Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Norway #8

Another shot of the fjords.  I am blown away by the 50 shades of blue and grey in this picture.  And of course, no matter how great the camera, it doesn't come close to the real thing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger (Audio)

I have a story.  (I know, I always have a story.)  Years ago, everyone said that The Time Traveler's Wife (from now on referred to as TTTW) was the best book they'd ever read, best book of the year, best, best, best.  I bought the book, and there it sat.  It was kinda long.  My BFF and my mother said they couldn't get through it.  Excuses.  Then the movie came out.  Oh Lord, NO, I can't watch the movie first.  That is against the book lover's laws of the universe.  But ultimately I DID see the movie first, and now I think that blunder served me well.  I will explain why in just a minute.

Synopsis:  Henry is a time-traveler, an affliction caused by a genetic defect, and has been since he was five years old.  He never knows when he is going to travel, where he is going to travel, or for how long.  His orbit of visitations seem to revolve around his mother, who died tragically when he was young, and Clare, the beautiful redhead who he will eventually marry.  Henry and Clare seem to be a destined couple, as Henry has been traveling back in time to spend moments with her since she was 8.  When Clare is 20 and Henry is 28, they meet in "real" time and begin the business of living and loving with this disruptive and isolating illness.

Traveling back and forth in time can be a complicated matter.  Henry knows things that happen in the future, and often certain facts must be kept to himself.  How on earth do you tell someone when they are going to die, that they will give birth to a handicapped baby, or that the twin towers will fall to the ground?  At times, Henry will apparate into sub-zero temperatures, into oncoming traffic, into places he cannot escape.  How can he be certain to stay grounded at the most critical times?  How can he condemn Clare to live such an uncertain life?

My thoughts:  Nothing on earth, not even the movie, could have prepared me for what might likely be the most beautiful, most moving love story I have ever read in my life.  I've always claimed that I'm not a romantic, but this book knocked me on my cynical ass. 

I can see where some might have some initial struggles with the story.  While Clare's life is linear, Henry jumps around in time all over the place.  Had I not seen the movie first, and had a general idea of the plot, I might have been confused.  The 43 year-old man and the 8 year-old girl scenario was weird too at first, but whatever.  Nothing inappropriate occurred, and it set up the notion that their fates were intertwined.  My advice to those that didn't finish the book:  TRUST AND BE VIGILANT.  It will pay off.

In addition to the plot sneak peak from the movie, the phenomenal casting forever burned the faces of Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams on my brain as Henry and Clare.  Perfect, perfect, perfect.  These two are so beautiful. 

There is so much cleverness, so much emotion, so much charm packed in one book here, it was almost more than my little heart could take at times.  Towards the end, I did have to pull my car over and sit and get myself under control.  And just when you think things couldn't get any more perfect, in walk the REFERENCES.  Special places around Chicago that really exist.  Music (particularly punk).  Classic literature. They were like little hidden nuggets of flavor.

Now suddenly, I see why all of you out there had such trouble with Niffenegger's second novel "Her Fearful Symmetry" (which I liked alot but didn't love).  Expectations, my word.  It is probably all good that I didn't read this book first.  Now my heart has been claimed.

Just so you think I haven't gone completely soft on you, I do have one tiny slightly negative comment.  The author used two words peppered throughout the story (four letter c-words that describe male and female anatomy) that jarred me when I heard them.  You can scream obscenities at me all day and I don't really care, but in a story so beautiful, these words didn't belong.  I was confused as to why they were used, because it didn't add a single thing to the experience. 

A few words about the audio production:  William Hope (narrating as Henry) and Laurel Lefkow (narrating as Clare) were both new to me, but they embodied their characters.  They had beautiful smooth voices that were genuine and full of emotion.  I loved every second of listening.

6 out of 5 stars (and now on my best ever list)          

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Vanishing (1988)

Little Nawrot trivia...we still own a Laser Disc player.  Back in the days of yore, when Laser Discs were the rage, we collected the movies and have probably a hundred of them.  At the time, Laser Discs were much better resolution than VHS, so we were one of the suckers that bought into the technology.  And now, with so many movies in this format, we will own them until we can no longer replace broken equipment through Ebay.  (We even had our Laser Disc player hooked up to our new media set-up, much to the chuckling of the techno-geeks who did the work.)

For my birthday last year, my sister bought all the quality Laser Disc titles from a friend liquidating his inventory, and sent them to me.  My sister is a movie critic, so I trust her judgement.

One of these titles was "The Vanishing", a Dutch movie made in 1988 (subtitles).  The stars may be big in the Netherlands, but they were all relatively unknown here in the US.  The movie has been heralded a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, which sounded good to us.

So here is the premise.  Rex and Saskia, a young couple in love, are headed to France for a romantic holiday.  When they stop at a service station for gas and snacks, Saskia disappears, never to be heard from again.  Rex spends years obsessing over the loss of his love, foregoing all others, waging a one-man campaign to find her, even though he knows deep down inside she is dead. 

One day, Saskia's abductor contacts Rex and begins to toy with him.  When they finally meet in person, the abductor makes an offer that he knows Rex cannot refuse - to learn what happened to his girlfriend.  But Rex must play by the rules.

While this movie is not at the level of a Hitchcock, my husband and I could definitely see the similarities.  There was considerable character development in both Rex and the abductor (who was a real sinister sicko bastard).  The movie builds slowly, patiently showing us who these two men are, their personalities, their frailties.  When the two cross paths, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  I knew nothing good was going to come from it.  With each of them well-marinated in their obsessions, compounded by some sociopathic manipulations, we began to shake our heads...this was seriously messed up. 

