Saturday, September 24, 2016

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI Reading Challenge

I love to read spooky, creepy, suspenseful books in the fall for seasonal fun, so I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (R.I.P) Challenge last year and am joining the fun again this year, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings!

I have some reading obligations getting in the way - review books and book group selections - but I hope to mostly read creepy stuff through October 31 - now that my kids are grown and out of the house, this puts some fun back into Halloween season again!

Here are some of the books I've set aside for the R.I.P. Challenge this year:

I've also got The Swimmer by Joakim Zander on audio for an upcoming trip with my husband and will comb through my other audio titles for something creepy in October!

I am signing up for Peril the First, aiming to read four books in these categories before the end of October. I've already got a good start (just finished They Are Trying to Break Your Heart and now reading the Gothic classic Wuthering Heights), and I should have a lot of reading time during a week-long vacation.

I will also participate in Peril on the Screen since much of what we watch on TV and movies anyway is suspenseful or thriller-ish, so watch for some R.I.P.-related Movie Mondays & TV Tuesdays here this next month!

So, join the fun! Stop by the R.I.P. Challenge page and sign up - there is a level for just reading 1 book before October 31 and another for just spooky, creepy short stories, so there is something for everyone!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fiction Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Way back in 2007, I added The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell to my TBR (to be read) list after reading many rave reviews of the novel. Several years ago, I added it to my Kindle, and I finally got to read it this month when my book group chose it (one of my suggestions – I now suggest only books already on my shelves!). It was worth the wait – an intriguing, compelling novel that everyone in my book group enjoyed (a rarity!).

The novel opens with scenes from the childhood of a young girl named Esme, part of a British family living in India. Esme is a bright, energetic, and enthusiastic little girl, always curious and full of life. Her mother sees things differently. She just wants Esme to behave and act like a young lady. One of Esme’s earliest memories is of being tied to a chair with her mother’s scarf, to keep her seated through the meal.

The next we see of Esme, she is an older woman, in her 70’s, looking through the bars of her room at a psychiatric hospital. Esme is confused by the unusual activity in the residential facility; it is being closed down, and most of its residents are being released. Esme has spent more than 60 years of her life locked away here.

Meanwhile, down the road from the hospital, we are introduced to Iris, a lively woman who owns a second-hand shop in the Scottish town. She is having lunch with her stepbrother, Alex, and enjoying a spirited conversation. Iris has never married, and is happy being a single woman, running her business, and not letting her affairs with men (the current one married) ever get too serious.

These two very different worlds collide when Iris receives a phone call from the psychiatric facility, asking her to come pick up her great-aunt Esme. Iris never even knew she had a great-aunt; her grandmother always said she was an only child. The facility is quite insistent that Iris come there, so she finds herself face-to-face with the great-aunt she’s never known, taking her home with her when the “care home” she was placed in turns out to be unfit.

Although Iris is determined to find a new care home for Esme, the older woman and her great-niece get to know each other while spending the weekend together. Esme doesn’t seem crazy to Iris, and Iris wants to know all about her history. The two of them are actually alike in many ways, and have similar free-spirited ways of thinking.

The novel continues, alternating between Iris and Esme getting to know each other in the present day and flashbacks to both their childhoods. Esme’s story in particular is only gradually revealed, including how she ended up in the psychiatric hospital and the events leading up to that fateful day. The modern and past stories intertwine, revealing long-held family secrets and lies. The story is augmented by disjointed, random memories from Kitty, Esme’s sister, who has advanced Alzheimer’s and is living in a nursing home.

All of the members of my book group universally enjoyed this intricate, fascinating story, and it sparked some interesting discussions. In fact, it got one of our highest ratings, an average of 7.7 out of 10. This novel delves into issues of women’s rights and the role of women through the decades (let’s just say we were all glad we were born when we were!), while also exploring the complexities of family relationships. It’s an engaging and unique story that moves along at a rapid pace and easily kept my attention, as I was eager to learn all of Esme’s secrets. Now I want to read other novels by Maggie O’Farrell.

245 pages, Mariner Books/Harcourt

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

TV Tuesday: Freaks and Geeks

I was looking for a new show to watch on those rare occasions when I have some time to myself (very rare lately - both college sons have come home sick a lot!). I decided to finally try a 1999 show that I have heard rave reviews of from so many people: the one-season wonder Freaks and Geeks.

Why did I wait so long to watch this amazing show?? I absolutely love it!

Freaks and Geeks takes place in a Midwestern high school in 1980. It features loads of teen actors and actresses who went on to become big stars as adults. And it perfectly captures high school in 1980. I should know - I was there!

