Saturday, March 31, 2012

The UCF Book Festival Begins With a Bang

 I had no intention of posting this morning, but I was too wired to do anything else but share with you our experiences from the kickoff of the UCF Book Festival last night.

Our annual UCF Book Festival (my second in attendance and as an official festival blogger) will be held all day today, and will feature some incredible authors and celebrities.  A VIP Reception was held last night in honor of our guests, and Heather (Raging Bibliomania) and I were invited to attend in an official capacity.  (We were asked to read and review a number of books from attending authors, which you have seen here at the blog over the last month.)  We were expecting a short hour or two of mingling with UCF staff and various authors that had already arrived in town.  We were looking forward to some of the friendly faces we met at SIBA in Charleston last year.

It was a top-notch reception.  It was held in the brand-spanking new Mordridge International Reading Center, a state-of-the-art facility, and were entertained by a jazz band from a local high school.  There was food, drinks (diet coke for me), and a huge chocolate fountain that I had to walk by to get to the bathroom.  I resisted but it was hard!

But what we thought would be a quick and casual evening suddenly morphed into what I would consider a book blogger's lottery.  Heather and I found ourselves surrounded by six authors who were hungry and wanting to go out to dinner...with us.  We all piled into two cars and headed to Houlihans.

Five of the six authors we had met before.  We were graced by three of the five Southern Belles of the Southern Belle View ...Lisa Wingate, Rachel Hauck, and Marybeth Whalen (She Makes It Look Easy).  You might recall, the bloggers even "bought" Marybeth at the SIBA auction in Charleston and took her and three others to dinner.  We were also graced with the company of River Jordan (Praying For Strangers), and Karen White (On Folly Beach and something like 13 or 14 other novels).  

And then of course there was JOSHILYN.  The one I gush over every time I get a chance.  The one who I've read everything she has ever published.  I could have gone all screaming-14-year-old-at-the-sight-of-Justin-Bieber on her, but I maintained control.  Sort of.

Spending an evening with these ladies was incredible.  It was like old home week.  Everyone knew each other.  Three of them have a blog together.  River and Joshilyn went to college together.  They'd all done panels together (some great, some not so great).  There were a lot of stories, a lot of laughing, and I felt like I basically sat there with a goofy grin on my face at our good luck.  My rule of thumb on these dinners is "what happens at dinner stays at dinner"...I never want authors to feel like they have to be guarded in what they say around me.  

But I will say this.  Joshilyn talks like she writes.  You know that wit that comes through her characters that make you laugh out loud?  That is just IN her, and comes out in a constant font of hilarity.  We also had some fascinating discussions about the Furry Fetish (twisted, bizarre and totally real - it is on Wiki if you don't believe me) and the websites Awkward Family Photos and Awkward Family Pet Photos.  I'll warn you...if you start looking you won't be able to stop.  And I learned that bunny rabbit costumes cannot look normal EVER.

Group photo left to right:  Rachel Hauck, Karen White, Me, Lisa Wingate, Marybeth Whalen, Joshilyn Jackson, Heather Figearo, River Jordan

I look forward to a full day of author panels and seeing some of my good blogger friends.  I will provide an update tomorrow in my Sunday Salon!

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Devil's Scribe (and a Giveaway of The Taker) - Alma Katsu

To commemorate the release of "The Taker" in paperback, I am here today to gush a little.

Do you remember hearing about "The Taker"?  It originally was published last September, and it literally took the publishing world, as well as all its bloggers, by the throat.  

"True love can last an eternity...but immortality comes at a price." 

If you need a refresher, here is my review of this mind-blowing book.  But in a nutshell, it was unlike anything I'd ever read.  Dark, sordid, sexy, compelling, frightening.  Some loved this book and some hated it, but one thing you can is impossible to be ambivalent about it.  Personally, there were threads left hanging at the end of "The Taker" that gave me nightmares.

The second of three installments, called "The Reckoning", is due out June 19th.  It can't come soon enough for me.

But to give us all a little nibble, A FIX to hold us over if you will, Alma has published a short story available for 99 cents on Kindle called "The Devil's Scribe".  In this story, which takes place in 1846, our protagonist Lanny returns to Baltimore to, uh, check up on an unresolved matter, shall we say.  While she is there, she meets "an unattractive man with a high forehead and sunken eyes" who is intrigued with Lanny.  He is a writer of dark stories you see, and he recognizes in Lanny a keeper of many dark stories.  He introduces himself as Edgar Allan Poe.  And Lanny shares her story with him, which was the equivalent of Poe winning the lottery I would imagine.  

It just makes me want June 19th to come quicker.

To celebrate all this excitement, and thanks to the generosity of Ms. Katsu, I am happy to offer a Fan Pack Giveaway which includes:  

*  A copy of The Taker
*  A spoofy wine label of The Reckoning
*  Bookmarks
*  Post-it notes
*  A Reckoning ink pen
*  A proof of the paperback cover

This offer will be open to anyone who responds in a comment before next Friday April 6, when I will randomly choose a winner.  This offer is only available to US and Canada.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pekkanen Until You Puke Month #5: All Is Bright - Sarah Pekkanen

I am sad that my month of reading Pekkanen until I puke is over.  I've had so much fun and pleasure exploring all of Sarah's beautiful books.  It wasn't a puking scenario at all, but one filled with joy.  

