Thursday, June 30, 2016

Teen/YA Review: The Raven King

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I thoroughly enjoyed the first three books of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle series and couldn’t wait to find out how she would wrap things up. So, I chose the fourth and final book, The Raven King, as my first book to read for my Big Book Summer Challenge. It was a suspenseful and satisfying conclusion.

I won’t be able to say too much about the plot, to avoid spoiling the many surprises in this exciting fantasy series for those who have not yet discovered it. If you haven’t read any of the series yet, check out my reviews of The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, and Blue Lily, Lily Blue and get started on this magical series.

Seventeen-year old Blue and her friends are back in this final novel. Blue goes to public school and has been brought up among a very eclectic group of psychics (including her mother), but the boys she hangs out with all go to the exclusive Aglionby Academy, what Blue and others refer to as Raven Boys. They are a close-knit group now, including Gansey, the wealthy, likable boy and leader of their group; Ronan, angry and hiding a terrifying secret from the world; Adam, a poor scholarship student who works hard; and quiet Noah. We have learned more about each of the boys with each book.

The boys’ quest to find Glendower, the mysterious Welsh king who was supposedly buried somewhere in the hills near their Virginia town, is still their goal, but now it is more a means to an end. Legend says that whoever wakes Glendower will get a wish granted, and the members of the group have each decided, individually, that the wish must be used to save Gansey’s life. At the start of the very first book, Blue saw a premonition that Gansey would die within the year, and that time is quickly running out. In addition, Blue has been told all her life that she is destined to kill her true love with a kiss, so there is that, too.

A new friend joins the group in this book. Henry is also a Raven Boy and has secrets of his own. He is tied into the complicated matters they are investigating in ways they never would have guessed. In addition, the evil stacked against them continues to grow, as collectors of magic artifacts descend on their little town due to rumors started by a nasty character from the third book. These ruthless collectors will stop at nothing to possess the powerful magic at stake.

As with the previous books in the series, The Raven King is action-packed and full of suspense. In fact, it is the most exciting and fast-paced of the series, as the forces of good and evil converge on little Henrietta, Virginia, for a battle to the death. But it’s not all thriller. Like its predecessors, this novel is also filled with friendship, romance, family drama, and plenty of supernatural magic. It’s a rollercoaster ride of a finale, filled with plenty of surprises and a satisfying, unpredictable conclusion. I can’t wait to see what Maggie Stiefvater comes up with next!

418 pages, Scholastic

    

Fiction Review: Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran

My most recent book read and reviewed for Publishers Weekly was Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran by Nadia Shahram. You can read the review I wrote for PW at this link.

This book surprised me in many ways. I thought it would probably be interesting subject matter (fiction based on the lives of real women in Iran), but I didn't expect such a compelling and well-written story. "Temporary marriage" is a Shia Muslim custom that is basically a legalized form of prostitution, where men (some of them already married) can legally form a "temporary marriage" to a woman (usually very young women) in order to have extramarital sex while technically sticking to the rules of their religion.

The story follows one main character, Ateesh, starting with her disastrous marriage to an abusive husband when she is 12, but it also incorporates the stories of many Iranian women - her friends and family members and other women she meets - to give a full view of the role of women in Iran today. This would be an excellent choice for a book group, with so many important topics to discuss.

It's a stunning, powerful novel that kept me turning the pages. Click the link above to read my full review.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Books Read in May

Well, here it is June 29 already, but believe it or not, this is a big improvement in timeliness of my monthly summary for me compared with last month's! Finally starting to catch up on reviews.

Here's what I read in May - some excellent books:

 

 It was a mostly fiction month, with the exception of one memoir. Interestingly, everything I read was realistic fiction or real-life. I read 3 adult novels, 1 graphic memoir, 2 teen/YA audiobooks (fiction), and 1 middle-grade audio (also fiction). I enjoyed all of these books, and several of them were very powerful & moving. I think my favorite was A Tale for the Time Being because it was the one that affected me the most emotionally, and I loved its thoughtfulness (and almost filled my Quote Journal with quotes from it!).

Progress on 2016 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! Oops - not a single TBR book in May for my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge - I need to get moving on that one! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, May was A Story of Survival month - oddly enough, every single one of these books could be called that! I chose My Name is Not Friday for the official challenge. I read another nonfiction book for my 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, but STILL no classics for the 2016 Classics Challenge! For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I read books set in Japan, Canada, Austria, and Iran - quite a global month.  I am also tracking the states my books are set in, even though there is no Where Are You Reading challenge this year - I added 3 new states this month!

Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break:

My Bingo Card for May:

I filled 11 spaces on my May Bingo card - here's how the books I read fit in:
The Book of Unknown Americans - Award-winning, Loyal Friend
Some Kind of Courage - A Book Which Was Free, Rural Setting
My Name Is Not Friday - Siblings, Nurse/Doctor, Published This Year
A Tale for the Time Being - Artist/Poet/Writer
Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran - Lawyer
The Mystery of Hollow Places - Mother
And...the Free Space!

