Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 4/30: Spring in Full Bloom

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

Our roller coaster spring continues (though no more snow). Yesterday it was in the 40's, dark, and rainy, and I was wearing a sweater and heavy coat. A week ago it was 82, and I was in shorts! Despite the crazy weather, everything continues to bloom - here are a few highlights from our neighborhood (plus my son's prom picture from last night - couldn't resist!):

Our own messy but blooming garden, with daffodils & grape hyacinth

Dogwood in bloom in our woods

Buds bursting out on the trees

Neighbor's tree - not sure what it is but beautiful!

My son & his girlfriend ready for his Senior Prom last night

With their friends - four years has gone by fast!

Hope you are enjoying a great weekend!

Teen/YA Review: Salt to the Sea

I was so bowled over by Ruta Sepetys’ first novel, Between Shades of Gray, that I gave it to my teen cousin for her birthday (she likes historical fiction), and she went crazy over it, too. So, when I heard that Sepetys had another historical novel coming out, also set in the World War II time period, I pre-ordered copies for both my cousin and me. We were both blown away by Salt to the Sea, a powerful, moving novel about a virtually unknown historical event that affected many thousands of people.

Salt to the Sea follows four young people, all in their mid- to late teens, in 1945 as they each make their way across East Prussia to the port of Pilau, Poland, to hopefully board a ship and be evacuated away from the rapidly advancing Russians. Each of the main characters is introduced gradually, through alternating chapters. Joana is Lithuanian but has been living in East Prussia, working as a nurse, for the past four years. She is leading a small ragtag group of refugees cross-country to the coast. Florian is a bit of an enigma for much of the novel. He is Prussian but is clearly in fear of both the Russians and the Nazis. Florian comes across Emilia, a Polish girl of only fifteen, who is on her own and in dire danger from a Russian soldier when Florian finds her. They tentatively join Joana’s group for a while, while their wounds heal, though Florian is obviously anxious to be on his own again. Alfred is about the same age as the others but in completely different circumstances. He is serving in the German navy, proud to be a Nazi, and currently assigned to the port, helping to prepare several large ships for evacuating both citizens and wounded soldiers.

The story centers on one particular evacuation ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, that was a real historic ship, though few have heard of it. In fact, its sinking was the deadliest disaster in maritime history, killing approximately 9,000 people, mostly civilians and about 5,000 of them children. For comparison, about 1,500 people died when the Titanic sunk. As the author explains in a note at the end of the book, this was just one of several huge evacuation ships destroyed in the Baltic Sea at that time, killing approximately 25,000 people total, mostly civilians. Yet, we never hear about these disasters in history class.

The novel expertly weaves these four young people’s stories together to create a picture of the desperation felt during those frantic months, while people tried to escape from the advancing Russians. This is not a military story of war but a tale of ordinary people, trying to save themselves, their children, and their families. Some were Polish, some Lithuanian, some Prussian, some German, but they were all in the same desperate circumstances, all rushing toward the port cities in the bitter winter weather, trying their best to find food and shelter and stay warm and alive.

As the novel continues, the four main characters’ lives continue to intersect in sometimes surprising ways. I always enjoy novels that focus on connections between people like that. We also learn more about each of the individuals as the story progresses, and there are plenty of surprises along the way. There is even a little link to the characters in Between Shades of Gray, a wink to readers who enjoyed that first book. All of that intricate story-telling is set against a fascinating historical backdrop that most of us alive today can’t even begin to imagine that will be particularly shocking for teens readers of about the same ages as the main characters.

The result is a fast-paced, suspenseful, emotionally powerful tale of survival against all odds. As with her first two novels, Sepetys is a talented writer who immerses you in the lives of the characters and makes them feel real. I came to care about each of them (well, most of them) and was rooting for them to survive and thrive. The entire novel is a page-turner but the last part, once they board the ship, is especially tense and riveting. Sepetys has done it again, with a powerful, engaging novel filled with characters who feel real, set against a little-known historical event that deserves to be recognized.

448 pages, Philomel Books (imprint of Penguin Random House) 
Listening Library

P.S. I mentioned two of Sepetys’ novels here, Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea, because they both take place in roughly the same time period and focus on little-known but important historical events. However, Sepetys wrote another novel, in between these two, that was also very good. Out of the Easy is set in 1950’s New Orleans, about a teen girl whose mother is a prostitute.

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.


Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.


Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!


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


You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!



