Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Stolen Life - Jaycee Dugard (Audio)

There probably isn't a living breathing adult in the US who hasn't heard of Jaycee Dugard.  Her story is one that defies logic, and toys with one's emotions, even from the arm's-length perspective of someone watching the evening news.

In 1991, Jaycee, 11 years old, was kidnapped while walking home from school.  She literally disappeared from the face of the clues, no body, no ransom note.  After time passed, it had to be assumed that she was dead.  Through a series of bizarre events, she was discovered alive but held physically and emotionally captive by a couple named Phillip and Nancy Garrido for 18 years.  Jaycee had given birth to two children fathered by Phillip, aged 11 and 15.  

It is the kind of story that makes you shake your head, and leaves you with so many questions.  Why didn't she try to escape?  How could another woman be accessory to this kind of abuse to a little girl? What is Jaycee's state of mind after suffering like that for 18 years?  What kind of horrors must she have endured?  Will she ever be normal again?  

I did not watch Jaycee's interview with Diane Sawyer or other various appearances that she made.  I can't say why.  I'm just not sure I wanted to hear what happened, having a young daughter myself.  I just wasn't ready.  But recently, I began hearing about this memoir that Jaycee had written, and felt like the time was right now, two years later.

Synopsis:  In what is obviously an effort to exorcise her demons, Jaycee reveals to us exactly what happened to her, starting with the day she was abducted.  Some of the recollections come from memory, some from a journal she kept during her captivity.  She relives the repeated rapes starting when she was 11, the "runs" where Phillip would get high on drugs and engage in roll play and bizarre sex acts with Jaycee for days straight.  She talks of his mental illness, and her reliance upon him and his wife for all of her needs, believing she would not be able to survive in the world on her own.        

For a little girl who had her youth snatched from her in the worst possible way, Jaycee delivers her story in a very matter-of-fact tone, with a clear vision and belief in herself.  She found strength in thinking of her mother, in small pets that she would keep, and her two daughters.  Throughout her story, she will stop at times and share a reflection on a particular event that she has just talked about or a certain emotion, demonstrating just how far she has come in understanding herself and her captors' derangement.

Jaycee wraps up her story with her rescue and recovery.  It is the reader's reward for struggling through the horrors of Jaycee's 18 years in captivity.  This is one story with a happy ending.

My thoughts:  Whether you are a fan of memoirs or not, this is one that you must read.  It is maddening to listen to what these two animals did to this sweet little girl.  When Jaycee explains that Phillip justifies this actions by saying that she (Jaycee) is helping him fix his sexual problems, and that she is keeping him from hurting other girls, I wanted to get a baseball bat and bludgeon him.  He deserves every minute of the 431 years of prison he was sentenced.  His wife is no better, in my opinion, even though she never sexually molested Jaycee.      

But despite the horror I experienced in listening to what Jaycee endured, I was also filled with admiration and wonder at how well-adjusted she is.  She is an honest, and strong and incredibly brave young woman.  It is this fierceness of spirit that you sometimes see in those who survived the Holocaust...a steel will.  It fills me with joy to hear that she is receiving therapy (some of it taking place on a horse farm and involves working with animals).  

While listening to this audio, I was reminded over and over again of one of my favorite books from a couple of years ago, "Room", which was published after Jaycee's rescue, but before the details became public.  It is eerie how similar the stories were.

Jaycee's writing is not literary, it is simple, and what you would expect from a young woman whose schooling only went through 5th grade.    What matters is that her words come from the heart.

A few words about the audio production:  In another act of bravery, Jaycee chose to narrate this book herself.  She did an excellent job, and while she kept her emotions in check, you could hear the slight tremor in her voice when she spoke of certain things, as well as a steely resolve.  I am very appreciative that she made this decision, as I believe it lent the story that tiny little extra something.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Boston #5

No trip to ANYWHERE is complete without a stop at a book store.  In the case of Boston, we discovered the Commonwealth Books & Old Prints located at 9 Spring Lane at the Downtown Crossing.  As you can see, it is a place you could wander into and get lost for days.  But nay, we didn't not have days or even hours.  But I still scratched the ears of the bookstore cat and breathed in that wonderful old paper smell.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Affair - Lee Child (Audio)

If you have been following me for any length of time, you know that I have a serious infatuation with the Jack Reacher series.  Or to be more exact, I have an infatuation with the anti-hero Reacher, not the series.  I know it is illogical.  This is man-fiction.  Reacher wanders around with no extra clothing and only a toothbrush, so he probably smells.  He has commitment issues.

But he can take down ten guys by himself.  He fights for the underdog. He has a soft spot for old women and children.  Women fall into bed with him with the curl of a lip, so he must be attractive.  It is a fantasy thing.  

Therefore, I will forever read these books.  I didn't go back and check, but I believe in my last review I expressed some displeasure in the predictability of the plots.  Something drastic needs to change pretty soon, because even loyal fans like me are getting restless.  Jack needs to get married, or lose a limb, or discover that he has a child.  Something major.  I knew that the plot of "The Affair" took us back into his past and I got excited.  Recently, the Lucas Davenport Prey series tried that tactic, and it left me exhilarated.

