Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Happy Halloween

So Happy Halloween to you all!  I didn't think it would be appropriate to post a lovely picture of a lighthouse today.  So instead you get Pennywise, who I think, next to the Exorcist girl, is the scariest image ever.

It is always a bit of a bummer to celebrate this holiday mid-week.  You know things will not be good tomorrow for school.  Too much running around, too much sugar, late bed times.  For a couple of years, we had a teacher who seemed to intentionally give homework on Halloween night.  Not a popular move!  

What makes me sad is that my kids are pretty much over the whole thing.  Last year, they threw together unimaginative costumes at the 11th hour, gathered candy, then gave it all away.  At this point, I'm not even sure what we will do tonight.  Half-hearted candy gathering?  Pizza and scary movies?  Stay tuned...      

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The House Next Door - Anne Rivers Siddons

In the lineup of books for which I need to write reviews, this one was actually scheduled for sometime mid-November.  But it is actually the scariest book I've read in awhile, and therefore really deserved to be posted the day before Halloween.

I have one person, and one person ONLY to blame for me reading this pleasant-looking book.  And that would be Raych.  Thanks Raych.  I lost a little of my soul with this one (but I loved every minute of it).   

Synopsis:  Doesn't this book look peaceful and pretty?  Nothing menacing here.  Until you open the first chapter, and the narrator, one Colquitt Kennedy, tells you that the house next door is haunted, that she and her husband are warning the world, and they probably won't live much longer as a result.

Immediately Colquitt draws you into the story.  She starts with the first family...a young couple about to have their first child...that buys the beautiful wooded lot next door and hires a genius architect to build their dream house.  Colquitt and her husband Walter are affluent, Southern yuppies who love to have drinks on their back porch and have barbecues with their neighbors, so they welcome the couple, and the architect, with open arms.  Things start to go wrong almost immediately, but is chalked up to really unfortunate accidents.  (Since Raych warned you, I will too.  Dead puppies ahoy...and more.)

With each family that moves in and moves out of the house, the "incidents" get progressively worse.  It seems that the house, or the malevolent presence within it, seeks out the inhabitants' weaknesses and preys upon them.  And if the friendly neighbors get too close or too invested?  Well, no one is safe. 

My thoughts:  This is classic, organic evil house, an undefinable presence, human frailties laid out for all to see, with horrible consequences.  It is the stuff of Stephen King (in fact he named this book as one of the best 20th century novels in the genre).  It shocked me to learn that the book was written in 1978 by an author not even known for writing in the horror genre, but Southern fiction.  

This story is not gentle.  Sure, it is presented to us with Southern grace and charm.  Parties and cocktails and gardening and country clubs.  But behind the polite smiles and propriety is shocking, horrifying, grimace-inducing violence, destruction of lives, heavily laced with sex.  There were moments when my eyes were popping out of my skull, screaming "Oh my God!".  There is also a dark menacing cloud hanging overhead that is emphasized by Siddons' plentiful use of know the bad shit is coming, and you can't stop it.  I found it terrifying to imagine who or what would get it next.  Siddons has no sacred cows.  The cows can get thrown under the bus, right along with everyone and everything else.

I loved the characters scurrying around in this story.  Siddons had to have based them on people she knew, they were all so quirky and real, you could imagine them standing right in front of you, gossiping, crying, raging.  They weren't all likable, but they were unforgettable.  

For those who like classic, literary horror, served on a crystal platter with a round of mint juleps, you shouldn't miss out on this one.

5 out of 5         


Monday, October 29, 2012

Monday Matinee: Halloween Edition - My Scariest Movies

In honor of Halloween this week, I thought I'd cover a little formerly-traveled but oh-so-fun ground of my favorite scary movies!  Stop rolling your eyes.  I know 98% of you hate them based on the comments I get from my oft-reviewed horror viewings, but tis the season!  I mean, if you ever are sitting around and suddenly have a hankering to have the crap scared out of you, then I am here to serve your needs.

It IS really very hard for me to narrow these down.  I've seen a whole array of horror flicks...the super-bloody Italian ones with the bad music, the '80's slasher ones, the classic black and white Hitchcock ones, the Japanese ones with the white-faced, black-haired demonic children.  How to really judge?  I have found that like any movie genre, many horror movies have a great premise, and do a great job of scaring you at first, but ultimately fall flat by over-explaining, or it turns hokey and unbelievable, and by the end you are ready for it to be over.

It's the ones that you are still thinking about a week later.  The ones that keep you up at night.  The ones that, when the credits are rolling, you feel a chill going up your spine.  These are the ones that stand the test of time.  So without further ado, these are the movies that never fail to entertain me:        

The Ring (2002) - Speaking of white-faced, black-haired demonic children, here we go.  This movie was based off the 1998 Japanese movie "Ringu".  Crazy as it sounds, this movie is rated PG, but I can barely sit through it.  The plot surrounds a mysterious, cursed video tape that shows bizarre disturbing scenes...once it is watched, the viewer gets a phone call that informs them they have seven days to live.  I know, it sounds like a million movies that pander to teens, but it works.  Starring Naomi Watts and Amber Tamblyn.       

The Exorcist (1973) - But of course this one would end up on just about anyone's list.  A demon possesses a young girl, and various priests attempt to exorcise it from her body.  Spinning heads, pea-green vomit, spewing vulgarities in a demonic voice from the mouth of a child, bloody crotch-stabbing with a's all in there.  Starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, and Max von Sydow, and brilliant theme song by Michael Oldfield.      