While this is definitely not a five star suspense thriller, it will provide a couple of hours of edge-of-your-seat entertainment.  Recommended.   


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Salon: We love the wild onion

 Good morning my friends!  Well, we arrived back in Orlando yesterday after four days in Chicago (the name, by the way, was derived from an Indian term meaning "wild onion").  It was a whirlwind of fun with our business associates and friends, but I fear my body wouldn't be able to stand too many more days of that kind of behavior. 

The weather was gorgeous...highs in the 70's, versus your typical misery of 95 degrees in FL.  We did alot of walking, a little bit of shopping on the Magnificent Mile, and some sight-seeing.  We had to take a peek at the new 26-foot tall statue of Marilyn Monroe on Michigan Avenue.  Yes, she is wearing panties.  We rode the massive Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier, walked through the Lincoln Park Zoo, we visited the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows (featuring some great Tiffany stuff), and went on an architectural boat tour down the Chicago River. 

We did alot of eating and drinking, including one night when I got my absolute favorite dish on earth...Dover Sole.  We went bar-hopping and dancing.  One night, when we were having drinks at Ditka's and listening to their very talented one-man show, we spotted Dennis Farina (famous for his portrayal of cops and mobsters in TV and movies) and moved in on him.  His wife was gracious, and he seemed pleased with the attention.  At times like these, I thank God for the invention of IMDB and Wikipedia.  We knew his shoe size before we went up to talk to him.

That was a big highlight, let me tell you what.  Such a handsome guy.

And all the while we were carousing, my poor parents were shuttling and feeding my children, dealing with
So did I get any reading done at all?  Yes, actually I did!  I finished Jaquelyn Mitchard's "Second Nature", which was good (but not as good as "Deep End of the Ocean").  I have now started my much-anticipated review copy of Marisa de los Santos' "Falling Together", which releases in early October.  That woman makes magic. 

On audio, I did finish "Does the Noise In My Head Bother You?" by Steven Tyler.  Now THAT was entertaining.  I learned more from that book than a year of high school I think.  I reveled in informing all my friends all kinds of trivia, from the cost of a camel to unmentionable things Jimi Hendrix did with a microphone.  I now have just started listening to "Between Shades of Grey" by Ruta Sepetys, and the jury is still out on the narrator.  She is sounding a little too high-talking and shrill but maybe she will grow on me. 

Sending out prayers and support to all my friends living on the Eastern Seaboard, and hoping that Irene leaves everyone with power and minimal damage.  We've lived through some hurricane horrors down here, so please know that I can empathize.  As I've been telling everyone, if you have batteries, wine and propane, you are good to go.

I've been attempting to keep sort of up with your posts but I've not been very consistent.  I will be back in action next week.  Besides hiding indoors and watching the world blow by, what is everyone up to today?   


Friday, August 26, 2011

The Ridge - Michael Koryta

There is one thing I have to say about Michael Koryta.  He certainly knows how to grab my attention and make me think I will DIE if I don't read his books.  In "So Cold the River", he conjures a ghost at the West Baden Resort in French Lick Indiana, where I have visited. In "The Cypress House", there was evil afoot in Florida during one of most famous hurricanes in history.  This time around, he throws a lighthouse and wild cats my way!  It's like he knows what buttons to push.  As soon as this one published, I ordered it from my library.

Synopsis:  In a small town in Kentucky, an eccentric builds a lighthouse serving no obvious purpose but to light up the surrounding woods.  One day the eccentric places a call to the local sheriff, Kevin Kimble, and asks which he would rather deal with...a suicide or a homicide?  Begrudgingly, the sheriff answers "a suicide".  Soon after, the man is found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  Ancient photos and a few recent ones on the dead man's wall lead to some very frightening and confusing theories on what made this man tick, and what he might have been afraid of.  Kimble and an unemployed journalist, Roy Darmus, begin to dig back into the history of the area, and sense a long-festering evil too big to conquer by themselves.

At the same time, a sanctuary for abused and injured wild cats moves to a location near the lighthouse.  The team of passionate employees caring for the animals are led by Audrey Clark, a widow dedicated to her late husband's mission but lacking the confidence.  The cats are edgy from the moment they arrive, sensing something isn't quite right about the woods. 

Supernatural meets mystery thriller in yet another solid, entertaining ride from Koryta.

My thoughts: It seems like a little bit of a cop-out to say that this story has the faint scent of Uncle Stevie, since he blurbed it (the power of suggestion?).  But it is true.  There is something unearthly and masculine here that feels like it has to have been inspired by the great man himself.  And like Mr. King's yarns, one must suspend their belief just a tad.  If you can do that, then you are going to have fun with this one (heh heh heh - my evil laugh).

The power of "The Ridge" lies in its subtle, sinister undercurrent.  There is a body count, but that is not what is going to scare you.  It is the deeper, quieter presence that asks questions nobody wants to contemplate.

I thought the characters were very fascinating.  They all had their problems and obstacles in life, and when we meet them, they are all doing battle with their personal demons.  These aren't silly superficial demons, they are nice and gritty ones.  Just the way I like 'em.  There is a horrible love connection that is as dysfunctional and messed up as it gets.  So messed up I just had to shake my head.  Important characters get thrown under the bus, you've got wild cats running is all awesome.

Speaking of the wild cats, I loved that this became a side plot.  Koryta, inspired by the real-life Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point Indiana, adds a fascinating and unexpected element into his plot.  Like a good author, he educates us (while scaring the crap out of us) with details of feline behavior, and the commitment required to care for them.

