Saturday, October 31, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 10/31 - Happy Halloween!

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

I have some lovely photos of the fall colors, but I think I will save them for next week because today is Halloween! This is one of our favorite holidays, and I am feeling nostalgic today because our sons are older now and busy with their friends & parties today. I miss the days when we spent Halloween day getting our family costumes ready! We always liked to choose a theme and dress up together. So, here is a look back at some of our best:

Super Family

Robin Hood, Little John, Maid Marion & a Knight
Star Wars Family

Pirate Family, including the Grandparents!

Older Elvis & Younger Elvis

Rock Stars
If you have kids or grandkids, enjoy all this fun while it lasts! It all goes much too fast. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Teen/YA Review: All Fall Down

I listened to All Fall Down by Ally Carter on audio last month, the first book in her Embassy Row series. It is a suspenseful teen/YA thriller with a unique setting and plot.

Grace has just moved into the U.S. Embassy in Adria (a fictional country) with her grandfather who is the U.S. Ambassador. She has visited there many summers of her childhood, but now she is moving there for good, while her army father is deployed and her older brother is off to college. Grace’s mother died three years ago, but no one is comfortable talking about her death. Grace was there when her mother died in a fire, and she is certain she saw her mother shot and murdered…but no one believes her. In fact, she spent time in a psychiatric institution because everyone thought she was delusional, due to extreme grief over losing her mother.

Grace is somewhat angry over this state of affairs, as you can imagine, and is still determined to find her mother’s murderer. She also has a long history of reckless behavior and accidents – broken bones, concussions, etc. – so everyone at the embassy is on edge, trying to keep her safe. Meanwhile, Grace is getting reacquainted with the kids she used to spend summers with on Embassy Row: Alexei, the Russian boy next door who is a friend of her brother’s and tasked by him to look out for Grace, and Megan, whom Grace played with as a child but with whom she feels she has nothing in common. There are also new teens on Embassy Row, including Noah, Grace’s self-proclaimed new best friend.

With this mix of kids between the ages of 12 and 16 from a wide range of nationalities, Grace is expected to fit in and take her proper place as the U.S. Ambassador’s grand-daughter, but she has a single-minded purpose of her own: to find her mother’s killer. This purpose takes Grace to some dangerous places and among some very dangerous people in this high-suspense, fast-paced story.

All Fall Down is a mystery and thriller set in a unique place, with a varied cast of characters. Readers get an inside view of the pomp and circumstance – and privilege – of the diplomatic lifestyle, while also rooting for Grace to stay safe and solve her mystery, even while almost everyone around her thinks she is crazy, or at least, delusional. There is also the ever-present chance that Grace’s secret investigation will cause an international incident. I really enjoyed listening to this intriguing thriller set in an exotic locale and look forward to the next book in the Embassy Row series.

Scholastic Audio

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

TV Tuesday: Quantico

One of our favorite new TV shows this season is Quantico, with an excellent ensemble cast and plenty of compelling suspense.

As the show opens in episode one, a group of new FBI recruits is making their way to Quantico, FBI headquarters, to start their training as agents. We get introduced to the main characters one by one, as they travel to Virginia and get settled into the dorms. There's Alex, played by Priyanka Chopra, a young woman of Indian descent who seems to be outgoing and fearless. Ryan, played by Jake McLaughlin, is ex-military and seems attracted to Alex. And so it goes, with the audience learning just a bit about each recruit at first. Josh Hopkins plays Special Agent Liam O'Connor who is in assisting with the recruits, and his boss, Miranda Shaw, played by Aunjanue Ellis, is in charge of the training program.

Then the show flashes forward to the present day, three years after that first day of training, when a terrorist has bombed Grand Central Station. Alex is rescued from the rubble and thinks that her old bosses, Liam and Miranda, are questioning her as a victim, but she soon learns that she is their prime suspect. When they search her apartment and find plans for the bombing and equipment for making the bombs, their suspicions are confirmed. Alex, though, claims she is innocent and manages to escape from custody.

She soon learns that whoever set her up must have been planning this since their first days at Quantico together. From there, the show goes back and forth in time, showing Alex on the run, visiting various Quantico classmates and trying to figure out who the real bomber is so she can clear her name and then flashing back to their training at Quantico. So, the audience gets to come along in recalling all that happened in their training and examining each of the recruits to try to figure out who the traitor and terrorist was. It's fast-paced, full of suspense, and very, very compelling. The characters are intriguing and complex. We watch all of our shows On Demand, and this is one of the first ones we rush to see the day after it airs. I can't wait to watch it tonight!