Synopsis:  It is March 11, 1997.  Jack Reacher, an Army MP, is standing in the lobby of the Pentagon, about to enter a meeting that will ultimately end his career and catapult him into a lifetime of the drifting vigilante we know and love.  He has just returned from an assignment in Mississippi, where he was to impersonate a civilian to investigate a potential scandal involving three beautiful, murdered women, and a local military base.  What he didn't count on was falling in love with the gorgeous, ex-Marine local town sheriff, discovering that sometimes things are rotting from the inside, or developing a taste for diner food and strong coffee.  

And so it goes, finally a peek into a past that made Jack Reacher who he is today.  He is a little more gullible, a little less hardened and chiseled (but still able to take out an angry mob by himself), and little more willing to give away his heart.  In fact, voila!  We have sex, quite a bit in fact, all made hotter by some clever timing with a midnight train rolling through town.  

My thoughts:  This was a wonderful diversion from the same old entertaining smelly butt-kicking wise-cracking evil-military-guy-chasing Jack Reacherness that I'm used to.  The genius in a series, I believe, is keeping the protagonist a mystery for as long as possible.  And just when things need a shot in the arm, we are given a glimpse; some insight.  I loved it when we got to see a younger Lucas Davenport, and I loved this.

What if you have never read a Jack Reacher novel?  Why not start here?  You can start at his roots, see where he picked up some of his enduring habits, then go back to the beginning and work your way forward.  (I worked my way through almost all of them one summer at the beach, prior to blogging.  Allow yourself some time - it is pretty difficult to stop.)  

If you are a long-time fan, you will get a few geeky thrills from being able to fill in some of the more mysterious and quirky aspects of his personality.

I hesitate to say this, but I'm just going to put it out there.  What sets this 15th installment apart from the rest, besides the general Reacher sneak peek, is the sex.  While Jack has his exploits over the years, we rarely get the details.  Alas, now we have them.  All of them, down to buttons and textures and very specific timing with the aforementioned midnight train that shakes the entire room, bed and humans lying on top of it.

The mystery and the action scenes are good too.  Exactly what we have come to expect from Mr. Child.

A few words about the audio production:  Dick Hill is, and always has been, our narrator for this series.  He is the voice of Jack Reacher.  If something ever happened to this arrangement, I would not be able to listen to the audios again.  Dick always does a wonderful job, but people, he pulled out all the stops for this one.  In these sex scenes I was talking about, he was smoking hot.  How does a narrator get themselves into that mode?  I felt like Dick (or Jack) was having sex in my back seat.  I almost had to pull over.  Wow.

4.5 out of 5 stars            


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Salon: Moving On

I am alive my long-lost friends!  For those of you who own and run blogs, fret not.  I have not abandoned ye.  I have just been simmering in my life for the last week, which didn't release me from it's maw until today.

The kids had finals this week, which really has nothing to do with me except that they are manic and panicked and stressed, which affects the mojo of the house.  Andre workouts were put on hold for them.  I went on a field trip with the 8th graders to Busch Gardens, there was a graduation rehearsal, early dismissals and graduation on Friday.  My parents flew in.  It was my mom's birthday.  I had an annual physical in the middle of it all.  My daughter had to show up at the new high school (along with a couple hundred other students) for a sports physical.  The book list for high school was finalized and the parents immediately flew into a frenzy of black market textbook activity.

My son has one more week of school, but it should be low key.  I assume they will be watching movies and playing games, which always makes me a bit nutty when I think about it.  But at least there will be no middle-of-the-night cramming.    
 The graduation ceremony was beautiful, and I found myself thinking about the 11 years my daughter attended this school.  She grew up here.  And now she is moving on.

So suffice it to say, I didn't get much done at all.  My house is a pig sty.  I didn't read much, as I'm sure you will not be surprised.  I did finish "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn and it blew my mind.  Don't even wait for my review at the end of June.  Get your hands on this book NOW.  I also wallowed around in the most gorgeous and charming "Le Road Trip" by Vivian Swift, and I fell in love, head over heels.  I just did start reading Karen White's "Sea Change" but haven't made much headway.  Soon, I hope, if I can just catch up on my sleep.

On audio, I've been listening to "The Lifeboat" in the car and "The Informationist" on the iPod, just like I was last week.  Since I've done no housecleaning or yard work, I've not made a huge amount of progress.  I am hoping for more this next week.
One fun thing that we have started (I will blame my mother!) is geocaching.  I first read about this over at Meg's.  There are apps for your phone, where you can get coordinates of little treasures hidden all over the place.  There are hundreds in Orlando alone.  You find them...they are usually hidden in little containers...and leave your name in a log, and sometimes can even leave a treasure of your own in the hidden container.  We have also been on some wild goose chases as well, as seen by my son in a tree here to the left.  The kids think this is the coolest thing since sliced bread.  They are living out their National Treasurer fantasies.

After horseback riding today, we are hoping to take in (finally) The Avengers, followed by a carefully-crafted RELAXING Sunday evening and Memorial day of floating in the pool and barbecuing. I can feel waves of normalcy rolling back in.


Friday, May 25, 2012

The Big Short - Michael Lewis

Don't lie to me, you opened this post (or maybe some people didn't even get that far) and were tempted to just keep on walking.  I understand.  There aren't many people I know in the blogging world that have any desire at all to read about the financial crisis.    

But wait!  This is written by Michael Lewis, author of "The Blind Side", "Moneyball" and "Liar's Poker".  He is proven when it comes to writing a non-fiction book that appeals to all.  So don't go anywhere.  Read this for entertainment value if you will.

