Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Fiction Review: The Woman in the Window

I've been hearing rave reviews of the best-selling psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn, so I was excited to give it a try. My husband and I listened to the audio book on our road trip to Virginia last week and just finished it Monday night. We both enjoyed this suspenseful story that kept us guessing (mostly wrong!) until the very end.

Anna hasn't left her house in Harlem in 11 months. The reader/listener doesn't know exactly why, just that there was some kind of an accident, and now Anna is alone, with her husband and beloved daughter elsewhere, though she talks to them almost every day. Other than that, her only visitors are her therapist and physical therapist, but she stays busy online playing chess and helping others also suffering from agoraphobia in an online support group, since Anna herself used to work as a child psychologist. Anna's other main form of entertainment is watching her neighbors from her window, with the help of the zoom lens on her camera.

She is particularly interested in the new neighbors that just moved in across the street: Alistair, Jane, and Ethan Russell. Both Ethan, a teen boy who is homeschooled, and Jane have come to visit Anna separately, and Anna likes them both. Then, Anna sees a horribly violent scene at their house from her window. She reports it to the police, and they investigate, but no one believes Anna. After all, she drinks heavily, is taking piles of pills every day, and appears very unstable. The police try to convince her that she hallucinated the whole thing. So, what's the truth? Did it really happen? Did Anna imagine it? What is really going on across the street?

As you might have recognized, this story is loosely based on the same sort of concept as Hitchcock's  film Rear Window, and the author is a fan of classic noir films and imbues Anna with that same interest. The novel is filled with references to the black and white thrillers Anna is always watching, upping the tension of the story. My husband is one of those people that always guesses the ending to suspense and thriller books and movies - and he's almost always right - but this one stumped us both! There are lots of twists and turns in the plot and many unexpected surprises that keep the suspense level high. My husband also sometimes gets impatient with audio books on our trips, but this one kept his interest (and mine) from start to finish, and anytime we hopped in the car for even five minutes, we were listening to it! This dark and intricate thriller will keep suspense fans rapt.

448 pages, William Morrow


Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Listen to a sample of the audio book of The Woman in the Window here.

You can buy The Woman in the Window from an indie bookstore:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or order The Woman in the Window from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

TV Tuesday: Good Girls

As regular readers know, I enjoy watching more girl-centric TV shows when I am on my own at lunchtime. My latest obsession is a new NBC show, Good Girls, about three suburban moms gone rogue. It's a unique plot with a great cast, and I am loving it.

Christina Hendricks, well-known for playing Joan on Mad Men, is Beth, an overworked mom of four kids who has devoted her life to her family. In the first episode, she finds out that her husband's been having an affair with a woman at his car dealership and that his midlife crisis has cleared out the family's bank accounts so that they are now in serious debt. Beth's younger sister is Annie, played by Mae Whitman who is known for her role as Amber on Parenthood. Annie is divorced and shares custody with her ex of their young daughter, Sadie, who dresses like a boy. Her dad and his new wife have threatened to sue for sole custody, so Annie is also in dire financial straits, needing to hire a lawyer to fight for her daughter. Rounding out the trio is Ruby, played by Retta (best known for her role on Parks and Recreation, though I know her from The Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce). Ruby is happily married and has two kids. She works at a diner, and her husband works as a security guard, so their money is already stretched thin, but now their daughter needs an expensive medication for her kidney disease. These three very desperate friends decide they are desperate enough to do something crazy - rob the grocery store where Annie works. As you might have guessed, nothing goes according to plan, and their one night of crime turns into much, much more.

This is such a fun show. It deals with some serious issues and family drama but mostly in a light way. The women's escapades - which grow out of control into something they never envisioned - provide plenty of suspense but also lots of laughs as these normal moms try to act tough. I love all three of these actresses, and they are great in these roles, playing off each other. It's wonderful to see a show like this that puts a spotlight on women's friendship (even though they are leading a life of crime). There are always surprises in every episode, and I look forward to watching each one.

Good Girls is currently airing on NBC, Mondays at 10 pm Eastern, but I don't watch anything live anymore! Nine episodes have aired so far, and the tenth and final episode of season 1 airs next week. I am up to #7 so far and still loving it. All episodes from season 1 are available On Demand if you have cable or on the NBC website for free. It is also available on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $16.99 for the entire season.



Monday, April 23, 2018

It's Monday 4/23! What Are You Reading?

