Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fiction Review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

I am a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s novels – each has such unique plots and characters and no two are alike. I have read and enjoyed The Night Strangers, Midwives, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Double Bind. So, it’s about time that I finally got to read his 2014 release, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. My husband gave it to me for Christmas last year! It was worth the wait, a compelling novel about an orphaned teen trying to survive after the disaster that took her parents.

Emily was a normal teen girl living in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, going to school, hanging out with her best friend, and occasionally fighting with her parents. Then her world shattered. The local nuclear power plant, where both of her parents work, melted down. At first, Emily evacuates with the rest of her class to a college a safe distance away. When she hears talk, though, that perhaps her father was at fault (and perhaps he was drunk), Emily fears that she will be questioned. Overwhelmed, with her parents both dead at the disaster scene and the entire region closed down, Emily feels that she has no option but to run.

She heads to Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, where she hopes she can remain anonymous. She tries a teen shelter but soon worries when one of her fellow residents figures out who she is. Homeless and orphaned, Emily bounces from one bad situation to another. At one point, during the cold Vermont winter, she lives in an igloo made of frozen trash bags filled with leaves (and that’s one of her better situations). She finds a young boy named Cameron who is also alone and takes care of him, protecting him and feeding him as best as she can. Through all of this, Emily’s spirit perseveres, as she tries to emulate her favorite poet, Emily Dickenson.

The novel has an unusual narrative approach; it is written as Emily’s journals. As such, it jumps around a lot in time, sort of a stream of consciousness, as Emily tries to make sense of all that has happened to her. So, the novel opens with Emily talking about the trash bag igloo that helped her survive the winter, then flashes back to reminiscing about her childhood, then onto the nuclear meltdown that happened in June. In this way, the reader pieces Emily’s story together bit by bit, getting glimpses of her home life and relationship with her parents, her best friend at home, and the horrible experiences she survived while homeless. Throughout, she tries to come to terms with her losses, grieve, and figure out how to survive, not daring to think about the future.

With its teen narrator and unusual circumstances, I was hooked right from the beginning by this compelling story. There is some suspense, both in piecing together the past and seeing how Emily will survive, as well as plenty of emotional depth. The novel is not only about loss and survival but also about healing, family, and friendship and finding or making a family for yourself. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is one of those novels that utterly envelops you while you are reading it so that you feel you are living in that world and feeling what its characters feel – another unique and moving novel by Bohjalian.

266 pages, Doubleday

Monday, December 21, 2015

Move Monday 12/21: Scrooged and Other Holiday Movies

All four of us came down with a stomach virus last week (actually 12 extended family members in total got it!), so we spent last Monday sprawled all over the family room in couches, recliners, and the floor, sipping water, nibbling crackers, and watching mindless TV. This was a good movie for that state of mind!

We watched Scrooged, a 1988 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Bill Murray. You probably already know the general storyline! In this adaptation, Murray plays Frank Cross, a television executive willing to sacrifice anything to get good ratings. Christmas is coming and besides holiday specials like The Night the Reindeer Died starring Lee Majors, Cross has ordered his staff to put on a live version of A Christmas Carol, requiring everyone to work Christmas Eve. Of course, on that fateful night, Cross himself is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future (with the Christmas Present ghost a small fairy played by Carol Kane). You know how the story goes. Karen Allen co-stars as Cross's ex-girlfriend, who remembers him when he was a good guy and not so corrupted by greed. There are some fun cameos here, like Mary Lou Retton playing Little Tim in their live version of the story! The movie was nothing spectacular, just a fun little bit of holiday fluff, with classic 80's SNL Bill Murray. Perfect for a day when we were wracked by fever and looking for some distraction that required no thought!

Some of our other favorite holiday movies include Love, Actually (one of the best!), The Holiday, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (more pure silly fun), Miracle on 34th Street (the original, naturally), and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life. My kids love Home Alone, of course, and I really loved The Family Stone.

We are more likely to watch old Christmas TV specials than movies this season - we have a large collection on DVD and, yes, many on VHS: shows like Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and various Muppet Christmas Specials (our favorite is the 1998 A Muppet Family Christmas - cracks us up every time!). The Snowman is a beautiful video to watch during the holiday season, adapted from a picture book and featuring gorgeous colored pencil drawings and beautiful music.