Or you can order Salt to the Sea from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fiction Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

About a year ago, my neighborhood book group read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (my review at the link) by Rachel Joyce and overwhelmingly enjoyed it. We loved its sense of humor but also its emotional depth and found plenty to discuss. So, when I saw the companion novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, sitting on a shelf near the checkout desk at my library, I grabbed it. Like Harold Fry, this follow-up novel by Joyce has the same perfect mix of warmth, humor, and reflection.

It’s not completely necessary to have read Harold Fry first, but I’d recommend it. In that novel, a retired man named Harold takes off on an unplanned journey – really more of a quest – to visit his old friend, Queenie. After 20 years of not hearing from Queenie after they’d worked together, Harold receives a postcard from her, explaining that she is in hospice, dying. Harold sets out to mail a letter in return and, instead, ends up walking the entire length of England to see her.

In this companion novel, we see this same journey from Queenie’s perspective. She receives a postcard from Harold when he begins his walk, asking her to wait for him, and she – and the rest of the hospice residents – set off on their own emotional journey to wait for Harold. The excitement grows as his incredible walk continues and they receive postcard updates, and eventually, Harold’s pilgrimage is covered in the news. The reader meets all of Queenie’s fellow residents, plus the nuns who are caring for them. They are mostly strangers at the start of the novel, to each other as well as to us, who become friends as the story continues.

Meanwhile, Queenie is undertaking her own personal journey, struggling with her late-stage cancer disabilities to write to Harold as he walks. She wants to explain why she left so abruptly twenty years earlier, why she never got in touch with him again, and what happened all those years ago that he never knew about. Just as Harold struggled with his own internal demons as he walked in the first novel, here, Queenie battles her own demons and works through them on paper as she waits. She also describes the new life she has made for herself these past twenty years, in her little cottage along the shore. I especially loved her descriptions of her sea garden (and flipped back often to the lovely drawing of it at the front of the book by Laura Hartman Maestro).

The chapters alternate between what is happening now, in the hospice, with Queenie and the other residents and their caregivers and what happened over twenty years ago, as Queenie writes her lengthy letter to Harold. We see the causes and effects and how the events of so long ago still impact Queenie’s life now. As Queenie writes and tells her story, surprises are gradually revealed. The events of the present are just as engaging, though, as Harold’s journey gives the patients something to live for and they gradually open up to each other and become not just friends, but family in those last days of their lives.

Although Harold Fry is still my favorite of the two novels, for the clever way that Harold’s physical journey mirrored his emotional one, as layers peeled away while he walked, I enjoyed Queenie Hennessy very much and for similar reasons. Joyce has a wonderful way of weaving humor into the story, even as difficult or sad events are occurring. As you might expect from a novel set in a hospice, there is a lot of death in this story. That was difficult at times for me, since I just lost my father to cancer last summer, but it was also cleansing and comforting – I only wish that his hospice had been as wonderful as Queenie’s!

Despite the sad circumstances of the story, there are times when it is laugh-out funny, as when one of the hospice residents struggles to explain to one of the nuns what a “Brazilian” is, after joking about losing her hair! This novel is a warm, funny, introspective examination of life and death, of mistakes and amends made, of love and friendship. I filled pages and pages of my Quote Journal with beautifully written passages that felt like they perfectly described my own life as well as Queenie’s. I enjoyed its combination of humor, poignancy, and philosophy and was sorry to say goodbye finally to both Harold and Queenie.

362 pages, Random House


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

TV Tuesday: Orphan Black

I had planned to write about another show today but just realized that I've never reviewed our all-time favorite TV show, Orphan Black. This unique sci fi thriller with a sense of humor is so stunningly good that when we first discovered it, my husband, son, and I binge-watched the entire first season in a matter of days! The fourth season has just started, so this is a great time to catch up.

In the first episode, Sarah Manning, a sharp-tongued street-smart Brit in Canada, is standing on a train platform when she see a woman who looks exactly like her step in front of an oncoming train and kill herself. Shocked and horrified, Sarah grabs the woman's wallet so she can find out who she was and runs off. The mystery woman's ID identifies her as Beth Childs, and Sarah sees from her photo that she was absolutely identical to Sarah. An orphan brought up in foster care, Sarah doesn't know of any genetic family members, but the temptation to take advantage of the situation is great.

Sarah assumes Beth's identity, with the goal of cleaning out her bank account to help her out of the difficult situation she is in. She discovers that Beth was a police officer, and taking on her identity gets more and more complicated. She meets Beth's boyfriend, Paul, and her partner, Art. She also meets other women who are identical to her, one at a time. Each one is unique in hairstyle, clothing, and other aspects of outward appearance, but they are clearly identical. In fact, Sarah soon learns they are clones.