It's definitely an ensemble cast, but one of the main characters is Lindsay, played by Linda Cardellini (who was on ER, played Velma on the live-action Scooby Doo, and much more). Lindsay is really smart, but she's sick of being an outcast at school and definitely does not want to be a mathlete any more. She starts wearing her dad's old Army jacket every day and hanging out with a rougher crowd, known in her school as the freaks. Her new crowd includes cute guy Dan, played by a young James Franco, nice guy Nick, played by Jason Segel (of How I Met Your Mother fame & many movies), and tough girl Kim, played by Busy Philipps (another ER alum who also starred in Cougartown). Seth Rogan as Ken rounds out their group.

In the same school, Lindsay's little brother, Sam, played by John Francis Daley (as an adult, one of our favorites as Dr. Sweets on Bones), is a freshman and hangs out with his best friends, Neal, played by Samm Levine, and Bill, played by Martin Starr. Unfortunately, the three are referred to as geeks by their classmates. They get picked on a lot and strive to find a way to fit in (while also still loving the things that make them geeks). This was 1980 - long before being a geek was cool.

The action mostly takes place in and around school, with the two main groups at the center of things but with lots of supporting roles. Two of the very few adults in the show are Lindsay and Sam's parents, played perfectly by Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty. The show deals with all of the typical high school issues among the main characters: bullying, crushes, trying to fit in, figuring out who you are, and peer pressure.

What's unique here is how well it's all done. As you can see from their later resumes, the actors and actresses, though only teens at the time in most cases, were first-rate. The writing is excellent, and the sets are absolutely perfect. You know how Glee was always over-the-top and kind of campy (among its charms, for sure)? Well, Freaks and Geeks is super-realistic. In fact, this was MY high school (and I was very much like Lindsay!). Seriously - they pegged it perfectly, every last detail. I hate when TV shows or movies set in the 80's feature crazy clothing styles - all the girls dressed like Madonna or everyone in neon. This show is exactly what it was really like in high school in the 80's. I keep seeing Lindsay or another character wearing clothes that I had, shirts that my classmates wore - they have recreated 1980.

They also perfectly recreated the atmosphere in school. There's the long-haired guidance counselor who wants to be "your friend" and thinks he is cool (and is anything but). The burly gym teacher enthusiastically announcing "a day off for something fun," and then starting a dodgeball game, with the smaller kids cowering against the wall while the tough guys belt them with red playground balls (yeah, I'm just 5'1" now - guess where I was in those terrifying dodgeball games?). The school dance in the gym with everyone looking awkward and nervous. No glamorous micro dresses and 5" heels back then!

So, what if you didn't go to school in the early 80's? You will still love this show. It's wonderfully executed, dealing with real topics but with a sense of humor (Judd Apatow was Executive Producer). My 22-year old son enjoys it. And it is so much fun to see these now-famous actors and actresses as unknown kids! In fact, it won an Emmy for Outstanding Casting in a Comedy Series in 2000. You can see the long list of other awards and nominations it racked up in its single season.

I'm sure you can tell by my gushing descriptions that I am absolutely loving this show. I've only watched 4 episodes so far and am already dreading the end! Freaks and Geeks was famously cancelled after just one season, originally, just 10 episodes, but 18 had been made, and fans screamed loud and long to get the other 8 on air.

You can now watch all 18 episodes of Freaks and Geeks on Netflix. It is available through Amazon on DVD only.

Have you seen this modern classic yet? What's your favorite high school show?

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's Monday 9/19! What Are You Reading?

I was just re-reading last Monday's post where I said everything was back to normal, and my son was  back to school. Ha! I was so naive. The nest is still not empty yet! That son woke up later that day with bronchitis (a recurring problem for he and I due to our immune disorder) and spent two more days at home. Then, his younger brother (the healthy one!) called me on Thursday to say his throat hurt really badly and one of his friends (plus his brother) had strep throat! I'm not going to jinx myself this week and say everything is back to normal, but I think everyone is healthy for the moment, and I am hoping for a day or two to myself this week to get caught up!

As always, books are a comfort to us, no matter what is going on! Here's what we've been reading:
  • I finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell for my book group discussion last week and thoroughly enjoyed it (as did everyone else in book group!). It's an intriguing story about a young woman named Esme who was locked away in an asylum for over 60 years (for not being compliant enough!). The story focuses on both Esme and her great-niece, who didn't even know that her grandmother had a sister. It led to some great discussions for us (and we all agreed we are glad we weren't around back then).
  • Now I am reading a review book, They Are Trying to Break Your Heart by David Savill, a British import that will soon be published in the U.S. It's a complex story with threads related to the Bosnian War in the 1990's, the tsunami in Thailand in 2004, and people involved in both, looking back from 2005. I am well into it now, and it's a gripping story about a man accused of possible war crimes who disappeared, and the people who still look for him.
  • I finished listening to Drag Teen by Jeffrey Self on audio. This is a fun teen/YA novel about a gay teen in Florida who feels like he doesn't fit in and desperately wants to go away to college. His boyfriend and best friend convince him to compete in a Drag Teen competition that has a full scholarship as its prize. They take a road trip to NYC for the contest, meet lots of interesting people along the way, and learn plenty of life lessons. I really enjoyed this audio book, filled with warmth and humor.
  • My husband. Ken, is reading The Alexandria Link by Steve Berry, a free book I picked up for him from our library's summer reading program. It's the first Berry novel either of us have read, and he says it's good so far.
  • Jamie, 22, finished re-reading Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch just before we arrived back home from a train trip to NYC on Friday (nothing exciting - just a doctor visit). Now, he is finally reading book 3 in that series (Gentleman Bastards), The Republic of Thieves, which he bought this summer. He loves this series (so does my husband) and says it is about con men in Medieval times.
Last week's blog posts:
Movie Monday: American Ultra, a fun, action-packed, funny movie