What was your favorite book read in May?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

TV Tuesday: Wayward Pines

We recently started watching the second season of Wayward Pines on Fox. It's a twisty-turny sci fi thriller, but I'm going to be careful not to tell you too much about the plot. Discovering its secrets one by one is part of its unique charm.

The pilot was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who is an executive producer of the series, so right away, you know you are in for some super creepy, unexpected surprises, and he doesn't disappoint.

In the first episode, Secret Service Agent Ethan Burke, played superbly by Matt Dillon, is searching for two fellow agents who disappeared about a month ago. He tracks them to a small town in remote Idaho called Wayward Pines, but he gets in a car accident. Ethan wakes up in the hospital and immediately notices something is "off" about the town and its residents. He can't call outside the town, the local police seem completely uninterested in his missing agents, and Sheriff Pope, played by Terrence Howard, tells him he can't leave the town. Back in Seattle, we see that Ethan's wife, Theresa, played by Shannon Sossamon, is worried about her husband and wonders whether he left her for Kate, one of the missing agents and Ethan's former mistress.

Ethan does find Kate in Wayward Pines in that first episode, but she seems to be happily settled in the bucolic town. Nothing makes sense to Ethan, and no one will listen to his urgent pleas that something is wrong. Back in the oddly deserted, quiet hospital, Nurse Pam, played by Melissa Leo, gives off a super-creepy vibe, while Megan, played by Hope Davis, is equally disturbing as the ever-smiling head of the local school. Everything seems strange and unexplainable to Ethan, and it's clear the town's residents aren't going to give him any answers. By the second episode, those eerie feelings are replaced by true fear as Ethan gradually learns more about the town's rules and consequences.

I really don't want to say anything beyond describing the first episode, because like most of M. Night Shyamalan's movies, this show is best discovered on your own, moment by moment, without any spoilers. I can tell you that you will be surprised - again and again - as the town's secrets are gradually revealed.

This is one of the few shows that our college son comes home to watch with us! He, my husband, and I all like it very much, even as it constantly reinvents itself, as its secrets are slowly disclosed. Wayward Pines is a thriller, with plenty of action and suspense. It is also a dystopian sci fi show, with all the elements that we love in those genres. And it is a drama, as the viewers get to know the town's residents and root for the good guys (and boo the evil ones!). The second season (we are 5 episodes into it now) brings even more surprises, as the first season ended with a disaster, and the second season brings in an almost entirely new cast...but it works and is still just as gripping as ever.

Season 2 of Wayward Pines is currently available free On Demand (our cable service shows it available until 3//17) or on the FOX website. It airs Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern (I sometimes forget that some people still watch TV live when it airs!). Season 1 is available through Netflix DVD service (but not streaming), it looks like it is available on Hulu, and it is $1.99 an episode (or $17.99 for the entire first season) on Amazon Prime (see link below).




Monday, June 27, 2016

It's Monday 6/27! What Are You Reading?

I am basking in the peaceful silence out on our back deck. One son is in Rhode Island, my husband left for a business trip to Las Vegas at 4 am, and my older son is back at his apartment, packing to join his brother in a day or two. It's soooo quiet. And I only cooked for one this morning. And I was able to open all the windows when I got up instead of having to keep the upstairs air-conditioned while my son slept until noon. Can you tell I was desperately needing a little downtime and solitude? It's been a crazy month, starting with my son's graduation. I still have a lot of work to do today, to help my son get ready for his trip, but I am relishing this quiet moment.

As always, lots of good books being read at our house last week:
  • I finished Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard, a middle-grade graphic novel that is due out on August 2. It was wholly unique, interesting, and had richly imagined drawings. I loved kind-hearted little Bera.
  • My next book group pick came in at the library, so I am reading Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, a highly acclaimed YA best-seller. Am I the last person in the world to finally read this unique novel? The author combines a completely original story with some really weird old photos with great effect. It's about a modern-day teen boy discovering the very strange place where his grandfather lived as a child. Excellent so far. 
  • I struggled to start an audiobook last week because the first two I tried - that I had downloaded from the publisher - were both missing chapters (you should have seen my confusion when the first one started with chapter 2!). I finally successfully uploaded one to my iPod and started listening to Pax by Sara Pennypacker, a middle-grade novel about the friendship between a boy and a fox that he raised from an orphaned baby kit. The two are separated and trying to find their ways back to each other. It is just as good as I had heard, with chapters alternating between the boy's and the fox's points of view - reminds me of a Kate DiCamillo novel (yes, that good).
  • My husband, Ken, finished When Darkness Falls by James Grippando, a paperback thriller that I put in his Christmas stocking. 
  • Ken has three new (big!) books from Father's Day but chose an old slim paperback from our shelves for his travel week: The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. This was the first Follett novel I ever read (many decades ago), and I think I have read it 2 or 3 times by now. I couldn't believe my husband had never read it before. It's an excellent spy thriller that was later made into a very good movie.
  • Jamie, 21, is almost finished with the third book in A Pattern of Shadow and Light series by Melissa McPhail: Paths of Air. He says that it really picked up in the second half and he's loving it as much as the first two books.
 Last week's blog posts:
TV Tuesday: The Fosters - a warm, funny family drama

