Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fiction Review: The Sympathizer

My neighborhood book group selected one of my choices for our March meeting: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, along with seven other literary awards. This is one of those books that I might never have chosen on my own – a spy novel set in and after the Vietnam War – but the avalanche of rave reviews (and that stack of awards) convinced me I should give it a try. I’m glad I did – it’s a remarkable book, a combination of historical fiction, political thriller, and spy novel, with a hefty dose of humor and substantial emotional depth.

The novel opens with this line from its unnamed narrator: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is a Vietnamese man, working for a General in the South Vietnamese army, but his sympathies lie with the communists. It is April 1975, and the Americans have warned the South Vietnamese army that they are about to pull out, causing chaos in the country. His General has asked him to make a list of those who will be allowed to leave on the last flight out, supplied by the Americans for the General who they’ve worked closely with throughout the war. Our narrator, the Captain, would much prefer to stay behind and share in the glory of a communist victory, but his superiors have told him to put himself on that plane and accompany the General to America, so that he can continue to report to them from there.

As you may remember or have read, the Fall of Saigon was horrible, violent, and indeed chaotic, and that plane filled with the General, his family, and his men and their families is the last one that makes it out in one piece.  The Captain and his friend, Bon, both make it to America with other refugees and begin to try to put their lives back together, though it is not an easy life. Their other childhood friend, Man, stayed behind in Vietnam. The Captain knows he is also a communist, but their loyalties are unknown to Bon. After a while, the General settles into American life, still devoted to the Vietnamese cause, but he suspects there may be a communist spy among their community of refugees.

The entire novel is told within the framework of a confession that the Captain is writing to someone called the Commandant (clearly a communist, from his title), as he describes exactly what happened to him, from those last days in Vietnam through the refugee camps and onto the U.S. Wondering how he came to be writing this confession – and its circumstances – is one of the sources of suspense in the novel, as well as wondering whether any of his American or Vietnamese colleagues will suspect his true loyalties.

Describing the plot of this novel doesn’t even begin to do it justice because the writing is absolutely brilliant. It is clever, supple, and sometimes even funny, despite the serious circumstances surrounding the story. For instance, in his written confession, the Captain refers consistently to one particular fat and unimpressive Major as “the crapulent major.” In other cases, the author just expresses something so perfectly, with an amazingly apt metaphor, that you feel compelled to mark the passage, like where he explains as he listens to a colleague with a false aura of relaxation, alert for information, “I laughed, even though inside me the little dog of my soul was sitting at attention, nose and ears turned to the wind.”

He just has a way with words and a way of encapsulating human experience perfectly, and much of our book group meeting was spent reading sentences out loud to each other appreciatively. This passage was a favorite:
“The only problem with not talking to oneself was that oneself was the most fascinating conversational partner one could imagine. Nobody had more patience in listening to one than oneself, and while nobody knew one better than oneself, nobody misunderstood one more than oneself. But if talking to oneself was the ideal conversation in the cocktail party of one’s imagination, the crapulent major was the annoying guest who kept butting in and ignoring the cues to scram.”

There are other sources of humor mixed in among the horrifying and difficult events of the novel. A big one is when the Captain is hired by a Hollywood producer to be an advisor on a film about the Vietnam War (a thinly veiled reference to Apocalypse Now), to ensure authenticity. Of course, the Hollywood bigwig is more interested in pleasing his American audience than in actually portraying the Vietnamese people accurately (or even giving them any speaking parts), but the filming of the movie in the Philippines has many amusing moments.

There is so much meat to this novel – its beautiful writing, its historical setting, its political context – that our book group had plenty to talk about. Most of us agreed it was an incredible book and rated it between 7 and 9 out of 10. Some felt it moved along at a good pace, while others felt it was a difficult book to read, though ultimately worthwhile. One member only got about 50 pages in and decided not to finish it. We certainly had an in-depth and entertaining discussion, though we weren’t entirely sure we completely “got” the ending.