I don't want to give away any more of the plot because there are surprises around every corner in this fast-paced thriller, but it keeps you guessing...and watching. Tatiana Maslany is absolutely amazing as Sarah - and all of the other clones! - juggling multiple roles, looks, accents and more in a way that seems impossible. There is Allison, the high-energy suburban mom; Cosina, the dredlocked scientist; evil Rachel; and Helena (possibly our favorite), the wild-eyed Ukrainian who will protect her "sestras"at all costs. The clones gradually meet each other and band together, trying to get to the bottom of the convoluted mystery of who they are and where they came from. One of the best scenes in the show is a clone dinner party at the end of season 3 when they are all in the same room together - awesome.

Supporting Tatiana in her multiple roles are other excellent actors. Our hands-down favorite is Jordan Gavaris as Sarah's snarky, flamboyantly gay foster-brother, Felix, who provides a lot of laughs on the show and often wears just an apron over his naked body when working on a piece of art. Kevin Hanchard is intense and concerned as Beth's cop partner, Art. Maria Doyle Kennedy plays Sarah and Felix's caring foster mom, Siobhan, who knows a bit about Sarah's mysterious beginnings. Another of our favorites is Kristian Bruun as Donnie, Allison's husband - those two are fabulous together, especially in later seasons. And little Skyler Wexler is absolutely adorable as Kira, Sarah's beloved daughter.

The excellent acting, wholly unique plot full of surprises, non-stop action, and complex ever-growing mysteries make this an outstanding show in every respect. It is incredibly addictive. Watch the first episode of the first season, and I guarantee you will want to watch them all! Just writing about it makes me want to watch the latest episode (but we promised to wait for our college son to come home after exams later this week).

Orphan Black is produced by BBC America and filmed in Canada. Here in the US, it is available On Demand through cable (season four currently airing). Amazon Prime has the first five  seasons of Orphan Black available to subscribers for free (that alone is worth the fee!).

Monday, April 25, 2016

It's Monday 4/25! What Are You Reading?

Whew...only noon on Monday, and I am exhausted! What a morning - started with my typical Monday - making breakfast & refilling medication boxes for our college son and I (a convoluted task that takes about 90 minutes each week). Then, my high school son got up with a high fever and severe sore throat and swollen glands. So, I ran him to the doctor's office (yup, strep, as we suspected), then of course, the requisite trip to the drugstore for antibiotics, back home to make him lunch, and oh, yeah, get back to refilling the weekly meds. Whew.

This is a rough re-entry after taking all day Saturday "off" to participate in Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon. It was my first time (and I did not stay up round the clock!), but it was such a wonderful relaxing break to spend a whole day with my husband, mostly reading (with a few TV breaks with him). I could use another day like that now!!

So, here's what we read last week:
  • My first task for the Readathon was to finish the last ten pages of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce, companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I loved!).  It was nice to return to those familiar characters, and it had the same sort of philosophical tone to it, which I loved, though the topic was a bit difficult for me. It takes place entirely in hospice, where Queenie is waiting for Harold.
  • Next on Saturday, I started Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz for an online book group, and read over 200 pages in one day! So much fun. This is an odd but very entertaining book - a tense thriller that is filled with humor and irony, where the bad guys are clowns (yup, killer clowns - no joke).
  • On audio last week, I finished a middle-grade audiobook, Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins. At first I thought it was just a cute little story, but it turned out to have a lot more depth to it than I first thought. It was very good & will appeal to younger middle-grade readers.
  • For Readathon, I started (and finished!) a new middle-grade audio book, The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick, about a town's experiences in northern New Hampshire when a solar flare knocks out power all over the world. It was absolutely riveting!
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. When he heard how much we liked it at book group and that it was a mystery/thriller, he was sold. He also enjoyed it very much.
  • Over the weekend, Ken started The Crossing by Michael Connelly, a cross-over novel starring both of his famous characters, Harry Bosch and The Lincoln Lawyer (if you are a Bosch fan, check out my review of the Bosch TV show). Ken planned to participate in Readathon with me, but our cable's Watchathon was too much of a temptation, and he ended up watching an entire season of The Walking Dead instead!
  • Jamie, 21, is still re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth, in preparation for reading book 3. 
  • Craig, 18, is reading To Live by Yu Hua for his World Lit class. His older brother read it when he was in high school, too. He says it's a lot better than Like Water for Chocolate so far! ha ha - that wasn't one of his favorites.
Lots of blog posts last week:
Movie Monday: Ex Machina, a sci fi psychological thriller that we all enjoyed

TV Tuesday: Bosch, a fabulous TV show based on the best-selling book series

Author Talk: Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys on the Boat

YA Memoir Review: Becoming Maria by Sonia Manzano, the actress who played Maria on Sesame Street (I loved it!)