I have learned that I should dream up these projects more often.  The last time I had a binge was before blogging, one summer when I read every single Jack Reacher mystery thriller, all in a row.  I'm thinking of planning a John Green (Green Until You Groan?) fest sometime soon.  And after my one day immersion into the world of mystery writers at the Sleuthfest, I've been hankering for some honest to goodness murder and mayhem.  Things to think about...

So.  What a way to end my binge.  "All is Bright" is another short story, loosely linked with "Love, Accidentally".  This was the cherry (and whipped cream, strawberry sauce and nuts) on top of my month.

Synopsis:  Elise has just broken up with her high school sweetheart Griffin.  They had been together for a better part of her life, but at 30, it dawned on Elise that she could not bring herself to marry him and needed to move on.  The hardest part of the breakup was not leaving Grif though...they would always be friends.  It was the separation from his mother, who had always been a stand-in for Elise's mother who had died when she was young.  

When Elise goes back home for the holidays to see her grandmother, she also must come to terms with the inevitable change in her relationship with Griffin's parents, especially since he is now engaged to another woman.  But it is Christmas, and sometimes blessings come when you least expect them.

My thoughts:  I bought this short story on my Kindle, and at the end there is an excerpt to "Skipping a Beat".  I knew this, but because of this fact, you don't really know at what percentage the story is going to end.  I was enjoying the heck out of this story...I knew the characters after all!  It was old home week!  ("Love, Accidentally" is about Griffin and Ilsa, the new girlfriend, where Elise makes a cameo appearance.)  I settled down in my reading chair, feeling all happy and warm, and...the story ended!  It was done!  I was so disappointed.  I really wanted more, yet it ended on a perfect note.

There was one part of the story that I must share with you.  Elise goes to visit her grandmother in the retirement home, and in the middle of a weak tearful moment, she is suddenly surrounded by a group of elderly women known as the Seven Widows of Windham.  They offer her a nip of gin and advice on life, which they dispense after assuring her that between them, they've had "three divorces, one face-lift and possible other unconfirmed work, two adulterous affairs - of course they were long ago, but one was interracial, which adds an extra bit of spice - a gambling addiction - ".  The banter is hilarious and whip-smart.  It made me hope that someday, if I find myself in a retirement home, there is a similar group of women there to take care of me.  This is the humor that Pekkanen adds to her work that makes it such a pleasure to read.

4.5 out of 5 stars  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Indiana #5

One of our favorite activities when we are visited in Indiana is attending the variety of county fairs and observing all of the 4H exhibits.  My kids think that 4H is the most amazing thing, and claim that I am depriving them of happiness by making them live in a place that doesn't have such things.  (Of course if we lived on a farm, they wouldn't want any part of it.)  Here are a couple cute guys we met while walking through the animal barns.     

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Picture This - Lynda Barry

I first discovered Lynda Barry and her creative madness with the book "What It Is", which for me was literally a crazy, enthralling head trip.  That is the only way to describe it.  In that book, Lynda asks the question "Do you wish you could write?".  Well, yes I do Lynda, thanks for asking!  Between the covers of this big-as-a-coffee-table-book, she explores, through graphic illustration, ways to unearth your own inner genius, while also sharing her own story. It' just have to see it to believe it.  

According to Amazon, Barry has invented her own genre - the graphic memoir/how-to.  Who knew?  

And she is back with another one called "Picture This", Subtitled "The Near-Sighted Monkey Book".  By that title and cover, it is apparent that we are in for another adventure through Barry's surreal mind.  This time she asks "Do you wish you could draw?".  Sorry, Lynda, this time I'm going to have to decline, but I will follow along because you're fun.

Actually, in answering that, I was too hasty.  I guess I don't see myself as the artistic type.  My sister got all of those genes.  But every kid on earth loves to color and doodle.  Lynda begins this lesson by asking why we stopped.  With the near-sighted monkey as our mentor and guide, we are introduced to a series of exercises designed to release our adult inhibitions, get that pencil back out and do a mood doodle.

In fact, this book is not just for the artist.  It is for anyone who uses their imagination and creativity for anything...a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, a blogger.  As a blogger, I know that there are times when I cannot type a word to save my soul.  There is no inspiration in my body.  The near-sighted monkey, and her friends Marlys, the dear chicken, the rabbit, the octopus, and other wacky friends, are here to help.

Intention is the killer of creativity, says Barry.  She also advises "The worst thing I can do when I'm stuck is to start thinking and stop moving my hands".  This makes sense to me.  When I can't imagine writing a word, sometimes the best thing for me is just not to overthink it and dive in.  

Barry's illustrations are so unique, you would be able to spot them anywhere.  They are quirky and intricate, and at the same time juvenile. They just beg your eyes to take it all in.  It is like looking at one of my kids' I Spy books. Barry has a lot of helpful messages, but there is joy in just the LOOKING.

It just confirms that I need more of this in my life.  I would highly recommend that you pick up one of Lynda's books and just give it a try.  You can browse through it in a couple of hours, but I promise these are books you might want to own so you can draw from the lessons at your own pace.  

5 out of 5 stars


Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

 I realize, in posting this review, that two billion other reviews of this movie will probably be out here on the Interwebz this morning.  But I would be remiss if I didn't say something about our movie-going experience on Saturday night.  I can't remember the last time my entire family got THIS excited for a movie premier.  My daughter was actually trembling through the previews, waiting for it to start.  I found that to be so adorable, based on the fact that she almost never shows any emotion.  