Teen/YA Review: The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos - combination mystery & family drama

Graphic Memoir Review: Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi - coming of age in (and out of) Iran

Saturday Snapshot: Camping & Hiking in Maryland

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.


Join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) to participate. Join the fun & sign up today!



Saturday, June 25, 2016

Graphic Memoir Review: Persepolis 2


After reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (my review at the link) last September for Banned Books Week, I was eager to read the follow-up book, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, which is also a graphic memoir like the first book. What motivated me to finally request it at the library this spring were two unrelated events: my son’s 12th grade World Lit class was reading Persepolis (which reminded me I’d meant to read the sequel) and Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) chose both Persepolis and Persepolis 2 as the June selection for her feminist book group, Our Shared Shelf, onGoodreads.

Persepolis 2 picks up Marjane’s life story where Persepolis left off, when the author is in her early teens. Her parents send her to Austria to live with family friends, to get her away from the war and violence tearing their own country, Iran, apart. Things don’t work out well in the small apartment with the family friends, though, who soon send Marji off to a boarding school in Vienna. Thus begins a period of displacement for Marji, where she is shuttled from one place to another, always feeling like the outsider and missing her home and her family.

On top of these very unique difficulties, Marji is also dealing with all the usual challenges of adolescence: growing up, fitting in, and figuring out who she is. Marji continues to feel like an outsider and sees right away that no one in Europe understands or appreciates the horrific things that are happening in her home country. Given her mixed upbringing, in a secular home with a government based on strict religious adherence, she isn’t sure where she falls in terms of religion, which is even more confusing as she is living with nuns. She feels uncomfortable with her European peers’ focus on fashion, make-up, and sex and struggles to get along in a second language (French).

Gradually, she becomes friends with a group of misfits but even with them, she often feels like she doesn’t fit in. She tries out different personas, including punk. The years go by, and friends come and go, and Marji even has her first boyfriend…but she yearns to return home. Eventually, her situation degrades until she is in a serious crisis. She finally gets to return home to Iran.

Sample page: Marji experiments with different looks
She is thrilled to see her parents and grandmother again, but her homecoming leaves her feeling once again like an outsider. Having heard little of the atrocities occurring in her home country while in Europe, it’s as if she has been living in another world. She must re-adjust to wearing the veil and other customs required to fit in now in Iran. Family members and friends have been killed in the war, imprisoned, and tortured. Some of those who survived are now disabled. Feeling like she doesn’t even fit in at home, Marji struggles with depression but eventually goes to university and gets on with her adult life.

Marji’s story is gut-wrenching but captivating. She experienced all the normal adolescent problems, including wrestling with her identity, while also constantly feeling different from those around her. As with the chronicle of her childhood in Persepolis, this stark, complicated coming-of-age story is reflected in her black-and-white drawings. Her basic experiences are often universal and relatable, while set against this stunning, often horrifying, backdrop. Eventually, with plenty of missteps, Marji does make it to adulthood and figures out who she is and what she wants to do with her life. You will be rooting for her every step of the way in this powerful, moving graphic memoir.

187 pages, Pantheon

NOTE: As with Persepolis, Persepolis 2 is an excellent book for older teens and young adults (my son's 12th grade World Lit class read Persepolis this year) though parents should be aware when considering this book for younger kids that it is about becoming an adult and deals honestly with alcohol, drugs, smoking, and sex, as well as the war, torture, and violence happening in Iran.

Saturday Snapshot 6/25: Camping in Maryland


Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Last weekend, with our sons off at Firefly (an outdoor music festival held each year here in Delaware) for 4 days, my husband and I got a much needed break with a weekend camping trip to the mountains of northern Maryland. We camped (and hiked) at Cunningham Falls State Park and then hiked on Sunday at Catoctin Mountain Park, located just across the street and part of the National Park system (Camp David is located within the park). It was a very relaxing weekend with perfect weather. Here are a few highlights:

Cunningham Falls

My husband and I at the falls.

Lots of huge rock outcroppings - our sons would love it!

My husband in between two more big rock outcroppings.

Hog Rock and the view of the surrounding valleys.

