Sunday, November 30, 2014

Weekend Cooking 11/30: Turkey & Wild Rice Soup

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

My college son got mono last weekend, so we had to cancel our plans to travel to spend Thanksgiving with family. By Wednesday, my husband was also sick with a bad respiratory virus. So, we had a very quiet Thanksgiving at home, with just my father-in-law as a guest. I cooked all the traditional foods, but the smallest turkey I could find was 11 pounds...for 5 of us!

We enjoyed the feast, as well as a dinner of left-overs on Friday, but by then my family was getting sick of the same old stuff, so I used our left-over turkey to make a nourishing soup for my sick family. I based it on the way my mother used to make homemade chicken noodle soup when I was a kid (I still have the basic instructions scribbled down in a strange short-hand in the back of an old recipe book!). Since we are eating a Paleo diet for medical reasons, I subbed wild rice (which is actually a grass, not a grain) for noodles, which turned out delicious. Here's the case you were wondering what to do with all that left-over turkey!

Turkey & Wild Rice Soup
(Serves 8)
This is a great way to use left-over turkey after the holidays when you tire of basic left-overs!

Left-over turkey pieces and/or carcass, skin removed *
Tops of celery with leaves
1 small onion, cut into quarters
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 teaspoons minced or crushed garlic
1 lb. carrots, sliced
32 oz. (2 cans or 1 carton) chicken broth **
2 cups cooked wild rice
1 teaspoon of sea salt (or to taste)
Fresh ground pepper, to taste

  1. Remove skin from turkey pieces and put in a large stockpot. Add the celery tops and quartered onion to the pot. Add cold water to cover the meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours.
  2. Drain contents of pot through a colander over a large bowl. Set broth aside and allow the meat in the colander to cool.
  3. When cool (it will be just right if you chop your veggies while waiting), sort through the meat in the colander. Discard bones, cartilage, and any other inedible pieces, as well as celery and onion. Chop the turkey meat.
  4. Sauté onion and celery in oil in stockpot over medium-high heat until soft.  Add garlic toward end of sauté.
  5. Add homemade broth, canned broth **, carrots, chopped turkey, wild rice, and seasoning.
  6. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

* The amount of turkey we had left-over included 2 wings, back, 1 leg, plus a few slices of white and dark meat. I removed the skin to reduce fat.

** Because I started with already-cooked turkey, my broth was a bit light on flavor, so I added the additional carton of store-bought chicken broth. If you start with uncooked turkey and cook the stock for a bit longer, then you probably won’t need the extra broth.

© Suzan L. Jackson 2014
(Do not reprint or publish without written permission from the author)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Middle-Grade Review: The Thing About Luck

National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata sat on my shelf for about a year. I chose it because our family had enjoyed another Kadohata novel, A Million Shades of Gray, on audio a few years back. I’m sorry I waited so long to read this one – it’s a warm, funny story about growing up among the clash of two cultures and about learning to make your own luck.

Twelve-year old narrator Summer begins the novel by telling us about the year her family had nothing but bad luck. She got a rare case of malaria, her grandmother’s back pain worsened considerably, her younger brother, Jaz (who seems to be autistic), lost his only friend, and their parents had to travel to Japan for the summer to care for elderly relatives who were dying. That left Summer and Jaz in the care of their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Their sixty-seven year old grandparents preferred a more Japanese/less American approach to life, so changes were made as soon as they got back from the airport.

Summer’s Kansas family worked every summer as custom harvesters, traveling from Texas north to the Dakotas, following the wheat harvest. With her parents away, her grandparents had to come out of retirement so that the bills would still get paid. The plan was for Jiichan (her grandfather) to drive a combine, while Obaachan would get hired as the cook for the harvesting crew, with Summer as her helper. The kids had gone on harvest with their parents before, but this year would be different.

I absolutely loved this book – its National Book Award was well deserved. It’s set against a fascinating background, as Summer explains how custom harvesting works (something I’d never even heard of before) and narrates their adventures that summer. Summer is a wonderful pre-teen narrator, struggling to find her way in her world and help her brother make friends. The highlight of the book, though, is Summer’s grandparents, whose broken English and insistent ways often made me laugh out loud. Here’s a passage from the beginning of the novel, on the day Summer’s parents left, as her grandparents put into action their plan for finding Jaz some new friends:
“We having meeting-party,” she announced regally. “We invite boys we will consider for friendship with Jaz.” She turned to me. “Make list with him. I no interfere.”

