Thursday, May 13, 2021

Fiction Review: Astray

Last month on audio, I listened to the short story collection Astray by Emma Donoghue. I loved her novel Room but haven't had a chance to read any of her later novels. I didn't realize this was short stories when I started listening, but I was quickly immersed in this interesting, eclectic collection of stories.

The stories featured in this collection are all very different, with settings in the UK, US, and Canada, with diverse characters and situations. They are all connected by the theme of the book--astray--and Donoghue explains the stories are all about travelers and immigrants, with the book divided into parts: Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths. In each case, Donoghue took some small nugget of obscure news from real history, spanning from the 1700's to the early 1900's, and built a story around it, fleshing out the characters and filling in fictional details. "Man and Boy," the first story in the collection, is about Jumbo, a famous elephant at the London Zoological Society in the 1800's, and his trainer. Jumbo's been sold to P.T. Barnum but is reluctant to board the crate on the ship bound for America. It's written entirely from the perspective of the trainer, as he talks to Jumbo. "Last Supper at Brown's" is set in 1800's Texas, about an enslaved man who escapes with his master's wife. At the end of the 19th century, two treasure-hunting men barely survive a harsh winter in a tiny cabin during the Klondike Gold Rush in "Snowblind." "The Hunt" is a chilling story of a very young man conscripted as a soldier during the Revolutionary War and how the war changes him. After each story, Donoghue includes an afterword detailing her sources for the bit of news on which she based the story.

Each individual story in this collection is fascinating and immersive, which I sometimes find frustrating in short stories--just as I'm getting into the story, it ends--but not in this case. Somehow, each story was exactly the right length and satisfying. The audio production was very well-done, using multiple narrators, with the Afterwords read by Donoghue herself. I enjoyed every single story, and taken together, they form an intriguing picture of regular people throughout history, sometimes caught in extraordinary circumstances and often reinventing themselves. I can't imagine the research Donoghue must have done to discover these obscure, interesting little bits of news. In an interview, she said that she worked on this collection over the course of 15 years, which makes sense to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of engrossing stories about people who are outsiders, traveling (physically or some other way) to new places for fresh starts.

304 pages, Little, Brown and Company

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

 

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

 

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, from the first story, "Man and Boy," about Jumbo and his trainer, and/or download it from Audible.

 

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

 
  

 

Or you can order Astray from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Fiction Review: Forest Dark

Last month, I listened to Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss on audio. I really loved Krauss' earlier novel, The History of Love, which has two disparate stories/characters that eventually come together in a story about (you guessed it) love. I also read her next novel, Great House, a finalist for the National Book Award, which was also good, though it felt a bit too bleak for my tastes.

 

Forest Dark follows a similar approach as those earlier novels, with two separate narratives, with just a location in common between them. Sixty-six-year-old Epstein was very successful and wealthy in New York. Recently, though, since retiring, divorcing his wife, and the death of his parents, he has been giving away his money, alarming his children and his estate lawyer. Now, Epstein has traveled to Israel, staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton, to try to find a way to honor his parents' memory. While there, he meets a rabbi who insists that Epstein is a descendant of King David, and he gets involved in a film being made by the rabbi’s daughter about David’s life.

 

In an alternate storyline, a successful female novelist has writer's block, so she leaves her husband and children behind to travel to Tel Aviv, where she also stays at the Hilton. She has stayed there every summer of her life, and she has a vague idea to set her next novel there. She is hoping the surroundings will get her writing again. While there, she gets involved with a legend/rumor that Kafka did not die as reported but moved to Israel where he recovered and lived out his life, and she ends up diving deep into research on the issue.

 

I kept expecting these two stories to come together, but they never do. They are just parallel stories both featuring Americans and set in Israel. The whole thing was quite complex. It’s the kind of book that emphasizes the characters’ inner lives, even though things do happen and there are some unexpected twists in both stories. I listened to it on audio, with a single narrator. Some chapters kept me interested and engaged, and others moved a bit slowly for me. The book is very much focused on Jewish culture and history, so I learned a lot. I know the critics love Kraus’ novels (this one was voted Best of 2017 by at least 11 different publications), but that second one, The History of Love, is still my favorite.