Relaxing by the campfire - with Kafka & Redbook! lol

A cathedral of trees on Hog Rock Trail in Catoctin Mtn Park


Hope you are enjoying a great weekend!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Teen/YA Review: The Mystery of Hollow Places


I recently listened to The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos on audio. I enjoyed this teen/YA novel that is a unique mix of mystery and family drama.

Seventeen-year old Imogene has never known her mother, who left her and her father when Imogene was just a baby. All she knows is the bedtime story her father used to tell her, about how they met. He was a medical examiner, and her mother was a woman who came to identify the body of her dead mother. He romanticized the story and added a touch of magic. Now, Imogene lives with her father and her stepmother, Libby. Imogene’s father left the medical profession and is now a well-known author of medical mysteries starring a forensic pathologist.

But now, Imogene’s father is missing. She and Libby wake up one morning to find him gone without a trace. He left only one thing, on Imogene’s bed – a special object that was associated with the bedtime story he always told her about her mother. Imogene is convinced that it’s a clue he left to tell her that he went to find her mother. She decides to track down her father – and maybe her mother, too? – on her own, using what she’s learned from reading her father’s novels and trying to think like his protagonist. Imogene is a private person and doesn’t want to share all this family saga, but she reluctantly asks her best friend, Jessa, to help her. Imogene’s search has some dead ends but also leads her to places and people she never expected.

This novel has an intricate and unique storyline that imbeds a classic mystery – with clues, leads, and trails to follow – into the center of an unusual family drama. Imogene clearly needs to know more about her mother, who forms a part of her identity and whose absence has never been explained. Meanwhile, at home, her stepmother, Libby, tries to get closer to Imogene and be her mother, but Imogene is resistant to her advances. In contrast, she sees Jessa’s family who seem like a completely normal, ideal-type American family. There’s even a touch of romance here, as Imogene has had a crush for many years on Jessa’s older brother.

The story follows Imogene as she tracks down clues, investigates her family’s past, and tries to figure out where her mother went all those years ago, and where her father went recently. At the same time, though, she must navigate normal adolescent challenges – school, boys, the prom. It’s clear that solving these mysteries is about more than just finding her father; it’s about figuring out who she is and why her mother left. This intricate blend of mystery, family drama, and teen life is compelling and full of unexpected twists and turns.

HarperChildren’s Audio

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

TV Tuesday: The Fosters

With both of my sons home for summer, TV is very action/thriller-oriented right now (I'm the only female in the household!) and time to watch "my" shows is very limited. So, when I had a rare lunchtime to myself last week and was looking for something to watch, I wanted some "comfort TV." I wanted something that would remind me of the glory days of Parenthood (one of my all-time faves) or my more recent discovery, The Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce (only season 1 is available on Netflix and I finished it). I was thrilled to discover that one of my old favorites is on Netflix - all of its seasons - so I could catch up.

The Fosters is a wonderful family drama set in California. If you think that there's not enough diversity on TV, then this show is for you! Stef and Lena are a lesbian couple with a group of pre-teen and teen kids who are a mixture of natural, adopted, and foster (of multiple races)...and their family keeps growing! Stef, played by Teri Polo (who I just discovered is from Delaware, where we live), works as a police officer. Her ex-husband, Mike (played Danny Nucci), who is also a police officer, lives nearby - he later gets into fostering, too! They had a son together, Brandon (played by David Lambert), who is now in his late teens and lives with Stef and Lena. Lena (played by Sherri Saum), works as vice-principal at a local charter school, where Brandon attends, along with his adopted brother and sister, Jesus (played by Jake T. Austin) and Mariana (played by Cierra Ramirez), who are twins and a year younger. Stef and Lena adopted the twins when they were just toddlers.

Into this mix, in the first episode, comes Callie, a troubled teen just out of Juvie. Callie comes to Stef and Lena on a temporary basis, while the system tries to find her a new foster home. Callie has a single-minded purpose: to get her little brother, Jude, out of his foster home, where their foster father is abusive. Stef insists to Lena that they can't possibly take in any more kids, but after getting to know Callie and Jude, they agree to find a way to add them to their family.

The Fosters is a typical family drama in that awful things keep happening to this poor family! But the show also has a good sense of humor, which keeps it entertaining and not depressing. Additional foster kids come in and out of their lives, and Callie - who has had some terrible experiences in the system - continues to get into trouble, though she is clearly a good kid. You'll be rooting for her from the very first episode. I think what I like best about this show is the quality of the writing and the acting, especially the kids. When I started watching it, I admit to a bit of a bias, thinking that maybe an ABC Family show might not be of very high quality...but I was wrong. Now I am midway into season 3 and absolutely thrilled to have found it available on streaming, so I can get back to it. And I see that season 4 has just started...oh, boy! If you are looking for a replacement for Parenthood or The Gilmore Girls - a warm, funny, moving family drama - this is for you.

