Monday, October 31, 2011

A few squirm-worthy movies for your Halloween

Every year the movie buffs issue their usual scream-fest lists for your Halloween entertainment pleasure, featuring a multitude of Halloweens, Omens, Friday the 13ths, Rings, Exorcists, etc.  My sister, the resident buff in our family, directed me to a list that was a bit different - horror films off the beaten path.  I loved this quirky collection, and was proud to admit that I'd seen 15 of the 25 mentioned. 

I was raised on scary flicks, and from my teen years on, have enjoyed about every sub-genre of horror there is...slasher, psychological, camp, Italian, you name it.  I am not easily scared or offended.  But when I browsed through the above-mentioned list, I realized there were a few movies that needed to be addressed.  MOVIES THAT LEFT ME REPULSED.  Whether you are into that kind of thing, or you just prefer to be warned, please behold.  (Note that general plot points may be spoiled, but in no way will lessen the impact - trust me).     

The Human Centipede - Creepy modern Dr. Frankenstein has this great idea to take three humans and splice them together surgically, mouth to butt, forming one gastrointestinal tract.  Every awful visual you can imagine and more is laid out before you, from the abduction of the three victims, the surgery, and the consequences of the first guy (the one with the mouth) eating and digesting food. 

This film is seriously demented.  Although critics pretty much universally HATED this movie for its gratuitous debasement, according to EW it has become a cult favorite.  (Good Lord, what does this say about our society?) So much that they have made a Human Centipede 2, where there are twelve folks involved in the experiment.  As my sister sagely said, it is unnecessary to see the second movie - we get it.   

Antichrist - Whatever you might expect from famed director Lars von Trier or actor Willem Dafoe, I would bet it isn't this.  After losing their toddler son in a tragic accident (which we witness in a stomach-turning, slow motion sequence that seemed to last for at least fifteen or twenty minutes), they retreat to a remote cabin for some unorthodox psycho-therapy to heal their hearts and their marriage.  What happens instead is their descent into madness through self-mutilation and self-loathing. 

There were scenes in this film that caused me physical pain, and by the end, I was good and angry.  I felt that this was nothing but a cheap ploy for shock value, dressed up as an artsy indie.  Although many others were horrified by this movie, many lauded it as brilliant.  I don't know, you be the judge.  Just prepare yourself when the scissors come out.     

Drag Me To Hell -  This movie is actually a Nawrot favorite, owned and oft-viewed by the kids.  Unlike the previous two movies, there is no poo-eating or self-mutilation.  In fact this one is rated PG-13, but is full of everything you would want in a horror flick.

When a young, attractive loan officer denies a nasty old woman (named Ganush) an extension on her mortgage, thus evicting her from her home, Ganush places a curse on her. 

There are jumps, spewing embalming fluid, projectile blood, maggots, animal sacrifices, all a total gross-fest.  As many times as I've seen this thing, I never fail to turn my head and go "urrrrgh!".  The cool thing about the movie, directed by Sam Raimi, is that it defies some standard conventions.  Creepy things happen during the day.  The evil creature is a little old lady.  And it doesn't end happily.  But you can have fun with it.  Just give your stomach a chance to settle before you watch it.  

These are not your mother's horror films, so be prepared.  Perhaps I might even double-dog dare you to watch them, just so we can be repulsed together.  Don't say I didn't warn you though.

(Have a Happy Halloween!)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday Salon: Deliver us from hormones

Good morning my friends!  Based on this past week, I will be a miracle if I can get through this post without crying.  What is wrong with me?  I'm going to blame it on hormones, but I'm not wholly sure if that is the reason.  If you looked at me cross-eyed this week, I got emotional.  It could be maddening schedule getting to me, it could be that my baby just turned 12, or I might just be losing my mind.  I hope it passes soon.

First of all, my son did win his 2nd round of football playoffs last Sunday and then went on to win the 3rd round on Wednesday night.  What this means is that as of this moment, his team has outlasted 21 teams and will be playing in the Mid-Florida Pop Warner Championship at the Citrus Bowl at 3:00pm.  We may very well have our bums handed to us, but I'm so happy for these boys.  They have worked hard and have accomplished something that no other team has done in the history of our South Orlando league. (See, I'm tearing up.)

I had been planning on taking my son and three of his friends to Disney for his birthday (which was Friday).  We were originally supposed to go yesterday, but one of the boys couldn't attend.  So I moved the date to the next available day, December 10th, and then found out this past week that my husband had booked a part business/part fun trip for the two of us to Chicago that weekend.  Friends, I lost my freaking mind.  Total meltdown.  He accused me of keeping an incomplete calendar.  I accused him of sneaking in the trip on purpose to make a point.  It was ugly.  I know, I know.  I'm going to Chicago for Christmas shopping!  So shut up Sandy.  I calmed down and rescheduled everything again for December 17th.  For an October 28 birthday.

So yard work on Monday.  Golf tournament on Tuesday - didn't play my best.  Met with the Heathers (Book Addiction and Raging Bibliomania) for lunch on Wednesday to trade books and eat Thai.  Meeting on Thursday to discuss our Washington DC field trip next week (yes I am going there next Wednesday through Saturday - pray for me ha!).  Plus some housecleaning and an attempt to get caught up on my reviews (which ultimately did not happen).  Some slight coordinating of track practices, (more) football practices, horseback riding lessons, birthday dinner, getting glasses for my son, and getting pants for my children (they have outgrown everything) for the cold weather up north.

I had some audio action this week, and was able to finish "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.  It completely blew me away.  I cried.  This will definitely end up on my top audios for the year, not for the narration (which was fine) but for the story.  I also finished "Warm Bodies" by Isaac Marion.  Not really sure how I feel about it.  Goofy? Endearing? Confusing?  I'm going to have to let it brew for awhile.  I did love Kevin Kennerly's narration though.  I just started Stewart O'Nan's "Emily, Alone".  O'Nan has a serious fan base.  I have high expectations.