Please be assured I shall not spoil a thing for you, whether you have yet to see the movie or have read the book.

Most people on this earth know the premise, but just for due diligence purposes, I will tell you a little about the plot.  (Feel free to skip this paragraph.)  It is in the future, and the government has total control over the little people.  As penance for a rebellion that occurred years ago, it forces each of the 12 districts to sacrifice one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the Hunger Games, where they fight, live on TV, to the death until only one survives.  Katniss Everdeen is our badass protagonist who will represent District 12.   

The movie stayed very true to the beloved novel (lest the screenwriters be skinned alive by the 3.2 billion fans).  There were small inconsistencies, but none that really mattered to me.  Because there are sequels to consider, care must be given to the plot threads to keep and the ones to leave, and I was OK with all of their decisions.

Although the movie was a PG-13 rating, the themes were mature and edgy, the perspective unflinching.  The conditions of the various districts were miserable, with near-starvation and filth the norm.  The battles for survival were bloody, intense and charged with adrenaline.  I admired this.  It would have been easy to soften a few edges, knowing there are third and fourth graders out there reading the books, but that did not happen.  Just keep this in mind for younger children or older children that are sensitive to these kinds of things.  Reading it and seeing it are two different experiences.
I originally had a few concerns about the casting.  Jennifer Lawrence was not my first pick for Katniss.  I didn't think she looked right.  But Lawrence has acting cred, with an Oscar nomination under her belt for "Winter's Bone".  Considering the fact that she was in almost every single scene, she needed to be someone other than just a pretty face.  Lawrence is beautiful without being too Hollywood, she has some meat on her bones, and is believable as a girl who can survive in the wild and at the same time inspire a love triangle.  

I also cringed when I saw Josh Hutcherson cast as Peeta.  He seemed too boyish and clean cut.  But again, he felt right in his part.  As well as most of the supporting crew.  Woody Harrelson, for the umpteenth time, did his THANG and owned it.  (If you haven't seen him in Zombieland, you must.)  Donald Sutherland was creepy and evil.  I wasn't crazy about Prim...she was shrieky and she got on my nerves.  But she doesn't have a big role so it was easy to forgive.   

By the way, I thought the casting of Lenny Kravitz as Cinna was...INSPIRED.  Who knew?  

The movie was right around 2 hours and 20 minutes...a little on the long side.  But I never even gave it a thought, or looked at my watch.  It flew by, which is a testament to the pacing.  

There were a few action scenes that were chaotic, frenzied.  You almost didn't know what you were seeing, except a blur of movement.  If you have heard about this and are worried about it, just sit towards the back of the theater so you have a better perspective.  I personally thought it was an excellent effect.

As far as book-to-movie translations, this would be at the top of my list.  If you are an avid fan of the books, you will not be disappointed.

Highly recommended (even if your kids want a repeat showing)!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Salon: Eating

We had an absolutely wonderful time in Charleston earlier this week, after spending a couple of nights on Kiawah Island.  Why is it that every time I go to Charleston, I start having fantasies about living  

there?  The flowers, the beautiful filigree-styled gates, the gorgeous homes around the Battery, and the FOOD.  Holy cow the food.  If I lived there, I would weigh more than my car.  I am still on my regimen (27 pounds and counting) and am still abstaining from the alcohol, but I did partake of some good Southern food.  I had a two hour guilt trip after the Shrimp and Grits, but oh were they good.

Of course, I probably need to visit Charleston in July.  That might take care of my longings.  And I would only want to live South of Broad, you see, and that would only require me to sell my house, my retirement fund, and my kids.  Details.

While we were there, we took a historic carriage ride and visited a plantation.  It was like stepping back in time.

The harsh realities were waiting back at home...busy schedules, dirty house, dirty laundry, and my walking talking conscience Andre.  I also had a golf tournament the day after we returned.  Thus, if you haven't seen me around lately, you will know why.  My traffic has slowed significantly as a result of my absence.  That always bums me out.

So it seems that yes, there will be a Spring Read-a-thon on Saturday April 21st!  I've got a couple of volleyball games to attend that day, but I do plan on doing what I can.  I have learned from past experiences to just leave my computer in another room, lest I get nothing read.  I know half the fun are the mini-challenges, but I've found success with just burrowing down in a comfy chair with my books.  Are any of you participating?

I'm not too disappointed with my reading, based on how busy we have been.  Seven hours in the car each way helps!  I did finish Anna Quindlen's "Every Last One" on audio, and that one really blew me away.  When the Bad Thing happened, it was hard to want to pick it back up, but it was just so compelling, so well-written and so well-narrated.  I am now about 1/4 of the way through "Where Men Win Glory" by Jon Krakauer, which is really good.  

In print I did finish "The Odds" by Stewart O' Nan, even though it was very difficult for me.  I just felt no urge to pick it up, even though it is a very short book.  Then I blasted through "Wonder" by R. J. Palacio in one sitting, and totally fell in love with it.  I am now attempting unsuccessfully to get some traction with "Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen" by Susan Gregg Gilmore.  It isn't the book's is so charming.  I just need time to sit down.

We carved out some time last night to see "The Hunger Games" along with the two billion other people, and we loved it.  I will be talking about it tomorrow at my Monday Matinee.

We have horse and animal shelter planned today, then maybe a little relaxing in the evening.  What does everyone else have planned?

