Monday, May 28, 2012

It's Monday 5/28! What Are You Reading?

Happy Memorial Day!  These Monday holidays always feel strange, to not have to get up to the alarm and run around first thing on a Monday morning - not that I'm complaining!  My younger son has been in Connecticut with his grandparents this weekend, and my husband, older son, and I have been taking it easy, trying to recover a bit from our hectic weeks.  And there is lots more to come!  This week, we have a raft of school functions, leading up to Jamie's high school graduation on Friday and Craig's "graduation" from middle school next Wednesday, accompanied by lots of family visits!

So, not a lot of time for reading this week, but we all managed some:
  • I am almost...wait a minute...OK.  I have just now finished The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern.  This completely unique novel grew on me, pulled me in until I felt I was part of it and came to care about the characters.  I'm sorry it is over now.
  • I am still listening to Ghost Knight, a middle-grade novel by Cornelia Funke.  It's very good so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin and enjoying it.  He thinks our oldest son would probably like it, too.
  • Jamie, 17, has been reading Spiral by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, Book 5 of the Tunnels series.  He says the books just get better and better, and the authors have amazing imaginations!  I've only read the first one, so I will have to check out the rest of the series one of these days.
  • Craig, 14, has been reading Brian's Winter by Gary Paulsen, one of many sequels to The Hatchet, a favorite in our family.
I did finally find time to write a couple of reviews last week (while in medical waiting rooms!):  Faith by Jennifer Haigh, a hit with my book group, and the teen/YA novel Dead To You by Lisa McMann which I loved.

But the big news here is that I am hosting my first-ever reading challenge!  Big Book Summer Challenge is an easy, laid-back challenge perfect for the relaxed summer months, a chance to tackle one or more of the long books you've been meaning to read but never seem to find time for.  Check it out and sign up!  Here are my own big book goals for the summer.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kids/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

My Big Book Summer


I have just announced my first-ever hosted challenge, Big Book Summer Challenge, so I guess I should be the first to sign up!

I really enjoyed tackling some big books last summer, and I'm looking forward to doing it again and finally reading some of these bricks that have been collecting dust on my shelf!

I don't know if I will get to all of these, but I like to have some options to choose from.  These are all currently on my shelves, waiting patiently to be read:
  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King, 849 pages
  • Outlander by Diane Gabaldon, 850 pages
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, 562 pages
  • Blood Red Road by Moira Young, 459 pages
  • Sharp North by Patrick Cave, 518 pages
Those last two are teen/YA novels - I like to alternate between grown-up books and kids/teen books.  These are all books I've been meaning to read for a while.  We'll see how many of them I get to!

How about you?  Are you up for tackling a Big Book (or two) this summer?  Join me and sign up for the Big Book Summer Challenge!

Big Book Summer Challenge!


Last year, I came up with the idea to use the relaxed freedom of summer to tackle some of the biggest books on my TBR shelf that I'd been wanting to read but never seemed to have the time for.  Both of my book groups take time off during the summer, so with no interfering commitments, I declared it The Summer of the Big Book and really enjoyed delving into some hefty tomes, like The Passage and Pillars of the Earth.

It was so much fun that I thought I'd share the idea this summer and invite YOU to join me!

I have never hosted a challenge before, but I think I have figured out designing the button (see above) and how to add a links list (we'll see how this goes!) let's give this a try!

The Details:
Hey, it's summer, so we'll keep this low-key and easy!
  • Anything over 400 pages qualifies as a big book.
  • The challenge will run from Memorial Day weekend (yeah, I'm running a bit late already, but it's summer!) through Labor Day weekend.
  • Choose one or two or however many big books you want as your goal.
  • Choose from what's on your shelves already or a big book you've been meaning to read for ages or anything that catches your eye in the library - whatever peaks your interest!
  • Sign up on the links list below or on the Big Book Summer Challenge page.
  • Write a post to kick things off - you can list the exact big books you plan to read or just publish your intent to participate, but be sure to include the Big Book Summer Challenge pic above, with a link back to this blog.
  • Write a post to wrap up at the end, listing the big books you read during the summer.
  • You can write progress posts if you want to and/or reviews of the big books you've read...but you don't have to!  There will be a separate links list for big book review posts.
That's it!  Go check out your shelves and your TBR list and sign up below!

(Don't have a blog?  No problem!  You can still participate in the challenge - just leave a comment in the Comment section, stating your goals for the Big Book Summer Challenge.)

