago, and Hugh says that his brother, who is a theoretical physicist, told him to call him if he noticed anything strange tonight. First, a couple of cell phones spontaneously shatter, and the whole group loses cell coverage. Then, the power goes out, and the real fun starts. I won't tell you any more about what happens because that would ruin your fun, but things get really weird after that! There's not much violence - it's not like a horror movie. It's more of a cerebral scariness, as the group of friends (and the viewer) very gradually figure out what is going on. There are no huge stars in this film - it is truly an ensemble cast - but the acting is all very good. It is a clever, mind-bending movie that will have you gasping right until the very last moment (great ending).

If you liked Coherence, you might also like Sliding Doors (which is mentioned in Coherence) and The Butterfly Effect (two of my favorites).

Have you seen any good movies lately?

It's Monday 9/21! What Are You Reading?

Well, I had yet another week on the couch, still very sick, though I think  - maybe? - I am doing a bit better this morning. In any case, I had to spend the morning at Urgent Care with my son (his collarbone is not broken, just bruised!), and I am not curled into a ball crying that's progress!

On the plus side, with my efforts to rest as much as possible again last week, I had a lot of time for reading:
  • I finished my book group selection (though I missed the meeting), If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power, about a half-Jewish journalist who grew up in several Muslim countries and embarks on a project with a good friend & Muslim scholar to learn about the Quran.This nonfiction book was nominated for a National Book Award last week, so our timing was good! It was a fascinating and enlightening book - very thought-provoking and relevant to what is going on in the world today.
  • I also finished How To Wake Up by Toni Bernhard, a good friend of mine who also wrote How To Be Sick (she has the same illness I have). This book is about applying the principles of Buddhism to every day life, and, like her first book, it was excellent. Reading it while so sick (and getting impatient with being sick) was particularly timely - it helps in dealing with whatever challenges come up in your daily life.
  • Now, I've started reading The Martian by Andy Weir - finally! I've heard so many great things about this sci fi thriller and gave it to my father, husband, and step-father for Father's Day last year (they all loved it). I wanted to read it before the movie came out - it's great so far and the fast-paced excitement is a nice change from the nonfiction I've been reading...though I did dream I was stuck on another planet this weekend!
  • I also started Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic memoir, for Banned Books Week (next week!). It is a child's view of living through the Iranian Revolution, and it is absolutely stunning so far - very powerful, especially on the heels of reading If the Oceans Were Ink.
  • I also started listening to a book for Banned Books Week (I usually choose two - one adult and one kids/teen/YA) - Looking for Alaska by John Green, a YA novel I have wanted to read for years. It is excellent so far - had me laughing right from the first minutes!
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Girl on the Train, which I read this summer. He enjoyed the suspense and unique, twisty story very much.
  • Jamie, 21, is reading Valour by John Gwynne, Book 2 of The Faithful and the Fallen series (he found his Kindle under his bed!) - he's enjoying this series and is trying to make more time for reading this semester.
  • Craig, 17, is not reading anything at all now that he finished The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri for his World Lit class, but he has a great syllabus for the year (I think so anyway - he's not so impressed), including The Kite Runner and Persepolis, which I am reading now!
I wasn't able to do much writing or blogging last week but managed a few posts:
Movie Monday (a new weekly feature) - Hot Pursuit & Shaun the Sheep

National Book Award Long Lists Announced!

Review of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Saturday Snapshot: The View from My Deck

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

One last reminder -  if you signed up for the Big Book Summer Challenge, you can still add your reviews of Big Books to the review list at the link (the second links list) through the end of the month.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 9/19

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

I haven't participated in Saturday Snapshot in a few weeks because I've been very sick and haven't left the house! Not a lot of photographic inspiration when housebound. But the weather has been lovely this week, so I have been spending a lot of time out on our back deck - it's very peaceful out there among the trees and birds. So, here's a peak at the world from our deck:

My spot on the back deck among the trees

One windy day brought down the first fall leaves!

The lovely blue sky against the green trees

Sunlight shining through the green leaves

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fiction Review: Rebecca

I’ve wanted to read the classic novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier for years, especially since Simon of the podcast The Readers is constantly mentioning it as his favorite book. I finally had a chance to listen to it on audio this summer when SYNC offered it as one of their free classics. Although it was slow to get going, I ended up enjoying it, with its many twists and turns.