What are your favorite holiday movies and/or Christmas specials?

It's Monday 12/21! What Are You Reading?

Whew, what a crazy time of year! I haven't been on the blog much this month and even missed last week's What Are You Reading Monday...all four of us (plus another 8 extended family members!) were flat on our backs with a stomach virus. We spent last Monday lying on couches, recliners, and floor, watching mindless TV and movies, sipping water and nibbling on crackers. I am happy to report that we are all recovered now, but I lost several days in the critical pre-holiday celebration period! At the end of last week, I finished my last writing assignment for the year, so now I can focus just on holiday stuff - I still need to wrap all our gifts and send out 120 cards!

Anyway, despite all this craziness, we always have time to read - here's what we've read in the past two weeks:
  • I finished a new review book for Publisher's Weekly, Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (and wrote the review last week). I was excited to be offered this one because I really liked Cleave's novel Little Bee. This novel is set during World War II in London, and it was excellent - moving, insightful, compelling - but it won't be released until May 3!
  • Now, I am back to trying to finish last year's Christmas gifts before Christmas! I am reading Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult and remembering why she is one of my favorite authors. This novel about an elephant researcher who disappears and leaves her daughter behind is totally engrossing - and the information about elephants is fascinating.
  • I finished listening to Echo, a middle-grade novel by Pam Munoz Ryan about a magical harmonica that links its young users through time. It was amazing on audio, with lots of music integrated into the story, and I loved the way all the threads of the different stories came together at the end.
  • Now, I am listening to George by Alex Gino, another middle-grade audio book that has been getting a lot of attention. It's about a 9-year old boy who knows that she's really a girl inside and how she struggles with her secret. It's great so far.
  • My husband, Ken, finished A Dance with Dragons, Book 5 in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series.  At 1150 pages, this was a hefty one! He really enjoyed it.
  • Next, with a lot of stress at work, he wanted to read something light, so he read The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, a novel I'd read last year and absolutely loved. He'd already seen the movie (we watched it together), but he enjoyed the book...though he said he liked the movie better! I have to admit, the dance scene at the end of the movie is unbeatable, and Cooper and Lawrence were both excellent in their roles, but I thought the book was even funnier.
  • Now, Ken is doing what I am - trying to finish up his TBRs from 2015! He is reading A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, a classic he and I bought at a bookstore this spring. I haven't gotten to this one yet, but he's enjoying it.
  • Jamie, 21, finished Demonsouled by Jonathan Moeller, a fantasy of the type he loves.
  • I think Jamie next read The Mage's Grave by Timothy L. Cerepaka, Book 1 in The Mages of Matir.  He's finished with the semester at college now but is very busy running around with his friends - they are enjoying the holiday season in NYC today.
Whew, I think that catches you up! As you can see, lots of great books at the end of the year. I have read some amazing books so far this month.

As I said, I haven't had a lot of time for blogging, but here are some posts from the past two weeks:
Movie Monday: The Age of Adaline, a time-bending romance that I loved

TV Tuesday: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - total fun & fluff, like an R-rated Glee - perfect for a stressful season!

Teen/YA Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz - just as good as everyone said!

Saturday Snapshot - photos of a warm December walk

Summary of Books Read in November - I read 5 very good books last month!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Books Read in November

So much for my plan not to get so far behind again! Between holiday prep, lots of travel to see family, and a stomach virus that went through the whole family, my blogging time has been very limited! Maybe I'll stay on top of things in 2016...

So, here, finally, is my summary of the books I finished in November:

I finished 5 books last month, all fiction, with 2 teen/YA books and 3 grown-up novels. One was an audio. Best book of the month? Tough one - I enjoyed all of these. I guess I would pick Challenger Deep not only because I enjoyed it but because it was so deeply moving and unique. Apparently, the National Book Award agreed with me because it won in the teen/YA category last month!

Update on 2015 Reading Challenges:
For my 2015 Where Are You Reading Challenge, I added just one new state, Maryland - it gets tough at the end of the year! I read just 1 more book from my own shelves for my Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015. I listened to one more audio books for my 2015 Audio Book Challenge. Nothing new for my 2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, my Back to the Classics Challenge, or my Travel the World in Books Challenge.