Five episodes of Quantico have aired so far, and they are all still available On Demand or at the ABC website. I think the show is also available on Netflix and Hulu, and episodes are $1.99 on Amazon Prime.

What are your favorite new shows this season?

Top Ten Books for Spooky October Reading

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Stop over there to join the fun!

As you've probably noticed if you've been to my blog at all in the past month, I love to devote October to reading spooky, creepy books. Halloween is a favorite holiday at our house, so this helps me get in the spirit! This doesn't necessarily mean horror fiction or something truly frightening. There are a wide variety of books with just the right amount of creepiness for your tastes. Here are some that I've enjoyed over the years:

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo is historical fiction with a supernatural twist, taking place in 1890’s Malaysia and also in the Chinese afterlife, with both a murder and plenty of ghosts adding to the spooky factor.

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian is a super-creepy novel about a family who encounters some strange things in their new town – ghosts, weird rituals, and mysteries make this a supernatural, psychological thriller.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is a thriller about a time-traveling serial killer. His ability to move through time adds a supernatural element (and makes him harder to catch). This one is a bit gruesome but, if that doesn’t bother you, it’s also riveting suspense.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman pulls back the curtain between the real world and the supernatural one, as a man remembers some strange things that happened when he was a child. It’s a coming-of-age story with elements of fairy tales, mythology, and the age-old battle between good and evil.

The Passage by Justin Cronin is the first volume of a post-apocalyptic trilogy about what happens when a secret government experiment to create super soldiers goes horribly wrong and unleashes blood-thirsty creatures on the public. There is a lot of action and suspense, but this novel also delves deeply into its characters.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger is a gentle ghost story about twin American girls who move into their British aunt’s apartment, overlooking Highgate Cemetery, after her death.

Wicked by Gregory McGuire inspired the popular Broadway musical. What’s an October reading list without a witch or two? This fun, creative fantasy novel tells the back-story behind the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz.

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent is about an entirely different sort of witch, a historical novel set during the Salem witch trials. Nothing supernatural here, but this powerful, moving story about innocent people falsely accused is disturbing in a different way.

The Dark Half by Stephen King is a spooky, supernatural tale about a writer battling his own demons. Almost any Stephen King book will fit the bill in October, but this is one of my favorites.

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is, of course, a classic monster story, but the original novel is more about philosophy and human nature than the monsters that Hollywood has created. It is a fascinating, thoughtful book about how our experiences shape us.

What are your favorite spooky or creepy books?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Movie Monday 10/26: Take Me Home

Last week while my husband was out golfing, I watched Take Me Home, an uplifting road trip movie that I really enjoyed (free on Amazon prime).

Thom, played by Sam Jaeger (who played Joel on my favorite TV show, Parenthood), is a struggling artist in NYC, a photographer who can't find a job in his field. Thrown out of his apartment and desperate, Thom turns to running an illegal cab just to stay afloat. Meanwhile, across town, Claire finds her husband in what seems to be a compromising position with an associate on the same day that she hears her long-estranged father had a heart attack. On a whim, Claire jumps in Thom's cab and just tells him to drive, anywhere. Over the next 24 hours, the two decide to drive all the way to California to see Claire's father - well, Claire decides and Thom goes along because he needs the money.

Their road trip is difficult every step of the way, with Thom hiding all sorts of secrets (like his real name and the fact that it isn't even a legitimate cab), and Claire hiding secrets of her own while she struggles internally with both her relationship with her husband and with her father. They stop in Las Vegas to see Claire's mom and eventually make it to California, with more than a few rough spots along the way! And, of course, as the trip continues, they gradually get to know each better.

I was in the mood for a romantic comedy, so this fit the bill, and I'm a sucker for a road trip movie. We used to take a 3-week road trip cross-country every summer and didn't get much of a vacation this year, so I was drooling over the travel scenes! All in all, it's a fun movie about struggling with your personal demons and figuring out what you want out of life. I enjoyed it.

NOTE: I just discovered - thanks to IMDB, that amazing store of entertainment information! - that Claire was played by Amber Jaeger, who is married to Sam Jaeger, who not only stars in this movie but also wrote it and directed it. Cool.

Have you seen any good movies lately? What's your favorite road trip movie?