Be sure to include a link to your kick off blog post (not your homepage):

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fiction Review: Faith

Jennifer Haigh has become one of my favorite authors.  Years ago, my neighbor lent me Baker Towers, and, although it didn’t sound like something I’d like, I read it out of a sense of obligation.  I loved it so much that I convinced one of my book groups to select it…and then read it again!  I borrowed my mom’s copy of Mrs. Kimble and enjoyed that as well.  Last summer, I borrowed The Condition (from the same neighbor!) and became wrapped up in that story also.  Haigh has a talent for describing the intricate and complex relationships between family members through interesting and compelling stories.      
Faith is set in Boston during the peak of the priest molestation scandal in 2002.  Sheila McGann, brought up in an Irish Catholic family that she escaped years before to move to Philadelphia, tells her family’s story.  Her older brother, Art, chose the priesthood at age 14 and has lived happily within its confines for many decades.  His family is shocked when Art is accused of molesting a young boy, like so many of his colleagues.  Sheila hurries home to Boston to find out the truth about what happened, but she quickly realizes that truth is a complicated and elusive goal.    
Art doesn’t answer Sheila’s questions directly and doesn’t defend himself the way that Sheila thinks he should.  Their younger brother, Mike, who barely knew Art as a child, seems to believe the accusations and makes moves to shield his own sons from Art.  Sheila’s mother just wants to pretend that none of this is happening.  As Sheila digs deeper into the details of what’s been going on since she left town – and discovers some long-held secrets within her family – the truth seems even more complex than she ever could have imagined.
Merely describing the plot doesn’t do any of Haigh’s books justice because they delve into the intricacies of family life.  Faith is no different; it is about truth and loyalty, love and family, and of course, faith.  As with The Condition, this new novel also deals with family secrets and the tendency of family members not to communicate with each other, in spite of their love.  It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book filled with insights into family relationships and spiked with suspense and surprises.  Faith is an excellent choice for book groups; our neighborhood group delved into its complexities for hours.    

318 pages, HarperCollins  

Faith by Jennifer HaighTrade Paperback

Monday, May 21, 2012

It's Monday 5/21! What Are You Reading?

Our crazy, hectic season continues!  Last week was a rough one for me - my husband was away on business, my mom came to visit, my son finished high school, more houseguests came for the weekend, and my younger son had the lead in his school musical!  We went to both shows, Friday and Saturday night, and Craig did an outstanding job as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance (check out his photo below).  Lots of activity and excitement for all of us!

So, I had no time at all for reading blogs last week or for writing my own reviews or blog posts.  None of us had much reading time, either, though I squeezed in a bit in doctor's waiting rooms last week:
  • I finished the teen/YA novel Dead To You by Lisa McMann in record time.  I could hardly bear to set it down - it was absolutely compelling and original, about a teen boy who is returned to his family at 16, after being abducted at 9, and the conflicts that arise as he tries to readjust to his long-lost family.  Amazing book.
  • Now I am reading The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern, a novel I borrowed from my mom a few months ago and have been dying to read.  It's a very strange book - unique and magical - but I am becoming immersed in its characters and plot.
  • I started a new audio book last week, Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke, a middle-grade novel about a British boy away at boarding school for the first time who encounters murderous ghosts and must enlist the help of a ghost knight to help fend them off.  It's very good so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones.  He says the beginning is very confusing, with dozens of different characters to keep track of; he's appreciating the lists and charts at the end!
  • Jamie, 17, finished re-reading an old favorite, Peter Raven Under Fire by Michael Molloy, a middle-grade pirate adventure.
  • Jamie also re-read The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima, Book 3 of the Seven Realms series.  He loves this series and can't wait for the release of The Crimson Crown this fall!
  • Craig, 14, finished Attack of the Fiend, Book 4 in The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney.  He needs to read one more book before the end of the school year - I'm not sure what he's chosen for his next one.
As I said, no time for writing reviews or other blog posts last week.  Hopefully, things will be a bit less hectic this week!

What are you and your family reading this week?

What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey with a kids/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.

Craig as Frederic (in the striped shirt) in The Pirates of Penzance.

Monday, May 14, 2012

It's Monday 5/14! What Are You Reading?

Just another Manic Monday...