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

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 12/19

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Sorry I haven;t been around much on the blog lately. Between  holiday preparations, traveling to see family, and a stomach virus that struck 12 of my 13 family members this week, I haven't had much time or energy for blogging! Everyone seems to be back to normal - now I just need to catch up!

So, I just a few quick photos before I get started (yes, just getting started) on my Christmas cards!

I took a walk at our local nature center on December 10th...and it felt like spring! We are enjoying unseasonably warm temperatures here:

Light and shadows on the trail

Trees reflected in the creek

Close-up on the boardwalk marsh trail

Covered bridge over the creek

A rare top-down day in December!

Hope you are enjoying the weekend and the holiday season!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Teen/YA Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

The cover of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is covered with awards, and I’ve been hearing rave reviews of this novel ever since it was published in 2012. I finally had a chance to read this coming-of-age novel about friendship, sexual identity, and figuring out who you are.

Aristotle and Dante are both teen Mexican-American boys living in El Paso, Texas, in 1987, both named after long-dead philosophers and both sort of loners without any close friends. That’s where the similarities end, though. They meet one day at the local pool, when Dante, an accomplished swimmer, offers to teach Aristotle – who can only float – how to swim.

Dante is lightness and mirth, always laughing and happy, while Aristotle is often dark and moody. But the boys hit it off from their first conversation, immediately starting to laugh together over their shared strange names. Aristotle meets Dante’s parents and adores them, especially his father, who is open and talkative, welcoming Aristotle warmly. His own father hasn’t been the same since he returned from Vietnam, rarely speaking and often angry, and neither of his parents will talk about his older brother, who is in prison.

The two boys spend an idyllic summer together, swimming, making up silly games, and experiencing what it means to have a best friend for the first time in their lives. Dante is the one person who can bring Ari out of his dark moods, who can get him to talk, who can make him laugh. Their friendship even helps Ari to begin to open up with his family. Before the summer ends, though, tragedy strikes, and their friendship hits some serious obstacles that complicate their easy relationship.

This warm, moving, often funny novel is compulsively readable, as the easy-going, funny banter between the two friends turns into a deep bond. Although it delves deep into the mysteries of friendship, it also explores family, in all of its difficult and dysfunctional guises. Together, though in different ways, the two boys try to figure out who they are and what they want out of life, in a classic coming-of-age story, as they each encounter significant challenges. Aren’t such struggles always easier with a best friend by your side?

359 pages, Simon & Schuster

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

TV Tuesday: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

In this hectic, stressful season, we can all use a good laugh now and then. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a new TV show on CW, is my new favorite escape - it is 100% silly fun with no redeeming value!

In the first episode, we meet Rebecca, a seriously neurotic New Yorker with plenty of issues. She is a high-powered lawyer (graduated top of her class at Harvard), but she's not happy. She loved the theater, but her mother convinced her to become a lawyer and now her job is her whole life. Then she bumps into Josh on the street. She and Josh were teenage sweathearts one summer at an arts camp; they had a summer fling and then never saw each other again. Running into Josh reminds Rebecca of all that she doesn't have: a boyfriend, friends, happiness...a life. So when her firm offers her a partnership, Rebecca shocks everyone by saying no, packing up, and moving to West Covina, California, the small town where Josh lives.

Oh, yes, moving to the town where your high school boyfriend lives after seeing him on the street once is pretty crazy, but she insists she didn't move for Josh, just for the kind of life he has (she's lying). She finds an apartment and joins a small law firm that is thrilled to have someone of her caliber. Rebecca quickly becomes friends with Paula, the paralegal she works with, and chats up a local bartender who is friends with Josh.

Probably doesn't sound all that silly yet, right? I saved the best part for last: it's a musical. Yes, Rebecca and the rest of the cast burst into spontaneous song  - not just singing but huge production numbers - at the oddest moments. It is all firmly tongue-in-cheek and often very funny. At the very least, it will put a smile on your face because it is simply so absurd. And these aren't just any ordinary songs. In one episode where Rebecca brings a stranger home to her apartment, she sings Sex with a Stranger, an outrageous decidely un-sexy song that includes the chorus, "Please don't be a murderer." One of my favorite songs from an early episode is The Sexy Getting Ready Song, which shows  - graphically - the crazy lengths that women go to to look good for men. Here's the clip (just be forewarned - best to skip this if you are easily offended):

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is like an R-rated Glee that never takes itself seriously. It does have an occasional heart-warming moment, but mostly it is just silly, slightly raunchy fun - just what I need right now with overflowing to-do lists!