The Paranormal Activity Franchise - As of today, there have been four movies released (PA 4 just came out a couple of weeks ago), and we have seen them all.  PA 2 and 3 are prequels to PA 1, and the 4th installment is a sequel, and all follow a family that is cursed but don't know it (or I guess maybe they are starting to figure it out at this point).  The bad things that happen to these folks are all recorded on security cameras at night, making one feel like a bit of a voyeur.  These films are insanely low-budget, making them the some of the most profitable movies ever made, as they have risen to a cult status.  In my opinion?  They get progressively scarier, which is not what you would expect in a franchise.  If you are looking for a marathon, I'd sit down with these.        

Silence of the Lambs (1991) - No ghouls or ghosts here.  Just pure, unadulterated psychotic serial killers.  And phenomenal acting.  Buffalo Bill is kidnapping, killing and skinning young girls.  FBI Agent Starling (Jodie Foster) must enlist the help of imprisoned killer Dr. Hannibal Lechter (Anthony Hopkins) to profile him catch him.  This movie is as good as it gets.  I've seen it no fewer than 3 dozen times and it has never lost its lustre.

Have you seen any of these?  What did you think?  What are your favorite scary movies?    

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mid-Florida Champions!

It may be hard for you to see the score, so let me just tell you.  WE WON!!!  36-16.  At the half, it was tied 16-16 and I was not happy.  But when we came out for the second half, we were a team possessed.  We intercepted two of their passes, allowed almost no yardage, and literally crushed them.  It was amazing.  And a wonderful birthday present for my son.  Drink wine and eat a steak I shall.

We now begin to compete against teams outside the Central Florida area.  Our next game is Saturday in Winter Springs, FL (on the outskirts of Orlando) against a team from Tampa.  No rest for the weary.  I shall take nothing for granted and be appreciative for every bit of extra time we have in this season. 

Sunday Salon: The Week of Sandy

 You know, there are weeks that are busy but fly by and you're able to just roll with it, and there are some weeks that just TAKE EVERYTHING OUT OF YOU!!!  That was this week!  It wasn't all bad, just physically and emotionally exhausting.

And honestly, I can't blame Storm Sandy.  (Although I think it is kinda cool to have a storm with my name on it!)  It was really really windy on Friday and Saturday, and my yard and pool look like a battlefield, but negligible rain (it only rained on Friday morning when I wanted to do my long run - thanks a lot.)  I AM seriously thinking about the zillion of my friends up there in the Northeast.  I hope it isn't as bad as the media is surely making it.  But just be safe and make sure you have batteries, water and wine.  

No, actually my week started out with some guy at school backing into my car. Just bumper damage, nobody hurt, but we didn't get a police report because it was so minor, and now the guy is all jerky because he thinks I was trying to steal his parking spot or something.  Which I wasn't.  Either way, dude just threw it in reverse and didn't take a peek into his rearview mirror.  *sigh*  So now I have to deal with insurance, and arguing and all the fun that goes along with crunched fiberglass.

And I got an iPhone 5!  Woo hoo!  Very exciting stuff, once I was able to sync everything up (I only pouted for maybe an hour while I was trying to figure it out, which highly annoyed my husband).  A couple of things that I find to be the coolest is that you can text vocally, thus eliminating my old fat finger mistakes.  And this Siri system!  You can vocally query anything and she has an answer.  I'm starting to worry if she might be as smart as HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey!  And then there is the panorama photography:

Which brings me to The Boy.  He played in his 3rd round playoff football game Wednesday night (under the lights as you can see) and decidedly won 25-0.  So for the second year in a row, he goes to the Citrus Bowl today to vie for the Mid-Florida Championship.  Last year we lost.  This year we go up against the same team and are pretty primed to take some revenge.  I'd be at peace, I think, if this is as far as we got, but wouldn't it be great if they went on to compete for the Southeast Region or National?  So stay tuned.  If he wins today, you might get another post coming at you.  Oh and also, today is his 13th birthday.  My baby is a teenager (although he has been there in spirit and hormones for about 9 months).

A friend from high school was in town for a conference, so I went out to dinner with her on Tuesday night (after shuttling Boy to extra football practice).  I've known this girl since I was in Kindergarten, and I do see her a couple of times a year, but it is always nice to hang with her.  I also had to make an appearance at our annual Chili Cookoff fundraiser at the school.  I wasn't thrilled to go...I was wrung out by Friday night...but I went for a couple of hours, ate chili, and was in bed by 9:00pm.  (My husband couldn't go because my son's coaches were practicing these boys to the moon and back, and he had to pick him up and feed him.)  My husband and I also had dinner out with friends last night.  Naps were required.    

My reading and blogging are pathetic.  I'm trying, I truly am, but it just isn't happening for me.  Oh well.  You will be happy to hear that I did finish "Beautiful Ruins" on the Kindle.  Took me two weeks, but I have so much love for this book, I can't even verbalize it yet.  On audio, I finished "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" which was very surprising!  Pretty serious and even a little twisty, and I felt affection when I finished.  I'm now most of the way through "City of Women" on audio and, hmmm, not sure what to say.  A little gritty?  Harsh?  Lots of sex?  I'm going to need some inspiration to write that review.