Life continues to be insanely busy, as we hurtle toward the end of the school year and graduation.  Last week, we had play rehearsals, doctor's appointments, physical therapy, soccer, school, and Craig's 8th Grade Semi-Formal Dance (see photo below).  I enjoyed a lovely Mother's Day yesterday - just a quiet day at home with my family (we are usually traveling to spend the weekend with my mom, but she's coming down this week instead).  My husband and sons cooked breakfast for me, gave me flowers and gifts, and took me out for a very nice dinner.  And I finally had some time to start planning our vacation (which is good because it's less than a month away!)  Up this week...lots of houseguests, more doctor's appointments, book group, and Craig's musical (he has the lead in Pirates of Penzance).

So...busy, busy, busy.  Our books provide a brief respite from all the activity:
  • I finished Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight and really enjoyed the warm and tender coming-of-age novel for middle-grade readers and teens.  You can read my review here.
  • I also finished Leisl and Po by Lauren Oliver, a wonderful audio book, read by Jim Dale, about a girl who befriends a ghost.
  • I just finished reading Faith by Jennifer Haigh for this week's neighborhood book group.  Haigh is one of my favorite authors, and this novel did not disappoint.  It's about a family's reaction when their son/brother, a Catholic priest, is accused of molesting a young boy during the flurry of such accusations in Boston about ten years ago.  It is haunting and thought-provoking.
  • Last night, I started a new teen/YA novel, Dead to You by Lisa McMann.  I loved McMann's Wake trilogy and her novel, Cryer's Cross.  Although I just started it, this novel about an abducted teen returned to his family after 9 years, already has me in its grip.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson and enjoyed the psychological thriller about a woman with amnesia.
  • Ken is now reading A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, a gift I gave him for Easter.  Neither of us have read this popular series (or watched its spin-off TV show), but I thought it sounded like something he'd really like.  He says it is very complicated, with lots of characters, so it takes a while to get into, but he's enjoying it so far.
  • Jamie, 17, finished re-reading The Exiled Queen, Book 2 in the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams, one of his new favorites.
  • While he is waiting for Book 3 from the library, Jamie picked up another old favorite, Peter Raven Under Fire by Michael Molloy, a middle-grade pirate adventure that he has probably read at least four times before!  This is his version of comfort food.
  • Craig, 14, is almost finished with Attack of the Fiend, Book 4 in The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney.  He loves this series!
I managed to write two book reviews last week:  Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson and Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight, a middle-grade/teen novel.  I also posted a clip from the news about Little Libraries, an idea I just loved!

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey with a kids/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.)

Craig and his friends ready for their semi-formal (Craig is in the middle, in black)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fiction Review: Before I Go To Sleep

I had heard great things about the psychological thriller Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, so I was excited when one of my book groups chose it for our May selection.  It more than fulfilled my expectations with mystery and suspense that kept me turning the pages way past my usual bedtime.

This novel with the unique peek-a-boo cover (you have to check this out!) also has a unique plot.  The main character, Christine, has a form of amnesia where she loses each day’s memories every night while she sleeps.  In fact, she can remember nothing of her life since the accident that caused her amnesia over 20 years ago.  So, she wakes up every morning, thinking she is twenty-something, not recognizing where she is or who is sleeping next to her.  Each morning, after a panicked run to the bathroom where she confronts a disturbingly older image in the mirror than she expected and dozens of photographs on the walls, her husband, Ben, patiently reminds her of who she is and who he is.

As you can imagine, it is a confusing and frustrating way to live.  Then, one morning, after her husband, Ben, has left for work, Christine gets a phone call from a doctor who explains that he has been working with her to restore her memory and that she has been keeping a journal hidden in her closet that will explain more.  Christine goes to the closet, finds the journal, and discovers that the first page says, “Don’t trust Ben.”

Chilling, right?  She is shocked by this self-warning not to trust the one person she is relying on for everything.  And that’s just the beginning!  Most of the novel is in the form of Christine’s journal that she has been adding to every day with reminders from her doctor, allowing herself to finally recall certain facts from one day to the next.  As brief flashes of memory begin to come back to her and each day’s journal entry builds on the last, an alarming pattern begins to emerge, indicating that Ben is lying to her about certain things.

The reader flips through each page as urgently as Christine herself does, learning more with each days’ entry as a sense of foreboding builds, until the novel’s nail-biting final scene.  This gripping novel makes you want to carry the book everywhere with you and rush through the pages.  It’s like the book version of a really clever and suspenseful movie (one reviewer compared it to Momento).  I enjoyed every minute of this book, as did the other members of my book group, and my husband, who picked it up as soon as I finished it! 