It's Monday 10/26! What Are You Reading?

Yikes, how'd we get to the last week of October already?? This is my favorite month - I don't want it to end! And I have really been enjoying my spooky October reading, too. I finally felt back to my normal baseline last week so jumped back into a more normal routine - more writing and able to take walks again and get out to see friends. What a thrill! Of course, I am exhausted this morning from a busy weekend, but it was a good one.

Here's what we've been reading this past week:
  • Last night, I finished The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (one of my favorite authors!), a middle-grade dystopian fantasy about a world that favors usefulness where any child with a creative or artistic ability is labeled Unwanted and sent for Elimination, but there is a secret magical world focused on the arts. It was very good and I can't wait to read the next book in the series! This was another book for my R.I.P. X Challenge, hosted by The Estella Society
  • I am still listening to the spooky classic Dracula by Bram Stoker, a free download from SYNC this summer. It is SO good! Surprisingly suspenseful and perfectly creepy - just right for the season.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This is one of our son's favorite books and is being made into a movie AND a TV show! Ken loved it and is looking forward to book 2 (which I'm sure our son has here somewhere).
  • Now, Ken is reading Make Me, the latest Lee Child novel that I gave him for his birthday. This is his favorite author so he is enjoying it, though it is set in Oklahoma, his home state, so he's annoyed by inaccuracies in the setting! Don't you hate that?
  •  Jamie, 21, is reading The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum, Book 2 in The Necromancer Chronicles series. He is following in his mom's footsteps and chose something creepy for the end of October - that's my boy!
I was able to do a lot more writing last week but needed to focus on paying work, so I am still a bit behind in reviews for the blog....but catching up slowly! Here's what was on the blog last week:
Movie Monday: Redwood Highway, a warm, thoughtful film about family & aging

TV Tuesday: Blindspot, a compelling new thriller with a unique premise

Middle-grade Review: Doll Bones, a creepy ghost story & wonderful tale of friendship

Fiction Review: The Martian, a suspenseful sci fi thriller& now a new movie

Saturday Snapshot - we are finally seeing some fall colors here in Delaware
As you can see, I have added weekly reviews of TV shows and movies to my blog recently, so if like me, you also enjoy TV and movies as well as books, check out all of my media reviews!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday has a new host! It is now being 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 version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Fiction Review: The Martian

After hearing rave reviews of The Martian by first-time novelist Andy Weir last year, I bought copies for my father, stepfather, and husband for Father’s Day, and they all loved it! I finally had a chance to read this thriller set in space myself and really enjoyed the fast-paced suspense and humor.

As the novel opens, astronaut Mark Watney wakes up and discovers that he is alone on Mars. His crew was on the surface of the planet, but a storm forced them to evacuate. Mark doesn’t hold any grudges for them leaving him behind; he seemed to be dead, and even his suit’s automatic readouts of vital signs showed he was dead. He would have done the same thing in their shoes. But now he is left on Mars--alone--and figures it will be at least three years until the next manned mission lands there and is able to rescue him.

The problem (one of many problems) is that Mark can’t communicate with his crew or with anyone on Earth, so he has no way to let them know he is even alive…oh, and he will run out of food long before the next mission arrives. These are just the first of many serious survival issues that Mark faces throughout the course of the novel. Fortunately, Mark is really smart (he’s an astronaut, after all), his specialty is botany, and he has a strong will to live.

This novel is sort of like the movie Castaway, set in space, if the TV character McGyver were the lead character. Mark is on his own for much of the story, trying to survive and facing one obstacle after another. Each time he is faced with a life-or-death challenge, he figures out a clever way to overcome it. What keeps the story from becoming dry or dull is Mark’s dark sense of humor. The novel is written as Mark’s log of his adventures, and he is constantly cracking jokes.

Unlike Castaway, the action isn’t all just Mark. The reader also gets to see what is happening back on Earth at NASA and with his crew as they head home on their long journey. Someone at NASA eventually figures out that Mark is still alive, so that adds additional urgency to the story, as the engineers and scientists try to figure out how to rescue him, and the world watches and waits. The action flips back and forth between these different scenes, keeping the pace fast and helping to build the suspense.

