Monday, February 28, 2011

It's Monday 2/28! What Are You Reading?

Wow, the last day of February already?  Spring is in the air around here, where the temperatures have been in the 50's, and we're getting rain instead of snow this week.  I'm ready for it!

We had a great reading week here last week:
  • I finally finished the 700-page The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb which was complex but very well-written.  My book group meets Wednesday to discuss it.
  • I took a break from the hefty epics to read a new teen/YA mystery/thriller, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman.  It was fast-paced and suspenseful, just what I was in the mood for.
  • Last night, I finished The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a much-lauded memoir about the author's first year after her husband of 40 years dies suddenly that I've been wanting to read for years.  The only problem is that I got it out of the library for an online book discussion, and now I can't remember which blog it was for!  Anyone??  This could be a sign that I am involved in too many book groups!!
  • Today, I will start Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran for my neighborhood book group.  I must admit I've been procrastinating on this one just because it's not usually one of my favorite genres, but everyone has said it's good.  I promise to start today!
  • My husband, Ken, was determined to finish Under the Dome by Stephen King before his business trip today because it's too big to travel with!  He finished it at 11 pm last night, just in time.  He said it was classic Stephen King.
  • He's taking Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton with him on the plane today.  It was a Christmas gift from our oldest son to him, and he's been saving this paperback for a trip.
  • Jamie, 16, continued reading voraciously this past week, mostly because he's still not feeling great, though he did make it to school for a few days.  He read Pathfinder, Orson Scott Card's latest teen/YA novel.  He and I have both been drooling over this one ever since it arrived because we are both huge fans of Ender's Game.  Jamie says that Pathfinder had all of his favorite fictional elements in it.  I can't wait to read it next!
  • Jamie is also reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin for his American Literature class.  I've never heard of this one, but the back cover says it shocked audiences in 1899 with its passion and "honest treatment of female marital infidelity."  OK...not sure Jamie will like this one!
  • Unfortunately, he's home sick again this morning and re-reading a favorite, The Roar by Emma Clayton, a recent middle-grade science fiction release.
  • Craig, 12, is reading The Last Hunt, the final book in Bruce Coville's The Unicorn Chronicles.
I did manage to post two reviews last week:  Room by Emma Donoghue, one of the best novels I've read in years,  and on Great Books for Kids and Teens, a review of Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fiction Review: Room

Room by Emma Donoghue is hard to classify because it is an utterly unique novel.  It deserves all the praise it has received and all of its appearances on various Top Ten and Best of 2010 lists.  I read this novel in record time, scarcely able to set it down.  It’s one of those books that you can’t wait to finish and then you feel sad when it’s over.

Room is narrated by five-year old Jack who lives with his Ma in an eleven-foot by eleven-foot room.  Although Jack doesn’t realize it, he and his mother are prisoners, held captive by a man he only knows as Old Nick who kidnapped his mother seven years ago.  Jack was born in this single room, so it is the only world he knows, and his mother has protected him – wonderfully, endearingly, achingly – from knowledge of their situation or of the bigger outside world.

Her strategy has worked – Jack is intelligent, kind, and full of life, completely unaware that he’s missing out on anything more.  This is how the novel opens, on Jack’s fifth birthday:

Today I’m five.  I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.   Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.  “Was I minus numbers?”

“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch.

“Up in Heaven.  Was I minus one, minus two, minus three - ?”

“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”

“Through Skylight.  You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”

“You said it.” Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.

I shut my eyes just in time, then open one a crack, then both.

“I cried till I didn’t have any tears left,” she tells me.  “I just lay here counting the seconds.”

“How many seconds?” I ask her.

“Millions and millions of them.”

“No, but how many exactly?”

“I lost count,” says Ma.

“Then you wished and wished on your egg till you got fat.”

She grins.  “I could feel you kicking.”

“What was I kicking?”

“Me, of course.”

I always laugh at that bit.

Just from this brief opening passage, you learn so much, about Jack’s sweet innocence, his intelligence, and the love that he and his Ma feel for each other.  Telling this story from Jack’s point of view is absolute genius because we are learning about an atrocious, horrible situation from a very innocent, unknowing perspective.  It is gripping and entrancing from this very first page.

