Saturday, January 30, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 1/30: Winter Storm


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Here in Delaware, we spent most of last weekend snowed in, like the rest of the Northeast and Mid-atlantic states! It snowed heavily nonstop for about 36 hours, with winds up to 40 mph! Here are some highlights from our house:

View from our front door during the storm - no sign of the 3 steps there!

Piling up on our back deck and still falling!

Husband & son spent hours shoveling on Sat - no sign of it Sunday!

Pretty patterns left by the wind


Hope you are enjoying the weekend!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Summary of 2015 Reading Challenges

How can it possibly be January 29 already?? I looked back to last year and saw that I didn't post my 2014 summaries until the end of January and thought I'd definitely do better this year...maybe next year?

Anyway, 2015 was a great reading year for me (I WILL be posting my full year-end summary soon!), and I thoroughly enjoyed the Reading Challenges that I participated in.

I joined 6 Reading Challenges at the beginning of 2015 and added in 2 seasonal ones during the year:

The Where Are You Reading Challenge 2015 hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.
I participate in this one every year, just for the fun of tracking where my books are set. I read books set in 23 different states in 2015. That's a bit lower than previous years, but I made up for it globally, with books set in 17 different countries last year! And many of those were countries I'd never read about before. You can read my full list of books and locations on my 2015 Reading Challenges page.


2015 Mount TBR Challenge hosted by My Reader's Block.

I signed up for the Mount Blanc level - aiming for at least 24 TBR books this year, and (drumroll....) I read exactly 24 books from my own shelves! Woohoo! Still, I'd like to do even better at the TBR challenges because I have an entire bookcase of TBR books, and the pile never seems to get any smaller! But every year, there are lots of book group books, library books, new audiobooks, etc. I will definitely sign up for another TBR challenge for 2016. You can read my full list of TBR books read on my 2015 Reading Challenges page.


 
I signed up for Binge Listener level, 20-30 audiobooks, and listened to...25 audiobooks! Just right. I love listening to audiobooks - it doubles my reading time -  so this one works well for me. You can read my full list of audiobooks completed on my 2015 Reading Challenges page.
 
 
2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader.
 
I signed up for the Explorer level, aiming for 6 - 10 nonfiction books. I read these 8:
  1. Smile by Raina Telgemeier 
  2. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  3. Personal History by Katharine Graham 
  4. Relish by Lucy Knisely 
  5. French Milk by Lucy Knisley 
  6. How To Wake Up by Toni Bernhard
  7. If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power
  8. Persepolis by Marji Satrapi 
All but one was a memoir! That's the kind of nonfiction I like best. I tend to read mostly fiction, so I like signing up for a nonfiction challenge to give me some extra motivation to read a broader range of books.



Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted by Books and Chocolate.
 
My goal was 6 classics last year. This challenge had 12 categories to aim to read from, and I only read 4:
1.  A 19th Century Classic Dracula by Bram Stoker
2.  A 20th Century Classic
3.  A Classic by a Woman AuthorRebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
4.  A Classic in Translation.
5.  A Very Long Classic Novel
6.  A Classic Novella - The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
7.  A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title
8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic.  
9.  A Forgotten Classic
10.  A Nonfiction Classic. 
11.  A Classic Children's BookAnne of Green Gables by H.M. Montgomery
12.  A Classic Play.  
 
I knew this challenge was a bit too restrictive for me when I signed up, but I do enjoy reading classics, so this year I hope to find one that defines classic more loosely and allows for re-reads.
 
Back in September 2014, I added this new challenge which ran through December 2015. My goal was to read 10 books set in other places/cultures. I read 21 all together! So, that was a big success, and I enjoyed reading globally. You can read my full list of books read for this challenge on my 2015 Reading Challenges page.
 


Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Book By Book (me!)

I planned to read 6 Big Books (400 pages or more) this summer and met my goals:
  1. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  2. Revolution by Deborah Wiles
  3. One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
  4. UnDivided by Neal Schusterman
  5. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
  6. Anne of Green Gables by H.M. Montgomery
Hope you will join me for the fun next summer!



R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril X, hosted by The Estella Society
 
This one caught my eye in the fall, when I normally like to read spooky, creepy books anyway! I joined at Peril the First level - to read 4 books in September & October 2015 with dark or suspenseful themes. I read 8:
  1. All Fall Down by Ally Carter
  2. Doll Bones by Holly Black
  3. Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper
  4. The Martian by Andy Weir 
  5. Dracula by Bram Stoker  
  6. The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann
  7. The Cemetery Boys by Heather (Zac) Brewer  
  8. The Three by Sarah Lotz
So, all in all, a very successful year for Reading Challenges! Now, I need to (late, as usual!) sign up for my 2016 Reading Challenges.