Weir is a software engineer and a self-described “space nerd,” so there is a lot of science in this book, but it doesn’t bog the story down. The action, constant new challenges, and Mark’s sense of humor keep the narrative flowing smoothly and quickly (and you can just skim the science-y stuff if you like).  Real space experts at NASA have said that the science in the novel is accurate, so that adds to the intrigue and credibility of the story. I loved this warm, funny sci fi thriller just as much as the men in my family did, and I can’t wait to see the movie adaptation.

369 pages, Crown Publishers
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Saturday Snapshot 10/24

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

I am finally feeling better, back to my normal baseline, and so happy to be able to get outside and walk again! I enjoyed a couple of walks around my neighborhood plus a wonderful hike at a local park with friends yesterday, on a gorgeous fall day!

Much of my neighborhood is still green with splashes of color

Maple leaves just starting to turn red in the sunlight

A few trees have already lost their leaves!

I love the sunlight shining through yellow leaves (click to enlarge)

One brilliant red tree at the park

A lovely walk on a perfect fall day

Hope you are enjoying this lovely fall weekend!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Middle-Grade Review: Doll Bones

I enjoyed reading The Spiderwick Chronicles to my sons when they were younger, so I was eager to read a new(ish) middle-grade novel by Holly Black: the Newberry Honor-winning Doll Bones. Its blend of realistic friendship and a ghost story was perfect for this spooky season!

Twelve-year old friends Poppy, Zach, and Alice have been playing their game for years. They have an elaborate make-believe world, populated by an odd collection of action figures, old Barbies, plastic animals, and toy mermaids. When they play together after school, they work collectively and imaginatively to move the story forward, making up scenes, voicing the characters, and coming up with new ways to put their heroes in peril and have them overcome the villains. Overseeing their entire make-believe world is the Great Queen, an old bone china doll that sits in a glass-fronted cabinet in Poppy’s living room.

All of them, but especially Zach, know that they may soon outgrow their beloved game and pretend world, but none of them is ready for that just yet. Zach’s father, however, wants his son to give up his childish pursuits and focus on basketball, and one evening, he does something that forces Zach to give up the game. Angry and embarrassed, Zach doesn’t admit to his two friends what his father has done but just tells them that he doesn’t want to play anymore.

Their longtime friendship is on perilous ground when Poppy pulls the threesome together again to tell them that she’s been having frightening dreams. In her dreams, the Queen claims to be the ghost of a little girl who will not rest until the china doll is put into the grave where she belongs. Zach and Alice don’t know what to think. Is Poppy just making up stories to get the game restarted?

Poppy’s fear and urgency seems real, though, so the three friends set off on one last adventure together, to lay the Great Queen to rest, as she has instructed in Poppy’s dreams. Their short trip turns into a bigger journey than they bargained for, with challenges encountered at every turn, almost like one of their pretend games…but this is real life, and the friends might be in real danger. Besides, strange things keep happening with the china doll, making them wonder whether there really is a ghost.

I absolutely loved this fast-paced, supernatural adventure. The ghost story is perfectly creepy without being too scary, and the real-life challenges the kids face keep the story exciting and moving quickly. Best of all, Black writes about middle-grade friendship as if she clearly remembers her own adolescence. I especially loved the scenes of their pretend game because it reminded me exactly of the way my sons and their friends used to play – with a motley collection of animals, action figures, and other toys and a huge dose of imagination, making up amazing stories that went on and on. Poppy, Zach, and Alice come alive in these pages, and I was rooting for them to succeed in their quest and come home safely, with their friendship intact. Just describing it makes me want to read it all over again.

244 pages, McElderberry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)

For middle-grade kids who enjoy not-too-scary ghost stories, you might also try these great books by renowned children's authors this Halloween season: Leisl & Po by Lauren Oliver, The Graveyard Book (another Newberry winner) by Neil Gaiman, and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

TV Tuesday 10/20: Blindspot

Now that we're a few weeks into the new fall TV season, I thought I'd start focusing on some of the newer shows we've tried. As I've mentioned here before, my husband and I usually watch two TV shows together each evening - that's our together time, and there are lots of shows we enjoy together. Our 21-year old son lives at college (about 20 min away), but each season, there are a couple of TV shows that he wants us to save and watch with him when he comes home on Sundays. One of those is the new NBC thriller, Blindspot.

Blindspot has a unique central plot: the first episode opens with a woman found in Times Square, naked and with no memory...and covered head to toe in mysterious tattoos. The FBI brings the Jane Doe, played by Jaimie Alexander (she was in both Thor movies), back to their field office and lab. One of her tattoos - placed prominently on her back - is the name of an FBI agent, so they call him in. Agent Kurt Weller, played by Sullivan Stapleton, doesn't recognize the woman, but he is intrigued by the mystery and especially why he was specifically called out.