Print reading was pretty sucky though.  I did finish "13 rue Therese", which I embarrassingly started last Saturday at the end of the readathon!  It started out kinda sweet, but it quickly went strange and a little raunchy, so I can't give my final opinion.  I have to think about it.  But I have now started "The Redeemer" by Jo Nesbo.  I'm going backwards from "The Snowman", I know who lives and dies, but whatever.  I still dig this guy.  Alot.

What about Halloween?  Honestly, I hadn't given it two thoughts until maybe Thursday.  I didn't even get pumpkins.  We live on a private drive, so we get no trick-or-treaters.  (We go to a friend's neighborhood to get our candy.)  The kids are even off their game.  When I ask them about their costumes, they just shrug and say they will figure it out.  This is what happens when they get overloaded.

So I will bid you all adieu for now.  If you don't see me around later this week, it is because I am drowning in a sea of children on an 18-hour-a-day field trip.  Have a great Sunday!


Friday, October 28, 2011

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt - Caroline Preston

Without planning it, I guess this week should have been entitled "Treasures from SIBA11"!!  Earlier this week, I reviewed Kadir Nelson's gorgeous pictorial history of African Americans in "Heart and Soul".  Yesterday I reviewed the emotionally devastating "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness.  Today, I'm bringing you the utterly enchanting "The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt" by Caroline Preston.

Caroline Preston was one of our authors featured in the last event at SIBA, The Moveable Feast, where every 10 or 15 minutes, a new author comes to visit your lunch table to talk about their book.  When she showed us what she had been working on, my heart started to beat a little faster, and put her book way way at the top of my list of things to read as soon as I left Charleston.  If you are in the mood for something visual and clever, stop right where you are and check this out.

Summary:  Frankie Pratt has always wanted to be a writer.  So when she got a blank scrapbook from her mother for her high school graduation, she was determined to practice her skills while documenting her life as a young woman in the 1920's.

Frankie's father died when she was young, so things had always been financially challenging for her and her mother.  Instead of going to college, Frankie got a job to help out at home, but when she became entangled with a married man, Frankie's mother made "arrangements" to fund Frankie's education at Vassar.  From there we see Frankie go to Greenwich Village, and then across the Atlantic on an ocean liner to Paris.  She meets all sorts of colorful personalities, makes friends, and lives the high life, all the while looking for love.  Despite all the exciting places Frankie has lived, she does find love in the place she least expects.

Frankie's story is told completely through the items she includes in her scrapbook.  Theater tickets, advertisements for clothing and other items, of programs and pressed corsages and menus.  She also journals her thoughts and her experiences with her dad's old Corona typewriter.  Prepare for a visual delight while you journey through the 1920's with this very likable young woman.

My thoughts:  I mentioned this when I reviewed "Chopsticks" last week, but if this is a trend in literature, I am completely on board.  Telling stories through pictures isn't a new thing - graphic novels themselves have been around forever.  But the craft has taken a turn into territory that is fairly uncharted...ultimate scrap booking.

Make no mistake, Frankie can stand on her own two feet.  She is young and full of idealism, wants to find love, make her mark as a writer, and have fun along the way. I found her charming and sweet, if not a tad innocent.

But when you tell her story through vintage memorabilia - memorabilia that was lovingly collected and pieced together by the author (no photo shopping!) it takes on a whole new meaning and takes it to a whole new level.  You can read this story in a day, but you will find yourself wanting to sit in a quiet room in the house so you can pour over all the beautiful details.  It reminded me of the I-Spy books my kids used to see something new each time you look at it.

I really wanted to provide examples of the pictures for you, but I couldn't find anything that would do it justice, so I'm including this video of Preston talking about the process of putting together this book.  I remember thinking that Preston said she was working on a sequel to Frankie, or was that a dream?  I truly hope it wasn't, because I'd love to see what Frankie is up to next!


4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Monster Calls - Patrick Ness

Back when this book was released in the UK, Ana from Things Mean Alot reviewed "A Monster Calls".  If you read the review, I'm certain it went directly to your list of books that must be read before you die, because Ana was pretty persuasive.  She said it "shattered her", and that the book was "restrained" but "perceptive and emotionally genuine".  I wasn't really prepared to pay for shipping from the UK, so I waited.  I knew the book would throw itself at me eventually.

And it did, at SIBA11.  There were ARCs available there, and I snagged one, all the while giggling.  The representative for the publisher, Candlewick Press, stepped in and warned me "now please understand, this is not a happy read".  I knew that, but I'd been waiting for this book for four months, and that was worth celebrating.

Synopsis:  Thirteen year-old Connor O'Malley has had better years.  He is bullied at school (or worse ignored), his father left for the US with a younger woman, his mother is fighting a battle against cancer, and he suffers from terrifying nightmares that he can't discuss with anyone.  One night, an old yew tree from across the field comes to life in the form of a monster and visits him.


Over a period of several nights, the monster comes to visit and tells Connor three stories, all very disturbing and dubious in message.  While it is obvious that the stories have lessons attached, these aren't your standard fables, but ones where there is little distinction between right and wrong, good and evil.  What is the monster's purpose?  What does he represent?  Only a monster, terrifying and powerful, can help Connor navigate his way through the landmines of his life, understand the complexities of relationships, and come to terms with human mortality.

My thoughts:  I've been sitting and looking at the phrase "my thoughts" for two days now, and I still don't know what to say, but I have to get on with it.  This story is life in its most simplest form.  Friendship, struggles, loss, and growing up.  I suppose we've seen it hundreds of times in stories, but never quite so pure or organic. 

The monster is ancient and terrifying, but with a higher purpose that the reader must admire and is strangely drawn towards.  The monster is wise.  The monster is an unyielding force.  The monster will not be ignored. 

I must repeat Ana and tell you that this story IS devastating.  A 13 year-old, perched at the brink of adulthood but still with childhood insecurities, is such a fragile human being.  To see one such boy attempting to cope with a life-altering loss is something that threatened to take away my breath.  This is not the first time I've read about the reaction of teenagers to a sick parent...the acting out, the anger, the a mother I can't even imagine such a situation.  It is inevitable that each reader is going to imagine themselves somewhere in this scenario, even though it is so uncomfortable to comprehend.