Which Reading Challenges are you hosting or signing up for in 2016?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Fiction Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven

My latest review for Publishers's Weekly is up today, and I see that they gave it a star! (that's a reflection of the book, of course, not my review!).

The book is Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee, another novel I loved. This one is historical fiction, set during World War II in London. You can read my review for PW here. Cleave is such a talented writer, and this latest novel was no exception - I tabbed a half dozen quotes to add to my Quote Journal, simple sentences where he captures the essence of some bit of life perfectly. These are challenging topics he takes on (as always) - war, violence, and loss - but he balances that sorrow with lightness and a wonderfully subtle sense of humor. Ultimately, it is a story about hope and love.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven will be published on May 3 - be ready for it, this is a good one!

    

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

TV Tuesday: Younger

One of my favorite new shows from 2015 has just returned for its second season: Younger, a TV Land original comedy series.

The premise of Younger seems a bit iffy at first, but it is perfectly executed. Liza Miller, played beautifully by Sutton Foster, is a 40-year old single mother suddenly back in the workforce after her divorce. Her daughter is studying in India for a semester, so Liza finds herself at loose ends. She searches for a job in the publishing industry, where she used to work, but the 15-year hole in her resume causes a lot of questions and no job offers. Liza notices that most of the people in the kinds of jobs she used to do are young, in their 20's. When a 20-something guy in a bar thinks she is in her 20's, she gets the idea to pretend to be younger, so she can get an entry-level job in publishing and start her career over. Her best friend, Maggie, played by Debi Mazar (a favorite), convinces her to give it a try and helps her with a makeover. Armed with a made-up resume and her new 20-something hair, make-up, and wardrobe, Liza successfully lands an assistant job at a publishing house.

Her new boss is the demanding Diana Trout, played by Miriam Shor, and Liza soon has a new BFF, 20-something Kelsey Peters, played by Hilary Duff, who helps her find her way at work (with Maggie still by her side at home), as she transforms from suburban Jersey mom to fashionable young Brooklyn-ite. Soon, she is dating the gorgeous 26-year old Josh, played by Nico Tortorella, who works as a tattoo artist. No one knows her secret except Maggie. Hilarious situations ensue, and much of the humor comes from the clash between generations, as you might expect.

As I said at the beginning, this sounds like a shaky set-up, and it is a bit unrealistic that a 40-year old mom could so easily masquerade as a 26-year old (I wish I looked like that! There is no way the actress has had kids, let alone c-sections). That said, this show does everything right - great acting, excellent writing, wonderful cast - and the result is smart, fresh, sexy, and very, very funny. Besides its comedic allure, the characters are also warm and appealing and quickly won my heart. It pulls you in like a well-done drama but with plenty of laughs and a clever script about women succeeding in business. I absolutely loved the first season of Younger and binge-watched the first three episodes of season 2 as soon as they appeared!

You can watch all of season 1 of Younger and the beginning of season 2 On Demand through your cable company or through Amazon for $1.99 an episode (or $14.99 for the entire first season) or  iTunes. The season 2 episodes are also available through the TV Land website. Younger is not available on Netflix or Hulu.




Monday, January 25, 2016

It's Monday 1/25! What Are You Reading?

Monday morning & life returning to normal after a big snow storm this weekend! Delaware got dumped on...and this state goes crazy when they get a few inches! We had high winds and heavy snow from Friday evening to middle of the night Saturday and were snowed in for two days. We made the best of it! I totally gave up on getting anything productive done - a rarity for me. My son and his girlfriend were here through the storm, so the four of us cooked lots of comfort foods (they even treated us to homemade crepes Sunday morning), played games, and binge-watched a lot of TV! We just got Netflix last week (good timing). My husband and I finished season 3 of The Wire (such an amazing show) and started watching Orange is the New Black. We are totally hooked! And my son and his girlfriend came in while we were watching the first episode...and they got hooked on it, too! Soooo good!