The unnamed narrator begins the novel thinking back to her days at Manderley, an extravagant home in the British countryside, then takes the reader back to how her life there began. As a young girl, she was working as a companion to a wealthy woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. While there, she met an older man named Maximillan (Maxim) de Winter and fell in love with him. After a whirlwind courtship, the two of them married and honeymooned in Europe, finally returning to the renowned Manderley estate in the English countryside.

Right away, though, the new Mrs. de Winter could sense that something was amiss. The first Mrs. de Winter, a beautiful woman named Rebecca who died the year before, was still very much present in the house and in the minds of the servants, particularly Mrs. Danvers, who was obviously very devoted to Rebecca. The new Mrs. de Winter feels like a visitor in the beautiful home that carries traces of Rebecca everywhere. In addition, having come from modest means, she has no idea how to run a household like Manderley and so feels even more incompetent in Rebecca’s shadow.

Mrs. de Winter begins to notice strange things around Manderley. One whole wing of the house is left unused and has been preserved exactly as it was when Rebecca was alive. Even Rebecca’s old bedroom looks as if she is expected to return at any moment, right down to the nightclothes laid out on the bed. She becomes convinced that Maxim still loves Rebecca and that there is not room in his heart for her, too. She also feels very uncomfortable around Mrs. Danvers, who clearly is still grieving Rebecca and resents the presence of a new Mrs. de Winter. Slowly, gradually, secrets are revealed about Rebecca and her death.

The first half of the novel is fairly slow-paced, gradually building the characters and relationships and setting the scene, first in Europe and then at Manderley. Despite a vague foreshadowing of something sinister, much of the beginning of the novel reads like any period romance: the couple meet, fall in love, get married, and begin to settle into their home. In fact, my husband listened to the first half of the book with me in the car on our vacation but had no interest in continuing – there was little action or suspense, and we were both a bit annoyed with the insecure, timid Mrs. de Winter for not speaking up and just telling her new husband how she was feeling.

That all changes in the second half of the novel, as the ominous tone grows and suspicions about Rebecca and her death begin to mount. Then, the suspense builds exponentially. There is a lot of foreshadowing in the novel, which I thought was all rather obvious…until I found out that all of my guesses about what happened were wrong! Rebecca is filled with twists and turns and all kinds of unforeseen discoveries, right up until the very end.
--> The audio book was very well done, with the narrator’s accent and tone adding to both the sense of place and time and the suspense.

I read a lot of Dickens in high school, and I always felt that the first third of every Dickens novel was slow and a bit dull, and then each novel seemed to pick up its pace so that I had trouble setting it down. Rebecca felt much the same to me, so perhaps this is just an older style of writing, with a slower building of suspense than what we are used to with today’s thrillers that take off at a breakneck pace right from the first page. In any case, the second half of the novel certainly redeemed its slow start for me, and I ended up enjoying the surprises that came around every corner.

Hachette Audio

National Book Award Long Lists Out!

The National Book Award has announced its long list picks for 2015 - you can see them in all categories at this link.

I haven't read any of the fiction picks yet - I better get busy! It goes without saying that I haven't read any of the poetry choices, either.

I am currently reading one of the nonfiction books on the long list - If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Powers. She's a journalist who has lived in Muslim countries, and the book follows her quest to learn more about the Quran. It's fascinating so far and very thought-provoking.

Of the YA books selected, the only one I've read so far is Bone Gap by Laura Ruby which I listened to on audio and enjoyed (review to come hopefully this week). I also have Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman (one of my favorite authors) waiting on audio, so I need to get to that one soon.