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is available for $1.99 an episode on Amazon Prime, with episodes 4 -8 available free on the CW website or at IMDB. I wouldn't worry too much about jumping into the middle of the series - you'll catch up quickly - it's just not that deep!

Monday, December 07, 2015

Movie Monday 12/7: The Age of Adaline

Sorry for missing a few weeks of Movie Monday – things have been so hectic with the holidays, family, and travel! No time for watching movies or reviewing them (or much time for blogging either). We did have one quiet weekend at home this week, before we start another round of travel and family gatherings, so my husband and I enjoyed a movie Saturday night.

We watched The Age of Adaline, a movie I have wanted to see ever since we saw the preview in a theater back in March! Adaline, played by Blake Lively, never ages. She was born in 1908 and had an accident in the 1930’s that caused her to stop aging. Since then, she has stayed the exact same 30-ish age and looks just the same, even as her daughter grows up, passes her up, and gets old alongside her (the older daughter is played by Ellen Burstyn).

Early on, Adaline discovered that when the government figures out her secret, they want to study her, so she has coped all these years by moving every ten years and changing her identity. She is currently living as Jenny in her hometown of San Francisco, though she is preparing to change to Susan and move to rural Oregon soon. She lives a quiet life working in a historical library and avoiding getting too close to anyone. Things change, though, when she meets Ellis, a wealthy philanthropist who is attracted to her from the first time he sees her, played by Michiel Huisman (Sonny from Treme).

Adaline struggles with her usual rules and wonders whether she should stick to her plan to disappear in a few weeks or give in and fall in love. She tries to keep her secret from Ellis, but when an old lover from 50 years ago, played by Harrison Ford, recognizes her, her careful façade begins to fall apart. It’s a great cast, and the actors all did a wonderful job. San Francisco makes the perfect backdrop to this story as it moves through one hundred years – even the city changes as Adaline stays the same. I loved this unique love story with a twist, and my husband enjoyed it also (though I think I liked it more - not much action in this movie).

Have you seen any good movies lately?

It's Monday 12/7! What Are You Reading?

Whew - whirlwind week! With Thanksgiving so late this year and our family Christmas celebration early, next weekend, this week was filled with gift-buying, creating photo gifts, and other rushed holiday preparations. We did have a very nice weekend, going to the tree farm to cut down our Christmas tree and then decorating it yesterday - super busy but nice family time. Putting the tree up together is one of our favorite traditions.

This will be another very busy week, getting ready to travel again for our early extended family Christmas celebration - lots to do! But then, we should have two nice, quiet weeks at home.

We still found time to enjoy our books this week (though not nearly enough reading time for me!):
  • I finished Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, the story of a teen girl in Vermont, on the run and homeless after a nuclear plant where both her parents worked melts down. As with all of Bahjalian's wonderful novels, this one had a completely unique story and unforgettable characters.
  • Now, I have started a new review book for Publisher's Weekly, Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. I was excited to be offered this one because I really liked Cleave's novel Little Bee. This one is set during World War II in London. It's good so far - I like the characters - but it won't be released until May 3!
  • I am listening to Echo, a middle-grade novel by Pam Munoz Ryan about a magical harmonica that links its young users through time. I am now in Part 3 of the novel (i.e. the third owner of the harmonica), and it has been engrossing - each child's story has pulled me in. Now I am wondering how it will all end!
  • My husband, Ken is still reading A Dance with Dragons, Book 5 in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series and 1150 pages! He's getting close to the end.
  • Jamie, 21, made a last-minute switch and choose to read Demonsouled by Jonathan Moeller - the description says it is filled with swords and sorcery, so that is right up his alley!
 Like I said, a very busy week, so I only managed one review and one other blog post:
Review of The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls, a novel by the author of The Glass Castle

Saturday Snapshot - photos from a wet, foggy day last week

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

The four of us at the tree farm Saturday - 50 & sunny!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 12/5 - Fog

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

We had a lot of rain at the beginning of the walk, but I still got out to walk. On this particular morning, it was very foggy and wet:

Treetops disappearing into the fog

Tiny droplets of water hanging from the pine needles

Stark branches against the muted gray sky

Temperatures in the 50's are fooling the trees into thinking its spring!