304 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.

 

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

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

 

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

   
  

 

Or you can order Forest Dark from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Monday, May 10, 2021

It's Monday 5/10! What Are You Reading?


My big news from last week is that I had the best week health-wise that I've had in over 14 months! I actually felt good every single day, was able to be active, and didn't "crash" or have a bad day even once (my immune disorder's primary characteristic is that exertion or activity makes me worse). I don't want to jinx it, but it's possible that my awful relapse that started in March 2020 might finally be over! I feel back to my usual "normal" for the first time since then. I'm hoping it lasts!

 

In our happy place!
 

As planned, my husband and I managed a short, local getaway last week, camping for two days at lovely Elk Neck State Park in Maryland. It was a short trip, and we were close enough that we could get to my father-in-law if he needed us, but it was wonderfully relaxing to just spend two days outdoors. The campground during the week is almost empty, so it was nice and quiet, and we spent our time just relaxing by the fire (and reading, of course!).

Ahhh ... relaxing with a book while camping

We were on one of our favorite sites, with gorgeous water views, where we fall asleep to the sound of the water lapping at the rocks below (it's on the Elk River, just before it feeds into the Chesapeake Bay).

Our peaceful, lovely campsite

There's a short trail leading from our campsite down to a secluded, beautiful beach, so we walked down there on Monday and enjoyed the peace, solitude, and nature. We saw two bald eagles, geese (including one sitting on her nest a foot off the trail!), a pileated woodpecker, and several varieties of swallowtail butterflies. All in all, it was just what we needed!

We love this secluded beach just steps from our campsite

You can see some video footage of our camping trip in my Friday Reads video


And we ended our week with a nice Mother's Day celebration yesterday. Our older son came home on Saturday, and our younger son (who lives locally) joined us for dinner last night. I opened a stack of gifts from my generous family, we enjoyed a take-out dinner, and we watched Wonder Woman 1984 (good but a bit too long). We always enjoy when the four of us can just hang out together again.

So, a great week for me! Here's what we've all been reading this past week:

I finished reading Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline. I gave this book to my husband for Christmas and he recently read it, and then it was my turn! (Best kind of gifts, right?) My husband, son, and I all loved the original (and the movie) and have been looking forward to the sequel. It was a slowish start for me, with a dismal outlook for Wade and the rest of the world. He has not handled fame and fortune well, and a new technology that Halliday left for him is again changing the world, not necessarily in good ways. But by around page 100, the action really picks up, both in the virtual world of OASIS, with a new quest, and in the real world. The sequel follows much the same formula as the first book, with Wade and his friends trying to complete a complex quest, but this time, the fate of the world is at stake and they have very limited time. The author also weaves in some ethical issues about technology advances and A.I., which makes this novel a bit more thought-provoking. My favorite virtual world in OASIS was the one based on John Hughes' movies; having been a teen in the 80's, I recognized just about everything there and enjoyed a lot of laughs during that part. I enjoyed this fun, fast-paced novel.

Next, I moved onto a novel that a friend dropped off to me last week when she heard I wanted to read it (I'm lucky to have friends like her!): The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This highly-acclaimed novel is a finalist for the 2021 Women's Fiction Prize, and for good reason. It takes place in the fictional town of Mallard, Louisiana, which is described as more of an idea than a place. Its founder started the town in 1848 as a safe haven for lighter-skinned Blacks, where they could escape from being labelled and harassed by whites. In 1954, a pair of beautiful sixteen-year-old twin girls goes missing; the sisters escape to New Orleans where they find jobs and a place to live. The novel opens in 1968, as one of the sisters, Desiree, returns home to Mallard with a very dark-skinned daughter, which creates a stir in the town. The other twin, Stella, seems to have completely disappeared. The reader knows that Stella has been passing for white and is living an entirely different kind of life. Years later, the twins' daughters' lives intersect, causing ripples through both sides of the family. It's an intriguing, engrossing story that I could hardly bear to set down! It also delves into the fascinating subtleties of racism at different time periods. I just finished it yesterday and loved it.