Which of the National Book Award long-list choices have you read? What are your picks for favorites?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Movie Monday: Hot Pursuit & Shaun the Sheep

Hope you had a good weekend! I was still very sick, so we stuck with some light, fun movies this weekend (I also comforted myself with old Glee episodes!) - nothing too taxing to the brain here, just some good laughs:

My husband and I watched Hot Pursuit Saturday night, a light, fun movie. Reese Witherspoon stars as Officer Cooper, a rookie cop who was pretty much born into the job and wants to live up to her father's great reputation in the department. So far, that isn't going so well, as she's responsible for turning their last name into a verb as in "You really Coopered that one." She has finally been given a real assignment out from behind a desk, to serve as a female escort for Daniella Riva, the wife of a Columbian drug dealer played by Sofia Vergara. Riva's husband is scheduled to testify against a big drug lord in Dallas the next morning, and Cooper must make sure his wife stays safe until then. Things go awry right away, though (as they tend to do in these movies!), and Cooper and Riva find themselves on the run together, along with Riva's suitcase full of shoes. The running joke is that they are an oddly mismatched set: tiny, by-the-book police officer Cooper in her spotless uniform and tall, voluptuous break-the-rules Riva in her tight dress and stiletto heels. The movie is as titled, one long chase, as the odd couple try to avoid both angry drug dealers and bad cops. It's mildly amusing and has some funny moments, though there is nothing too spectacular here. Many of the jokes are predictable, with Reese's height and Sofia's looks and/or age the butt of most of them. But Reese is at her most adorable and Sofia is...well, classic Sofia (aka Gloria from Modern Family), and the two do seem to be having fun together. Perhaps the producers were trying to recreate the success of The Heat, the girl cop-buddy movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy from a few years ago, but that movie had more depth to it and was funnier. Hot Pursuit is a light bit of cotton candy, escapist fun.

Sunday night, we actually got our 17-year old son to watch a movie with us, a rare occasion these days! We watched Shaun the Sheep, the latest movie from Aardman Animation, with our son and his girlfriend. This was another bit of light fun for a sick day, with plenty of laughs. If you are unfamiliar with Aardman, they created the amazing Wallace and Gromit claymation series (4 30-minute shorts), as well as the feature-length movie Chicken Run and the hilarious TV show, Creature Comforts (both British and American versions). We are long-time fans of all of these at our house! Shaun the Sheep is a character from one of the Wallace and Gromit episodes (A Close Shave) - his name is a play on words, as in "shorn" - seen here in his first feature-length movie (though the character already has his own TV cartoon show). Like Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep begins in a quiet barnyard in England. The farmer, his dog, and the sheep are all a bit tired of the same old routine, so when the sheep spy an ad on the side of a bus to "Take a Day Off," they come up with a plan to keep the farmer from his usual routine for a day, while they relax in the house with snacks and TV (a very funny scene). Things go wrong, though, and the farmer ends up in the Big City down the road with amnesia, so the sheep (and the dog) take off to rescue him. Hilarity ensues as the animals try to disguise themselves, find their way around the city, stay away from the evil Animal Control man, and find the farmer. Like other Aardman projects, this movie is funny and very, very clever, filled with more sight gags than you could possibly spot in three viewings or more. There are no words spoken in the 90-minute film - the humans speak in a sort of Peanuts-style garble - but it manages to tell a story beautifully without them. We all enjoyed it and laughed a lot, though all agreed it wasn't quite as good as the original Wallace and Gromit series (what could be?). A great choice for kids that will amuse the grown-ups in the family, too.

Have you seen any good movies lately?


It's Monday 9/14! What Are You Reading?

Another lost week here - still very sick & stuck on the couch. I had a couple of days where I thought I was getting better but then quickly got worse again. Although these kind of lengthy "crashes" are common with my chronic illness, I've been doing pretty well the last few years, so this one is hitting me hard. Not getting much done generally...but lots of extra time for reading while lying on the couch!