A bright splash of color in an otherwise dreary landscape

Hope you are enjoying the weekend!

Friday, December 04, 2015

Fiction Review: Silver Star

My book group and I loved Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, and her partly-biographical novel based on her grandmother’s life, Half Broke Horses, so I was excited to read her first fully-fictional novel, The Silver Star, for the same book group. This moving, engrossing story of two girls abandoned by their mother didn’t disappoint.

Clever fifteen-year old Liz and her lively twelve-year old sister, Bean, live in a small town in California with their mother, Charlotte, in 1970. Charlotte loves her daughters but is flighty and irresponsible, often leaving the girls on their own for weeks at a time while she pursues a music career, but they manage OK, eating their frozen chicken pot pies every night while she is gone and hiding her absence from the neighbors and their school. One day, though, Charlotte decides she needs some time on her own and disappears for months. When the girls see a police car outside their house, they decide they need to leave before social services takes them away.

The two sisters catch a bus to Virginia, showing up on the doorstep of Uncle Tinsley, whom Liz only vaguely remembers; Bean was an infant when their mother left with them. He lives in the dilapidated old house where Charlotte grew up, in a small mill town in Virginia. Their family owned the mill – and much of the town – for many years, though Uncle Tinsley has now become an eccentric recluse. Though surprised by their arrival, he welcomes his nieces in and offers them some venison stew and their mother’s old bedroom.

The girls want to help with expenses, as it is clear Uncle Tinsley doesn’t have much money, but the town is pretty depressed and no one is hiring. They finally get jobs helping Jerry Maddox, the foreman at the mill (and the one responsible for kicking Tinsley out). Bean helps in the house with his wife and four children, and Liz becomes his personal assistant. When fall arrives, they start at the local high school, and Bean fits in pretty easily. Liz, who is more reserved than her sister and into poetry and Poe, has more trouble. When something horrible happens to Liz, things really fall apart, and she becomes very withdrawn and depressed.

I was pulled right into this compelling story and fell in love with the two sisters, especially outspoken, honest Bean. Walls believably recreates a small Virginia town in 1970, where the schools are just being integrated. The girls’ struggle to survive on their own and their mother’s abandonment – over and over – is heart-breaking, but their love for each other and their growing relationship with Uncle Tinsley add plenty of warmth and even some humor. If you read The Glass Castle, then parts of this novel do seem somewhat autobiographical, but Walls has also created a unique and realistic portrait of these two sisters and their struggles. I was rooting for Liz and Bean from beginning to end and thoroughly enjoyed their journey.

267 pages, Scribner

NOTE: Although the novel is meant for adults, older teens and young adults may enjoy it, with its teen protagonists; however,  the book does tackle some difficult issues.

Monday, November 30, 2015

It's Monday 11/30! What Are You Reading?

Eeek! December 1st tomorrow, and it's Christmas in just a few weeks! I hate those late Thanksgivings - the holiday season just seems so squished together.

We had a wonderful - though exhausting! - long holiday weekend with 3 different branches of my extended family in my hometown, Rochester, NY. And I squeezed in an hour with an old Junior High/High School friend, too. It was all very hectic, but it was great to see everyone and spend time with family. We stayed with my dad's wife - our first time back in the house since my dad died this summer. I was afraid it was going to be horribly painful to be there without him, but though I missed him terribly, it was actually kind of comforting to be in his house - he felt closer there. We went through some of his stuff and brought home old photos, some of his clothes for each of us, hats, and other momentos to remind us of him.