So if you are a lover of youth sports, and have good Karma today, please send a little positive energy down to the Orlando Citrus Bowl for my son's team.  And if you are in the area and want to stop by, kickoff is at 1:00pm.  I'll be the one with my head between my knees.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake - Anna Quindlen (Audio)

There are a gazillion people out there that are Anna Quindlen apostles, but I have only discovered her recently.  No doubt, one of my top books (listens actually) of 2012 will be "Every Last One".  It only took this one book to make me realize that Ms. Quindlen GETS family dynamics.  (She also knows how to freaking pull the rug out from under a girl.)  After a little poking around, I found out that Quindlen did have two sons and a daughter (like the book) who have all grown up and become contributing citizens.  AND SHE IS ALIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT!  These days, I have a great deal of admiration for a parents who makes it through the teenage stage sane.  Well, most of them do, but it is nice to see.

So when Quindlen came out with this memoir, from the perspective of a woman who has basically seen it all, and is sitting in the second half of her life, I figured I've got stuff to learn from her.

Synopsis:  Anna Quindlen has opinions and nuggets of wisdom on a variety of topics, and in a musing, humorous, and slightly snarky voice, she imparts.  She talks about spending decades with the same man, the importance of sticking out the tough times, of being a team.  She talks of the accumulation of stuff, of raising children and then watching them leave.  Of the aging body, the attempt to keep it from falling apart, but making peace with what you've got.  Of lightening up.  Of religion.  Of the beauty of having alone-time.  And most of all, the importance of girlfriends.  

She doesn't claim to have all the answers, but she throws out thoughts to ponder and observations of life, with the astute eye and a turn of a phrase that makes her such an exceptional author.  

My thoughts:  Quindlen is 10 to 15 years older than I am, so she has gone through phases in life that I am currently dragging my way through.  For this reason, I loved reading this memoir.  It gave me hope!  My marriage may make it through these years!  My kids may actually emerge from high school and college and be respectable!  Some day I might actually learn to relax!  I shouldn't feel compelled to inject my face or lips or suck the fat out of my butt, just because everything is a little droopy!  

I found Quindlen to be very grounded and wise, kind of like a mentor.  She allows the reader to see what is in her heart, what and who has motivated her or defeated her, and some of her own life lessons.  With a dose of piss and vinegar I might add...sister has some moxie.  The part I loved the most, though, I admit freely, is her bit on girlfriends.  There was a perfect paragraph where she talks about the definition of a true friend, but of course this book was on audio, I didn't write it down, and now I've deleted it from the iPod.  So I will share another quote that I found on Amazon:

“Ask any woman how she makes it through the day, and she may mention her calendar, her to-do lists, her babysitter. But if you push her on how she really makes it through her day, she will mention her girlfriends. Sometimes I will see a photo of an actress in an unflattering dress or a blouse too young for her or with a heavy-handed makeup job, and I mutter, ‘She must not have any girlfriends.’ ”

I know, right?  Throughout the entire portion of this chapter, my eyes kinda went dewy and I kept smiling, feeling blessed to have my girlfriends.  Here is another jewel about old friends:

“The thing about old friends is not that they love you, but that they know you. They remember that disastrous New Year's Eve when you mixed White Russians and champagne, and how you wore that red maternity dress until everyone was sick of seeing the blaze of it in the office, and the uncomfortable couch in your first apartment and the smoky stove in your beach rental. They look at you and don't really think you look older because they've grown old along with you, and, like the faded paint in a beloved room, they're used to the look. And then one of them is gone, and you've lost a chunk of yourself. The stories of the terrorist attacks of 2001, the tsunami, the Japanese earthquake always used numbers, the deaths of thousands a measure of how great the disaster. Catastrophe is numerical. Loss is singular, one beloved at a time.”

I wouldn't say the memoir is life-altering, but it was a wonderful, warm, hilarious diversion, and so beautifully written.  And I don't believe you have to be in the middle of your life to appreciate it.  In fact, some of the pearls of wisdom in here might just help those in their 20's and 30's avoid a pitfall or two.

A few words about the audio production:  I was delighted to see that Anna narrates this book herself.  I'm not sure I'd want to hear her narrate, let's say, a Jo Nesbo book, but in this case, she knows the material and delivers it in the spirit in which it was written.  She has a dry sense of humor, and this completely comes through in her spoken word.  She was a pleasure to listen to.

4 out of 5 stars


Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Invisible Ones - Stef Penney (Audio)

When this book first came out, somehow the description wasn't enough to lure me in.  It was during the Audiobook Week this year that it popped it's little head up again, demanding to be read because of the narration.  From audiophiles that have heard it all, this book was deemed a gem.  Not from one person, but a whole sea of them.  I took the hint and ordered it.  I believe I may have found my new favorite voice.

Synopsis:  A not-quite-successful, soon-to-be divorced private investigator is lying in a hospital, paralyzed and nearly comatose.  Ray Lovell has suffered from some sort of attack, resulting in a car accident, and he believes it was a result of his current case.  He slowly recalls the events that led up to the accident that almost killed him.  

Ray (who is half Gypsy) was approached by a Gypsy man who is concerned that he hasn't heard from his daughter, Rose Janko, in six years.  She married, left with her husband's family, and was never heard of again.  The Janko family, Gypsy as well, claims Rose ran away soon after having a child who was afflicted with a genetic illness that runs in the family and is usually fatal.  But as Ray probes deeper into the vague stories and curious personalities of the Janko family, he senses that they know more than they are admitting.

We also hear from JJ Janko, 14 year-old cousin of Rose's abandoned son Christo.  JJ provides the troubled but innocent perspective of the Gypsy lifestyle in 1980's England, and the burden of helping to care for a very sick little boy who likely may die.  The embarrassment of not having an inside toilet, of never being able to invite a friend over, the transient nature of their lives...this old-fashioned notion of the Gypsy heritage clashes drastically with a modern society where a young man wants to be accepted.  