Of course, we had plenty of time for reading, too:
  • I finished my next review book for Publisher's Weekly, Work Like Any Other, a debut novel by Virginia Reeves, due to be published on March 1. It's about an electrician in 1920's Alabama whose illegal power lines kill a man. Sent to jail for 20 years and separated from his family, he must carve out a new life for himself. It was thoughtful and compelling - really pulled me into the story.
  • Next, I started (way too late!) a book for my neighborhood book group meeting this week, The Art Thief by Noah Charney. My chances of finishing this on time are pretty slim, but I am doing my best! It's a literary mystery about an art thief who steals multiple valuable paintings seemingly all at once from three different locations. I know absolutely nothing about art, but it is interesting so far.
  • On audio, I am still listening to The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman, a teen/YA novel. It is intriguing, about a teen girl who lives in a world where spells can help you overcome life's challenges - make you prettier, more popular, less sad. The main character, Ari, seeks a spell to help her forget her boyfriend, Win, who died, but all spells come with a cost. I thought it was a little weird at first, but it's been very engaging so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Broken Harbor, the fourth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. Once again, he says he is blown away but what an amazing writer French is! He is really enjoying this novel, as he did her others. I've only read the first one so far, so I have some catching up to do.
  • I'm not sure, but I believe that Jamie, 21, is still reading The Brethren Prince: Piracy, Revenge, and the Culture Clash of the Old Caribbean by Ira Smith. It is historical fiction about real-life pirates in the mid-17th century Caribbean - he started it for our trip to Jamaica over New Year's. I bet he didn't read much this weekend - he was snowed in with his friends at college!
  • Craig, 18, is reading The Metamorphosis by Frank Kafka for his World Lit class. His older brother didn't like it, but Craig is enjoying it so far. That's a classic I haven't read yet - maybe I will finally get to it this year!
I still haven't posted my 2015 reading summary (I know, I know), but that is first on the list for this week! I did finish writing my 2015 reviews, my December summary,  and these other posts on the blog last week:
Movie Monday: Star Wars: The Force Awakens - the perfect mix of old and new

TV Tuesday: How to Watch? - comparing the options for watching TV shows & movies

Middle-Grade Review: George by Alex Gino, a novel about a transgendered child

Summary of Books Read in December - a great reading month for me!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Books Read in December

Whew, finally caught up on reviews and getting around to my December (and next, year-end) summary. I'd like to say I won't get so far behind in 2016, but I can't make any promises...

I may have been too busy with the holiday season to write many reviews, but I did manage to read quite a few books in December - all of them excellent:
  • Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian (VT), novel
  • Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Germany, PA, CA), middle-grade audiobook
  • Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (UK), novel - reviewed for Publisher's Weekly and not yet published (the novel or the review!) 

  • Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (NH, South Africa), novel
  • Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (FL), middle-grade graphic novel
  • George by Alex Gino, middle-grade audiobook 

It was an all-fiction month and wow, what a way to end the year, with such amazing books! Just looking at these titles and book covers brings back a rush of reading pleasure. I covered many of my favorite authors in December (thanks to trying to finish reading all of last year's Christmas gift books before Christmas this year!). Every one of these was excellent. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult, though The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion gets Honorable Mention for pure fun (and the perfect literary pick-me-up just when I needed it). I listened to 2 middle-grade audiobooks, read 1 middle-grade graphic novel, and the other 4 were grown-up novels.

Update on 2015 Reading Challenges:
For my 2015 Where Are You Reading Challenge, I added three new states and three new countries - great way to end the year! I read 4 more 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. Nothing new for my 2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge or my Back to the Classics Challenge, but I added three more books to my Travel the World in Books Challenge.

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Middle-Grade Review: George

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My last audio book of 2015 was George by Alex Gino, a middle-grade novel about a transgendered child struggling with her identity. I enjoyed the audio book, which tackles a tough topic with just the right touch for young readers.

When everyone looks at George, they see a boy. But George doesn’t feel like a boy. For as long as she can remember, George has known that she is really a girl on the inside. No one knows her secret, not even her best friend, Kelly. When George gets home from school and is alone in the house for a short time, she gets her secret stash of teen girl magazines out of her closet. She locks herself in the bathroom, flips through its glossy pages imagining herself in them, and tries to brush her hair down over her forehead so it looks like bangs. When her mother and her older brother, Scott, come home, she stashes the magazines away again.

George thinks she will have to live with this excruciating secret forever, until an opportunity comes along at school. Her grade is putting on a play of Charlotte’s Web, one of George’s favorite books, and she dreams of playing Charlotte. She will be the most amazing Charlotte ever, and then everyone will know who she really is. Things don’t go as planned because her teacher won’t even let her try out for the part of Charlotte, insisting that the boys only try out for male roles. But with Kelly’s help, they come up with a plan.

Middle-grade novels that deal with sensitive topics like transgendered people are rare (though hopefully becoming less so). I really enjoyed this story. The author got the tone just right – it is about a serious topic but never gets too dark for young readers. If anything, the reactions of the people close to George may be a bit unrealistically positive - though all of the characters take a little while to process her news, most are accepting of her in the end.