The Fosters is an ABC Family show (now called Freeform). Some recent episodes plus new season 4 episodes are available free on Freeform, as well as on cable On Demand. Netflix streaming has all seasons of The Fosters available - yay! It is also available on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $24.99 for a season (which usually contains 20 or more episodes).

Have you seen The Fosters yet? What's your favorite family drama?

Just watch this trailer - you'll be hooked! Makes me want to watch it all over from the beginning.






Monday, June 20, 2016

It's Monday 6/20! What Are You Reading?

Happy Official First Day of Summer, Summer Solstice, and the Longest Day of the Year (at least in the eastern hemisphere)! You know what that means? More time to read today! Also, there's still plenty of time to sign up for the 2016 Big Book Summer Challenge! (you only need to plan to read one book of 400+ pages before September to participate).

We had unusually temperate, lovely weather this weekend (as opposed to super hot & humid), and we made the most of it. Our sons were at Firefly, a huge 4-day musical festival here in Delaware, with their friends, so my husband and I took off on our own camping weekend. We drove a few hours away into the mountains of northern Maryland (part of the Appalachians) and enjoyed hiking and lots of quiet time...and yes, lots of reading!

Here's what we've all been reading:
  • I finished The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater, the fourth and final book in her The Raven Cycle series, which I have been wanting to get to since it was released in April. It was great, just like the first three, with an excellent wrap-up to the series. This was my first Big Book of the Summer - woohoo!
  • My reading timing with our weekend away was just a little bit off - I have 2 book group books to read in the next two weeks, but my first one wasn't in at the library yet. So, I needed something very short this weekend and decided it was about time to read a classic (since I joined a one-classic-per-month challenge & haven't read any yet this year!). So, I read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, a novella that both of my sons had to read for their World Lit class in high school. This was my first taste of Kafka, and it was well-written, engaging, and surprisingly funny.
  • Home last night and still without my next book group book (I just picked it up this morning!), I started another super quick book, Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard, a middle-grade graphic novel that is due out on August 2. I'm about halfway through, and so far, it is wholly unique, interesting, and with richly imagined drawings. I already love little Bera.
  • I finished listening to The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal Allen & Eda Kaban, a middle grade audio book and the start of a new series with a spunky 4th grade heroine and a fun, cowgirl setting in Texas. I need to start a new audio today.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading When Darkness Falls by James Grippando, a paperback thriller that I put in his Christmas stocking. Just in time because I gave him 3 new books for Father's Day yesterday that we both can't wait to read!
  • Jamie, 21, finished re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth and is still reading book 3, Paths of Air. Not much reading time at a 4-day music festival with friends! He may have finished this one by now, but he is still asleep so I can't ask him.
 Last week's blog posts (wow, I managed a lot for being offline for 3 days this weekend!):
Movie Monday: Captain America: Civil War, the latest Avengers movie

TV Tuesday: Stitchers, a young team of brilliant scientists solves crimes with sci fi tech

Fiction Review: The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood, reviewed for Publishers Weekly

Teen/YA Review: My Name Is Not Friday by Jon Walter, a free black boy during the Civil War is sold into slavery

Fiction Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, an engrossing story of connections

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.


Join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) to participate. Join the fun & sign up today!


Friday, June 17, 2016

Fiction Review: A Tale for the Time Being


I’ve been hearing rave reviews of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ever since its release in 2013, including being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. I’ve wanted to read it since and finally found some extra motivation when my library chose it for its May book discussion (which I sometimes go to when I can fit it in). I missed the discussion (no surprise) but finally got to read this unique novel and find out what all the fuss was about. I loved this story about connections between a teen girl in Japan and a woman writer in British Columbia.

Nao is a teenage girl sitting in a Japanese French Maid Café (this is seriously a real thing, much to my amazement), writing in a journal. She and her parents are all pretty miserable, and her father is suicidal. They used to live in Sunnyvale, California, where her father had a job with a growing tech company, so Nao grew up mostly American. When the dot-com bubble burst and her father lost his job, the family had to return to Japan. Not able to find a job there either, he is depressed and suicidal, and the family lives in a tiny 2-room apartment in a run-down part of Tokyo. Nao’s classmates bully her relentlessly – and cruelly – for being the new girl and an outsider.

On the other side of the world, Ruth, a second-generation Japanese American woman and a writer, is walking along the beach on the small island in British Columbia where she lives with her husband, Oliver. She finds a curious item washed ashore and encased in several layers of plastic bags and a Hello Kitty lunchbox. When she takes it home and opens it, she finds Nao’s journal. She begins to read it aloud, with Oliver listening, and they are both immediately entranced by Nao’s story and her plights.

