Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 2/28

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. February over yet?? It's been a COLD, miserable month here. Funny how the shortest month of the year feels like the longest! We haven't had much snow this winter (mostly cold and ice), but we got a few inches last weekend. Here are a few photos from this past week - finding the beauty in the February!

Fresh snow covering our deck

Snow on bare branches

Snow on evergreens

A neighbor's kids made a snowman, complete with shoes!

Winter sunset

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Teen/YA Review: I Was Here

I’ve never read a Gayle Forman novel before, so I was glad for the opportunity to listen to the audio book of her latest novel for teens and YA, I Was Here. It’s the story of a teen girl’s reaction to her friend’s unexpected suicide, and it is not only engaging and moving but also very important.

Cody is shocked when her best friend, Meg, commits suicide. It just doesn’t fit with Cody’s perceptions of Meg, and the way she did it – including writing e-mails to be sent the day after – shows that it was not an impulsive action but something Meg had thought about and planned. Cody is devastated not only by the loss of her best (and only) friend but also by the fact that she didn’t see it coming. If Meg had been suffering, why didn’t she tell Cody? True, they didn’t keep in touch as much since Meg left for college and Cody stayed behind, but they had been friends forever.

Meg’s parents are, of course, also devastated and ask Cody if she can go to Meg’s house at college and bring her things home. That trip brings up a whole new series of questions for Cody and shows her even more that she didn’t know about her best friend, like her college housemates, Meg’s friends in nearby Seattle, and the hunky musician she had a crush on. Most mystifying of all, though, Cody finds several months’ of e-mails missing from Meg’s computer and wonders what other secrets Meg was keeping.

Driven to find out exactly why her friend took her own life, Cody sets out to find answers. She meets the musician crush, Ben, talks to Meg’s roommates, and does her best to investigate the missing files. Eventually, she does find some answers, but they are not as simple or satisfying as she had hoped; she discovers that Meg’s suicide was far more complex than she thought.

Although this is obviously an emotional drama on the important topic of teen suicide, it is also a bit of a mystery, a romance, and a thoughtful examination of friendship and secrets. I enjoyed listening to this complex novel on audio; the narrator did an excellent job of portraying Cody and also read the other characters in the novel beautifully. I was engrossed in the story right from the start and the suspense kept me listening. Although suicide is a difficult topic to read about, ultimately, this novel is about friendship and healing and gradually moving on after loss.

NOTE: The author includes information on suicide, including where to go for help, at the end of the novel.

Listening Library

Other good novels on the important topic of teen suicide:
Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fiction Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I’ve wanted to read Anthony Marra’s novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, ever since its release garnered so much attention and rave reviews. I thought it sounded like the kind of book I’d want to discuss, so I was thrilled when it was my turn to suggest books to my neighborhood book group, and they chose this one. It was just as good as I expected, a moving novel filled with wonderful writing and unforgettable characters, about how life and love, hope and healing can survive even in the most horrific circumstances.

The book opens in 2004 in a small Chechnyan village, as a man named Akhmed holds the hand of his neighbor, a newly orphaned 8-year old girl named Havaa, and gently leads her down the street. Havaa’s home was burned to the ground the day before, her father was taken away by Feds (Russian soldiers), and all she has left is a blue suitcase. Akhmed knows that she is still in danger and the soldiers could return at any time, so the two of them walk miles through the snow from their remote village to a hospital in the nearest town. The hospital is the only tall building left in town that is still (mostly) standing, and it is manned entirely by one doctor and one nurse.

Sonja, the young surgeon at the hospital, is living in her own kind of hell, taking stimulant drugs to stay awake and coping with the never-ending stream of gun and landmine injuries by keeping herself emotionally apart from her patients. Sonja, like most people in Chechnya, is missing someone – her sister Natasha – and is desperate to find out what happened to her. Akhmed asks if Havaa can stay at the hospital, but Sonja is adamant that she couldn’t possibly stay there. They work out a deal: Akhmed, who is a doctor, will help out at the hospital each day if Havaa can sleep there at night.