If I were forced to pick a favorite of Koryta's books, I think I'd choose "The Cypress House", but only by a whisker (ha), and only because the level of tension in Cypress made my heart pound.  Koryta is definitely mastering his skills in the area of supernatural thrillers and I'll continue to allow him to push my buttons.

4.5 out of 5 stars    

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bossypants - Tina Fey (Audio)

Disclaimer:  I am not a watcher of 30 Rock.  I haven't watched Saturday Night Live since before I had kids.  So that might make me a really bad person to be reviewing a memoir-ish collection of stories told by Tina Fey.  But I am a student of pop culture.  I know who she is, I've laughed at her Sarah Palin imitations, and I read EW, who loves the woman.  Above all, I recognize her for being a whip-smart working mom who barged into a man's world and made her mark.

And Tina Fey on audio?  Are you kidding me?  This is in the neighborhood of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell...absolutely perfect self-narration, and the only way to experience the book.

OK, so no typical setup on this one.  We know that this book is a collection of stories that encapsulate Tina Fey's life, from her childhood, her life as a stand-up comedienne, all the way through to her work at 30 Rock and her infamous impersonation of Sarah Palin.  Her quips are so chock-full of droll, sarcastic one-liners that inspire hilarity, I couldn't possibly share them all with you.  Trust me, however, when I tell you that you will laugh out loud every 4.2 minutes.  Initially, I started frantically looking for pen and paper to document some of these, but gave up early.  Here are ones I could track down online:

On her hectic schedule: 

"By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your f-ing life."

Her response to one particular piece of hate mail:
"To say I’m an overrated troll, when you have never even seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair."

On her bitterness at having dark hair:

"You could put a blond wig on a hot-water heater and some dude would try to f*** it."
On getting her period: 

"I was ten. I had noticed something was weird earlier in the day, but I knew from commercials that one's menstrual period was a blue liquid that you poured like laundry detergent onto maxi pads to test their absorbency. This wasn't blue, so...I ignored it for a few hours."
More of her self-deprecating humor:
"My ability to turn good news into anxiety is rivaled only by my ability to turn anxiety into chin acne."

I particularly loved her bit on her struggle to do all the right things as a new mom, and as a working mom.  All women are made to feel like inadequate ogres if they do not breastfeed, with particular pressure applied by a group of over-zealous women that Fey deemed the "Teat Nazis".  I've seen some reviews where people got their knickers in a knot over this phrase, but trust me, they are out there in full force, and are every bit as scary as Seinfeld's Soup Nazi.

In fact, if you are the least bit sensitive, you might want to skip this book entirely.  Fey doesn't hold back.  But if you like a little bawdy humor, combined with some smart advice from a smart woman who has climbed the ladder and made a success of herself?  You are going to love this one.

And do yourself a huge favor...listen to the audio!  If you are going to listen to one audio in your life, this would be the one.

5 out of 5 stars   


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Norway #7

The Stratsraad Lehmkuhl is the pride of of the largest and oldest (built in 1914) square-rigged sailing ships in the world, and is in pristine condition.  In addition to being able to sail on this ship, you can even hold events, such as weddings and dinners, onboard.   

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Faith - Jennifer Haigh (Audio)

I've put off writing this review for weeks.  Only now, when my nice little buffer of reviews is dwindling, did I force myself to just sit down and get it out.  I'm a little nervous, actually, that I will not properly communicate my emotions.

Strangely, when this book first hit the blogs and went on a virtual tour, I was uninspired.  It all sounded fine, but as most of you know, when you have hundreds of books vying for your time, something's gotta give.  Only when Jen from Devourer of Books reviewed the audio, and said it was one of the best books she'd read in a long time, did I give it serious consideration.  She is clever that way, Jen.

Synopsis:  Sheila McGann grew up in a blue collar Catholic family in Boston, where fathers drink, mothers are the silent glue that holds families together, and the pride of the community is the local boy who enters the priesthood.  Sheila's older brother Art was such a boy - a compassionate man dedicated to serving God and loved by his parishioners.  Until one day in 2002, when he is caught up in a city-wide persecution of priests accused of molesting children in their care. 

Sheila, once estranged from her family, comes back into the fold to understand what has happened, to tell us Art's story, and the story of her family that has been irreparably damaged.  She tells of the paranoia, the revulsion, the denial, the suspicions, the unearthed family secrets, the innocent and the guilty.

My thoughts:  "Faith is a choice".  These are the words, written by Ms. Haigh, that keep echoing through my mind weeks after listening to this astounding piece of literature.  All of the dusty, dark corners of that word are explored until you feel that your mind is going to implode from all the questions.  Who do we trust in our lives?  What would it take to abandon our faith?  What is true and what is only our biases and misconceptions working against us? How much stress can a family endure before it collapses?  If someone you loved were accused of these types of atrocities, who would you believe, and what lengths would you go to get at the truth?

As you work your way through the events that affected the McGanns, it is hard not to jump to conclusions, quickly deciding who is the guilty party.  Again, it is unsettling how our biases take over in cases like this.  But as the novel proceeds, your opinions change.  With more information, we realize the damage a hasty judgement can do.   

I was not raised a Catholic.  I became one after I'd married my husband, a Polish cradle-Catholic.  Our kids were baptised Catholic and attend a Catholic school.  All of the issues that came to a head in Boston in 2002 haunt our religion nationwide to this day.  But while all of the issues discussed here hit close to home for me, you neither have to be a Catholic nor be a particularly religious person to appreciate the messages.  There is no brow-beating or sermonizing here.  Just a powerful vehicle that inspires self-examination. 