I like plenty of hope and optimism in my fiction, though, and this is a hopeful story for children who may see themselves in the character of George. Perhaps even more important, it models accepting and tolerant attitudes for others who may encounter children like George among their classmates or family members. The audio production was well-done, and the characters felt real to me. George deserved its recent Stonewall Book Award, for children’s and YA books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.

240 pages, Scholastic

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

TV Tuesday: How To Watch?

Image from 123RF
We spent much of this weekend online with Amazon LiveChat, trying to figure out how to better optimize our Prime accounts so that we could afford to also sign up for Netflix...which we finally managed (allowing both of my sons to spend the rest of the weekend binge-watching!). Since we learned some new things about the different services available, and it seems like a lot of people are trying to make these kinds of decisions, I thought I'd devote today's TV Tuesday to an overview of the different options for TV watching.

Cable TV
Even now that we have both Amazon Prime and Netflix, we still watch most of our TV using our cable On Demand service. We all like to keep up with current shows, and this is the perfect way to do that. We almost never watch TV when the shows actually air anymore (other than sports events or my few minutes of the Today show each morning while I get dressed), but On Demand has the latest episodes of pretty much all of the shows on all of the networks, plus some of the older stuff, too.

Yes, cable is expensive, but many people don't realize you can negotiate a better price. A few years ago, we added our home phone (yup, we still have one of those, too) to our cable service, and the combined offering of phone, TV, and internet cost us $30 LESS than what we had been paying for just TV and internet. Go figure. We had that great deal for a couple of years and since then, the price has been inching up, bit by bit. I noticed it went up by another $10 last month, so it's time to call the cable company again. Ask to speak with customer retention and see what kind of a deal they can get you. Tell them you are thinking of getting rid of your phone or cable TV (as many people are these days), and they will usually give you a better price to keep you as a customer. It's worthwhile for us, especially since the cable company is still our only option for internet and we use On Demand so much.

Amazon Prime
A subscription to Amazon Prime costs $99 a year, which might seem like a lot at first, but consider several things. First, it is cheaper than Netflix for most families (see below). Also, unlike other streaming services, Prime gives you other services, like borrowing e-books for free, many free e-books available, free music streaming, and FREE 2-day shipping on all Amazon orders (most items are included but some are not, like items coming from other vendors). For us, that last item in itself easily pays for the service. We take a lot of nutritional supplements, herbals, probiotics, etc. for our chronic illnesses, and I order all of them through Amazon - their prices are generally cheaper than competitors, they have an amazing selection, and shipping is free! My husband and I are endlessly amazed by the variety of things you can order through Amazon and have at your door in 2 days - last week, I ordered denim patches for my ripped jeans, tamarind paste (used in Thai cooking), hard-to-find supplements, and children's books for a new baby, all in one order. Our Christmas shopping is almost entirely done on Amazon now, with free 2-day shipping for everything.

As for video streaming, Amazon Prime has a large library of movies and TV shows and some excellent original shows, too. Admittedly, their video library isn't quite as large as Netflix's, but it's pretty big. We have watched old episodes of Glee, all seasons of The Wire (currently on season 3 and loving it), and the first two seasons of Orphan Black on Prime, along with other shows and lots of movies. With a single Prime account, you can stream video on up to 3 different devices at once.

We have found the Amazon original shows to consistently be of very high quality. Some of our favorites include:
  • Catastrophe
  • Transparent (just started a few weeks ago and I am totally hooked)
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • Bosch (based on the popular Michael Connelly novels)
  • Red Oaks
These are some of our favorite shows, among everything we watch.

Amazon Prime now offers a brand-new Household option that allows you to put two adults and up to four children in your family under one Prime account. This is a great new option that we took advantage of this past week. Previously, we had 3 Prime accounts in our household (totally unnecessary, as we discovered): my husband and each of our sons. If I wanted free shipping or to watch Prime videos, then I logged into my husband's account. Now, my own existing Amazon account is linked to his Prime account, so I can log into my own account to watch Prime video, and I can order stuff from my own account and get his free Prime 2-day shipping (very handy to be able to order from your own account when birthdays and holidays roll around!). Having your own accounts also allows you to each use your own gift cards without the confusion of who is using whose credit.

It's a little trickier for older kids/teens. You can add up to 4 children to your Household on Prime, but you can't link their accounts in, the way you can with the second adult in your household. So, our 18-year old son (who still qualifies as a "child" until he turns 19) has his own Amazon account with a large library of videos he has previously purchased - there's no way to connect that account to my husband's Prime account. So, for the next 8 months, he will just log into my husband's Prime account when he wants to use Prime video or get free shipping.