The Sympathizer is not just a novel about the Vietnam War. It is also about personal identity and the refugee experience, a topic of vital importance today. The narrator’s two faces, mentioned in the opening sentence, have multiple meanings. He is not only an undercover agent, serving two opposing political forces, he is also a refugee, with one foot in Vietnam and another in America, and he is also a bastard child (a big part of his identity), born of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest father. This deep emotional context along with a gripping and suspenseful story and the author’s beautiful prose make this a truly exceptional novel and well deserving of its many awards.

384 pages, Grove Press

Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviewed Viet Thanh Nguyen. He discusses the book, as well as his own history and experiences growing up in Vietnam and in the U.S. as a refugee. It's an excellent interview and very interesting. You can listen to this 35-minute interview online, download it, or read the transcript at the link above.

Here is a brief clip of the author on Late Night with Seth Meyers. He talks about his own experience as a refugee...and his wonderful sense of humor comes through as well.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

TV Tuesday: Lilyhammer

When my mother was visiting a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I exchanged TV recommendations with her. We told her about Sneaky Pete (which she and her husband are loving) and Good Girls Revolt, and she told us about a unique comedy called Lilyhammer. It was a good recommendation - we are now hooked on it, too!

Lilyhammer features a set-up pretty much guaranteed to bring plenty of laughs. An infamous New York City mobster named Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, played by Steven Van Zandt of The Sopranos, agrees to testify against his former boss and colleagues, if the FBI will protect him and relocate him. He says he won't be safe anywhere in the U.S., but he remembers enjoying watching the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, so that's where he goes, with a new name, Giovanni Henrikson.

Giovanni, or Johnny as he asks his new acquaintances to call him, is a little disappointed when he first sees his modest home and tiny car in snow-bound Lillehammer, but he immediately begins to make the town his own. He joins classes for new Norwegian citizens, where he meets an attractive and out-of-work teacher named Sigrid, played by the lovely Marian Saastad Otteson. Right from the start, Johnny does things his own way, which is quite different from the way Norwegians typically do things. He is very polite but doesn't take no for an answer and believes there is no problem that can't be solved with money or the proper "motivation." From setting up a business to making friends to getting his driver's license, Johnny makes his way through Lillehammer in a most un-Norwegian way. A local Barney Fife-type police officer, bored with the tiny town's lack of crime, suspects something is up with Johnny...but he is way off-base in what he suspects, adding another dimension of humor.

My husband was skeptical at first. He is from Oklahoma and is really not into most mob-related TV shows or movies - just not his thing. However, Johnny has quickly won us both over. The entire cast (mostly Norwegian with no big Hollywood names beyond the lead) is excellent and fun to watch, the laid-back atmosphere of Lillehammer is welcoming, and Johnny's fish-out-of-water escapades are a lot of fun. Besides having plenty of humor, the show is also surprisingly warm, and you soon find yourself rooting for Johnny, despite his unorthodox methods.

We've only watched three episodes so far, and there are three seasons of the show on Netflix, so we look forward to a lot more fun with Johnny. You can also watch Lilyhammer on DVD or streaming on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $12.99 for the entire first season (links below).


Monday, March 20, 2017

It's Monday 3/21! What Are You Reading?

Happy First Day of Spring! 

Doesn't feel much like spring. We still have quite a bit of snow on the ground (rare for this time of year), though I do see blue sky this morning.

I had kind of a rough week. The weird cold snap & snow/ice storm made a very painful medical problem flare up badly. I thought it was gone for the season, so this was extra-frustrating. Despite my chronic illness, I don't normally deal with much pain, and I am finding it very difficult. By this weekend, I was in a pretty dark mood and exhausted, too. I have a lot of admiration for those who contend with chronic pain all the time - it's a tough road.

Trying to plan spring break also got me down this weekend - our sons' spring break from college is next week, and the weather is still supposed to be cold (and very wet) all week, quite a ways down the east coast. We just can't travel far enough in the limited time to get to nice weather for camping! I think our younger son is going to settle for choosing the best 2-3 days to go camping with his friends locally (with our camper which has heat!). My husband and I still need to decide what we are doing the following week...or maybe we'll wait for better weather. I hate everything being up in the air like this when our plans don't work out.

