Tuesday, February 28, 2017

TV Tuesday: Sneaky Pete

Last summer, Amazon released a pilot for a new show, Sneaky Pete. My husband and I watched...and loved it! But then, there were no more episodes. We were thrilled to hear they finally posted more episodes in January and have been enjoying this unique show with a great cast, about a conman who steps into someone else's identity.

The first episode opens in prison, with a guy named Marius, played by Giovanni Ribisi (who will always be Pheobe's brother from Friends to me), getting really sick of listening to his cellmate, Pete, reminisce about his idyllic childhood on his grandparents' farm. Then, Marius realizes there is an opportunity here. He'll be getting out soon (and Pete is serving a long sentence), and he'll need a place to hide out from the gangsters that will come after him as soon as he's released. So, he changes tactics and encourages Pete to talk, describing the farmhouse, telling him all about each member of the family, and more. It seems that Pete's grandparents have a lot of money hidden in a safe in their bail bonds office, which could help Marius pay off his debt to the gangster and finally be free.

So, when Marius is released, he heads to Pete's grandparents' house and presents himself as Pete. Since they haven't seen Pete since he was 8 years old, they have no reason not to believe him. His grandfather, played by Peter Gerety, welcomes him home with open arms, while his grandmother, played by Margo Martindale, is a bit suspicious at first. His cousins - Julia, played by Marin Ireland, and Taylor, played by Shane McRae - have fond memories of playing with Pete as kids, so they are thrilled that he's back. Grandma and Julia even begin to teach the phony Pete the bail bonds business. Marius kind of likes being a part of this family.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, Marius' brother, Eddie, is in big trouble because the gangster Vince, played by Bryan Cranston, is using him as leverage to try to get the money that Marius owes him. Marius always protected his little brother growing up, so he's frantic to pay Vince off and keep his brother safe. However, his scheme to get at Grandma & Grandpa's money runs into a few snags.

With each episode, Marius gets deeper into his role as Pete, with plenty of close calls and being constantly worried that someone will figure things out, particularly his teenage cousin, Carly, who is quite sneaky herself. Meanwhile, he's trying to get at that money and keep tabs on Eddie. Oh, and he - Marius, not Pete - is supposed to be checking in with his parole officer in NYC regularly (played hilariously as a positive-thinking zealot by Malcolm-Jamal Warner). To keep things interesting, it turns out that Pete's family has some secrets of their own.

We are really enjoying this show. The cast is superb, the writing is excellent, and the twisty plot is very, very clever. It's always fun when you, as the audience, knows more than the characters in the midst of the story. It is suspenseful and action-packed and will keep you guessing, but it is also full of warmth and humor. There are 11 episodes so far in this season, and I see that IMDb already has a season 2 listed for 2018.

Since this is an Amazon Original series, it is available only on Amazon Prime (link below).

Celebrate Mardi Gras!

A float in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, circa 1988
Happy Mardi Gras, ya'll!

Today is Mardi Gras day - we used to live in New Orleans, so this is a major holiday at out house! We had our annual party with a few friends (many of whom also lived in New Orleans when we did) on Saturday, and today, we will finish off the season with our annual tradition of Popeye's at a friend's house.

Want to join the fun today? Here is a collection of ways to celebrate Mardi Gras, New Orleans, and Louisiana today...including food, recipes, travel tips, movies & TV shows, and, of course, some great books!

Great Adult Books Set In/About Louisiana
Middle-Grade and Teen/YA Books Set In/About Louisiana:
  • Ruined by Paula Morris - a teen/YA mystery/ghost story set in New Orleans (the perfect setting for a ghost story!)
  • The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman - a compelling middle-grade historical fiction adventure (with a touch of time travel), where a girl from 1960 travels back to 1860 Louisiana
  • Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick - a middle-grade novel about Hurricane Katrina - powerful and gripping
  • Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys - most people are familiar with her two YA novels set during WWII (Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea), but this historical novel is set in New Orleans in 1950

Movies & TV Shows
  • Chef  - a wonderful, uplifting movie about a family food truck that travels from Miami to LA, with a stop in New Orleans, of course! My favorite movie of the year in 2015.
  • NCIS: New Orleans - though it's a crime show, it includes many scenes of New Orleans, mention of local restaurants and landmarks, and other local tidbits. They usually do a Mardi Gras episode around this time of year, so check your cable On Demand.
One of the locals in Louisiana
All this talk of Louisiana making you want to visit? I have written articles about visiting New Orleans  and Exploring Cajun Country - check them out and start planning your trip (plenty of food recommendations in both!). I'm certainly ready to go back!