Amazon also added a new Student Prime Account designation.  Young adults enrolled in college are eligible to join, and the price is $49 instead of the usual $99, with all of the benefits of a full Prime membership. We are switching our 21-year old son's full Prime account to a student account, and will get one for our younger son when he heads off to college in the fall. Of course, you can also do what our friends' family does and just all share one Prime account, all logging into that same account when you want to use Prime.

Finally, I saw a few days ago that Amazon had a limited-time offer of $73 for the first year of Prime instead of the usual $99 - I'm not sure how long that will be available.

Netflix
We are new to Netflix, as of 2 days ago, so I don't know as much about it. We'd heard from everyone that it was "only $8 a month!" but that was a bit misleading. We learned that $8/month only gets you video streaming on 1 device at a time - not enough for a family with young adults! $10/month gets you streaming on up to 2 devices at a time, and you have to pay $12/month to get what we needed - streaming on more than 2 devices at a time. So, do the math - that brings the price up to $144 a year for a family, which is quite a bit more than Amazon Prime (and without the free Amazon shipping and other Prime benefits, like e-books and music).

On the plus side, Netflix is well-known to have a larger library of TV shows and movies to choose from. Netflix and Amazon each have their own agreements with production companies, so you will find that certain shows are on Netflix, others are on Amazon, and some are on both. Same with movies. My older son and I were pleased to find that Netflix has NCIS, a show he and I have been watching (on DVDs from the library) from the beginning and are up to season 3 so far. My husband was happy to see Netflix has The Walking Dead, and our son and his girlfriend watched all seasons of New Girl on Netflix this weekend! As for me, I am looking forward to catching up on Girls and and Gilmore Girls (another oldie I've been watching on DVDs from the library), and my husband and I both want to see House of Cards. So, you just have to check both services for the shows that are important to you.

Netflix also has its own original programming, also of a very high-quality, many of which - like the Amazon originals - have been winning all kinds of awards. Some of the Netflix originals I am looking forward to trying include:
  • Orange is the New Black
  • Grace and Frankie (starring Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin)
  • Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt
  • Master of None
In fact, having just added Netflix to Prime and Cable On Demand, we are feeling a bit overwhelmed by so many great shows to watch! We may need to hibernate on the couch and recliner all winter - see you in the spring!
Hulu
I know the least about Hulu, except that it used to have a free section and a pay section called Hulu Plus, and now it is all pay, with a model similar to Netflix. Hulu's promo page says that plans start at $8/month, so I imagine the pricing is also similar to Netflix.

So, bottom line is to consider how your family watches TV shows and movies and which shows are the most important to you, then make your choices.

How do YOU watch TV? Which service(s) do you use? Let me know if there are others that I didn't mention here or if you have any favorite Netflix shows we should add to our list!

Movie Monday 1/18: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Big event for my husband and I last week - we actually went to the movie theater to watch a movie on the big screen while it was still new! My husband's group at work has been patiently waiting for him to see the new Star Wars movie, but they said they were only giving him one more week, and then they just had to talk about it during lunch! So, we took advantage of our local theater's $5 movies all day on Tuesday, I rested in the afternoon, and we watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the big screen - it was well worth the wait.

Unless you have just moved to our planet, I will assume you know something of the previous Star Wars movies (or at least the original)...but don't worry, no spoilers here!

The new movie takes place about thirty years after the last of the original six ended (chronologically, not when they were released, so I mean Return of the Jedi). As you might recall, the good guys won and the evil Empire, with Dark Vader at its helm, was vanquished. But, evil doesn't stay away for long. In this new story, 30 years later, a new evil power, The First Order, has arisen from the ashes of the old Empire. Don't worry, though, because the Resistance still carries on its noble work of fighting evil.

As the movie opens, one brave Stormtrooper with a conscious, a young man named Finn, played wonderfully by John Boyega, manages to escape from The First Order while on a mission and meets up with a young Resistance fighter named Poe. Meanwhile, a tough young woman named Rey, played to much acclaim by Daisy Ridley, lives on a desert-like planet and tries to earn a living scavenging for scrap metal and parts. Rey discovers a hidden message in a droid she finds that seems to be a partial map for finding the elusive Luke Skywalker, who disappeared and hasn't been seen in decades. Rey and Finn cross paths and help each other to survive, as both get pulled deeper into the affairs of the Resistance and the mystery of what happened to Luke. Then, there's the whole good versus evil thing, blah blah blah - you know how that part goes!

I don't mean to be facetious with that last line because this is a really great movie that manages to do what the original Star Wars did - transport you to another world, into an epic battle of good versus evil, peopled by great characters. It's that same mix of adventure, action, and drama, with a bit of romance and a great sense of humor, too. I thought the new movie was a perfect mix of the old and the new.