Now, I have already started one of my Mother's Day gifts from my son, Clock Dance by Anne Tyler. My husband and I both enjoyed some of Tyler's earliest novels but then sort of lost track of her, so I've been wanting to read her more recent novels. I only just started it last night, so I don't know much yet. The novel opens to the story of a young girl growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, with a little sister, a kind father, and an unreliable mother. Apparently, the novel revisits Willa's life at four different points--1967, 1977, 1997, and 2017--and Willa has a chance to change her life at each of these major turning points. I'm already enjoying it, immersed in Willa's world through Tyler's wonderful writing, and I can't wait to see what happens next!

On audio, I've been re-listening to Becoming by Michelle Obama. One of my book groups chose it for our May selection (discussion on Zoom later this week), and since it was still on my iPod, I thought I'd just re-listen to some parts of it to remind me of the details. Well, I am still listening! This is not a political book; it's the very personal story of Michelle's own life, from her childhood through to 2017, as they leave the White House. It covers her experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago, going to Princeton and Harvard as one of few Black students in the 1980's, her zigzagging career path as she tries to figure out what to do with her life, her experiences as a mother, and yes, her support of Barack's political career, as he strives to find bigger and better ways to make a difference in the world. Despite the fact that she was a First Lady, her tone (the audio is read by her) is warm and friendly, and her story is surprisingly relatable. I am only one year younger than her, so I could especially relate to many of her experiences. I'm loving this audio all over again! It's like listening to a good friend tell you about her life.

My husband, Ken, is now reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, a novel which garnered multiple awards and accolades when it was released in 2013. I read this book back in 2015 with one of my book groups and loved it (my review). A friend I lent it to recently returned it, so my husband decided to read it, though it is quite a departure from his usual thrillers. It takes place during the Chechnyan wars. A newly orphaned eight-year-old girl is taken by a kind neighbor to the local hospital, which is mostly bombed out. A doctor named Sonja remains there, working by herself day and night to care for anyone who manages to find their way there. The girl and the neighbor are still in danger from those who killed her parents, and they hide out at the hospital (he is a doctor so pledges to help Sonja in return). It's all about connections between people and how love and hope can survive in the worst circumstances. It's a powerful, moving novel, so I hope he enjoys it as much as I did.

Our 26-year-old son is immersed in one of his favorite series, Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. He's now onto book 4, Rhythm of War, which is a mere 1232 pages ... and hardcover! He brought this one home with him this weekend--just a bit of light reading for travel. He loves epic fantasy, the longer the better, and he thinks my annual Big Book Summer Challenge (coming up next month!) where I read 400+ page books each summer is pretty funny. When he was twelve, we were halfway across the country on a day-long journey through airports when we realized he'd stuffed the hardcover edition of the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle into his backpack for the trip! 

 

Blog posts from last week:

TV Tuesday: Resident Alien - a fun murder mystery/small town drama/sci fi alien story we loved!

Fiction Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote - I enjoyed this classic novella and 3 short stories

Nonfiction Review: Nature's Best Hope by Doug Tallamy - fascinating book about why planting native plants in our own yards is so important

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?

 

Friday, May 07, 2021

Nonfiction Review: Nature's Best Hope

My neighborhood book group chose a book by a local author for April who seems to be garnering a lot of attention all over. He's written several popular books now, and the one we read was Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard by Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at our own University of Delaware. We all enjoyed reading the book, and we had a lively discussion about incorporating his advice into our own yards and neighborhood.