Jack’s five-year old questions and eagerness to learn, combined with his mother’s growing desperation, lead her to conclude that Room just can’t hold the two of them for much longer.   Their story is warm and sweet, yet also frightening and tense.  I loved Jack and his Ma from the very first page and was rooting for them.  There are plenty of surprises in this book, as well as thought-provoking situations and suspense, but to explain any more of the plot here would ruin it.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  Room is one of the best, most unique novels to come along in a long time.  In fact, just writing this review makes me want to read it all over again.

NOTE:  You may find Jack’s habit of referring to objects as proper nouns – Room, Wardrobe, Bed – a bit awkward at first, but when I realized why he does that, it made me smile.

321 pages, Little, Brown

Where Are You Reading 2010:  I can’t add a pin to my world map for Room because it is – intentionally, I think – set in a no-name place that could easily be just about anywhere, maybe even right in your town.


Monday, February 21, 2011

It's Monday 2/21! What Are You Reading?

Happy President's Day!

I had another rough week last week (no new reviews posted!), but this one is starting out better.  My son had a severe flare-up of his chronic illness last week, I had a moderate flare-up, and it was another hectic, overwhelming week.  I spent Friday marshaling my limited energy to pack for another weekend away, which I was dreading.  Then things turned around.  We drove to my mom's house to spend the weekend with her and her husband.  Jamie and I still felt crummy, but there was nothing to do there but rest and relax.   Craig got to go snowboarding, and my husband, Ken, went skiing for the first time in 22 years!  We all had a nice time, and now I feel rested and ready to face another full week.

Most of us are still working on the long books we were reading last week, except for Jamie.  While he was sick last week, he read four books!  That's my boy...
  • I am almost finished with the 700-page novel, The Hour I First Believed, by Wally Lamb.  It's a good thing last week's book group was postponed!  It's quite an epic, starting in the 80's and going forward to the present and backward to the Civil War.  I always enjoy Lamb's writing.
  • Ken, my husband, is still working his way through the 1000+-page Under the Dome by Stephen King.  He's enjoying it, though he's getting sick of carrying such a huge brick around with him!
  • Craig, 13, has finished reading for his upcoming book presentation and now gone back to The Last Hunt by Bruce Coville, the final book in his favorite series, The Unicorn Chronicles.
  • And then there's Jamie, 16.  He finished reading The Books of Umber 3: The End of Time by P.W. Catanese - he really enjoys that series.
  • Next, on his first sick day, Jamie spotted an old favorite on his book shelf, The Goblin Wood by Hilari Bell, one of his favorite authors, and decided to re-read it.  The equivalent of comfort food for him.
  • By now, clearly too sick for school, he piled up a big stack of books he's been meaning to read and started in!   He read Closer, Book 4 of the teen/YA Tunnels series by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, about a hidden, underground world.  I've only read the first book so far, but Jamie says it's one of the best series he's ever read, so I think I need to catch up.
  • Next, he read Sabotaged, Book 3 of The Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix.  Both he and I have been enjoying this fast-paced middle-grade time travel series.
  • Now, he's reading The Last Olympian, the final book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan.  He recently bought it with a Christmas gift card.
What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila of Book Journey.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

It's Monday 2/14! What Are You Reading?

Happy Valentine's Day!  My wonderful husband, Ken, asked me to marry him 23 years ago today (this photo is from about that time).  I can't imagine sharing my life with anyone else - we've been through so much together, good times and bad, and he's always there to support me.

One of the many things we share together is our love of books and reading.  We had a very busy week (yes, again), including a whirlwind trip back to my hometown of Rochester, NY, this weekend for my great-aunt's funeral.  We all enjoyed some good books this week:
  • I finished reading Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson for my library's book discussion last week (I read the last page and the epilogue right after the meeting ended!), a follow-up to his first book, Three Cups of Tea.  Everyone in the book discussion was fascinated and impressed by what Mortenson has achieved, though we all agreed we wouldn't want to be married to him!
  • Just as I was hurrying to finish Stones into Schools for the library book discussion, I realized that another of my book groups is meeting THIS Wednesday, leaving me only 7 days to read the 700-page The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb.  I can't usually read in the car, but I made an exception this weekend.  It's an excellent, gripping novel so far, about a couple who worked at Columbine High School at the time of the shootings.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Under the Dome by Stephen King and enjoying it very much.
  • Jamie, 16, didn't have much time for reading this week, between school, homework, and the trip (he drove part of the way), but he has started The Books of Umber 3: The End of Time by P.W. Catanese.
  • Craig, 13, is re-reading Nick of Time by Ted Bell in preparation for an oral report for his English class.
  • On audio, I've been listening to a new teen book, Thunder Over Kandahar by Sharon E. McKay.  Ironically, since I was reading Stones Into Schools last week, this new audio is about two young girls in a rural Afghanistan village who are eager to attend the new school recently built by an American charitable organization.  It's excellent so far.
  • On the way to and from Rochester, our whole family listened to The Story of Cirrus Flux, a fast-paced middle-grade novel about two orphans in 1783 London, on the run from various evil foes who want to steal a magical token.  Now that we're back home, we need to find time to finish it!
Last week, I posted a review of Musicophilia by Oliver Sachs and a tribute to beloved children's author Brian Jacques who passed away last week.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nonfiction Review: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