Friday, March 23, 2012

She Makes It Look Easy - Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth has got to be one of the NICEST people you will ever meet, and she is equally inspirational.  Did you know she has SIX KIDS?  She is a quiet, gentle Christian woman who is grounded in her values and beliefs.  Our crazy band of bloggers got the privilege of dining with her and three other authors at SIBA in Charleston last year, and I walked away quite impressed with her.  I'm thrilled that she will be attending the UCF Book Festival next weekend.  

So I knew it was high time that I actually read one of her books, lest I be shamed.  I've had my eye on her  work for some time, but, well, you know my story. 

Synopsis:  After years of scrimping and saving, Ariel and her family (consisting of a husband and three rambunctious young boys) have moved into the house of their dreams.  She finds out quickly, however, that that doesn't make her life perfect.  Her husband works all the time, and her kids drive her mad some days.  Enter her neighbor Justine, who seems to have life all figured out...two perfect little girls, a perfect husband, the perfect figure, her house tidy, and the ringleader of the neighborhood soccer moms.  Justine takes Ariel under her wing, and Ariel is thrilled to have found a friend.

Except things aren't always what they seem, are they?  In alternating points of view between Ariel and Justine, we learn what is really going on behind closed doors.  And Ariel begins to suspect that the women she most admires, whose life she most covets, may not be perfect after all.  

My thoughts:  Often when readers hear that an author is a writer of Christian fiction, they turn and run the other direction (even the church-going ones).  I think is because the genre has a reputation for brow-beating and lecturing.  And that is simply not what Marybeth is all about.  Faith is subtly mentioned in her novels, but there is so much more going on.

Let's step back and take a look at "She Makes It Look Easy".  This story contains recurring themes of infidelity, hypocrisy, exploiting others for personal gain, and deceit.  These are all relevant issues in our lives today.  In fact, I bet every person that reads this will recognize a few people in their own lives who resemble characters in the story.  But the issues are handled with a gentle, deft touch that I would expect from Marybeth, who allows that fine line between right and wrong to come through without any sermonizing.  

Her characters truly felt like they came right off the page and into my home.  When we had dinner together in Charleston, she shared some of the inspirations for the voices of Ariel and Justine, and I could hear the voices in my head as I was reading.  Additionally, the prose is fluid and compelling.  So if you want a quick read that provides an excellent snapshot into the life of a suburban mom, look no further.

4 out of 5 stars


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pekkanen Until You Puke Month #4: These Girls - Sarah Pekkanen

 We are deep into our Pekkanen Until You Puke Month here at the blog.  After thinking about the conversations that Sarah and I had that led to this puking thing, I do believe that she felt her latest book "These Girls" (which releases April 10th) would be the one to throw me right over the edge.  So many Pekkanens in one month?  Who could imagine?  

However, instead of it sending me over the edge, it has done nothing but fuel the fire.  I'm four books into this project and I'm going strong!  I'm quite certain at this stage I would NEVER get tired of the women in Sarah's novels.  They continue to charm, entertain, and endear.  And the girls in the latest novel are more precious than ever.  I kind of wish I could have them all over for dinner.

Synopsis:  Three women, three stories, one friendship.  

Cate is a young go-getter working for Gloss fashion magazine in New York City.  She was just promoted to Chief Features Editor, and has a lot to prove, especially since half the office thinks she slept her way to the top.  But Cate has trouble getting close to anyone emotionally due to secrets best left in the past that haunt her on a daily basis.

Cate's roommate Renee works at Gloss as well, and is gunning for the Beauty Editor position.  She is a warm, out-going, nurturing soul but grieves over the fact that she is a size 12 in a sea of toothpicks.  While she is battling the calorie gremlins, she is also trying to make peace with the newly-discovered fact that her father sired a child out of wedlock early in her parents' marriage and that she now has a half-sister.

Abby shows up in New York City on her brother Trey's (hot freelance journalist wanted by all women including Renee) doorstep, shell-shocked after a horrible experience working as a nanny.  No one really knows the details, but Abby isn't eating or communicating.  Because her brother travels often, she bunks up with Cate and Renee for some female bonding and companionship.

Slowly, each woman's story is peeled away, and we discover the details that made them who they are today.  Damaged but hopeful, yearning to connect, wanting love and success and acceptance, struggling with what went wrong with their own families, we enter the lives of three unforgettable human beings.

My thoughts:  The thing I love about Sarah Pekkanen's books is that her writing is comfortable and easy to read.  It is like sinking down into my comfy reading chair on a rainy day - there is so much joy in that.  Amidst all the fun, though, she tackles really tough issues.  Not just "oh my boyfriend broke up with me" or "I'm a shop-a-holic and I'm out of room in my closet" but real problems suffered by real women.  Infidelity.  Death.  Eating disorders.  Families torn asunder.  Secrets and insecurities that erode a happy life.  

What really speaks to me the most as a human being and as a woman, though, is the way Pekkanen gets relationships.  More importantly, it is the way she gets women's relationships - the Sisterhood.  You know, where women actually forgo a hook-up with a man for the sake of a friendship, or when women will surround their wounded friend and usher her off for wine and chocolate and laughter.  There is an undeniable power in these bonds, and not everyone understands it, or at least articulates it properly.