The novel continues back and forth, with alternating chapters between Nao and Ruth. Nao doesn’t know to whom she is writing, but she hopes that someone will someday read it. Her chapters are wholly from the journal, so the reader is experiencing Nao’s story in exactly the way that Ruth is experiencing it. As she reads, Ruth becomes more and more concerned about Nao. With her father’s failed suicide attempts and her own ever-escalating bullying, Nao is considering suicide herself. Ruth is alarmed and wants to somehow find her, but Oliver points out that they have no way of knowing when this journal was written or how much time has passed since.

The one saving grace in Nao’s life is her great-grandmother, Jiko, who is 104 and a Buddhist nun. In her youth, Jiko was a revolutionary, an anarchist and a feminist (at a time when both were rare and dangerous). In fact, Nao starts the journal with a plan to write Jiko’s life story in it. She spends a summer at the tiny Buddhist temple on top of a mountainside where Jiko lives and gets to know her great-grandmother. That summer changes her life.

I enjoyed the complex connections and back-and-forth style of this wholly unique novel. Because of Jiko’s influence, there is quite a bit of Buddhism included in Nao’s journal (and further explained in appendices). In fact, the title of the book comes from the writings of a Zen Master from the 1200’s. I loved the bits of philosophy worked in among Nao’s and Ruth’s stories (man and nature is also an ongoing theme here) and especially the way that their two stories intertwined. A Tale for the Time Being is a moving, powerful story about life and time, peopled by interesting characters, that makes you think. What more could you want from a novel?

403 pages (plus appendices), Viking Press

[If you haven’t yet joined the Big Book Challenge, this would be a great book to read for it!]

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Teen/YA Review: My Name Is Not Friday


I recently listened to My Name Is Not Friday by Jon Walter on audio. I hadn’t heard of Walter before and discovered this is his first teen/YA novel, following a successful middle-grade novel, Close to the Wind. This new novel is set during the Civil War and told from the perspective of a free black boy who is sold into slavery. It’s a fascinating and compelling historical novel.

Twelve-year old Samuel lives in an orphanage in east Tennessee with his little brother, Joshua. Their mother died giving birth to Joshua, leaving the boys alone. They were taken to an orphanage run by Father Mosely for free black boys who’d been orphaned. For six years, the two brothers grow up together there, working and taking classes and walking to Mass in borrowed pairs of shoes. Samuel gets along well with the other boys and with Father Mosely, but Joshua is always getting into trouble. Samuel loves reading and learning and hopes to become a teacher himself one day, but he just can’t get Joshua interested in schoolwork. One day, when Father Mosely accuses Joshua of a terrible act, Samuel takes the blame; he just can’t stand to see his brother punished again.

Samuel’s punishment, though, is far more than he’d bargained for. Without knowing what’s going on, he is sent away, given a new name (Friday), and sold at a slave auction. There, he is purchased by Gerald, a boy about his age, and his mother, Mrs. Allen, and taken to their plantation in Mississippi. Samuel is suddenly immersed in a world completely foreign to him. Mrs. Allen runs the busy farm while her husband is off fighting in the war. Gerald seems to want to be his friend, but the other slaves warn Samuel – now Friday – and explain that his role on the farm is to do what their owners tell him.

Friday is put to work part-time in the fields and part-time in the house, since he is well spoken. He discovers that none of the other slaves know how to read and realizes he must keep his own reading skills a secret. Friday (still Samuel in his heart) becomes accustomed to life on the farm and becomes a part of the community there, but he never stops thinking about getting away and finding his brother. Meanwhile, the war continues, and things are not looking good for the South.

This was a completely engrossing story, right from the first page, where we meet Samuel while he is blindfolded and being carried on the back of a mule to the auction by a slave trader. It puts the reader right in the middle of the experience of slaves during this tumultuous time period, while also showing some perspectives of slave owners and those fighting (and involved tangentially) in the Civil War. We watch with suspense as Samuel makes the journey from a free boy to a slave…and hopefully, some day, back again. Samuel and the other slaves are interesting and well-developed characters, as are the white characters in the novel. Like the best historical fiction, this novel transports the reader to a different place and time, while also telling an intriguing story.

Scholastic Audio

NOTE: At first, I thought that perhaps this was a middle-grade novel because of the age of the protagonist, but it is definitely meant for teens and young adults, as Walter doesn’t shy away from a realistic portrayal of both slavery and the war. Some scenes are quite graphic and disturbing (as is appropriate for an accurate book about slavery and the Civil War), though the overall tone of the novel is one of hope and strength.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Fiction Review: The Book That Matters Most

Way back in my March Book Summary, I mentioned that I'd read and reviewed The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood for Publishers Weekly. They just published my review, so I'm sharing the link here. It will be released in August.