Combine the Michael Lewis effect with the fact that sadly, the financial crisis that brought Wall Street, the US, and ultimately the world to it's knees in 2006 and onward is a tragedy that we cannot ignore.   We are still living in the dung pile that was made by investment banks, mortgage lenders, the bond credit ratings agencies, and the government.  The effect has been are worth half of what they were five years ago, every neighborhood has a property or two with knee-high weeds in the yard and are in foreclosure, the unemployment is at an all-time high.  This was Armageddon like we've not seen since The Great Depression.  

I suppressed a groan when I learned we would be reading this book for the Heathrow Literary Society, but at the same time, I felt that to remain ignorant of the facts was irresponsible.  This was going to do me good.

I won't bore you with the details...Michael Lewis does a much better job at explanations.  He boils it down the best he can, still it is quite complicated.  He describes the massive movement to put higher credit risk people in homes, and the creation of the "sub-prime loan" which was always shaky at best.  To spread their risk, investment banks creatively compiled these toxic loans into beautifully wrapped packages that were disguised and rated as a good investment, when really it was a house of cards.  

What was just pure, good fun in this book were the personal stories.  Lewis profiles various characters that worked in the investment markets...a brilliant neurosurgeon with Asperger's who hid in his office and obsessively mastered the markets and the art of investing, an abrasive, wild hedge fund manager whose mouth had no filters, two unpolished college grads who couldn't get a proper job and started investing out of a garage...all of these larger-than-life individuals SAW what was coming.  Long before the professionals did.  They were like action heroes in this book.  I was in awe.

To read about the chain of events that led to Doomsday is baffling.  Mind-blowing.  It is like the entire world lost their freaking mind.  A non-English-speaking migrant worker with an income of $14,000 who bought a house for $724,000.  A Vegas stripper who owned five properties.  Something for nothing!  Free money for everyone!  High octane investment bankers who had created a derivative so complicated, few people understood it.  But hey, they were making billions of dollars, so what the hell!  Live it up, and sell, sell, sell!

At our book club, those who read the book (most that did had backgrounds in finance), there was emotion and anger.  It is hard not to be enraged at the lack of consequences for those executives at the top of the food chain.  It is hard not to want to move to Bali when you understand how the political goons used Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to start the whole avalanche in the first place.  

But the small attendance at the meeting was telling.  Most didn't have the stomach for it.  I am the target audience...I am a CPA and my husband is knee-deep in the business.  This man I love came home EVERY NIGHT FOR A YEAR AND A HALF raving about this debacle.  Reorganizing our debt, moving money around, and damn near burying Mason Jars full of cash in the backyard.  I had Wall Street at my dinner table more times than I care to admit.  That being said, I had a hard time really grasping the enormity and complexity.  After earnestly digging into the book however, I was gripped.  I Googled.  I watched documentaries.  I read articles.  I consider myself enlightened and invigorated for having read this book.

Note:  I threw my normal review format in the trash for this one.  This book was in a league all by itself.

4.5 out of 5 stars   


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Divergent - Veronica Roth

Let's see a show of hands.  How many of you are weary of hearing about the YA dystopian trilogy?  Angsty teens?  Where there is a "thing" that happens when they are 16, 17 or 18 years old...a surgery, an assignment, a marriage, a cellular change?  It has gotten to the point where I read a synopsis and then proceed to eye-roll myself into a headache.

I shouldn't be so cynical.  I know many of these books are really good (I am the biggest fan of Lauren Oliver).  It is just...can't we come up with an original idea?  Must we go there, over and over again?

Yet, goodness did I hear about this book.  It was like a hoard of fevered teenagers stormed BBAW last year and anointed this book the best thing to happen to the literary world.  Honestly, though, I would have ignored the frenzy had it not been for my daughter, who selected this book for a lit group at school.  If I have a chance to find common ground with The Alien Who Was Once My Child, I take it.  So I hopped on board the train.

Synopsis:  Beatrice Prior has been born and raised in one of five "factions" in dystopian Chicago...Abnegation, where all are selfless.  Once she turns 16, however, her nature will be evaluated, and she will be required to decide where she will spend the rest of her life.  Will she stay with her parents in Abnegation, or move to Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peacefulness), or Erudite (intelligence)?  With a deadly secret in her heart, she makes her decision.

She renames herself Tris, assumes an identity akin to her new faction, and begins the process of a rigorous, and often brutal, initiation.  An initiation that will  eliminate the weaker candidates via death or at a minimum, banishment to homelessness.  In this struggle she becomes acquainted with (and attracted to) one of her trainers named Four, who is mysterious about his past but also feels like a kindred spirit.

Soon it becomes apparent that there are tensions brewing between the factions, and that something sinister is going to erupt and destroy their carefully-planned society and anyone who gets in the way.

My thoughts:  I have heard many people compare this book, and the obsession it inspires in its readers, to The Hunger Games.  And I can see that.  There is a strong female character...a non-traditional beauty with the spirit of a pit bull...who has to literally fight for her life.  There is also sexual chemistry  (nothing inappropriate for teens) but is incidental to the overall plot.  And the powers that be cannot be trusted. 

But the book stands on its own.  It is definitely fodder for the teen brain, judging by the reaction of my daughter and her friends reading it.  But it was a compelling read for me as well.  I read it quickly, and when I finished, I was wanting for the second book in the series, "Insurgent", which released on May 1. (Side story...I pre-ordered "Insurgent" from Amazon at a good discount, but when the rubber met the road, I ended up canceling the order and going to Barnes & Noble on May 1st to get it.  The Alien Who Was Once My Child couldn't wait.  I guess I understand.)