From then on, the FBI agents, led by Weller, investigate her tattoos one at a time, aided by Agent Patterson in the lab, played by Ashley Johnson (whom I recognized from her roles as a child in Growing Pains and Phenom). For instance, they notice a date hidden in one of the tattoos that is that very day, so they focus on that one immediately. None of the tattoos are straight-forward - they are each unique and coded in some way. After a few episodes, you begin to see that each tattoo leads them to some sort of crime about to take place, but none of the crimes seem to be connected in any way.

With each episode focusing on a different crime, the show unfolds in some ways like your typical crime show, with the detectives/investigators trying to figure out the crime and catch the bad guys. But, woven throughout are the mysterious tattoos and Jane's and Weller's quest to figure out who she is, where she came from, and who did this to her (and why). She does begin to get flashes of memory here and there, but they don't make much sense at first. We have watched three episodes of Blindspot so far and are hooked! The long-term mysteries plus the new investigations each episode make it a compelling, action-packed show with plenty of suspense and intriguing characters.

Five episodes of Blindspot have aired so far, and all of them are still available On Demand and on the NBC website (though the first is scheduled to come off Demand in about a week). Episodes are $1.99 each on Amazon Prime and are also available on Netflix.

What new fall shows are you enjoying?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Movie Monday 10/19: Redwood Highway

My husband and I have been too busy during our TV time together, watching all the great new shows that just started (and some old favorites), so we haven't had much time left for movies. But I did what I have been doing lately and watched a quieter, mellower movie on my own while he was out golfing last week.

I chose Redwood Highway, a warm, thoughtful film about family and aging that won awards at several film festivals. Award-winning actress Shirley Knight stars as Marie, a woman in her 70's who is living in a retirement home - and is not very happy about it. James Le Gros stars as Michael, her adult son, whom she argues with frequently. Her grand-daughter is getting married soon, but Marie disapproves - she feels she is too young at 22 (and she's marrying a musician!). At first, Marie refuses to attend the wedding, but one night, thinking back over her own wedding and other events from her past, she abruptly changes her mind and decides to attend the wedding on the coast...and walk all the way there, 80 miles away.

Most of the movie follows Marie on her journey, as she heads down the Redwood Highway (Oregon) toward the coast, through gorgeous parks and forests. She starts out a little rough, with the expected problems - terrible blisters, exhaustion, frustration - but she meets a kind stranger in one town named Pete, played by Tom Skerritt, who helps her with both first aid and emotional support and gives her the strength to continue. Marie camps along the way (she is obviously an experienced backpacker from years past) and meets other interesting people - most of them very kind, some not so much.

As she walks, Marie has plenty of time to think (as one does while long-distance hiking!) and revisits her past, finally facing up to some haunting memories. Meanwhile, while she is on this journey of discovery, her son and grand-daughter are panicked that she has gone missing and have police and search parties looking for her. I really enjoyed this quiet, contemplative movie. As a past backpacker myself, I loved all the natural beauty and scenes of hiking and camping and was glad to go along with Marie on her journey of re-awakening. It's a lovely, thoughtful film.

Redwood Highway is currently available free on Amazon Prime and on Netflix, as well as on DVD.

Have you seen any good movies lately?

It's Monday 10/19! What Are You Reading?

Quiet Monday morning home alone, after a nice weekend with my family. Spent Saturday evening with my husband, then he left for a business trip Sunday, and I had both of my sons home for dinner and even some TV together - very nice!