As Ray attempts to solve the mystery of Rose, he develops and navigates through complicated relationships with JJ, sickly Christo, Rose's erratic husband Ivo, the Janko patriarch Tene, and Tene's younger sister Lulu, the hot tamale with the bright red stilettos.  This is not only a story about a culture of people who remain to most of the world invisible, but of family, love, loyalty, secrets and relationships...a unique hybrid of multiple genres and a literary conundrum.

My thoughts:  What was really fun in my listening experience of this book is that I had no earthly idea what it was about.  I certainly read the reviews but didn't remember, and that worked for me.  I'm not sure if I would have ever imagined that I was interested in the Gypsy culture...I see them in the streets in Poland, and I am both annoyed with their persistence and sad for the children who are forced to "work" for their livelihoods.  But once I was plunged into this world, I was hooked.  The mystery was compelling and unpredictable, the relationships were confusing and complex and even a little endearing.  This story had it all, and was rich and fulfilling.

I was beguiled with this knack that Penney has in the story for throwing in questionable little...facts, I guess, or maybe little baby red herrings that to a reader of mysteries, tweaks the brain and makes you wonder.  Many of these threads don't go anywhere, and it left me wanting more.  I wasn't resentful, it just made my synapses zip around a little faster.  It reminded quite a bit of Tana French in that way, and I know many of you know what a complement that is coming from me.  (I got a little feeling of serendipity when I saw that French had interviewed Penney on Amazon.)

I know I am going on more than I usually do, but I must also address the texture of the two narratives.  Ray's narrative reflected his grizzled, world-weary soul but earnestness.  He is damaged, he has woman issues, he wants human connection, but is rough around the edges.  JJ's narrative was the perfect contrast...he was completely adorable.  How often do you find a 14 year-old in a novel that is adorable?  He was a good kid with a difficult life, he has seen more than most kids his age but still held on to his innocence.  I was fully invested in the both of them, but I would have taken JJ home with me.

A bunch of gushing about the audio production:  This audio was narrated by the most flipping amazing Dan Stevens.  For those of you addicted to Downton Abbey, yes THAT Dan Stevens.  I can't even express to you the delight in listening to this man effortlessly navigate through the accents, the personalities, the nuances.  I haven't had this much fun since Lenny Henry.  I had heard him narrate "The Angel's Game", which was a great audio, but he was in top form here.  So Stevens joins the very short and esteemed list of narrators I would chase down in any scenario.

Audiobook length:  11 hours, 23 minutes (416 pages)

5 out of 5 stars       

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Charleston #5

Here are my final images of Boone Hall Plantation.  I don't think many explanations are needed here.  This is what plantations, and the South in general, is all about.  I will move on next week to Lake Michigan.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Drop Dead Healthy - A.J. Jacobs (Audio)

I've never had any experience with A. J. Jacobs prior to this book, but I've been hearing about him for some time.  He is known for a brand of full-immersion non-fiction, where he LIVES whatever he is writing about.  One big blogger hit was "The Year of Living Biblically", where Jacobs follows every single rule of the Bible for an entire year.  Which by itself is enough to make a person go "hmmmm".  

But living healthy?  Alright, I've been on a bit of a health trend for the last 9 months, so I thought I might learn something here.  Book Addiction Heather loaned me the audio, and I was in the mood for something non-fiction and maybe funny.

Synopsis:  A.J. Jacobs looked in the mirror and saw a middle-aged, doughy and out-of-shape guy, and worried about whether he would be around to raise his three small boys to adulthood.  What better project then than to throw himself into every nook and cranny of the business of improving his health?  The task was 53 pages worth of things to do.  So with gusto, Jacobs takes it all head-on.  

He covers all the bases.  Sure, there are the topics one would expect to eating the right foods and exercise.  But even in the realm of normalcy, Jacobs finds the abnormal, like a diet and exercise regime tailored to that of the caveman (throwing boulders in Central Park??), paying attention to the number of times he chews before he swallows, the cardio benefits of pole dancing, or walking on a treadmill while on his computer, for example.

He takes off from there, exploring skin and mole removal, the immune system and nurturing his phobia of germs, improving brain function, sleeping habits, maintaining healthy private parts and boosting the libido, decreasing stress, and how to have the most productive bowel movement.  While Jacobs injects his humor into this experiment, his efforts are earnest and thorough and his tips are practical and helpful.  He did, after all, lose 16 pounds along the way and competed in a triathlon.  You may not ultimately embrace a pedestrian helmet or wearing noise-cancelling headphones all day, but you may pick up the inspiration to live a healthier life.

My thoughts:  This was a fun little romp.  Not quite as fascinating as the Mary Roach books, but almost.  But similar to Mary Roach, a little bit of this goes a long way.  I would not be able to listen to this type of book all the time, but is a nice side trip once in awhile.  

Jacobs is totally over-the-top.  He doesn't just do intensive research on, let's say, healthy testosterone levels.  He gets himself tested, and against his wife's wishes even, takes Clomid (a medication I actually used myself when I was trying to get pregnant) to increase his numbers, thus making him aggressive and feisty.  He doesn't just Google sleep disorders, he attends a sleep clinic.  

I think his wife must be a saint.  