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!
Notice that many of the books and movies about Louisiana are focused on FOOD? Yes, Louisiana - and especially New Orleans - is known for its amazing, unique food. This blog post on how to celebrate Mardi Gras includes my own recipes for some classic Louisiana dishes, plus food you can grab locally today and webcams where you can vicariously experience Mardi Gras - there are plenty of suggestions in this post that you can still manage to do TODAY! Or save it for tomorrow if you like - we eat this food all year round. 

NOTE that Zapp's potato chips - which you absolutely MUST try) are now distributed up north by Herr's (I think they have other regional distributors in other parts of the nation, too), so you don't have to get them by mail-order. We can now find them in local stores like WaWa here in Delaware....though we still ordered an 8-bag carton for Mardi Gras!
Me & my sons, about 8 years ago

Monday, February 27, 2017

Movie Monday: Spectre

With our oldest son home from college all last week with the flu, the three of us watched a lot of Colony and Travelers (our latest TV obsession) but broke things up with a movie mid-week. They talked me into Spectre, the latest James Bond film. Now, let me be honest right from the start - I'm not a huge fan of James Bond movies in general. Fast cars, cool gadgets, hot women, lots of fighting & guns - it seems to be a guy thing to me. That said, however, I ended up enjoying this one!

This is Daniel Craig's 4th film as James Bond, and it starts out as you'd expect - with an action-packed sequence, this time in Mexico, complete with gunfire, falling buildings, speeding cars, and, of course, some spectacular moves by Bond (while wearing a neat suit). This was all to thwart a terrorist attack planned later in the day for a packed stadium. Bond discovers there is a secret global organization called Spectre behind both this attack and many other international threats.

Back home in London, there is a new M, played by Ralph Fiennes, who is fighting a political battle to keep the 00 program alive, as others in MI6 want to dismantle it and replace it with a new 24-hour electronic surveillance system. So, for pretty much the entire movie, Bond is on his own, supposedly on leave and with no authority from MI6. But he does have help behind the scenes, including some cool technology provided on the sly from Q. As usual, Bond's exploits take him across the globe, from snowy mountains to the hot desert and everything in between. And, of course, there are a couple of gorgeous women along the way.

One of my problems with many Bond movies is that the plots are so complicated you can barely follow them. This one is complex, but I had no trouble keeping up, and I found it engaging - something solid to hold all those action scenes together. I also enjoyed the side plot about the 00 program itself being in danger. Other than that, I'm not sure exactly why I liked this Bond movie better than other recent ones. I asked my husband, and he said he liked it but that Quantum of Solace was his favorite of the Daniel Craig era.

We watched Spectre for free on Amazon Prime (link below). It is also available on DVD, including from Netflix and Redbox.

Are you a fan of James Bond movies? Which one(s) are your favorites?

It's Monday 2/27! What Are You Reading?

Happy Mardi Gras!

Tomorrow is Mardi Gras day (Fat Tuesday), but Mardi Gras season began way back on January 6. We used to live in New Orleans, so we brought our annual celebration here to Delaware with us. Saturday night, we had a fun gathering of friends (including several who also lived in New Orleans at the same time we did, in the 80's), with loads of food, colorful decorations, and great music. It was a lot of fun, and our house is still looking very festive, until tomorrow, when we will finish our annual Mardi Gras celebration with Popeye's at a friend's house (yes, Popeye's is authentic Louisiana food - the chain started in New Orleans).

Oh, and both of our sons are finally well again and back to school. It took all last week for our oldest to fully get over the flu, due to his immune disorder, but Tamiflu helped immensely, and they were both feeling good by the party!

So, not a lot of reading time last week - mostly cooking, cleaning, and fun with friends! - but here's what we're currently reading:
  • I am re-reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, after getting inspired by Anne Frank Remembered: the Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family by Miep Glies and Alison Leslie Gold. I haven't read it since I was a teenager. My own copy (which was my mother's originally) cost 35 cents and every time I turned a page, it fell out! So, I got a copy at the library and am almost finished. Even knowing what happens, it is still a compelling, amazing story, for so many reasons.
  • On audio, I am still listening to a teen/YA novel, The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron. It's intriguing so far, about a fantasy dystopian world where everyone forgets everything every 12 years...except the main character who remembers everything but keeps that a secret, as she begins to uncover the secrets of her community. I was slow to get into this one, but after a plot twist in the middle, I found it more compelling.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading a review book I got, a noir thriller, Lucky Supreme: A Novel of Many Crimes by Jeff Johnson. The author (it's his debut novel) has been compared to Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane. The novel is due out April 4.
  • Jamie, 22, has been reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He is up to book 3, The Dragon Reborn, and enjoying it. Even though he's been sick a lot, I think he's been watching more TV than reading lately.
 Last week's blog posts:
 Movie Monday: La La Land - a joyful, original musical that won 6 Oscars last night

TV Tuesday: Travelers - we LOVE this new Netflix show!