Tallamy's primary message in this book is that saving the environment, restoring our ecosystems, and halting the alarming mass extinctions going on around the world starts in our own yards. He emphasizes the importance of planting native plants around our own homes. Wildlife is very, very specific. One type of bird only feeds one type of caterpillar to its babies, and that type of caterpillar only eats one type of leaves, which are, of course, native to the area. So, even if your yard looks lush, filled with beautiful ornamentals from all over the world, those trees, plants, and flowers are not productive, meaning they don't feed the local insects which then feed the local birds and other wildlife. Studies have counted how many caterpillars a single pair of birds must find each day in order to feed two or three baby birds in a single nest, and it is often in the neighborhood of 2000-3000! Tallamy and his graduate students did their own studies, comparing areas filled with invasive or non-native plants and natural areas filled with only native plants (which Tallamy said are getting harder to find). The results? Even when the areas had a greater overall mass of plants (biomass), the non-native areas had 68% fewer species of caterpillars, 91% fewer caterpillars, and 96% less (!) caterpillar biomass than in the native areas. That means no food for nesting birds. Another example you may have heard about is the well-publicized plight of the monarch butterflies, who only eat milkweed, which has been replaced by wide swaths of urban and suburban non-native plantings. Multiply one yard by all the yards on the migration path for the butterflies from north to south (and back), and if there are no milkweeds, then there is nothing for the monarchs to eat, hence their rapid and alarming reduction in numbers. Tallamy doesn't just describe the problems but outlines actions that every property owner can take, even if you have a tiny yard in a city. Tallamy suggests that rather than focusing conservation efforts only on public parks, we can each make our own Homegrown National Park, and all of those efforts put together can make a real difference. While each area has different native plants, he makes some general suggestions and provides resources for looking up your own area online.

Gorgeous full-color photos of birds

Tallamy also includes photos of insects and plant varieties

As you can probably tell, I was fascinated by this book. I already knew that native plants were important, so I didn't expect to learn much from this book, but Tallamy explains why they are so crucial. Those studies and data blew my mind. This was a great book for our local book group because we were able to apply what it said to our own yards and our joint neighborhood. Because Tallamy is a local author, many of his photos and examples refer to our area in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. (though he's done some work elsewhere and uses other examples, too). The book is filled with gorgeous full-colored photos of plants, insects, and birds. I learned so much, in fact, that I drove my husband crazy interrupting his reading each night to read him interesting facts, "Listen to this! Did you know ..." Just wait until he sees how many new plants I bought (that he'll have to help plant) from our local Native Plant Sale last week!

NOTE: While I enjoyed and learned a lot from 99% of Tallamy's book, there is one small part, in the Q&A section at the back, where he discusses Lyme disease. I was appalled to see how many factual errors he made in that section--that kind of misinformation is dangerous and following his advice could put you or your loved ones at risk. (Two examples are that he said you only need to watch for ticks a couple of months out of the year and that they don't attach to the scalp. With global warming, ticks are prevalent most of the year now in many climates, and they actually love the close darkness of scalps!) My son and I have both been battling Lyme disease and other tick infections for about 15 years now, and I am in many support groups with others with Lyme and have seen two excellent Lyme specialists. Take his advice on planting your yard, but for accurate information on Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections, see the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. We never spend time outdoors (even in our own gardens) without wearing bug spray, and we check for ticks when we get indoors. I even use separate clothes (long pants and long socks) soaked in bug spray for gardening and change in our laundry room on the way back into the house. You can also check out my own article, 7 Things You Probably Don't Know About Lyme Disease

243 pages, Timber Press

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

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

 

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

 

Or you can order Nature's Best Hope from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Fiction Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's

As usual, there was a book included with the goodies in my Easter basket, and this year it was Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (the Easter bunny has good taste). I saw the movie adaptation many years ago, but I had never read anything by Capote before. My copy of the book included the novella plus three very different short stories, and I enjoyed them all.

Breakfast at Tiffany's is the story of a young woman named Holly Golightly who lives in New York City in the post-WWII years. The novella is told entirely from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, a man who lives in the apartment above Holly's in a brownstone in the East 70's. The story begins years later, when a joint acquaintance asks the narrator if he's seen Holly lately. The rest of the novella is a flashback to those post-war years and his time spent getting to know Holly, who was largely unknowable. She was a mysterious figure in New York at the time, a stylish, charming young woman who hosts fabulous, loud parties on a shoestring (much to the annoyance of other renters in the building) and who spends her time with older, wealthy men. But Holly's past is a mystery, and the narrator only slowly gets to know the real Holly behind the glitz, glamour, and poise. To say much more would give too much away, as the intrigue in this novel is that gradual reveal of the "real" Holly. 