A word about the audio production:  Our narrator, Therese Plummer, was a perfect selection for this book.  While a new narrator for me, she is experienced in the field, and managed to project the right amount of calm and grief.  Her portrayal of a blue collar Boston accent was pretty entertaining (and while I'm not the expert, it sounded spot-on).  She made the experience one that I looked forward to every time I donned the ear-buds.

5 out of 5 stars                 


Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday Movie Meme - Fall Movies I'm Coveting

Good morning movie buffs!  While the Bumbles are taking care of baby Sam, I've decided to do my own thing.  Truth be told?  Over the years, we have probably pillaged every topic possible in the film world, so the departure is a nice break.

Today, I'm going to talk a little bit about the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly - the scared fall movie preview, and the beginning of the Oscar wrangling in earnest. What exciting things are going on in the next few months, you ask?  Breaking Dawn?  No!  Even though I'll probably have to take my daughter.  Here are some that have caught my attention:

September 9 - Contagion
Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Why I'm interested:  Virus wipes out millions in a matter of weeks (The Stand anyone?), including a whole string of A-list cast members.  Apparently Gwyneth dies quite dramatically.  Jude Law plays a crusading blogger.  I can't resist.

September 30 - Dream House

Starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts
Directed by Jim Sheridan

Why I'm interested:  Labelled a psychological thriller about a family that moves into a quaint New England home with a grisly past, this movie has been likened to The Others and The Sixth Sense.  Add in some Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz chemistry, which resulted in their real-life nuptials, and this has the makings of something entertaining.

September 9 - Warrior
Starring Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte
Directed by Gavin O'Connor

Why I'm interested:  Tom Hardy completely wooed me in Inception, and this time he's going all mixed martial arts against an estranged brother.  This is definitely something I think I could use to lure my husband and son to the movie theater.

October 7 - The Ides of March
Starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti
Directed by George Clooney

Why I'm interested:  Can you believe this lineup?  This bad boy is gunning for the Oscars.  With Gosling and Clooney, I don't even care what it is about.  (But for the record, it is a political drama.)

October 14 - Footloose
Starring Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell
Directed by Craig Brewer

Why I'm interested:  Hey, so sue me.  I'm a child of the '80's, and while I'll probably be disappointed, I'll go see this for nostalgic purposes.

November 23 - Hugo
Starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Why I'm interested:  This is another one with its eye on the Oscars.  But I'm more intrigued to see the magical, beloved children's book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) come to life.   

December 21 - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Starring Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer

Directed by David Fincher

Why I'm interested:  Make no mistake, I will be going into this one with a critical eye.  Not only have the US people been trash-talking the Swedish version, they have huge shoes to fill.  They will get one chance with me, but I have to try.  Nothing like a little murder and sodomy to get you in the holiday spirit!

Who knows when - We Need to Talk About Kevin(Scheduled for a September 28th release in France)

Starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Why I'm interested:  This was probably one of the most disturbing books I've ever read, and I'll probably be trembling and emotional before I even get to my seat, but I'm going.

Are there any movies you are looking forward to this fall?      

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Salon: Meetings about meetings

You know how I was saying last week that I hoped I would be more productive this week?  Nope, didn't happen.  I'll tell you all about this week, but I do also realize that I sound kinda whiny, and that isn't what you want to listen to on a lovely Sunday morning, so I'll try to keep it light!

So, the meetings about meetings.  That is what I had going on this week.  Out of the five weekdays, four of them required meetings that lasted at least two hours.  I've been constructing spreadsheets and building budgets for the school year, preparing for our parent meeting Wednesday night, presenting the numbers to our Home & School board, blah blah blah, so that was the primary focus of the week.  My husband left for a business trip on Wednesday though, so at least I didn't have to worry about a clean house or the evening meal (kids are great that way, aren't they?). 

Lots of football practice this week, and our first game (exhibition) yesterday.  My daughter wants to take horse riding lessons, so I've been trying to find a place that isn't an hour drive away.  She has decided NOT to play basketball this season because she has newly pierced ears and can't keep in the earrings and play.  I'll make no comment, except that she is 13, when fashion is more important than team sports.  We topped off our Saturday with a complicated transferring of children to various places and parties, and my attendance to a "toast to a new school year" event with my Home & School board members. 

On a very sad note, a dear blogger friend of mine Susan (Bear Swamp Reflections) lost her five year old granddaughter in a car accident this week.  Susan has the most heart-warming blog where she talks about her chickens, her family, music, movies, books, and most of all her grandkids.  Her loss has broken my heart into a million pieces.  It has been hard for me to focus on much else frankly.  Please say a prayer for Susan and her family.

I did get some reading done this week.  I read "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating", a small precious little book about a very ill, bed-bound woman who finds a reason to live in a pet snail.  I also finished Alma Katsu's "The Taker" which, uh, like, wow.  What the hell?  I didn't see any of that coming.  I can't wait to meet Alma at SIBA.  I also read another little collection of personal thoughts on 9/11 by Artie Van Why called "That Day in September", in honor of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks.  I've now started "Second Nature" by Jaquelyn Mitchard (who wrote "Deep End of the Ocean").  I don't normally accept many review copies, but was compelled.