The writing isn't all that spectacular, but there is a good deal of action, and the character of Tris was my kind of girl.  And Roth isn't afraid to throw important people under the bus (that is closest thing to a spoiler you will get) - I admire that in a writer.  I also really just love Chicago, and got a geeky thrill from various scenes that featured this fair city.  Like climbing the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, or zip-lining from the roof of the John Hancock Building.  Eh well, call me a nerd but I thought it was pretty cool.

So onward and upward!  I must wait for the daughter to finish salivating all over Book Two, then I will get my hands on it and report back!

4 out of 5 stars


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Boston #4

In the lobby at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, located on Columbia Point in the Dorchester neighborhood in Boston.  The building was designed by architect I.M. Pei, and was dedicated in 1979.  Definitely worth your time to see this exhibit.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fables: Legends in Exile (Vol. 1) - Willingham, Medina, Leialoha, Hamilton

As a newly-converted lover of graphic novels, I was pretty excited to see several reviews of this series called "Fables", of which there are currently 15 installments.  Graphic novels are perfect for the reading slump, or when you are deep into a chunkster and need some quicker reads to keep things moving.  I was facing the Spring Readathon and thought it would be the perfect time to give this series a test-drive.

Synopsis:  It is the modern day, and a number of characters from fairy tales (who call themselves Fables) have been kicked out of their homeland by The Adversary and are now residing in a secret community in New York City called "Fabletown".  For those Fables who don't blend (you know, ones with fur or horns or physical peculiarities) must live away upstate at "The Farm".

This installment focuses on the apparent murder of Rose Red, Snow White's wild child sister.  A reformed Big Bad Wolf, known as Bigby, is Fabletown's sheriff, and he intends to crack the case (with Snow White's help of course, if they can get past all their chemistry).  

There are two men high on the list of suspects.  Jack (climber of beanstalks and boyfriend of Rose) is the one who discovered Rose's blood-covered apartment but things don't add up in his story.  Then there is Bluebeard, who is officially engaged to Rose but has some anger management issues and some dead ex-wives.  Clever investigating on the part of Bigby is ultimately victorious in this fun romp.

My thoughts:  Some graphic novels educate and inform on serious issues, like North Korea or growing up in a dysfunctional family, or being a 9/11 widow.  This is not that kind of book.  This is just light-hearted fun.  I was reminded a little bit of an audio I listened to last year called "Gods Behaving Badly", where you take classic fictional characters and pull them into modern society and give them modern problems.  In the story about the Gods, a little went a long way, and I was tired of their antics about halfway through the book.  In small portions, like this graphic novel, it is the perfect antidote for all that ails you.

I consider this a successful experiment, and intend to get a few installments at a time from my library, just in time for the lazy days of summer.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sarah's Key (2010)

Over two years ago, I read and reviewed Sarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay after it had been selected for one of my book clubs.  Most people love this book.  I'm not sure I loved it, but was completely taken in by the story of Sarah, a little girl who survives a Parisian Jewish round-up during WWII.  I was less than enthralled by the modern day portion of the story about Julia Jarmond, who investigates Sarah's story while struggling with her own personal issues.  

Because of my lukewarm feelings about the book, I wasn't in a hurry to see the movie.  The movie had a very limited release, and was only showing in Orlando for a short time.  But several friends of mine were able to see the movie and loved it.  Plus I do love Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) and thought she might be able to soften up my irritation with the character of Julia.   
Overall, I felt a bit more positive about the film than the book.  Thomas portrayed more of a thoughtful, feeling business woman and less of a whiner and martyr.  But she and the little girl who played Sarah were the only actors that made any kind of an impression.  The attraction is more the story, which is positively heartbreaking in so many ways.

The book-to-movie translation, from what I remember from my reading experience, was very true to form.  The portrayal of Sarah was just exactly what you would want...full of fire and determination.  There were no shortcuts taken, no major plot points eliminated, and the emotions and the tension was just as intense (if not more so) than the book.  My stomach hurt almost from the very beginning, and knowing what was coming, forced upon me some really UGLY crying jags.  No sniffling, but chest-heaving sobs, hands over the face, swollen eyes.  There isn't anything graphic shown, but the implication of the various tragedies was just as bad.  

I was unsatisfied with the ending of the book, and while all that predictability was muted by the movie, it was still there and came across as particularly corny.  My husband was invested up to the last 15 minutes or so, but then proceeded to do a few eye rolls.  I was more forgiving because I was still busy being emotional.  

Overall, if you read the book, liked it, and don't mind a good cry, I would recommend renting this one. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Salon: The Calm Before the Storm

 Good morning all my friends!  I'm coming to you with a smidge better attitude than last week.  Just a smidge.  My state of mind will improve tenfold once school is done which is in one week for my daughter and two weeks for my son.  Then I can focus on regrouping myself and exorcising all the negativity that is trying to drag me down.

Next week is going to be completely insane, even for my standards.  I'll save the blow-by-blow details for next Sunday, but it is finals week and my daughter graduates 8th grade (not a big deal to some but at our school it is huge) with all the festivities that come with it, so I am drawing a deep breath and fortifying myself now. 