“A list of people to invite?” I asked. My Doberman, Thunder, tried to push himself between me and the table. I pushed back, and we just sat there, leaning hard into each other.

“No! A list!” she snapped at me.

Wasn’t that what I had just said? I finally got up and moved to a different side of the table. Still unsure what she wanted, I got a pen and paper.

“Pencil! You may need to erase.”

I got a pencil and readied myself. “Should I number the list? I asked.

My grandfather nodded sagely. “Agenda,” he said. “List for boys we invite, agenda for party.”

“No interfere!” Obaachan said to Jiichan.

“You interfere first!”

This warm, humorous tone permeates the entire novel, even when things get difficult for Summer. Eventually, she will have to make some difficult decisions and take responsibility for making her own luck. It is an absolutely delightful novel, realistically rendered, about the challenges of growing up, while taking care of yourself and the people you care about. Highly recommended.

270 pages, Atheneum

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


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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Nonfiction Review: One Summer: America, 1927

We are big fans of Bill Bryson at our house. His memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, was outstanding – informative, warm, and hilariously funny. So, when I heard about his latest book, One Summer: America, 1927, I was looking forward to reading it. I was glad when one of my book groups chose it for our November selection. Turns out, though, that I had a strange like-hate relationship with this book!

The concept for this nonfiction book is unique: Bryson focuses on one summer in American history, 1927, when a lot of interesting, historic, record-breaking things happened within a few months’ time. So far, so good. The chapters of the book run from May through September, each one covering a month’s events (roughly – there’s a lot of overlap), with one particular focus for each:
May: The Kid (Charles Lindbergh)
June: The Babe (Babe Ruth)
July: The President (Calvin Coolidge)
August: The Anarchists
September: Summer’s End 
It was definitely a fascinating time in America. Lindbergh made history by being the first pilot to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Babe Ruth set a record for 60 home runs in a single season. The Mississippi River flooded and sent a wave of destruction across the middle states that still has not been outdone today. The gangster Al Capone controlled Chicago. The first “talking pictures” arrived in movie theaters, forever changing the world of cinema. And the seeds of the upcoming Great Depression were sown.

It’s a lot of ground to cover in a single book, and that is both the attraction and the problem. The book is packed full of fascinating facts, but there is a bit too much there to wade through. His organization of the book – by month – is another problem because events don’t unfold simply like that but are convoluted and develop over time. The result is a book that rambles quite a bit, jumping from one topic to the next at a rapid-fire pace that sometimes makes your head spin. As an example, in the first section, he starts out with Charles Lindbergh aiming to cross the Atlantic. He plans to land in Paris, so that takes Bryson off on a tangent about the American Ambassador to France. He happened to be going to a tennis match the day Lindbergh arrived, so then he goes off on another path, all about the tennis match and the players in it.

My husband laughed at me because I alternated between complaining about the book and reading interesting facts and tidbits out loud to him! So, yes, it’s frustrating and too long, but it’s also fascinating at times. I missed my book group meeting due to illness and had to decide whether or not to finish the book. I waffled back and forth on that – itching for some fast-paced fiction – but ultimately, I did keep reading right until the end of the Epilogue. I definitely learned a lot, but it was a struggle at times.

Our book group mostly felt the same way I did about it – that it was interesting but also too long and jumped around too much. Most people enjoyed the beginning the most and lost patience as they got further into the book. Some skimmed after a while. I find that really hard to do (I suppose it’s the perfectionist in me), but I did start skipping the boxing and baseball sections at some point. The average rating out of 10 in our group was around 6.5. There was one person in the group who rated it a 10 – the only one who’d actually been alive in 1927! She enjoyed reliving her childhood and remembering those momentous events.

458 pages of text and another 50-some of notes at the end, Doubleday

NOTE: If you want to read Bryson at his best, try The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Monday, November 24, 2014

It's Monday 11/24! What Are You Reading?