As I turned the last page of this wonderful testament to sisterhood, my prolonged thought was "there is still meat on this bone".  Pekkanen has several hefty plot threads that were barely touched.  Hmmm, perhaps she is saving them for a sequel?  I sure hope so.  I'm not nearly done with Cate, Renee and Abby.

4.5 out of 5 stars  


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Indiana #4

I spent many weekends in my youth at the Turkey Run State Park, hiking and camping with my friends and family.  Now, when the kids and I go back each summer, we enjoy visiting as well.  The park is in the part of Indiana that has rolling hills, covered bridges and giant sandstone overhangs along little creeks.  Even though the last two times we have visited it has been unearthly hot (woe be the person who gets near ME after a hike!), we wouldn't miss it for the world. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cold Sassy Tree - Olive Ann Burns (Audio)

"Cold Sassy Tree" was the March selection for our Heathrow Literary Society.  I knew virtually nothing about the story, except that it was a "classic" that was published in 1984 by a journalist who wrote the story while convalescing from lymphoma.  I also knew the story had a coming-of-age theme.  So I went into this one cold.

Synopsis:  Our story takes place in 1906 and is narrated by a 14 year-old boy named Will Tweedy.  He and his family live in a small town in Georgia named Cold Sassy, the name derived from the Sassafras trees that grow in that area.  Will's grandmother has just died, and his grandfather shocks his family and the gossipy community by marrying a woman 20 years his junior only three weeks after grandma was laid to rest.

And so goes the summer that Will Tweedy will remember for the rest of his life.  He experiences life lessons about love, social propriety, and about Jesus.  He even gets run over by a train and experiences his first kiss.  He learns to drive a car, he ponders death, and finds out that life is neither fair nor ends up happily-ever-after.

My thoughts:  When I first started this book, I found it somewhat charming and possibly trying a little too hard to be funny, in a Southern, goofy, teenage boy kind of way.  Over time, however, the story became bittersweet and sobering, and I gained a deeper appreciation for the themes that the author threaded through the narrative.  I had heard from others that this book was required reading in their high school, and after finishing it, that makes a whole lot of sense.  There is a lot to discuss here.  

I think one of the most amazing books ever written is "To Kill a Mockingbird".  It is innocent, and is about the loss of innocence.  It has humor, but is humbling.  It teaches lessons about life.  In many ways, "Cold Sassy Tree" had similar qualities.  Now, don't go looking for the closest piece of rotten fruit that you can throw at me.  Nothing will ever match TKAM, but some of the nuances were there, and it made me wonder about Olive Ann Burnes' inspiration.

The prose and dialect was delightfully "Southren".  Burns also did an admirable job of channeling a teenage boy (God love her, it must not have been easy), and capturing the personality of a quirky little town at the turn of the century and of the climate of the US at that time.  Burns also managed to surprise me with a couple of plot twists that I did not see coming.  Overall, I enjoyed the book.  I can't say that I loved it and that it warranted five stars, maybe because it felt like it had all been done before, but I would recommend it.

A few words about the audio:  The narrator for this audio production was Tom Parker, who is new to me, but appears to have been all over the board in the narration category, including a few classics.  It would have been easy to screw this book all to heck, with the tricky dialect, but he did a splendid job.  I don't know if he is a Southern boy, but it sure sounded like it.  

I do need to point out that dialects can be tricky in print as well.  If you struggle with them, audio may be the answer for you.  In this case, the dialect seemed organic and very easy to understand.    

One pretty huge annoyance was the background noise of the production.  There were times that it sounded like Parker was narrating in the corner of a bar at Happy Hour.  It was distracting and a disrespect to Parker and Burns' work.  

4.5 out of 5 stars   

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)

If you have been around this blog long enough, and you remember the Monday Movie Memes I participated in before my beloved Bumbles had their baby, you know I absolutely love Hayao Miyazaki.  He is a prominent manga artist and director of many movies, his career spanning over 50 years.  His movies all have similar themes running through them, and after you have seen a number of them, you can spot his work a mile away.  He often features very strong girls or young women, there can be an innocent but provocative coming-of-age threads, and there is always deference given to the natural world.  His movies are purely magical.

The first Miyazaki movie I saw with my kids (and to this day our favorite) was "Spirited Away", which actually won a Best Animated Film Oscar in 2001, and currently stands as the highest grossing film in Japanese history.  And for good reason.  If you are new to Miyazaki, this is the movie you want to see.  Prepared to be blown away.

But what about "The Secret World of Arrietty"?  The kids and I would never miss any of his films, so we saw this one the weekend it released.  The movie is based on the Mary Norton novel "The Borrowers", and is about a 14 year old girl named Arrietty who lives under the floorboards of a country home with her parents.  Arrietty's family are tiny little miniature humans who borrow objects (hatpins, sugar cubes, tissues, nails, etc.) from the big humans they live with in order to survive.  When a young boy with a heart condition, Sho, comes to live with his aunt in Arrietty's host home, the two adolescents strike up a friendship, though forbidden.  When the housekeeper begins to suspect that the mythical Borrowers do exist, Arrietty and her family's safety is in jeopardy, and they must pick up and move to avoid detection.