My Summary of Books Read in March, a good reading month!

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon Kick-Off

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon Wrap-Up

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, April 24, 2016

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon Wrap-Up

The Readathon is officially over! It was so much fun! It is truly rare for me to completely take a day off from all of my responsibilities and that nagging to-do list and even rarer (never?) for me to spend an entire day reading, so I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I did the Readathon my own way (which the organizers assured me was just fine!), so I didn't read the entire 24 hours (nor even a full 12). I have a chronic illness that requires a lot of sleep, including a daytime nap, so I listened to my body and stuck to my normal sleep schedule - all-nighters are definitely a thing of the past for me. I did read until 10:45 pm, though, which is pretty late for me! So, there really wasn't anything difficult about the Readathon for me since I worked my reading around my normal routine for the sake of my health - nothing but reading pleasure!

My son and his girlfriend were here in the morning before they headed to the beach, so I took time to make a big breakfast & enjoy their company (but I listened to my audio book while cooking!). We had easy leftovers for lunch & dinner since my husband hosted a retirement party Friday night, so that worked out well. And I even took some breaks to watch TV with my husband, while we ate and in the evening. Hey, the kids were away for the weekend and it was Saturday night! I couldn't read right through date night.

So, what DID I read? Here's the run-down:
  • 10 pages - I finished The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce, companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I loved. The follow-up was very good, too.
  • 205 pages - I started Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz for one of my book groups and got a little more than halfway, which I count as a great accomplishment! It's an oddly entertaining book - a gripping thriller with a great sense of humor & irony, where clowns are the bad guys.
  • 23 chapters - I continued listening to my current audio book, The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick, whenever I needed to do something that prevented me from reading. I am LOVING this suspenseful middle-grade sci fi thriller about a solar flare knocking out all power on earth.
So, yay for me! I met my goals and thoroughly enjoyed my break from normal life and am now in the middle of two excellent books that I can't wait to read more of. I will definitely plan to participate in another Readathon...and once my youngest son is in college this fall, I will have more flexibility to read even more!

My husband started doing the Readathon with me (he's currently reading The Crossing by Michael Connelly), but this weekend was also the end of our cable company's Watchathon Week, and catching up on the entire season of The Walking Dead won out for him! He was seriously obsessed yesterday.

Did you participate in Readathon? How did it go? Are you asleep now? back to real life. I guess I better peek at that to-do list and see what is urgent...

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Today is Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon!

(drumroll, please)....For the first time ever, I am participating in a 24-Hour Readathon! Woohoo! You can read all about Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon here and see who else is participating. I live in Delaware in the U.S.

In truth, my version will be more like a 12-hour readathon, with a break for my daily nap. Because of my chronic illness, I can't actually skip any of my usual sleep and stay up reading the whole time, like some do, but the organizers assured me this is just fine - everyone does it their own way!

In fact, I also don't have any special snacks planned - again, because of my illness, it's important for me to stick to my usual diet and meals. I've already spent an hour making & eating breakfast for/with my family (though I was listening to my audio book while cooking!) and was planning to make dinner, too...but we do have LOADS of leftovers from a retirement party my husband hosted for a friend last night, so maybe we will just eat chicken fingers, mini crab cakes, veggies & hummus, and chips & salsa for dinner again tonight!

I also don't have huge stacks of books to post for today - just the few I am working on right now, since I have a backlog and am trying to get to several books in time for their respective discussions in book groups - yes, I belong to too many of them! (but it's fun)

Even this meager pile looks like more than it is. I have about 10 pages left of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce (I just could not stay up one minute longer last night!), so my first goal is to finish that. Then, I am moving onto Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz for an online book group (I'm already behind on that discussion!).  I don't expect to completely finish that one today, but I hope to make some good progress. Readathon alumni recommended having some short, quick books on hand in case you get bored with one big book, so I pulled the shortest novel I could find from my shelves, Playing a Part by Daria Wilke, a teen/YA novel I've been meaning to read for too long.

Finally, I have my trusty iPod loaded with a new book that I started yesterday, The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick, a gripping middle-grade novel about what happens when a solar flare knocks out all the power. So far, it is riveting & the book I am most looking forward to today. I will listen to this audio book when I am cooking or doing other necessary tasks today - squeezing out every bit of book time!