TV Tuesday: Love (on Netflix), a non-traditional romcom

Teen/YA Review: Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, an intricate, thoughtful story of 3 generations of women with secrets

Summary of Books Read in August - a good reading month with 2 Big Books!

Saturday Snapshot: Sylvan Lake - Black Hills, SD (the last of my SD pics)

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

The Big Book Summer Reading Challenge has ended for this year, but you can still post your Big Book reviews and/or wrap-ups on the challenge page until the end of the month.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday Snapshot 9/17: Sylvan Lake - Black Hills, SD

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

One last batch of photos from our trip to South Dakota in August. Our favorite place among so many amazing places in the beautiful Black Hills area: Sylvan Lake. Have you ever seen the movie National Treasure 2, starring Nicolas Cage?  That one scene, where Cage's character sticks his hand in the rocks and opens up a secret chamber, takes place here at Sylvan Lake, on top of these amazing rocks we love to climb on!

Beautiful Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake from the rocks

Our family - we have 5 photos from other years of this shot!

Tallest rocks around Sylvan Lake - see those tiny dots on top?

Yup, those dots way up there are our sons!

Hope you are having a wonderful weekend!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Books Read in August

August was a great reading month, including two 400+ page books for my Big Book Summer Challenge!

Here's what I read:
  • Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, teen/YA audiobook (UK)
  • The Marvels by Brian Selznick, middle-grade fiction (UK)

So, a total of 5 books, but two of them were over 500 pages! It was an all-fiction month for me, with 2 adult novels, 2 teen/YA novels, and 1 middle-grade/teen novel - a nice variety, with 2 of them on audio. My favorite? Easy - Cloud Atlas, one of the most unique novels I have ever read and in my Top 10 Books of all-time! You have to check out this original, creative novel for yourself!

Progress on 2016 Reading Challenges:
This is my favorite part of my monthly summary - updating my Reading Challenges! I read 3 more TBR books in August for my Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge - that's a total of 13 so far this year. For the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge, August was Genre Jumble month - I was supposed to read a genre I don't normally read. It's a bit of a stretch, but I did finally read a classic - only the 2nd one I've read in the past year or so. I added no new nonfiction books to my 2016 Nonfiction Reading Challenge, and finally another classic for the 2016 Classics Challenge - I'm up to 2 now! For my Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, I read books set in Congo, New Zealand, UK, Belgium, and Korea (4 of those were all in the same book!).  I am also tracking the states my books are set in, even though there is no Where Are You Reading challenge this year, and I added 1 new state - Hawaii -  this month.

Finally, I filled 18 spaces on my monthly Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - my best month yet! (you can join the fun any month without officially joining a challenge). Here's my Bingo card for August:

My books filled these spaces:
Heart of Darkness - shelf-love (TBR) book, adventure
Dreamology - pets, romance, best friends, family, free, set on a school campus
Cloud Atlas - park, helpers profession, dystopia, historical, artist/writer, from the boy's POV, murder, band/musician
Unbecoming - diversity
The Marvels - running
(after reading Cloud Atlas, there were no spaces left for my last two books to fill! You MUST read this remarkable book)
Free space
Believe it or not, this is one of THREE book bingo games I played this summer - kind of confusing!

What was your favorite book read in August? 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Teen/YA Review: Unbecoming

At the end of August, I listened to teen/YA novel Unbecoming by Jenny Downham on audio, and I was glued to my iPod! I enjoyed every moment of this thoughtful, intricate story about three generations of women in a British family.

Red-haired teen Katie feels like her life is falling apart. Her best friend isn’t speaking to her, everyone at school thinks she’s a freak, and her mother tries to control every aspect of Katie’s life. Her mom, Caroline, is a single mother because her dad recently moved out. To make matters worse, Katie’s brother, Chris has special needs (perhaps Asperger’s?), so Katie is often left in charge of him while her mother works.