Lots of good books last week, and I am really enjoying my annual spooky October reading!
  • I finished The Three by Sarah Lotz for my R.I.P. X Challenge - I gave it to my husband and father last year and am glad I finally got to it. It's the story of 4 simultaneous plane crashes that left only 3 children as survivors and is told in a journalistic way, with accounts from many different people involved in different ways. It was very compelling and creepy!
  • Now, I am reading The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (one of my favorite authors!), a middle-grade dystopian fantasy about a world that favors usefulness where any child with a creative or artistic ability is labeled Unwanted and sent for Elimination, but there is a secret magical world focused on the arts. This is a different kind of October read but is very good so far.
  • I finished the teen/YA audiobook The Cemetery Boys by Heather (Zac) Brewer and really enjoyed it. It combines an engaging, realistic story about a teen boy struggling with major changes in his life with some supernatural creepiness - another perfect fit for October and my R.I.P. X Challenge!
  • Now, I am listening to a spooky classic: Dracula by Bram Stoker, a free download from SYNC this summer. It is excellent so far - such a creepy tone! The voices on the audio are great, especially that of the Count himself. In an odd way, it actually adds to the foreboding to know basically how the story goes.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This is one of our son's favorite books and is being made into a movie AND a TV show
  • Jamie, 21, is still reading The Blood King by Gail Z. Martin, book 2 in the Chronicles of the Necromancer series, another epic fantasy series. He really enjoyed book 1, The Summoner, so he is looking forward to the rest of the series.
I didn't have time (or energy) to write as many book reviews as I'd hoped last week (still behind!), but I managed a few blog posts:
Movie Monday: The Life Before Her Eyes, starring Uma Thurman, a haunting movie about friendship & tragedy, based on a novel

TV Tuesday: The Good Wife and Madam Secretary - two excellent shows about powerful women

Fiction Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, plus a discussion of the controversies

Saturday Snapshot - First signs of fall in my neighborhood

As you can see, I have added weekly reviews of TV shows and movies to my blog recently, so if like me, you also enjoy TV and movies as well as books, check out all of my media reviews!

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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Saturday Snapshot 10/17

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

I finally got out of the house a bit this week and took a (very slow!) walk around my block for the first time since August! We are still mostly green here, but I noticed some fall color slowly creeping into our trees:

We used to have lots of mums - these are the only ones left!

Neighbor's yellow trees among all the green

My shadow with a few fall leaves

Red & yellow (same yellow tree - different view)

Mix of green and yellow leaves in the sunlight

Enjoy this lovely fall weekend!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fiction Review: Go Set a Watchman

I read Harper Lee’s iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time about ten years ago and immediately fell in love with it, as have so many before me. I discovered it was not about hunting, as I thought when I saw it on my parents’ shelves as a child, but was the quintessential story of childhood, told with warmth and humor, alongside a story of historical racial inequity and injustice. The novel quickly rose to my favorites of all time, and I experienced a genuine affection for both Scout, its six-year old narrator, and her dignified, loving lawyer father, Atticus, who defended a man against false charges, without regard for the color of his skin.

As most people know (unless you spent this summer on another planet), a new/old novel of Harper Lee’s was released in July this year, Go Set a Watchman. The story behind this book is that it was Lee’s first novel that she sent to her publisher, about a grown young woman named Jean Louise (childhood nickname Scout) who returns home from NYC to visit the small Alabama town in which she grew up. The publisher responded that what they liked most about it was the flashbacks of Jean Louise recalling her childhood and the times she spent with her brother, Jem, and friend, Dill. They asked her if she could write a different novel, based on the same characters but focused on the girl’s childhood instead. And, thus, To Kill a Mockingbird was written, that first novel was filed away somewhere, and the rest is history.

According to the publisher, that first novel was recently re-discovered in some old archives. When they realized what they had, they obtained permission from Harper Lee (who is now 89 and living in a nursing home), and finally, after all these years, published that first manuscript. Criticisms, controversies, and gossip have surrounded this book’s publication, and everyone involved in books and reading seems to have an opinion. As for me? I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and was thrilled to have something new (old) from Harper Lee to read. My husband gave it to me for my birthday this summer, and I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, though it is quite different from Mockingbird in some ways (and wonderfully familiar in others).

As the novel opens, Jean Louise (aka Scout) is 26 years old and has been living in New York City, working to become a writer. She returns home to Maycomb County, as she has each of the past five years, for a visit. She is eager to see her beloved father, Atticus, her aunt, Alexandria, and her longtime friend, now-boyfriend, Henry Clinton, who meets her at the train station. Her old house is now the site of an ice cream parlor, but little else has changed in Maycomb County on the surface. The town seems to have stood still while the rest of the world moved on around it.

This novel is very much a coming-of-age story (although its main character is a bit older than is typical – perhaps think of it as a second coming-of-age) about learning to think for yourself and separating from your parents. After living in New York City in the 1950’s, Jean Louise has a very different outlook on life and the larger world than she did as a child whose only point of reference was her small Southern town. Although her affection for Atticus remains, you can begin to see signs of conflict between the two, as Jean Louise’s more modern and evolved points of view come up against those of the traditional South. The two debate issues, as they always have, but there is more of an edge to their arguments than there used to be. It’s the classic struggle of a child growing up and beginning to see that her parent is perhaps not the perfect ideal she’d always thought but a normal, flawed human being.