So did I learn anything here?  I like the idea of out-sourcing my worrying to someone else, thus reducing stress.  Let Susie Poo do the worrying about that weird pain in my foot, and I'll worry about whether or not she will get a promotion.  Kinda makes sense, in a weird way, doesn't it?  And there is some good, old-fashioned practical advice at the end of the book that rang true.  Everything in moderation. Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid all that processed crap in the middle.  Own a pet.  Walk.  Avoid white flour products.  Stop shoving so much food in your mouth.  That kind of thing.  Good stuff.  

A word about the audio production:  Jacobs actually narrates the audio himself, and does it well.  There are some authors that narrate their own work and are so good at it, I will never read their work in print (ahem, Joshilyn Jackson, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell).  I'm not sure I'm at this point with Jacobs, but he was pleasant and delivered the message in the spirit in which it was intended.

Audiobook length:  10 hours and 10 minutes (416 pages)

3.5 out of 5 stars               

Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday Matinee: Argo (2012)

It has been awhile since I've seen a movie at the theater.  It seems like the only chance we have is when the kids have a day off from school.  This past Friday, my son and I decided we needed to go see this film.  It has been getting serious Oscar buzz and has a crazy-high score on Rotten Tomatoes of 95% (for both viewers and critics).  My mom had seen it and said it was a fascinating movie about a piece of history none of us really knew anything about.

Indeed it is.  Back in 1979, a group of enraged Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Iran in retaliation for the US's support and harboring of the overthrown Shah.  They took most of the embassy staff as hostages (that were ultimately held captive for somewhere over 400 days), but six employees escaped out the back door and took refuge at the Canadian Embassy, hiding in a cellar whenever they feared detection.

CIA Specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who looked nothing like the real-life Latino, but I guess those are the perks if you are the director) is called upon to figure out a way to get these six people out.  Through some of his connections in Hollywood (John Goodman and Alan Arkin), he creates a fake movie, with a script, a press release and all the trimmings, to support the ruse of a group of Canadian studio execs scouting out exotic filming locations in Iran.  Biographies are invented for the six Embassy employees, from camera operator to costume designer.  With Mendez in the lead, they are to pretend to traipse around Tehran (where spies hang from construction machinery in the streets), looking for places to shoot their movie.  The risk is real and terrifying, the consequences of discovery being a very public death.  After they have convinced the Iranian government they are studio execs, their plan is to hop on a plane and get the hell out.

The story would certainly fall in the category of "you can't make this shit up".  I was fascinated and thoroughly tickled by the lengths at which Goodman and Arkin's characters go to make a really bad Star Wars rip-off seem legitimate.  They took the challenge like a couple of geeky teenagers.  Seasoned, snarky geeky teenagers.    

I can't tell you that they have captured all the facts as they happened.  Who even knew about this?  The mission was only declassified during the Clinton era.  But based on what I've read, the basic elements were true.  I did smell a strong acrid whiff of overcooked melodrama at the end.  I sincerely doubt the Iranian officials were chasing the airplane, containing the six Embassy employees and Mendez, in their jeeps down the runway, attempting to shoot out the tires.  I'm sure Hollywood believes it must deliver some shooting and chasing to satisfy the masses.  Beyond this little display of schmaltz, the movie did hold my interest and maintained a tense little knot in my stomach for the duration.  You pretty much know things are going to work out, but Iran is a scary place and I was scared.

The movie is rated R for a few f-bombs and some stark images of people being hung in the streets.  However, I felt it was fairly safe stuff for my 13 year-old, and in fact would tell you that this is the kind of story that fires up his mind.  It was a great slice of history that, based on recent event, has seemed to morph and repeat itself.

4 out of 5 stars 


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Salon: Sharon Springs or Bust

 A fine morning to you all, my lovely friends.  I am so pleased to tell you that on this fine morning, I only have two solid plans for the day...running and church.  Amazing right?  My brain is whizzing all over the place, imagining what I might do.  Catch up on my review writing?  Take my daughter to see Paranormal Activity 4?  Finish reading my book?  Oh the possibilities!

It is has been a normal, busy week.  No rest for the crazy.  The daughter had her cross country practices, PSAT and half day of school on Wednesday (then four hours at the animal shelter), a retreat on Thursday, then promptly fell over in her tracks with the flu.  So no school on Friday, and no Cross Country meet on Saturday.  She was sad, I was sad, but it happens.  My son's football season is still going strong, having played in the 2nd round of playoffs last night and won handily.  I swear, I was nauseous for most of the day, and was tempted to just put my head in my lap while the game was going on.  My son has always been on winning teams in football, but if there was ever a year for him to go farther than he has ever gone before, this would be it.  Our next game is on Wednesday night.  If they win there, they go to the Citrus Bowl like last year.  My poor little nervous heart.

My son also had no school on Friday, so after a long run with my running buddy (long runs are still at 9 miles), I got a pedicure for my aching feet, then he and I went to lunch and to see Argo.  (Review tomorrow.)  My husband and I went to the high school football game Friday night.  Because there was no CC meet to attend, I was able to spin with my BFF Saturday morning.  Lot of naps in there in between. I've discovered I love naps.  Just little ones.  They are rejuvenating.

I've been drifting in and out of this blogging malaise.  One day I love it, the next day I'm tired of it.  But sometimes things happen to make it all worthwhile.  That happened on Thursday, when I posted my review for "The Bucolic Plague" by Josh Kilmer-Purcell.  Josh actually came by and commented, and invited me to come visit he and Brent in Sharon Springs, NY.  So now I am having a fantasy about a road trip, picking up all my interested friends along the way and hanging out with his chickens and goats.  Speak up if you want to come along, and if you live somewhere generally near the path between Florida and New York.