On audio, I did finish "East of Eden", then proceeded to slip into a bit of a funk.  What an amazing book, but so much darkness and anger!  I have no idea how to review such a thing.  To cure the malaise, I enjoyed a quick listen to David Sedaris' "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk".  Nothing like hearing about leeches that live in a hippo's butt to bring you up out of the doldrums!
Onward, I started listening to "The Emerald Atlas" by John Stephens, and this was where I hit a wall.  It was narrated by the masterful Jim Dale (narrator of the Harry Potter series).  But it seemed so unoriginal, with kids destined for greatness, wizards, magical books, screeching creatures, and alot of running around avoiding bad guys, that I just lost patience.  Perhaps Dale will only be good for one series for me.  I don't know.  It just didn't work.  I know many of you loved this novel, so I feel that I have missed the boat.  I declared it a DNF after finishing about 40% of it.  Then I started listening to Steven Tyler's biography "Does the Noise in my Head Bother You?".  I should get some originality there for sure.

Next week, my parents fly in and my husband and I are off to Chicago for three days.  This is an annual trip that we take with some colleagues (and good friends) of ours, and is always an action-packed whirlwind of shopping and eating and socializing in one of the most amazing cities on earth. 

But for today?  Church, then some relaxation.  I'm reading, hitting the pool, and maybe doing some grilling.  What is up with you today?


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Winner of the Audiobook "Iron House" by John Hart

Last week, I announced the audiobook giveaway of "Iron House" by John Hart.  This book is all the talk these days, and I was happy to see so many people enter!  Using, I am happy to tell you that the winner is:

Julie at Booking Mama 

Congratulations Julie!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Where She Went - Gayle Forman

I've had this book "Where She Went" on my shelves since SIBA last year (in fact, somehow I got two copies).  I knew it was a sequel to "If I Stay", but I made no effort to get my hands on that book until just recently.  When Jill gave me the talk, and informed me my life wouldn't be right until I read them both.  Since you can read these beauties quickly, in a day or two, and it is so important they be read together, you're getting the one-two punch here at You've GOTTA Read This.  See yesterday for the review of "If I Stay".

Disclaimer:  Inevitably, as with many sequels, the review of this book will offer spoilers for "If I Stay".  It can't be helped and I am sorry.  I will be as vague as possible and still try to convey the nature of this book, yet if you prefer to go into the experience cold, just skip down to the last paragraph.

Synopsis:  Several years have passed since Mia's tragic accident, and we are catching up on things from the point of view of Adam, Mia's high school boyfriend.  Mia has attended Julliard with her cello, dumped Adam in the process, and is now a touring professional.  Adam has become an international rock star, complete with drugs, babes and losing his sense of self.  It is a mystery why Mia turned her back on Adam after everything they had been through, and it overshadows everything good in his life.

Then one evening, Adam impulsively attends one of Mia's concerts in Carnegie Hall, and the two face each other once again.  For one night, Adam and Mia wander around New York City, talking about their lives, their dreams, their mistakes and regrets.  Most importantly, they confront the emotionally-wrought reasons why their relationship fell apart.

My thoughts:  While I thoroughly enjoyed "If I Stay", this sequel really hit the mark with me.  It was a much more introspective, much smarter story, reflecting the maturity of the characters.  For the first 50 pages or so, I had a permanent grimace on my face...where the HELL was Mia?  Why isn't she with Adam?  What could have gone so wrong?  But then things fell into place, and I was immediately reminded of a beloved movie of mine, "Before Sunset".

(Begin a small digression) "Before Sunset" is actually a sequel to "Before Sunrise", both starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.  In "Before Sunrise", this young couple meets in Vienna, and spends a night roaming the city, getting to know each other, falling in love, then parting ways the next morning.  In "Before Sunset", they run into each other in Paris nine years later, after life has worn them down.  Full of smart dialogue and nostalgic musings on what might have been, this sequel is romantic and sexy.  (End of digression)

Once this connection was made in my mind, I was a goner.  I smiled when Adam and Mia smiled.  I wrung my hands when their conversation turned painful.  And I began my mantra that I mutter under my breath with certain books..."this better end right, this better end right".  Forman succeeds at delivering a satisfying book for young adults and adults alike.                 

You wouldn't have to read these two books together, and you could read this one first, but why?  Get them both, and reserve your next rainy day for these two heart-warming books.

4.5 out of 5 stars 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

If I Stay - Gayle Forman

I've been hearing about this book forever.  Some loved it, some did not.  It has been compared to Twilight, which in hindsight is just WRONG but accounts for my hesitance to pick it up.  Ultimately, I read it for two reasons.  First, I got the sequel "Where She Went" from SIBA (reviewed tomorrow).  And second, Jill said I had to.  I must obey the Jill. 

Before I embark on a probably unnecessary synopsis, I'll just say that it is difficult to know what to say.  Dangerous territory this is, with potential for spoilers even if I'm trying hard not to reveal important things.  That was my disclaimer.  I shall do my best.

Synopsis:  Mia is a quiet, highly gifted musician who lives to play her cello, with a hip, loving family that is fully supportive.  She is likely going to attend Julliard next year, but is feeling edgy because it will mean that she will have to leave her rock-n-roller boyfriend Adam behind.  Mia and Adam have a more mature relationship than most teenagers, but the cello comes above all else.

But then one snowy day, a tragic accident occurs, and Mia finds herself hovering between life and death.  Mia reflects on her life with her family, her life as a musician, her life with her best friend and her boyfriend, and contemplates the merits of staying or going.

My thoughts: Stories of young love, if told without too much angst or whine, can cure what ails you.  (Even if you reside in my camp, and loathe smoochy romance.)  Better yet if it contains some realistic consideration about life and growing up, and doesn't dumb down to the reader.  (The idea that authors feel they need to appeal to a lowest common denominator when they are writing YA really annoys me.)  This kind of pleasure is exactly what you will find with "If You Stay".