I'm back after a week's hiatus. My husband and I took a camping trip to Virginia last week. We went south seeking warmer weather, but it was still pretty cool! We did get some nice days in the second half of the week, though. We enjoyed hiking, kayaking, campfires, exploring a few small towns...and reading! It was very relaxing and just what I needed. Now, I am feeling refreshed and ready to tackle real life again. But I have over 500 e-mails to wade through, so if you left me a message or are waiting for a reply on Facebook or Twitter, just be patient!

Here's what we've been reading the past two weeks:
  • I finished Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate for my neighborhood book group, and we had a great discussion (my review is at the link). Its premise is based in real life - an illegal adoption ring in Tennessee in the 1920's through 40's that stole poor children from their families and arranged expensive adoptions. How have I never heard of this before? The novel, which tells the story from several perspectives (including the children involved), moving back and forth through time, was captivating. Almost everyone in my group liked it (we had one dissenter!).
  • Now, I am reading The Anatomy of a Miracle by Jonathan Miles, another Booktopia selection (just 2 weeks to go!). It's a novel written as if it were an in-depth investigative report of a true story, about a young man on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who was paralyzed in Afghanistan and suddenly just stands up from his wheelchair and walks. The book delves into many different aspects of the story - his doctor at the VA, the Catholic church's investigation into whether this constitutes a miracle, a reality TV show made about him, and the backstory of his life before. It's been good, and I'm enjoying it (almost finished).
  • I finished listening to the middle-grade audiobook Refugee by Alan Gratz, which follows the lives of 3 refugee children from different times in history: a Jew escaping Germany in the 1930's, a Cuban seeking refuge from poverty in the 1990's, and a Syrian caught in the midst of war in 2015. I have loved the other Gratz novels I've read - Code of Honor and Projekt 1065 - and this one was even better, riveting and powerful and a unique look at the refugee crisis.
  • On our trip, my husband and I started a new audio, The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. This one's been getting a lot of buzz, and since my husband likes suspense, I saved it to share with him. It's sort of a modern version of the Hitchcock movie Rear Window. In this case, it features a woman named Anna with agoraphobia who hasn't left her house in 11 months. She amuses herself in part by watching her neighbors from her window, and one day she sees a horrible crime. She tries to report it to the police, but the people involved deny it happened and no one believes her, due to her unstable mental condition, loads of medications, and a heavy drinking habit. Lots of suspense over whether it really happened or not! We are almost finished with it and enjoyed it.
  • My husband, Ken, moved onto the third book in the sci fi classic Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation, after finishing Foundation and Foundation and Empire. He enjoyed re-reading these classics from the 1950's.
  • Now, Ken has started a novel I gave him for Easter (books for all occasions here!), Fifty Mice by Daniel Pyne. It's a thriller with an intriguing plot: a man has been put into Witness Protection and moved to a community on Catalina Island in CA, but he doesn't remember what dangerous information he knows.
  • Our son, Jamie, 23, is still reading the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He is on book 7, A Crown of Swords. He loves this epic fantasy series.
Blog posts from the past two weeks:
Movie Monday: Ready Player One - a fun adaptation of one of our favorite books!

My First Shelf Awareness Column: Spring Has Sprung! - 5 books perfect for spring

Fiction Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate - a novel based on a real-life adoption scandal

Summary of Books Read in March - a great reading month!

Fiction Review: Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala - a powerful, moving novel

Happy Earth Day - Celebrate with a Book!

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?  

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Happy Earth Day - Celebrate with a Book!

Kayaking on Prince Edward Lake in Twin Lakes State Park, VA
Happy Earth Day, all! Sorry I have been absent - we took a much-needed week long camping vacation to Virginia, hoping for some warmer temperatures, though it's a cold spring there, too! We celebrated Earth Day all week long, with hikes, kayaking, campfires, and lots of time outdoors (and books, too, of course!).

I'll be catching up here tomorrow with my Monday post, but I wanted to share this timely column I wrote for Shelf Awareness, Earth Day: Dig Into a Good Book! You can read the full column at that link. It includes 4 different book suggestions related to nature, the environment and conservation - two nonfiction and two novels.

Hope you can get outside today and get your hands dirty...or read a book!

Reading while dinner cooks on the campfire.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Fiction Review: Speak No Evil

I recently reviewed the novel Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala for the Shelf Awareness website. You can read my full review of this powerful, moving novel at this link.

Uzodinma Iweala is the author of the critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation (made into a Netflix film), which I've heard of but haven't read (or seen). Now that I've seen what a talented writer he is, I want to go back and read his earlier work.