It's no spoiler to say that many of the old characters return here, since there were so many promotional photos of them together! I expected the audience to cheer out loud when each appeared on screen - perhaps we had an unusually sedate audience at our theater, but I said, "Yay!" and clapped my hands when Han and Chewbacca walked onto the screen! It was like greeting old friends to see each of the old characters and to hear what they've been doing. The newer characters are just as interesting and charismatic as the old ones (though, as usual, Han Solo gets all the best lines - or maybe that's just Harrison Ford's own charm). Rey and Finn are both amazing characters who I definitely want to see more of. And of course, there is a new villain in charge of The First Order.

The movie also blends the old and the new in terms of plot and cinematics, with Rey's planet looking an awful lot like Tatooine, where Luke grew up, the obvious parallels with the young people finding the hidden data in the old droid, and the opening battle scene with Poe and Finn back to back that reminds you very much of the original. There is plenty that is new here, too, though, and it obviously ends quite open-ended...ready for the next sequel. I heard J.J. Abrams say he will continue making more Star Wars movies for as long as people keep coming to see them, so I suspect this world will be with us for a long time. That's fine with us - my husband and I both thoroughly enjoyed this new saga in the journey. Pure fun that put big smiles on our faces!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters. The DVD release date is tentatively set for May, and it will likely become available for streaming around that time, too. This is a good one to see on the big screen!

Monday, January 18, 2016

It's Monday 1/18! What Are You Reading?

Quiet Monday morning. No school today, but college son is home and still asleep and high school son and his girlfriend are binge-watching Netflix (which we just got yesterday!) in the basement, so it is still quiet here in the family room. A typical busy, hectic weekend here, though my husband and I cooked some delicious meals and watched some great TV while our son was on a ski trip. Yesterday, I had a 3-pound roast beef to cook, with a big bag of potatoes and a ton of broccoli, expecting six people for dinner. One by one, they cancelled until we were down to just 3 of us...so I stuck the roast back in the fridge and we went to 5 Guys for burgers and fries! That's becoming common here - I never know if it will be 2 or 6 people for dinner. Guess we will have Sunday dinner on Monday this week.

Amid all the busy-ness, we found time to read, as always:
  • I finally finished The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a highly acclaimed novel that I've been meaning to read for ages. It took me several weeks to get through it - it is a very dense novel. I liked it, though I still have some questions about its unusual tone and unique feel - I need to find an online discussion somewhere. Some books just beg to be discussed, you know?
  • I also finished listening to Solitaire by Alice Oseman on audio, a teen/YA novel about a high school girl named Tori who's a loner and a blogger and gets caught up in a mysterious website/blog called Solitaire. Like the best YA novels, Tori struggles to deal with some very serious issues in her life, but there is also a sense of humor to the story...and I loved the teen British accent of the narrator. Very well done and compelling story.
  • Now, I am reading my next review book for Publisher's Weekly, Work Like Any Other, a debut novel by Virginia Reeves, due to be published on March 1. It's about an electrician in 1920's Alabama whose illegal power lines kill a man. Sent to jail for 20 years and separated from his family, he must carve out a new life for himself. I'm only on the second chapter so far, but it's already pulled me in.
  • On audio, I just started The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman, a teen/YA novel. I'm not too far into this one yet, either, but it is already intriguing, about a teen girl who lives in a world where spells can help you overcome life's challenges - make you prettier, more popular, less sad. The main character, Ari, seeks a spell to help her forget her boyfriend Win, who died, but all spells come with a cost.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Broken Harbor, the fourth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. Once again, he says he is blown away but what an amazing writer French is! He is really enjoying this novel, as he did her others. I've only read the first one so far, so I have some catching up to do.
  • I believe that Jamie, 21, is still reading The Brethren Prince: Piracy, Revenge, and the Culture Clash of the Old Caribbean by Ira Smith. It is historical fiction about real-life pirates in the mid-17th century Caribbean - he started it for our trip to Jamaica over New Year's. Having his own TV in his apartment now, plus getting Netflix this weekend, may slow down his reading!
 Lots of blog posts last week, though it is already January 18, and I still haven't written my 2015 reading wrap-ups or joined reading challenges for 2016 - this week, I promise!
Newberry, Caldecott, and Printz Honors Announced!
Movie Monday: The Intern, a fun, warm, and funny movie starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway
TV Tuesday: Transparent, a show about the ultimate dysfunctional family (whose patriarch is now a woman) - I am totally hooked on this one! Sooo good and often hilarious.
Improve Your Life with Books in 2016! - a reprint of my monthly book column from Vital! magazine
Middle-Grade Review: Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm, a warm, fun graphic novel that tackles some serious issues
Fiction Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - fun, original, and hilarious
Saturday Snapshot 1/16 - A Warm Winter Walk

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 1/16 - A Winter Walk


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Getting back into a more normal routine this week (except for my son's 18th birthday so not all that routine after all!). I did manage a short walk at our local nature center. Here are a few photos (the weather has been pretty good for January) and one of my son's birthday:

View of the sky through the branches

A warm day but a bit of ice along the shady edges of the creeks

Happy to be outside!