I did a little reading this week, but all I have to say is thank God for audios.  I finished up Amanda Kyle Williams' "Stranger in the Room", and am over halfway through "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce.  Which is really a sweet, gentle book and I love it so far.  In print I finished "The House Next Door" by Anne Rivers Siddons, and it was the perfect read for October creepiness.  I wrote my review quick-like, to get it in before Halloween.  I'm now over halfway through "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter.  Can I just say that I love this guy?  This book is incredible, just incredible.  

So I'm off to enjoy my carefree Sunday.  I predict reading, blogging, napping and maybe a movie.


Friday, October 19, 2012

One Last Thing Before I Go - Jonathan Tropper (Audio)

It seems like in the last few years, there has been a sudden surge of novels that feature men struggling with middle age.  Close your eyes and throw a Prozac and you'll hit a book with a female protagonist struggling mid-life to "find herself".  But men?  Seems like a new trend for me, and I'm liking it.  

One of these books that totally blew me away was Jonathan Tropper's "This is Where I Leave You", where a middle-aged guy deals with a cheating wife, sitting Shiva for his deceased father, and the forced reunion of his dysfunctional family.  Sounds dreary, I know, but I've never laughed so hard in my life.  (There is a scene with some naked body parts coming in contact with a fully-lit birthday cake...I almost wet myself.)

Enter the Penguin publicists at SIBA, who made this book one of their top picks, combined with the arrival of the audio from Penguin Audio, and the result would be an extremely excitable Sandy.  Let me try to tell you a little about the premise.

Synopsis:  Drew Silver is the poster boy for a middle-aged shitheel.  In his glory days, his band had one song hit the charts, and it was all down hill from there.  Drugs, alcohol, infidelity, depression, and sloth.  Predictably, Silver's wife leaves him, taking with her their only daughter.  He now spends his life selling his semen to a sperm bank, and laying by the pool of his residence for displaced shitheels, ogling the college girls with his like-minded buddies.

Then his 18 year-old Princeton-bound daughter announces she is pregnant.  His ex-wife announces her approaching wedding.  And Silver has an "episode", from which he learns that if he does not have emergency surgery on his heart, he will die.  Soon.  Despite Silver's failings, his family begs him to have the surgery, but Silver isn't sure if his life is worth saving.  Maybe he should just try to be the best man he can be for the remainder of his days and leave it at that.  

In this ironic, humorous and heartfelt story, one man is faced with his past mistakes and the possibility of making things right with the help of his family, for better or worse.

My thoughts:  I never thought I'd say this, but I believe Tropper has bested himself.  He takes the general formula he used in "This is Where I Leave You" (humor, dysfunction, poignance and family) and adds more heart, more depth, more consequences of bad behavior.  I laughed a bit less with this book, but was filled with more emotion and taken on more mental strolls through my own life.  The book forces the reader to reflect on how we have lived our lives and whether we have done fight by our loved ones.

Not that most of us are going to have anything in common with Silver.  At the beginning of the book, I couldn't stand the man.  He was an immature, self-absorbed idiot.  But after being faced with his mortality, he transforms into someone more innocent, earnest and wide-eyed than his formal self, and it is endearing.  

At the center of it all is Silver's relationship with his daughter.  He loves his daughter and while he knows he has failed her as a father, he wants to give her what he can now.  But he also accompanies his father, a Rabbi, on a tour of all the life rituals...a circumcision, a wedding, a funeral, a Bat Mitzvah.  He admits to his lingering feelings for his ex-wife.  This is the circle of life stuff that hits you right where it counts.

Combined with Tropper's insanely clever and snappy prose, and wise perspective on life, this is a home run you won't want to miss out on.

A few words about the audio production:  The narrator, John Shea, was able to completely capture the grizzled, befuddled essence of Silver.  I've never heard any of his work before...most of his resume seems to be clustered in non-fiction and spiritual novels, which is ironic since Silver was such a heathen.  His voice was pleasant to listen to and I would certainly not hesitate to pick up any of his work in the future.

Audiobook length:  8 hours and 18 minutes (336 pages)

5 out of 5 stars   


Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Bucolic Plague - Josh Kilmer-Purcell (Audio)

So probably you all know I have a few fantasies on file whenever I am tired of the grind.  Fantasies are good for you!  As long as you keep your expectations in check, they are fun to swizzle around in your brain.  One of my more frequent fantasies revolves around having chickens, and milkable animals so I can make cheese, and looking out over rolling green hills.  (I know my mom is rolling her eyes, because as a young adult I couldn't move to the city quick enough.)  I have seen the movies "Funny Farm" and "Baby Boom" and "Under the Tuscan Sun" at least 100 times.  I can't grow a carrot but, you know...details.  

Anyway, I knew when I first read the reviews of this book, that it would feed right into the whole scene.  I was told the audio was a must, and my library didn't have it, so it was only when Kathy sent it to me that the day was saved.  My fantasy-ante has just been upped!

Synopsis:  Josh and his partner Brent are high-octane New York City dwellers...Josh works for a posh ad agency and Brent works for Martha Stewart.  But occasionally they like to get away to the country to pick apples and enjoy the peace and quiet.  One weekend, they stumble into a quirky little town, not on the map, and find a gorgeous farm and historical mansion for sale.  Impulsively, they take the plunge.  They would be weekend gentlemen farmers!  It would be fun!  They would have a vegetable garden and sip their homemade apple cider by the fire!