Our household is in a tizzy, rushing to change our plans for this holiday week. Our college son came home Saturday night with a high fever and severe sore throat. We took him to Urgent Care Sunday, and it turns out he has mono, which is especially difficult and potentially dangerous for him, on top of his chronic immune disorder. We had to cancel our plans to travel to my hometown, Rochester, NY, this week to spend time with our family. We were going to stay with my Dad who is undergoing chemo for stage 4 melanoma, so it's particularly important that we stay clear of him for now (besides the fact that our son is no shape to travel). Living with chronic illnesses, we are used to having to change plans at the last minute, but this is a major Plan B moment!

So, we'll be staying home for Thanksgiving weekend, probably watching a lot of TV and movies to keep our son's spirits up, and of course, reading a lot! Here's what we've been reading this past week:
  • I finished Haunters by Thomas Taylor, a teen/YA novel about a group of teens that can time travel via their dreams. It was entertaining but not outstanding.
  • Now, I am reading my next book group pick, for my online family book group, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, a book I have wanted to read for years. It's very good so far.
  • I am still listening to The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi, a teen/YA thriller. The first half was very good - mysterious and fast-paced - but the second half is dragging and getting a bit preachy. I'm almost finished.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This is one of our son's all-time favorites.
  • Jamie, 20, now home sick, finished The Drowning City by Amanda Downum, Necromancer Chronicles Book 1.
  • Now, Jamie's reading Midnight Thief by Livia Blackburn. He left his Kindle in his apartment at school, so we'll have to run down to get that for him.
I managed quite a few blog posts last week:
Review of On a Clear Day by Walter Dean Myers, a teen/YA novel

Review of City of Light, City of Dark by Avi and Brian Floca, a middle-grade graphic novel

Summary of Books Read in October

Saturday Snapshot, with the last signs of fall in our neighborhood

Weekend Cooking, with several weeknight meals full of flavor!
What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.   

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Weekend Cooking 11/23

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

I missed posting last week - weekends tend to be busy with family time here. So, I'll go back two weeks today and just focus on some of our best meals. We have still been using up the last of our CSA veggies, so winter vegetables like bok choy, cauliflower, and cabbage figured prominently in our dinners (until my husband said, "No more cruciferous vegetables - my stomach needs a break!").

If you stopped by here two weeks ago, you may recall that I was having to get creative with bok choy, as there was a glut of it at the end of the season. I discovered another new and delicious recipe, Vietnamese Beef-Noodle Soup with Asian Greens. The recipe is a simple one that goes together in under 30 minutes - perfect for weeknights - but the list of ingredients is long and unusual. I left a few things out - couldn't find bean sprouts or fresh basil in any local store this time of year, left out star anise because I hate the taste of anise, and subbed powdered ginger for the fresh because my husband doesn't like too much ginger (unless it's in cookies or cake! lol). There was still plenty of flavor left! The unusual flavors combine beautifully to make a tasty soup. And don't skip the fresh mint on top - it's delicious.

On a freezing cold night this week, I decided to make a nice hot pot of soup. My son was having a friend over for dinner, so I chose something my son likes that I thought would appeal to teens, Rachel Ray's Sausage and Broccoli Rabe Stoup. I threw the Paleo diet out the window and included the pasta, as directed (though most of mine went into my son's bowl) and subbed chopped baby spinach for the broccoli rabe because my son doesn't like rabe much. It's a delicious soup...however, my son's friend explained that he doesn't like "wet foods"! Huh? We've served a lot of picky eaters here over the years, but that's a a new one! So, we enjoyed the delicious soup, and he picked out pieces of pasta and sausage (then my son finished off his soup).

We had a vegetarian meal this week when it was just my husband and I that is a favorite of mine because it is so packed full of flavor. I combined two side dishes into a full meal. The first was Lentils with Carrots, a simple Cooking Light recipe (of course) with a short list of basic ingredients: sliced carrots, lentils, chopped onion, water, and finished with a tablespoon of butter (that adds so much flavor!). Paired with that, we had Curried Cauliflower with Capers, my favorite roast cauliflower recipe. With capers, lemon, curry powder, and fresh parsley, this dish is just bursting with vibrant flavors. I had left-overs of these two dishes for my next two lunches and enjoyed them just as much!

Last night, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner at a local Malaysian restaurant with friends. The food was delicious. We had four different dishes to share, and each one was unique and wonderful.

The "no wet foods" boys is coming for dinner again tonight, so we are having a very basic (dry!) Sunday dinner, with baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, and green beans.