Although the plot device used is not a new one, it still works because the writing is so incredibly REAL and readable - this is a one-sitting read.  The entire story is narrated in Mia's voice, and...crazy, I know, but Mia is a very likable teenager!  She is grounded, passionate about her music, respectful of her parents, and maintains a relationship with her boyfriend that is beyond that of a senior in high school.  Mia was a breath of fresh air. 

And while there is tragedy, it was never over-written or depressing.  It just WAS, and Mia deals with it in her level, clear-headed practicality.  To me, this felt like the perfect, comfortable young adult experience.

But...I feel like I'm blowing fluff and smoke at you.  I haven't told you anything of substance.  But like I said earlier, I really have to be careful not to give you too many details.  This book is better left for you to explore unhindered, and will leave you wanting more as you turn the last page.  But never fear, you can get more with the sequel "Where She Went".  Take care that you have it at the ready!

4.5 out of 5 stars   


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Norway #6

A massive, but sweet-looking puppy hanging out while her owner shopped in a Bergen store.  I couldn't resist taking a picture of those eyes. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty

Lord help us, there are so many books out there with the name "Alice" in the title.  It is as bad as all the books with "Tiger" in the title, and no wonder we get them all confused.  In my tiny mind, all the Alice books fall into two categories.  Books about the Alice that inspired Alice in Wonderland, and books about Alzheimer's.  I may be way off base, but this is me we're talking about.

When my Skype book club suggested this book for August, I thought OK why not.  It's about Alzheimer's.  My grandmother had the disease, and it is something I am convinced will be my Fatal Affliction, considering the thousand things that slip my mind in the period of a day.

Well that should teach me a lesson for generalizing.  This was NOT about Alzheimer's, nor about Alice Liddell.  It was a breathtakingly beautiful, compulsively readable Amy Einhorn (gah! but of course) work of fiction that grabbed my heart and squeezed.

Synopsis: Alice Love finds herself lying on the floor of her gym after falling off her bicycle in spin class and hitting her head.  She doesn't feel that injured, except she remembers absolutely nothing from the last ten years.  Not the birth of her three children, not her best friend Gina, not the deterioration of her once idyllic marriage.  Her mother has remarried, her beloved sister seems distant, her kids are loud aliens.  And she is bone thin, with muscles!

As Alice hesitantly tries to navigate through a foreign life, she discovers she doesn't exactly like the other Alice.  She innocently asks questions, and tries to get to the bottom of all the problems that weren't present ten years ago.  The kinder, gentler, 29 year-old Alice, without yet the baggage life has dealt her, wants things to be right again with her friends, family and husband.   Perceiving undercurrents from the other Alice's social circle, she begins to suspect that the recovery of her memory hinges on solving the cloud of mystery that surrounds her BFF and neighbor Gina.

My thoughts:  This book seemed to find my soft spot and make itself at home.  I love many books in a year's time, but not all of them seem so familiar as this one did.  So what was the hook? 

First, the book was just very well-written and at the same time conversational.  It flowed, which kept me turning the pages and fighting the urge to stop reading at all hours.

But I think most of all, it was the topics addressed, and the thought-provoking questions it asks the reader.  How much of our identities rely upon having children?  What if you physically cannot have children?  Do you lose yourself then?  Do you hate the "breeders"?  At what expense do you keep trying to have a baby?  I've been there, so I really felt Alice's sister's pain.  And what if you do have kids?  What impact does that hectic schedule have on your relationships?  Do you wish you could culture your friendships but you just don't have the time?  What about your marriage?  Is your love for your spouse holding up to life's distractions?  As you grow older, do you lose your sense of humor?  It certainly made ME take a step back and wonder how I'd view the current Sandy versus the younger Sandy. 

The story is creatively told from three points of view.  One is from Alice herself.  One is from Alice's sister Elizabeth, in a journal written for her therapist.  And one is from Alice and Elizabeth's grandmother, in her unsent letters to her fiance who died 60 years prior.  Great perspectives, all focused on Alice's predicament but also their own.  Through all three women, we are able to understand the world 29 year-old Alice lived in, and grieve for the one she cultivated over the next ten years.

I realize I can get on my soapbox and complain about endings.  Too predictable, too wrapped up, not wrapped up enough, whatever.  But at about 95%, I started muttering to myself that if Moriarty doesn't end it the way I want, I would throw a fit.  Thank you Liane, you left me with a peaceful heart.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday Movie Meme - The Help

Today on the Monday Movie Meme, I'm going to talk about a movie that my kids and I saw this week (along with a billion other book lovers) - The Help. 

I read this book right after it was published, in the spring of 2009.  In fact, it had the distinct honor of being my very first download on my Kindle.  I couldn't have made a better choice either.  I later convinced my book club (Books, Babes & Bordeaux) to read it, and it has since become a phenomenon in the literary world.  Perhaps even to the level of a "modern classic".  Even dudes are reading it, evidenced by a very humorous post by Greg at New Dork Review of Books.  The world loves this book.  It isn't a surprise to me that it is an Amy Einhorn book.  I heart A.E.

And the whole world of devotees to the story's essence held their breath, hoping and praying that the movie did the book justice.  We've all heard the reports of Kathryn Stockett's childhood friend, a relatively unproven, directing the movie, ensuring the spirit of the thing was captured.  We've heard the griping and the scandals, as there always are when something is on the brink of greatness, trying to steal the mojo.

My kids have been hearing about the book since I read it over two years ago, so they were hyped to see it, and I was happy to take them.  Yes, I knew there would be some swear words, but at this point, my kids have heard it all and are mature enough to handle it.  I knew they would barely blink an eye, when the real focus would be the racial hatred present in 1960's Mississippi.  In a summer of brainless fluff, I was thrilled that they would see something of substance.   