So, those are my plans. My husband is going to join me (to some degree) - he's reading now but says he MUST finish The Walking Dead today, too (Readathon coincides with our cable's Watchathon Week!). Now, I need to go finish up Queenie Hennessy - I'll check in later to let you know how it's going.

Have you ever participated in a readathon? Did you enjoy it?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Books Read in March

Still running behind on my monthly summaries, but I gain a few days each month! It took me a while to catch up on all of my book reviews from March because it was an extra-good reading month for me, both in quantity and quality. Here's what I read:

  • The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood, adult fiction (RI, France) - reviewed for Publishers Weekly (not yet posted but will be at the link when it is)

So, seven books in all, which is a lot for me! And three nonfiction books in one month? Definitely a record for me - and only one of them was a memoir. Two books were teen/YA; the rest were for adults. I listened to two of the seven on audio. I enjoyed every one of these, but Station Eleven was my hands-down favorite - not just for this month but so far for this year and probably in my all-time top ten. I also loved Becoming Maria.

Progress on 2016 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! Still not much progress on my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge - only two of these were TBR books from my shelf! For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, March was Take a Trip month - I read two books set at least partly in Canada and one set partly in France. I read an astounding three nonfiction books for my 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, but STILL no classics for the 2016 Classics Challenge! For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I read books set in Canada and France.  I am also tracking the states my books are set in, even though there is no Where Are You Reading challenge this year - I added 4 new states this month!

For my March Bookish Bingo (hosted by Chapter Break), I filled 12 of the 25 squares on my Bingo card with these books:
  • The New Jim Crow - Historical setting
  • How to Live Well with Chronic Pain & Illness - Green on the cover, Shelf-love book (TBR)
  • The Good Luck of Right Now - Irish, Blue cover, Humor, Alien, Trope (making your own family)
  • Becoming Maria - Birthday, Family dinner
  • The Book That Matters Most - Spring
  • Free space!

What were your favorite books read in March?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

YA Memoir Review: Becoming Maria

I was four years old when Sesame Street premiered on PBS in 1969, and I adored the new TV show and all of its characters, both human and muppet. I continued watching it with my little sister and later shared it with my own two sons. So when I heard that the beloved “Maria” had written a YA memoir about her childhood, I couldn’t wait to read it! Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano (her name’s not really Maria??) is an absolutely captivating, funny, and sometimes heart-breaking story of growing up Hispanic in America.

Sonia grew up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, squeezed into tiny apartments with her Puerto Rican mother and father, older sister and younger brothers. She starts with her earliest, vague memories and impressions and slowly moves forward in time, as her family grows. Things at home were sometimes loving and warm, with the house crammed with laughing, singing relatives, and sometimes frightening, when her father would come home drunk and often violent. As she got older and was able to escape to school, she describes her experiences there, too. She loved reading and was obviously intelligent from the start, but she had to change schools several times, as her family moved around, trying to make the best of her parents’ meager income and find a better life.  However, moving to a “better” school in a nicer neighborhood left Sonia feeling like an outsider, one of the few Hispanic children in her classroom.

Sonia recounts in vivid detail her daily life at home, at school, and with her friends and cousins and other family members. Although she longs to be old enough to have a boyfriend, she can’t understand the young girls in her neighborhood and family who get pregnant in their teens. Sonia has bigger plans for herself. She’s not sure exactly what she wants to do with her life, but she knows she wants to live a life of discovery and freedom. Her plans start to solidify when she’s cast in a school play, which leads to attending a school of the arts for high school and, later, college where she majored in Drama. Sonia was in the original cast of Godspell (that was a surprise to me), an exciting experimental theatrical show that embraced the hippie-like counter-culture. The memoir ends with her interview for the Sesame Street job as Maria.

I listened to this memoir on audio, read by the author, which I would argue is the best way to experience this book. As soon as I heard Sonia’s (aka Maria’s) familiar voice, my face broke into a smile (you can listen to a sample of the audio at the Amazon link below). She tells her story with all the enthusiasm, spirit, and humor that she brought to her iconic role. I was completely captivated by her story from the very beginning, and eight hours went by much too quickly. When it ended, I wanted to hear more – all about her years on Sesame Street, whether she ever married and had a family of her own, and more.

I was entranced by this warm, funny story told by a master storyteller about a childhood and coming-of-age that was completely unique to me but probably somewhat familiar to millions of Americans who grew up in immigrant households at that time. Sonia (as if we didn’t already know this) is a wonderfully engaging entertainer and a compelling narrator. It turns out that she is a talented writer, too. I hope she writes a follow-up memoir about the rest of her life because I can’t wait to read more.