So, not a whole lot of time for reading last week - and no time at all for blogging! - but we each enjoyed our books:
  • I finished reading Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, a YA novel whose cover is filled with award badges. It was just as good as I'd heard, and I'm so glad I finally found time to read it. It's the story of two teen boys in the 80's in El Paso, TX, who are each lonely until they meet each other and become best friends. It also deals with struggling with sexual identity. Just excellent all around.
  • Now I am reading a novel my husband gave me for Christmas last year! I figure I better finish last year's gifts if I want more books this year. I am in the middle of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, the story of a teen girl in Vermont, on the run and homeless after a nuclear plant where both her parents worked melts down. It's been great so far - engrossing.
  • I am listening to Echo, a middle-grade novel by Pam Munoz Ryan about a magical harmonica that links its users through time, though I didn't have much time to listen last week, since I was rarely alone!
  • My husband, Ken is still reading A Dance with Dragons, Book 5 in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series and 1150 pages! He and our son LOVE these books. He says Book 5 is better than Book 4 so far. He definitely didn't have much time for reading last week.
  • Jamie, 21, finished The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum, Book 2 in The Necromancer Chronicles series last night. Now he is reading The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, a gift we gave him for Christmas last year! Like mother, like son. He heard a movie adaptation was coming out soon and moved it to the top of his very long TBR list. I'm glad he finally got to it because I want to read it next!
No new blog posts last week, except for my Monday update, but here is my Book Lover's Gift Guide, in case you missed it.

Today is Cyber Monday, the day when I try to get almost all of my holiday shopping done, so I better get busy. In addition to all my online shopping, I will also be stopping by our little local bookstore with a long list of titles to order as gifts.

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

My family on Thanksgiving (I'm on the far right, middle row)


Monday, November 23, 2015

It's Monday 11/23! What Are You Reading?

Eek! I am starting to panic - we leave soon for Thanksgiving and there is so much to do before we go! I like seeing my family and enjoying holiday traditions, but I don't like the extra stress and hectic-ness this time of year.

Last week was mostly a quiet week at home. Our son recovered from his sinus infection, and I am getting over my bronchitis - not 100% yet but getting better every day. Lots of good reading at our house last week:
  • After reading two book group selections and a review book in rapid succession, I chose something just for fun that I've been wanting to read for ages: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, a YA novel whose cover is filled with award badges! It's just as good as I'd heard, and I am enjoying just losing myself in the world of two teen boys in 1987 El Paso.
  • I finished listening to Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman, one of my favorite authors. This teen/YA novel about a teen boy struggling with schizophrenia won the National Book Award for YA this year (just last week!), and it was well-deserved. I was blown away by this powerful and captivating novel.
  • I have now started listening to Echo, a middle-grade novel by Pam Munoz Ryan. I'm just at the beginning of this tale of a magical harmonica that links its users through time - the initial prologue, which reads like a fairy tale, was absorbing, and I can;t wait to see what happens next.
  • My husband, Ken is reading A Dance with Dragons, Book 5 in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series and 1150 pages! He and our son LOVE these books. He says Book 5 is better than Book 4 so far.
  • Jamie, 21, is reading The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum, Book 2 in The Necromancer Chronicles series.
 Somehow, I crammed a LOT of blog posts into last week!
Movie Monday: The Martian  - we loved the book and the movie!

TV Tuesday: The Mysteries of Laura - a light crime show starring Debra Messing

9 Awesome Books to Read Aloud to Your Tween - my article at BonBon Break, plus links to reviews

My Summary of Books Read in October

Fiction Review: Song Yet Sung by James McBride, a moving & unique historical novel

Teen/YA Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman, a powerful story of a boy's plunge into mental illness

Saturday Snapshot - brilliant fall colors lit by the setting sun

Book Lover's Gift Guide - finding the perfect book for everyone on your list!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Lover's Gift Guide

 Note: This article of mine is featured in the November/December issue of Vital! magazine:

I love to give books as gifts. There is truly something for everyone, even people who aren’t usually big readers. If they are avid readers, you can try to avoid something they already have by looking specifically at the latest releases. The key to matching the book to the recipient is in knowing their interests. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Sports Lover:
There are plenty of amazing books – from coffee-table books to the more literary – about sports. Choose one based on the recipient’s sport or team of choice. For football fanatics, you can’t go wrong with Football Nation: Four Hundred Years of America’s Sport by Library of Congress and Susan Reyburn. Memoirs are also good choices for sports lovers, like the recently released Got to Give the People What They Want: True Stories and Flagrant Opinions from Center Court by professional basketball player turned sports commentator Jalen Rose.