With that, the main characters embark on their journey together. The part of the novel that takes place in the present covers only 5 days, with that meeting in the hospital on the first day. Chapters often move back and forth through time to explain the background and history of one character or another. In that way, the whole story slowly comes together, and often the reader finds that assumptions he made about a certain character are shattered once he understands how the character got to this point. The novel shows the complexities that make up a person and how you can’t judge someone based solely on his current actions without understanding what came before.

What I loved most about this novel is that it is about connections. It’s one of those stories where disparate characters who seem to have nothing in common at first turn out to be connected in subtle ways. I really enjoy novels like this – it’s such a joy to gradually discover those connections and find the hidden strings tying different people together. It almost feels like fate when two people whose paths crossed previously (and often unknowingly) meet again.

Out of the nine people at my book group last night, five of us rated this novel a 9 or 9.5 out of 10! I wasn’t the only one who felt so emotionally moved by the story and the writing. Interestingly, three others in the group only rated the novel a 5 and one person gave it a 7. Some people didn’t like the setting, during Chechnya’s second war, that included some horrific scenes of violence and torture. Some had trouble with the jumps in time (though the author does helpfully provide a year at the start of each chapter).

Everyone in our group agreed that Marra’s writing is beautiful and eloquent. Some group members had books filled with tabs because there were just so many passages that made you stop and read twice. Marra is a master of the metaphor – I have never read such original metaphors and similes. Here is one of my favorites:
“She wanted to hold foreign syllables like mints on her tongue until they dissolved into fluency.”

Everyone in our book group also agreed that we learned a lot about Chechnya and its history. Most of us couldn’t even find Chechnya on a map before reading this novel, and the details and history woven into the story were very enlightening and led us into quite a few discussions of current events. We all wondered why we didn’t know about the devastation in Chechnya just ten years ago.

Though the setting of the novel – during a destructive series of wars – is often horrifying, Marra counters those terrible scenes with a wonderful sense of humor. Havaa is often the source of the humor, as when she tries to teach the one-armed guard at the hospital how to juggle. She is still an eight-year old child, even in the midst of a war. I was going to include some quotes here that show the humor in the novel, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise of their discovery for you, as that is an integral part of the joy of reading this novel.

In case you couldn’t tell by now, I loved this novel. From its very first pages, I was pulled into the story and quickly came to care about the characters and their sometimes surprising connections with each other. I was engrossed in the story and captivated by the wonderful writing. Despite its setting, it’s a story about how life and love can survive anything, how two people can find healing and hope in each other, and how we are all interconnected. The characters felt so real and I was so emotionally moved that I cried (in a good way) as I read the last page. Then I wanted to flip back to page 1 and start all over.

379 pages, Hogarth

Monday, February 23, 2015

It's Monday 2/23! What Are You Reading?

I love Monday mornings, with a quiet house all to myself and a new week ahead. It's like a mini fresh start every 7 days. My to-do list is overflowing, as always, but I am ready to tackle a new week!

My chronic illness has been flaring up the past two weeks, so I've had a lot of ups and downs lately, but I think I am on my way back now. At least I've had plenty of reading time:
  • I finished A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra for my neighborhood book group that meets this week and was absolutely blown away. It is an amazing novel, powerful and moving, and I cried (in a good way) as I read the last page.
  • I also finished listening to teen/YA novel I Was Here by Gayle Forman, about a teen girl named Cody who is trying to cope with the sudden and unexpected suicide of her best friend. It was very good - compelling and on such an important topic.
  • Now, I am reading Picture Perfect, an older novel by Jodi Picoult. My aunt picked it for our online family book group, and I'd never read it before. It's very good so far, as are all of Picoult's novels!
  • I am now listening to a new teen/YA novel, The Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall, a thriller. I've just started it, and it already has plenty of suspense.
  • My husband, Ken, finished reading Undivided by Neal Schusterman, the fourth and final book in the Unwind Dystology (when he couldn't wrap up the story in 3 books, they created a new term for it!). This is one of our all-time favorite series in our household, and we have been eagerly waiting to read the finale. I'm next!
  • Ken picked up on our son's recent zombie kick (see below) and read Mountain Man by Keith C. Blackmore on his Kindle.
  • Ken is now reading Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard, book 4 in the Raylan Givens series, which is the basis for the TV show Justified. Ken loves the TV show, and has been enjoying the books, too.
  • Jamie, 20, has been on a zombie kick in honor of The Walking Dead coming back to TV recently. He has been working his way through the 10 books of the Dead series by T.W. Brown.
 Two reviews last week, plus some other posts:
Review of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, an excellent, moving graphic memoir