How can he be 18?

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Fiction Review: The Rosie Project


I was quite sick over the holidays, feeling awful physically and more than a little sorry for myself emotionally. I needed a cheer-up book – something light and funny to perk up my spirits. I found the perfect book sitting on my Kindle (that I’d been meaning to read for over a year): The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It’s a light, sweet, smart romantic comedy that often had me laughing out loud and left me smiling and in a much better mood.

Don Tillman is a genetics professor at a large university in Australia. Though he is quite happy with his life and his job, he decides that he needs a life partner. Being an overly analytical person who likes structure (Don delivers a talk on the genetics of Asperger’s for a colleague but doesn’t recognize those very same characteristics in himself), Don creates The Wife Project, a 16-page questionnaire designed to narrow down the options. He figures that if he just finds someone who meets all of his criteria, she will be a perfect match for him. Questionnaire in hand, Don embarks on internet dating, goes on a group date, and even tries speed-dating, all with hilarious results.

Through his friend Gene, Don meets Rosie, a woman whom he quickly determines does not meet his criteria – she smokes, is perpetually late, and is startlingly spontaneous, messing up his carefully designed daily routine the very first day they meet. Rosie has an interesting problem, though, that Don can help her with – she is trying to find her biological father. Intrigued by the genetics problem – and by Rosie herself – Don sets out to help her. Along the way, Rosie introduces Don to a lot of new experiences and some new feelings, too.

Don Tillman is a lot like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, only with a specialty in genetics rather than physics and a little more likable. When his rigid ways meet Rosie’s whirlwind personality, the result is often rocky, sometimes sweet, and always very, very funny. I often found myself laughing out loud at Don’s reactions and the situations he and Rosie got into. At its heart, though, The Rosie Project is a love story, so it is also warm and moving. If you’re looking for a literary pick-me-up, this delightful short novel is the perfect choice. I finished it and immediately wanted to read its sequel, The Rosie Effect – I’ve already requested it from my library and can’t wait to meet up with Don and Rosie again.

295 pages, Simon & Schuster

NOTE: Originally written as a screenplay before being turned into a novel, The Rosie Project is now in development as a movie adaptation, still in script development. Who do you think should play Don and Rosie?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Middle-Grade Review: Sunny Side Up


Sunny Side Up, a new graphic novel by sister-brother team Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, reminded me very much of Raina Telgemeier’s much-lauded graphic novels for middle-grade and teen readers. It’s not just the realistic, colorful artwork that reminded me of such hits as Smile and Sisters but also the way the Holms mix some serious topics with a good sense of humor and tell the story from a kid’s perspective. Like Raina’s best graphic novels, Sunny Side Up is also semi-autobiographical, inspired by the siblings’ own childhoods.

Ten-year old Sunny Lewin flies to Florida by herself to visit her grandfather, affectionately known as Gramps, for the summer. Though Sunny and Gramps are clearly glad to see each other, there are hints that Sunny isn’t 100% happy to be there for the whole summer. Gradually, bit by bit, with the story moving back and forth from the present (August 1976) to scenes at Sunny’s home in Pennsylvania a few months earlier, the reader begins to see glimpses of some problems back home.

Although Sunny is glad to see her beloved Gramps, she’s not thrilled about staying with him for so long. He lives in a retirement community, so she is surrounded by old people, with little to do and no one to play with (not to mention sleeping in a creaky, uncomfortable sofa bed). Things improve somewhat when Sunny meets Buzz, a boy her own age whose dad works in the community as a groundskeeper. Buzz introduces Sunny to superhero comic books, and the two bond over candy, comics, and their adventures in the retirement community.

With Buzz around, Sunny enjoys her stay more, but it is clear that she is still upset over things at home, as flashbacks show how she is rehashing events of the previous few months with her mother, father, and older brother. Sunny’s been keeping secrets for someone, though she doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the bigger picture. As a result, she gets more and more upset with the strain of being left out and keeping secrets.