Hope you are enjoying wonderful food this weekend!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday Snapshot 11/22

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

It was frigid here this week, as it was in most parts of the country, but I did manage to bundle up and take a walk around the neighborhood yesterday. Here are some pics of the last gasping breaths of fall - I hate to see it go! All that gorgeous color is just about gone now, though there are still beautiful sights outdoors:

Last leaves clinging to the maple tree that was bright red last week!

A few leaves still hanging on

My shadow among the fallen leaves (I'm wearing a parka, hence the weird shape!)

Bright red maple leaf among the grass

Bare branches against a blue sky

A few red leaves left on bare branches in our yard

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Books Read in October

Wow, October was an amazing reading month for me! With Halloween, I focused on spooky, creepy books, though not exclusively. Here's what I read in October:

  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (MO), chilling thriller (thought I'd written that review!)
  • Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel, middle-grade graphic novel
  • Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Switzerland), classic fiction

  • The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm, middle-grade audio book novel
  • Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (WA), nonfiction
  • Uncaged: The Singular Menace by John Sanford & Michelle Cook (OR/CA), teen/YA audio book thriller

Wow, 12 books in one month! That is definitely a record for me. There were lots of audios and a couple of quickie graphic novels, so that helped. I usually one read about six books in a month. Lots of variety  here - 3 adult novels, one nonfiction, 4 middle-grade, and 4 teen/YA novels. I listened to a whopping 5 audio books in October! My favorite for the month? Tough one. I think Sharp Objects comes out on top, but it's a close race. I thought I'd almost finished my October reviews, but then I discovered I'd forgotten a couple of books on my list!

With all those books, I only added 3 new states and 1 new country to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 this month. I read 4 more books from my TBR shelves for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge but have still only read 12 TBR books this year - they just keep piling up! I listened to five more audio books for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge for a total of 21 so far this year - I am rocking that one! I added one nonfiction book to my Nonfiction Reading Challenge and one book for The Classics Reading Challenge. And for my new Travel the World in Books Challenge, just started in September, I read one more book.

What was your favorite book(s) read in October? 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: City of Light, City of Dark

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have been exploring graphic novels lately, delving into those in a wide variety of story types. So, I plucked City of Light, City of Dark by Avi and Brian Floca off my shelf, where it had been sitting for a long time. It’s a fantasy story set in the real-life world of New York City.

The book starts out with a fable-like backstory of mysterious beings called Kurbs, who are the owners of both the island of Manhattan and the power to control light and dark. As the story goes, humans are just renting the island from the Kurbs, and in order to maintain power and light, they must perform a ritual once a year, by noon on December 21, to discover a small subway token that holds the power that the Kurbs have hidden. Responsibility for this awesome task was given to a woman and has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Basically, all of this is something of a fable to explain why the light (i.e. length of days) continually decreases from June through December, until December 21 when it begins to grow again.

Every fable and fantasy has its bad guy, and here, that is Thor Underton, a neon sign artist whose creations grow ever bigger, requiring more and more power (yes, here, the quest for power is literal). Underton is desperate to find the Kurb’s source of power so that he can build the biggest neon light creation ever. He is aided by his meek assistant, Theodore Bitner. Having rescued Theo from the streets when he was young, Underton has a lot of control over Theo, who would do anything for his boss. Theo is sent to follow the young woman whom Underton believes to be the current one responsible for searching for the special token, but Theo falls in love with the beautiful Asterel and marries her.

From there, the story continues, with an epic battle between Underton and Asterel, with the power-hungry man trying to get the magic token. By mistake, a young boy named Carlos finds it, and ends up in the middle of this struggle, along with Theo’s daughter, Estella. It’s a classic good vs. evil fantasy tale, with Underton becoming more and more evil and developing special powers, and the reader rooting for the kids to keep away from him and save the day (literally).

It’s a good story, even though fantasy isn’t a favorite genre of mine. It’s creative, with interesting characters, and the black and white illustrations are expertly drawn by Brian Floca. My one quibble with the story was that Theo made some decisions to side with Underton, against the wife whom he loved, which didn’t seem realistic to me. I know – it’s fantasy not romance! But I still like my human characters to act in believable ways. Other than that one small complaint, it’s an action-packed, intriguing story that should be enjoyed by fantasy fans of all ages.