Review of Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern, a teen/YA audiobook about love, friendship & disabilities (also excellent)

Saturday Snapshot, with a couple of winter pics, including a gorgeous sunset

Weekend Cooking post, with a crowd-pleasing recipe I tried this weekend

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, February 22, 2015

Weekend Cooking 2/22

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!

It's been months since I've had a Weekend Cooking post because weekends are usually packed full of family time, but I wanted to squeeze in a quick one today to tell you about the delicious dinner we had last night.

As you may know, if you have read my past Weekend Cooking posts, I get a lot of my favorite recipes from Cooking Light magazine. I picked up a new issue at the grocery store in December on impulse and last night, I tried one of the recipes from it: Beefy Bolognese Over Penne Pasta. I planned it as a treat for my 17-year old son. We have been eating a Paleo diet (no diary, or grains, little sugar) for the past year for medical reasons for my older son and I, and our younger son is not happy about that! He loves pasta, so I planned this dinner for him.

I thought it would be just the three of us, then our older son said he'd be home from college for dinner, and my younger son announced he had one friend - and then two! - coming over. So, we ended up with six people for dinner, including 4 ravenous young men. I doubled the recipe, and everyone loved it. It's a classic Bolognese sauce with bacon, beef, and bison meat and packed with vegetables, and the long simmer time makes it very flavorful. Even my son's friend who eats very few vegetables and says he doesn't like "wet foods" (yes, really) cleaned his plate!

So, this dish is great for picky kids, but it would also work just as well for a dinner party. This one is definitely a keeper.

Hope you are enjoying foods & cooking this weekend, too!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 2/21

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

It's been REALLY cold here the past week, as it has for much of the eastern U.S., but I did manage to get outside for one short walk this week. Here are a couple of winter pics:

Winter Sunset from Our Back Deck

Snow on Evergreen Branches

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend - stay warm!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Teen/YA Review: Say What You Will

I listened to Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern on audio and was pulled right into this unique novel. The two main characters are each disabled, in their own ways, but this is essentially a love – and friendship – story.

Amy has cerebral palsy and is quite severely disabled by it, but she is very intelligent and determined to have as much of a normal life as possible. Her mother has been her constant supporter and has always pushed Amy to excel at school. She uses a walker to get around and can’t speak without a computerized voice box to help her, but she’s an excellent student. Heading into her senior year of high school, Amy asks her mother to hire her classmates as aides for her instead of the typical adult aides she has had throughout her school career. Four students are chosen, among them, Matthew, whom Amy has specially requested because Matthew is the only peer of hers who has ever spoken to her directly and honestly.

Matthew isn’t so sure about this new job. He feels uncomfortable with Amy and isn’t quite sure how to treat her. In fact, he barely remembers the brief conversation that was life-changing for Amy. He’s also worried about his own problems. Matthew has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, though he won’t admit that even to himself. He knows he has a problem, though, as his compulsive tics and crippling fears can easily paralyze him.

As their senior year progresses, Amy and Matthew slowly, gradually get to know each other and become friends. They each find themselves trusting the other – for the first time – and confiding in each other. In fact, their friendship might possibly become something more, though for all their conversations, they never seem to say what is really important.