Fiction Review: The Whip - a Western adventure based on a real-life woman who posed as a man and drove a stagecoach

Books Read in January - a great reading month for me!

Saturday Snapshot: National Parks of the Southeast

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?   


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturday Snapshot: National Parks of the Southeast

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mommy Reads.

Continuing from last week's Saturday Snapshot, I am paying tribute to our nation's amazing National Parks. This week, moving south, I'll focus on the mid-Atlantic/Southeast region. Really, I am focusing on just two parks, but they are two of our favorites that we have visited many times: Shenandoah in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Here are some highlights - tough to pick just a few!
Our fave trail at Shenandoah: Bearfence Mtn Trail goes mostly UP!

My son and I at the top of Bearfence Mtn

Another fave: Shenendoah's Blackrock Summit Trail at dusk

Waterfall in Smokies

Double Waterfall in Great Smoky Mtn NP

Standing on the TN/NC line in Smokies

Shenandoah's Stony Man peak - view of Blue Ridge Parkway

Hope you are enjoying the weather! I am out on our deck savoring this 70 degree weather before this big rainstorm hits later today.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Books Read in January

It took me a while to catch up on reviews, but here - finally - is my January summary of books read. It was an excellent reading month. Starting the year out sick for two weeks gave me extra reading time!

  • 'Round Midnight by Laura McBride (NV), adult fiction - reviewed an outside publication
  • The Whip by Karen Kondazian (RI, CA), adult fiction

 Wow, 8 books in all! That's a lot for me in one month. It was an all-fiction month for me, with a mix of adult and middle-grade fiction, including one graphic novel. Not a single audiobook because the one I was listening to at the start of the month quit suddenly, and the second one I started went into February. I enjoyed all of these novels - most very much - but it's easy to pick a favorite. I LOVED Dark Matter, as did my husband - sooo compelling & original!

Progress on 2017 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! I kicked off my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge in a big way, with 6 TBR books! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, January was Diversity month - 'Round Midnight fit that bill, with plenty of diverse characters.  No classics yet for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge. I slotted all 8 books into categories for my Well-Rounded Challenge. For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I kicked off the year with 2 international books, set in the UK and France/Germany. I added 5 states to my 2017 Literary Escapes Challenge.

Finally, Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - not really a challenge per se, but a fun game that I play each month! Here is my Bingo card for January, with 12 squares filled in - not very good for 8 books!

Books Read for each square:

Dark Matter - Rated 4 or more stars
The Honest Truth - pets, exercise, winter weather
Mighty Jack - Pictures in a book, free book, zombie/plague/mutations
Dept. of Speculation - blue cover
'Round Midnight - diversity
Friends for Life - shelf-love book (aka TBR)
All the Light We Cannot See - more than 400 pages

What was your favorite book read in January?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fiction Review: The Whip

I’d never before heard of The Whip by Karen Kondazian until one of my neighbors chose it for our book group selection recently. It is based on the true story of a woman who lived as a man, driving a stagecoach, in the Old West of the 1800’s, though so little is known of her life that it is mostly fiction.
Charley Parkhurst was one of the best, most renowned stagecoach drivers employed by Wells Fargo in the 1800’s, when the job was very dangerous and required great skill (and bravery). When he died in 1879, his employer, colleagues, and even friends were astonished to discover that Charley was actually a woman. Originally named Charlotte, little was known about this Old West character except that she originally came from Rhode Island, was an orphan, and moved out West as a young woman, where she lived out the rest of her life as a man and a well-known stagecoach driver. The rest of Charlotte’s story is imagined in this novel.
Charlotte is orphaned at a young age and brought up in an orphanage in Rhode Island. Though in real life she ran away at age 12, in this fictionalized account, Charlotte grows up alongside a boy named Lee who is like a brother to her. Lee protects her when they are children, but an abusive incident changes him and a new head of the orphanage insists on boys and girls being separated. Charlotte never fits in well with the other girls, but she soon finds a place for herself helping out the black man who takes care of the horses and enjoys the stable work.
Charlotte grows up and lives in a women’s boardinghouse, until she meets someone she falls in love with. Tragedy hits, though, and Charlotte sets off on her own for the West, enduring a long voyage by ship to finally arrive in California. She’s seen ads for stagecoach drivers, so she dresses like a man and attends a try-out for new drivers, where her skills with the horses help her beat out the men there. She is hired by Wells Fargo as a driver, a job that she will continue – and love – for the rest of her life, never giving away her tightly held secret.
This is one of those historical novels that takes a small nugget of real-life fact and builds a fictional story around it, to fill in the missing information. Charlotte/Charley’s life was fascinating in and of itself, and author Kondazian creates an intriguing story and motivation behind her unusual actions. Along the way, she paints a vivid picture of life in California during the Gold Rush years and even more interestingly, the challenging and dangerous life of a stagecoach driver. I read a lot of historical fiction, but rarely covering this period of American history, so I enjoyed being immersed in this era.
It’s an original and captivating story, though not everyone in my book group enjoyed it to the same degree. Some were frustrated that so much of the story was pure fiction, though that makes sense when you realize that little was known about Charley’s past before moving to California, and she closely guarded her private life. Others felt that the writing was too light and superficial, while some of us just went along for the ride and enjoyed the story. It makes sense when you realize that this first novel was written by an actress and screenwriter – several people commented that it felt more like a movie (it would make a great movie!). So, while everyone was intrigued by the story, ratings of the book ranged from 4 to 9 (out of 10). I think if you start this novel recognizing that it is mostly fiction, based on a fascinating real-life person, then you will enjoy this exciting Old West story of a woman who lived her life as a man and became a famous stagecoach driver.
302 pages, Hansen Publishing Group
Whip by Whipple, Beverly and Perry, John D. and Ladas, Alice Kahn
Trade Paperback