Turns out, it was a little more work than they had ever imagined.  With visions of Martha Stewart perfection, they chased dreams of the idyllic Thanksgiving, garden parties for their newly-acquired local friends, making goat milk soap for friends and family for Christmas, cutting down a beautiful giant Christmas tree to be trimmed, and making their own garland.  Instead, they got ghosts, drunk turkeys, tomato-canning all-nighters, human remains in the garden, dead birds in their cherry trees, zombie flies taking over the house, and lots and lots of goats courtesy of their caretaker Farmer John.  Eventually, both Josh and Brent became victims of the economic downturn and lost their jobs, and began to watch their relationship deteriorate as a result.  

But these two were in the business of marketing and image, and they were ultimately devoted to one another, so they dug deep and created the brand of "Beekman 1802" (named after the man who originally built the mansion), complete with goat milk soap, recipes, how-to videos, gardening tips, and even pictures of their animals...basically the fuel to ignite the smoldering self-reinvention fantasy in all of us.  Josh's account of their journey is a poignant, humorous, and insightful look at chasing your dream, coping with middle-age, love...and cleaning up goat poo.

My thoughts:  Well, as you can see, I wrote a little more than I normally do on my reviews.  I do try to keep it concise so you don't shut down half-way.  But sort of like anything Joshilyn Jackson or Tana French, this required more heart and soul.  I LOVED this book.  And not just because Josh and Brent were living the life that is supposed to be mine (ha).

I have lived on a farm, so I do know that the works never ends.  And I liked that Josh laid out the realities of it all.  This was supposed to be their weekend retreat, and sometimes all they did was scoop up goat dung, till their garden or can vegetables.   Old houses do have zombie flies (or in my parents' case, zombie ladybugs) that appear by the thousands no matter how many times you vacuum them up.  Josh made me chortle out loud throughout the entire book.  Josh and Brent's attitude was endearingly self-effacing and honest about their bumbling adventures.

I also loved (for lack of a better phrase) the gay twist on the story.  I loved the fact that they were warmly accepted into this small town (where more than a few gay couples were in the center of the social hub).  I adored their unflagging commitment to each other.  They are adorable.  There were not-so-adorable moments in the story, however, like Josh butchering his own turkey for Thanksgiving.  One that he had raised.  That whole scene devastated me.  I think I'd have to outsource that job.  

Based on some poking around I did on their website, it appears that these two have not only reinvented themselves, but their small town of Sharon Springs.  They have numerous festivals, they have included the locals to help make Beekman 1802 a success, and hoards of people now flock there to see their slice of heaven.  Kathy and I swear one day we are going to do a road trip.  I'm just waiting on Josh or Brent to see this review and invite me.

A few words about the audio production:  The narrator for this book is Johnny Heller, who is new to me but based on his resume, seems to know his way around the audio world.  He perfectly portrayed Josh's "voice" so much that I could easily imagine that it WAS Josh speaking.  It was a pleasant listening experience.

Audiobook length:  8 hours and 7 minutes (320 pages)

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Charleston #4

Last week I told you a little about Boone Hall Plantation, and I mentioned the slave quarters that have been preserved on property.  These cabins (nine in all) were built in 1790, and each contain a short movie and various artifacts depicting themes of the history of African Americans.  This site has been named one of the African American Historic Places in South Carolina.  The exhibit is amazing.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein

Back at the beginning of summer, I was reading all kinds of crazy-good reviews about this book.  People were calling it twisty and heartbreaking and so, so amazing.  So I downloaded it on my Kindle and deemed it a "summer read".  Except I didn't get to it.  Which is so typically me.  But my Books, Babes and Bordeaux Book Club saved the day and picked it for the September read.

Synopsis:  It is England 1943...the heat of WWII...when Maddie and Queenie meet and instantly become best friends.  Both are strong, courageous souls...Maddie is a pilot who can fix anything from a motorbike to an airplane engine, and Queenie is a spy with great hair, manicured nails and a royal heritage.  Neither accept the idea of jobs being solely for men, and both have the tenacity and spunk of a platoon of men combined.  One night, when Maddie is flying Queenie to her next mission, the aircraft is hit and the plane goes down.  Queenie parachutes to safety, but is captured by the Gestapo and taken to the local HQ for interrogation and torture.

In order to extend her life, Queenie agrees to write an account of her background, and reveal codes and secrets only known to her.  She recounts the story of her friendship with Maddie, harrowing stories of danger, deception, and just how far two best friends will go for each other, interspersed with information about air fields and the latest technology.  She will trade anything for one more day, a warm sweater, and the chance not to be burned or have her fingernails ripped out.

But as we progress through the story, we learn how just smart these two girls really are, the stakes and intensity being raised every few pages, and begin to wonder if there is more to it all than a straightforward tale of survival.  

My thoughts:  I wouldn't come right out and say this was just like "Gone Girl" or "Fingersmith", where it is way too easy to spoil a plot by saying anything, but it is close.  I've given you just a tiny taste of what this book is all about, but there is so much more below the surface.  

I really struggled through the first half of the book.  It was interesting, I guess, but a bit slow and dense with facts about war things.  Plus it was confusing - I wasn't sure what was going on.  (I know more than a few of our book club members didn't even get past this point.)  But then the pace ramps up, Wein throws in a twist, cranks up the speed a little more, completely pulls the rug out from under you, and off you go.  Prepare to stay up past your bedtime at this point in order to finish.