I liked everything about this book. There is so much here for teens – of all abilities – to relate to.  I immediately liked both Amy and Matthew. Amy seems super-confident on the outside due to her academic achievements, but on the inside, she is like any other teen – worried about how she appears to her peers and wanting people to like her. Matthew helps her to see that she doesn’t have any real friends, even though she’s been in classes with the same kids since elementary school – everyone is a little afraid of her because of her disabilities which act like a fence between her and her classmates. Matthew’s problems are just as obvious to his peers – though he thinks he hides them – and he is an outcast, too.

I loved that this novel deals so openly with two different kinds of disabilities. Through Amy and Matthew, the reader learns exactly what it is like to have CP or OCD, and it is an enlightening and eye-opening journey. McGovern even deals honestly with topics that are often considered taboo, like sex for someone with a disability and other difficult topics (I don’t want to give away any spoilers!).

At its heart, this novel is about two people, each with his or her own unique issues, finding each other and connecting with someone for the first time. It’s about the worries and fears and insecurities everyone faces in high school and beyond, as they try to figure out who they are and what is their place in the world. I was rooting for Amy and Matthew to be honest with each other, to cast away their fears and grab that special connection while they could. Say What You Will captured my attention…and my heart.


(You can listen to an audio sample and read an interview with the author - she is actress Elizabeth McGovern's sister! - at the Amazon link below)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Graphic Memoir Review: Fun Home

As many of you know, I have been exploring graphic novels recently and have been making my way through Flavorwire’s list of 25 EssentialGraphic Novels. Most that I have read I have enjoyed but not been bowled over by. I just finished reading Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a graphic memoir of her childhood and her relationship with her father, and I absolutely loved it. It was moving, engrossing, insightful, and I never wanted it to end.

Alison grew up in a small town in the mountains of Pennsylvania with her mother, father, and two brothers. In some ways, she had a typical childhood – going to school, playing pretend with her friends, exploring the local woods and streams with her brothers – but much of her childhood, and especially her Dad, was quite unusual. Her father was completely obsessed with antiques and restoring their old home, so Alison’s childhood was filled with decorative woodwork, vintage curtains and wallpaper, and lots and lots of dusting.

That wasn’t her father’s only eccentricity, though. He worked full-time as a high school English teacher but also served as their town’s mortician in his family’s funeral parlor (which they had nicknamed Fun Home). Oh, and her father was gay, a fact that Alison didn’t know until she was in college and came out to her parents as a lesbian. So, yes, Alison’s childhood was more than a bit unusual.

The focus of her memoir is on her relationship with her father. In fact, at times, it feels like an intimate, personal journaling by Alison, trying to make sense of their relationship and of his death and working through those complicated feelings by telling their stories. She details moments they shared, ranging from working on the house together (or rather, she following his orders), sharing his love of literature, and even the odd, sometimes unsettling times when he was working at the funeral home. Since her father was an English teacher and lover of literature, she also fills the memoir with literary references that provide the glue that held their relationship together and hints as to what was going on in his mind.

The memoir is an exploration of Alison and her dad’s unusual relationship, but it is also a coming-of-age story, as Alison grows up and realizes she’s different from other girls and struggles to find her identity and become comfortable with herself. It is a very candid, honest analysis of her life and her father’s life and how the two are intertwined.

A sample page from Fun Home (click to enlarge)
Being a graphic memoir, this complicated story is told through pictures, and Alison’s illustrations are absolutely compelling, filled with fascinating details. They are almost photographic in their complexity (and sometimes, like on the cover, she even recreates old family photos), and she incorporates all kinds of interesting pieces, like pages from books, handwritten excerpts of letters, and even dictionary entries. In an effort to piece together her own story, she has mined her memory for the tiniest details, and brings them to the page to share with the reader.

Fun Home is an extraordinary memoir. In some ways, it is even more personal and in-depth than a purely textual memoir because the reader picks up so many minute details from her realistic illustrations. The author shares not only her story but her emotions and her personal pain…and joy, too. This book opened my eyes to how much depth a graphic novel/memoir can provide, and I highly recommend it.

232 pages, Mariner (Houghton Mifflin Company)

Monday, February 16, 2015

It's Monday 2/16! What Are You Reading?