Speak No Evil is a short but compelling story of two high school friends at a prestigious private high school in Washington, DC. Niru was raised by strict and religious Nigerian parents. He's the school's top track star and has already been accepted to Harvard medical school, but when he finally admits - to himself and his parents - that he's gay, his life falls apart. Meredith, his best friend, encourages him to follow his heart and his true nature, bit there are serious consequences to that path. This novel is a heartbreaking personal story about the two friends, but it also delves into important issues involving race, sexual orientation, religion, and immigration. It's a big story in a small package, and I was captivated by it.

Check out my full review at Shelf Awareness.

I'm curious about Uzodinma Iweala's earlier novels - have you read any of them?

Books Read in March

Yes, this is what March looked like here this year!
Oh, yeah, look at me! Summarizing last month, and it's only the 13th! Woohoo! Don't worry - I will get behind again soon when I go on vacation for a week. For now, I will bask in the glow of accomplishment.

March was an excellent reading month for me, with a bunch of review books and the beginning of my reading for Booktopia Vermont 2018 - just a few weeks to go! Here's what I finished reading in March:
  • We Own the Sky by Luke Allnut (UK) - adult fiction, reviewed for Shelf Awareness
  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Canada) - adult historical fiction
  • Freakling by Lana Krumweide - middle-grade/teen fiction on audio

  • The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel (CO) - adult fiction, reviewed for Shelf Awareness
  • Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy (MS) - teen/YA fiction on audio
  • My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley (MA) - adult fiction, reviewed for Shelf Awareness


I finished seven books in all in March, all fiction, but a nice mix of ages and genres and types. I finished two audio books (my listening had been kind of slow this year before this). Notice that three of the books I read are for review for Shelf Awareness - that's unusual. I normally just review one book a month for them, but The Optimistic Decade and My Ex-Life were special add-ons because I also interviewed the authors and will be meeting them both in person at Booktopia next month! I will link to my reviews and the author interviews when they are published on Shelf Awareness. Alas, that is probably the real reason why I was ready for my monthly summary so much earlier than usual - fewer blog posts to write! I enjoyed all of these books - some very much - but Ramona Blue really stole my heart. I fell in love with the novel and with its protagonist.

Progress in 2018 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges, though I didn't make much progress this month. With all those review books, I read only 1 book from my own shelves for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge, bringing my first quarter total to only 8. Since my annual goal this year is 36, I have a long way to go! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, March was Travel the World, so Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood fit, with both a Canadian setting and author. Nothing new for the Back to the Classics Challenge or the 2018 Badass Books Challenge (not very badass of me)I added Canada and another UK for my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge. For my 2018 Literary Escapes Challenge, I added three new states - CO, MA, and MS.
 
Finally, Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - not really a challenge per se, but a fun game that I play each month. I filled in 19 squares in March: 





Spaces filled in:
We Own the Sky - pastel colors on the cover, luck - good or bad, wedding, made you cry
Alias Grace - dual POV, historical, shelf love (TBR), woman on the cover
Freakling - in a series, audio book
The Optimistic Decade - read a physical book
Ramona Blue - LGBTQ, bad weather, young adult, empowered female
My Ex-Life - free book, secrets
Graveyard Shakes - magic

Free Space

What was your favorite book read in March?    

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Fiction Review: Before We Were Yours

I just finished reading the best-selling novel Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and I couldn't wait to tell you about it. This truth-is-stranger-than-fiction novel grabbed me by the heart and never let me go. In fact, as soon as I finished it, I looked up more information online about the true story behind the fiction.

Twelve year-old Rill lives with her three younger sisters and two-year old brother on a shanty boat in the Mississippi River with her mother and father, affectionately known to all the kids as Queenie and Briny. They don't have much, but they all love each other very much, and the river provides for them, even during the depths of the Depression. When Queenie goes into labor for her twins too early and Briny has to take her in the johnboat across the river to Memphis to a hospital, Rill is left in charge of her siblings. Everything is going fine until police and other strangers arrive where they are tied to shore and cart all the children off to one of the orphanages of the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Amidst abuse and mistreatment, Rill tries to protect her younger siblings and keep their family together.