I absolutely LOVED the two girls in the story.  They were completely opposite from each other in every way but their moxie.  These were butt-kickers, these girls.  They would not be denied their dream.  They were tough and fearless, but girlish when they let down their guard around each other.  I was utterly invested in them.

And what you have heard about this book?  Yes, there are twists, and it will make you want to re-read the thing.  But I honestly was waiting for something bigger and more mind-blowing than what it was.  Don't get me wrong, the ending was pretty amazing, but was a case of mismanaged expectations.  And when I read the last page, I was scared that I had missed something HUGE.  That I was too thick in the brain to grasp it all (it WAS late when I finished).  The plot is so squirrelly that I doubted myself.  So my best advice read it, first of all, because it is good.  Be patient with the build-up.  Try to leave the expectations at the door.  And be prepared to read it again.  

4 out of 5 stars      

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday Salon: Go Back to the Mothership, Aliens

 I'll admit, I'm cheating a little here.  I'm not typing this on Sunday morning, I'm typing it at 9:00 on Saturday night.  I decided to try a little read-a-thoning this evening after a long day of kid activities, and I know there is no way I'll be up early enough to write anything civilized.  I needed a little reading break anyway.

This has been a busy week (Don't I sound like a broken record every Sunday??).  I had a child home sick for 3.5 days, and even though he is fairly self-sufficient, he still requires occasional watering and feeding.  I had some meetings at school.  My daughter had a Cross Country meet after school on Wednesday. Plus all that normal stuff (football practices, workouts, etc.).  Another CC meet on Saturday, another football game (last of the season, another shut out, and we are headed into playoffs as the #1 seed).  

I had a phenomenal 9-mile run on Saturday morning.  I have been experimenting with the routine, and I may have found something that works for these longer runs.  Pasta and no alcohol the night before, an early night to bed, lots of water before bed and the next morning, getting up early enough for real food (steel cut oatmeal, half a banana), and some cooler weather.  I've also been using these energy gels at the one-hour mark, and also hiding water in somebody's bushes at the one-hour mark (the kids think this is just bizarre but is totally necessary).  I don't know, maybe the moons were just aligned, but I felt great.  We will continue to run 9 for the month of October, then tackle mile 10 in November.  You guys probably don't care too much about this, but I'm learning a lot about the training process and I'm feeling chatty about it.  May do a post on it at some point, because I have some great books on the subject.

I've also had some distraction and stress this week from teenager-dom.  Lots of drama and angst and rage and emotion all came pounding down this week at the same time and I'm really pretty tired from it.  So when do the aliens leave their bodies, give me my children back and return to the mothership?  Holy moly people.  I'm like a wet, sad, discarded dishrag.

So my reading is limping along.  I finished "Shine Shine Shine" on audio.  I'm still processing that one.  I loved Joshilyn Jackson as the narrator, but still shaking my head over the story, and not sure I totally get it.  I'm now about halfway through the amazing Amanda Kyle Williams' second installment in her murder mystery series called "The Stranger in the Room".  I'm totally digging her style.  

In print, I wrapped up "The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D." by Nichole Bernier, and am currently working my way through the delightfully creepy "The House Next Door" by Anne Rivers Siddons.  I think I was convinced to scare the crap out of myself and read this by the effervescent Raych.  No one can do a sales job like her.  And what a book, but I'm not so sure I should be sitting at my parents' house, in the quiet and dark, reading about a house that kills.  But maybe I'm just being a weenie.

Plans for tomorrow?  Church, to exorcise all the evil brought upon me by this book.  Driving my daughter to the animal shelter (because my presence is no longer desired).  A little run maybe.  And some sleeping.  

And now back to malevolent televisions and dead puppies.


Friday, October 12, 2012

Unlikely Friendships - Jennifer S. Holland

I've seen reviews of this book everywhere, I've seen the book in bookstores, and every time I have to stop and allow myself a moment to feel all mushy and happy.  There is no need to analyze anything in this book, second-guess plots or pick apart characterization.  This book was put on this earth to raise spirits.  Period.

I was more than thrilled to be offered this book at SIBA by Workman Publishing.  It literally MADE MY DAY.  I carried the book around in my arms for a better part of the afternoon, touching it and opening it to random pages.  Instant stress relief.

In this book that is therapy applied to the page, there are 47 stories of unique pairings of animals.  They are friends, these little guys.  The hunters and the hunted snuggle together in the wild, like a leopard and a cow in India.  Or a snake and a hamster in Japan!  Can you imagine?  Others are just...bizarre, like an iguana and a cat, or a dog and a koi fish.  What on earth could a dog and a fish have in common, I have no idea, but they like to hang out apparently.      

Some come together temporarily for comfort and warmth, when they are rescued from a forest fire, or when a baby is separated from or abandoned by it's mother.  Like the Bobcat kitten and the fawn, or the mothering mutt and the red panda cubs.  Other friendships extend over years and years, for no real reason except for companionship.  Like the Asiatic black bear and the black cat, or the nearsighted deer and the poodle.  Honestly, I almost can't stand it, it is so flipping sweet.     

The book is something you can read casually, whenever you need a bright spark in your day.  Or you can consume it in a few hours like I did, and drive your family crazy by screaming "...and look at this one!  Awww, and this one!  Oh, and this one!".  It is a book you will keep out on your coffee table, ready and waiting to be picked up and loved by your friends and family.  I can give you my personal guarantee that there isn't a human on this earth that has half a heart that could resist this book.  Promise.

5 out of 5 stars