Happy President's Day (in the US) and Happy Mardi Gras! Mardi Gras Day is tomorrow, but that is the end of Mardi Gras season, which started on January 6. We had some close friends over for a small Mardi Gras party Saturday, our tradition since we moved from New Orleans to Delaware in 1990. Lots of fun, and our house is still all decorated. If you want to celebrate, too, here are some tips and recipes I posted in Weekend Cooking last year.

So, it was a busy week, but we still found time to read:
  • I am still reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra for my neighborhood book group this month. It is excellent so far, completely engrossing with characters I care about. Plus, I am learning a lot about Chechnya and the wars there that is both fascinating and horrifying.
  • I am still listening to I Was Here by Gayle Forman, about a teen girl named Cody who is trying to cope with the sudden and unexpected suicide of her best friend. It's part emotional drama and part mystery, as Cody tries to find out why her friend did such an uncharacteristic thing. It's very compelling so far.
  • I finished reading a graphic memoir, Fun Home by Allison Bechtel, that I loved. This was definitely my favorite of the adult graphic novels/memoirs I have read so far. It is due back at the library (only 1 copy in our state!), so I will review it early this week.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. It's a nonfiction book that he said was fascinating.
  • Now, Ken is reading a book we are both very excited about, Undivided by Neal Schusterman, the fourth and final book in the Unwind Dystology (when he couldn't wrap up the story in 3 books, they created a new term for it!). This is one of our all-time favorite series in our household, and we have been eagerly waiting to read the finale.
  • Jamie, 20, has been on a zombie kick in honor of The Walking Dead coming back to TV last week. At last count, he had read the first 5 books of the Dead series by T.W. Brown. I'm not sure if he had much reading time last week, since he moved back to college.

Only one review last week but several other posts, too:
My 2015 Reading Challenges (yes, finally!)

Review of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, audiobook

Summary of Books Read in January

Saturday Snapshot, with pics from the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the 80's

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

King Cake & Bread Pudding for dessert at our Mardi Gras party

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 2/14

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Happy Valentine's Day! But more importantly, Happy Mardi Gras Weekend! They fall on the same day this year, so I started the day wearing red, with heart earrings and heart socks. Tonight, I will swap to purple, green, and gold for our annual Mardi Gras party! If you want to celebrate, too, check out my tips and recipes (you've got until Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day).

So, in honor of our favorite holiday, here are a few pics from the real Mardi Gras, back in the 80's when we lived in New Orleans:

Balcony in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day

Awesome clown costume in the Quarter

A float moving down Canal Street

My mom and I in front of a float waiting on a side street for its parade

Me & my husband and my mom and her husband on Mardi Gras Day (1988?)

Hope you have a great weekend, and a Happy Valentine's Day & Happy Mardi Gras!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Books Read in January

January was a bit chaotic here, with our college son home sick all month (two months, actually), and our younger son recovering from a concussion. So, I got behind in a lot of things (including my blogs!), but I still managed to read. I read 7 books in January:

I read 7 books last month, and wow! So many amazing books! What a great way to start the year - this is going to be a great reading year for me. My favorite book read in January? So hard to choose! I re-read one of my top 5 favorites of all time, The Poisonwood Bible, and still loved it, but I was also blown away by Life After it's a tie! Five of my books were for adults, with two for middle-grade readers - no teen/YA last month. Two were audiobooks and two were graphic novels. And it was mostly an all-fiction month, though Smile is autobiographical.

I finally signed up for my 2015 Reading Challenges - here is a summary of my goals. I spent about half of my reading month in the UK, but I also kicked off my 2015 Where Are You Reading Challenge with 3 US states and the Congo. I started my Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015 with 3 books from my own shelves. I made a special effort last month to tackle some of those that I hope to continue! I listened to two audio books for my 2015 Audio Book Challenge. I kicked off my 2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge with one memoir. I read one book for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, and I categorized it as a novella. And for my Travel the World in Books Challenge, started in September 2014, I visited the Belgian Congo last month.