In the present day, a young lawyer named Avery Stafford has returned to her family home in South Carolina. Her father, a powerful Senator, is fighting cancer, though that fact is being kept from the public. Avery is there to help care for her father and also to prepare to possibly step into his role if needed, to keep their family's political dynasty alive. While there, Avery meets someone by chance who makes her begin to wonder if her family might have some long-kept secrets. Worried there might be a hidden scandal that could harm the Staffords, she begins to investigate, never guessing where her inquiries will lead.

In the early chapters of this novel, as I read about Rill and her siblings being illegally torn away from their parents and put up for adoption, I thought to myself, "This is just too horrifying - it's not realistic." So imagine my shock when I found out that part of the novel was actually based on the real-life story of Georgia Tann, director of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, who stole children from poor families and sold them for outrageous sums to wealthy parents desperate for children from the 1920's through the 1940's. That makes this novel all the more gripping and stunning. The story pieces together Rill's story bit by bit, with action moving from the past to the present, weaving together disparate threads until they finally come together.

Almost every member of our book group enjoyed this novel, and we had a good discussion about it last night, much of it focused on the real-life story behind the novel. Even though you kind of have the gist of the story from the beginning (it is, after all, based on real history), most of the characters in the novel are fictional, and some of the connections between past and present are only revealed toward the end of the book. Most of us were captivated by the story and characters. Overall, our group rated the novel 7.6 out of 10 (which is high for us) and several people (including me) rated it a 9. This gripping, moving story about a little-known historical horror kept me glued to the book, until I finished it in record time.

352 pages, Ballantine Books

For more information on the real-life scandal the novel is based on, watch this 60 Minutes segment on Georgia Tann, which aired in 1992:




Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.
 
Listen to a sample of the audio here (I think this would be great on audio).

Buy Before We Were Yours from an Indie bookstore:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or order Before We Were Yours from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

My First Shelf Awareness Column: Spring Has Sprung!

I just wanted to share with you one of my new freelance writing jobs: writing From My Shelf columns for Shelf Awareness' twice-weekly newsletter. So far, I have been writing about two columns each month, so these will be appearing regularly.

My first column, Spring Has Sprung, was published in the April 6 issue - you can read it at the link. It's a round-up of five different books (both fiction and memoir) related to spring to put you in the mood for this season of renewal and hope!

I really enjoy writing these kinds of columns where I can share a bunch of my favorite books on a related topic. I previously wrote a monthly book column like this for Vital! magazine.

I won't post every column I write here on the blog, but you can sign up for the Shelf Awareness newsletter yourself (see the sidebar at the link), and I will also post my columns on Facebook and Twitter.  I have also begun writing author interviews for Shelf Awareness, which I am loving so far! It's like having my own private book group meeting with an author after reading his or her book. The first of those will be published in May.

Hope you are enjoying spring! Word is that it might finally warm up above the 40's here today!

Monday, April 09, 2018

Movie Monday: Ready Player One

We enjoyed a rare treat this weekend: we got both of our college sons, my father-in-law, and my husband and I together for dinner! We met at a restaurant in our sons' college town. After dinner, my husband, our older son, and I walked to the movie theater (our favorite recliner theater) to see the much-anticipated Ready Player One. The three of us all read the novel (my review at the link) when it first came out, passing the book around the house with "you have to read this!" so we have all been excited to finally see the movie adaptation. Of course, the book is always better, but all three of us thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

Tye Sheridan plays Wade, a seventeen-year old boy in 2045 who lives in "the stacks," a huge trailer park outside of Columbus, OH, with beaten-up trailers literally stacked up on top of each other (we're not sure why they added one year to the date or changed the location from Oklahoma for the movie - that's Hollywood, right?). In this near-future world, life has become so challenging that people spend most of their time in the OASIS, an online virtual world created by multi-millionaire programmer James Halliday. When Halliday died, he hid an Easter egg (a secret hidden in a video game) in OASIS, accessible only with three hidden keys. Whoever finds the egg first will inherit not only Halliday's wealth but also his ownership of the OASIS.

It's been five years since Halliday's death, and no one has found even the first key yet. Some people have lost interest, but Wade, or Parzival as his avatar is called in the OASIS, is still looking. It's common knowledge that Halliday was obsessed with 80's pop culture, from his own youth, so Wade has become an expert not only on Halliday's history but also 80's music, movies, TV shows, and video games. His best friends in OASIS (whom he's never met in person) are Art3mis, played by Olivia Cooke, and Aech, played by Lena Waithe of Master of None fame. The three of them, along with a couple of other friends, work together after Parzival finds the first key and eventually meet in the real world. Of course, there are bad guys here to fight against - an evil corporation that wants to control OASIS so they can add advertising and monetize it.