History Buff:
My brother-in-law is a high school history teacher passionate about what he teaches, so I always enjoy choosing a history book for him. I recently gave my brother-in-law The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin, a highly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Her latest release is Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Another best-selling author who writes history as if it were a novel is Erik Larson. His latest is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

Celebrity Maven:
For your friend or family member who never misses an issue of People magazine, there are always plenty of new celebrity memoirs to choose from. Two of the latest on the best-seller list are Why Not Me? by actress Mindy Kaling and Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story by singer Jewel. If you have a sports fan and celebrity maven on your gift list who enjoys stories of overcoming hardship, try My Fight/Your Fight by Olympic judo medalist Ronda Rousey.

Kids & Teens:
The latest book from award-winning author Brian Selznick (author of Wonderstruck and The Invention of Hugo Cabret) will entice any middle-grade reader. The Marvels, like Wonderstruck, tells one story in words and a second one in pictures that eventually intertwine. For teen readers who loved The Hunger Games, consider Neal Schusterman’s Unwind series, an action-packed, chilling dystopian story that is being made into a movie. For graphic novel (like bound comic books) fans, the younger set who loved Smile and Sisters will also enjoy the classic Baby-Sitters Club books by Ann B. Martin, now available as graphic novels and also drawn by Raina Telgemeier. Teen graphic novel fans will enjoy the award-winning This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.

For additional guidance, stop by your local bookstore – the booksellers will be glad to help you find books that match your gift recipient’s interests. Happy giving!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 11/21

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Almost all of the leaves are gone from the trees here now, but today's photos were taken on October 30, three weeks ago. I took them on a short walk around my neighborhood, just as the sun was setting, lighting up the colorful trees beautifully. Hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

Enjoy the weekend!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Teen/YA Review: Challenger Deep

Neal Schusterman is one of my family’s favorite authors. My son, my husband, and I have all read – and loved – his amazing teen/YA dystopian Unwind series and his imaginative series about the afterlife, Everlost. I also enjoyed listening to his teen/YA novel Bruiser on audio. Challenger Deep, his new novel for teens about a boy struggling with mental illness, is something completely different but just as powerful. In fact, this groundbreaking novel just won the National Book Award for YA.

Caden is living in two different worlds that are separate to begin with but become more difficult to keep apart. In one world, he’s a fifteen-year old high school student. He’s smart, he helps his little sister, Mackenzie, with her math homework, and he likes to draw. Caden gets together with his friends, Max and Shelby, to work on a video game they have been designing for the past two years. Caden does the drawings for it.

In Caden’s other world, he is on a ship, far out to sea, with a one-eyed pirate captain and talkative parrot, on a journey to explore Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth in the Marianas Trench. His shipmates are mostly other kids like him, and Caden observes them to try to figure out why they are there and what he should be doing. Each of the kids is assigned a role; the captain makes Caden the ship’s artist, assigned to document their journey with pictures. On board, there is talk of whales, sea monsters, and mutiny.

Gradually, Caden’s two worlds begin to collide. At school, he thinks someone wants to kill him and fails a test because he can’t concentrate on it but instead draws a picture with the dots he’s supposed to be filling in. His friends notice that his drawings are changing, becoming more and more abstract, until they are barely recognizable. Caden tells his parents he joined the track team, but really, he just walks and walks for miles on his own after school, until his feet are blistered and sore.

Feeling torn between his two worlds, Caden tries to keep these inner battles a secret, but eventually, his fantasy world invades the real world to such an extent that his parents are forced to take action to try to save him. His life on the ship takes over and begins to reflect what’s really happening to him, as he loses himself to the depths of his mental illness.

Schusterman based this unique, powerful novel on his own son’s battles with schizoaffective disorder, and the real-life experience shows in the intensity and authenticity of Caden’s story. I listened to it on audio and was absolutely riveted right from the first chapters; the narrator did an excellent job capturing Caden’s internal struggles. I felt incredible empathy for Caden’s battles with fantasy and reality while rooting for him to talk to someone and get the help he needed (though help for a condition like his is far from straight-forward). I also requested a copy of the actual book from my library because it includes illustrations (drawn by Schusterman’s real-life son) that show how even Caden’s drawings are changing and becoming more abstract and fantastical.