This was my first Ann Hood novel (she also wrote The Obituary Writer and The Knitting Circle), though I'd heard good things about her books. I don't know why, but I sort of expected The Book That Matters Most to be light and insubstantial, but I was pleasantly surprised by its complexity and depth. It interweaves a year of book group discussions with a woman's efforts to overcome her recent divorce and also works in side stories about her daughter's mis-adventures in Paris and the deaths of her mother and sister when she was young. I was completely engrossed in the story and enjoyed seeing the emotional growth and healing of the characters develop. There were plenty of surprises in the plot, and I love stories where disparate threads come together in the end.

Have you read any Ann Hood novels? 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

TV Tuesday: Stitchers

Last week, with all of our favorite spring shows wrapping up and June beginning, I looked up start dates for some of our favorites from last summer. I was surprised - and alarmed - to see that one show we loved, Stitchers, had actually come back for its second season in March! Luckily, all of the season two episodes are still On Demand, so we settled in for some binge-watching and are almost finished with season two now.

Stitchers is an ABC Family show (and BTW, did anyone else know that ABC Family has renamed themselves FreeForm? News to me as of 5 minutes ago) that combines a suspenseful crime drama with some sci fi and a hefty dose of character development and drama, too. We were hooked from the first episode.

The show focuses on a secret government program within the NSA. A new technology allows the team to take a recently dead body and "stitch" a live team member's consciousness into its brain in order to retrieve memories. In this way, they hope to use the technology to solve crimes (especially murders) that were previously unsolvable. Maggie, the team's leader and a former covert operative, recruits a young woman named Kirsten to be the one to stitch into bodies. Kirsten has a disorder where she doesn't feel emotions, so her calm, detached demeanor makes her perfect for the job. Other team members include Cameron, a brilliant young scientist; Linus, who handles communications technology; and a local police officer, Detective Fisher, to handle the law enforcement side of things. They also recruit Kirsten's roommate Camille, played by Allison Scagliotti (who we loved on Warehouse 13), to help with the program. All of these characters, except for Maggie and Fisher, are young, brilliant scientists.

Like any crime show, in each episode, there is a new murder or other crime to solve. The difference is that this team looks at regular evidence but also "stitches" into the dead body to recover memories leading up to the death to help them figure out who the culprit(s) are. The show is action-packed and full of suspense, as the team races against time (there is a limited time when stitching is viable) to solve the latest case. In the second episode, viewers find out that Kirsten's father - who disappeared when she was young - was somehow involved in the Stitchers program, and that becomes an on-going plotline as well, as she searches for answers to her own past. In addition to the crime and sci fi elements, there is plenty of character drama, too.

Like I said, we were hooked from the first episode. Admittedly, this is one of those premises where you just have to ignore the supposed technical explanations and go with the flow - this is, after all, science fiction. There are several aspects of the show that you could pick on if you wanted to - especially the youth and attractiveness of the main characters (all brilliant scientists) and the stitching process itself. The character of Kirsten seems cold and unappealing in the first episodes, but her character really grows and develops over the course of two seasons. In fact, all of the characters - and the on-going plot - continue to develop throughout these first two seasons, so this is one of those shows that gets better as it moves forward and benefits from watching at least a few episodes before deciding if you like it. We just chose go with the flow, and we've thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced, suspenseful episodes and the overall plot arc. We have just a couple of episodes of season two left, and we can't wait to watch them this week!

All episodes of both season 1 and season 2 of Stitchers are currently available for free on the FreeForm (formerly ABC Family) website. We've been watching season 2 for free on our cable On Demand; our cable company has it up until April 24 (hurry and you can binge the whole season like we have!). It is also available on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $14.99 for a full season (links below).



    

Monday, June 13, 2016

Movie Monday: Captain American: Civil War

I vowed not to watch anymore superhero movies after a glut of them with my husband and two sons a couple of years ago, but I made an exception for this one for several reasons last week: my friends on Pop Culture Happy Hour (one of my fave podcasts) assured me it was one of the better superhero movies, with a fully developed plot; I do enjoy seeing Robert Downey, Jr. in movies; and it happened to be showing at the best time for us in our local theater last week when we went for $5 Tuesdays (a rare event for us to go to the theater!). So, we saw Captain America: Civil War on the big screen.

First, the title is somewhat misleading. Though Captain America does play a large role in this movie, it's not all about him. This is truly an ensemble cast of superheroes. In fact, as the title does accurately depict, it's about a civil war among superheroes.

Apparently, the Avengers created a lot of chaos and damage the last time they saved the world. The world is getting kind of fed up with having to clean up their messes after they swoop in to save the day. In particular, one country, Sokovia, where the latest destruction occurred (see last Avengers movie, apparently) now leads efforts internationally to reign in the superheroes and give them some oversight. In fact, representatives of over 100  countries are gathering in Vienna to sign the Sokovia Accords, which will create a UN panel to oversee the team and determine when and where they should be called in to help.