In the midst of that dark period, I heard the news that a favorite author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, died of cancer.  Besides liking her writing, I felt a connection to her because we were the same age, had similar childhoods, and were both parents and writers. I had exchanged e-mails with her a couple of times, and her death really hit me hard. Besides being an excellent writer, she lived an admirable life of warmth, kindness, and creativity. Take a look at my post about her and help me to honor her memory by spreading her writing and her kindness.

Books provided a welcome escape for me last week, as always! Here's what we are all reading:
  • I finished my first book for my new review job at Shelf Awareness: The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron, due out April 25. This novel is about a Neanderthal girl, with alternating chapters set in present day as a woman archeologist uncovers her remains. I loved this novel! It reminded me a bit of Clan of the Cave Bear, but I also really enjoyed the connections and parallels to the modern world. Now I need to write my review.
  • I am now reading my next review book for Shelf Awareness (in case we do end up going away sometime in the next two weeks), How To Be Human by Paula Cocozza (due out May 9). This novel is set in suburban London, about a woman recovering from a recent break-up who is fascinated by a fox in her backyard. It's especially interesting to me since we have a lot of foxes in our area!
  • I finished a middle-grade audiobook, Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood. Like her earlier novel, Glory Be, this one is set in the South in the past (1950's Arkansas this time) and deals with racial tensions, in this case prejudice against Asian-Americans. It was very good.
  • I have started a new audiobook and my first Booktopia book for this season. Boooktopia is an awesome annual event in Vermont, where book lovers get together with authors for an intimate weekend of discussing and celebrating books - so much fun! My mom and I went two years ago and are going again the first week of May. So, I just started The Women in the Castle on audio by Jessica Shattuck, one of the authors who will be at Booktopia. This novel is about widowed women living in a castle in Germany after WWII ends. It's good so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading another of my review books (he is really benefiting from my new job!), Marshall's Law by Ben Sanders, which looks like part of a thriller series - right up his alley!
 Blog posts last week:
Movie Monday: Mockingjay Part 2 - final conclusion to The Hunger Games series

Books Read in February - only 4 books but they were all good!

Teen/YA Review: The Forgetting - compelling dystopian novel

Irish Books & Movies To Celebrate St. Patrick's Day - good for the holiday & beyond!

Saturday Snapshot - National Parks of South Dakota - continuing my NP series

Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal Dies at 51 - remembering her & honoring her memory

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?   

First Day of Spring?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal Dies at 51

I was stunned this morning to hear the horrible news that Amy Krouse Rosenthal died of cancer a few days ago. Born in the same year as me, a writer with kids who grew up in the suburbs of the 70's, I felt a connection to her. As she put it, "we shared a moment (in the form of an e-mail exchange)" back in 2010, after I reviewed her book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (which I loved). In fact, she just e-mailed me again in October to tell me about her new book, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I had no idea she was battling cancer then and was crushed to hear today that she lost that battle. She was a smart, funny, clever, playful, and kind person - and all of that came across in her writing.

You can read my review of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (and then go read the book!). Sadly, I never received the review copy of Textbook Amy Krouse so I haven't read it yet, but I would like to.

I also posted this trio of fun and amusing videos that Amy made, in part to promote Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life - they are short and well worth watching - clever and funny, just like Amy.

Amy's website tells you a lot about her life and her books - and again showcases that wonderful sense of humor. The website includes dozens of short videos that Amy made. One of them, Thought Bubble Kindness, was the Winner of Best Animation at the Peace On Earth Film Festival 2011. You can watch that one right here:

Amy has also given three TED talks (three! I had no idea). In this one, she explains how she launched her project Beckoning Lovely -  a warm and inspiring concept and project:

Hopefully, that last video will inspire YOU to live your life as Amy did - with warmth, kindness, and creativity. Look for the lovely in your own life and share it with others.