This week was fairly normal.  We had our workouts with Andre, horseback riding lessons, a doctor appointment, and my husband got back into town.  I missed book club on Thursday night (discussing Fifty Shades of Grey, so unfortunately I didn't get a chance to rant and rave over its horridness) because they had a sports orientation at my daughter's high school that night.  I had a couple of meetings at school, the daughter and I worked the animal shelter yesterday, and the hub and I attended a wine-themed fundraiser last night at the Orlando Science Center.

I was excited to hear that a small, independently published book that I reviewed recently, "The Photo Album", was awarded an honorable mention in the Eric Hoffer Awards (for short prose and independent books).  I've reviewed three of the author Kenneth Dixon's books now, and I love his work and am always happy when he publishes a new one.  Way to go Kenneth!

I did the best I could this week with my reading.  I've been distracted and twitchy, so I've not been at my most productive.  I started, and am still in the process of reading "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn for a TLC tour, and people, it is rocking my world so far.  Holy cow.  What a brain-twister this one is.  I love (love love love) it.  

On audio, I finished "The Scorpio Races" by Maggie Stiefvater, and it was nice.  I wasn't necessarily enthralled with all of mind would wander...but the ending really impacted me and the narrators were excellent.  I then started "The Lifeboat" by Charlotte Rogan in the car (MP3 review copy), and started "The Informationist" by Taylor Stevens on the iPod.  "The Lifeboat" is OK so far, but is feeling a little slow.  "The Informationist" though is making my brain buzz.  I love the female protagonist, who is kind of a butt-kicking Lisbeth-ish personality, and is depicted by a smoky, velvety smooth narrator that I'm enjoying.  A lot.

I'm not sure what we have on deck for today, except for church and horse.  We had talked about seeing The Avengers, but I'm not convinced we shouldn't stay home and let the kids hit the books.  There is always next weekend.  Hope today is filled with relaxation and reading for you all!


Friday, May 18, 2012

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (Audio)

Just a few days ago, I waxed lovingly over any book that gives me a taste of old Florida.  Not necessarily old, as in long ago, but the small towns with dirt roads, the fishing camps, the undiscovered piece of Florida that hasn't yet been touched by tourists.  

So this book has been on my radar for a long time.  I intentionally skipped over any detailed synopsis because I wanted to explore this one, and languish in the side of Florida that I love.  Entertainment Weekly made it hard to resist...they wouldn't stop talking about it.

Synopsis:  The Bigtree family...faux Indian, alligator-wrestlers, and owners of a tourist attraction on a small island off the coast of Florida, has provided decades of kitschy entertainment to visitors.  Granted, their life has been isolated, but the three children Ava, Osceola and Kiwi, don't really know any better.  But their mother has recently died of an aggressive ovarian cancer, and things have fallen apart.  Their theme park is beginning to fail due to a nearby competitor that calls itself the World of Darkness.  The adults are promptly dispatched...Grandpa to an old-folks home because of Alzheimer's, and Chief (dad) to the mainland to conduct some sort of mysterious business to generate funds to renovate Swamplandia.  The waifs are alone.

Kiwi, the oldest, runs off to work at the World of Darkness, a feeble attempt at helping with debt obligations.  Osceola, showing signs of depression, begins to have love affairs with ghosts.  Ava, our primarily narrator in the Bigtree story, and the youngest of the three children at 13, fantasizes at locating a gator-wrestling contest that she can win and cash in for big bucks.  Until Osceola goes missing, and Ava must go on a quest to find her with the help of a strange Gypsy-like fellow called the Bird Man.

This is a tale of clashing worlds, of a family in ruin, of the loss of innocence, and a coming-of-age in a way that has never been told.  It is a story that blends heartbreak with fantasy, tackiness with wonder - an extremely ambitious endeavor for a debut novelist.

My thoughts:  It was tempting to sit and let this review brew in my mind for a few weeks, but I suspect that would not have helped.  I struggle with my thoughts on this one.  I had very high expectations for this book for all the reasons I listed, and those expectations were not met.  Yet I'm finding the story to be haunting and unforgettable.

The first half of the book is simply bizarre and maddening.  These children are bright and precocious, but have been neglected.  Even when the mother was alive, they were only half-assed home schooled, and alienated from reality.  In fact, as I was listening, I wasn't completely sure what year this was taking place.  It was only when Kiwi ran away to work at the World of Darkness did I realize it was modern day.  And a 16 year-old that has to have seances to interact with other teenagers that are ghosts?  I wanted to have a smack down with the father when he explains it away by calling it a "phase".

Then there was a long tale about Osceola's ghost boyfriend, the dredgeman.  This added an element of fantasy, but I'm not sure it was a worthwhile detour.

But as the book progresses into the second half, it becomes sinister, and I started to feel anxious and twitchy.  As a mother of teenage children, this was not headed in a good direction and I could barely get through it.  It nearly made my physically ill.  I've read hundreds of books that involve dark circumstances and children, but this particular one just got to me.

I can attribute much of my emotional upheaval to the incredible writing of Ms. Russell.  Her prose was masterful, and there is no doubt in my mind that she is blessed with a special talent.  The plot is unique as well.  I can pretty much guarantee you won't have read anything quite like this book.  

But I'm glad it is over.  If you are confused, then you aren't the only one.