272 pages, Scholastic, Scholastic Audio

Click the Audible button at this Amazon link to listen to a sample of the audio:


Sonia as part of the original Godspell cast:

Sonia in her iconic role as Maria on Sesame Street (I am a huge Sesame Street fan & really went down the rabbit hole with Youtube clips!):

Author Talk: Daniel James Brown

Last night, two friends from my book group and I attended a huge event for author Daniel James Brown. His nonfiction book, The Boys in the Boat, was the choice for our All-County Reads book this year. My book group unanimously loved the book (a rarity) - you can read my review at the link, if you've somehow missed it after 99 weeks on the best-seller list! I've gone to a lot of these county-sponsored author talks before, but this was the largest crowd I have ever seen!

Dan gave an interesting and engaging talk about the book, how he wrote it, and the real-life events that inspired it. He even brought along a video clip of the actual 1938 Olympic gold medal rowing race in Berlin, which was really amazing. During the Q & A period, a child asked him who his favorite author was, besides himself (ha ha). Dan explained how Laura Hillenbrand's books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken, were especially captivating and inspiring to him, and how he spent many hours studying both books and trying to emulate Hillenbrand's way of making a real-life story as compelling as a well-written novel.

His recap of the book, the film, and his reading of a few short passages reminded me of just how inspiring and well-written The Boys in the Boat is. As my friend said, "Even though I knew from the subtitle on the cover how the story ends, I was still on the edge of my seat reading the book."

I came home and told my husband he has to read this one, too!

Have you heard any favorite authors talk lately? Do you like attending author events?

If you haven't had a chance to hear Daniel James Brown speak, here is a similar event he did at the bookstore Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, in 2013:


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

TV Tuesday: Bosch

With a lot of our favorite winter shows wrapping up on cable, we've been watching more on Amazon Prime & Netflix lately. One of our favorite Amazon shows just came back for its second season, and it's better than ever!

My husband and I are both long-time fans of the crime thrillers starring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, written by Michael Connelly. He has written reliably fast-paced, intriguing page-turners for decades. Besides the Bosch novels, he is also the author of the Lincoln Lawyer series, which has been adapted into movies starring Matthew McConaughey. Amazon Prime's show Bosch is based on his best-selling books, and they have done a fantastic job of bringing this popular series to life on the screen.

Harry Bosch, played by Titus Welliver ("the man in black" from Lost), is an experienced LAPD homicide detective who is known for his tenacity...and for doing whatever it takes to bring a killer to justice. He is often in trouble with his superiors, but he gets the job done. He is driven in part by the still-unsolved murder of his own mother. Harry's partner, Jerry Edgar - affectionately called J. Edgar by Harry, is always perfectly dressed, and he and Harry work well together. Harry is divorced, and his ex-wife, played by Sarah Clarke, and teen daughter live in Las Vegas. Harry gets along well with his immediate supervisor, Lt. Grace Billet, played by Amy Aquino, but he often clashes with Deputy Chief Irvin Irving, played by Lance Reddick, mostly because Irving pays more attention to politics and climbing the ladder than to police work.

In season one, Bosch and J. Edgar and their colleagues were after a serial killer, while also trying to solve a decades old case based on children's bones found on a hillside. Those two cases were interwoven into the entire season, with bits and pieces of Bosch's personal life feeding into the ongoing story. Season two is based on Connelly's novel Trunk Music, where a dead body is found in a car trunk. Again, the main case carries on through the entire season, with other secondary plot lines coming into play, including more with Bosch's ex-wife and daughter and Deputy Chief Irving's son (who is a police officer) going undercover with IA to try to catch some dirty cops.

The show has been excellent right from the very first episode. It sticks closely to the books - with the characters and major cases - while adding in a lot of extra detail on the characters' personal lives and secondary cases. The tone, the actors, the pace, and the ambience (including Bosch's beloved jazz as the soundtrack) are all just perfect for fans of the books. Titus Welliver in particular is the quintessential Bosch, while J. Edgar and Deputy Chief Irving also seem exactly as I pictured them in the novels. It's a very well-done show, with gripping, suspenseful mysteries but also plenty of emotional depth and human interest. We are really enjoying seeing one of our favorite fictional characters come to life!

As an Amazon Original Series, Bosch is available only on Amazon, free to Prime members or $1.99 an episode for non-members.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Movie Monday: Ex Machina

Finally! We've been totally focused on TV for the past couple of months (thanks to our new Netflix subscription, plus keeping up with our favorite cable shows), but we finally found time to watch a movie last night...and it was worth the wait! Our 18-year old son even watched it with us (a minor miracle).

