Saturday, June 30, 2018

Saturday Snapshot: Family Road Trip Memories

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

This week, one of my articles was published in Your Teen magazine's July/August issue: End of the Road, an essay about our family road trips. Here is the online version of it on their website.

I was already missing our family trips and feeling in desperate need of a vacation, so the publication of this essay has me going down memory lane (or memory highway)! With all our varied crises lately, we haven't had time for even a weekend trip or a vacation with just my husband and I. So, here are just a few of the highlights from our 15+ years of cross-country family road trips:

Our first road trip in 2000! 1 hr into a 10-day drive, our toddler yelled, "All done!"

Riding a camel at the Knoxville Zoo, 2001
Hiking in Bryce Canyon, 2002

Escalante Petrified Wood State Park, UT 2002
Mount Rushmore, 2003
Doyle's Falls - Shenandoah NP, 2004

Hiking at Petit Jean SP, Arkansas 2004
The Notch Trail - Badlands NP, South Dakota 2005
Happy travelers!

Digging for diamonds - Crater of Diamonds State Park, AR 2007

Canoe camping - Buffalo National River in AR - 2007

Carhenge - Nebraska 2008

Rocky Mountain National Park 2009

Bandolier National Monument - New Mexico 2010
Acadia National Park, Maine 2013

Our last family road trip - hiking in White Mountains, NH 2014
sigh...makes me want to hit the road!

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Teen/YA Review: They Both Die At the End

I've been hearing rave reviews of the teen/YA novel They Both Die At the End by Adam Silvera since its release last fall, so I was glad to have a chance to listen to it on audio last week. This warm, moving, original story lived up to all its hype.

In the near-future, people are informed by Death-Cast, calling between midnight and 3 am, that they will die that day. This has given rise to a whole new vernacular, with Deckers being those who've been informed, a Twitter-like social media site called CountDowners, and an app called Last Friend. At the start of this novel that takes place in a 24-hour period, both Mateo and Rufus get the call from Death-Cast. For various reasons, they are each separated from their friends and family and reach out on Last Friend, where they find each other (after some humorous mismatches on both parts). The two boys, both 18 or nearly so, meet up in the early morning hours and spend their last day together wandering around New York City together. Along the way, they have some necessary stops to make - at the hospital to visit Mateo's dad, for instance - but they both also want to make this last day count. Rufus has lived a pretty good life, though his past year has been filled with personal tragedy, but Mateo is a shy, introverted guy who feels like this is his last chance to really live - and Rufus is happy to help him. The two young men form a surprisingly strong connection in that day, for two people who started out as strangers.

I know this premise sounds incredibly depressing - and it is sad to witness two young lives cut short - but the story is also uplifting, moving, and sometimes even funny. Witnessing this close bond form between Mateo and Rufus in such a short time is heartwarming, as if they both find exactly what they need in the other. Their day together is a mix of tying up loose ends and saying good-bye with living for the moment and enjoying their last hours. Chapters alternate between their two viewpoints, but other perspectives are also woven into the story - some other Deckers informed that day and some people who will cross paths with Mateo and Rufus in unexpected ways. It was wonderful on audio, with different first-person narrators for the two boys helping to immerse you in the story. I came to love Rufus and Mateo and root for them to make the most of their last day in this compelling and wholly unique novel about life, love, and loss.

384 pages, HarperTeen

Listen to a sample of the audio from the beginning of the novel, starting with Mateo's narration.

Purchase They Both Die At the End from an indie bookstore:
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Or order They Both Die At the End from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

TV Tuesday: For the People

One of the new shows that my husband and I enjoyed this spring was For the People, a new legal drama. I was particularly interested to see it since two Hollywood writers I follow, Liz Craft and Sarah Fain, had worked on the show's pilot (I enjoy their podcast Happier in Hollywood). Think of For the People as Grey's Anatomy for the legal profession (with good reason - it's another Shonda Rhimes show) - new lawyers learning how to do their jobs, facing off against each other, and hooking up together outside of court. We enjoyed season 1 and are looking forward to season 2.

The show takes place in the Southern District of New York Federal Court, apparently a big deal known as "The Mother Court." The cast is mostly broken up into two teams. Hope Davis stars as Jill Carlan, head of the Public Defenders' office, with her team of newbie lawyers including Jay, played by Wesam Keesh, and besties Allison and Sandra, played by Jasmine Savoy Brown and Britt Robertson, respectively. On the opposing side is Roger Gunn, played by Ben Shenkman, heading up the Prosecutor's office and overseeing new prosecuting attorneys, including the smart but arrogant Leonard, played by Rege-Jean Page; prickly and brilliant Kate Littejohn, played by Susannah Flood; and Allison's boyfriend Seth, played by Ben Rappaport. It sounds confusing with so many actors, but you quickly get to know them, just like the new raft of interns at the start of a Grey's Anatomy season. Vondis Curtis-Hall is excellent as Judge Byrne, and Rahvaunia also adds a spark as Court Clerk Theresa. Each episode focuses in on one case, from both the perspectives of the defense and the prosecution, plus new insights into the backgrounds and personal lives of the lawyers themselves.

We enjoyed the first season very much. We quickly got to know the characters and soon became invested in them. The acting and writing is all top-notch, and the cases themselves often touch on ripped-from-the-headlines issues, usually showing the shades of gray in what might seem like a straightforward case from the outside, like the kid being tried as a terrorist who basically got caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time by some bad people. The combination of the court cases and the personal lives of the lawyers and others involved in the legal system makes for some compelling TV, as it has in other legal dramas. We'll definitely be watching season 2.

There are 10 episodes in season 1 of For the People. All ten are still available for free On Demand if you subscribe to cable. Oddly, only episodes 1 and 7 - 10 are currently available for free on the ABC website (though you can unlock episode 6 with a cable subscription). You can watch episodes on Amazon streaming starting at $1.99 per episode or $14.99 for the whole season. I think the show might also be available on Hulu streaming (I'm not 100% sure since we don't get Hulu, but it looks like it).

Watch the Trailer:

Monday, June 25, 2018

Movie Monday: Every Day

For years, I have heard great things about David Levithan's YA novels, but I still haven't read one for myself. So, I was glad for the opportunity to see a movie adaptation of one of his recent books, Every Day. I enjoyed this unique but warm and sweet story.

To say that Every Day has an original plot is an understatement. Its main premise is that a young entity - nicknamed A for simplicity - has no body of its own but wakes up in a different teen body each morning, moving from one host body to another every 24 hours. On the first day that we are introduced to A, he wakes up in the body of Justin, played by Justice Smith, a wealthy star high school athlete who is dating a sweet girl named Rhiannon, played by Angourie Rice. Rhi notices that something is different about Justin on that day, but she likes it - he is kinder and more attentive, and the two of them enjoy a "perfect day" together. Except that the next day, Justin doesn't remember much about that day, while a new girl in school named Amy (who is A's next person to inhabit), seems weirdly attuned to Rhi. Each day, in his/her new body, A seeks out Rhi and eventually explains to her what is happening. Of course, she doesn't believe it at first (who would?), but after A comes to see her in the guise of several very different teens on consecutive days and shows Rhi how much he/she knows about her, Rhi finally believes. From then on, it becomes a very unusual kind of love story because the two of them did fall in love that very first day when A inhabited Justin's body, but how can this possibly end happily? Can they continue this way forever, with A in a different body each day?

It's a strange story, but I enjoyed the movie, just accepting its premise and going along for the ride. It's a sweet, if very unusual, love story, and the ending is satisfying, even though it obviously couldn't be a perfect happy ending for all. One minor thing bothered me a bit. Although the movie's creators did a good job of putting A into a diverse group of bodies each day of different races and genders, including a bit of gender fluidity and even one overweight teen, they were all mid- to upper-class kids who lived comfortable, often even pampered, lives with lovely homes, kind parents, and their own cars. Why didn't A ever wake up in the body of a homeless kid or a teen responsible for his younger siblings because his dad was in jail and his mom was an addict? I was a bit annoyed at the lack of diversity in terms of class and wealth. But, overall, that is a minor quibble. For the most part, this was a light, fun movie with plenty of warmth and even some insights about what's important in life and what life is all about. I enjoyed it. And now, I would really like to read the novel it was based on - and other Levithan novels as well - to see how that compares to the movie.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below - have you read the book? Seen the movie? Let me know what you thought.

Every Day is currently available for streaming on Amazon, starting at $4.99, or on DVD, as well as through other venues (but not on Netflix).


It's Monday 6/25! What Are You Reading?

Once again, it's been two weeks since my last Monday post, and those two weeks have been exhausting, stressful, and chaotic. I won't bore you with the long details, but here's a quick recap. Older son battled his recently worsened chronic illness symptoms to manage to go to a huge outdoor music festival with friends, where his phone was stolen and car keys were lost. Younger son was assaulted in Rome during his study abroad program - punched and kicked in the head - and suffered a concussion, so we had to bring him home early. We'll be seeing our concussion specialist (this is his 2nd) today, but he has already been improving a bit every day since he returned home Thursday night, so we are all relieved.

Yes, so we've been just a little distracted! However, when it feels like the world is falling apart around us, that's when our books are the most comforting and when we most need that lovely bit of escape from reality. My husband and I are enjoying the Big Book Summer Challenge, and we are all enjoying our books. Here's what we've been reading the past two weeks:
  • I finished reading my latest review book, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owen. I chose this one to both review and interview the author, and boy, did I choose well! I absolutely loved this novel set in the coastal marshes of North Carolina, about a young girl left to fend for herself after her family abandons her. There is also a murder mystery and some romance woven in. It's a very immersive novel, with the author bringing the unique coastal marsh environment to life. I can't wait to talk to the author later this week! The book comes out in August.
  • After that, I got back down to business with my Big Book Summer Challenge and finally started reading Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon (book 2 in the Outlander series). This 700+ page chunkster has been in my plans the past three years for Big Book Summer, so I am glad to finally be reading it. And it is just as compelling and engaging as Outlander was. It's quite different, since much of it takes place in 1744 Paris, rather than the Scottish Highlands, but Claire and Jamie are just as wonderful. Since I also recently finished watching season 1 of the TV show, they now feel like old friends.
  • On audio, I finished The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick. This was classic Quick, with a powerful story told by a unique narrator of the type that readers rarely hear from, combining emotional depth with laugh-out-loud moments. It's about a Vietnam vet who still struggles with PTSD and other effects of his time in war but loves his son (whom he has nothing in common with) and his young granddaughter. The narrator at first comes across as crass, outspoken, and offensive - and he is all of those things! - but the more you get to know him, the more you see the layers behind that initial impression. Just as mind-blowing as Quick's other novels, this is a must-read. Check out my review even if you don't think the description here sounds like what you'd normally read.
  • I also listened to They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, a unique YA novel that was warm and moving. It's set in a near-future world where a company called Death-Cast calls you after midnight to let you know you will die that day. Both Mateo and Rufus get the call early one morning and, since both are separated from their friends and family for various reasons, both reach out using the Last Friend app and find each other. The novel covers a single day - their last - that they spend together, building a surprisingly strong connection in a short time. I had heard good things about this novel, and it lived up to the hype.
  • And, this morning, I just started listening to Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a freebie from SYNC one summer. I thought that since my book reading is focused on Big Book Summer, and I haven't read a classic for my 2018 Classics Challenge in a few months, audio would be a great way to fit one in. I last read this novel in 9th grade. I am already enjoying it - I'd forgotten that Dickens had a good sense of humor!
  • My husband, Ken, finished his first Big Book Summer read, Burn by Nevada Barr, a book I gave to him for Christmas. He and I love Barr's Anna Pigeon thrillers because they are all set in National Parks (which we love), starring a park ranger. I chose this one specifically because it is set in New Orleans, where we used to live (and still one of our favorite places in the world!), and he enjoyed it very much - said it had even more suspense than the others in the series.
  • Now, Ken is reading his second Big Book of the summer and one of my all-time favorites, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. This was one of my Big Book Summer reads a few years ago, and Ken gamely watched the movie adaptation with me, even though he found it pretty confusing. He was likewise a bit confused at the end of the first section of the novel, but I think, like me, he will love to see how it all comes together - the more you read of this novel, the more engrossing it becomes.
  • Our son, Jamie, 23, is reading book 9, Winter's Heart, of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He loves this series (and might even be onto book 10 by now). It's Big Book Summer all year-round for him; he rarely reads a book with under 400 pages! 
  • And our younger son Craig, 20, makes a rare appearance here: he normally doesn't like to read (I would claim he was swapped at birth but he looks just like me), but the restrictions post-concussion (no screens, no noise, no reading) leave him with nothing to do. Like with his last concussion, he has turned to the Harry Potter audio books, not only to ease his boredom but also to provide the comfort of favorite old stories and characters. He listened to The Chamber of Secrets in Italy, The Prisoner of Azkaban when he got home, and is now listening to The Goblet of Fire - on cassette! When he saw the library had a very long wait for the digital downloads, he dug out our old books on tape and a cassette player (yes, we still have those).
Blog posts from the past two weeks - not a lot of time for writing lately!
Teen/YA Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey- a fast-paced YA post-apocalyptic novel that I loved - and my first Big Book of the summer!

Fiction Review: The Lightkeeper's Daughter by Jean E. Pendziwol - engaging story of two intertwined lives

Saturday Snapshot - Happy Father's Day! - memories of my dad

TV Tuesday: American Gothic - we all loved this fun, suspenseful show

Fiction Review: The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick - powerful, moving & funny!

Saturday Snapshot: Father's Day Hike - beautiful summer day

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.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.   

What are you and your family reading this week? 

The 2018 Big Book Summer Reading Challenge is on, and there is still plenty of time to join! It's easy-going, like summer - you only need to read one book with 400 or more pages sometime between now and the end of summer (early September) to participate (though of course, you can read more Big Books, if you want to). It's great motivation to tackle some of the bigger books on your shelves or TBR that usually get overlooked. Check out the details at the link and join the fun!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Saturday Snapshot: Father's Day Hike

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

 So, this past week was chaotic, crazy, and stressful. Last Saturday, shortly after I posted my Snapshot post (sorry I didn't have time to visit other blogs), our son called from his study abroad program in Italy to tell us he'd been assaulted. Long story short, a few locals jumped him and his 5 classmates in Rome, walking home late at night, and our son got the worst of it - punched and kicked in the head. He went to the ER and got stitches, but he also had a concussion. He has a history of concussion and his symptoms were severe, so we were very, very concerned. His symptoms weren't improving much during the week, so we arranged to bring him home on Thursday. He is now back here, safe and sound and beginning to heal.

My husband and I did take some time out on Father's Day to get outside and enjoy a short hike - a welcome respite in a very stressful weekend:

The start of the path on a beautiful day!

Tunnel through the trees

Lots of GREEN!


Hiking selfie

Bridge over the creek

Reflections in the pond

Duck family on the pond

Hope you are enjoying the weekend!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fiction Review: The Reason You're Alive

Brilliant novelist Matthew Quick has done it again with his latest novel, The Reason You're Alive: given readers a glimpse into the kind of character we rarely hear from and addressed a multitude of important issues along the way, with insight, emotion, and humor. In Silver Linings Playbook, it was a character with bipolar disorder; Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock took us into the mind of a troubled teen planning a horrific crime and then his own suicide; and The Good Luck of Right Now was told from the perspective of an adult probably on the autism spectrum learning to live on his own for the first time. In The Reason You're Alive, we meet David Granger, a Vietnam veteran still suffering from PTSD, who will make you question every assumption you've ever made about other people.

As the novel opens, David is just leaving the hospital after brain surgery, where doctors removed a large tumor discovered after a car accident. Filled with suspicion and paranoia, David is convinced the tumor came from his exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam and that even his recent surgery is part of a government conspiracy. While coming out of anesthesia, David keeps repeating the name of a Native American man he served with, a man he feels he wronged and whom he thinks is still seeking revenge decades later. David's beloved wife died years ago, and he struggles to maintain a relationship with his adult son, Hank, with whom he feels he has nothing in common, though he adores his seven year-old granddaughter, Ella. Throughout the story, as David moves in with his son while he's recovering, both David and Hank learn things about each other that keep surprising them both. David defies categorization, for instance carrying a concealed weapon while indulging in a tea party with Ella. Along the way, David seeks the help of an old friend to find the Native American and right old wrongs.

David is a narrator unlike any you have ever met in fiction. At first, he comes across as brash, outspoken, and offensive, but throughout the story, David bashes every stereotype you can think of - about conservatives, patriots, veterans, and more - bit by bit as the reader (and Hank) gets to know him better. Despite his politically incorrect tell-it-like-it-is attitude, David actually has a surprisingly diverse group of friends, and the more you get to know him, the more complex and nuanced he becomes. As always with Quick's novels, he deals with important issues in an emotionally powerful way, including everything from suicide to depression to racism, all the while making you laugh out loud - often.

I didn't think I'd be interested in the subject matter of this novel, but I listened to it because I have loved Quick's other novels so much, and it didn't disappoint. Hearing the story told in David's gruff, cigarette-roughened voice made the novel come alive even more for me, and by the end of the story, like Hank, I had learned to love David and appreciate his many layers. This is a novel that everyone in America (probably the world) should read right now because we could all learn David's lesson about not making assumptions about other people and taking the time to get to know those who are different from you. Plus, it's a highly entertaining, moving, hilarious story.

240 pages, Harper

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.

Click here to hear a sample of David's shocking, eye-opening narration from the start of the novel....but don't get scared off by David's offensive, profanity-laced approach to life - I guarantee you will learn to like, respect, and appreciate him!

Purchase The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick from your favorite indie bookstore:
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

Or order The Reason You're Alive from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

TV Tuesday: American Gothic

Our oldest son moved in back home after graduation and hasn't been feeling well (he has the same immune disorder I do plus some tick infections), so he, his Dad, and I have been binge-watching some TV shows together. Our obsession the past two weeks was American Gothic, a family-based murder mystery with a dark sense of humor and a great cast that we all instantly loved!

The Hawthorne family is one of Boston's most prestigious power families. Dad Mitch, played by Jamey Sheridan, made his fortune with a cement company, and mom Madeleine, played by Virginia Madsen, rules the family with an iron fist. Oldest daughter Alison, played by Juliet Rylance, is a city councilwoman and is running for mayor. Younger sister Tessa is married to a detective named Brady and trying to get pregnant. However, the youngest brother in the family, Cam (played by Justin Chatwin of Shameless fame), has his share of troubles, including drug addiction, an erratic ex-wife, and a very strange kid named Jack. When Mitch has a heart attack, the whole clan gathers at the family mansion, and even oldest brother Garrett, played by Antony Starr, returns home after a mysterious 14-year absence. Meanwhile, a bridge collapse reveals an old clue in the broken cement to an unsolved serial killer case: the Silver Bell Killer. This killer terrified the city years ago, leaving a silver bell at each murder scene. In the first episode, a couple of the Hawthorne kids, back home for their dad's crisis, find a shoebox full of silver bells out in the shed. And then the fun begins!

Clearly, from the evidence found in that box, someone in or near the Hawthorne family had something to do with the Silver Bell Killer...but who? As each tense episode unfolds, viewers will suspect first one and then another Hawthorne family member - no one seems to be immune from this roulette wheel of suspicions. At the same time, of course, the police, including Brady - unaware of the mysterious shoebox in the shed - are also trying to unravel the years-old case and are closing in on the truth. In addition to plenty of suspense and all kinds of unexpected plot twists, this gripping show has a thread of dark humor in it that often made us laugh out loud, despite its serious themes of murder and deception. This show keeps you guessing right up until the very last episode and is completely addictive, making it perfect for binging!

Originally a CBS show, American Gothic is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime or by subscribing to CBS All-Access.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Saturday Snapshot: Happy Father's Day!

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

I haven't participated in Saturday Snapshot in a while because I haven't been out much (other than errands and doctor's appointments!) and haven't taken any photos lately, but all week memories of my dad have been popping up on Facebook, so I thought I'd share a few of them here. Father's Day is a tough one for me these days - we lost my father (at only 70) three years ago to melanoma, and I miss him like crazy every single day. He was a great father - he adopted me when I was four years old, when he and my mom got married, and he was always loving and kind and supportive. He was also an amazing Grandpa who loved to get down on the floor with my sons or engage in whatever their current obsession was. My sons especially loved his sense of humor, and they miss him, too. So, a few special memories of my Dad for Father's Day:

Dad and I with our sand castle - Canada, circa 1969

Dad and I at my parents wedding - June 1969

Parents weekend in college
Dancing to "Through the Years" at my wedding - everyone around us was crying!
Grandpa and his oldest grandson

Grandpa with his second grandson

My dad and his wife with our boys
Grandpa with his skateboarding grandsons at our house

SO many memories of playing cards with Grandpa & Grandma!

Me, Dad, and his wife watching his grandson play soccer

All of us, shortly after Dad's diagnosis.
Hope you are enjoying the weekend and that the dads in your life have a great Father's Day on Sunday!

P.S. Yes, you absolutely can die of melanoma - it's often not as simple as just removing a spot, as many people think. It is, in fact, the deadliest form of skin cancer. So, get to a dermatologist this summer and begin a lifelong habit of annual check-ups!