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

Fiction Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Last summer, I downloaded a free audiobook from Sync (check it out again this summer for more free audiobooks!) of the classic, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Since our sons loved his Treasure Island when they were young, I was hoping they would listen to the book with us on our road trip this summer. No such luck, but on a recent trip to visit my dad, my husband and I listened to this creepy classic during a cold, dark night in the car and thoroughly enjoyed it (while the boys kept their earbuds in, listening to their own music!).

Is there anyone left anywhere in the world who doesn’t know the basic story of Jekyll and Hyde? Just in case, here’s a quick recap with no spoilers. I was surprised to find that the story is told by a third-party, a lawyer named Mr. Utterson who is a good friend of Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Utterson walks around town every Sunday with another friend, Mr. Enfield, who is also a good friend of Dr. Jekyll. One Sunday, the two friends pass a sinister-looking and neglected door in the midst of a cheerful village street, and Mr. Enfield tells Mr. Utterson about the mysterious occupant of the house, a Mr. Hyde, who is disagreeable and seems to be uncaring and perhaps even violent.

The story reminds Mr. Utterson that his good friend Dr. Jekyll had him draw up a will for him that leaves everything to an Edward Hyde “in case of sudden death or disappearance.” The lawyer found the phrase odd at the time, but now that he’s heard some negative things about the mysterious Mr. Hyde, he is concerned that his friend may be being blackmailed or worse, that his life may be in danger. So, he proceeds to investigate, determined to find out who this Mr. Hyde is and if he means his friend harm.

You probably know how this all turns out, but it is still a fascinating and suspenseful tale. While we were listening, I wondered what it must have been like for people reading it for the very first time in 1886. It may have been more of a surprise ending for readers back then, but the complexity and thoughtfulness of the story about man's nature holds up well even today. Seeing the story unfold from Utterson’s point of view is intriguing, and the violence and suspense make it just as compelling to listen to today.

I was fascinated by this background story from Amazon on how the book was written:
The young Robert Louis Stevenson suffered from repeated nightmares of living a double life, in which by day he worked as a respectable doctor and by night he roamed the back alleys of old-town Edinburgh. In three days of furious writing, he produced a story about his dream existence. His wife found it too gruesome, so he promptly burned the manuscript. In another three days, he wrote it again. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published as a "shilling shocker" in 1886, and became an instant classic. In the first six months, 40,000 copies were sold. Queen Victoria read it. Sermons and editorials were written about it. When Stevenson and his family visited America a year later, they were mobbed by reporters at the dock in New York City. Compulsively readable from its opening pages, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is still one of the best tales ever written about the divided self.”

We were captivated by the short (4-hour) audiobook, and I was glad to finally hear the original book, since I’d only seen movies or plays of the story before. As with reading Frankenstein this fall, I enjoyed reading the original of this classic, as its author wrote it, without Hollywood embellishments.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

My 2015 Reading Challenges

Huh? It's mid-February already? How'd that happen?

Yes, I am running behind as usual, but you know my motto - Better Late Than Never!

So, here I am, finally signing up for my 2015 Reading Challenges. I am mostly signing up for the same ones (or similar ones) as I did in 2014 because they focus on the reading goals I most enjoy - chipping away at my ever-growing TBR pile (it's not a pile; it's an entire TBR bookcase at my house!), listening to audiobooks, fitting in a bit of nonfiction (especially memoirs), traveling the US and the world through my reading, and getting to some of those classics I've been meaning to read for ages. You can read my 2014 Reading Challenges Wrap-up. So, without further ado, here are my official Reading Challenge sign-ups for 2015:

The Where Are You Reading Challenge 2015 hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

I've participated in this challenge for many years now (4? 5?) and always enjoy tracking where my reading takes me. For the past 3 years straight I have read books that took place in 27 different states, so I hope to get past that milestone this year. Last year, I also read books that took place in 9 different countries.