This is a fun, rollercoaster ride of a virtual adventure! Watching it unfold on the big screen was a very different experience than reading the book but just as captivating. Here, many of the 80's pop culture references are visual and auditory, so you have to watch and listen carefully (I think I would probably pick up on a lot more references watching it a second time), but it has that same fun feel to it, with a mix of retro and futuristic. The scene that takes place within the world of The Shining was one of our favorites! Although half (or more) of the story takes place in virtual reality, you don't have to be a video game fiend to enjoy it - it's just a suspenseful mystery adventure in a different kind of visual environment. Of course, we liked the book better (isn't that almost always the case?), but all three of us thoroughly enjoyed the movie and left the theater with big smiles on our faces.

Ready Player One is currently in theaters - look for a recliner theater near you!  It is due for DVD and streaming (Amazon) release in July 2018. Or if you'd prefer, you can read the book first (it was my favorite book read in all of 2012!)




Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.



Book:

It's Monday 4/9! What Are You Reading?

Happy Monday! It started out cold and dreary here, but now the sun is out, and the temperature is supposed to creep slowly upward this week. I can't take much more winter weather - it's APRIL!

We had a good week here - busy but fun, too. We met up with our sons and their Grandad this weekend for dinner in a restaurant in their college town (they are close to home), so it was great to have all five of us together for a change. Afterward, my husband and I and our older son all went to see Ready Player One - the three of us all devoured (and loved) the book, so we've been excited for the movie to come out, and it met our expectations! I will try to post a movie review later today.

My husband is on a business trip this week, so I am planning to get a lot of stuff done, both writing and around the house. Of course, I always plan on that when I am alone and somehow the time just flies by, and I don't get half of what I wanted done. I think that's a problem with my expectations, not my productivity!

Here's what we've all been reading this week:
  • I finished another novel in preparation for Booktopia in May: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. It starts with four young siblings in 1969 who visit a fortune teller who tells them each the date they will die. The rest of the novel is in four sections, each following one of the siblings. It's a bit dark, since you know each section will end with a character dying! But it's also engrossing and well-written, and I enjoyed it.
  • Now, I am reading a novel for my neighborhood book group this week - I better hurry if I want to finish it by Wednesday. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is a new release that must be pretty popular because when I tried to reserve it through our state library system, I was #360 on the wait list! Luckily, one of my neighbors had already finished her copy, so I am about a third of the way through now. I just discovered that its premise is based in real life - an illegal adoption ring in Tennessee in the 1930's and 40's that stole poor children from their families and arranged expensive adoptions. How have I never heard of this before? The novel, which tells the story from several perspectives (including the children involved), moving back and forth through time, is captivating so far.
  • On audio, I finished She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper in record time! I started it Monday and was finished by Thursday. It's a 2017 release about an 11-year old girl named Polly who must go on the run with her scary ex-convict father because a gang from prison is intent on killing them both. It was SO GOOD! Dark, yes, but also warm and funny. I gobbled it up and fell in love with Polly and her teddy bear, who is a full-fledged character in the book.
  • I just started a new audiobook today, Refugee by Alan Gratz, which follows the lives of 3 refugee children from different times in history: a Jew escaping Germany in the 1930's, a Cuban seeking refuge from poverty in the 1990's, and a Syrian caught in the midst of war in 2015. I have loved the other Gratz novels I've read - Code of Honor and Projekt 1065 - so I am looking forward to this one.
  • My husband, Ken, finished his sci fi classic series re-read, Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov, which was the second book published in the Foundation series in 1952. He enjoyed Foundation and is looking forward to re-reading the rest of the books in the series. I'm not sure what he is reading next, but I know he had several books on his Kindle for traveling.
  • Our son, Jamie, 23, is still reading the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He is on book 7, A Crown of Swords. He loves this epic fantasy series.
Last week's blog posts:
TV Tuesday: The Resident - a new medical drama starring Matt Czuchry

Fiction Review: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - historical fiction based on a true story

Middle-Grade Review: Graveyard Shakes by Laura Terry - spooky graphic novel

Teen/YA Review: Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy - LOVED it!!

Saturday Snapshot: A Late Spring - still cold but finally a few blooms!

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?  

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.  

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Saturday Snapshot: A Late Spring


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

Spring is very late here in the Mid-Atlantic this year. We had a fairly cold, wet week, and some snowflakes are predicted for today! It feels like spring will never arrive, but we are seeing some first blooms now (those that usually arrive in March!).