Here's what we are all reading last week:
  • I have three nonfiction books started (!) but was having trouble concentrating while sick. I turned to middle-grade novels which were the perfect solution! Nice and easy, fast-moving plots, and great escapism! I finished Doll Bones by Holly Black and loved its creepy, suspenseful plot and focus on friendship - the kids' pretend games reminded me so much of my own sons years ago!
  • Next, I flew through another excellent middle-grade novel that had been on my shelves for far too long: Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper. Historical fiction combined with a ghost story, this novel kept me riveted. It is set in the 1600's when the Puritans first came to the New World and focuses on the clash between their ways of life and those of the Native Americans already living here. It was a moving, powerful book that will stay with me for a long time.
  • I finally returned to my book group selection: If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power, about a half-Jewish journalist who grew up in several Muslim countries and embarks on a project with a good friend & Muslim scholar to learn about the Quran. This nonfiction book definitely requires more thought, but it is interesting and enlightening so far.
  • I am also still reading How To Wake Up by Toni Bernhard, a good friend of mine who also wrote How To Be Sick (she has the same illness I have). This book is about applying the principles of Buddhism to every day life, and it is very good. I've been reading a little bit each day - it's not something to read quickly but needs absorption time.
  • I finished listening to All Fall Down by Ally Carter, a teen/YA thriller set in a fictional Mediterranean country along Embassy Row. Grace goes to live with her grandfather, the longtime American ambassador. She is certain she saw her mother murdered, but no one believes her. Suspenseful and engaging, in a unique setting, it is the start of series.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch, the second book in a series that he and our son have both enjoyed.
  • Now, Ken is reading The Girl on the Train which I read this summer. He's enjoying it so far.
  • Jamie, 21, finished Malice by John Gwynne, Book 1 of The Faithful and the Fallen series, and has now started book 2, Valour.
  • Craig, 17, finished reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, a novel I really enjoyed, for his World Lit class, though he didn't like it much - not enough action for him. His girlfriend read it along with him (they finished it on audio in the car), and she liked it!
 I actually managed a lot of blog posts last week since I couldn't leave the house:
My Big Book Summer Wrap-Up - the big books I read plus winner of the giveaway!

Movie Monday - new weekly feature - reviews of 2 movies & a mini-series

Keep Learning with Books - reprinted from my monthly book column in Vital! magazine

Review of Crows and Cards by Joseph Helgerson, a middle-grade audio book

Review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, a novel I loved!

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

One last reminder -  if you signed up for the Big Book Summer Challenge, you can still add your reviews of Big Books to the review list at the link (the second links list) through the end of the month.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Fiction Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Back in January, I gave one of my friends The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin for her birthday because I’d heard it was an uplifting novel about books. I finally got a chance to read it myself last month when my husband gave me my own copy for my birthday. I absolutely loved this warm, moving, funny novel that is full of literary references.

A.J. Fikry is the grumpy owner of a bookstore on tiny Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Although A.J. loves books and reading, his wife, Nic, was the enthusiastic salesperson, and now that she is gone, he lives alone over the struggling bookstore. As the novel opens, a new publishing sales rep named Amelia is on her way to visit A.J. and Island Books; her predecessor warned her about A.J.’s particular tastes and demeanor. In her brief meeting with A.J., his dismissive manner is true to form.

That evening, as with most others, A.J. closes the bookstore, goes upstairs, and drowns his sorrows in a bottle of wine and a frozen dinner, sharing the table with his most prized possession, a rare volume of early Poe poems. In the morning, the mess is cleaned up, and his rare book is missing, so A.J. hurries to the police station in the first of many hilarious scenes in this novel. Soon after, something unexpected is left in the bookstore, something that changes A.J.’s life forever.

I won’t describe more of the plot because half the fun of this novel is its unexpected twists and turns. Main characters besides A.J. and Amelia include the local police chief Lambiase, who enjoys reading detective novels, and A.J.’s sister-in-law, Ismay, and her husband, Daniel, who writes novels. As A.J.’s life changes, so does the bookstore, and the whole community with it.

Each chapter opens with a brief synopsis of a short story, apparently a collection of A.J.’s favorites, with reasons why he likes them, though it isn’t clear at first to whom he is writing these missives. In addition, books, reading, and literary references are woven throughout the book, in the bookstore’s business, A.J.’s reading, the books Amelia represents, and Lambiase’s evolving tastes, as A.J. recommends books to him.

Overall, this is a warm, uplifting, clever novel about opening up to all that life has to offer, about serendipity, and about books and love. And it is funny – often laugh-out-loud, hilariously funny. My husband kept looking at me curiously as I read in bed at night, saying he had never heard me laugh so much while reading! It’s a fun, joyful ride that I never wanted to end – one of those books that you finish reading and just hold to your chest and sigh. I loved every moment of it (and now I want to read all of the short stories A.J. recommended!).

258 pages, Algonquin Books

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Middle-Grade Review: Crows and Cards

I recently listened to Crows and Cards, a middle-grade novel by Joseph Helgerson, on audio. I enjoyed this historical adventure of a young boy in 1849.