2015 Mount TBR Challenge hosted by My Reader's Block.

I thought the name of this one was VERY appropriate for me, given how many books I have sitting in my house waiting to be read (while I continue getting books out of the library!). I only read 13 TBR books last year (ouch), half of the 26 I read the year before, so I hope to get back on track in 2015 and clear off those shelves! (or at least make a dent in them). So, I am signing up for the Mount Blanc level, shooting for 24 TBR books this year - wish me luck!

2015 Audiobook Challenge hosted by The Book Nympho and Hot Listens.
This is my second year participating in this challenge. I listened to a whopping 26 audiobooks last year, and blew my goals out of the water, so I am signing up for Binge Listener level, 20-30 audiobooks. I can listen to a lot more of them now that digital downloads are so common (and I upgraded my ancient car stereo with an iPod dock) - I pretty much always have one going on my iPod and listen while I drive, cook, do dishes, etc.

2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader.
This is my second year participating in this challenge. I especially enjoy memoirs. Last year I read 8 nonfiction books. This year, I am signing up for the same level, Explorer, aiming for 6 - 10 nonfiction books.

Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted by Books and Chocolate.
This is a different classics challenge than the one I joined last year (that one was already closed to sign-ups). This one is a bit more restrictive, counting books as classics only if published before 1965 (appropriately, my birth year), but I will give it a try. I read just 4 classics last year, so I will shoot for 6 this year. This challenge has 12 categories to aim to read from:

1.  A 19th Century Classic -- any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic -- any book published between 1900 and 1965. 

3.  A Classic by a Woman Author.

4.  A Classic in Translation. any classic book originally written or a published in a language that is not your first language.

5.  A Very Long Classic Novel -- a single work of 500 pages or longer, regular-sized print. 

6.  A Classic Novella -- any work shorter than 250 pages.  For a list of suggestions, check out this list of World's Greatest Novellas from Goodreads.

7.  A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title.  First name, last name, or both, it doesn't matter, but it must have the name of a character.   
8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic.  Humor is very subjective, so this one is open to interpretation.

9.  A Forgotten Classic.  This could be a lesser-known work by a famous author, or a classic that nobody reads any more. 

10.  A Nonfiction Classic.  A memoir, biography, essays, travel, this can be any nonfiction work that's considered a classic, or a nonfiction work by a classic author. 

11.  A Classic Children's Book.  Pick a children's classic that you never got around to reading.  

12.  A Classic Play.  Your choice, any classic play, as long as it was published or performed before 1965.  Plays are only eligible for this specific category.

Travel the World in Books Challenge, hosted by Mom's Small Victories
Back in September 2014, I added this new challenge which runs through December 2015. My goal is to read 10 books set in other places/cultures, and I have already read 5 at the end of 2014.

 So, those are my 2015 Reading Challenges! Which ones did you sign up for? 

You can follow my progress this year on my 2015 Reading Challenges page.

Monday, February 09, 2015

It's Monday 2/9! What Are You Reading?

I missed last Monday's post because we were visiting my dad and his wife in my hometown of Rochester, NY. In fact, we spent Monday driving through a blizzard to get home to Delaware, where we still have no snow. My dad has stage 4 melanoma, and we were unable to travel during the holiday season, so we were glad to finally get up there and spend some time with them.

Big news in our household over these last two weeks - our college son is finally feeling better, moved back to his apartment last week, and is starting the spring semester today (on time!). It turned out he didn't have mono after all - it was probably the flu back in November that triggered a two-month long relapse of his chronic immune illness. Rough stuff but now life is returning to normal, and we are very much relieved.