So how did it stand up?  Well, I have memory issues, and since it has been over two years since I read the book, I can't say for sure that the movie stuck to the book word for word.  But it was close enough to pass muster for me.  The essence, whether it be the relationship between Skeeter and her mother, the danger of the maids' mission, or the spunk of all there.

My image of Skeeter was originally one of plainness and frump, so I was unsure of the casting of Emma Stone for the part because Emma is so damned beautiful.  But they frizzed up her hair, and gave her some screw-you moxie that was improper in the South at the time, and she fit the part to a tee.  There isn't a man, or a woman for that matter, who can't love her.  My kids loved her, and thought she portrayed a gutsy young women who would stand up for her values no matter what.  A good role model, I would say.

Octavia Spencer (who narrated in the audiobooks) and Viola Davis were perfection.  They portrayed spunky and moral women who had been worn down by their lot in life.  Minny was funny as hell, with her "big awful", and made my kids and I laugh at her antics.  I do believe my daughter was fist-pumping when she learned about the pie.

The supporting actresses, primarily Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain playing Hilly and Celia, were larger than life.  Howard, daughter of Ron Howard, is building a career of her own, separate from dad, and in this case, she did her job by making you hate her.  Vengeance will be served, on a plate with whipped cream, bitch!  Celia was hootchie but good-hearted, and you wished you could befriend her and give her a hug. 

Was the movie better than the book?  No, I wouldn't say that.  But it did it justice, and I would encourage each and every one of you to see the movie whether you have read the book or not.  Will there be Oscar nominations?  I've not seen any hint of it, but wouldn't that be cool? 

There were tearful moments, and I think my kids got a solid lesson in racial bigotry and courage that I'm proud that they appreciated. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Salon: The Fog

Life for me this week was like stumbling around in a big fog.  I very much look forward to getting my act together and being aware of what is going on around me.  This state of mind is pretty normal for me at this time of year.  It is hard to go from being lazy to 120 mph in a matter of weeks.  Here is a few things that were going on:

*  After a week's worth of football practice, my son could barely walk and I feared his foot might have gotten a stress fracture.  Ran him to Centra Care for a quickie x-ray and all was fine, just a sprain.  (FYI, when he was in Kindergarten, he played baseball for two weeks on a broken arm.  I really don't want to earn that award of Bad Mommy ever again.)  He now must be drugged up and taped up before practice every day. 

*   Techno geeks had to come to our house to fix our media center after everything was blown out by a storm.  All has been restored, our butts are back in our seats (nests) and movies are back on the agenda.

*  My daughter had not seen her friends all summer, so a last-minute sleepover had to be arranged, including shopping at the mall.  My son and I drug our rear ends around behind them, sat on benches and read our books.  It actually was much more pleasant than I had anticipated.

*  Daughter's dermatologist appointment was up on Wednesday, then a last minute decision for the the kids and I to go see The Help.  Phenomenal movie.  I'll talk about it a little more tomorrow.  Then we had to race home to meet the appliance guy so he could fix our dishwasher, which sprang a leak earlier in the week.

*  First day of school Thursday.  Being an officer of the Home & School board, I got to serve coffee and attend the New Parent Welcome Meeting.  Also scurrying around getting ready for our big school-wide meeting next week, Powerpoint presentations, and preparing budget for the year.

*  Following daily football practice, a Saturday of picture-taking, scrimmages, and a pep rally at a local burger joint.  The heat index was only 115 so, you know, it was really pleasant and we all smelled really nice!

So basically, NOTHING else got done this week.  Reading?  Bah!  Well, I did finish Nesbo's "Nemesis" and I LOVED it.  I started Alma Katsu's "The Taker" but after four days or so, I'm on page 80.  (We will be speaking to Ms. Katsu at SIBA, so I wanted to experience her work.)  So there ya go.

I've also had some very lame and inconsistent blog hopping.  I swear, if you are still here, reading me, I will be back.  Give me a week or two of organizing myself, you should see improvement.

The one good thing that did occur was an uptick on the audio listening.  I am only a few discs away from finishing "East of Eden" and it is just a glorious experience.  Kathy has to be the nastiest bitch I've ever seen in literature.  It is so much fun to hate her!  Antagonists like her are good for the adrenaline.  This will be a fun book club discussion.

I also spent a little time updating my audio reviews on the Audiobook Jukebox website, which had been neglected over the summer.  The exciting news about this website is that it now offers a selection of audios each month that are available for review through the Solid Gold Reviewer Program.  You should definitely check it out if you are a lover of audios. 

I also am offering, thanks to Macmillan Audio, an audiobook giveaway for "Iron House" by John Hart.  Get your name in the pot if you are interested.

I have extremely high hopes for a slightly calmer week next week.  My husband is out of the country for most of the week, and there are two significant meetings at school, and my daughter starts basketball practice, but it WILL be better!  Today I am hoping to lay low and get some reading done...maybe float around in the pool a little. 

Have a great Sunday!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Attention Audio Addicts: Iron House Audio Giveaway!

Last week, I posted a 4-star review for John Hart's "Iron House" here. Imagine my excitement when I was contacted by Esther from Macmillan Audio informing me that she would offer up one audio book giveaway for this title!  So here is your chance, guys, to get your hands on not only a fantastic and action-packed book, but one that thrills the ears as well.

The audio is narrated by Scott Sowers, a powerhouse in the industry.  He not only narrated Hart's Edgar-winning "The Last Child" but dozens of other best sellers. 