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

TV Tuesday: Travelers

If you've been missing the awesome Eric McCormack since Will & Grace went off the air and Perception was cancelled, your wait is over! He stars in a new sci fi show on Netflix that my husband, son, and I are completely hooked on: Travelers. Our son has been home sick from college a lot the past few weeks, so we have been binge-watching this intriguing, original, exciting show!

The premise of the show is that the Earth is dying in the future, hundreds of years from now. Much of the destruction can be traced back to a disaster occurring in the 21st century that set off a series of devastating effects across the globe. Their solution is to send people - Travelers - back to our present day to try to stop the disaster and change the course of history. In the opening scenes of the show, we see four different people almost die and then, within moments of their death, their bodies are suddenly taken over by Travelers, and they live.

The Travelers have been trained to assume the identity of their host body's life, without letting anyone around him or her know that anything has changed. This is a challenge because these people from the future are totally unaccustomed to life in the 21st century. They have studied their host's life, through official records and social media, but that only tells them the basic facts. They operate according to strict rules - called Protocols - designed to keep from alerting anyone to their presence or disrupting 21st century life (other than saving the world, of course).

Because they are limited to host bodies in the same region who die at roughly the same time and are suitable to be hosts, the team at the center of the show is a motley crew. Marcy, played by MacKenzie Porter, is a mentally challenged young woman who can barely take care of herself and is under the care of social services (a bit of an error in planning for the Travelers). Trevor, played by Jared Abrahamson, is a high school football champion. Nesta Cooper plays Carly, a young single mother with a baby and an estranged, abusive husband. And Phillip, played by Reilly Dolman, has the bad luck to be a heroin addict. Though there is an intelligent, highly motivated mind from the future inside, he is stuck with his host's addiction. And finally, Eric McCormack plays Grant, an FBI agent and the leader of this away team of Travelers.

There are two integral pieces to the show: each of the travelers trying to fit into his or her new life and the missions they are given from their leaders in the future for trying to alter the course of history and save the planet and the human race. Both aspects are fascinating and ever-changing and make for a very immersive and suspenseful storyline. All three of us love this show. Our son was a little slower to get into it, but after a few episodes, he was hooked, too. As you watch each episode, you learn a little more about the future world that the Travelers come from (our future) and the events that lead to such a disastrous outlook. It is exciting, fast-paced, and completely gripping. I can't wait to watch the next episode tonight!

Travelers is a Netflix original program, so it is available exclusively on Netflix.

Have you watched Travelers yet? What new shows are you hooked on?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie Monday: La La Land

Last week, on Valentine's Day, my husband and I went out to dinner and then to the theater to see La La Land. Fortunately, Valentine's Day fell on a $5 Tuesday at the local theater, and this seemed like a nice choice for the holiday. We both very much enjoyed this joyful, original movie that harkens back to Old Hollywood.

The opening scene gives you a good idea of what the rest of the movie has in store. In the middle of a traffic jam in LA, we see the drivers of the stuck cars suddenly jump out of their vehicles - dressed in bright, primary colors - and do an awesome song-and-dance number in the street and on the roofs and hoods of the cars. It's pure Broadway musical and full of joy! Then, the traffic begins to move, everyone gets back in their cars, and we catch our first glimpse of the main characters.

Mia, played by the adorable Emma Stone, is in the way in her Prius, and Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, is behind her, gets impatient and honks, and drives around her car with a snarl at her out the window. Not a very auspicious start for this love story. Mia is an aspiring actress, working in the coffee shop on one of the big movie lots, dreaming of the day when she will be the big star turning heads as she grabs a coffee. Mia goes on one audition after another, but the competition and her lack of success are depressing...and these aren't even good parts.

Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of having his own jazz club one day. He even has the spot picked out - a famous old jazz club that is currently a Samba & Tapas place. For now, he has a job he hates, playing piano in a restaurant. It's the holiday season, and the owner makes it clear that he wants him to play only classic holiday standards, no jazz or anything creative. For Sebastian, it's a soul-sucking job.

Mia and Sebastian meet up again, at a Hollywood party, and soon begin to date. So, yes, this is a romance, but it's not at all predictable or formulaic. It's about love, yes, but even more about reaching for your dreams and being true to yourself. It's a wonderful story, where people occasionally burst into song and start dancing. Both Stone and Gosling are wonderful in it - who knew with the dark, brooding roles Gosling usually plays, that he can dance and play the piano and smile like that? La La Land is an homage to Old Hollywood and to Broadway musicals, but it is also a story with emotional depth. This is definitely a feel-good movie, filled with the joy of art - drama, music, and dance - that will leave you tapping your feet and smiling.

La La Land is currently in the theaters. It swept the Golden Globes, winning 7 awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor Awards for both Stone and Gosling, and has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards. I'm glad we saw it on the big screen, with all that glorious color and sound, but it will eventually come to DVD and streaming (no release dates have been announced yet, though DVDs are already available for pre-order).

It's Monday 2/20! What Are You Reading?

I was just looking back at my post from last Monday, about all the emergencies that cropped up that week and how things were returning to normal! ha ha I should know better than to say that! Our older son went back to campus Wednesday afternoon (after a stomach virus), and his younger brother came home Thursday morning with strep throat! He got on antibiotics and went back to school Friday afternoon...and his brother came home from work last night with a fever and cough. Seems like a bout of bronchitis, which he gets a lot due to his immune disorder. Oh, and now I just got a text from our younger son saying the strep is better but now his chest hurts, and he's coughing. Sounds like another bronchitis...sigh. Yup. We need to install a revolving door here. And invest heavily in antiseptic wipes, which we have been using by the truckload!

The good news is that my husband and I have stayed healthy through all of this (where's some wood to knock on?), and we had a very nice weekend. Lots of work on our mortgage refinance (we got a great deal, but it is a LOT of work) but also two great hikes in lovely, sunny 70 degree weather. We definitely needed that.

And, of course, we make time for reading every day! Here's what our family is reading now:
  • I finished The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, JK Rowling's pen name for her mystery series starring private detective Cormoran Strike. I gave it to my husband for his birthday and am glad to have finally gotten to it myself. It was excellent - as you'd expect!
  • Next, I returned to Anne Frank Remembered: the Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family by Miep Glies and Alison Leslie Gold. I started this book on audio back in early January, but my audio download was defective and  ended abruptly in the middle of a sentence! It's a memoir, and the audio narrator was wonderful, with an accent and warmth that makes you feel as if Miep herself was sitting next to you telling her story. I REALLY wanted to finish it on audio, but after waiting for over a month for the audio to come in from my library, I gave up and requested the book. So, I finally got to finish this amazing book (highly recommended!), and there turned out to be a benefit to seeing the book - lots of photos included! Besides, I could still hear the narrator's voice in my head as I read. 
  • And, that led me to return to The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, to re-read the story in Anne's own words. I haven't read it since I was a teenager. My own copy (which was my mother's originally) cost 35 cents and every time I turned a page, it fell out! So, I got a copy at the library this weekend. Even knowing what happens, it is still a compelling, amazing story. I am totally hooked (again).
  • On audio, I am listening to a teen/YA novel, The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron. It's intriguing so far, about a fantasy dystopian world where everyone forgets everything every 12 years...except the main character who remembers everything but keeps that a secret, as she begins to uncover the secrets of her community.
  • My husband, Ken, finished a Christmas gift from me, The Trespasser by Tana French, the latest (#6, I think) in her books about the Dublin Murder Squad. He loves her literary murder mysteries.
  • Now, Ken is reading a review book I got, a noir thriller, Lucky Supreme: A Novel of Many Crimes by Jeff Johnson. The author (it's his debut novel) has been compared to Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane. The novel is due out April 4.
  • Jamie, 22, has been reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He is up to book 3, The Dragon Reborn, and enjoying it. Even though he's been sick a lot, I think he's been watching more TV than reading lately.
 Blog posts from last week:
Movie Monday: The Accountant, an intriguing & original thriller

Fiction Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, WWII from the perspective of two children

Middle-Grade Review: The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart, a moving, exciting adventure

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?   

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Saturday Snapshot 2/18: National Parks of New England

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mommy Reads.

For today's post, I thought I'd follow Melinda's lead from a few weeks ago (yes, behind, as usual!) and pay tribute to our National Parks. In fact, over the next few weeks for Saturday Snapshot, I plan to pay tribute to all of our beautiful federally protected lands, including National Parks, National Forests, National Seashores, and more.