After the novella, the book included three short stories, each very unique. House of Flowers takes place in Haiti. It's about a young woman named Ottilie who escapes from a life of prostitution in Port-au-Prince to join a man named Royal in his house, covered with flowers, up in the hills. In A Diamond Guitar, an older man named Mr. Schaeffer is well-respected in the rural prison work camp where he spends his life. A young Cuban man shows up at the camp one day with an embellished guitar and gradually bonds with Mr. Schaeffer, trying to convince him to escape with him. The last story, A Christmas Memory, was my favorite. This is the only one I'd heard of before (I think we even have a copy of it among our holiday books) and is said to be autobiographical, about a young boy and his elderly cousin. The two of them are both treated as outcasts in their family but are very close to each other and have wonderful traditions they carry out each Christmas season.

I thoroughly enjoyed both the novella and all of the short stories. Having seen the movie all those years ago, I didn't remember much of the plot but couldn't shake the mental image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly (ironic since the character in the book has blond hair). I can see why Capote is such an acclaimed writer, as this and all of the stories are filled with rich descriptions and dialogue that make you feel as if you are there, whether in NYC in the late 40's or the hills of Haiti or rural Alabama. All of the stories are thoughtful and intriguing, digging deep into their characters. A Christmas Memory is sweet and poignant, and I can see why it's considered a holiday classic. I don't know why it took me so long to discover Capote for myself, but I am looking forward to reading more from him.

178 pages, Vintage International

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

 

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. This audio is read by Michael C. Hall, aka Dexter!

 

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

 

Or you can order Breakfast at Tiffany's from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

TV Tuesday: Resident Alien

Are you in need of some seriously goofy fun? Maybe a mystery with some sci fi combined with plenty of laughs? We recently finished season one of the SyFy Channel's new show Resident Alien, and we loved every minute of it.

Alan Tudyk plays an alien whose ship crash-lands in the Colorado mountains. He finds an isolated cabin on a lake and takes on the human form of its occupant, Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle (the real Harry is now dead and stored in the freezer). The alien now known as Harry is hoping to pretend to be human and lay low, while he searches the deep fields of snow in the surrounding area for pieces of his ship. That plan falls apart when the local sheriff, played by Corey Reynolds, and his deputy, played by Elizabeth Bowen, come knocking on the door of his cabin. The town doctor was murdered the night before, and they heard that Harry is a doctor visiting from New York, so they enlist his help in performing an autopsy. Harry (the alien) goes along with this and agrees to help out, mainly because he's been watching a lot of Law and Order reruns in the cabin. As the local law enforcement works to solve the case, the town is left without a doctor and asks Harry to step in. Since he needs to blend in and pretend to be human while he continues his search for his ship, Harry agrees. He begins working closely with Asta Twelvetrees, played by Sara Tomko, who works as a nurse in the clinic. Harry also gets to know Asta's best friend, D'Arcy (played by Alice Wetterlund), who tends bar. The longer Harry is in this quiet mountain town, pretending to be human, the more fascinated he becomes with human beings. There is just one problem: there is a little boy in town named Max, played by Judah Prehn, who sees Harry in his real, alien form.

Describing the plot of this show doesn't do it justice. It sounds just plain silly, and ... well, yes, sometimes it is silly! But that's part of its charm. Alan Tudyk, one of our favorite actors from the excellent Suburgatory, is perfect in this unusual role of an alien trying to learn how to be human. The supporting cast is all wonderful as well. This unique show combines a classic murder mystery with small-town drama and a sci fi alien story. It's very funny, but it can also be suspenseful and warm and surprisingly touching at times, too. I know it sounds like an odd combination, but it's all put together just right for a whole lot of fun. This show was one of about a dozen we were following at once, and it was one of our favorites. We both always looked forward to seeing the next episode and are glad it looks like there will be a season two!

Resident Alien is a SyFy Channel show, so it is available on cable (we watched it On Demand) and probably on satellite, too. It is also available on Hulu and Peacock services or on Amazon for $1.99 an episode or $16.99 for the 10-episode season.


Sunday, May 02, 2021

It's Monday 5/3! What Are You Reading?