Now, into this already complicated life comes Mary, Katie’s grandmother. Katie never knew she even had a grandmother because Caroline hasn’t spoken to her mother in many years. When Mary’s partner, Jack, dies unexpectedly, the hospital calls Caroline because her number had been listed as the emergency contact. The bigger problem is that Mary clearly has fairly advanced dementia and can’t be sent home alone. The hospital insists that Caroline bring her home with her, though Caroline vows to find her a place in a nursing home as soon as possible.

With Mary in their lives, things are very different. She can’t really can’t take care of herself or remember recent details about her life – she even has trouble remembering who Caroline, Katie, and Chris are – and she has a tendency to wander out of the house and around town if not watched carefully. So now, during summer break, Katie is expected to watch both Chris and Mary while her mother works. And her best friend still won’t return her texts.

Mary can, however, sometimes remember stories from her past, and Katie starts a memory notebook for her, where she writes down the family stories that Mary tells her. Little by little, as Mary remembers and Katie writes, long-buried secrets come to light that are shocking to Katie…and help her begin to understand why her mother is the way she is. Meanwhile, Katie is hiding a secret of her own and struggling with her own identity. The secrets and lies reverberate through the generations.

The way that this novel gradually reveals their family history, in bits and pieces, is absolutely captivating. Chapters alternate between the perspectives of Katie and Mary (who thinks of Katie as The Girl). Besides seeing their secrets gradually spool out, it is wonderful to watch the warm relationship that grows between grandmother and granddaughter as they spend time together and get to know each other.

There are so many intricate layers to this engrossing novel: Katie’s internal struggles in figuring out who she is, Mary’s dementia (which is depicted in very real and intimate detail), the two mother-daughter relationships, and even women’s roles through the years. It also delves into matters of love, friendship, and identity. I loved these characters, and I was pulled right into their story, never wanting to leave them (yet wanting everything to work out for them in the end). This compelling story feels honest and real, heartwarming, yet also at times heartbreaking, and wholly immersive. I loved spending time in their world.

Scholastic Audio

P.S. I also loved the cover on this book!

You can listen to an audio sample at the Amazon link below:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

TV Tuesday: Love

Back in the spring, I spent my lunchtimes (my "me" time!) watching a Netflix series called Love. I wasn't sure how much I liked it as first, but it grew on me, and I ended up enjoying the 10-episode first season. Love is basically a romantic comedy set in L.A., but it breaks from convention in every way possible.

In the very first episode, we meet Gus (played by Paul Rust), a nerdy but nice guy - maybe in his 30's? - who seems to have a very dull relationship with an overbearing girlfriend named Natalie. That doesn't last long, though, as Gus soon finds out that Natalie cheated on him and leaves her. Gus is at loose ends and seriously lacking in self-confidence. He works as an on-set math tutor for a spoiled child star on a corny TV show about witches in suburbia. He dreams of becoming a screenwriter and writing a script for the show himself.

In that first episode, Gus meets Mickey (played by Gillian Jacobs) at a convenience store, when Mickey realizes she forgot her wallet at home, and Gus offers to pay for her coffee and cigarettes. Mickey is Gus' opposite in every way - brash and outspoken, constantly swearing, and reckless. However, she is also in-between relationships (her drug-addicted on-again, off-again boyfriend has recently joined a cult) and feeling like her life is stalled. Mickey works as program manager at a satellite radio station, where her boss keeps flirting with her. In the second episode, Mickey finds a roommate to share her house: perky, sweet British Bertie (played adorably by Claudia O'Doherty).

Little by little, Gus and Mickey get to know each other and sort of - kind of - begin to date. This is not your typical romcom with a predictable chronology but a rocky, realistic story where neither of the main characters is quite sure where things are going. Sometimes, they seem to get along well and sometimes it seems like there is no way they will end up together.

The show was created by Judd Apatow, and although I'm not all that familiar with his work (Knocked Up, This is 40), from what I have heard, this show perfectly fits his typical style. It's somewhere between a drama and a comedy - it has plenty of amusing moments, but it is certainly not a sitcom. The characters really grew on me. I didn't like Mickey much at first - she is abrasive and often self-destructive. And I just wanted to shake Gus at times and tell him to stand up for himself. But over the course of the 10 episodes, as I got to know them, I liked them both more and more and was rooting for them to get their lives together. Of course, that hasn't happened yet, but I am looking forward to season 2.

Love is a Netflix original series so it is available exclusively on Netflix.

This trailer will give you a good idea of the tone and "feel" of the show:

Monday, September 12, 2016

Movie Monday: American Ultra

A few weeks ago, my husband and I had a rare weekend evening to ourselves, so we chose a movie - big occasion! We watched - and enjoyed - American Ultra, an action-filled movie with plenty of humor.

As the movie opens, Mike, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is living with his girlfriend, Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart. Mike is clearly a stoner, working at the local convenience store in their small West Virginia town and getting stoned in his spare time (and sometimes at work, too). He seems to have some issues with anxiety, but Phoebe is supportive and Mike wants to ask her to marry him.