We love all of these places and for over 25 years have devoted our family vacations to visiting them. It's our favorite kind of vacation - camping in a National Park or other protected area, surrounded by the beauty of nature. It's so rejuvenating!

With so many vacations' worth of photos to choose from, I will hit them regionally, so this week is National Lands of New England week! Here are some highlights of some of our favorite places in New England:

Cape Cod National Seashore

Our sons at Cape Cod National Seashore, 2013

Acadia National Park, ME - view from top of Beech Mtn

The rocky shores of Acadia NP - one of our favorite places!

Bald Mtn in White Mountains National Forest, NH

Coosauk Falls - White Mtns National Forest
Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend - 67 here in Delaware today, so I plan to get outside!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Middle-Grade Review: The Honest Truth

In early January, I was sick and looking for some literary comfort. I decided to choose something from my over-filled shelves of middle-grade and YA books, but what to choose? I happened to read a Best of2016 list on one of my favorite blogs, Unleashing Readers, that day and so chose a book on Ricki’s list: The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart. It was an excellent recommendation! This tale of adventure is suspenseful but also very moving, with great emotional depth.

Twelve-year old Mark is running away from home. He has obviously planned this out very carefully, with money, a disguise, and his dog, Beau, hidden in his duffle bag. We learn some things about Mark right from the beginning: he likes to take pictures with an old-fashioned camera and he writes haiku, recording his poems in a notebook he carries with him. Soon, though, we learn something else: Mark is very sick. He’s been sick for seven years, and his life throughout that time has focused on his illness. He’s running away to get away from all of it – the doctors, the hospitals, the medicines – but also to achieve his biggest dream, to climb to the top of Mount Rainier. We gradually realize that Mark is doing this now because he thinks he may not get another chance.

Mark is well loved by his parents and his best friend, Jessie. They’ve been friends since they were very young, since before the sickness, and Jessie is very, very worried when she realizes that Mark is gone. He left her a hidden haiku – their favorite mode of communication – so she has an idea of where he’s headed, but she doesn’t want to betray his confidence. The longer Mark is gone, and the more dangerous his journey becomes, the more Jessie agonizes over whether to tell his kind parents (and the police) where he’s going.

It’s a difficult journey that Mark has embarked on, and his illness makes it even more challenging. He’s weak and can’t hold much food down. Along the way, through Seattle and onward to the base of Mount Rainier, Mark meets a lot of people. Some of them are cruel but most of them are kind and compassionate and want to help him. Through it all, Beau is by his side, and Mark is determined to see his mission through.

Chapter alternate between Mark’s journey and what is going on back at home, with Jessie and with his parents and the police, and Mark’s haiku enhances the narrative. Suspense is created not only by whether or not Mark will meet his goal in the face of so many challenges but also by the tension of wondering if the police will find him first. As a reader, you are torn between wanting to root for Mark and wanting him back home, safe, with his family and his best friend. This is an adventure story, with plenty of action and suspense, but it is also a tender, moving story about dealing with serious illness, family, friendship, and loyalty. The Honest Truth is a quick and exciting read that is heart-breaking at times but also heart-warming and insightful.
229 pages, Scholastic Press       
Honest Truth by Keith AblowTrade Paperback Powells.com

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fiction Review: All the Light We Cannot See

After winning the Pulitzer Prize, being a finalist for the National Book Award, and being on pretty much every top 10 list in 2014, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was definitely on my own must-read list. My husband even gave it to me for Christmas last year. I finally found the time to read this hefty World War II novel and discovered what earned it so much praise.

Although this is a novel about WWII, it centers on children, one in France and one in Germany, who spend their childhoods and adolescence in wartime, each involved in the war in very different ways. Marie-Laure lives with her beloved Papa in Paris, where he works at the natural history museum, a place that they both love. When she is just six years old, Marie-Laure goes blind. Her father works hard to teach her how to find her way around their part of the city and learn to be independent. He even creates a scale-model of their neighborhood, detailing every curb, doorway, and step to help his daughter quite literally learn every inch of the area.

Meanwhile, in a rural mining town in Germany, Werner, and his little sister, Jutta, live in an orphanage, presided over by a caring though overworked woman. Werner becomes very adept, at a young age, at fixing and even building radios. Fascinated by these new devices, Werner has a unique talent with them, and he and Jutta secretly listen at night to broadcasts from all over the region, including their favorite, a children’s program about science coming all the way from France.