For all interested parties, just leave a comment with your e-mail address by next Saturday, August 20th, and I will randomly choose a winner.  Good luck!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Wants and Needs (Bookmarks July/August)

With another issue of the wonderful Bookmarks comes more books that I can't help but drool over.  As much as I wish I could read them all NOW, there is a pretty good chance I will never put my hands on them.  So the next best thing is to talk about them for a little bit and get you all excited about them as well.  I had to laugh at myself this time around...every single book is a "need"!!! 
 "All Clear" - Connie Willis:  Having just finished Willis's "The Doomsday Book" I am now a believer.  "All Clear" is the sequel to "Blackout", both about time travel between the year 2060 and WWII in can you go wrong with this?  In the critical summary, it calls this novel "some of the strongest storytelling of Willis's career".  Ok then.  Side note:  I realize there is a read-along occurring with these books as I speak...I will just a little too late this time!


"The End of the Affair" - Graham Greene:  Don't yell at me, I've never read this and it is high time I should.  Greene was the feature this month and it has inspired me to get on the bandwagon.  Who can resist a love story that takes place in WWII?

"Flashback" - Dan Simmons:  I never did have the courage to read the enormous "Drood" by Simmons but I loved "The Terror".  The story is about an earth in the not-so-distant future, where the US is falling apart and 87% of the population is addicted to a drug that allows them to relive the best moments of their lives.  Cool.

"In the Garden of Beasts" - Erik Larson:  My brain almost exploded when I read "The Devil in the White City", and it assured Larson top spot for historical non-fiction in my heart.  He is back to blow our minds again with the story about a mild-mannered historian sent to Berlin with his family to be the ambassador to Germany during WWII.  (Yes I know there is a WWII theme going on here this morning.)

"A Death in Summer" - Benjamin Black: I've read all but the last Quirk novel and I really enjoy them.  Great murder mysteries, great protagonist.  I love my series.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Clara & Mr. Tiffany - Susan Vreeland (Audio)

I have had a crazy good summer of reading.  Better, I think, than any other summer, with five stars flying everywhere.  Books that have just blown my mind.  But if I think back through the summer, and my reading life in general, there are very few books that inspire a fervor, an obsession, over a topic.  Like when Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" turned me loose on Medieval churches.  Or when "The Devil and the White City" by Erik Larson plunged me into a fascination of Chicago architecture and the 1893 World's Fair.  These experiences are almost magical.  And now it seems I have discovered another such book in "Clara & Mr. Tiffany".  The ironic thing was how this book generated no interest with me when it initially launched, and was "forced" upon me through the Heathrow Literary Society. 

Synopsis:  In turn-of-the-century New York, women were expected to get married, stay home, and have children.  They weren't supposed to have jobs, have an opinion, or change the landscape of the art world.  Enter Clara Driscoll, a widow with an attitude and a creative flair.  As the manager of the women's department and lead designer for Louis Comfort Tiffany's world-renowned stained glass windows, Clara was a modern woman even by our standards.  Clara yearned for the approval of her boss and recognition for her contributions to the art world.  One would think that Clara had achieved her goals when she designed and produced the first of many stained-glass lamp shades, Tiffany's ultimate claim to fame.  But maybe not.

This story is a testament to the life of a woman who was not allowed to marry if she wished to pursue her passion for stained glass.  A woman who battled the labor unions filled with men who were intimidated by her department's expertise.  A woman who longed for companionship but was unlucky in love.  A woman who fought for her employees, and took an interest in their personal plights.  A woman who was the center of the universe and role model at the boarding house where she lived, with her best friends being a group of gay artists.  A woman who observed and was passionate about capturing the essence of nature.  A woman whose undying loyalty was pledged to one creative, eccentric and unpredictable man.

My thoughts:  I was completely consumed by this story of a woman who I consider my soul sister.  Hell, I can't draw a straight line.  But I've worked in a man's world and done more than a few battles in my day for the rights of my "kids" in my department.  I really could identify with Clara, even though I knew my obstacles weren't even close to hers.  I knew in my bones that this woman, as many women for centuries to come, was going to get screwed.

Clara was an avid letter writer, and this allowed Vreeland to base her story on fact with some poetic license added for flavor.  And what a flavor it was.  The players seemed so real and so DEAR.  Oh, I loved them all so, every last one of them, even the uptight Tiffany number crunchers and the old-fashioned Tiffany women who weren't so keen on Clara's progressive views.  Throw in some of the most fascinating political and social dynamics in US history (especially the Suffragette movement), and some world-class prose, and you have a home run.

It was serendipitous then, when I found this incredible book at Barnes and Noble for $7 (in the last bin a book resides before burning), and included the history of Louis Comfort Tiffany, beautiful color pictures of many of the windows, Clara's unique lamps, and mosaics created over the years.  I found it highly interesting that Clara was only mentioned once (alas the screwing continues).  According to this book, Clara was said to be the highest paid woman in America at a time when women earned on average 60% less then men.  I found it terribly exciting to see Clara's lamps, described in detail in the book, come to life in these pictures.  But the best was yet to come.                    
Thoughts from the Heathrow Literary Society:  We had a small attendance for this particular meeting unfortunately, but of the five of us there, four of us loved this book.  The disliker could not get through the book, but admitted to being distracted by life and feeling that perhaps the book was maybe a little too feminist for him. 

We are blessed to live near Winter Park, home of the Morse Museum, which showcases the largest comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The Heathrow Literary Society will be taking a tour of the museum sometime in the next month or so, and we are all excited to behold some of Clara's most beautiful creations.  Stay tuned for a report on our field trip!