FINALLY - my favorite sign of spring - forsythia in bloom!

A few crocuses popping up.

Some daffodils in bloom (not ours yet)

Pretty forsythia blooms but I needed a parka & hat to take a walk!

This row of pink blooming trees is usually the first in our neighborhood.

The flowers are starting to pop out!

No parka needed Friday but still very windy!!

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Friday, April 06, 2018

Teen/YA Review: Ramona Blue

I've been hearing rave reviews of Ramona Blue, a YA novel by Julie Murphy, ever since its release almost a year ago. I finally found the time to listen to it on audio, and it was so worth waiting for! I loved every minute of it, and I loved Ramona, and I miss her now that the book is finished.

Seventeen-year old Ramona is over six feet tall, has eye-catching blue hair, and lives in the tiny coastal town of Eulogy, Mississippi. When Hurricane Katrina hit the area when Ramona was five years old, she and her family were forced to move into a FEMA trailer. Twelve years later, she, her Dad, and her older sister, Hattie, still live in that trailer; her mother left after the hurricane and works in the casino nearby. Summer has just ended in Eulogy, so all the summer people renting houses have left town, including Grace. Ramona and Grace had an idyllic summer together, but Ramona is wondering if their relationship will last with the separation. Besides, Grace still hasn't admitted to her family or anyone else that she is gay. That's not a problem for Ramona - she knows she likes girls and so does her family, friends, and classmates. In Ramona's uncertain world, that is one thing she's sure of.

As Ramona is finishing her paper route on her bike and missing Grace, she is greeted by a wonderful surprise: kind-hearted Agnes and her grandson, Freddie, are back in town - for good this time. Ramona and Freddie were childhood playmates every summer when the family vacationed in Eulogy, and now that Agnes has retired, they have moved to the seaside town. As school begins, Ramona now has something to look forward to, with Freddie back. At the same time, though, Ramona's life feels like it is shrinking - and her opportunities with it. Hattie is pregnant, her good-for-nothing boyfriend is moving into the tiny trailer, and Ramona's fierce love and protection of her family makes her feel like she has no option but to stay home and help her sister. As her senior year continues and her classmates all make plans for interesting lives, Ramona feels more and more trapped. She's also confused as her feelings for Freddie seem to morph into more than friendship - how can she feel that way about him when she knows she likes girls?

I was hooked on this audio book from the very first chapter, with its captivating young narrator who had just the right touch of a Mississippi accent. Ramona is one of those YA literary characters that feels like an old friend. She is so strong for those around her and sure of herself in some ways, but confused and uncertain in other ways. She feels very real. Her new confusion about her sexuality is a theme in the story, but it's just one part of a moving and cohesive whole. This novel is also about family, friendship, racism, figuring out your place in the world, and the ways that poverty and circumstance can seem to control your life. Ramona is a resilient person, but sometimes she feels as if she has no choices and is cut off from the things her classmates just consider a normal part of life, like college. This insightful novel explores all of these issues and more, but at its heart, it is an engrossing story about an extraordinary young woman and her family and friends. I loved every minute of this audio book and rooted for Ramona to figure it all out. This was one of my favorite YA novels read in a long time.

432 pages, Balzer + Bray

Listen to a sample of the audio book.

Purchase Ramona Blue from an indie bookstore.
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Or order Ramona Blue from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Middle-Grade Review: Graveyard Shakes

I finally finished the last of my 2017-released graphic novels with Graveyard Shakes by Laura Terry, a middle-grade graphic novel that straddles the line between realistic fiction and ghost story.

Sisters Katia and Victoria have always been home-schooled, so their start at Bexley Academy, a wealthy boarding school, as scholarship students is a bit rocky. Victoria desperately wants to fit in and make new friends, but Katia is dismissive of her new classmates, who she refers to as "sparkly show ponies!" Katia dances to the beat of her own drummer (and in fact, she is quite talented musically) and is messy and impulsive. As Victoria and Katia try to adjust to their new school, they are unaware of another challenge lurking nearby. The graveyard next to the girls' new school is home to a bevy of ghosts, including one cute little boy ghost named Little Ghost. More troubling, however, is a mad scientist who lives underground with the ghosts. He can only keep his young son "alive" with black magic and the sacrifice of a living child every 13 years. You guessed it...it's been almost 13 years since the last one, so when Katia stumbles into the cemetery late one stormy night, upset about things at school, and Victoria goes running after her, they are in far more danger than they realize.
Pages from Graveyard Shakes, showing the two sisters.