Sunny Side Up is an enjoyable, fun journey about one girl’s visit with her grandfather in 1970’s Florida, but it is also about more serious topics, too. The authors/illustrators weave into the story how the problems that one family member faces can affect others in the family, especially kids who may not understand what is happening. The relationship between Sunny and Gramps is wonderful (though realistic and not always smooth); it is clear they have a special bond. The growing friendship between Sunny and Buzz is also beautifully depicted. And the novel ends on a note of hope, as Sunny returns home with a better understanding of her family’s challenges (thanks to Gramps) and relief at not having to keep secrets anymore. All in all, it is a moving and realistic yet fun story about some of the more difficult experiences of being a kid.

Scholastic

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

TV Tuesday: Transparent

I just started watching Amazon's original series Transparent last week, and I've been so excited to write about it here. It's an amazing show, which all the critics have been saying for over a year (it was just nominated for 3 Golden Globes) - I'm not sure why it took me so long to discover it.

As you may have heard or noticed from its promos, Transparent is about a transgender person, transitioning from man to woman and coming out to her family. But the show is so much more than that. It is a family drama that is both poignant and often laugh-out-loud funny. Jeffrey Tambor stars as Mort, now known as Maura, who has known his whole life that he is really a woman but who just got up the courage to live as one, at the age of 77.

But Maura's not the only one in the family with long-buried secrets. The show is just as much about her three adult children who is each dealing with his or own issues. Oldest daughter Sarah, played by Amy Landecker, seems normal on the outside - married with two children - but she has her own secrets from her past which soon come bubbling into the present. Brother Josh, played by Jay Duplass, is in the music business, but both his career and his love life are in danger of falling apart when he falls in love with the latest of his many female conquests. Youngest sibling Ali, played by Gaby Hoffman (who was on Girls), is at loose ends, unemployed and unsure what to do with her life. The siblings' mother (played hilariously by Judith Light), long divorced from their father, is now married to Ed, a man with fairly advanced dementia.

Into this mix of oddball, dysfunctional family members comes Mort, now Maura, gradually telling each family member that, at age 77, she is actually a woman. Maura actually seems the most stable of the family members, as each deals with their father's news plus their own rapidly unraveling lives.

I have watched 6 episodes from the first season so far (season 3 just started), and I am totally hooked. All of the characters are interesting, their problems and issues are complex (and often somewhat extreme), and I often find myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of the situations they find themselves in. One warning, in case this sort of thing offends you: there is quite a bit of explicit sex in this show.  It is not, as you might expect, on the part of Maura - her sexual preferences haven't come into play yet - but the three siblings each find themselves in some pretty wild and varied sexual situations. Seriously, the transgender person on the show probably has the least turmoil in her life!

If you like funny, warm dysfunctional family dramas, this is the show for you! I am thoroughly enjoying every episode and can't wait to see more. From its continued award nominations, I am guess that season 2 was just as good as season 1.

Since this is an Amazon original program, it is available exclusively through Amazon, free to Prime members and $1.99 an episode (or $16.99 per season) - you can use the link below to access it.



Improve Your Life with Books in 2016!

(This is my monthly book column, reprinted from the January 2016 issue of Vital! magazine. You can also see it online at their website, along with some of my other book columns. I've reprinted it here with links to my reviews, when available.)


It’s that time of year when people make resolutions, set goals, and start the new year with a fresh perspective. Whether your goals focus on organization, your home, or your self, here are some books to inspire you!

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo – This little book has spent many months on the New York Times Bestseller List. Clear out your stuff and change your life!

How To Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow by Toni Bernhard – Applies the tenets of Buddhism to everyday life in order to be more peaceful, deal with challenges, and have more joy in your life.

Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule – andYour Life by Julie Morgenstern – Covers organization, clutter, setting goals, and more. I liked it so much after reading a library copy that I bought my own, now filled with dog-eared pages!

Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits – to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin – The renowned author of The Happiness Project is back with a book about habits: how we make the good ones and break the bad ones.

If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power – To understand real Muslims – instead of the terrorists in the news – join Carla on her enlightening journey to learn about the Quran. Timely and perfect for book groups.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey – A classic that changed my life – not just about effectiveness but about being a better person, with chapters like Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood and Be Kind to Those Not in Your Presence.

The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness by Dr. Jerome Groopman – Another book that changed my life, all about what real hope is and its power. Many examples are about cancer patients, but it is equally applicable to any health issues.

The Year of Yes: How To Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes – The famed creator of TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal shares her inspiring year-long journey to come out of her shell and say yes to things that made her uncomfortable.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam – We all have plenty of time – we just need to use it wisely. She explains how to analyze your time, set goals, and learn to use your time to meet those goals.

Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox –Inspiring and heartwarming – and often hilariously funny, Fox expresses universal truths about family, marriage, being a parent, losing someone, and chronic illness. Especially good on audio, read by the author.

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 www.bookbybook.blogspot.com. You can find reviews of most of the books listed here on the blog.