Well, actually, it's Sunday as I type this, but I won't be here on Monday. We're leaving today on our first camping trip of the season! Since my father-in-law needs daily help, we can't go far or for long, but we are heading to a favorite place, Elk Neck State Park in Maryland, after we check on him at dinnertime tonight. We'll only be a half-hour away from his apartment if he needs us, but we have a lovely campsite overlooking the water. We plan to just relax and enjoy a little break from our normal routine, which has been pretty stressful and overwhelming lately. And there'll be plenty of time for reading, of course! Here's a photo from our last visit to the same park (in the campsite next-door to the one we booked this time), to give you an idea of how beautiful and peaceful it is.

Water view from our campsite last fall

I also need to apologize for not getting around to visit all of my favorite blogs last week. My chronic illness pulled the rug out from under me for a few days, so there were lots of things I meant to do that I just didn't have time/energy for. I look forward to visiting your blogs after I get back this week!

I do not have a full Monday update for you this week because I need to finish packing, but for a quick update, you can check out this Friday Reads video I made to see what I've been reading this weekend (and am still reading now):

 

Here are my blog posts from last week:

TV Tuesday: The United States of Tara - we late in discovering this outstanding drama/comedy

Fiction Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - I rated this novel a rare 10 out of 10, as did many others in my book group.

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick - I was blown away by this powerful, funny, moving narrative

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?

Friday, April 30, 2021

Middle-Grade/Teen Review: Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie

I was looking for a short book to read while I waited for my next book group selection to come in from the library. I have a stuffed shelf of middle-grade and YA books for review--many of them years old!--and I chose Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. I was completely blown away by this powerful, funny, moving narrative.

Thirteen-year-old Steven does pretty well in school, but his passion is playing the drums. He's good enough at it that he's one of only two eighth-graders in the All-City High School Jazz Band, along with Annette, who is an excellent piano player. Steven's had a massive crush on a girl named Renee since third grade, but she doesn't even know he exists. And he has an adorable but annoying little brother named Jeffrey. Steven's ordinary middle-grade life is turned upside down that fall when they find out that Jeffrey has cancer and is very sick. His mom spends all her time by Jeffrey's side in hospitals, his dad becomes mute and won't even look Steven in the eye, and Steven feels all alone with this huge, horrible thing that's happening. He feels like he is sleep-walking through his life now, and the only place where he can really be honest and open up is in his confidential journal that he keeps for English class. Through that long, horrible year, Steven and his family find a way to move forward, with the help of friends, classmates, and the drums.

I know what you're thinking: "A book about childhood cancer? How depressing!" And, of course, this is a sad story; I cried several times while reading it (including some happy tears toward the later pages). What you don't expect, though, is that this novel is also very, very funny, and I was often laughing out loud while reading it. It is ultimately a very honest and uplifting story about a family that learns to come together and lean on each other and some wonderful friends and community who help to support them. I cried again while reading the Afterword, where the author explains the inspiration for the novel (a student of his) and his process of writing it. This outstanding, beautifully written novel took me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and I loved every moment. I can't wait to read more from Sonnenblick (including this book's sequel).

273 pages, Scholastic Press

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

 

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

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, narrated by talented Joel Johnstone, and/or download it from Audible.

 

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

 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Fiction Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Partway through reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles this month, I said to my husband, "When I hear everyone I know saying a book is amazing, I should listen!" That was the case with this unique and extraordinary novel. I kept hearing rave reviews of it, both from friends and reviewers, but somehow I didn't get around to reading it on my own. So, I am grateful that one of my book groups chose it as our April selection. Everyone else in the group agreed that this is a warm, funny, beautifully written, and uplifting novel.

In 1922 Russia, thirty-year-old poet Count Alexander Rostov goes before a Bolshevik tribunal, upon his return to the country from Europe. They declare him an "unrepentant aristocrat" and sentence him to house arrest at the Metropol, a fancy hotel across the street from the Kremlin. The Count has been living at the hotel since his return anyway, but now he is quickly moved from his luxurious suite with its expansive views to a tiny room in the attic on the sixth floor. He can move about the hotel freely but can not leave its premises. For someone used to dining in the best restaurants, attending the theater and ballet, and traveling extensively, this is quite a difficult transition for him, and Rostov struggles at first. Then, a precocious nine-year-old girl named Nina befriends him one day in the lobby, wanting to know what real princesses are like and how they behave. The two become fast friends, and Nina opens his eyes to a whole world behind the scenes of his familiar hotel, as they explore basement passages, get to know staff, and hide in the balcony to watch meetings held in the ballroom. Rostov is naturally resilient and upbeat, and Nina helps him to see his circumstances in a new light, even long after she returns to school. He forms deep friendships within the walls of the hotel, excels at a job he acquires there, and builds his life there over the decades. Eventually, another little girl comes into his life who will again transform him, and he, in turn, must care for her.