On this visit home, Jean Louise notices – perhaps for the first time – certain inequities in the way the races are treated and a stark contrast to the way things are in New York. Moreover, she notices differences in the whole social fabric of her town – obvious tensions where before, especially from her child’s perspective, there were none. A visit to her beloved Calpurnia, the black woman who cared for her and Jem and Atticus for decades, is especially disturbing to Jean Louise.  She even conflicts with Henry, with whom she’d had an uncomplicated relationship until now.

Jean Louise peeks in on a town meeting, which Atticus is attending, that especially upsets her. Eventually, tensions come to a head and she finally confronts Atticus about his actions and her own thoughts and feelings. They have a lengthy, angry argument over civil rights, racial inequality, and state’s rights. When she was a child, things seemed to be simple and straightforward to her, but now it all seems to be shades of gray. In and among the tensions and arguments, however, are interspersed Jean Louise’s remembrances of her childhood: warm, funny scenes exactly like those in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I enjoyed this novel overall. Although To Kill a Mockingbird feels more polished (probably due to a lengthier editing process in which she was directly involved), it is a more idealistic and nostalgic novel. In contrast, Go Set a Watchman is a grittier, probably more realistic novel, filled with tension, but also more thoughtful and thought provoking. My one criticism is that it can veer slightly into the preachy, with lengthy speeches by both Jean Louise and Atticus. It is the kind of novel that you have to keep setting aside briefly and thinking about, mulling over the arguments of the two main characters.

It seems clear that Lee’s first novel was written in 1957 to provoke debate on civil rights and was very likely deemed too controversial by her publisher. Reading it now, in 2015, it is still controversial, though for different reasons. Overall, though, I found it to be an engaging, thoughtful story of both a young woman growing up and changing, as well as a nation and town’s struggle with changes. As you can tell from this lengthy review and the additional discussion below, this novel really made me think…and I like that in a book.

 278 pages, HarperCollins

The Controversies:
(no spoilers here if you have heard anything at all about Go Set a Watchman in the media – I only touch on the headlines in the media, not any specific plot points)

Much has been made about the difference in Atticus in this novel versus To Kill a Mockingbird – headlines screaming that he’s a racist, vitriolic rants about destroying a beloved literary hero, and criticisms that it’s not the same Atticus. But I think that most of those detractors have missed one very important point: this novel takes place twenty years later. The 1950’s were the beginning of a great social change in the United States, a change that Jean Louise would have seen in New York but which was slow to come to rural Alabama (and still would be, even ten years later).

Although this is a novel about a young woman growing up, becoming independent, and learning to separate from her father, it is also a novel about a specific time and place in history. As such, it describes the great changes coming to our nation, and the way that those changes were vehemently fought against, especially in the South. It shows the growing tensions between the races and the ardent battle – which carried on for decades – to preserve a way of life in the South.

As for Atticus himself, To Kill a Mockingbird never portrays him as being for racial equality – in fact, the concept of civil rights barely existed yet in the 1930’s, when the novel takes place, and certainly not in the Deep South. Yes, Atticus does defend a black man in the novel’s famous courtroom scene, but my perception was that that was more about standing up for injustice. Atticus saw an innocent man wrongly accused, and he defended him without regard for his skin color because for Atticus, justice and the law were paramount. Remember also, that all of To Kill a Mockingbird was told from the perspective of a young child, a child who worshipped her larger-than-life father.

I won’t spoil the details, but in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus and Jean Louise engage in an in-depth discussion about racial equality and civil rights. Things are different now in Maycomb in the 1950’s than they were twenty years earlier, as they were everywhere. Blacks were no longer keeping to themselves, living in their own section of town and having jobs where they mainly served whites in various capacities. Instead, they were integrating more into general society, asking for equal rights and demanding to be treated fairly. Many southerners saw this as a frightening change. In addition – and more importantly for Atticus – the Supreme Court had gotten involved and was making integration and desegregation federal issues. As you’ll see in this novel, Atticus is a staunch believer in states’ right and was against these federal incursions into what he saw as the domain of the states. Finally, in this novel, Atticus does explain to Jean Louise that his presence during the town meeting does not mean that he agreed with everything that was said by others.