A few words about the audio production:  To accommodate the two narrators in the story, Ava and Kiwi, our readers were Arielle Sitrick and David Ackroyd.  I've not listened to either before, and in fact I believe this may be Arielle's first project as a reader.  While both of them did a fine job, neither felt right.  Arielle sounded VERY young, too young for a 13 year old.  And David sounded too old for 17 year old Kiwi.  Therefore, I can't give a glowing recommendation to this audio experience.  

3.5 out of 5 stars            

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Killing Lincoln - Bill O' Reilly & Martin Dugard (Audio)

Mankind has always had a fascination with assassinations and the stories that surround them.  It is fun (and possibly a little goofy) to imagine conspiracy theories, imagining that it wasn't just one wacko who decided to create a watershed moment, but an evil underground of well-planned terrorists.  

The fueling of my interests were inspired mostly from listening to my beloved Sarah Vowell ramble about history's most famous assassinations in her audio book "Assassination Vacation". You've not experienced history until you have seen it through Sarah's eyes.

I had no real interest in listening to "Killing Lincoln".  It is an understatement to say that I'm not the biggest fan of Bill O' Reilly (a TV host and political commentator on Fox News).  I find him to be a bit of a blowhard.  Also, there was a tremendous amount of blowback upon the release of this book.  Apparently the historians found many inaccuracies in his account of the events leading up to and following President Lincoln's assassination.  In fact, the Ford Theater museum refuses to sell the book for that reason.  I just wasn't sure I could even take the work seriously.  But a colleague of my husband's loaned us the audio, and it wasn't a long one, so I decided to live a little.

Synopsis:  Bill O'Reilly, a former high school history teacher, and Martin Dugard, a historian, have constructed a retelling of the assassination of President Lincoln, as well as the political climate, the backgrounds and personalities of all the players, and the continuing controversies surrounding it.  Instead of reading like a textbook, however, it has been sauced up to entertain like a thriller.

A certain amount of poetic license is taken to inject emotion and impressions into the likes of Grant, Lee, Booth, Lafayette Baker (the New York detective who led the manhunt), and a whole cast of contributors to the drama.  O'Reilly also muses about possible involvement of Lincoln's Secretary of War Stanton to take out the President.  

Laden with facts, short on humor, and rich on action, this is a history lesson come alive for the casual student of all things Lincoln.  

My thoughts:  There is one thing that I've learned from listening to authors who write about fact...the historians are out there, just waiting for you to screw up.  It doesn't matter if you are talking about Lincoln, automatic weapons, or the smell of the air on a hot Texas summer in 1963, you are going to get nailed.  Being O' Reilly just makes it worse.  I've browsed through some of his "offenses", according to these historians, and while some were easily preventable, none really impact the overall goal of this book.  

And that is to entertain.  On that note, the authors succeed.  For the most part.

The first half of the book IS dragged down with details about the Civil War.  While this is all about how our country was formed, and it was the cause of Lincoln being such a loved and hated fellow, I was bored stiff.  This was not what I came for.

Once things get warmed up with Booth's grandiose plans, the minute-by-minute tension-filled account of Lincoln's shooting, the attempt to save him, Booth's escape, manhunt and dramatic showdown, it is pretty exciting.  It does read like a thriller novel.

The writing itself isn't going to win any awards.  It is pedestrian and clunky and lacks all finesse.  Not that I expected any, but I'm just saying.

So bottom line, if you keep your expectations in check and read/listen purely for entertainment value, its not a bad way to spend 8 hours of your time.

A few words about the audio production:  Appropriately, I think, O' Reilly narrates this audio book.  He has a commanding voice - the voice of a TV commentator.  He is passionate about his topic, and that translates through to this listening experience.  

3.5 out of 5 stars 


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Boston #3

While Orlando does have their cupcake food trucks, I was taken aback at the in-your-face-irresistable saturation of cupcake shops in Boston.  I took an unscientific count, and it appeared there was a place selling cupcakes every 10 shops or so.  This one got my business.    

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Chasing Midnight - Randy Wayne White (Audio)

One thing I've noticed since I moved to Florida in 1991...there is an enormous sense of place and history down here.  It extends beyond the theme parks and the wackos (why do they all want to come here?) to the backwoods, the alligators, the Everglades, the water, the fishing, the Florida Keys.  

I soon learned that there is a sub-culture of Florida authors as well.  There are thousands of them, and they all seemed to speak a secret code amongst themselves, supporting each other's craft.  Many of them write what they know, and they know old Florida.  (By "old" I don't mean a long time ago necessarily, but the Florida that the tourists don't see.)  Carl Hiaasen, Zora Neale Hurston, Tim Dorsey, Michael Koryta, Connie May Fowler, and on and on it goes.  I crave stories of old Florida.

So when Penguin Audio sent me a copy of this audio, I perked up because I know that Randy Wayne White is one of them.  He actually was a fishing guide in Southern Florida for years until his marina went out of business, and started writing to pay the bills.  See, I think that is just cool.  He now has 17 books under his belt, many of them are a series that features Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist who always manages to rub elbows with bad guys.  (Side note:  White has a bar in Sanibel called Doc Ford's Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, which is also very cool).  I was a little nervous about jumping into an established series, but I've done it before.

Synopsis:  Doc Ford and his sidekick Tomlinson (nature activist and hippy extraordinaire) have been invited to a reception on a private island off the coast of Florida.  The shindig is sponsored by a Russian who is a notorious black marketeer in the caviar business, and is attended by high-level mobsters and environmental types.  In the middle of the party, however, someone (environmental extremists-turned-terrorists?  thug competitors?) take over the island, jamming all communication, and threaten to start killing people unless their demands are met.  The deadline is midnight.