186 pages, Graphix (imprint of Scholastic)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Teen/YA Review: On a Clear Day

I have a confession to make. Before I read this book, I’d never heard of Walter Dean Myers, who is apparently a well-known and beloved author of over 100 children’s/YA books. Shame on me. So, On a Clear Day was the first Walter Dean Myers book I’ve read (I listened to it on audio) and the last one he wrote, published posthumously after his death in July.

Dahlia is a young Latina girl living in the near future, in 2035, at a time when eight huge corporations, known as C-8, control all resources. The world is strictly divided into haves and have-nots. Gaters live in gated communities to keep them safe, and favelos are the poor, many of whom are homeless and get by through crime. Dahlia is a Gater but just barely; she lives in a poor gated community in the Bronx, with little real protection aside from its fence and elderly guards. Dahlia is an orphan who lives in a tiny apartment by herself, surrounded by kind neighbors who look out for her and for each other.

Dahlia’s life changes drastically when two young men show up looking for her. Michael is a former rock star, and Javier is a disabled computer whiz in a wheelchair. They seem to be an odd pair, but common goals have brought them together and led them to seek out Dahlia. She wrote an article about computer projections a few years ago, and they need a math expert to round out their team. They invite Dahlia to join them at a world conference, made up of people who want to see things change in the world.

Their team of teens/young people also includes Drego, Tristan, Mei Mei, and Anja, each of whom has his or her own unique skills. Together, they make up the unofficial U.S. delegation that is attending this conference in London. They meet with other teams, made up of equally youthful delegates, and discuss the current state of the world and how they might somehow take some power back from the C-8. Later, back in the U.S., they gather more information and plan an incident designed to bring attention to their issues that ultimately turns violent.

This was an odd book in many ways. It’s a very thoughtful dystopian story, with obvious parallels drawn to our own world (after all, it’s only 20 years in the future), but perhaps it’s too obvious. Myers is clearly trying to make some points about the dangers in our world – about corporate power and the increasing gap between poor and rich – but he’s kind of heavy-handed with his messages. The first two-thirds (or more) of the book is all talk and little action, which might be off-putting to some teens.  There are long passages of young people debating lofty topics and a lot of talk of mathematical modeling (Dahlia’s specialty).

I tried to just go along for the ride, but I also had some trouble with believability. Although the story is set in a very real, gritty world, the situations involving the young people often felt implausible. For instance, this conference of rebels takes place in a luxury hotel in downtown London (odd to begin with), and Dahlia is whisked from her just-scraping-by existence to a world of first-class airfare and luxury hotels (presumably, the ex-rock star is paying for everything) with scarcely any notice. She settles into her expensive suite – which is much larger than her apartment at home – as if that’s a normal thing for her to do.

Overall, I tried to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the story, and I did, to some extent. Myers’ writing style in this novel is somewhat rambling, though, and the story often felt disjointed. It feels somewhat undeveloped and ends rather abruptly, just when you feel like you are getting into it. However, the world he’s created is easy to imagine based on some of the flaws in our own world, and his primary message – that anyone can make a difference if they work together – is a hopeful one.

NOTE: I keep hearing great things about Myers and would love to read one of his better books. Let me know what your favorite Walter Dean Myers’ books are.

Listening Library

Monday, November 17, 2014

It's Monday 11/17! What Are You Reading?

It's a cold, dark, wet day outside my window - not loving November so far! Last week was super busy (yes, again!), but I finally managed to write two reviews during the week. Of course, we always make time for reading - here's what we read last week:
  • I finally finished Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927, a nonfiction book that I started for one of my book groups. I considered setting it down several times but ended up sticking with it to the very end. It's an interesting book, filled with fascinating facts about American history (I think my husband's getting sick of hearing me quote facts!), but it does run too long, and it feels like he packed a bit too much into it. Full review to come.
  • After reading two long nonfiction books in a row, I was ready for some light reading! I chose Haunters by Thomas Taylor, a teen/YA novel about a group of teens that can time travel via their dreams. It's good so far - and fast-paced for a change!
  • I finished listening to Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson on audio. It's a memoir written in verse and is being marketed as a middle-grade children's book, but it's one of those unique books that will be enjoyed by all ages. Wow. I just can't say enough about this book. It's a wonderful story of growing up in the 60's and 70's, her family torn between the north and the south, but it's her writing that really makes it special. Just an amazing book. Review to come.
  • Now, I am listening to The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi, a teen/YA thriller. I'm not far enough into it yet to know much about the story, but it's good so far - fast-paced and intriguing.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, a book I had been recommending to him for years. He enjoyed it very much (who hasn't?).
  • Last night, Ken was having trouble choosing his next book to read, so he took a recommendation from our college son who was home for the night and started The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This is one of our son's all-time favorites.
I posted the following last week:
Review of Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang, a teen/YA novel

Review of The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a nonfiction book

Saturday Snapshot, with photos of our last burst of brilliant fall color here

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.   