Anyway, we all read a lot in two weeks:
  • I finished Wool by Hugh Howey - it was just as good as everyone said! It's a riveting post-apocalyptic story of a future world where people live in a huge underground silo. If, like me, you haven't gotten to this popular novel yet, you don't want to miss it!
  • Now I am reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, another highly acclaimed novel that I've been waiting to read - so far this year has been packed with outstanding books! I was hooked on this one from its first pages - so glad I finally convinced my book group to read it.
  • I started and finished listening to a wonderful teen/YA audio book, Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern. It's essentially a love story between a girl with Cerebral Palsy and a boy with OCD, and it was excellent from start to finish.
  • Now I am listening to another teen/YA audio book, I Was Here by Gayle Forman. This one focuses on a teen girl named Cody who is trying to cope with the sudden and unexpected suicide of her best friend. It's very good so far, and I'm curious to see where it leads.
  • In the car on the way to Rochester, my husband and I listened to a classic on audio, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (alas, I couldn't convince either of our sons to listen with us).  It was very good - perfect for a car ride on a cold, dark night!
  • I finished Black Hole by Charles Burns, a very unique graphic novel for adults. See my review for details.
  • I moved on to a graphic memoir, Fun Home by Allison Bechtel, that is absolutely engrossing. I usually read graphic novels in short 5-10 minute bursts, but I am having trouble setting this one down.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Three by Sarah Lotz and said it was "like an X-files episode without a resolution." He didn't like it as much as I'd hoped he would (it was a Christmas gift from me), but I still want to read it myself.
  • Ken is now finishing a Kindle book he started on a recent trip, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. It's a nonfiction book that he says is fascinating.
  • Jamie, 20, was still sick much of the past two weeks (and can also read in the car, lucky boy!), and he's been on a zombie kick in honor of The Walking Dead coming back to TV this week. He finished The Apocalypse, Book 1 of the Undead World Series, by Peter Meredith and then read, at last count, the first 5 books of the Dead series by T.W. Brown!

Several new posts on the blog the past two weeks:
Review of Black Hole by Charles Burns, an adult graphic novel

Review of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, my second time and still one of my all-time favorites!

Review of When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson, a middle-grade audio book

Saturday Snapshot, with some lovely winter sky & clouds pictures

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

Winter sky at dusk

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 2/7

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Despite the frigid weather, I have been trying to get outside for walks whenever I can. Being outdoors just fills me with joy, especially if the sun is out. This time of year, there's not much to look at outside (we haven't even gotten any snow to speak of), so I have focused my camera on the sky. Here are some of my recent favorite sky/cloud pics over my neighborhood:

Pretty cloud formations


Bare branches against blue sky

Really cold out but at least the wind is blowing the clouds away!
Brrr....parka time!

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend!

Friday, February 06, 2015

Middle-Grade Review: When Marnie Was There

Originally published in 1967, When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson was recently re-released in anticipation of its new Japanese anime movie adaptation, which is due out soon (with a spring 2015 release date for the U.S.). Although I hadn’t heard of the middle-grade novel before, apparently its author was quite well known for her children’s books. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook of this gentle yet surprisingly complex story of a misfit finding her place in the world.

Anna is an orphan who lives with foster parents. She doesn’t talk much or have any friends, and her caring foster parents arrange for her to spend a season at the seaside with a kind old couple named Mr. and Mrs. Pegg, in the hopes that the fresh sea air will do her some good. Anna likes it at the shore and spends her days wandering among the sand dunes, marshes, and waves, though she is still very solitary.

One day, Anna meets a girl her age named Marnie, who lives at Marsh House, and everything changes. She and Marnie become good friends, share secrets, and spend time together – Anna has her first real friend. She feels truly happy for the first time in a long time, but then things change again when Marnie leaves suddenly and without warning. Anna is hurt and confused and misses her friend.

Soon after, a new family named the Lindsays moves into Marsh House, with five children. Emboldened by her good experiences with Marnie, Anna is fascinated by the new arrivals and is receptive when they want to be friends with her. She is soon a frequent visitor to the Marsh House and once again has friends.

An image from the upcoming movie
To that point, it all seems like a gentle, straightforward tale, but there are mysteries and secrets woven into this sweet narrative. Anna has questions about Marnie that she can’t answer, and a new discovery by one of the Lindsay children throws a new wrinkle into things. I won’t say anymore about the plot because part of the fun of this novel is the surprises uncovered along the way. It has more complexity than I first thought and is an engaging, unique story about friendship and family, both the kind you come from and the kind you make for yourself.

Listening Library

You can listen to a sample of the audio at this link: