Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Middle-Grade Review: Making Friends with Billy Wong

I enjoyed the middle-grade novel Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood a few years ago, so I was excited to read her latest book for young readers, Making Friends with Billy Wong. I listened to it on audio and enjoyed this warm novel about friendship, family, and race.

Like Glory Be, Making Friends with Billy Wong is also set in the past in the South. It’s the 1950’s, and Azalea is not happy about leaving her Texas home for the summer to help care for a grandmother she barely knows in tiny Paris Junction, AR. Grandmother Clark has hurt her foot and needs help in the house and caring for her garden. Azalea just wants her to heal up quickly, so she can go back home to get ready for 6th grade.

In a small town like Paris Junction, everyone pitches in when help is needed, so there are several other kids who also come by to help Mrs. Clark with her large garden. Azalea doesn’t feel comfortable meeting or talking to new people, but here she meets a whole bunch: troublemaker Willis DeLoach, who is working in the garden to work off his shoplifting crime; Melinda Bowman, a prissy girl who likes to gossip; and Billy Wong, a Chinese-American boy whose family runs the local grocery store down the street.

At first, Azalea is especially shy about talking to Billy Wong. She’s never met a Chinese person before and thinks he won’t speak English well. She soon learns her assumptions are completely wrong, though. Billy’s family has lived in the United States for generations, and he speaks as well as she does. The two gradually become friends, exploring together, riding bikes, and talking for hours. Billy is also from out-of-town, living with his aunt and uncle so he can attend the regular middle school in the fall because in his (even smaller) hometown across the river, he would have to attend the Colored school, and they don’t have the advanced classes and extracurricular activities Billy wants due to lack of funding. Azalea narrates most of the book, but there are short sections written by Billy, who wants to be a reporter for his new school newspaper. The audio was excellent, with two perfect narrators reading the parts of Azalea and Billy.

As always in her immersive novels, Scattergood tells a warm story of childhood while also addressing important issues of race, poverty, and justice. I think this novel will be eye-opening for many modern children, whose classrooms today include plenty of Asian-American kids, to find out about this particular form of racism that was prevalent so recently. That is, of course, just one thread of this engaging story about friendship and family, as Azalea not only makes a new friend but also gets closer to her grandmother and learns her family history.

224 pages, Scholastic
Scholastic Audio

Book and Audio:

Making Friends with Billy Wong
by Scattergood, AugustaHardcover

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

TV Tuesday: Time After Time

I am a sucker for anything with a time travel plot. I think what intrigues me so much is how thought-provoking it is - the idea that you could travel through time, to any point in the past or future. My husband and I both enjoyed the new NBC TV series last fall called Timeless, about a ragtag group traveling through time to try to stop a villain from changing the past, visiting all kinds of incredible historical events. So, I was very excited to learn that ABC was getting into the time travel game with its own series this spring, Time After Time, which is based on a novel and 1979 movie by the same name (which I've heard is pretty good).

The main characters in Time After Time are quite famous - or infamous, as the case may be. The story begins in the late 1800's in London, where a young H.G. Wells, played by Freddie Stroma, is entertaining friends one evening and telling them about his time machine prototype in the basement. A late arrival to the party, Dr. John Stevenson (played by the hunky Josh Bowman), arrives, followed quickly by the police who are tracking Jack the Ripper. A bloody knife in John's doctor bag, left at the front door, confirms their suspicions, much to H.G.'s shock. To escape from the police, John heads to the basement to try out his friend's time machine. It works and transports him to present-day New York, where the time machine is on display in a museum. Horrified by what his friend has done (and is), H.G. quickly follows him to 2017 New York to stop him.

When H.G. arrives at the museum, he meets a lovely assistant curator named Jane Walker, played by Genesis Rodriguez. He tries to hide his identity at first, but before long, he has to take her into his confidence. H.G. is desperate to find John before he can kill again. That is the main thread of the show - H.G. and Jane trying to find Jack the Ripper in modern NY, to stop him from killing women - but the plot gets more complicated. Additional characters are added to the mix, included a descendant of H.G. and various people who want the time machine for their own purposes (including John so he can escape).

We have watched four episodes so far and are enjoying this fast-paced thriller with a sense of humor. There are the expected (and fun) fish-out-of-water situations, as both H.G. and John adjust to life in 2017. Can you imagine how fascinated H.G. Wells would be, with all his prognostications, by what the future really did bring? The chase gets more action-packed and complex as more people get involved. And, of course, there is the time travel, which is just starting to ramp up a bit several episodes in.

I've heard some criticisms of Time After Time (and also Timeless) by science fiction buffs, and yes, their arguments are valid - neither of these shows really sticks to the accepted rules of time travel in science fiction (and obviously the science of the machine is complete fantasy!). My husband and I, though, have been able to suspend disbelief and just go with it, enjoying the show for what it is. And what is it? Time After Time is a fun show, above all, with action, suspense, and humor, that puts two well-known historical figures into an intriguing situation. We'll see where it goes from here, but for now, we are enjoying it.

Time After Time is currently airing on ABC Sundays at 9 pm, so you can catch up On Demand or at the ABC website (episodes 2 - 4 are available there now for free) or for $1.99 an episode on Amazon, link below (so you could watch the first episode there & the rest on the ABC website).

For more time travel fun, some of my favorites (besides Timeless) include:
  • Frequency - TV show (not technical traveling through time but communicating across time so similar themes
  • 12 Monkeys – movie - post-apocalyptic time-travel thriller - SO GOOD!
  • Predestination – twisty time-travel movie - a major mind-bender!
  • Project Almanac - fun, fast-paced movie of teens who time travel
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch - amazing sci fi thriller my husband and I both LOVED. 
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - a modern classic with plenty of humor set in Victorian England (and the present)
  • The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes - a chilling thriller about a time-traveling serial killer
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells! - a classic and the inspiration for this show
  • Time and Again by Jack Finney - a classic time travel novel, set in 1970 and 1882 New York
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon - romantic time travel novel from 1945 to 1700's in Scotland
I told you I like time travel stories!

Monday, March 27, 2017

It's Monday 3/27! What Are You Reading?

Last week was a bit better for me, even though I was still mostly housebound (I can't wear shoes or walk much due to a painful medical condition with my feet). My husband was on a business trip and both sons were busy at college finishing up their work before spring break, so I enjoyed a few quiet days to myself. If you have to be stuck at home, it's nice to have some time to yourself to chill out and catch up...not to mention very little cooking or dishes! I only ran the dishwasher once all week.

I cleared stacks of papers off our coffee table and counters (finally), got some writing done, and generally caught up. And, although our weather continues to be unseasonably cold (40's with rain and fog this morning!), we did have a couple of days last week when it was warm enough that I could sit on the deck. I am really missing my daily walks, so that helped a lot. Now, one son is in the Outer Banks for spring break and the other is here at home for now but going camping locally with friends once the rain clears out for a couple of days.

As always, we all enjoyed our books last week, no matter where we were!
  • I finished my next review book for Shelf Awareness, How To Be Human by Paula Cocozza (due out May 9). This novel is set in suburban London, about a woman recovering from a recent break-up who is fascinated by a fox in her backyard. Actually, "fascinated" doesn't really explain it - she falls in love with a fox. Yup. It's a pretty weird book, but I did end up enjoying it. It's well-written and takes an interesting look at human relationships (in addition to the less common fox-woman relationship).
  • Now, I am reading a book for Boooktopia, an awesome annual event in Vermont, where book lovers get together with authors for an intimate weekend of discussing and celebrating books - so much fun! My mom and I went two years ago and are going again the first week of May. So, in preparation, I am reading Books for Living by Will Schwalbe. I haven't read his first book yet, The End of Your Life Book Club, but I REALLY want to, and I can't wait to meet the author. I just started this one, but it is already wonderful. It's a book celebrating books - what's not to like?
  • On audio, I am listening to another Booktopia book, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, another of the authors who will be at the event. This novel is about widowed women living in a castle in Germany with their children after WWII ends. I'm enjoying it.
  • My husband, Ken, finished another of my review books (he is really benefiting from my new job!), Marshall's Law by Ben Sanders, which looks like part of a thriller series - right up his alley! He enjoyed it.
  • Now, Ken is reading another review book, The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger. As best as we can remember, he and I have only read one other Unger novel. She's a thriller writer who is somewhat local and sets most of her novels in and near Baltimore, and we enjoyed the first one we read.
  • Jamie, 22, is reading The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin, book 2 in the Dreamblood series. He loved book 1, The Killing Moon, a few years ago and is happy to have finally gotten to book 2 (which we gave to him for Christmas last year). I doubt he'll have much reading time in a beach house with 11 other young adults on spring break this week!
Last week's blog posts:
 TV Tuesday: Lilyhammer - warm, funny show about a NY mobster in Norway

Fiction Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen - remarkable award-winning novel about Vietnamese spy/refugee in 1970's

Fiction Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson - vivid story of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970's

Saturday Snapshot: National Parks of Colorado - highlights of a wonderful trip!

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?   

Enjoying some much-appreciated time on the back deck last week!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Saturday Snapshot 3/25: National Parks of Colorado

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mommy Reads.

Continuing my tribute to National Parks and other federally managed lands, inspired by Melinda of West Metro Mommy Reads, this week we travel to Colorado. Back in 2009, after our annual summer visit to see my husband's parents, we traveled further west to Colorado. The highlight of the trip (and most of these photos) was Rocky Mountain National Park, but we also visited Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado.

My son at Great Sand Dunes NP

See the sled tracks on the dunes? My boys took a sled up there & slid down!

These huge sand dunes just rise out of the surrounding countryside.
Rocky Mtn NP - reflections in the lake

Sunset in Rocky Mtn NP from our campsite

My fave pic! My sons with a mountain lake at Rocky Mtn NP

South end of a northbound elk - Rocky Mtn NP

Hiking above treeline in the tundra at Rocky Mtn NP

These photos make me want to go back!!! I am really itching to travel, but medical problems, family stuff, and bad weather keep getting in my way....soon!

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend - it is WARM here finally, so I am going out on the deck to enjoy it before the temperature plunges again tonight.

In case you missed any, my other National Park tributes:

National Parks of New England

National Parks of the Southeast

National Parks of the Central U.S.

National Parks of South Dakota

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fiction Review: Another Brooklyn

--> One of my book groups recently read and discussed Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, and I was thrilled for the chance to read another book by this remarkable, award-winning author. I loved her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming (which won the 2014 National Book Award), and Another Brooklyn, though a novel and prose, employs similar themes and spare writing style as it explores the lives of adolescent girls in Brooklyn in the 1970’s.

As the novel opens, August, a woman anthropologist who studies death rituals around the world, is in Brooklyn at her father’s funeral with her brother. This trip home brings all kinds of memories back, some good and some difficult, as she grapples with her father’s death, with seeing her brother again, and with a brief glimpse of a childhood friend. Much of the rest of the novel takes place in the past, as she recalls images and scenes from her childhood and adolescence.

She and her father and brother moved to Brooklyn when August was eight years old and her brother just four. That move formed a boundary in her life, with her childhood in Tennessee with both parents on one side and her growing-up years in Brooklyn on the other. She remembers bits and pieces with her brother and her father, but many of her brightest memories are of her three best friends, Gigi, Sylvia, and Angela. The four girls bonded and went through those tender and tough years of adolescence together.

Although this is a novel, it is a brief book, told in spare, lyrical prose that reminded me somewhat of the loose verse in Brown Girl Dreaming. As in that memoir, here Woodson has a rare talent for imbuing a few words with intense meaning, painting a brilliant picture of childhood and adolescence. For instance, in this brief passage, she describes her childhood home in Tennessee in a way that makes you feel what she felt:
“We ran through it laughing, slamming out of and into it, closing our eyes at night then waking in the bright morning inside the pure joy of Home.”

If you had a happy childhood home, as I did, then she perfectly captures the feeling of an entire childhood in that single sentence.

Although her childhood was by no means carefree and had plenty of challenges, including the loss of her mother, she also describes the ups and downs of adolescence beautifully, remembering the joys of having best friends, giggling together at sleepovers and walking arm in arm down the street, as well as the devastating agonies of lost love and betrayals:
“When you’re fifteen, pain skips over reason, aims right for the marrow.”

I loved this slim novel and the way that the author perfectly captured the experiences of being a child and a teenager, even though my own upbringing in the suburbs (also in the 70’s) was entirely different from hers in Brooklyn in so many ways; she captured the essence of growing up. Of our group of about eight in our book discussion that evening, most also enjoyed the book and appreciated its unique prose style, though two members didn’t like it as well and would have preferred a more straightforward, traditional narrative.

For me, Woodson’s writing style in this novel matched the framework of the book – brief, vibrant vignettes presented in the way that memories are often recalled, bringing to mind the highs and the lows of a life that is both ordinary and extraordinary. Despite my very different childhood, I found her portrayal of adolescence perfectly captured that joyful, rocky, uncertain time between childhood and adulthood. The story told in those vivid memories, combined with the spare and lyrical prose, made Woodson’s warm and tender novel of growing up a captivating adventure that ended much too soon.

170 pages, Amistad (a HarperCollins imprint)

Another Brooklyn
by Blackstone AudioHardcover

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fiction Review: The Sympathizer

My neighborhood book group selected one of my choices for our March meeting: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, along with seven other literary awards. This is one of those books that I might never have chosen on my own – a spy novel set in and after the Vietnam War – but the avalanche of rave reviews (and that stack of awards) convinced me I should give it a try. I’m glad I did – it’s a remarkable book, a combination of historical fiction, political thriller, and spy novel, with a hefty dose of humor and substantial emotional depth.

The novel opens with this line from its unnamed narrator: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is a Vietnamese man, working for a General in the South Vietnamese army, but his sympathies lie with the communists. It is April 1975, and the Americans have warned the South Vietnamese army that they are about to pull out, causing chaos in the country. His General has asked him to make a list of those who will be allowed to leave on the last flight out, supplied by the Americans for the General who they’ve worked closely with throughout the war. Our narrator, the Captain, would much prefer to stay behind and share in the glory of a communist victory, but his superiors have told him to put himself on that plane and accompany the General to America, so that he can continue to report to them from there.

As you may remember or have read, the Fall of Saigon was horrible, violent, and indeed chaotic, and that plane filled with the General, his family, and his men and their families is the last one that makes it out in one piece.  The Captain and his friend, Bon, both make it to America with other refugees and begin to try to put their lives back together, though it is not an easy life. Their other childhood friend, Man, stayed behind in Vietnam. The Captain knows he is also a communist, but their loyalties are unknown to Bon. After a while, the General settles into American life, still devoted to the Vietnamese cause, but he suspects there may be a communist spy among their community of refugees.

The entire novel is told within the framework of a confession that the Captain is writing to someone called the Commandant (clearly a communist, from his title), as he describes exactly what happened to him, from those last days in Vietnam through the refugee camps and onto the U.S. Wondering how he came to be writing this confession – and its circumstances – is one of the sources of suspense in the novel, as well as wondering whether any of his American or Vietnamese colleagues will suspect his true loyalties.

Describing the plot of this novel doesn’t even begin to do it justice because the writing is absolutely brilliant. It is clever, supple, and sometimes even funny, despite the serious circumstances surrounding the story. For instance, in his written confession, the Captain refers consistently to one particular fat and unimpressive Major as “the crapulent major.” In other cases, the author just expresses something so perfectly, with an amazingly apt metaphor, that you feel compelled to mark the passage, like where he explains as he listens to a colleague with a false aura of relaxation, alert for information, “I laughed, even though inside me the little dog of my soul was sitting at attention, nose and ears turned to the wind.”

He just has a way with words and a way of encapsulating human experience perfectly, and much of our book group meeting was spent reading sentences out loud to each other appreciatively. This passage was a favorite:
“The only problem with not talking to oneself was that oneself was the most fascinating conversational partner one could imagine. Nobody had more patience in listening to one than oneself, and while nobody knew one better than oneself, nobody misunderstood one more than oneself. But if talking to oneself was the ideal conversation in the cocktail party of one’s imagination, the crapulent major was the annoying guest who kept butting in and ignoring the cues to scram.”

There are other sources of humor mixed in among the horrifying and difficult events of the novel. A big one is when the Captain is hired by a Hollywood producer to be an advisor on a film about the Vietnam War (a thinly veiled reference to Apocalypse Now), to ensure authenticity. Of course, the Hollywood bigwig is more interested in pleasing his American audience than in actually portraying the Vietnamese people accurately (or even giving them any speaking parts), but the filming of the movie in the Philippines has many amusing moments.

There is so much meat to this novel – its beautiful writing, its historical setting, its political context – that our book group had plenty to talk about. Most of us agreed it was an incredible book and rated it between 7 and 9 out of 10. Some felt it moved along at a good pace, while others felt it was a difficult book to read, though ultimately worthwhile. One member only got about 50 pages in and decided not to finish it. We certainly had an in-depth and entertaining discussion, though we weren’t entirely sure we completely “got” the ending.

The Sympathizer is not just a novel about the Vietnam War. It is also about personal identity and the refugee experience, a topic of vital importance today. The narrator’s two faces, mentioned in the opening sentence, have multiple meanings. He is not only an undercover agent, serving two opposing political forces, he is also a refugee, with one foot in Vietnam and another in America, and he is also a bastard child (a big part of his identity), born of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest father. This deep emotional context along with a gripping and suspenseful story and the author’s beautiful prose make this a truly exceptional novel and well deserving of its many awards.

384 pages, Grove Press

Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviewed Viet Thanh Nguyen. He discusses the book, as well as his own history and experiences growing up in Vietnam and in the U.S. as a refugee. It's an excellent interview and very interesting. You can listen to this 35-minute interview online, download it, or read the transcript at the link above.

Here is a brief clip of the author on Late Night with Seth Meyers. He talks about his own experience as a refugee...and his wonderful sense of humor comes through as well.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

TV Tuesday: Lilyhammer

When my mother was visiting a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I exchanged TV recommendations with her. We told her about Sneaky Pete (which she and her husband are loving) and Good Girls Revolt, and she told us about a unique comedy called Lilyhammer. It was a good recommendation - we are now hooked on it, too!

Lilyhammer features a set-up pretty much guaranteed to bring plenty of laughs. An infamous New York City mobster named Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, played by Steven Van Zandt of The Sopranos, agrees to testify against his former boss and colleagues, if the FBI will protect him and relocate him. He says he won't be safe anywhere in the U.S., but he remembers enjoying watching the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, so that's where he goes, with a new name, Giovanni Henrikson.

Giovanni, or Johnny as he asks his new acquaintances to call him, is a little disappointed when he first sees his modest home and tiny car in snow-bound Lillehammer, but he immediately begins to make the town his own. He joins classes for new Norwegian citizens, where he meets an attractive and out-of-work teacher named Sigrid, played by the lovely Marian Saastad Otteson. Right from the start, Johnny does things his own way, which is quite different from the way Norwegians typically do things. He is very polite but doesn't take no for an answer and believes there is no problem that can't be solved with money or the proper "motivation." From setting up a business to making friends to getting his driver's license, Johnny makes his way through Lillehammer in a most un-Norwegian way. A local Barney Fife-type police officer, bored with the tiny town's lack of crime, suspects something is up with Johnny...but he is way off-base in what he suspects, adding another dimension of humor.

My husband was skeptical at first. He is from Oklahoma and is really not into most mob-related TV shows or movies - just not his thing. However, Johnny has quickly won us both over. The entire cast (mostly Norwegian with no big Hollywood names beyond the lead) is excellent and fun to watch, the laid-back atmosphere of Lillehammer is welcoming, and Johnny's fish-out-of-water escapades are a lot of fun. Besides having plenty of humor, the show is also surprisingly warm, and you soon find yourself rooting for Johnny, despite his unorthodox methods.

We've only watched three episodes so far, and there are three seasons of the show on Netflix, so we look forward to a lot more fun with Johnny. You can also watch Lilyhammer on DVD or streaming on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $12.99 for the entire first season (links below).


Monday, March 20, 2017

It's Monday 3/21! What Are You Reading?

Happy First Day of Spring! 

Doesn't feel much like spring. We still have quite a bit of snow on the ground (rare for this time of year), though I do see blue sky this morning.

I had kind of a rough week. The weird cold snap & snow/ice storm made a very painful medical problem flare up badly. I thought it was gone for the season, so this was extra-frustrating. Despite my chronic illness, I don't normally deal with much pain, and I am finding it very difficult. By this weekend, I was in a pretty dark mood and exhausted, too. I have a lot of admiration for those who contend with chronic pain all the time - it's a tough road.

Trying to plan spring break also got me down this weekend - our sons' spring break from college is next week, and the weather is still supposed to be cold (and very wet) all week, quite a ways down the east coast. We just can't travel far enough in the limited time to get to nice weather for camping! I think our younger son is going to settle for choosing the best 2-3 days to go camping with his friends locally (with our camper which has heat!). My husband and I still need to decide what we are doing the following week...or maybe we'll wait for better weather. I hate everything being up in the air like this when our plans don't work out.

In the midst of that dark period, I heard the news that a favorite author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, died of cancer.  Besides liking her writing, I felt a connection to her because we were the same age, had similar childhoods, and were both parents and writers. I had exchanged e-mails with her a couple of times, and her death really hit me hard. Besides being an excellent writer, she lived an admirable life of warmth, kindness, and creativity. Take a look at my post about her and help me to honor her memory by spreading her writing and her kindness.

Books provided a welcome escape for me last week, as always! Here's what we are all reading:
  • I finished my first book for my new review job at Shelf Awareness: The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron, due out April 25. This novel is about a Neanderthal girl, with alternating chapters set in present day as a woman archeologist uncovers her remains. I loved this novel! It reminded me a bit of Clan of the Cave Bear, but I also really enjoyed the connections and parallels to the modern world. Now I need to write my review.
  • I am now reading my next review book for Shelf Awareness (in case we do end up going away sometime in the next two weeks), How To Be Human by Paula Cocozza (due out May 9). This novel is set in suburban London, about a woman recovering from a recent break-up who is fascinated by a fox in her backyard. It's especially interesting to me since we have a lot of foxes in our area!
  • I finished a middle-grade audiobook, Making Friends with Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood. Like her earlier novel, Glory Be, this one is set in the South in the past (1950's Arkansas this time) and deals with racial tensions, in this case prejudice against Asian-Americans. It was very good.
  • I have started a new audiobook and my first Booktopia book for this season. Boooktopia is an awesome annual event in Vermont, where book lovers get together with authors for an intimate weekend of discussing and celebrating books - so much fun! My mom and I went two years ago and are going again the first week of May. So, I just started The Women in the Castle on audio by Jessica Shattuck, one of the authors who will be at Booktopia. This novel is about widowed women living in a castle in Germany after WWII ends. It's good so far.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading another of my review books (he is really benefiting from my new job!), Marshall's Law by Ben Sanders, which looks like part of a thriller series - right up his alley!
 Blog posts last week:
Movie Monday: Mockingjay Part 2 - final conclusion to The Hunger Games series

Books Read in February - only 4 books but they were all good!

Teen/YA Review: The Forgetting - compelling dystopian novel

Irish Books & Movies To Celebrate St. Patrick's Day - good for the holiday & beyond!

Saturday Snapshot - National Parks of South Dakota - continuing my NP series

Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal Dies at 51 - remembering her & honoring her memory

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.

What are you and your family reading this week?   

First Day of Spring?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Author Amy Krouse Rosenthal Dies at 51

I was stunned this morning to hear the horrible news that Amy Krouse Rosenthal died of cancer a few days ago. Born in the same year as me, a writer with kids who grew up in the suburbs of the 70's, I felt a connection to her. As she put it, "we shared a moment (in the form of an e-mail exchange)" back in 2010, after I reviewed her book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (which I loved). In fact, she just e-mailed me again in October to tell me about her new book, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I had no idea she was battling cancer then and was crushed to hear today that she lost that battle. She was a smart, funny, clever, playful, and kind person - and all of that came across in her writing.

You can read my review of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (and then go read the book!). Sadly, I never received the review copy of Textbook Amy Krouse so I haven't read it yet, but I would like to.

I also posted this trio of fun and amusing videos that Amy made, in part to promote Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life - they are short and well worth watching - clever and funny, just like Amy.

Amy's website tells you a lot about her life and her books - and again showcases that wonderful sense of humor. The website includes dozens of short videos that Amy made. One of them, Thought Bubble Kindness, was the Winner of Best Animation at the Peace On Earth Film Festival 2011. You can watch that one right here:

Amy has also given three TED talks (three! I had no idea). In this one, she explains how she launched her project Beckoning Lovely -  a warm and inspiring concept and project:

Hopefully, that last video will inspire YOU to live your life as Amy did - with warmth, kindness, and creativity. Look for the lovely in your own life and share it with others.

The best way to honor Amy's memory is to enjoy the wonderful books she's written (many books for children, in addition to these 2 for adults). She was a talented, kind, smart, funny woman who will be sorely missed.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life
by Amy Krouse RosenthalTrade Paperback
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
by Amy Krouse RosenthalHardcover

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Saturday Snapshot 3/18: National Parks of South Dakota

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Melinda at West Metro Mommy Reads.

Continuing my tribute to National Parks and other federally managed lands, inspired by Melinda of West Metro Mommy Reads, this week I am focusing on South Dakota. Why does a single state get its own post? For two reasons: first, although we have traveled all over the U.S. and been to beautiful state and national parks in almost every state, we have spent a LOT of time in South Dakota, in part because we have family there and in part because it is one of our favorite places! Second, the western end of the state in particular has a lot of different National Parks, National Monuments, and other protected lands.

So, here is a sampling from our many trips to South Dakota over the years:

The most famous National Monument in SD: Mount Rushmore
Mt. Rushmore seen through a tunnel on Needles Highway in Custer State Park

Local resident prairie dogs, above-ground in Wind Cave National Park

Underground at Wind Cave National Park

Our favorite: Badlands National Park

Our sons hiking in the Badlands at sunset

Badlands at sunset, as a storm approaches (it was a BIG one!)

Last summer at Jewel Cave National Monument
"Cave bacon" in Jewel Cave
My fave pic of our family: Notch Trail in Badlands NP, 2005

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend and staying warm (feels like the middle of winter here). I am ready to escape this nasty weather and visit some national parks!!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Irish Books and Movies to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

While I used to celebrate this March holiday every year in college by drinking green beer (LOTS of it!), times have changed. I can no longer drink even one beer (due to medical problems), so I need to find other ways to celebrate this fun holiday. I am wearing my green today and thinking back to some great books and movies set in Ireland or about Irish people. Check out some of these choices to get into the spirit today...and please tell me about your favorite Irish books & movies in the comments!

Irish/Ireland Books
  • Faith by Jennifer Haigh, set in Boston about an Irish Catholic family amid the priest scandal - I love Haigh's books, which always delve into the complexities of family life.
  • Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan is set in both Ireland and New York, the story of a young Irish woman's migration to America in the early 20th century.
  • The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is mostly about slavery on a Virginia plantation, but one of the main characters is Lavinia, a young Irish girl working as an indentured servant. This was one of my book group's favorites.
  •  In the Woods by Tana French - no list of Irish books would be complete without a mention of this literary mystery series about the Dublin Murder Squad. This is the first book in the series and is gripping and beautifully written.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley does not take place primarily in Ireland, but that is one of the memorable places where Frankenstein follows his creation. A very thoughtful novel about human nature, quite unlike the movie adaptations.
  • Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline begins with the story of Irish immigrants coming to America and settling in New York, as that is where one of the main characters gets her start. Excellent historical fiction.
Irish/Ireland Movies
  • Sing Street - a joyful drama/comedy about teen boys starting a band in 1980's Ireland - not only appropriate for today but a really great movie for any day! 
And for dinner tonight, consider making New England Boiled Dinner, a recipe from Cooking Light originally published in their March 1995 issue that has been my favorite corned beef recipe since...well, 1995. It's delicious! We'll be having this on Sunday, when we can get our college boys and my father-in-law all home for dinner together!

My family enjoying our St. Patrick's Day corned beef dinner, 2015

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Teen/YA Review: The Forgetting

When I started listening to The Forgetting, a teen/YA novel by Sharon Cameron recently, it seemed at first very similar to the middle-grade audio I had just finished, The Scourge by Jennifer Nielsen: a dystopian story set in an unfamiliar world. I was a bit disappointed because I prefer to mix things up a bit more and read/listen to different kinds of books. Halfway through The Forgetting, though, a plot twist changed the story entirely for me, and I became much more interested in it. I ended up enjoying it very much.

Nadia lives in the city of Canaan, a bucolic town where each person has a specific job to do in a no-tech world.  Citizens don’t leave the stone walls surrounding their town, and they live simple lives, defined by their jobs. Nadia’s full name is Nadia the Dyer’s Daughter because her mother works in the dye works in town. Nadia, her mother, and her two sisters live in a small house in town. Nadia’s family members – and most other townspeople – are content with their lives and their world, but Nadia has a desire to know more and to see more. She often climbs over the walls in secret during the daily resting time.

There’s one thing that makes Canaan completely unique. Every twelve years, all of its citizens experience a day called the Forgetting, when everyone – from young children to the oldest people – forget everything, including their own history and their loved ones. The only memories retained are muscle memory, of physical skills gained through years of experience, which is why so much emphasis is put on learning and gaining those singular skills for each person. For the rest, each person keeps a book on their person, a precious place to record everything important in their lives – shelved in the Archives when full – so that they will have a way of remembering their families, friends, and lives after the Forgetting. However, Nadia is the exception; she alone, of all her fellow citizens, remembers everything. She went through her first Forgetting at age six, and her second one is quickly approaching.

In the first pages of the book, as Nadia is sneaking back into town after another covert trip over the wall, she discovers another person in town who is interested in the wider world. Gray, the glassblower’s son, catches Nadia sneaking back in and persuades her to take him along the next time. Feeling trapped by his discovery of her, Nadia reluctantly agrees, and an uneasy alliance is formed between the two. It’s uneasy in part because Nadia remembers things about Gray’s background that he himself doesn’t know.

There are a lot of interesting twists and surprises in this unique novel, so I won’t describe any more details of the plot. Nadia and Gray go exploring and make some new discoveries about their world and their town. Meanwhile, inside town, Nadia keeps getting in trouble (as is her habit) and worries that her secrets will be discovered. Because she remembers things that no one else in town can remember, she also begins to discover secrets about the town itself.

This book really grew on me over time as I listened to it, and as I mentioned, a plot twist partway through made it all the more compelling to me. It just got better and better. It’s an adventure, with a lot of action (especially toward the end), a dystopian story describing a world different than ours, and there is plenty of suspense, as Nadia gradually unravels the secrets of her world. I enjoyed this unique story with surprising and suspenseful plot twists. And now I see there will be a sequel, The Knowing, so I look forward to reading that as well!

(Note: don’t look up The Knowing before you have read The Forgetting because the description of the second book gives away secrets from the first book).

Scholastic Press/Scholastic Audio

(audio sample at the link below)

by Benjamin T MastHardcover