This causes a rift among the Avengers. Some, including Tony Stark aka Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., are wracked with guilt over what happened in Sokovia and agree that there should be some oversight of them. Others, led by Steve Rogers aka Captain America, played by Chris Evans, are against any kind of oversight and believe the Avengers should continue as they have been - dispatching themselves whenever and wherever they see a need for their services. The Avengers each choose sides on this conflict and are splintered by the disagreement.

Meanwhile, the building where the Sokovia Accords are to be signed is bombed, and it seems that Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier is responsible. Captain America firmly believes that his old war buddy is innocent or was set up, but the Iron Man team thinks he's letting his personal feelings interfere and that they should be  - carefully and responsibly - trying to capture Bucky. As you might have guessed, multiple fights, chases, and battle scenes ensue as the two sides of the Avengers each seek different resolutions, including one really cool battle (even I had to admire it) between the two factions of superheroes, with some extra muscle they each pulled in to help. In fact, the highlight of the movie was when Tony Stark visits a very young Peter Parker, who is just starting out as Spiderman and is mostly unknown, and recruits his help.

That complicated synopsis is just the tip of the iceberg. When PCHH said this movie has plenty of plot behind it, they weren't kidding. It's a very complex plot, and sometimes we weren't entirely following it. In fact, there were a bunch of characters whose superhero names were never spoken during the movie but it was assumed the audience would know (we didn't). This is the downside of skipping a couple of years' of superhero movies; this one, as is true of others, relies heavily on past Avengers' movies. My husband and I kept whispering to each other, "Wait, who is THAT?" There were some characters with a fair amount of screen time whom I didn't know until 10 minutes ago when I looked the movie up on IMDB to write this review!

Our approach was to just go with the flow. We tried not to get annoyed when we didn't know who someone was, and most plot points were eventually explained. We just went along for the ride. And it's quite a ride! Nonstop action, plenty of battles, plus a bit of character development for the more major characters and a good dose of humor. That last element is - for me - what makes the difference between an incredibly boring, barely watchable superhero movie and one that I can enjoy. Of course, there is plenty of humor from Robert Downey, Jr, in his usual wise-cracking mode as Tony Stark, but the best moments in the movie come from a surprising source: Tom Holland as the very young Spiderman, on his first big gig and (over)eager to impress "Mr. Stark."

So, lots of action, a complex plot, and some good laughs - all in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours (actually a bit more). And if you are a fan of superhero movies and the Avengers anyway, then certainly, this is a movie you'll love.

[For those in the know, the other superheros in Civil War (and the all-stars who played them) include Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen), Falcon (Sam Wilson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and introducing Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who will have his own movie later this year.]

Captain America: Civil War is now out in theaters (we are rarely so current on movies!).




It's Monday 6/13! What Are You Reading?

Wow, what a quiet week here! With both sons off on trips with their friends, the house was unbelievably quiet...which was just what I needed after the crazy, chaotic graduation week.

So, I devoted my week to catching up and getting back in the groove of blogging.

Now, both boys (young men now, really) are back home, the TV is on nonstop, and the house is noisy and chaotic again - but it's nice to have them home. They leave again in a few days for the Firefly music festival here in Delaware. They are making the most of summer vacation!

Here's what we all read last week:
  • I am still reading The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater, the fourth and final book in her The Raven Cycle series, which I have been wanting to get to since it was released in April. It's great, just like the first three, and I can't wait to see how it all wraps up! I have less than a hundred pages to go. This is my first Big Book of the Summer.
  • I've been listening to The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal Allen & Eda Kaban, a middle grade audio book. This is the start of a new series with a spunky 4th grade heroine and a fun, cowgirl setting in Texas.
  • My husband, Ken, read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, another of the books we inherited from my dad (I listened to this one on audio years ago) - it's an uncharacteristically brief novel for King (suspense, not horror), about a young girl who gets lost in the woods.
  • Now, Ken is reading When Darkness Falls by James Grippando, another of my dad's books. This one is a thriller.
  • Jamie, 21, finished re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth and is still reading book 3, Paths of Air. Not much reading time for a 21-year old on a Caribbean cruise with his friends!
 I worked on blog catch-up last week:
Movie Monday: A Walk in the Woods, adaptation of Bill Bryson's memoir

TV Tuesday: Humans, a unique and compelling TV show

Summary of Books Read in April - yes, April! Catching up...

Fiction Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez - family drama, story of first love, and a peek at the lives of modern immigrants

Middle-Grade Review: Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart, a story of family & friendship set in 1890's Washington

Saturday Snapshot 6/11: It's Summer!
 
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.


Join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! Just click the link to read the rules - super-easy for summer! You only need to read one "big book" (400 pages or more) to participate. Join the fun & sign up today!