So, is Atticus a racist in Go Set a Watchman? He may be from today’s perspective, but I don’t think it’s a simple question to answer for the time and place that the novel takes place and given his position on states’ rights. After reading the novel, I don’t believe that Lee intended to make him a villain here; I think she was trying to dig into the complexities in the issues, as evidenced by Atticus’ and Scout’s intense debate. I also think she was showing how the times were changing and the gaps between North and South and between the younger generation and the older. I believe she succeeds in showing that these were complex issues at the time, issues that young Jean Louise was struggling with, both internally and with her beloved father and hometown.

Those are my thoughts, and much has been written on these topics in the media. I would love to know what YOU think. If you’ve read Go Set a Watchman, tell me what your take on it was.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

TV Tuesday: The Good Wife and Madam Secretary

This week's TV Tuesday features two powerful women in excellent back-to-back shows on CBS on Sundays (though we never watch anything when it actually airs anymore!): The Good Wife and Madam Secretary.  Both shows are top-notch: smart, funny, and engaging with excellent writing and casts. My husband and I were thrilled to see both shows return for new seasons two weeks ago.

The Good Wife, starring Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, just started its seventh season, and it hasn't lost any steam. At the beginning of season 1, the show began with Alicia's husband, Peter Florrick, former State's Attorney for Cook County (Chicago), going to jail after a sex and corruption scandal that rocked the city and left Alicia in the spotlight. Publicly, she literally stands by her man in the press conferences, but behind the scenes, she is furious with him for cheating on her - and in such a lurid, public way (he was caught repeatedly with prostitutes). Alicia works hard to protect her two teen children from the media and her husband's scandal. With Peter in jail, Alicia has to go back to work, after 15 years as a stay-at-home mom. She gets a job with a prestigious law firm - Stern, Lockhart & Gardner - though she must start out as an Associate, along with a lot of younger lawyers just out of law school. Will Gardner, one of the firm's partners, was a classmate of hers back in law school, and it seems they might have been more than friends back then.

I won't go into much of the details beyond that starting point, because this show is filled with wonderful plot twists that we never saw coming. Alicia builds her new career, while juggling motherhood, and Peter eventually gets out of jail and resumes his politic career (this is America, after all). I loved Julianna Margulies in ER in the old days, and she is absolutely spectacular as Alicia and has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for this role. The rest of the cast is just as good, with Chris Noth as the charismatic Peter, and Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart (another of the firm's partners). Alan Cumming is one of our favorites as Eli Gold, Peter's campaign manager, as is Archie Panjabi as the sexy, mysterious investigator Kalinda Sharma. We were late to this show, finally listening to all the rave reviews from friends and family one summer, when we got the DVDs from the library and binge-watched 3 seasons in a row! You can watch the early seasons free on Amazon Prime or Netflix, and the latest season (2 episodes so far) is available On Demand and on the CBS website (seasons 1 and 7).

As if that wasn't enough, last year CBS also added Madam Secretary to its line-up, and we were soon hooked on that show as well. Tea Leoni stars as Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA operative who is named Secretary of State by the President, who is a former colleague of hers. Right from her first day, it is obvious that Elizabeth is going to do things her way, as her staff, headed by Bebe Neuwirth, rushes to adjust to her open, straight-forward approach. Each episode tackles a new international crisis of some sort - everything from hostages to informants to potential war - which keeps the plots fresh and interesting. If you could find any criticism with the show, it would be that they always manage to solve major world crises in an hour-long show, but we find it easy enough to just go along for the ride because it is so much fun.

At home, Elizabeth is married to World Religions scholar Henry McCord, played by Tim Daly, and they have three children ranging from young teens to young adult. In addition to her constantly changing duties as Secretary of State, Elizabeth must also juggle whatever crises come up with her family. The entire cast here - from Elizabeth's staff to her family and beyond - are all excellent and great fun to watch. There is a lot of chemistry between her staff members and plenty of humor, too, throughout the show. Tea Leoni has always been one of my favorite actresses - she was great in movies like House of D, The Family Man, and Ghost Town, and her crying scene in Spanglish is one of my all-time favorites! She's wonderful in Madam Secretary, as is Tim Daly, and the script is clever, suspenseful, and funny. You can catch up on Season 1 on Netflix or on Amazon Prime (though not free there), and season 2 is currently available On Demand and on the CBS website.