It is easy to describe what happens in this novel but so much harder to describe how it made me feel. From its first pages, the book is entirely engrossing, Rostov completely charming, and Nina irresistible. The writing is beautiful and filled with so many thoughtful, insightful passages that my copy has many tabbed pages that I need to transcribe to my Quote Journal before I return it to the library. Here are just a couple of brief examples of Rostov's astute musings:

"But imagining what might happen if one's circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness."

"By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration--and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour."

Though it takes place mostly within the walls of this one building over the course of decades, the novel took me on a tremendous emotional journey, making me cry twice and laugh out loud over and over. That, to me, is the mark of a truly great novel: one that can make me feel. My entire book group felt the same way. In fact, our average rating as a group was an unprecedented 9.6 out of 10! It is poignant, funny, and compelling and is all about living in the present and finding small joys in every day life. I absolutely loved reading it and highly recommend it.

462 pages, Viking

My book group was thrilled to hear that this wonderful novel is being adapted into a limited TV series starring Kenneth Branagh--I can't wait!

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, narrated by Nicholas Guy Smith, and/or download it from Audible. It sounds great on audio!

 

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

   
  

 

Or you can order A Gentleman in Moscow from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

TV Tuesday: The United States of Tara

We are a bit late to the party, but we've just discovered the outstanding drama-comedy of The United States of Tara, a half-hour show that originally ran on Showtime from 2009-2011. We are enjoying this wholly original series.

Toni Collette plays Tara, a wife and mother with Dissociative Identity Disorder aka Multiple Personality Disorder. Stress can trigger her to morph from her normal, ordinary mom persona into one of three other distinct personalities: T, a 16-year-old with a wild streak; Alice, a buttoned-up, perfect 50's-type housewife, complete with high-heeled pumps and frilly aprons; and Buck, a rough male Vietnam vet. Tara has no control over when or where one of the other personalities takes over her body and often doesn't remember what happened while she was one of the others. She lives with her long-suffering but loving husband, Max (played by John Corbett); older teen daughter, Kate (played by Brie Larson); and younger teen son, Marshall (played by Keir Gilchrist, talented star of Atypical). Tara's younger sister, Charmaine, played by Rosemary DeWitt, is often around, too. They are an ordinary suburban family, except when they aren't. Though Tara's alter egos often wreak havoc in their lives, sometimes they are just there for awhile, and the family has gotten used to the sudden shifts. T borrows Kate's clothes, Alice loves to bake, and Buck is an excellent bowler. The family weathers the usual ups and downs, with Tara's unexpected personality shifts thrown into the mix. She suspects there is some forgotten trauma behind the disorder, and she sometimes tries therapy and other approaches to getting better, but much of the time, this is just normal life for this very unusual family.

OK, I know this sounds like a very weird premise ... but it works. In fact, it works extraordinarily well. All of the actors on the show are excellent and work very well together, but Toni Collette's performance, playing four very distinct personalities, is outstanding. In fact, she won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and several other awards for this role. She and the rest of the cast manage to capture both the ordinariness of their life and the insanity of it. Though Tara is at the center of it, the show is also about a regular family living this extraordinary life: Kate's issues with boyfriends and jobs, Marshall's struggles with his sexual orientation, and Max's attempts to hold the family together and earn a living. And Tara is actually a great mom, when she isn't punching Kate's boyfriend as Buck or embarrassing the kids as T! The show is warm and engaging and both moving and very funny at times. We just started season 2 (of 3) and are enjoying it.

The United States of Tara originally aired on Showtime, so is still available on their platform. It is now also currently available on Hulu. You can also purchase episodes for $1.99 or seasons for $10.99 at this link on Amazon or start a 7-day free subscription to Showtime there.