We watched Ex Machina, one of last year's highly acclaimed movies. It's a combination sci fi and psychological thriller, with a quiet drama-like tone to much of the film. Caleb works as a programmer for a large corporation and wins a lottery to spend a week with the company's mysterious, reclusive founder. He is whisked away by helicopter over miles and miles of wilderness to what looks like a quiet retreat among jaw-dropping natural beauty, surrounded by snow-covered mountains. Caleb meets the famous CEO, a heavily bearded guy named Nathan wearing jeans and a t-shirt and bare feet, and is surprised to find that the home is actually a high-tech underground fortress. Nathan is a bit overwhelming and disconcerting but seems like a good guy, who greets Caleb warmly and tells him he just wants to talk and have a beer with him.

Then Nathan explains that the real purpose of Caleb's visit is to help test Nathan's invention: the most advanced Artificial Intelligence ever devised. Nathan tells Caleb his job is to perform the Turing Test, a classic test defined by Alan Turing to see if an AI is advanced enough to be indistinguishable from a human. Caleb is to have a series of conversations with Nathan's AI, while observed by Nathan. The first day or two are fascinating but then things start to get a little weird. Nathan's AI is distinctly female, though only her face and hands have a skin-like covering. The rest of her looks like a conglomeration of wires and lights and electronics, encased in a workout clothes-like metal outfit that leave much of her inner workings visible. Still, she is remarkably life-like, and Caleb begins to think of her as a real person.

Up to this point, the movie is fairly quiet in tone, with little action, though there is a vague feeling of unease and suspense building. Nathan seems to be hiding some secrets, Caleb begins to feel more like a prisoner than a guest, and it's unclear where this test is heading or how it will end. Toward the end of the film, the pace picks up considerably as the sinister tone builds. We were glued to the screen, as unexpected surprises and secrets unfolded and the tension built. All three of us enjoyed the movie very much and found it quite thought-provoking, too. Afterwards, we discussed if the events in the movie could really happen, if technology was moving toward this very point, and about some of the more paranoid fears about AI that my husband said had been voiced by real-life high-tech geniuses.

All in all, it was a suspenseful movie with sci fi elements, some action, and a thoughtfulness that we all enjoyed. It's pretty fascinating that a movie with only a few actors (one of them portraying a robot) was so engrossing. Ex Machina gave us plenty to ponder, plus was entertaining and fun. Our son enjoyed it so much, he is watching it again tonight with his girlfriend!

Ex Machina is currently available for free on Amazon Prime, through Netflix on DVD only, at Redbox, and probably through most cable streaming services, too.

It's Monday 4/18! What Are You Reading?

Happy Monday! Whew - it's been a super-busy hectic one here so far, so I am running a bit late with my reading update. We've been shifting a lot of what used to happen on Sundays to Mondays (family dinner, refilling meds, etc.), plus I had PT this morning. But, it was a very quiet weekend with a lot of productivity around the house - finally sorted through many years' of filing, took 2 huge boxes of papers to a local shredding event, and cleared off the towering piles on two filing cabinets - woohoo! Those clear surfaces sure look good!

As always, we all enjoyed our reading this week, too:
  • I finished The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens, the selection for my neighborhood book group last week. It's an unusual mix of mystery/thriller and introspective novel about how our pasts affect our lives. It was very engrossing & we had a great discussion over it.
  • Now, I am reading The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce, companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I loved!). I picked it up randomly in the library a couple of months ago, and it is due back (no more renewals) next week...and I discovered that my book group chose it for our next book for May! It's nice to return to those familiar characters (though I wish I remembered more details from Harold Fry), and it has the same sort of philosophical tone to it. I'm enjoying it so far.
  • I am listening to a middle-grade audiobook, Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins. At first I thought it was just a cute little story, but I'm realizing there's a lot more depth to it than I first thought. It's very good & will appeal to younger middle-grade readers.
  • My husband, Ken, finished one of my recent favorites, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a thoughtful post-apocalyptic story about a traveling Shakespearean acting troupe. You can read my gushing review at the link! He really enjoyed it, too.
  • Now, he is reading another book I just finished reading: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens! When he heard how much we liked it at book group and that it was a mystery/thriller, he was sold.
  • Last I heard, Jamie, 21, was re-reading the first two books in the A Pattern of Shadow and Light trilogy by Melissa McPhail: Cephrael's Hand and The Dagger of Adendigaeth, in preparation for reading book 3. 
  • Craig, 18, is reading To Live by Yu Hua for his World Lit class. His older brother read it when he was in high school, too. He says it's a lot better than Like Water for Chocolate so far! ha ha - that wasn't one of his favorites.
On a side note, I discovered that my physical therapist and his fiancee also love to read, so we've had some great book discussions while he's working on my shoulder! He likes the same kind of fantasy novels as my older son, so I brought him a list of Jamie's favorites, and he was thrilled. Don't you love meeting another book lover and talking books??