My neighborhood book group finally met last night, after a two-week storm delay, to discuss Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks.  I’ve long been intrigued by Sacks’ other books, including the renowned The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but this is the first one I’ve read (though I did see the movie adaptation of Awakenings).

At the start of the meeting, everyone in my book group was complaining about various aspects of the book – that it’s sometimes overly technical, a bit repetitive and disjointed, and at times simply over our heads – but once we got further into the discussion, we found plenty to talk about and realized it was also quite fascinating.

Sacks, as is his standard approach, presents various anecdotes of neurological injuries or illnesses that cause some very strange phenomena; in this particular book, those anecdotes all have something to do with music.  I struggled with the first part of the book, where the stories focus mainly on people who suddenly developed (or lost) extraordinary musical talents.  The problem was that I have no musical background at all, so much of the terminology used in these early chapters – minor and major keys, chords, perfect pitch, etc. – was completely meaningless to me, though I was still impressed by the wonder of these incidents (for instance, the man who, when struck by lightning, suddenly developed an amazing talent to play piano).

I was more interested, and more able to understand, some of the later chapters.  Everyone in my book group agreed that some of these stories were fascinating, such as the effects of music therapy on those with severe dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and Tourette’s Syndrome or the extreme cases of amnesia that responded to music or the people that see colors when they hear music.

Overall, most of us agreed it wasn’t an easy book to read, but it was intriguing.  I wish I has read this book years ago, when my mother-in-law was struggling with the earlier stages of Parkinson’s (she died this past June) – maybe music therapy could have helped improve her quality of life back then.  Anyone interested in neurological disorders or with a strong musical background would probably enjoy this book.

347 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

(Where Are You Reading 2011 - unfortunately, I don't think there's any location associated with this book to add to my map since it includes hundreds of anecdotes from lots of different places - bummer.)

Monday, February 07, 2011

It's Monday 2/7! What Are You Reading?

Getting a late start today, after a late Superbowl night.  We just had a little family party - the four of us, plus a last-minute addition of two friends of our sons - with lots of yummy junk foods!  The kids have a day off school today, so we all slept in a bit.

We had another hectic, busy week last week, with a death in the extended family, a bit of a health crisis with my older son, plus a 2-day trip to Washington, DC, for Jamie and an all-day Academic Bowl for Craig.  The good news is that my computer is still running, so that's progress!  The week passed in a blur, though we did find time for reading, as always:
  • I finished the middle-grade novel, Eliza's Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Diary by Jerdine Nolen and posted a review.
  • I read and thoroughly enjoyed a tiny volume, Between Home and School: Letters, Notes, and E-mails, by Bill Harley, a warm, tender little story of a boy growing up, told entirely in letters and notes sent between his mother and his teachers.  Bill Harley is a favorite entertainer/storyteller of ours.
  • Now I'm reading Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Greg Mortenson for my library's book discussion this week.  I really enjoyed his first book, Three Cups of Tea, and this follow-up is just as fascinating and inspirational.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading Under the Dome by Stephen King - he figures this one may take a few weeks!
  • Jamie, 16, decided to set aside The Islands of the Blessed by Nancy Farmer, the last book in the trilogy that began with The Sea of Trolls, because he didn't remember enough of the second book (he often re-reads earlier books in a series before moving on).  So, now he's re-reading The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer.  This is one of his favorite fantasy series. 
  • Craig, 13, also changed books this week in order to re-read one.  He has an assignment for English to do an oral presentation on a favorite book, so he's re-reading Nick of Time by Ted Bell and keeping an eye out for favorite quotations and a good passage to read aloud to his classmates.
I tried to do a bit of catching up on my reviews last week.  In addition to the review of Eliza's Freedom Road I mentioned above, I also posted a review of the teen novel, Gone, by Lisa McMann on Great Books for Kids and Teens.   Here, I also posted a long-overdue review of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, as well as a summary of what I read in January and a list of Top Ten Best Debut Books.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Mondays is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Books Read in January 2011

I'm not too sad to say good-bye to January.  Between non-stop storms and snow days and terrible computer problems, it was a rough month for me.  The best part of January?  I read some really great books this month!