Some might find this novel confusing, as it moves rapidly back and forth between fantasy and reality, until the line between the two is blurred, but I think that’s the point. This is a first-person account of a boy losing himself to the depths of his mental illness, and I found the narrative to be not only compelling but genuine-feeling. It gave me some insight into what people with these kinds of disorders might experience…and perhaps that was the author’s main intention. Along the way, it was an engrossing and emotional story that will stay with me for a long time.

309 page, Harper Teen


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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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fiction Review: Song Yet Sung

One of my book groups recently read and discussed the historical novel Song Yet Sung by James McBride, and it led to some very stimulating conversation on a wide variety of topics. This unique and powerful story about an escaping slave on Maryland’s eastern shore in 1850 was intense and engrossing.

As the novel opens, Liz Spocott, an escaped slave from a plantation in Virginia, is being held captive with a dozen or so other blacks in the attic of Patty Cannon’s tavern. Patty is an infamous and ruthless slave trader who is not above stealing slaves from their owners in order to resell them. With a musket ball in her head, Liz drifts in and out of consciousness, chained to the floor of the attic, but gradually becomes aware of the others in the room, including an old woman who tells her “the Code,” a series of cryptic phrases designed to help escaping slaves. In return, Liz tells the room of her strange dreams of the future.

The group manages to escape from Miss Patty’s attic and scatter into the forests and marshes of the eastern shore. Miss Patty and her helpers are soon after them, wanting to recoup their losses, but Liz is also being pursued by Denwood Long, a notorious and talented slave catcher, hired by Liz’s owner at the plantation. Liz encounters an injured black boy, whom she helps, and a giant wild-looking man whom she assumes is his father, who leaves her some food and clothing as a thank you. Liz later encounters Amber, the slave of a poor farming widow named Kathleen Sullivan, who helps her to hide.

All along the way, Liz has her visions of the future and earns the nickname The Dreamer, which makes her even more intriguing. This adds a supernatural element to the novel, as her visions are clearly of the real future – our world today – but as seen through the eyes of a slave in 1850. It’s interesting, and even somewhat humorous, to hear Liz’s interpretation of the future she sees.

The action and point of view switch from one character to another, as Liz tries to elude her many pursuers and a wide variety of people step in to help her. What makes this novel unique among slavery fiction is the many and varied perspectives it offers. All sorts of characters are represented here – blacks, both free and slaves, and whites who are involved in slavery in a wide range of ways. Some, like Miss Patty and Denwood, make their livings with it, though Denwood’s feelings about slavery are more complex than they first appear. Others, like Kathleen, own slaves out of economic necessity but feel ambiguous about slavery. Still others, like some of the people in the local town, aren’t directly involved in slavery but are required to uphold its laws. In addition, this is not the typical fictional depiction of the cruel and wealthy plantation owners (though one of those does make a brief appearance); most of the white people in this novel are poor themselves, barely eking out a living as farmers or oystermen.

These varied perspectives make for a unique and complex novel that shows that the issue of slavery was not black and white (pun intended!) for many people but had many shades of gray. Woven throughout the book is “the Code” and insights into how blacks – both free and slaves – who wanted to help slaves escape used various signals and signs to communicate with each other. The author says at the end that much of this information came from his imagination but that he based the novel loosely on the life of Harriet Tubman and used various sources for historical details.

My book group found these varied perspectives very enlightening – they certainly sparked a lot of discussion. We also enjoyed the setting of the novel on Maryland’s eastern shore, in part because it is local to us, but also because most novels about slavery are set in the Deep South. Maryland’s eastern shore, close to the North and to freedom, attracted many escaped slaves and freed blacks, and the Underground Railroad was prominent there. Our discussion also veered into more contemporary topics, such as Liz’s visions of the future and the disparities that still exist today between the races. This captivating novel provided a unique view of the plight of slaves, with plenty of fodder for discussion, combining history with a touch of the supernatural. It was an all-around winner for our book group.

353 pages, Riverhead Books