358 pages, HarperCollins

NOTE: Christine's form of amnesia is not merely a fictional construct; there really are people whose memory "resets" after a short period of time.  Oliver Sacks told of several such cases, including one man whose memory reset every 7 minutes, in his nonfiction book, Musicophilia, which I read last year.  It is truly fascinating (and horrifying).


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Little Libraries

I just read about Little Libraries in the AARP magazine (yes, I now read AARP - it's actually pretty good!).  This is a very cool project, providing mini "libraries" (aka book swap spots) for the community.

Here a news video about the project:

Doesn't this sound like fun?  I want to start a Little Library!

For more information, to find the location of Little Libraries, or for tips on starting your own, visit the Little Libraries website.

Monday, May 07, 2012

It's Monday 5/7! What Are You Reading?

Life is still insanely busy and rushing past at breakneck speed, but I did manage to do some catching up on my book blogs last week!

Despite the busy week, we all enjoyed some good books:
  • I finished Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, a unique thriller about a woman with amnesia that kept me captivated until the very last page.  Everyone in my book group enjoyed it, too.
  • I am now reading Dicey's Song, a middle-grade/teen novel by Cynthia Voight, part of her award-winning series about the Tillerman family.  The books have recently been re-released, and this is my first time reading any of them.  It is excellent - warm and real, about four siblings who have lost their mother and gone to live with their previously unknown grandmother in another state.
  • I am also still listening to Leisl and Po by Lauren Oliver on audio.  I am almost done (finally) with this excellent middle-grade novel about a girl and a ghost.
  • My husband, Ken, temporarily set aside The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman, a nonfiction book about World War II, so that he could read Before I Go To Sleep before it is due back to the library!  I think he is enjoying the unique suspense novel so far.
  • Jamie, 17, finished re-reading Maddigan's Fantasia by Margaret Mahy, one of his all-time favorite novels.  He and I are still reading lots of ancient Persian poetry and prose, trying to get him caught up in his World Lit class.  Not the most exciting stuff I've ever read.
  • When he needs a break from all his make-up schoolwork, Jamie is re-reading The Exiled Queen, Book 2 of The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima.
  • Craig, 14, is reading Book 4 of The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney, Attack of the Fiend.
As I said, I finally had the chance to catch up on reviews last week.  I posted:
What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a middle-grade/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.)

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Snapshot Saturday 5/5

At Home with Books hosts Saturday Snapshot

Happy Cinco de Mayo!  This is a photo of my 17-year old son and his date, ready to go to his senior prom last night.  My son has several serious chronic illnesses and spent much of this past year bedridden, so seeing him well enough to enjoy his prom last night meant so much to our family!  He lasted until about midnight and says he had a great time.

Today we are resting!

Hope you are all enjoying a good weekend.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Books Read in April

Are you freakin' kidding me?  May already?  That's just not possible.  From now until June, things will be insanely busy with end-of-school stuff, graduation stuff, soccer stuff, school play stuff, etc.  I enjoyed all the flowering trees in my neighborhood this month and also some great books:
  • The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart, a warm and light British novel read for a book group.
  • The Night of the Spadefoot Toads by Bill Harley, a middle-grade novel.
  • Ship Breaker by Paolo Bagocalupi, a teen/YA dystopian novel on audio.
  • Looking for Bobowicz by Daniel Pinkwater, a hilarious middle-grade audio that our family has listened to at least 4 times now!
  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, a wonderful novel (and I got to hear the author speak this month, too!).
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction last year.
 So, it was an all-fiction month, with two middle-grade novels, one teen/YA, and three grown-up novels.  I enjoyed all of them.  My favorite was Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet; it was so well-written, warm and tender, and set in a fascinating historical setting (the Japanese internment during World War II) - an all-around winner!  The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise was a close runner-up, with its great sense of humor.

I am behind in writing reviews but have been working to catch up this week.  Stay tuned!

As for my 2012 Reading Challenges, I added 4 new states to my Where Are You Reading Challenge (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Washington), plus 2 more books set in England (I've been on a British streak lately!), so I am now up to 16 different states and 4 different countries outside the US.  I added a third novel - Ship Breaker - to my Dystopian Challenge list.  I read nothing at all from my TBR shelf this month, so I need to get back to that in May.  And I read no memoirs, either.  I did add one title to my What's In a Name Challenge - I think spadefoot toads qualify as creepy-crawlies, don't you?