Their quiet, limited life changes in an instant when a woman comes into the convenience store where Mike is working and says some strange words to him. They make no sense to him (possibly because he is high again), and she leaves. Moments later, Mike goes out to the parking lot and sees two men planting a bomb under his car. They attack him, and his stoned lethargy drops in an instant as he easily kills both of them. He is left stunned, having no idea how he did that or what just happened.

It turns out (this is still early in the movie so no spoiler) that Mike is a sleeper agent for the CIA who has just been activated. Mayhem and hilarity ensue as two different factions race to get to Mike first, some of them bent on destroying him. Mike's CIA training is in conflict with his normal anxiety-ridden, stoned demeanor, as skills he didn't know he had kick into play.

This movie is just plain fun. The two lead actors (who were also together as a couple n Adventureland - a great movie) work very well together, and the supporting cast is very good, including Topher Grace and John Leguizamo. There are all kinds of secrets and surprises in store, both for the characters and for the viewers, so there is plenty of suspense to keep things moving. This is an action-packed movie which is not always my favorite thing, but in this case, it is paired beautifully with humor. So, yes, there is a LOT of gunfire, things blowing up, and other violent stuff here but set against Mike's typically chilled demeanor, there are also plenty of laughs and some warm moments, too. My husband and I both enjoyed this unique and fun rollercoaster ride of a movie.

We watched American Ultra on Amazon Prime, where it is currently free. It is also available on Netflix DVD (but not streaming). And it is on DVD.

The trailer kind of gives away a lot of the movie's best moments...but it is pretty funny, if you want to check it out:

It's Monday 9/12! What Are You Reading?

Life is slowly, gradually returning to normal here (or as close to normal as we ever get!). Our older son finally recovered from strep throat (a tough one given his immune disorder) and returned to school, though he did spend some time here this weekend resting. My husband is also mostly recovered from his nasty virus, though he still has some lingering symptoms, and is away on a business trip. And I am trying to get back into my normal routine & get caught up on writing and blogs.

Lots of great books this past week - here's what we've been reading:

  • I finished my 5th Big Book of the Summer, The Many Lives of John Stone by Linda Buckley-Archer. This is a teen/YA novel with an intriguing concept. A modern-day British teen named Stella (but called Spark) gets a strange summer job, cataloging old journals going back to the days of Louis XIV in France. Her employer, John Stone, is an odd man who lives in a remote house with two other people. As Spark begins to unravel Stone's mysteries, she also begins to learn more about herself. It's an immersive and compelling mix of historical fiction and modern fiction, and I thoroughly enjoyed it (perfect for last weekend's readathon!)
  • Next, I squeezed in a quick re-read of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize. I enjoyed it just as much the second time (review at the link), though I wasn't feeling well enough to go to the book discussion about it last week - very disappointing, as this is a very thoughtful book that just begs to be discussed!
  • Now, I am reading another book group book, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell (my pick!), for my neighborhood book group this week. I am loving this intriguing book about a young woman who was locked away in an asylum for over 60 years. The novel slowly unravels her story while also looking at the life of her great-niece. It's been excellent so far.
  • I finished listening to The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, an adult novel on audio. Part of the story is told through an old diary, of a summer in 1888 in the Ukraine, when a family rents a cottage to the Chekhov family for the summer. The middle son, Anton, develops a strong friendship with Zinaida, one of the daughters on the estate who has recently become blind due to illness. In modern day London, Katya hopes that the diary will save her and her husband's struggling small publishing house. They hire Ana, a translator in France, to translate the diary, and Ana soon becomes engrossed in Zinaida's story and the implications that Anton Chekhov, known for his short stories and plays, might have written a novel. I was completely pulled into this story of another place and time and loved every minute of it.
  • I am now listening to Drag Teen by Jeffrey Self (apparently, a "gay icon of the YouTube generation" - who knew?). It's a warm and funny story about a gay teen in Florida who feels like he doesn't fit in and desperately wants to go away to college. His boyfriend convinces him to enter a Drag Teen pageant in NYC that has a full 4-year scholarship as a prize. It's wonderful so far, with a great voice in its narrator, J.T. I am already rooting for him!
  • My husband, Ken, finished Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel, a Father's Day gift from me that I want to read, too! It's about the discovery of a giant metal hand found buried in South Dakota, and the investigation that follows to determine its origins and meaning. This was one of the hottest new releases of the spring. He says it was very good, and he can't wait to read the next book in the series!
  • Jamie, 22, has been re-reading a favorite series. He just bought Book 3 of the Gentleman Bastards series, The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. So, of course, he went back to re-read book 1, The Lies of Locke Lamora, which is one of his favorite books of all time, and is now in the middle of book 2, Red Seas Under Red Skies. Now that he is feeling better and is back in school, his time for fun reading will probably decrease greatly.

Blog posts last week:

Movie Monday: Fall 2016 Movies Based on Books - so many to look forward to!

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: The Marvels by Brian Selznick - another amazing book by the award-winning author/illustrator!

Teen/YA Review: The Many Lives of John Stone by Linda Buckley-Archer - intriguing & original

2016 Big Book Summer Wrap-Up - what I read for the challenge this summer

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.

Remember if you participated in the
Big Book Summer Reading Challenge, you have until the end of September to post your Big Book reviews and/or a challenge wrap-up on the challenge page! 

Friday, September 09, 2016

2016 Big Book Summer Wrap-Up

The 2016 Big Book Summer Challenge officially closed on Monday, Labor Day, but I needed to write a couple more reviews before I could write this wrap-up post.

I had a slow start this year, with far more reading obligations (book groups & paid reviews) getting in the way of reading my Big Books than usual. But I read like crazy in August - two long days of air travel and a 4-day readathon Labor Day weekend helped!

In the end, I finished 5 Big Books this summer, which I feel good about. All were from my TBR shelves (some that had languished there for years), so that makes me happy, too.

As a reminder, here are the 6 books I planned/hoped to read for the Big Book Challenge this summer:

I only got through four of these (the bottom four) but ended up reading an extra Big Book for a book group, so here is what I read for the 2016 Big Book Summer Challenge (reviews at the links):
As always, the challenge was a lot of fun, and I was thrilled to finally get to some of these Big Books that have been collecting dust on my shelves!

What did YOU read this summer?

If you didn't join the Big Book Summer Challenge this year, I hope you will consider joining the fun next summer!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Teen/YA Review: The Many Lives of John Stone

Over Labor Day weekend, I managed to cram in one last Big Book of the Summer (my 5th!), thanks to the Take Back Your Shelves Readathon. I read The Many Lives of John Stone by Linda Buckley-Archer, a teen/YA novel that had been on my shelf for far too long. I’m so glad I finally got to enjoy this unique and intriguing novel that combines modern fiction with historical fiction.

Seventeen-year old Stella Park, known as Spark to friends and family, is visiting her brother, Dan, in New York City. It’s the first time she’s been outside of the UK (except for a day trip across the English Channel), and she’s excited to visit Dan, who’s been enjoying his internship in NYC. While there, she is introduced to John Stone, Dan’s employer who also provided a charitable scholarship for him to attend private school. She feels an instant connection with this man she’s never met before, and he invites her to work at his home in the UK in a summer job, organizing old historical documents and journals for him. Spark accepts and heads to Suffolk at the start of summer break.

Spark’s chapters alternate with chapters about John. He is an enigma, both to Spark as she starts her unusual summer job and to the reader. He lives on a lovely but secluded estate called Stowney House with two other people, Martha and Jacob. At first, Martha seems to Spark to be John’s cook and housekeeper and Jacob appears to be the gardener, but Spark soon notices that the three seem more like close friends than employer and employees. They live a very isolated existence at the house with its beautiful gardens, though John travels for work. Stranger still, they live in a world completely removed from the 21st century, with no electricity or phones.

Meanwhile, as Spark begins to work to clean and organize the shelves and shelves of dusty journals John has, the contents of one journal are also included in some chapters. It starts in 1685 in Versailles, with a fifteen-year old boy named Jean-Pierre, living with his father and brothers in the shadow of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, and his extravagant home, gardens, and court. Jean-Pierre has a difficult time, as he is frequently bullied and beaten by his older brothers.

The novel continues in this way, with chapters alternating between Spark and John in the present day, and Jean-Pierre back in the court of the Sun King at Versailles in the 1600’s. Those chapters at Versailles bring the long-past decadent world to life, with its formal customs, elaborate clothing, and wealthy surroundings. Jean-Pierre loves to walk among the gardens and fountains in Versailles and pines after a beautiful girl named Isabelle, whose family is far above his in position.

In the present day, details of John Stone’s mysterious life are gradually revealed, as Spark begins to slowly piece together clues from what she sees around her at Stowney House, though the relationship between its residents continues to puzzle her. There are hidden secrets in this story that even John doesn’t know, so the characters are figuring out its mysteries along with the reader.

This original story was perfect for a readathon weekend because I was completely immersed in these worlds, both at Versailles in the past and at Stowney House in the present. The author weaves a compelling story that pulls the reader in deeper and deeper. Though I had an inkling of some of the secrets in the novel, there were still plenty of plot twists that surprised me. This novel took me on a journey to the past that I thoroughly enjoyed.

529 pages, Simon & Schuster

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: The Marvels

Brian Selznick won the hearts of readers and critics alike with his previous award-winning middle-grade novels, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (made into the movie Hugo) and Wonderstruck. Both books invented a whole new category of novel, combining gorgeous drawings with text to tell a story in unique ways. Selznick has done it again with The Marvels, a hefty brick of a novel that once again breaks new ground in storytelling.

The first half of The Marvels is a story told entirely in gray-scale pencil drawings. It opens in 1766, with two young brothers working on a ship. The two take part in a play called The Angel and the Dragon onboard where, with a crew of sailors, all of the parts are played by male shipmates. Older brother Marcus plays the angel, and younger brother Billy plays a young girl in distress who is saved by the angel. One night, in a terrible storm, disaster strikes the ship.

The story then follows Billy, back on land in London, where he discovers a new theater and finds a home there. We watch as Billy grows and has a family. Several generations of Billy’s family follow, all involved in the theater and some of them quite famous. The story-in-pictures ends abruptly with a cliffhanger, so that the reader isn’t quite sure how things turn out for the family.

At that point, the second half of the book begins, in 1990, in a story told entirely through text. We meet thirteen-year old Joseph, who has run away from his boarding school to London, in search of an uncle he’s never met before. He eventually finds the house and meets his Uncle Albert, but the man seems quite eccentric.

Albert lives in an old Victorian house that has been lovingly restored. The strange part is that the inside of the house looks exactly like it might have originally, with candles and fireplaces instead of electricity. Stranger still is that each room looks as if its Victorian occupants have just left, even to the point of a half-eaten dinner still set on the table. Joseph can’t quite figure out what is going on or why his uncle lives like this, but he begins to piece together clues within the house.

The two parts of the story gradually come together, though in ways that will surprise you. This is similar to what Selznick did in Wonderstruck, with two stories set in different time periods, where the links between them are only gradually revealed. The book ends with another short section of drawings that tie together loose ends and provide a satisfying ending.

As always, Selznick’s drawings are astounding. Up close, these look like simple pencil sketches, with hatchmarked shading. Pull back a bit, though, and those simple-seeming drawings reveal incredible detail. His people, in particular, are filled with depth and life. I found myself lingering over the pages and their lifelike people, wanting to absorb every detail. There are a few bits of text here and there – partial newspaper clippings, postcards, playbills, etc. – to fill in names and dates, but Selznick tells an incredibly rich story almost entirely in pictures.

The two pieces of the book combine to form a fascinating, in-depth tale. It’s an intricate story of family and friendships, of love and loss, and of art in its many different forms. The book’s tagline, “You either see it or you don’t,” inspires readers to look deeper – into the pictures and the text (though you still won’t figure out how the two stories are linked until it is revealed!). Reading this book was pure pleasure, a magical journey into another world.

665 pages, Scholastic Press

NOTE: Scholastic says this is a book for teens, probably because its modern-day protagonist is 13 years old, but Library School Journal says it is best for grades 4 – 6. Both are probably true: this is a book that will be enjoyed by both middle-grade and teen readers…and adults, too!

Monday, September 05, 2016

Movie Monday: Fall 2016 Movies Based on Books

I was reading an article in the newspaper this week about upcoming fall movie releases, and I was struck by how many of them are book adaptations. This is a Hollywood trend that shows no signs of slowing...which is great for book lovers like me! I haven't read all related books yet, but I am excited to see so many familiar book titles coming to the big screen.

Here are some to watch for - better hurry up & read the books first! (note that where I have read the book already, I have linked to my review)

September 2 - The Light Between Oceans - A book that my book group and I all enjoyed, about an impossible moral decision faced by a kind husband and wife who rescue a baby.

September 16 - Bridget Jones's Baby - I admit I have not yet read any of the Bridget Jones novels (though I'd like to!), but I loved Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie. This one, the third, finds Bridget in her 40's and pregnant and unsure who the father is...and they've added Patrick Dempsey to the cast! I will go see it just for that.

September 23 - The Dressmaker - I haven't read this one, but the movie is adapted from a novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham, about a glamorous woman who returns to her small town in rural Australia and transforms the local women. The movie stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth.

September 30 - Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - I just read this YA novel in June for one of my book groups & really enjoyed it, so I can't wait for the movie, directed by Tim Burton (so you know it's peculiar-ness will be extra-peculiar!) Fair warning, though: if you want to read the book, definitely read it FIRST, before seeing the movie, because even the movie trailer gives away some surprises that are gradually revealed in the book.

October 7 - The Girl on the Train - Both  my husband and I read and enjoyed this fast-paced thriller last summer, so we can't wait to see it on the big screen. Emily Blunt is starring as the messed-up unreliable narrator, Rachel.

October 7 - Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life - Based on a popular middle-grade series by the prolific James Patterson, the first book is coming to theaters, about a 6th grader. Starring Lauren Graham.

October 21 - American Pastoral - I am excited about this one! My book group read the Pulitzer Prize-winning modern classic by Philip Roth a couple of years ago, and I really enjoyed it. It's a very thoughtful novel, so it will be interesting to see how they adapted it. Ewan McGregor stars in the movie adaptation, along with Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Connelly. Might have to get some book group friends to go see this one with me!

October 28 - Inferno - Another of Dan Brown's popular novels comes to theaters this fall, with Tom Hanks once again starring as symbologist Robert Langdon. I read (and loved) The Da Vinci Code but haven't read this one yet (though I think we have it and my husband has probably read it).

November 11 - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - Yay!! This was an amazing novel that blew me away, about one day (a long and confusing day) in the life of a returning war hero who is really just a kid. It was hilarious, heartbreaking, and incredibly thought-provoking. The movie stars Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart, and Steve Martin, among others - an odd collection! I hope they were able to capture the magic of the book.

Have you heard of any other book adaptations coming to theaters this fall? Which fall releases are you most excited to see?

It's Monday 9/5! What Are You Reading?

Happy Labor Day! Here in the U.S., this holiday marks the unofficial end of summer....which also means the official end of the 2016 Big Book Summer Challenge! Today is the last day to finish reading those big books, though you can continue to post Big Book reviews and/or wrap-ups (not required) on the linkup page until the end of the month.

That makes the Take Back Your Shelves Readathon this weekend perfect timing for me! I have been using it to finish my 5th Big Book of the Summer. My husband and son have joined in the reading fun this weekend with their own Big Books. The timing was also good for a readathon here because my husband has just recovered from a nasty 2-week long virus, and our college son has been home sick all week, too. So, a rough week for us in most ways, though reading was a bright spot!

Here's what we have all been reading:
  • I finished reading my 4th Big Book of the Summer, The Marvels, a middle-grade novel by Brian Selznick. The highly esteemed author of Wonderstruck and The Invention of Hugo Cabret has done it again! This time, the first half of the book is told entirely in pictures and begins in 1766, and the second half of the book is a modern story starting in 1990 told through text. The two stories gradually come together in a surprising way. It was excellent, as his books always are!
  • I am now reading (and hope to finish today!) my 5th Big Book of the Summer, The Many Lives of John Stone by Linda Buckley-Archer. This is a teen/YA novel with an intriguing concept. A modern-day British teen named Stella (but called Spark) gets a strange summer job, cataloging old journals going back to the days of Louis XIV in France. Her employer, John Stone, is an odd man who lives in a remote house with two other people. As Spark begins to unravel Stone's mysteries, she also begins to learn more about herself. It's a mix of historical fiction and modern fiction and has been perfect for immersing myself in for the readathon!
  • I finished listening to Unbecoming by Jenny Downham, a teen/YA novel, on audio. It is set in the UK and focuses on three generations of women in one family who all carry secrets. Teen Katie's life changes dramatically when Mary, her previously unknown grandmother, comes into their lives unexpectedly. Mary has dementia and requires a lot of care, and Katie's mother, Caroline, doesn't talk much about the past. It was very, very good - engrossing and delving into issues as diverse as being gay, dementia, and mother-daughter relationships.
  • Now, I am listening to The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, an adult novel on audio. Part of the story is told through an old diary, of a summer in 1888 in the Ukraine, when a family rents a cottage to the Chekhov family for the summer. The middle son, Anton, develops a strong friendship with Zinaida, one of the daughters on the estate who has recently become blind due to illness. In modern day London, Katya finds the diary and hopes that it will save her and her husband's struggling small publishing house. They hire Ana, a translator in France, to translate the diary, and Ana soon becomes engrossed in Zinaida's story and the implications that Anton Chekhov, known for his short stories and plays, might have written a novel. It's an intricate and compelling story that I am really enjoying.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin, the third and final book in the trilogy that started with The Passage (followed by The Twelve). This was a Father's Day gift that we are both eager to read! He flew through this Big Book this weekend, thanks to the readathon, and finished last night.
  • Now, Ken has started Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel, another Father's Day gift from me that I want to read, too! (are you seeing a pattern here?) It's about the discovery of a giant metal hand found buried in South Dakota, and the investigation that follows to determine its origins and meaning. This was one of the hottest new releases of the spring.
  • Jamie, 22, finished re-reading an old favorite series by Brandon Sanderson, the Mistborn trilogy. He finished book 3 this week, The Hero of Ages
  • Now, Jamie is re-reading another favorite series! He just bought Book 3 of the Gentleman Bastards series, The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. So, of course, he went back to re-read book 1, The Lies of Locke Lamora, which is one of his favorite books of all time! It's been a welcome distraction this weekend while he's been so sick.
 Blog posts from last week:
TV Tuesday: The Missing, a Starz-BBC production about a young boy who goes missing

Fiction Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - WOW. One of the best books I've ever read!

Take Back Your Shelves Readathon

Saturday Snapshot - Black Hills, South Dakota - The Needles
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.

It's the last day of summer, so if you are participating in the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge, be sure to post your Big Book reviews on the challenge page! Enjoy the last of your Big Books!