The best way to honor Amy's memory is to enjoy the wonderful books she's written (many books for children, in addition to these 2 for adults). She was a talented, kind, smart, funny woman who will be sorely missed.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life
by Amy Krouse RosenthalTrade Paperback
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
by Amy Krouse RosenthalHardcover

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Saturday Snapshot 3/18: National Parks of South Dakota

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

Continuing my tribute to National Parks and other federally managed lands, inspired by Melinda of West Metro Mommy Reads, this week I am focusing on South Dakota. Why does a single state get its own post? For two reasons: first, although we have traveled all over the U.S. and been to beautiful state and national parks in almost every state, we have spent a LOT of time in South Dakota, in part because we have family there and in part because it is one of our favorite places! Second, the western end of the state in particular has a lot of different National Parks, National Monuments, and other protected lands.

So, here is a sampling from our many trips to South Dakota over the years:

The most famous National Monument in SD: Mount Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore seen through a tunnel on Needles Highway in Custer State Park

Local resident prairie dogs, above-ground in Wind Cave National Park

Underground at Wind Cave National Park

Our favorite: Badlands National Park

Our sons hiking in the Badlands at sunset

Badlands at sunset, as a storm approaches (it was a BIG one!)

Last summer at Jewel Cave National Monument
"Cave bacon" in Jewel Cave
My fave pic of our family: Notch Trail in Badlands NP, 2005

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend and staying warm (feels like the middle of winter here). I am ready to escape this nasty weather and visit some national parks!!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Irish Books and Movies to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

While I used to celebrate this March holiday every year in college by drinking green beer (LOTS of it!), times have changed. I can no longer drink even one beer (due to medical problems), so I need to find other ways to celebrate this fun holiday. I am wearing my green today and thinking back to some great books and movies set in Ireland or about Irish people. Check out some of these choices to get into the spirit today...and please tell me about your favorite Irish books & movies in the comments!

Irish/Ireland Books
  • Faith by Jennifer Haigh, set in Boston about an Irish Catholic family amid the priest scandal - I love Haigh's books, which always delve into the complexities of family life.
  • Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan is set in both Ireland and New York, the story of a young Irish woman's migration to America in the early 20th century.
  • The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is mostly about slavery on a Virginia plantation, but one of the main characters is Lavinia, a young Irish girl working as an indentured servant. This was one of my book group's favorites.
  •  In the Woods by Tana French - no list of Irish books would be complete without a mention of this literary mystery series about the Dublin Murder Squad. This is the first book in the series and is gripping and beautifully written.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley does not take place primarily in Ireland, but that is one of the memorable places where Frankenstein follows his creation. A very thoughtful novel about human nature, quite unlike the movie adaptations.
  • Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline begins with the story of Irish immigrants coming to America and settling in New York, as that is where one of the main characters gets her start. Excellent historical fiction.
Irish/Ireland Movies
  • Sing Street - a joyful drama/comedy about teen boys starting a band in 1980's Ireland - not only appropriate for today but a really great movie for any day! 
And for dinner tonight, consider making New England Boiled Dinner, a recipe from Cooking Light originally published in their March 1995 issue that has been my favorite corned beef recipe since...well, 1995. It's delicious! We'll be having this on Sunday, when we can get our college boys and my father-in-law all home for dinner together!

My family enjoying our St. Patrick's Day corned beef dinner, 2015

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Teen/YA Review: The Forgetting

When I started listening to The Forgetting, a teen/YA novel by Sharon Cameron recently, it seemed at first very similar to the middle-grade audio I had just finished, The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen: a dystopian story set in an unfamiliar world. I was a bit disappointed because I prefer to mix things up a bit more and read/listen to different kinds of books. Halfway through The Forgetting, though, a plot twist changed the story entirely for me, and I became much more interested in it. I ended up enjoying it very much.

Nadia lives in the city of Canaan, a bucolic town where each person has a specific job to do in a no-tech world.  Citizens don’t leave the stone walls surrounding their town, and they live simple lives, defined by their jobs. Nadia’s full name is Nadia the Dyer’s Daughter because her mother works in the dye works in town. Nadia, her mother, and her two sisters live in a small house in town. Nadia’s family members – and most other townspeople – are content with their lives and their world, but Nadia has a desire to know more and to see more. She often climbs over the walls in secret during the daily resting time.