Sunlight filtering through brightly colored leaves

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Snapshot 11/15

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

I was still fairly sick this week (some chronic problems still flaring up), but I managed a short walk around my neighborhood on Monday to enjoy the lovely fall weather (before the temp dropped 20 degrees!) and the last of the bright colors. Last week, I posted pictures of bare branches at our local nature center. These pics today were taken in my neighborhood, just a couple of miles away from the nature center - we still have a lot of colorful leaves here! I just love this last brilliant pop of color at the end of fall:

Brilliant red and yellow

Plenty of color left here!

Sunlight filtering through bright leaves

Yellow, green, and red together

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nonfiction Review: The Boys in the Boat

I’d heard plenty of great reviews of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it because I rarely read nonfiction (other than memoirs). My neighborhood book group chose it for our October selection, and I ended up enjoying it very much. Across all members of our group, this book received our highest rating ever!

Although the title and subtitle refer to nine young men who rowed crew for the University of Washington in the 1930’s, the book focuses in particular on one of those “boys”, Joe Rantz. Joe had a difficult childhood, to say the least, and was supporting himself by the time he was just fourteen. By the time he enrolled at UW in 1933, the six-foot-two boy had already worked hard for much of his life and was struggling to pay his own way through college. He tried out for the popular crew team, along with many other boys. Joe had never rowed in his life, but a spot on the respected team would guarantee him a part-time job on campus.

Joe was not entirely unusual among the boys that came down to the lake for try-outs that day and made the freshman team. Most were the sons of farmers, fishermen, and loggers, and in the midst of the Great Depression, almost everyone was struggling to pay the bills. Few of them had experience rowing, so the seasoned and well-respected crew coaches had their work cut out for them. The coaches and the boys both worked hard, and – bit by bit – this freshman team shaped up into something truly amazing. First they had to learn the difficult sport (and art) of rowing as a nine-person perfectly synchronized team, and then, by spring, they had to take on the elite rowing teams of the eastern Ivy League schools, made up of wealthy boys who had grown up rowing crew.

There aren’t really any spoilers here to give away – the subtitle tells you how the story ends! – but as my friend pointed out, it’s amazing how suspenseful the book is to read even though you know how it ends. Chapters alternate between the present – the boys trying out for the team, practicing, and competing – and Joe’s past, starting from his childhood and moving forward gradually to his time at UW. As I said, the book is about the whole UW rowing team(s), but there is a special focus on Joe.

I thought I might get bored reading an entire book about rowing, but that storyline, following one boy from horrible childhood challenges to eventual victory, helped to keep the story interesting and moving quickly. In addition, the UW team was clearly the underdog, both in national competitions and the 1936 Olympics. They faced significant challenges to success, but the boys who made up that historic team were all good at heart and hard-working, which makes you root all the harder for them throughout the book.

It’s a fascinating story, sprinkled through with interesting facts about life in the 1930’s (and earlier), both daily life for regular people, as well as the more historic events taking place, like the Depression and the beginning of the Dust Bowl. Everyone in our book group enjoyed it (a feat in itself!), and many people rated it a 9 or 10 out of 10. This inspirational story of the ragtag rowing team that took the world by storm easily kept the attention of this fiction reader.

370 pages, Viking

NOTE: I started reading this book on my Kindle but eventually switched to a hardcover from the library. The book is illustrated throughout with photographs, both from Joe’s life and of the rowing team, and I kept wanting to go back and look at certain photos, which I find easier to do with a traditional book.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Teen/YA Review: Falling Into Place

 I recently listened to first-time author Amy Zhang’s new teen/YA novel, Falling Into Place. It’s a unique story about bullying from the perspective of the bully that starts at the end and gradually fills in what led to that point. To make it even more intriguing, there is a mysterious narrator whose identity only gradually becomes known

Liz Emerson, her head full of Newton’s Laws of Motion that she has been learning in physics class, drives her Mercedes off the road and into a tree to put an end to her misery. That’s how this captivating novel begins. A mysterious omniscient narrator starts there and takes the reader slowly backwards in time, to gradually tell us about the life of Liz Emerson and how she got to this point. We meet Liz’s best friends, Kennie and Julia, Liz’s mom, and even Liam, the boy who Liz made fun of in 7th grade, with devastating consequences for both of them. In fact, Liz made fun of a lot of people and along the way became the most popular girl in her high school class.