There is one advantage - the terrorists are unaware of Doc's skills and expertise.  Only he can straighten out this mess and prevent them all from being blown sky high.

My thoughts:   The loyal followers of all of the Doc Ford books are passionate about the series as a whole, particularly the earlier installments.  But since this was my first experience, I cannot attest to their strengths, and this one left me confused and overall disappointed.  While there was plenty of old Florida to love in the book, unfortunately there was little else.

With most series, if you pick them up mid-stream, the author usually gives you enough information to figure out your protagonists.  That was not the case here.  I had no clue about Doc's background, so I was focusing too much of my energy trying to figure out vague references to his past.  Was he dangerous?  Was he really a biologist or was it a cover?  There were also some references to past female relationships, but they only made cameo appearances and weren't developed.  On the whole, I felt lost and left out of the loop.

The crimes, and antagonists, and the action was jerky, manic, stereotypical and a little goofy.  Was it supposed to be goofy, like Tim Dorsey?  I couldn't hear a comedic tone in the author's voice, so my final conclusion was no.  There was a lot of running around, shooting, bashing, rescuing, a couple of beautiful women...  There was also some political messages embedded in the plot about the abuse of sturgeon fish for their caviar, but there was also something in there about reliance on technology.  It made me tired.

So as much as I want to be supportive of my Floridian brother who is cool and runs a bar and writes about our fair state, I can't do it this time.  There is potential here though, because Doc and his buddy ARE intriguing.  Based on the reviews of the earlier books, this is one series that needs to be read from the start.

A few words about the audio production:  This audio was narrated by George Guidall, who is a veteran in the business.  He really has done it all...Stephen King, Jodi Piccoult, Neil Gaiman, Nicholas Sparks, Wally Lamb.  Really, he has done everything.  He always delivers a solid performance in his work, regardless of genre.

2.5 out of 5 stars   

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Thing (1982) and (2011)

The idea started brewing last Halloween, when my daughter and I attended Universal's Halloween Horror Nights.  One of the "haunted houses" that they featured was based on the new movie "The Thing", which was actually a prequel to the one made in 1982.  The haunted house was...terrifying.  It was set in Antarctica, and there were aliens and mutated people and body parts and blood everywhere.  It was one of our favorites.  

So we decided we must see both movies.  Years and years ago, in high school, I'd seen the original.  I remember loving was directed by John Carpenter, after all!  We must rent them both!  We must compare!  It would be a campy scare-fest!
In the 1982 version, the scene opens to an American expedition in the Antarctic, which is disrupted by a helicopter full of wild-eyed Norwegians chasing a dog, shooting at it and trying to kill it.  (Bad alien doggy.)  This alien form has the ability to infect other organisms and mock its appearance, so pretty soon, the entire camp is paranoid and doesn't know who is human and who isn't.  Everyone's worst side is revealed.  Bizarre mutations follow, lots of explosions and blood.  As one would expect.

The expedition is led by drunk rogue badass R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and if you've seen any camp horror flicks you know from the beginning that he will be the one to survive.  These were the Kurt Russell heydays.  My whole family had some fun guessing, based on the variety of stereotypical characters, who would be the next one to bite it.

Predictability aside, Carpenter does keep things tense (I mean, who can get through Halloween without ripping one's hair out?  The dude rocks the tension), and makes the best of the special effects at his disposal in the '80's.  In fact, at the time, the special effect makeup was totally cutting edge.  And Carpenter employs the revered Ennio Morricone for the soundtrack.  It is subtle and simple, but memorable.

In the 2011 film, which is to have happened PRIOR to the 1982 version, a Norwegian Antarctic expedition discovers a large alien spaceship under the ice.  They recruit a couple of American experts, both young and attractive (aka the ones who will live) as experts to study a frozen creature that came off the ship. can figure out where it goes from there.  This is the same baddie, that comes in the form of a dog to the Americans in the 1982 version.  But before the dog escapes, there are a lot of bodies that pile up, are mutated, are set on fire, or explode.  Same deal as the 1982 version except there are better special effects and less (correction...NO) big name actors.    

I sound flippant about this second movie, and that is because it really is hard to take seriously.  Both are actually good fun action films that you watch while drinking a glass of wine and can still follow the plot.  Sometimes that is all one requires.  The panache of Carpenter, his actors and soundtrack, however, win the competition.

And because I am a book blog, I must mention that the whole premise is based on a short story entitled "Who Goes There?" written by John W. Campbell Jr. under the pen name Don A. Stuart in 1938.  Before these two films, it was adapted to a motion picture in 1951 as "The Thing From Another World".  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Salon: The Mother of All Weeks

 I realize that my Sunday Salons are becoming a bit of a bitch fest for me, and I don't want to ever drag you down with me.  So I am making a concentrated effort to stay positive from here on out.  

But before I do that, I will just say, in general terms, that this week was as bad as I've had for awhile.  Maybe even the worst in years.  Nobody died though, I'm not getting a divorce, and my husband still has his job.  Nothing quite to that extreme.  But several things happened that I'm having a tough time recovering from.  But I will.  Just have to work through it.  And that is all I'm going to say about that.

So. Now that volleyball is over, the kids and I had ample time to spend at Andre's.  Working out is the answer to many problems, mental and physical.  I feel like I can conquer anything after I've done my time at his gym, and my kids feel the same way.  Nothing but positive mojo.  