There’s one thing that makes Canaan completely unique. Every twelve years, all of its citizens experience a day called the Forgetting, when everyone – from young children to the oldest people – forget everything, including their own history and their loved ones. The only memories retained are muscle memory, of physical skills gained through years of experience, which is why so much emphasis is put on learning and gaining those singular skills for each person. For the rest, each person keeps a book on their person, a precious place to record everything important in their lives – shelved in the Archives when full – so that they will have a way of remembering their families, friends, and lives after the Forgetting. However, Nadia is the exception; she alone, of all her fellow citizens, remembers everything. She went through her first Forgetting at age six, and her second one is quickly approaching.

In the first pages of the book, as Nadia is sneaking back into town after another covert trip over the wall, she discovers another person in town who is interested in the wider world. Gray, the glassblower’s son, catches Nadia sneaking back in and persuades her to take him along the next time. Feeling trapped by his discovery of her, Nadia reluctantly agrees, and an uneasy alliance is formed between the two. It’s uneasy in part because Nadia remembers things about Gray’s background that he himself doesn’t know.

There are a lot of interesting twists and surprises in this unique novel, so I won’t describe any more details of the plot. Nadia and Gray go exploring and make some new discoveries about their world and their town. Meanwhile, inside town, Nadia keeps getting in trouble (as is her habit) and worries that her secrets will be discovered. Because she remembers things that no one else in town can remember, she also begins to discover secrets about the town itself.

This book really grew on me over time as I listened to it, and as I mentioned, a plot twist partway through made it all the more compelling to me. It just got better and better. It’s an adventure, with a lot of action (especially toward the end), a dystopian story describing a world different than ours, and there is plenty of suspense, as Nadia gradually unravels the secrets of her world. I enjoyed this unique story with surprising and suspenseful plot twists. And now I see there will be a sequel, The Knowing, so I look forward to reading that as well!

(Note: don’t look up The Knowing before you have read The Forgetting because the description of the second book gives away secrets from the first book).

Scholastic Press/Scholastic Audio

(audio sample at the link below)

by Benjamin T MastHardcover

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Books Read in February

Hey, look at that - it's only March 15 - I'm catching up! That is in part thanks to the fact that I only finished 4 books in February...but they were good ones!

  • The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen, middle-grade fiction (dystopian fantasy) audio 

So, only 4 books in February, but The Cuckoo's Calling was a long one. That's three adult books (though Anne Frank's memoir is often considered YA), two memoirs/nonfiction, two fiction, one classic, one middle-grade, and two on audio. I enjoyed all of them. I'm having trouble choosing a favorite from between the two Anne Frank books, so I will choose both of them, as a set. Of course, everyone knows how moving and powerful Anne's own memoir is, but Miep's account of helping to hide the Franks was just as deeply moving and fascinating. Both are well worth your time to read or listen to (Miep's memoir was wonderful on audio).

Progress on 2017 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! I added 2 more TBR books to my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge. For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, February was Undercover Thriller month, so The Cuckoo's Calling fit perfectly.  I read my first classic for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge. I slotted all 4 books into categories for my Well-Rounded Challenge. For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I added the Netherlands and read a second book set in the UK. No new states for 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 February, with 17 squares filled in - pretty good for just 4 books!
Sorry - couldn't get this photo to post correctly, so it's sideways!

Books Read for each square:
Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies - Made you cry, historical, accent (audio was excellent!), new-to-you author, set in a foreign country
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank - Empowered/strong female, library book
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) - Favorite author, shelf-love book (TBR), military, in a series, mystery
The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen - Audio book, free book, best friends, romance

What was your favorite book read in February? 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Movie Monday: Mockingjay Part 2

My husband and I (and our sons, too) loved The Hunger Games YA trilogy by Suzanne Collins, her now-famous chilling dystopian series. We watched each movie adaptation: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay Part 1, so we figured we needed to finish it off and watch the final movie, Mockingjay Part 2 (even though it annoys me to no end when Hollywood takes a short novel and turns it into 2 separate movies!). It was a good end to the series...though, of course, the book was better!

If you haven't yet seen or read the beginning of the series, you should go back to those first. Read the books, which are outstanding for teens and adults and very well-written, and then see the movies, which are good adaptations with excellent casting.