But despite the dire topic, the story is never cloying or hokey.  It sneaks up on you in its simplicity, it comes around through the back door to deliver the goods.  So beware, and keep the tissues at hand, no matter how strong you may feel. 

The ultimate bittersweet beauty of the thing are the illustrations, which as you can see, are stunning.  Jim Kay, the illustrator, has managed to harness all of these troubling and terrifying emotions and bring them to life.  Even the pictures are bound to make you cry.

Often we are not inclined to reach out for a book we know will make us sad, but I would implore you to make an exception.  Everyone has lost someone close to them, and this book I believe can make a difference in the healing.  The book is relatively short and can be read in a couple of hours.  Just plan ahead and set aside the time.  I think you'll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Gdansk #1

I've featured some pictures from Gdansk, Poland before, so our tour this time around will be short.  Gdansk is a neighboring town of Sopot, just a short cab-ride away.  Although we were staying in Sopot, we had to pop over and take in some shopping and eating.  The photo above was taken near the city center, which sits on the picturesque Vistula River. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Heart and Soul - Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson was one of the first featured speakers to present at SIBA11.  We filed into the ballroom, and were given a copy of each book from each author who would be presenting at that meal.  Before the lights were dimmed, I'd already paged through this one, and I was awestruck.  The illustrations rendered me speechless.  But that was nothing compared to how I felt once Kadir took the stage.  He was incredibly handsome, and passionate about his work.  This was one talented man.

Kadir told us a story about when he visited the Capitol, and viewed all the beautiful artwork in the rotunda.  He saw "Declaration of Independence", "Landing of Columbus", "Baptism of Pocahontas", and others that document the history of the US.  But it was glaringly obvious that one large piece of our history was missing - that of the African American.  Which inspired Kadir to write and illustrate this book, something his whole life's work had been leading him towards.

"Heart and Soul" tells the story of the birth of the United States from the viewpoint of the African American...from slavery, to abolition, the Civil War, the migration westward, suffrage, and civil rights.  He tips his hat to Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, the Freedmen, the Buffalo Soldiers, Booker T. Washington, Joe Louis Barrow and Dr. King, as well as members of his own family.  It is a thorough lesson in history, be you black or white, all narrated in the voice of an elderly family member telling the story of "how it was back then".        

But the most breath-taking part of the book are the paintings that Kadir has produced.  Yes, they are paintings, each and every one of them, that have been transcribed to the page.  Even by showing you examples, you cannot appreciate the true beauty unless you see them in person.  Each and every one is worthy of framing.

Kadir explained that he either photographs himself or someone else in the correct position so the painting is as realistic as possible.  In the photo of the young boy above, he had a neighbor boy put on an adult-sized shirt.  In the painting of the slave ship, he used actual profile shots for each figure.  The hands below are of an elderly woman that lives on his block.  In one instance, he took an actual photo of his grandmother (whom he loves, which is endearing) and regressed her features to that of a young girl for the book.

I can't think of a single human being that wouldn't benefit from such a thoughtful and gorgeous book.  It would work in a classroom, it would work for teenagers or adults, and it would look great on a coffee table (the size is substantial enough to showcase his artwork).  This one needs to be on everyone's Christmas list!

Kathy (BermudaOnion) reviewed this book as well, please take a look.  She also featured a YouTube video that is worth watching.  Here it is:


5 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chopsticks - Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral

While I was meandering through the showroom floor at SIBA11, trying my hardest to be good and only take books that made my pulse race, I stopped by the Penguin table.  And The Temptress, also known as Doni Kay, put this book in my hands and told me I had to read it.  She gave me the top-line synopsis (young piano prodigy's descent into madness told via pictures, scrapbook items and direct messages) and off I went, predictably, with my pulse racing.  I read the book that night in the hotel, despite my exhaustion.  And came back the next day to talk about it.  This book really WAS all that and an order of fries.  Let me give you a little more info about this creative mind-twister...

Synopsis:  Glory is a teenage piano prodigy that has been raised by her widowed father, and remembers her mother only through old photo albums and old wine bottles that she had collected.  One day, a handsome artistic boy moves in next door, and Glory becomes infatuated with him, creating tension between her and her father.  Glory steadily unravels and soon the only thing she can play on the piano is "chopsticks".

But as the story ends, the reader questions what is real and what is fantasy.

In a story told completely with photos, drawings, ticket stubs, Youtube links (that are real), direct messaging, and clipped newspaper articles, it is all about the power of observation and noticing the little details.  Guaranteed to inspire multiple re-reads.  (Publication date tentatively 11/1/11, marketed to ages 7th grade and up.)

My thoughts: My first regret is that I cannot show you pictures within this book...they are what makes this read something special.  Unfortunately my copy is an unfinished one, and Penguin isn't releasing the illustrations until the book is officially published.  But the concept is quite clever.  It is part scrapbook, part graphic novel, part "I-Spy" game, all telling a story that is a mystery. 

It may seem at first glance that you can flip this book casually, when you are killing a few minutes here and there.  If you do, you certainly are not going to pick up on the subtle clues buried within the pictures.  You are going to want to pay attention.

Which is, in fact, both the beauty and the downfall of this book.  Once you figure out what is really happening in the story, you break out into a big smile and go "Ohhhhhhhhh", then immediately flip back through the pages.  But the real question is, will the reader "get" it?  My 8th grade daughter read it and had no clue what was going on.  After Kathy finished it, she and I had to text awhile to talk through it.  I almost think it would be best to market this book by emphasizing the twists hidden within, so the reader knows to look for it.

I'm thrilled at this concept of scrapbooking stories, and letting pictures talk.  It goes beyond the graphic novel to something more visual, more intuitive, more tangible.  I saw one other novel at SIBA11 that was very similar called "The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt" by Caroline Preston (review coming next Friday) that equally engages both sides of the brain.  I look forward to this new trend in literature.

4 out of 5 stars 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Salon: My unproductive readathon

So, are the die-hard readathoners still up and going?  I did not make it I am ashamed to say.  I've had better reading events, but hey, when you normally read one printed book a week, it is all good.  But I'll get into all that in a minute. 

As for the week up until Saturday, there isn't much exciting to report.  A dentist appointment, a sick child (the other one this time) for the three days they had school this week, a day of yard work that netted me about 40 mosquito bites, and an out-of-town hubby.  My daughter and I did go see the remake of Footloose (not bad at all, considering how nostalgic I am for the first one) and watched Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 on Netflix streaming, in preparation for the third installment that we hope to squeeze in soon.  Side note:  Maybe these movies are nearly homemade and hokey, but they scare me to death.  It doesn't stop me from watching, though.  On the other hand, nothing really bothers my daughter. 

Up until the readathon, I was able to finish "Model Home" by Eric Puchner on audio, and start "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand, for one of my book clubs next month.  I was not altogether moved by "Model Home" but am loving "Unbroken".  This story is sure to be filed under my category entitled "the shit you can't make up".  Is it wrong for me to pray that everything written here is true?  So many of these stories end up being half-baked yarns (ahem, Three Cups of Tea anyone?).

In print, I wrapped up "The Night Strangers" by Chris Bohjalian (love), and also read "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs (also love).  I then started a book on my readathon list early, "Love At First Bark" by Julie Klam, which was sweet, and finished it in the first hour of the readathon on Saturday morning.  So, good week up to that point.

But then we got down to the nitty gritty.  The kids and I shopped for snacks and caffeine.  We got our piles in order.  But things got off to a slow start.  My son had football practice, so that and a shower took care of things for me until about noon.  Then I had to make lunch.  Then the kids fought over the Halloween Oreos.  My son read for about 30 minutes and decided his new video game was more palatable.  My daughter and I read all day, but we were both restless.  She started "The Help" but it was long, so she switched over to "The Watch That Ends the Night", a book about the Titanic written in verse. 

It took me 9 hours to read 160 pages of "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene.  This was an incredible book, but was the wrong choice for this event.  Too intense, too philosophical, too dense.  I decided to be careful about my next pick, and started reading the first 20 pages of several books and landed on "13 Rue Therese" which is very different and captured my attention quickly.  I didn't finish it though.  I read about half of it before I crashed at midnight.  I did Tweet (and get hammered by Kathy at Words With Friends), but stayed away from the computer as that is a huge time suck.  I must say the cheerleaders did a FABULOUS job as always.

At 8:00pm my husband rolled in from Switzerland, loaded with perfume and chocolate, and proceeded to pour the both of us a glass of red.  He had to show me his pictures and talk about his $20 beers.  That also slowed things down a bit on the reading front.

Either way, I now have about three weeks worth of reviews to write, so guess what I will be doing next week?

Today my son plays in the second round of his football playoffs.  Either our season ends today, or we go on to play next Wednesday night.  Cross your fingers and toes.  Our season started August 1st, so while I want him to win badly, I am actually looking forward to moving on to track soon.  It has been a long long road.

OK, I think I'm going to go take a quick nap before the day's festivities start.  Hope you all have a great Sunday!!! 

Friday, October 21, 2011

It's Readathon Time!

 It's that time again!  Time for the Fall 24 Hour Readathon.  I don't believe we have ever participated in the fall event because our schedule has never allowed.  But the moons have aligned.  My husband is out of town.  We have our football game Sunday.  With the exception of morning football practice, and maybe a break for a movie, the kids and I are going for it.

It is so fun to be part of these readathons.  For this event, we have 341 readers and 43 cheerleaders from all over the world.  You definitely feel like you are part of a huge reading machine! 

So what is on the literary menu?  I have found that short books are the way to go.  They make me feel productive, despite the fact that I am a slow reader.  So here are the options I gathered from my shelves:

Love at First Bark:  How Saving a Dog Can Sometimes Help You Save Yourself - Julie Klam
The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
The Fox Inheritance - Mary E. Pearson
Duck Duck Wally - Gabe Rotter
13 Rue Therese - Elena Mauli Shapiro
Joy for Beginners - Erica Bauermeister

Now I totally realize I am not going to make a dent here.  I will be lucky to read two or three, but I've got options to fit every mood. 

My son has claimed his goal is to make headway in Salem's Lot by Stephen King.  He is about a hundred pages in at the moment.

My daughter is going to have a John Green fest.  She has at least four of his books squirreled away up there.

In order to focus on reading, I will only be Tweeting a little, and no posting on the blog.  I will post the results in my Sunday Salon. 

Are any of you participating as readers or cheerleaders?  Hey, it's not too late.  Even if you just take part in the evening (what I have done in the past) it still counts.  Just head on over here to sign up!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck (Audio)

After listening to "East of Eden" on audio, I decided I needed to read more of this Steinbeck fellow.  I have no recollection of reading any of his work in high school, you see.  So I ordered "Of Mice and Men" on audio next from the library.

But surely I have read this at one point in my life!  Before this listening experience, I would have sworn that I hadn't.  Because the entire story was told over only four discs, Heather and I decided it would be a great selection for our drive home from SIBA11 in Charleston.

Then I had an epiphany.  Everything seemed way too familiar.  I HAD read this in high school...and I blocked it out of my mind.  And for good reason.  Everything about this story made my stomach turn.  Heather and I were screaming at the narrator.  As a young impressionable teenager, I'm sure everything about this story traumatized me.  But I will get to all that here in a minute.

Synopsis:  Again, a bogus effort, similar to my attempt to summarize "East of Eden".  So for the three people out there that have not read this book:

Two men, one street-wise and the other mentally challenged, are migrant farm workers wandering about the California countryside looking for a job amidst the depression.  They are running from their past because the slower man, Lennie, is strong and hulking but has the mentality of a five year old.  He touches pretty things and soft things, like a small animal or a woman's shiny hair, but doesn't understand when it is too rough or inappropriate.  Lennie dreams of a day when he and his caretaker, George, can live in their own house, have a garden and raise rabbits.  He is joyous at the thought and begs for George to spin the fantasy for him often.

Lennie and George find jobs at a ranch, but immediately one senses trouble.  A jealous husband with a trigger temper and something to prove.  A pretty young flirtatious wife.  Puppies.  A black migrant worker and a white migrant worker with a maimed hand, lost souls that don't remember what it is like to have a goal or a dream.  Once again Steinbeck goes to visceral, uncomfortable, dark places in the heart where loneliness and powerlessness reside.

My thoughts: So back to my high school self.  It is no wonder I refused to remember I'd read this book.  As a 45 year-old, I almost couldn't sit through it.  I imagine a 16 year-old, who was always disturbed when the weak were picked on, and who loved animals, had to turn her head, close her eyes, cover her ears, and scream "LALALALALA".  This story was so torturous, I even think it should count for the RIP Challenge.

I'll admit, yes, Steinbeck's writing is gorgeous.  And he so incredibly astute when it comes to verbalizing the emotions that make a person squirm.  The issues addressed offer hours of discussable topics.  But I did not enjoy the experience.  I felt sick to my stomach.

George was Lennie's protector, but he was incredibly mean-spirited with him at times.  He preyed on Lennie's insecurities.  Everyone preyed on Lennie's weaknesses, even those most downtrodden.  Instead of appreciating Lennie for his innocence and loyalty and friendliness, they delighted in scaring him or confusing him.  It was heart-breaking.

So many people in the story longed to have a dream.  Once they heard about George and Lennie's fantasy farm with the rabbits, they wanted to come along too, offering to wash dishes or help with the gardening.  But we know all along, this is never going to happen.  This was heart-breaking too.

And don't even get me started on the cruelty to animals.  Heather almost made me turn the audio off a couple of times.  Let's just face it, my heart had been chewed up and spit out at the end of the four discs.  I think it is safe to call the story powerful.  But it contained more power than I could handle.

A word about the audio production:  Various versions of this audio exist (one narrated by Gary Sinise, which is probably a great listen), but this one was tackled by Mark Hammer, who was perfect.  I have experienced Hammer in some of his work with the James Lee Burke series and the Lawrence Block series, and he is memorable.  His vocalization had a huge range, his accents were pitch-perfect, and captured the essence of each personality. Steinbeck would have been proud.

4 out of 5 stars     

A note about the rating:  I struggled with this one.  Steinbeck is brilliant in so many ways, so for that reason, this book could have been a 5.  The narration was certainly a 5.  But the plot itself left me at such loose ends, so sickened, that I had to pull it down a star. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Sopot #3

Behold, one of the best things you can eat in Poland...Zurek.  It is a sour rye soup that contains any number of goodies...potatoes, kielbasa, hard boiled eggs, you name it.  This particular eating experience included a bread bowl, which just about sent me over the edge.  I had it at an upscale French restaurant in Sopot Poland (Polish chef of course).  Sublime.      

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Snowman - Jo Nesbo (Audio)

So at this point, you all know I've bought into the Nesbo thing hook, line and sinker right?  It is at this stage of a series fetish that it wouldn't matter WHAT the author (or in this case publisher/translator) did, I'd follow like a hungry dog.  Still, I feel like I got a major screwing and I have to get it all out before I talk about this incredible novel. 

*Minor rant*  I thought I had it figured out.  The order of the Harry Hole books, that is.  The translation process has not been performed in order of the series.  I knew this.  But I really believed that "The Snowman" came after "The Devil's Star".  Apparently not.  Apparently "The Redeemer" comes in between the two, however it is not yet available to common folk in the US.  So when I started "The Snowman" I quickly learned that people were dead.  People weren't mentioned that had once played a key role in things.  Through deductive reasoning, I have pieced together 3/4 of "The Redeemer".  Thanks guys.  I really appreciate that. *end of rant*

Synopsis:  Women are turning up missing.  Women with husbands and children.  Their bodies are never found, so it is possible it is just a case of missing persons.  But unexplained snowmen are found at their homes in each and every case, presumably as a calling card.

Because Harry Hole is the only person on the Oslo police force with experience in tracking down serial killers, he is assigned the case with a sharp new young female partner.  It is no surprise that, while digging, Hole unearths a laundry list of social and health issues - themes of parenthood, infidelity, genetic diseases, among others.  Harry also continues to battle the lure of the bottle and a failing personal relationship, despite having a heart that is pure gold.

My thoughts:  Once I got over my shock at "The Redeemer" being completely spoiled for me, I fully embraced and enjoyed this next Harry Hole installment.  I got exactly what I've come to expect of Nesbo...a fast pace, complicated characters, and layers upon layers of intrigue. 

What is nice about this series is that with each installment, Harry grows and changes, keeping everything fresh.  Well, maybe fresh isn't the right word.  Harry does throw up alot in this book, and it is very dark.  Maybe it keeps it from becoming stagnant. You can get behind the guy because he is human and has multiple frailties, but you know he is trying his best.

Prepare for red herrings galore.  There are dozens of them.  At this point, I'm wondering if the (fictional) Norwegian public has any faith left in their police officers, because they arrest handfuls of suspects before they capture the right one.  I've given up trying to figure it out...I just let it wash over me and enjoy the ride. 

Could this book be read as a standalone?  I suppose so, but as you can tell from my ranting and raving, you'd be better served to ATTEMPT to start from the beginning (at least the US beginning "The Redbreast") and move forward from there.  And know that his books just keep getting better and better.

A word about the audio production:  Behold my audiophile friends, the amazing Robin Sachs.  I can't seem to track down the first time I heard his voice, but I went into this audio experience knowing I very well may lose my heart to him.  (Crazy I guess, but audio addicts are going to know where I'm coming from on this one.) He is everything that Harry Hole should be.  He nailed Hole's stoicism and pain, his vocalization is dynamic but as smooth as silk.  Could he knock Simon Vance off his rock star pedestal?  Mr. Vance assures me that there is room for both of them in my heart.  Apparently he has narrated ALL of the Harry Hole books, which caused some anxiety on my part.  So my quandary is this.  I've got two Nesbo books left to read so far.  Do I grab printd copies and read them NOW, or do I wait for the audios?  Or do I do a complete and total re-read once all of the audios are available?  Decisions.  (FYI, Sachs offers his voice to video games as well.  My son digs him too.)

5 out of 5 stars      

Monday, October 17, 2011

As promised...the chili and the pierogies, up close and personal

I was going to give you the blow-by-blow steps to pierogie and Polish chili euphoria (in which I wallowed this past Saturday) next weekend, but I have nothing inspiring to talk about with regards to movies today, so here you go.

The goal of any person entering into the Annual Chili Cookoff is to find a hook.  There are close to 50 entries into this contest, so fixing a pot of chili won't cut it.  I thought it might be fun to put a Polish spin on things, in honor of my husband's motherland.  I had a costume, but I won't torture you with it again.  I also played some polka music on the boom box and decorated my station with flags, Polish dolls and a scarf.

For the chili, I started with the Neely's recipe found here but edited it to suit my needs:

Pat's Famous Beef and Pork Chili

6 slices thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chipotle chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound 85 percent lean ground beef
1 cup beer (recommended: Budweiser)  (USED BLUE MOON)
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed  (NO BEANS)
1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed  (NO BEANS)
1 (24-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 (24-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
Lime wedges, for garnish
Sour cream, for garnish
Shredded Cheddar, for garnish
Sliced scallions, for garnish

Brown the bacon, then add the next eleven ingredients and cook until soft.  Add meat and cook.  Stir in the beer and the tomatoes, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours (I actually doubled the recipe and put all of this in the crock pot and cooked on low all day.)  A note for planning...there is alot of shopping required, so allow yourself plenty of time.

The chili has a kick to it, and those with sensitive lips popped a bead of sweat.  On my scale though, I would rate it as a 6 out of 10.

Now for the pierogies!  My favorite recipe is one I got out of Food and Wine in the December 2006 issue by Grant Achatz:


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sour cream
1 large egg, beaten
1 large egg yolk, beaten
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine all the ingredients, kneading and adding a little flour if necessary.  Cover and let it sit for 15 minutes until it is room temperature.  I love this dough.  The sour cream makes the dough very soft and easy to roll.  You may need to sprinkle with flour to keep it from sticking.


3/4 pound medium Yukon Gold potatoes
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Vegetable oil, for coating
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Peel and cook the potatoes, then mash them with the sour cream, mustard, butter and salt and pepper (and cheese if you want).  (Great results if you put the potatoes through a ricer.)  Roll out the dough to 1/8 inch thick and use a round cookie cutter to cut circles.  Put a small amount of the filling on the circle and fold the circle in half, pinching the edges together.  Boil the pierogies in water for about 5 minutes, then transfer them to a skillet and saute in butter until it is slightly crispy.  Add bacon or onions on top for some extra flavor.

The uncooked pierogies can be frozen until you are ready to cook and eat.

Making pierogies can be a real pain in the ass, but I promise they are worth the effort. 

If any of you decide to try either of these recipes, let me know how it goes!


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Salon: Flour on my iPod

 Good morning, and praise the Lord it is the end of the week!  What a crazy week.  Well, I got my sick kid back to school, so that was a bonus!  I got my 8th grade tribute page done, so that was a double bonus.  And I spent most of the week focused on the Chili Cookoff competition that happened last night.  All 8th grade parents have to be involved in running it (getting auction items, decorating, setting up credit card machines, setting up tables, etc.) plus we all have to bring a pot of chili.  As I told you last Sunday, we decided to make a Polish version that started with a recipe from the Neely's, added kielbasa, deleted the beans (I hate beans), and served with a small potato-filled pierogie.  So for three days, I made pierogies.  At last count I had about 170 or 180 of them.  I made it through this exercise with a sound mind thanks to my audio books.  I had flour and dough my hair, in my fingernails, on my clothes, on my iPod, in my ears.  What a mess.  As you can see, I also humiliated my daughter by wearing some Polish garb including a flower tiara.  (And that look on my face? That is the smile of the weary and deranged.)  But the event was a success - we raised over $6,000 and the Polska Pierogie Chili was very popular.  If I can pull my act together, I will do a post next Saturday for Weekend Cooking and tell you exactly how I made it!

I also attended the first of many meetings as a member of the planning committee for our Adult Literacy League event next spring.  We are excited to have Lisa See as a guest author this time around, and are hoping we will have our best year ever!

Another dominant theme in our house this week was football.  My son's team has clinched the first seed in their division and will get a bye on the first round of playoffs.  They won their last game of the regular season yesterday, which means they enter the playoffs undefeated.  We kick into high gear for the last two weeks of October, and seeing how far we can take it.  I get so competitive and wound up, I embarrass my family I think.

Like I said, because I was making pierogies all week, I got to spend quality time with my earbuds, and I finished "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline.  Guys, can I just tell you that I loved this audio with all my heart?  I loved Wil Wheaton as the narrator, I loved the creativity and the nod to the '80's culture, and no doubt will be one of the top audios for the year.  I'm now about halfway through "Model Home" by Eric Puchner, and I'm half entertained, half horrified by this American family in a total state of demise.

My frustration builds with the fact that I've been able to do very little actual reading this week, but I was able to almost finish "The Night Strangers" by Chris Bohjalian, a totally atmospheric and very freaky read.  This is exactly the type of book you need to be reading at this time of year.

I also wanted to bring an event to your attention, the brainchild of my friend Molly Bumble.  Molly recently had a baby and is finding it next to impossible to get through her reader these days, so she has organized "Reclaim Your Reader" week.  Mark your calendars for November 14th through the 18th, where we will unilaterally halt all posting and review-writing and make our way through our poor neglected readers.  (Ahem, there are prizes involved...) And check out her cute little ninjas, ready to do your bidding.  Sign up and join the fun!   


Today we are churching, horseback riding, and birthday partying.  And being relieved that one major event is behind me. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dominance - Will Lavender

It all started with Swapna's review.  She threw phrases around like "literary puzzle" and "thrill ride".  She was purposefully vague about a twisty plot with a wink and a nod to book lovers.  So the seed was planted.  Then, as books are wont to do, it hurled itself into my path at a Borders closeout sale at 70% off.  Who am I not to take a hint? 

The book was perfect for the RIP Challenge.  It just had the unfortunate luck to be in my hands when I went to SIBA, so I didn't have the preferred momentum when reading it.  But never mind.  Even in a distracted state of mind, this book did a number on me.

Synopsis:  A successful Harvard professor, Alex Shipley is called back to Jasper College, her alma mater, because one of her classmates has been brutally murdered.  The murder strangely resembles one that took place years ago that was presumably committed by literature professor Richard Aldiss.
When Alex attended Jasper, she and a group of other students attended a night class taught, via transmission from prison, by Aldiss.  The class focused on one author's works - an author whose existence and true identity was highly speculated and had become something of an urban legend.  For years students had enjoyed reenacting this ghostwriter's novels in something called "The Procedure", but the game had a reputation for turning violent. 

After this latest murder, however, it appears that someone may be playing "The Procedure" again.  Nobody can be trusted, and nobody is safe.

My thoughts:  I'm aware that my synopsis probably makes no sense and seems a little convoluted.  That is because the entire story is one big jigsaw puzzle and half the time I had no idea what was going on.  I began to have flashbacks to the movie "The Game" (have you seen this?) with Michael Douglas, where you never know what is real, or who can be trusted.  I've also seen this book compared to "The Silence of the Lambs", which I would agree with 100%.  Aldiss and Shipley have that Hannibal/Clarice vibe going on.   

I love "locked-door mysteries", and this story falls into that category.  The bad guy (or gal) has to be one of a finite number of people.  Total Agatha Christie, and so much fun.

Like Swapna, I've left out quite a bit of the plot, because reading it cold is like making your way through a funhouse with mirrors and false doors.  My warning to you, the reader, would be to read this story when you are awake and alert, don't drink a glass of wine, and read it quickly.  It would be easy to miss the whole point.  In fact, when I turned the last page, I was scratching my head and asking myself "Wha?  What just happened? Who is the evil-doer here?".  It probably could even use a re-read.  But I admire cleverness, and Will Lavender has it in spades.  It just may be a tad too clever for its own good.

4 out of 5 stars     

Thursday, October 13, 2011

We All Fall Down - Michael Harvey (Audio)

When it comes to the crime thriller series, I've got a list of them in which I am fully invested.  Lucas Davenport.  Jack Reacher.  Stephanie Plum.  Tempe Brennan.  Kinsey Millhone.  And this guy, Michael Kelly.  "We All Fall Down" is the fourth installment of a Chicago noir series that features a police officer-turned-investigator who manages to sniff out every bit of political shenanigans and murder most foul in the Windy City.  For someone who loves this genre and loves her Chi-town, this combination is irresistible.

Synopsis:  Evil is afoot yet again in Chicago, but this time the implications are much more terrifying than your average maniac with a gun and an agenda.  Under the streets of Chicago in the subway tunnels, a pathogen is released that has the potential to kill millions.  With symptoms that appear to cover all the bases...bleeding out, flu-like nausea, upper respiratory distress, airborne transmission, 100% mortality is obvious that this is biological weapon has been invented with a specific goal in mind:  annihilation of the human race.

But as with all Michael Harvey novels, this is not a cut-and-dried case of a chemist run amuck.  Michael Kelly is pulled into the investigation through political channels, and discovers layers of corruption within the police force, ambitious drug lords, FBI agents with hidden agendas, and at the very bottom of it all, greed.

My thoughts:  I have to hand it to Harvey.  The man is EFFICIENT.  If you want to dip your toe in a complicated crime thriller puzzle with very little time investment, he's your guy.  I mean, this book was only 7 discs!  No time is wasted, there isn't a glut of words.  From the first paragraph, you are thrust into the action, and you don't come up for air until the last word.  And the plot is complex.  You most likely are not going to figure anything out while you are in the throes of unraveling threads.  You are doing good just to keep up.

The downside of his efficiency is that some character development is lost in the process.  Over the four books, of course, you have a good sense of Kelly, but from novel to novel he doesn't change his modus operandi.  He puts up with the mayor's meddling, he attempts but flounders at relationships, he has a good heart and ultimately makes sound decisions.  He is smart and wily.  He chases bad guys.  I'd look for some evolution of Michael Kelly soon just to keep things fresh and keep us on our toes.

In the past, Harvey's books has been a fun way to discover local Chicago haunts.  I delighted in various dives making their cameo appearances.  But we didn't get as much of that in this installment.  It is hard, after all, to hang out at a bar when you are wearing a hazmat suit.

If you are looking for a quick, gritty, unpredictable noir crime novel, you most definitely should pursue this series.  There is no need to start at the beginning, although that always makes the journey more rewarding.  I'll be waiting for the next installment, and hoping for a change in scenery for Mr. Kelly!

3.5 out of 5 stars


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Sopot #2

Like I said last week, one of the most popular attractions in Sopot Poland is The Grand Hotel (see picture below, photo taken from  The hotel was built in 1927, and has been visited by worldwide dignitaries and royalty.  While I haven't stayed at this hotel, my husband has, and he stayed in a room that had been occupied by Hitler.  (Not sure if that is a good thing...seems it should have been exorcised first.)  My photo today was taken in the foyer, looking up through its spiral staircase.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Maine - J. Courtney Sullivan (Audio)

Rave reviews abound, deemed the last worthy beach read of the summer by EW, this book had been flitting around in my periphery for several months when Beth Fish Reads begged to have it added to our Skype Book Club reading list for September.  It had been weighing on her mind and it needed discussing.  Booking Mama, also a member of the book club, loved it too. 

It seems for books that interest me, but don't compel me to read them, the book club is the only way to force my hand these days.  So away I went, with fairly high expectations.

  Three generations of Kelleher women descend on the family beach house in Maine one summer, each with distractions and troubled hearts. 

Alice, the curmudgeon-ish matriarch, recently widowed, has hard feelings for most of her family.  They are ungrateful, they don't get along, they've lost their sense of family, their priorities are skewed, etc.  She struggles with issues from her youth that were never resolved, and will forever be attempting to redeem herself in the eyes of God.  Kathleen, Alice's daughter, is a recovering alcoholic, and has removed herself from family drama to become a worm feces farmer in California.  Anne Marie, Alice's daughter-in-law, is feeling lost now that she is an empty-nester and is questioning her worth as a woman and a wife.  Maggie, Kathleen's daughter is young, unmarried and pregnant, with a wayward boyfriend who will never own up to his responsibilities.

In a study of characters, family dynamics of love, hate and jealousy, and heavy doses of repressed guilt, we are thrust into this family of imperfect souls.  Personalities explode and clash before our eyes in attempt to resolve decades-old grudges and hurt feelings, alcohol addiction, weight control, body image, and religion. 

My thoughts:  While I was entertained by these four women, I never felt fully invested in them.  I could find both redeeming qualities and annoying qualities in Kathleen, Anne Marie and Maggie.  However, I loathed Alice - I thought her very mean-spirited and I felt waves of anger every time she spoke. 

I also kept waiting for something to HAPPEN, but after a period of time, I realized this was going to be more of a character-driven tale versus a plot-driven one.  I would have been satisfied with that had I cared about these individuals, but I did not.

As far as building the world of the Kelleher women, however, Sullivan was a master.  By the end of the novel, you knew these women as well as you know your own friends and family.  She also makes the Maine coastline, it's small towns, it's food, and its people, a separate and distinct character.  I even found myself pining for my own Maine cottage by the end of the story (just not one I would have to share with Alice!). 

My overall opinion of this novel is the exception to the rule.  As I said before, Beth Fish and Julie loved this book, as well as countless others.  They saw past the flaws in the Kelleher women and related to them.  If you like a family drama with flawed characters, an unearthing of secrets, women in a flux of self-discovery, all in a beautiful setting, then I would highly encourage you to give this one a try.

A word about the audio production:  Our narrator for this audio book was Anne Marie Lee, which I believe I've listened to on some Lisa Gardner books and a Lisa Unger book.  Anne Marie did a respectable job with the New England accents (from the perspective a non-New Englander), but I think because the story is told from each woman's viewpoint, multiple narrators would have kicked it up a notch. 

3 out of 5 stars                 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Books, Babes and Bordeaux talks with Gabe Rotter, author of "The Human Bobby"

 It's been a year since I read and reviewed "The Human Bobby" but it is a book I will never forget.  Compulsively readable, gripping, and brain-screwing, I read it in one sitting.  Which does happen now and again, but with my schedule, not very often. 

Even a more glowing testament to the book would be my BFF's experience.  She never reads print.  EVER.  Her schedule is worse than mine, so she does audio, or she doesn't do it at all.  I lent her "The Human Bobby" for good beach reading this past summer for her vacation, and she finished it before her toes hit the sand.  You must understand, this is BIG. 

So when we were batting around ideas for our October read for Books, Babes and Bordeaux, several people requested a book we could read quickly (we had babies being born, people getting married, etc.).  Heather and I told everyone the perfect solution was "The Human Bobby".  As a secondary thought, I looked up the novel's author Gabe Rotter and asked him if he wouldn't mind chatting with us, and without hesitation, he agreed.  Gabe Rotter rocks.


Gabe's first love and his college education is in film.  He began his career as a writing assistant under Chris Carter for The X-Files.  After that series ended, he wrote "Duck Duck Wally", his first novel, a humorous tale about show business. He has also written a comic book, and currently works as Director of Development for Ten Thirteen Productions with Chris Carter. 

In talking to Gabe, he was exactly what you would imagine...very cool, very approachable, at ease, and unassuming.  Here are some things he shared with us:

Insight into ambiguous twists in "The Human Bobby":  Gabe would not throw us a bone.  He feels that is the beauty of the story - you can interpret it many different ways, none of them wrong.  This response generated a universal groan from all of us!  No!  We want answers!  I think in order to form any kind of an opinion, I'm going to have to re-read.

On the book's effect on his friends:  One of Gabe's friends read "The Human Bobby" when it was a work-in-progress, and because the friend had a young child, he almost wasn't able to deal with it.  (The plot involves a child abduction, and is stomach-turning.)  Surprisingly, Gabe didn't have children when he wrote it.  Despite that, he got all the emotions right.  He has a baby girl now, and was pretty sure writing about an abduction would be a whole different and stressful experience post-fatherhood.

On getting the perspective of the homeless:  Gabe spent significant time studying and speaking to the homeless in order to nail down their afflictions, behaviorisms, and the situations that brought to them that place in their lives.  This made alot of sense to our book club, because he captured the essence of the homeless thing just like he captured the essence of the abduction thing.

So about these comparisons between "The Human Bobby" and "Shutter Island"...Gabe stated that after he had finished Bobby, someone tipped him off that there were some similarities to Lehane's mind-bender.  And he was devastated.  Still, after watching the movie, Gabe felt there was enough distinction between the two to hold his own.  There has been interest in making Bobby into a movie (which we all believe would be incredible).  We can only hope...

Current projects?  Gabe has a couple of projects in the works.  He is currently working on an adaptation of "Duck Duck Wally" for a cable series (no word yet on whether this is a done deal or not).  He is also working on something secret-y with Chris Carter for television that may come to pass as well.  We were told to stay tuned for news on both! 

His favorite books?  I did not take notes (bad Sandy), but I recall three books that have made an impression on Gabe throughout the years. "Kane and Abel" by Jeffrey Archer.  "The Count of Monte Christo" by Alexandre Dumas (which Gabe called "f-ing brilliant").  And "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer, which I just finished.       

We wrapped up our conversation with Gabe by him offering to send us a few copies of "Duck Duck Wally".  Again, Gabe Rotter rocks.  Although he warned us that it is a completely different book than Bobby, the author is the same and that is all that matters.
Have you read "The Human Bobby" yet?  Since there is a readathon coming up, I would highly recommend grabbing this book for such an event.  It is the quickest 300 pages you will ever read, and I guarantee you won't be needing any caffeine to stay awake.