The 8th grade festivities have begun.  My daughter's class had their all-day retreat on Thursday, followed by Mass and a dinner.  One of the 8th grade parents is the Executive Chef at Red Lobster, so needless to say, we ate well.  We got a sneak peek at the video which the kids have been working on all year.  I shed a tear.  I can't believe that 11 years ago, I walked my little girl into that school for the first time.  She is growing up, and I am proud.  High school scares the living hell out of me, but that is a worry for another day!

Because of my state of mind this week, it was a little bit of a slippery slope on the reading front.  I did finish Lauren Oliver's "Pandemonium", and it did not rock my world the way "Delirium" did.  It picked up its pace for the last hundred pages, but there for awhile, I wasn't sure I would finish.  Now I am lazily making my way through Vivian Swift's "When Wanderers Cease To Roam", a blend of a journal and a sketch book.  It is lovely.  Just what I needed.  

In audio, I finished the most amazing "Heft".  My review will come in a few weeks, but I'll just tell you now to read it.  Better yet, listen to it.  The narration is sublime.  Then I had a quick listen to "Love Among the Chickens" by P.G. Wodehouse.  In any other mood, I would have laughed the whole way through it.  But as it was, I found the humor silly.  I probably shouldn't have even tried to cheer myself up, but go straight for horror!  Ha!  Now I am venturing into "The Scorpio Races" and I'm liking what I am hearing.  Fabulous narration so far.  

I want to take just a second to let you know that a book I reviewed a week ago, "The Rock Hole" by Reavis Wortham, was recently nominated as one of three finalists for The Benjamin Franklin Award, a national juried awards program that recognizes excellence in independent publishing.  I'm so proud.  I'm crossing my fingers for a win!

My husband is out of town, so no big Mother's Day festivities today.  Just church, horse, animal normal Sunday routine.  I may be able to talk my kids into carryout so I don't have to cook perhaps!  I want to wish everyone a Happy Mother's Day, and hope it is restful and joyful!

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Leopard - Jo Nesbo

I think you all know by now that I am fully invested, and moderately obsessed with, all things Nesbo.  I've read all the Harry Hole books up to this one, and I even have his stand alone book "Headhunters" that has been made into a movie and is actually coming out next week to our indie theater in town.  (I know, I need to get that thing read.)  

I've had drama from the very beginning surrounding the order in which I've read the books.  The first two have not been translated to English (they probably will at some point, but I've heard they are nothing to get excited over so I wouldn't wait around) and the remaining five have been released in random order.  Just...if you want to read them, just make sure you do it right.  Otherwise important stuff gets spoiled.

 A new Harry book was launched on March 20 in the UK called "Phantom".  I've been told by a reliable Harry-loving source that it is sold out there, and won't be launched here until October.  Be that as it may, I needed to get down to business and read "The Leopard", a book that had been intimidating me for awhile because of its size.

Synopsis:  After all the harrowing events in "The Snowman", Harry has taken a temporary leave of absence from the police force and gone off the grid to live in Hong Kong, eating noodles, doing bad drugs, and running from the Mafia.  Slow suicide.  He is tracked down by a (beautiful, natch) agent, and coerced into returning home because his father is gravely ill.  Oh, and by the way, while you are home Harry, we have this little problem with a serial killer with which we need some assistance.  Because Harry is The Man.

Bodies are beginning to pile up, the deaths caused by an array of horrific methods (the worst being a nightmare-worthy medieval instrument of torture called a Leopold's Apple) but all seem to lead back to one night at a remote ski lodge.  And as is typical of Nesbo, nothing is straightforward and there are multiple agendas are at work, making a mess of logic and deduction.

But while the killer is heinous and ruthless, and the deaths graphic, this isn't the focus of the story. The reader is instead left with a complex examination of father/son relationships, of loneliness, of broken souls striving to rebuild.  

My thoughts:  First of all, Mr. Nesbo, you've got my loyalty.  I'm going to read every book you write no matter what.  I just wanted to get that out there.  

But I felt like this one slipped a little.  

First, it was just way too long.  It wandered all over the place, and while I am fine following Harry down every dark alley, I think it would have been fairly easy to cut a good hundred or two pages.  It was not as tight as his other novels.

The bad guy(s)...there is never really only one...were arms-length caricatures more than the bleeding and damaged creatures we have seen in earlier books.  Despite Nesbo's ever-expanding creativity in the ways one can bite it, it all became background noise to the deeper issues churning beneath the surface.  Most of those issues revolving around the guy we never really tire of, Harry.  

The predicaments that Harry found himself in were over-the-top.  I can't even begin to number the crazy things that happened to him, but did include almost dying in an avalanche, the Leopold's Apple up close and personal somewhere in the Congo, some self-mutilation, and saving people from being pushed into a volcano.  There were multiples times when I found myself saying "Really? REALLY?!".  It felt like Nesbo was trying to outdo himself.  And that really isn't necessary.  

But I do love Harry's journey, his suffering, his attempt at healing himself, his making peace with this father, and his enduring love for Rakel.  Despite the wandering, Nesbo is adept at ratcheting up the adrenaline as the end closes in, causing heart palpitations and sweaty palms.  As I said, I am invested, I will read this series until it is no more, but my hope for "Phantom" is something resembling the earlier installments.

3.5 out of 5 stars