Twelve-year old Zebulon Crabtree comes from a small town in Missouri, but his parents send him off to St. Louis to live with his uncle and become a tanner’s apprentice. Zeb isn’t too excited about this idea since he’s allergic to fur and doesn’t really want to leave home. So when he finds himself on a riverboat headed to St. Louis, he is easily convinced to change his plans by a riverboat gambler in fancy clothes named Charles Larpenteur, who is known as Chilly.

He tells Zeb that he has a much brighter future ahead of him assisting Chilly. From what he sees on the riverboat, Zeb figures that gambling pays a whole lot more than being a tanner’s apprentice (which doesn’t pay anything for several years) and that maybe, if he can save up the money he makes for his Ma and Pa, he can go back home. Besides, Chilly tells Zeb that he donates a large portion of his winnings to orphans, so it seems like meaningful work to Zeb.

When they reach St. Louis, Zeb begins his “apprenticeship” with Chilly at the hotel where he plays cards and gambles. There, Zeb meets Ho-John, the slave cook at the hotel, and Dr. Buffalo Hilly, a snake oil salesman in town who makes use of the prognosticating powers of Chief Standing Tenbears, a native American with a beautiful daughter. Before long, though, Zeb realizes that Chilly is really in the business of cheating honest men, including the Chief, and his conscience begins to bother him.

How Zeb finds his way out of this mess makes for an exciting adventure set against the Old West-style backdrop of St. Louis in 1849. While the story builds slowly at first, the ending is fast-paced and suspenseful. The setting, dialect, and humor of this novel brings to mind Mark Twain (in fact, it was paired with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on SYNC this summer), and Helgerson keeps the story light and amusing, though he also includes some interesting historical information at the end of the book. I listened on audio and enjoyed the folksy Missouri accents and voices, though the written book includes full-page illustrations. All in all, this is a rollicking story for middle-grade readers who may just learn a little history while they have fun!

Brilliance Audio
352 pages, HMH Books for Young Readers

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Keep Learning with Books

(NOTE: This post is reprinted from my monthly book column in Vital! magazine, September issue)

September means back to school for kids and grandkids, but being older doesn’t mean you have to stop learning! There are plenty of books that educate while they entertain and introduce you to new ideas, new people, and new places. Here are some of my favorite books that taught me something about the world, made me think, and changed my outlook in some way:

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – the author’s stunning memoir about growing up in a strict Muslim family in four violent and unstable countries and how she became independent and determined to fight injustice.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult – a fictional look at a school shooting from many different perspectives, including the shooter’s mother, that shows that things are never as black and white as they seem.

An Innocent Man by John Grisham – Acclaimed novel writer Grisham’s foray into nonfiction is a moving, shocking true story of a man condemned to death row who turned out to be innocent.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – this 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction provides an eye-opening, rare look  into North Korea, but it is also a gripping, heart-breaking, hopeful, and sometimes hilarious novel.

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper – a memoir about the author’s idyllic childhood in Liberia which ended abruptly with its 1980 military coup that sent her family to America.

The Nineteenth Wife by David Ebershoff – a novel based in historical fact about Mormon leader Brigham Young’s 19th wife, who separated from her community and fought against polygamy.        

Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter – an engrossing and informative memoir written by a young woman who grew up in foster care that highlights the problems and changes needed in that system.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra – an emotionally moving, riveting novel about life, love, hope, and healing set against the backdrop of the two Chechnyan wars, a historical topic that few people know about.

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan – a nonfiction book that reads like a fast-paced novel about the start of the National Forest Service by Teddy Roosevelt and the Great Fire of 1910 that almost destroyed the fledgling department.

Revolution by Deborah Wiles – this middle-grade novel (read it with your grandchildren!) is a fascinating and powerful read for all ages. The author combines a fictional story set during the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi with real-life documents, quotes, and photos from that summer.

Books can open your mind and teach you new things – never stop learning!

Suzan Jackson is a freelance writer who lives in Delaware with her husband and two sons. She writes a blog about books, featuring reviews, book news, and more at You can find reviews of most of the books listed here on the blog.

 (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)