What were your favorite books read in April?

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Fiction Review: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise

Recently, my neighborhood book group read a novel that has been on my want-to-read list for a long time: The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.  This novel is an import from the UK that features warmth, romance, and a great sense of humor.

Balthazar Jones works as a guard in traditional dress (aka a Beefeater) at the Tower of London.  Like all Tower employees, he lives within the tourist attraction with his wife, Hebe, and their 181-year old tortoise (this is apparently true, that all Tower employees live within its walls).  All sorts of quirky characters live within this odd housing development: a bachelor minister who is secretly a popular author of erotica, the Ravenmaster who is cheating on his wife, the single owner of the Tower residents’ pub who has just found out she is pregnant, and more.  Into this eccentric mix is a new twist:  the Queen has decided to move her royal menagerie, featuring all sorts of exotic animals given to her as gifts from foreign leaders, to the Tower, and since Balthazar has taken such good care of his ancient tortoise, he is put in charge.

Hebe’s job is even more amusing.  She works at the London Underground’s Department of Lost Things, where she and her co-worker record each lost item as it is brought in, from false teeth (they currently have 457 sets!) to a locked safe to a life-sized inflatable doll, until someone comes to claim them.  This was my favorite part of the book, when Hebe was at work, surrounded by all of these ridiculous items, her story told in a straightforward way with that particular British knack for subtle (and not-so) humor.

However, this novel is not just about laughs (though there are plenty); it has considerable emotional depth.  Balthazar and Hebe recently lost their young son and are each grieving in their own way, becoming more and more distant from each other right when they each need the other the most.  Meanwhile, Reverend Septimus Drew desperately wants to be married and start his own family but doesn’t know how to approach the woman he is secretly in love with (yes, a bit of irony there since he is so adept at writing racy romances!). 

It’s a novel about relationships and love and marriage, about what brings people together and tears them apart, set amidst the silliness of the Tower’s new animal residents and the outrageous items brought into Hebe’s workplace.  Stuart seamlessly blends humor and tenderness into a story that is both light and earnest.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and have been recommending it to both my American and British friends.  Just writing about it now makes me want to read it again!

304 pages, Doubleday

NOTE:  The novel was originally published in the UK under the title Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo.

Although the book was republished for an American audience, it retains its unique British voice.  Several times while reading it, I had to quiz my online UK friends on various terms (though not so much that it interfered with my enjoyment of the book).  In case you were wondering,  a swede in the UK is what we call a rutabaga here, and it is apparently enjoyed by bearded pigs.


Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Fiction Review: The Sense of an Ending

I heard discussions of Julian Barnes’ slim novel, The Sense of an Ending, on two of my favorite book podcasts, Books on the Nightstand and The Readers.  The novel won the Man Booker Prize for fiction last year and was attracting a lot of attention.  Although my reading is normally somewhat regulated – by review books, book club selections, books sitting on my TBR shelf, etc. – after the podcasts, I went right to my library’s website and requested the novel.  I enjoyed getting to read a recommended book right away (instead of watching it sit on my TBR list for years!), and I enjoyed the novel very much.

Tony Webster is a middle-aged British man who sees himself as very average, perhaps even dull, having lived an average life and enjoying an average retirement.  In an effort to understand a friend’s unexpected death and a very odd inheritance left to him by an acquaintance he didn’t even know very well, Tony looks back over his life, trying to make sense of this puzzling new information from his past that has just come to light.  He starts with high school, remembering certain key events that he realizes in hindsight may have had repercussions far into the future.  He goes back through his life, recalling key events and things he thought were insignificant at the time, trying to sift through his memories and understand how things led where they did.

It is a thought-provoking novel, as Tony ponders the meaning of time:

We live in time – it holds us and molds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it well…. I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.  Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

And he also recalls the musings of a friend in History class on the paradoxes of memory:

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

And this last quote is at the heart of the novel and Tony’s reflections.  Can his memory be relied upon as accurate?  Did events occur as he remembers?  How did the perceptions of his friends differ from his own?  Despite this philosophical bent and the definite characteristics of “literary fiction,” the novel moves along at a nice pace and is very engaging.  There is even a bit of suspense, as Tony attempts to unravel the mysteries of the past and his role in it.  I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel and would love to read more from Barnes. The award was well-deserved.

163 pages, Alfred A. Knopf