A few new posts on the blog last week, though it was a hectic week with my mom visiting:
TV Tuesday: The Catch, a fun new series featuring a suspenseful & sexy chase

Fiction Review: The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick - another fun, quirky, funny Quick novel with a lot of heart

Saturday Snapshot: Spring? Really? - photos from our roller coaster spring

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.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 4/16: Spring? Really?

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

The past month has been a roller coaster of seasons! We were enjoying a lovely spring, with plenty of blooms, when temperatures went below freezing again. It even SNOWED last weekend! Yikes. The snow was beautiful (and fleeting), but I'm glad it's back to springtime for real now.

Daffodils in bloom in our yard March 30

Our forsythia in full bloom, with flowering trees behind - Mar 30

Neighbor's weeping cherry in bloom - April 6

Big, fat snowflakes covering everything - April 9

Back to our regularly scheduled spring! - view from our deck - April 11

Hope you are enjoying this lovely weekend!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Fiction Review: The Good Luck of Right Now

Like most of Matthew Quick’s novels, The Good Luck of Right Now is fun, quirky, a little sad, very funny, and has a warmth and tenderness at its heart surrounding its damaged but likable characters. Although it’s not as accomplished a novel as The Silver Linings Playbook or Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, it was still entertaining and even inspiring; I enjoyed reading it, and the characters felt like old friends by the end.

Bartholomew Neil is almost 40 years old and has always lived with his mother. Now, his mother has died after a horrible, prolonged battle with brain cancer, and Bartholomew is alone for the first time in his life. At loose ends, not knowing what will happen next, Bartholomew has no other family and almost no friends, except for Father McNamee, the local priest who’s been a close friend of his and his mother’s for as long as Bartholomew can remember. Father McNamee comes by to check on Bartholomew, but it’s clear he is struggling with his own problems, including a battle with alcohol. Other than him, Bartholomew just has Wendy, his very young grief counselor, who comes by the house. Wendy is trying to help him make friends and find some social support.

Bartholomew describes himself as “different,” and though it is never stated explicitly, it seems that he might be autistic. He has trouble connecting with people, sticks with his familiar routines, and as he himself admits, “I’ve never been particularly good with change.” Making his way in the world on his own for the first time is a real challenge for him, though he has aspirations. Wendy has encouraged him to set goals, and his first goal is to have a beer in a bar with a friend. He has also been silently admiring the Girlbrarian (his word!) at his local library for a very long time.

Oh, and lest I forget to mention it…the entire novel is told through a series of letters that Bartholomew writes to Richard Gere. Yes, that Richard Gere. Although at first this device seems almost too quirky, even for Matthew Quick, Bartholomew explains his reasons for the letters. His mom was a huge fan of Gere’s and loved to watch his movies over and over with Bartholomew. Toward the end of her illness, when the cancer was affecting her memory and brain function, she began calling Bartholomew Richard, so he felt like he kind of became one with Gere during that time. And when he is cleaning out his mother’s dresser after her death, he finds a “Save Tibet” form letter she saved, signed by Richard Gere, asking people (her) to boycott the Beijing Olympics (which she did). He feels a connection to Gere, and perhaps his last connection to his mother, too.

All of this is just the very beginning of Bartholomew’s journey in this novel. It is unique and strange and often very funny (especially after Bartholomew meets another man in group therapy who sprinkles every sentence, big and small, with the f-word!), but it is also warm and tender and has a serious core. In fact, I ended up adding lots of new quotes to my Quote Journal while reading this book. Even the weird Richard Gere thing works into the fabric of the story because it causes Bartholomew to look up Buddhism in the library, so much of what he learns here is very philosophical. 

I ended up rooting for all of the characters – strange, yes, but likable – and hoping things would work out for Bartholomew and his new friends. This is one of those novels that grows on you and reveals more depth the longer you think about it. All in all, I enjoyed this story about eccentric characters looking for connections in a world that hasn’t treated them well and about making your own family.

304 pages, Harper Paperbacks