The coming war soon intrudes on both children’s lives. In France, the Nazis invade and occupy Paris. Along with many thousands of other citizens, Marie-Laure and her father set off on foot to leave the city and its dangers. Papa is carrying a famous, enormous diamond – one of five that may or may not be the real thing – in order to keep the invading Nazis from the museum’s greatest treasure. They head toward Saint-Malo, a walled city by the sea where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle lives a reclusive life in a tall house. They are welcomed by this distant relative and settle into the big house, though eventually, the war comes to them, even in Saint-Malo.

Back in Germany, an officer recognizes Werner’s unique talents when he fixes his radio and recommends him for an elite academy for Hitler Youth. Although Werner does have opportunities there to work on even more advanced technologies, he is frightened and appalled by the violence and brutality among both the officers and the children. Eventually, he is conscripted – at an early age – into the armed forces officially, to use his radio skills to find members of the resistance.

This is an epic novel, covering the years from 1934 through the end of the war, and even forward as far as 2014. The focus is on these two children – in different countries – who have never met each other, yet whose lives are both touched in different ways by the war and its brutality. Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories eventually converge, in unexpected ways.

This intertwining of two disparate stories is compelling (and something I love in a novel), but the reason for all the awards and recognition is Doerr’s writing. Each scene is depicted in intricate detail so that both Werner and Marie-Laure come to life on the pages. The places where they each live and travel also come to life, especially the walled city of Saint-Malo, a place so unique and fascinating that I searched for photos online after I read the book and now want to travel there to see it for myself.

The walled city of Saint-Malo in France
I came to care deeply for Werner and Marie-Laure (and their loved ones) while reading this book and was both anxiously anticipating and dreading how it would end (it is, after all, a war story). I have mentioned that I have sort of overdosed on WWII novels lately, and the last two I read – this one and The Nightingale – were both set at least partly in occupied France and were both lengthy books. So, I did feel this one ran a bit long, but I think that is just my own bias due to reading too many similar novels recently. All the Light We Cannot See is an engrossing novel that transports you into the lives of these two children, growing up during a horrific time in history. It is not just about the tragedies of war but also about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, even (especially?) in children.

530 pages, Scribner

Monday, February 13, 2017

Movie Monday: The Accountant

With my college son home sick all weekend, the three of us decided to escape with a movie last night. We watched The Accountant, an exciting and unusual thriller about math! We all enjoyed it very much.

Ben Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, the accountant in the title, a quiet but brilliant man with few people skills. He has been hired by a robotics company to "uncook" their books - that is, to review all of their accounting information with a fine-toothed comb because a junior accountant named Dana, played by Anna Kendrick, found an anomaly amounting to millions of dollars. What Christian finds quickly results in several deaths.

Meanwhile, a Treasury Department investigator named Ray King, played by J.K. Simmons, is getting ready to retire and is obsessed with the mysterious Accountant who he knows is behind the money laundering of major crime families all over the world. He appears in many photos with known criminals, but you can never see his face. Ray blackmails a younger employee named Marybeth Medina, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, into helping him track down The Accountant. Although they don't know his name, we immediately see from the partial photos they have that they are after Christian.

Flashbacks reveal that Christian had a difficult childhood and has autism, which explains his quirks and inability to relate to those around him. However, he senses something different in Dana, right from their very first meeting, and is uncharacteristically drawn to her. She shares his aptitude, fascination, and all-around geekiness with respect to math and has also felt like an outsider much of her life. She was the first one to recognize the anomaly in the books, after all. When the violence begins, he feels protective toward Dana.

This is a very violent movie, with a lot of fighting and shooting and a huge death toll. I don't generally like that in a movie, but I still liked this one because it is very clever. The reasons behind the violence are complex and interesting. The pieces of the puzzle that are Christian's childhood and current life only gradually fall into place, at the same time that we are learning about the scam going on in the robotics company and watching the two renegade Treasury Department investigators slowly closing in on Christian, unaware of the current chaos he is embroiled in.

It's all very suspenseful, exciting, and action-packed but also very smart. The entire cast is excellent (and also includes Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow), but Affleck is mesmerizing in this role, holding his emotions close as we slowly see flashbacks of what made him the way he is. In fact, the child actor who plays Christian as a boy, Seth Lee, is also very good. I don't always like the action-packed thrillers that my husband and sons prefer to watch, but all of us thoroughly enjoyed this one - especially seeing all the pieces slowly come together in the end.

Have you seen The Accountant yet? Do you like thrillers and action movies?

The Accountant was recently released on DVD and is available in Redbox. It is available to rent starting at $3.99 on Amazon Prime (link below); it is only available on DVD from Netflix.

It's Monday 2/13! What Are You Reading?