So, Mockingjay Part 2 picks up where Mockingjay Part 1 left off: Panem is now at war and Katniss has agreed - reluctantly - to be the face of the revolution, though she still has some misgivings. She and her family and some other familiar characters from earlier movies are safe in District 13 at the start of the movie, but they soon join the fighting in the Capitol. Katniss wants President Snow to pay for all that he has done.

This last part of the story focuses on the war, with a lot of action-packed scenes of battle. It's very well-done, and the special effects are excellent, especially of some of the high-tech forms of warfare that the Capitol unleashes on the rebels. It's been quite a while since I read the books, so there was still some suspense in it for me, as I didn't remember all the details of how it ended.

Of course, as is almost always true, the movie wasn't as good as the book. One thing that was lost in the movie adaptation was Suzanne Collins' very thoughtful and thought-provoking musings (through Katniss) on the nature of war, the price of war, and issues of power and wealth - all topics very relevant to our own world. I described this in detail (no spoilers, though) in my review of the book. The first Mockingjay movie - and to a lesser extent, this one - did show Katniss' moral and ethical struggles to some extent, but it is harder to delve deeply into those kinds of thoughtful issues on the screen than on the page. For me, that was the best part of the book - and the entire trilogy: Collins' thought-provoking commentary on our own world, through the lens of this dystopian world.

But, overall, we enjoyed the movie, and it was a good conclusion to the series. It is action-packed and full of suspense, and Collins is never afraid to kill off significant characters if it makes sense to the plot, so you really don't know what will happen. The cast, including Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, is excellent. We were both glad to have seen the final movie to finish off the series.

All four movies are now available on DVD. You can stream The Hunger Games or Catching Fire for a fee on Amazon (though, oddly, the DVDs are cheaper) and the last two Mockingjay movies are both currently free on Amazon Prime (see links below). All four movies are also available through Netflix (DVDs only).


It's Monday 3/13! What Are You Reading?

Ahhh...enjoying a quiet day to myself to catch up, but this is literally the calm before the storm! We are supposed to get a foot or more of snow from tonight into tomorrow, which is a HUGE amount for Delaware and will likely shut things down for days. We have doctor's appointments scheduled toward the middle of the week for myself and my father-in-law, but those have a strong possibility of being cancelled. The good news is that both sons are healthy and back at college.

I made the mistake (again) of working all weekend, with nothing fun for myself. We did spend time with each of our sons and my father-in-law, which was nice, but I spent my days working feverishly on bills, medical insurance, records & bills, our mortgage refinancing, etc. All very necessary stuff but not much fun! I had my fun mid-week when my mom came to visit. And I did, of course, still enjoy my reading time. Here's what we've been reading this week:
  • I finished The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen for my neighborhood book group last week (though I still had 20 pages to go when I went to book group!). This was one of my choices, and I was eager to read this Pulitzer Prize winning novel that also won many other awards last year. It was excellent, about a Vietnamese man in the late 1970's who works for the Secret Police and is airlifted out to America at the end of the war. His secret, though, is that he's really a spy for the Communist side. The writing was excellent, with many laugh-out-loud moments and sentences I marked for their pure brilliance. Most book group members felt the same (it got one of our highest ratings), though some felt it was a difficult read. Review to come this week!
  • Next, I read my next book group selection, for this Thursday, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, a slim novel that packed a powerful punch. By the author of the brilliant memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (which I loved), this novel tells the story of four girls growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970's. A moving, powerful coming-of-age story that I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • Now, I am reading a review book for my new review job at Shelf Awareness: The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. This novel is about a Neanderthal girl, with alternating chapters set in present day as a woman archeologist uncovers her remains. It's very good so far, and is reminding me a bit of Clan of the Cave Bear.
  • On audio, I started a new middle-grade book, Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood. Like her earlier novel, Glory Be, this one is set in the South in the past (1950's this time) and deals with racial tensions, in this case prejudice against Asian-Americans. It's very good so far.
  • My husband, Ken, finished a novel that I read two years ago and loved, The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray by Walter Mosley. I was greatly moved by this powerful novel about aging, memory, and family, so I'm glad my husband read it, too. He enjoyed it.
  • Ken is now reading another of my review books (he is really benefiting from my new job!), Marshall's Law by Ben Sanders, which looks like part of a thriller series - right up his alley!
  • Jamie, 22, finally finished book 3, The Dragon Reborn, of The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.  I'm not sure what he's reading now - he wanted to read book 2 of a series he likes but couldn't find book 1 to re-read when he was home this weekend!
Blog posts from last week:
Movie Monday: Before I Fall, based on a popular YA novel - Groundhog Day for teens