I enjoyed this colorful and creative story that combines humor with a bit of mild horror. The story tackles both real-life issues, as the girls struggle to adjust to school and get along with each other, and supernatural ones. It's a nice balance that middle-grade readers will enjoy.

204 pages, Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic)

Page from Graveyard Shakes with Little Ghost

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Fiction Review: Alias Grace

For many years, I wanted to read Margaret Atwood's novels (so many books, so little time!). I finally read her best-known book, The Handmaid's Tale, last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. So, I was glad when my book group recently chose another Atwood novel, Alias Grace, for our March selection. A historical novel, it was completely different from her famous dystopian tale but just as compelling.

Alias Grace is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a young woman in Ontario accused of murder in 1843 and sentenced to life in prison at the tender age of sixteen. Atwood's novel begins during Grace's time in prison, as she walks with guards every day to the warden's house to help his wife and the servants with household duties. Grace's story unfolds slowly over the course of the novel, with some chapters from Grace's first-person perspective, some chapters consisting of letters sent back and forth between various characters, excerpts from real-life news stories printed at the time, and some chapters from the third-person perspective of a young doctor named Simon Jordan. Dr. Jordan specializes in mental health (though it was not known by that name at that time) and hopes to one day revolutionize insane asylums by providing them with the basics of human health (clean water, no open sewage, etc.) He has traveled from the U.S. to Canada to interview Grace, in the hopes of finding a way to help her recover lost memories from the day of the murders. As Simon and Grace talk each day, starting from Grace's earliest memories, her story slowly emerges, from her difficult childhood filled with loss to beginning to work as a servant at the age of thirteen and eventually, to that fateful day of the murders.

This was an excellent novel for a book group, with so much depth and so many different layers to discuss. The biggest question in the novel is whether Grace was guilty and how much of a role she played in the famous double-murder. Her male counterpart was hung for his role in the murders - was Grace forced to help him or was it her idea in the first place? Is she a victim herself, a cold-blooded killer, or insane? These questions underlie the entire narrative, as the reader learns more and more about Grace and her life, while Simon brings her ever-closer to the black hole in her memory. This is not just a murder mystery, though. It is also a full and captivating story about life in the mid-1800's, perfect for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. Atwood brings this 175-year old story to vivid life with her engaging prose and alternating viewpoints, with further depth added by the actual news reports, poems from the time about Grace, and even quilt patterns at the beginning of every section that relate to the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this engrossing novel, as did most of the other members of my book group...though we still could not agree on whether Grace was guilty or innocent!

460 pages, Anchor Books


Disclosure: I received this book as a personal gift. My review is my own opinion.

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Order from your favorite indie bookstore:
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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

TV Tuesday: The Resident

Even though we still watch (and love!) Grey's Anatomy and don't really need another medical TV show, during the doldrums of winter TV, my husband and I tried The Resident, mostly because we both love the main actor, who played Cary on The Good Wife (and, I just discovered, Logan on Gilmore Girls). We have some complaints about this new medical show but are still watching and enjoying it overall and plan to continue.

Matt Czuchry stars as Conrad Hawkins, a third-year resident at sparkling, expensive Chastain Hospital in Atlanta. This is not the gritty public hospital filled with drug addicts and gunshot victims we saw back in the days of ER! In the first episode, idealistic new resident Devon Pravesh, played by Manish Dayal, starts at Chastain on his first day as a doctor, working under Conrad. It's a tough first day, and Devon quickly learns that Conrad is brilliant and cares about his patients fiercely but has little patience for following the rules. Nicky, played by Emily VanCamp, is a very intelligent and caring nurse who works with them, and Mina, played by Shaunette Renee Wilson, is an arrogant but highly skilled surgical resident. Heading up the hospital are star surgeon Randolph Bell, played by veteran actor Bruce Greenwood, and a bevy of other high-profile, very wealthy senior doctors. All is not as it seems at beautiful Chastain, though, and we see in the very first episode that Bell has developed some sort of tremor in his hands, which he is hiding - and still operating on patients, to their detriment - in order to save his reputation and career.