We gradually learn Liz’s backstory and go back and forth in time to see how she became the way she is – what happened to her and what she did to others.  This novel is all about cause and effect, and it’s fascinating to see the story gradually spool out, as more becomes clear. Meanwhile, Liz barely clings to life in a hospital room, surrounded by her weeping classmates. Throughout the novel, there are brief snapshots of moments in the far past with Liz as a little girl, always accompanied by the mystery narrator.

This is a clever and heartfelt novel, combining powerful emotions with physics and consequences, as we learn, bit by bit, how Liz got to the point where she decided to end her life. Amazingly, I came to feel some sympathy for the main character who at first seemed to be a typical spoiled mean girl, as the layers were slowly peeled away to reveal the true person underneath and how she came to feel trapped by her life and her choices.

I thought it was incredible how well Zhang got inside the mind of a high school girl and characterized the details of life for a modern teenager…until I found out that she wrote this novel when she herself was just a junior in high school! I listened to this wonderful podcast interview on Bookrageous with her (as well as an interview with A.S. King) and really enjoyed learning the backstory about how she wrote her first novel at such a young age (but I recommend you read the book first and then listen to the interview, especially if at the end, you are still unsure about the narrator!).

I listened to this novel on audio, and it was very well done, with the engaging reader pulling me right into the story. Zhang is now a freshman in college, taking English and writing classes like any other student when she is already an accomplished YA author. She said she recently turned in her manuscript for her second book to her publisher, and I can’t wait to read it!

304 pages, Greenwillow Books
HarperCollins Audio

NOTE: This book is best for older teens and young adults, as it tackles some difficult and serious issues, like alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and, of course, suicide.


Monday, November 10, 2014

It's Monday 11/10! What Are You Reading?

My husband and I did something really amazing this weekend: we relaxed! Our weekends are usually hectic and busy, with school, soccer, and trying to get to the items on our to-do lists that we missed during the week. This weekend, my son was away, so we just chilled out and did some things we haven't managed in ages: we went on a hike together Saturday morning, we started a jigsaw puzzle (it's been years since we've done that!), and we spontaneously called some friends to meet us for dinner Saturday night. My to-do list is still here, but it was wonderful to just enjoy the weekend for a change!

And, of course, we did plenty of reading, too:
  • I'm still reading Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927, a nonfiction book that I started for one of my book groups, though I didn't feel well enough to make the meeting last week. I'm torn on this one. I normally love Bryson's books, but this one is lacking his usual sense of humor and almost TOO filled with information. I keep thinking I should just set it aside...but then I keep reading. My husband says I alternate between complaining to him about the book and reading passages out loud to him! So, I am still reading.
  • I also started - and finished - Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, a middle-grade graphic novel, another memoir-style book (like Smile) based on her own relationship with her sister during a long road trip when they were kids. It was excellent, as all of her books seem to be!
  • I started a new audio book, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. It's a memoir written in verse and is being marketed as a middle-grade children's book, but it's one of those unique books that will be enjoyed by all ages. I'm not much of a poetry fan and would normally have passed on this one, but I kept hearing rave reviews. So far, it is absolutely amazing - powerful, warm, and moving.
  • My husband, Ken, read Personal by Lee Child, his favorite author, in record time and loved it.
  • Ken is now (finally) reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, a book I have been recommending to him for years. He seems to be enjoying it.
  • I assume that Craig, 16, is still reading The Crucible by Arthur Miller for his American Lit class - I haven't seen him in a few days!

I only managed one review last week (still trying to catch up!), but I squeezed in another couple of posts this weekend:
Review of Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel, a middle-grade graphic novel

Saturday Snapshot, with a few pics of a late-fall hike at our local nature center

Weekend Cooking, with several recipes for tasty family dinners using fall produce

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.   

Covered bridge & lovely stream at our nature center