As with most Miyazaki films, there were some obvious themes present, primarily the importance of fighting for one's life (Sho who is confronting a risky heart surgery, and Arrietty who discovers that Borrowers are bordering on extinction). But compared to his other movies, some of which could be considered hard core and graphically jarring with its cautionary tales, this one was considerably gentle and geared towards a younger crowd (rated G, which is a rarity these days).  That doesn't make it any less enjoyable or magical though.  I would highly recommend this one for the whole family.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Salon: Low Country Love

 A happy Sunday to you all!  I can't even tell you much about last week because I had one eyeball focused on Friday, when we were scheduled to drive up to South Carolina.  A little housecleaning, a couple of volleyball games, a few workouts, and whatever.  But we hit the road by 6am Friday and were in Kiawah Island by 1pm.  By 1:30pm, we had thrown our bags in our room at a resort called The Sanctuary (check this out) and had rented bicycles.  We decided last November in St. George how much we love exploring places on bikes, so this is what we did for nearly two straight days.  This place is covered with bike paths.  That and a few hundred 10 million dollar homes.  Hubby and I also squeezed in 18 holes one morning as well, where gators roamed freely and in one instance, stood over one of my balls, refusing to let me have it.  

A little after lunch today we will head up to Charleston for a conference.  While hubby is in meetings, the kids and I are going to visit a plantation, catch a carriage ride tour through historical Charleston, and do some shopping.  Will I eat shrimp and grits?  It's tempting.  I may need to splurge.  They just don't make shrimp and grits anywhere else like they do in the Low country.

I did a little bit of reading this week, despite my distraction.  I finished John Hart's "The Last Child" on audio, which was excellent.  I had a few issues with some of the pronunciations of certain words...just weird little quirks that drove me nuts.  This story is set in North Carolina, but some of the words sounded distinctly Canadian.  I'm going to have to chat with Kathy some to make sure.  Then I started Anna Quindlen's "Every Last One" which is narrated by the amazing Hope Davis (who also narrated "State of Wonder").  All I know is that "something bad happens" but I haven't gotten to that part yet.  Yet I am constantly analyzing who I think is going to get the boot.  It makes me tense.  

In print, I took a little detour.  I have a whole stack of things that need reading, but I found myself at the mall with my daughter last Sunday, stuck sitting and waiting, and waiting and infernally waiting.  So I pulled up the Kindle on my phone and started "Bad Marie".  I blew through that one pretty quickly - I liked it!  I also read Alma Katsu's short story that supplements "The Taker", called "The Devil's Scribe".  I'm now about a third of the way through "The Odds" by Stewart O' Nan.  He is a great writer, but boy his stories make me so forlorn.  

So has anyone heard if there is going to be a Spring Dewey's Readathon?  My brain starts to stir when it is That Time, and I didn't see anything on the website.  I have a hankering.  I'm thinking John Green.

I haven't been doing much commenting lately.  I promise soon I will be back in my groove.  Also, something really wacky has been going on with Wordpress blogs.  No matter what I do, even logging into Wordpress, I cannot leave a comment.  It is maddening.  I hope they fix this soon.

Hope all of you have a great Sunday.  Reading anything I can't miss?


Friday, March 16, 2012

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty - Joshilyn Jackson (Audio)

Oh Ms. Jackson, how do I love thee?  Well, enough that I've listened to every book she has ever written.  Enough that I stalwartly refuse to accept free copies of the printed book, and will wait, darn it, for the audio to be released.  Enough that when I found out she was attending the UCF Book Festival at the end of this month, I had a litter of kittens.

Well, not really.  But you know what I mean.  There aren't many authors out there that have captured my mind and my heart like she has.  Her books reek of the South, in all its sweaty, kudzu-covered, bug-infested, laugh-to-keep-from-crying kind of glory.  But the thing that sets Joshilyn apart from the fray (bear with me if you have heard this from me a dozen times before) is that she strikes the perfect balance between the hopelessness of a situation, rich characters, and humor.  Damn this woman is funny, and has such a unique way with words.

No I'm not ready to talk about this book yet.  I have more to say.  I would never call Joshilyn formulaic.  But you can find certain things in each of her books.  There is always a mystery of some kind.  Secrets that need uncovering.  There are always Important Issues being addressed subtly in the story...being raised by someone who can neither hear nor talk, bi-racial relationships, teenage pregnancy, or abusive marriages.  And the women.  Praise the Lord, she creates some of the most dynamic, butt-kickin', lovable woman characters.  People, this is what keeps me coming back for more.  So.  "A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty".  

Synopsis:  The Slocum women are living under a curse.  Virginia (known as Big) was 15 when she gave birth to Liza.  Liza was 15 when she gave birth to Mosey.  Now Mosey is about to turn 15, and...well, you can figure it out.  Bad things happen every 15 years, so Big is determined to keep Mosey in a bubble, letting nary a boy breathe on her for fear of an unwanted pregnancy.  

Life hasn't been easy on any of these three women.  There have been no men in the picture for any length of time.  Big's parents turned their backs on the entire situation, because of all the scandal.  Liza spent years strung out on drugs, hitchhiking across the country with baby Mosey before she came home to get straight, and just recently Liza had a stroke that has rendered her nearly a vegetable.  To assist in Liza's rehabilitation, Big decides to install a backyard pool, and thus must uproot the old willow tree to make room.  Except when the tree comes out, they discover a little box with the bones of an infant inside.  

So where did they come from?  Everyone assumes that Liza has something to do with this, but she cannot answer for herself.  And if they do belong to Liza, then who is Mosey?  In the precious and unforgettable voices of all three women, the truth is slowly revealed.  

My thoughts:  Well, you already know what I'm going to say.  I loved this story to death.  For all the reasons that I've already talked about.  There is so much strength in the three generations of the Slocum women.  They have their issues but there is a fierceness of spirit and a loyalty to each other that is endearing.  Jackson pulls this off in her Jacksonish way by giving us the precious details that you don't always find in other Southern fiction.  The fact that even though Mosey is a virgin, she pees on pregnancy test sticks when she is stressed, just to be sure.  The fact that all of Liza's Narcotics Anonymous pins are lovingly stuck in the trunk of the willow tree.  The time that Big dragged Liza to the home of her ex-lover's wife to use their pool for therapy.  Jackson gets the quirkiness of the human condition.  

The mystery revealed in this story is not one that is all that difficult to figure out, but is never quite the point.  It is the journey of Big and Mosey in the discovery of that secret that's going to draw you in.  I will warn you, some of the details that unfurl are harsh and hard to read/hear, even sickening and shocking.  But there isn't any sugar-coating going on here, which I always respect with Jackson's work.  

Even though I love all of Jackson's books, this one ranks right up there with "Gods In Alabama" as my favorite.

A few words about the audio production:  The reason why I will only LISTEN to her books, and not read them?  Because she narrates them herself - not all authors can successfully pull that off.  She delivers her message exactly in the spirit in which it is intended, with her girlish Southern twang and good nature.  She is so adept at the business of narrating, in fact, she will soon be recording an audio book other than her own.  I think that is pretty special. 

5 out of 5 stars  


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pekkanen Until You Puke Month #3: The Opposite of Me - Sarah Pekkanen

In the past, having a good, self-indulgent binge has always meant a weak moment with chocolate or pizza.  But not in the month of March!  This month I am bingeing on Sarah Pekkanen.  I've decided she is (almost) better than fat-filled goodies.  I kicked off the month with her short story "Love, Accidentally", last Thursday I reviewed "Skipping a Beat", and today I'll be talking about Pekkanen's first novel "The Opposite of Me".  

Sarah was also kind enough to finish off my splurge by sending me her newest release "These Girls", which I will review next week.    

Synopsis:  Lindsay may only be 29 years old, but she has got the fire in her belly to be one of the biggest and brightest in the advertising world.  She has forsaken her personal life, her health, even a good night's sleep, to rise quickly to the top of her firm's hierarchy.  In fact, this next big deal will be the clincher to a much-sought-after promotion to VP, a corner office, and the final proof that SHE, not her beautiful twin sister, is the winner in some subliminal competition that has existed since her childhood.  She may not have been the pretty twin, but she damn well sure is the smartest and the most successful.

Except something goes really wrong, Lindsay makes a series of bad choices, and not only does she blow the promotion, she is out of a job.  She crawls back home to her parents' house to lick her wounds and regroup.  She'll bounce back, find a new job.  She even considers stoking the fires of an old childhood friendship into something more romantic.  But her gorgeous twin Alex, who is engaged to be married to a mega-rich version of the Ken doll, is still stealing the spotlight, pushing Lindsay back in the shadows.  

Lindsay soon is forced to reassess her life, her goals, and her relationship with her sister.  Suddenly, nothing is what it seems...her sister's life, her romantic interest, her professional aspirations...everything is an illusion.

My thoughts:  Despite the fact that this novel is Pekkanen's first, it still has a level of complexity that is a surprise and a delight.  The story starts off like a typical, light, predictable piece of women's fiction.  We've all read stories about successful women who blow it and return home to reinvent themselves.  

But it is here that Pekkanen really sets herself apart from the norm, and resists the path most traveled.  Things turn serious.  The protagonist does not ride off into the sunset in a Disney-esque finale.  There is character development and things ultimately turn out in a satisfying conclusion, but it isn't what you think it is going to be.  I love that about her books.

I definitely think "Skipping a Beat" had more heft, more clever wit, and did more damage to my heart, but I loved this story from beginning to end.  As I pretty much expected, Sarah Pekkanen has got herself another (in a long list) of fans for life.

4.5 out of 5 stars          


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Indiana #3

When visiting Indiana this past summer, it was the hottest July on record.  Figures!  This is what the cows do when it is hot...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Dovekeepers - Alice Hoffman (Audio)

Because of holiday insanity, my Skype book club took a several month break, and resumed in January with a discussion of "If Jack's In Love" by Stephen Wetta.  I completely missed the boat with that one, and decided that I would join them with February's selection "The Dovekeepers".  

I don't mind admitting that this book intimidated the hell out of me.  The size of the thing, the description, the author's reputation of being "smart" (maybe too smart for me) all contributed to my trepidation.  My library only had the MP3 version of the audio, so I did my best to grind through it in the car.  My time ran out, the audio was returned to the library.  I was then able to get the discs from the library, and uploaded it into my iPod, where I was able to finish it.  But the process took some time.  I have never been so proud of myself for finishing a book.  Now let's see if I can organize my thoughts to summarize this ambitious novel.

Synopsis: In a text written by historian Josephus, there is a story of 900 Jews, living in Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert.  After being under siege for months by the Romans, they decided to commit suicide rather than succumb to the Roman rule. Out of this tragedy, two women and five children survive.  After a trip to Masada, Alice Hoffman was inspired by this story, and felt compelled to tell the story from the viewpoint of four strong female characters.

Yael, daughter of an assassin, has lived under a curse her entire life, knowing that her birth caused her mother's death.  Revka is a baker's wife who witnessed her daughter's brutal death at the hands of the Romans, and is now caring for her grandsons.  Shirah is called the Witch of Moab because of her skills in healing and casting spells.  Shirah's daughter Aziza was raised as a boy after being violated by soldiers, and is a fearless warrior.  

Through these women, who each narrate their own stories, we are provided insight to the passions, fears, and motivations of strong women living in a barren land pervaded by starvation, brutality, and a love of God.  

My thoughts:  I am normally not a reader that fully appreciates a novel heavy on character-building and light on action.  I don't like that about myself, but those are the facts.  And this book is all about bringing to life these four women, with most of the action occurring in the last few chapters of the book.  Hoffman makes slow and arduous work of it.  The narratives are detailed and full of history...history I am not familiar with.  If this hadn't been an audio, I'm not sure if I would have been able to persevere.  

But once Hoffman births these women Yael, Revka, Shirah and Aziza, I came to love them.  They are all silent and strong and exactly what I want in female protagonists.  These are not shrinking violets in a man's world.  They love fiercely, they birth babies, they kill lions, they slay men, they bleed, they curse their enemies.  They are the Sisterhood of the Ass-Kickers.  

And based on the actual events that inspired Hoffman to write this story, we know there is going to be a showdown coming, and that only two women survive.  Knowing this planted a seed of dread in my stomach early on, because I was invested and didn't want to lose anyone.  And for all that laboring that I went through while Hoffman was character-building, the climax was worth the effort.  It was earth-shattering and so visual in my mind's eye, it was like watching a movie.

Hoffman's writing is absolutely gorgeous, almost other-worldly.  This is the first novel I've read of hers, and I was blown away.  Her words are rich and brilliant and textured, creating a read that isn't necessarily a quick and easy, but a masterpiece.

A few words about the audio production:  In the land of audiobooks, when the story has distinctive narrators such as this one, the perfect scenario is a cast of readers.  I can honestly say this format has never disappointed - it takes the story to a whole new level.  The readers for "The Dovekeepers" were Aya Cash, Tovah Feldshuh, Jessica Hecht, and Heather Lind.  I'd heard both Cash and Lind in the production of "Perfect" and they were a phenomenal representation of young women in both that story and this one.  I couldn't ask for more in an audio experience.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Grey (2012)

With the exception of "Schindler's List", which is probably on my top 10 movies ever list, I've never been a huge fan of Liam Neeson.  In trying to find a reason for this attitude (he IS a very good actor) I figured it all started with that sex movie "Kinsey".  Ugh, TMI.  He hasn't made the best decisions when it comes to some of the roles he accepts.  

But the kids had a long weekend, and I agreed to take mine plus two others to the movies.  My daughter and her friend wanted to see "The Vow" (absolutely no interest on my part) and the boys wanted to see wolves eat guys.  It was rated R, but I figured it was mostly due to wolves eating guys.  I was mostly right, but not completely.

Ottway (Neeson) is a seriously disturbed man who pines over his lost wife.  We only know they are no longer together, and that Ottway writes letters to her in shaking handwriting.  He works as a wolf sniper for an oil-drilling organization in the netherlands of Alaska, and his mentality wavers between surviving and wanting to die.    
On a presumably short flight to somewhere, a plane full of oil workers (including Ottway) goes down in the wilderness, killing all but seven or eight of the men .  But surviving the crash is only the beginning of the adventure.  Not only are they stranded in an arctic climate without food or water, they are also smack in the middle of hunting territory for a pack of aggressive wolves the size of bears.  In other words, if one of these guys lags behind the group, or turns to take a whizz, he might likely get picked off.

When I saw the preview for this one, I wrote it off as "just another action flick".  I get so darned tired of them guys.  Predictable waste of a couple hours usually, with a screenplay I could probably piecemeal together myself.   I was pleasantly surprised that this movie shed that skin.  It is high octane, high adrenaline, tie-your-stomach-in-knots action, for sure.  But there were some things that set it apart.

The characters are three-dimensional, for one thing.  Ottway has a lot going on inside his head.  He had a troubled childhood, and deeply misses his wife, facts which are shown to us in flashbacks.  His fellow crash survivors all have their own histories and stories as well, breaking a few stereotypes, and giving us more than the usual 2 minute character development.  

The outcome is completely unpredictable.  I walked in with a cocky attitude, figuring I knew how it was going to end, but I was dead wrong.  And speaking of the end, a little tip:  WAIT TO THE VERY END OF THE CREDITS.  There is more, and you will want to see it.  Very tricky.

There were some other "highlights" (if that is what you want to call them).  For those of you with a healthy fear of heights (moi), there is a scene when the guys are attempting to get across a deep gorge by hanging from a homemade rope.  I had to deep-breathe through that one.  And the plane crash scene is particularly harrowing - made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Let's quickly discuss the R rating, for any of you thinking about bringing boys that like their movies drowning in testosterone.  Of course there is gore - both human and canine.  We expect that.  No sex.  You do need to know that there is PERVASIVE language.  I guess once you've heard the f-bomb, oh, let's say 30 times, it all kind of rolls off.  But really, was it necessary to say it 3,289 times?

Bottom line, this flick is better than one would expect, with your yearly dose of adrenaline rush.  Recommended.