Whew, I'm glad THAT week is over! Just one of those weeks when things kept cropping up unexpectedly, which just made me feel even more overwhelmed than I have been lately. Took my father-in-law back to the doctor again for a recurrent infection, spent most of the week negotiating between two companies for a mortgage refinance (lots of work but it paid off with a great deal!), our college sons temporarily thought our car had been stolen, so that was a good 18 hours of stress and panic (they forgot where they parked it), and by Friday, both sons were very sick with a stomach virus. One came home immediately; the other stayed in the dorms until yesterday, when he came home and slept 14 hours straight! Now, he is back to campus, and the other is still asleep but hopefully will be also heading back today. Like I said, whew!

The good news is that I did end up getting a LOT done over the weekend, so I feel less "everything is late" kind of overwhelmed. And there's that awesome refinance I negotiated, too! Quite proud of myself for that.

Whether the week was good or bad, we always enjoy our books! Here's what we've been reading:
  • I am still reading The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, JK Rowling's pen name for her mystery series starring private detective Cormoran Strike. I gave it to my husband for his birthday and am glad to have finally gotten to it myself. It's excellent - as you'd expect! Engrossing and suspenseful novels are perfect for hectic times like this. I am almost finished.
  • I finished listening to a middle-grade audiobook, The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen. It's about a fantasy dystopian world where a disease is ravaging its citizens and one young girl learns some secrets while being held in a quarantine colony.
  • Now, I am listening to a teen/YA novel on audio, The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron. It is turning out to be somewhat similar to the one I just finished, but it's intriguing so far, about a fantasy dystopian world where everyone forgets everything every few years...except the main character who remembers everything but keeps that a secret.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading a Christmas gift from me, The Trespasser by Tana French, the latest (#6, I think) in her books about the Dublin Murder Squad. He loves her literary murder mysteries, though he's been laughing over some of the Irish slang! Skangers, jacks, gaff,  gaffer, and bickied! It's weird that he and I are both reading Irish/British mysteries right now.
  • Jamie, 22, has been reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He is up to book 3, The Dragon Reborn, and enjoying it. Even though he's been sick, I think he's been watching more TV than reading this week.
As promised, I focused on some book review catch-up last week (though I did not have time for my usual movie and TV reviews). I enjoyed all of these:
Middle-Grade Review: Friends for Life by Andrew Norriss, a moving novel about friendship, bullying, and ghosts.

Fiction Review: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, a story about a marriage, uniquely written

Middle-Grade Review: Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke - an exciting graphic novel

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Middle-Grade Review: Mighty Jack

Although I’d heard of author/graphic novelist Ben Hatke before, I’d never had a chance to read one of his books. So, I was thrilled to read his latest graphic novel for middle-graders, Mighty Jack, which was released in September. This modern retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk was inventive, engrossing, and a lot of fun.

A boy named Jack lives with his mother and his younger sister, Maddy, who doesn’t speak. His mom works very hard to support them, but money is always tight. Jack is often left in charge of Maddy while his mom is working, especially now, during summer vacation. While wandering around the flea market one day while their mom shops, Maddy is drawn to a booth manned by a strange-looking guy, and Jack follows her. He shows them some unusual things and then offers them a box full of odd-looking seed packets.

The pictures on the seed packet are strange designs, not vegetables, and unlike anything Jack has ever seen before. They can’t afford to buy anything, but Maddy is insistent, as is the seller. Somehow, before he knows what is happening, Jack has traded his mom’s car keys for the seeds. His mother is furious, of course, but Maddy is thrilled.

Back home the next day, Maddy immediately starts digging. Thinking that maybe growing some of their own food will allow him to help his mom, Jack joins in. The day before, Jack had noticed – and been drawn to – a girl about his age sword fighting with a dummy in her driveway. The girl, named Lilly, noticed Jack staring and seeks him out. She is also fascinated by the odd-looking seeds and helps them plant them.

Of course, these seeds don’t grow into anything any of them has ever seen before. The garden grows – very quickly – and there are no giant beanstalks, but there are plenty of other strange plants that are even more unique and magical. The three children gradually figure out some of the secrets of their new garden and also realize that it could be dangerous. Luckily, Lilly grew up among three older brothers who liked to play knights and pirates, so she equips the three of them to defend themselves against some of the garden’s more virulent creations.

This is the kind of fantasy that I most enjoy – where fantastical elements are set within a real-life world with real-feeling characters. I was immediately drawn to Jack, Maddy, and Lilly (especially Lilly, a brave and strong girl) and enjoyed the suspense of seeing what their bizarre garden would yield each new day. The illustrations are also my favorite kind in a graphic novel: full-color, realistic pictures of both the human characters and the magical things that come out of their garden. You can see the close, touching relationship that Jack has with both his mom and his little sister in these pictures. I enjoyed this unique take on a classic tale that blends the real world and fantasy so beautifully. It ends with a cliffhanger, so I can’t wait to see what Jack’s next adventures will be!

205 pages, First Second

NOTE: Book 2, Mighty Jack and the Goblin King is planned for release on September 5, 2017.