All in all, I read 7 books in January, which seems to be fairly average for me.  Three of those were middle-grade or teen/YA books and the other four were grown-up books, with a mix of fiction and non-fiction:
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
  • Gone by Lisa McMann (teen/YA)
  • Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sachs
  • Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater (teen/YA)
  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • Eliza's Freedom Road: An Underground Railroad Diary by Jerdine Nolen (middle-grade)
It's tough to choose a favorite.  I absolutely loved Room by Emma Donoghue, but The Lovely Bones was excellent, too.  As for kids/teen books, Shiver was my favorite this month.

You can read my computer woes in the lack of links to reviews above.  That week without a computer really put me behind in writing reviews, though I'm trying to catch up.

At least my reading month was a good start to the year!  What were your favorites read in January?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Nonfiction Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey has been attracting a lot of attention for a slim volume with a rather narrow-sounding focus.  It is a memoir about the author’s illness but also, as the title suggests, a treatise on the life of a small snail.  That may sound dull at first, but the author is a very talented writer who brings her subject to vivid life on the page with captivating results.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey (a pseudonym to ensure the author’s needed privacy) has a very debilitating illness with no known cure nor any effective treatments.  I was especially interested in her book because I have the same illness, though not as severe as hers (it is an immune system disorder known in the United States by the euphemistic misnomer Chronic Fatigue Syndrome).  Having been struck ill very suddenly, as most of us are, Bailey found herself abruptly ripped from her normally active life and confined to her bed, unable to perform even the basic tasks of daily life. 

A friend brought her a pot of violets with an unexpected surprise: a small snail from the woods stuck in the pot that her friend thought she’d enjoy.  Her initial reaction was bewilderment:
Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail?  What on earth would I do with it?  I couldn’t get out of bed to return it to the woods.  It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility – especially for a snail, something so uncalled for – was overwhelming.

But the snail gradually wins her over, providing a tiny slice of living nature right at her bedside, engaging her mind and, as strange as it may sound, providing companionship.  She writes of the snail’s fascinating habits and compares its life with her own:
After being transported from the woods, the snail had emerged from its shell into the alien territory of my room, with no clue as to where it was or how it had arrived; the lack of vegetation and the desertlike surroundings must have seemed strange.  The snail and I were both living in altered landscapes not of our choosing; I figured we shared a sense of loss and displacement.

Her observations of the snail, fortified with facts she learned during later research, are presented in beautiful, poetic language alongside observations of her own restricted life.  It’s hard to describe, but the effect is fascinating and lyrical.  I was absolutely stunned by the loveliness of her prose, especially knowing intimately the limitations she was living with while she wrote.  She is an inspiration, not only to those of us also living with chronic illness, but to anyone who appreciates excellent writing and a good story.

170 pages, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible.


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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Top Ten Best Debut Books

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Today's topic is Top Ten Best Debut Books.  This took a little research, since I didn't always know whether a book was an author's first or not.  I made a list of some of my favorites, then looked on amazon to see if they were debuts.

Here we go, my favorites, in no particular order:
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - the best-ever one-hit wonder - I bet this one will be on everyone's list!
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • Mudbound by Hillary Jordan - I always found it fascinating that these two books (The Help and Mudbound), both by first-time authors, both set in early Mississippi and dealing with race relations, came out in the same year and were both so well-written.
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger - one of my favorite novels of all-time - I was blown away by it but less-than impressed with her second novel.
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova - I'm looking forward to her recently released second novel
  • Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden - with a first novel like this, who needs a second?
  • She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb - another novel that blew me away
  • Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Glidner, a fabulous memoir everyone in my book group loved
There were plenty of others I could have included, but those were all at the top of my list!

How about you.  Which debut books are your favorites?