Fiction Review: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, JK Rowling's first detective novel

Middle-Grade Review: The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen, a dystopian fantasy

Saturday Snapshot: National Parks of the Central U.S.

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?   

My mom and I on our way to book group!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Saturday Snapshot 3/11: National Parks of the Central U.S.

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

Continuing my tribute to National Parks and other federally managed lands, inspired by Melinda of West Metro Mommy Reads, this week I move further west into the Central U.S.

This week's batch includes a National Seashore, a unique National Park, and two National Scenic Rivers that we have visited - a salute to the incredible beauty and variety of our federal lands and National Park system. Below are photos of, from north to south:
  • Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, IN
  • Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
  • Current River National Scenic River, MO
  • Buffalo River, National Scenic River, AR
All of these unique places are well worth a visit! (by the way, the canoe camping trip along the Buffalo River was one of our best vacation times ever)

Skipping stones at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore at sunset

Indiana Dunes looks more like the ocean than Lake Michigan!

One of the huge sand dunes at Indiana Dunes Natl Lakeshore
Our sons ready for a swim in the Current River, MO

Current River National Scenic River in eastern Missouri

The entrance to Mammoth Cave

Cave pics don't turn out well, but here are our sons at the visitor center

Canoeing along the Buffalo River National Scenic River in Arkansas

Camping on a sandbar along the Buffalo River, AR

One of the locals from the Buffalo River!

Hope you are enjoying a nice weekend - and staying warm!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Middle-Grade Review: The Scourge

Last year, I was riveted by the audio book A Night Divided, a historical novel about the Berlin Wall, by Jennifer Nielsen, so I was excited to read more by this very popular middle-grade author. I recently listened to her newest novel, The Scourge, a dystopian story set in a fantasy world with a brave heroine.

Ani lives with her family with the River People, who are disparaged by townspeople (they call the River People grubs). She enjoys hanging around with her best friend, Weevil, but times are tough and food is scarce, so she also works hard to help her family. A plague has been devastating her country, but so far, there have not been any cases among the River People. So, Ani is shocked when she is grabbed by the governor’s wardens one day and taken into town for testing for the Scourge. When Weevil tries to save Ani, he is also captured, and the two friends are taken away in a wagon.

Ani is held in a prison cell with a town girl named Della, who treats Ani with disdain. Both are tested for the Scourge and have positive results, so they are taken to Attic Island, a former prison that now serves as a quarantine colony. They are given very small amounts of medicine that won’t be replaced when they are gone and are assigned jobs in the colony, where Weevil now resides as well. Conditions for the patients/prisoners are terrible, and Ani is outraged. She begins to look around, hoping to find ways to make life in the colony a bit better. What she finds, though, is growing evidence of secrets, lies, and conspiracy.

This imaginative dystopian story set in a fantasy world has plenty of action, adventure, and suspense. The underlying plot is clever and original, but I had some trouble getting invested in the story. Perhaps part of my problem was that I’m not a big fan of fantasy to begin with, though I do normally enjoy dystopian novels. I also struggled with the audio book. The narrator was a young girl speaking in first-person as Ani, and with all of the danger and suspense inherent in the story, I found her voice somewhat breathy and in a constant state of anguish that wore on me after a while. Personally, I enjoyed A Night Divided much more, and I was more engaged with the characters and the story. That might be the difference between historical fiction and real-life events versus fantasy. This action-packed novel will appeal most to young readers looking for an exciting fantasy adventure starring a strong female character.

368 pages, Scholastic
Scholastic Audio

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Scourge by Combermere, ViscountessHardcover
Night Divided
by Nielsen, Jennifer A.Hardcover