Much of The Resident is like any other medical show - different patient cases each week, with a few longer-term patients we see again, taken care of by a group of very attractive doctors, with some sex and scandal thrown in to keep things interesting. The difference in this show - and the thing that bothers us about it - is that the residents, nurses, and other underlings are all the good guys, and the senior staff at the hospital are all, to a person, evil and obsessed with maximizing profits, their own shiny reputations, and remaining powerful and wealthy. Really - every single senior doctor is evil. We get the point the show is trying to make: that sometimes hospitals, which are supposed to help people, are too focused on profit, especially in this time of privatization, to the detriment of the patients they are supposed to be caring for. But, every senior doctor? There's not a single doctor in charge here who wants to do what's best for his or her patients? It's kind of hard to swallow. Still, we are now up to episode 9, and we are still watching and enjoying it. The rest of the characters and stories are compelling enough to keep up tuning in each week, and Czuchry and the other actors are very good.

The Resident is a FOX show, currently airing on Mondays. We watch it On Demand. It looks like it is also available for free on Fox's own website, though as of today, the first four episodes are only available there if you are a cable subscriber (it asks you to sign in with your cable password) - the next 5 are available free to anyone. All of the episodes are also available on Amazon for $1.99 each or $19.99 for the whole season (so, you could pay for the first four and then watch the rest free on the Fox website).




Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Monday, April 02, 2018

It's Monday 4/2! What Are You Reading?

It's finally April!! Hurray! Of course, we had a mix of rain/snow last night, but at least nothing stuck to the ground this time. Our spring blooms are already soooo late, though some sun this weekend finally got our forsythia popping open - that's one of my favorite signs of spring. I cut some branches for our Easter table yesterday. We had a very busy but nice weekend, cooking and preparing for Easter. Our sons got back to campus from spring break in NC Outer Banks Saturday night, and we got to see them both yesterday. Our older son came home with bronchitis, so he spent the day here, resting, and it was great to spend some time with him. His brother took over his dinner shift at work for him, so we were still missing one for Easter, but we enjoyed a huge feast with my father-in-law here, too. My family is Ukrainian, so I still make (and buy) all the traditional foods for Easter dinner, even if it's just four of us, like it was yesterday. Everyone took home plenty of leftovers, and tonight my husband and I get to enjoy all that good food again without all the work!

Here's what we've all been reading this past week:
  • I finished a book for a Shelf Awareness review and author interview and for Booktopia: My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley. It's about a gay man who moves in with his ex-wife in order to help her get her life together and help her daughter apply to colleges. It was wonderful - insightful and moving but also laugh-out-loud funny. I interviewed the author last week and thoroughly enjoyed talking to him about the novel and his writing career. Now, I want to go back and read some of his earlier novels (three of which were made into movies).
  • Now, I am reading another novel in preparation for Booktopia in May: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. It starts with four young siblings in 1969 who visit a fortune teller who tells them each the date they will die. The rest of the novel is in four sections, each following one of the siblings. It's a bit dark, since you know each section will end with a character dying! But it's also engrossing and well-written, and I'm enjoying it.
  • I finished listening to Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, a YA novel I have wanted to read since its release about a year ago. It was worth waiting for! I loved this story of a teen girl in coastal Mississippi who is something of an outsider in her town and school. She's over 6 feet tall, is openly gay, and lives in a trailer. It was excellent - endearing, compelling, and real-feeling - and I loved Ramona!
  • I just downloaded a new audio, She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper, that I plan to start today. It's a 2017 release that sounds really good - a novel about an 11-year old girl who must go on the run with her scary ex-convict father because a gang from prison is intent on killing them both. I'm looking forward to it.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Late Show by Michael Connelly, one of the books I gave him for Christmas. It's the start of a new series by Connelly (author of the Harry Bosch series) featuring a young female detective named Renee Ballard. He enjoyed it and moved it to my side of our TBR bookcase (yes, an entire bookcase!), telling me I'll like it, too.
  •  Now, Ken has gone back to his sci fi classic series re-read, Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov, which was the second book published in the Foundation series in 1952. He enjoyed Foundation and is looking forward to re-reading the rest of the books in the series.
  • Our son, Jamie, 23, finished book 6 in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, Lord of Chaos and has moved onto book 7, A Crown of Swords. He loves this epic fantasy series. Of course, I included a new book in his Easter basket (and his dad's, too!).
Blog posts last week - I got too busy!
Middle-Grade Review: Freakling by Lana Krumwiede - an intriguing dystopian fantasy

Sign Up Now for Booktopia 2018! - join the fun and I'll see you in Vermont in May!

Saturday Snapshot & Weekend Cooking: Restaurants in Annapolis - amazing food

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?  

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.  

Easter Dinner