Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Maui #4

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova (audio)

If you are one of the 1.5 million people who have read Kostova's mega-hit debut The Historian, you already know the depths at which she can take you with her long-winded, magical story-telling. Kostova is famous for her slow, methodical building of a mystery, her meandering but beautiful prose, and her use of letters to allow the reader a peek into history. It is no wonder that the release of her second novel, The Swan Thieves, she had the literary and blogging communities in a dither (including moi).

She takes a decidedly more gentle tact this time around. Andrew Marlow is a psychiatrist who is also an accomplished artist. For this reason, Marlow is assigned to take on the care of famous artist Robert Oliver, who brutally attacked a painting in National Gallery, then proceeded to become mute once institutionalized. Marlow becomes almost obsessed with the mystery behind Oliver's silence, and begins to investigate and interview important individuals in Oliver's life, specifically his ex-wife and his girlfriend. He also discovers letters in Oliver's possession from 19th century France between a beautiful young painter, Beatrice de Clerval, and her uncle Olivier Vignot. Through narration from each of these individuals, we are plunged into their stories. Oliver's wife's frustration with her husband's eccentric ways. Oliver's girlfriend's desperation in finding a first love with someone just out of reach. Romantic and yet forbidden love between Beatrice and Olivier. And at the heart of each story is the sweeping, grand love of creating art on the canvas.

I have very conflicting emotions about this novel. I really cannot deny the beauty and fragility and complexity of this story. It is one where you are immersed in the journey. I fell in love with Beatrice and her uncle Olivier. My heart skipped a beat when I reached those parts of the story where we learned about them.

And while his character development was vivid, I did NOT like Robert Oliver. At all. Was I supposed to like a man whose romantic but juvenile obsession destroyed the lives of everyone who loved him? Was I supposed to be endeared by his undependability, his slobby habits, and his madness? I became highly annoyed by his antics, his self-absorption and selfishness, and didn't feel that it could (or should) be chalked up to an artist's creative spirit and dismissed.

I also was not invested in Andrew Marlow either. He seemed rather dull and plodding. I did, however, truly enjoy hearing from Oliver's ex-wife Kate and girlfriend Mary. They were both strong and interesting female characters, and combined with the strength of Beatrice, were truly pillars that supported the entire plot.

While listening to this novel on audio, my impression was that it seemed very gentle, wandering and dreamlike (like an Impressionist painting?). Maybe too gentle. It was an engaging story, but had I been in a less tolerant mood, I might have been a little bored and wondering when we were going to get to the point already. One of Kostova's trademarks is her ability to go on, and we all know this going into it, but it could have benefited from a couple hundred less pages.

From an audio standpoint, we were treated with a multi-narrator production, which will rarely let you down. Some of my best audio experiences have resulted because of multiple narrators. In this situation, we had voices for Marlow, Kate, Mary, Beatrice and Olivier, and was extremely entertaining.

Have you read either of Kostova's novels? What were your impressions?

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - Because Everyone Needs a Sidekick

For today's Monday Movie Meme hosted by The Bumbles, they revel a bit in the perks of being the owner of a weekly meme. They get first dibs on the best movies to use as examples for the theme of the week, which is a fitting prize for all their hard work. However, wouldn't it be nice for them to have a little help now and again? If you have a great idea for a Monday Movie Meme topic, e-mail them your idea(found on their "About" tab) and you too can be a host, and get first dibs for once! You can bet I'll be dreaming up an idea for a topic!

But speaking of help, what about those hilarious, loyal sidekicks that make a leading guy or lady so successful? Here are some of my tried and true favorites:

Donkey (Shrek) - eternally optimistic, a loyal friend despite grumpy ogreness, and a lover of dragons and waffles, this is probably my favorite role for Eddie Murphy.

Pedro (Napolean Dynamite) - power to the downtrodden! You don't see too many movies where the sidekick actually gets to be President.

Sam (LOTR) - Sam sure does love his Frodo. What more could you ask of a friend than to battle Orcs, Gollum, a big spider, starvation and molten lava?

Robin (Batman and Robin) - I'm not really saying I was all that cracked up on the Chris O'Donnell version of Robin, but the IDEA of him is awesome. This probably stems back to my youth of watching Batman on the TV series.

Leo Getz (Lethan Weapon 3 and 4) - yes, I know he was really annoying, but how can I not include the guy who delivers one of the best statements ever made on film? Nothing could be closer to the truth, Leo.

Sunday Salon: Book Fair go bye-bye

Good morning friends! Even though I have been posting every day, I feel I have been away on a long journey, the journey being the Book Fair. Running this event requires most of my time the week leading up to it, and the week of. I absolutely love the look on the little ones' faces when they come into the fair for the first time. I remember all of the excitement I felt when I was their age, pouring over the catalog and prioritizing my reading "needs". Being a Catholic school, we also have a table of religious books, and I can't even tell you how my heart melted when I saw a little boy rejecting a Transformers book and begging for a children's Bible. That all being said, this is the fourth fair I have run and I'm ready to move on to a different challenge. It was with relief that I bid this whole business goodbye on Friday afternoon!

We are also ramping up for our Adult Literacy League "Reading Between the Wines" event on April 9. We had our last official meeting this week, and are solidifying all of the details. Believe it or not, but we have 60 author-signed books on the auction, thanks to all of you and your generosity!

My son also had a field trip to St. Augustine on Friday, and because I went on this trip with my daughter and life has to be fair, I took time off from the Book Fair to visit one of my favorite Florida cities, the oldest European-established city in the US in fact. I never tire of seeing the old coquina walls, the Castillo de San Marco, the ancient churches, shopping on St. George Street, the cobbled roads, and the Fountain of Youth. I had to leave the field trip early to finish up the Book Fair, but was totally worth it.

Unfortunately, while I was on the field trip, I received a text from my friend Julie (one of my high school friends that I cruised with last October) that a mutual friend from high school died of unknown causes on Thursday night. We had all gotten reacquainted through Facebook, and had been planning on getting together when I come up to Indiana this July. It is hard to even get my head around the death of a 43 year-old woman who should have had a lifetime ahead of her; someone who I had just been messaging on Facebook three days prior. May God bless her soul.

I fear my reading has been on the back burner for all of the above reasons. I am still reading "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Lionel Shriver. It is dark, guys. It is genius, but at the same time like slogging through an underground sewer tunnel, and I just can't read it for long. With the reclaiming of my life next week, I hope to finish it and move on to a number of shorter books that my daughter has read and wants me to read so we can discuss. I am listening to "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston on audio, and am nearly finished. Ms. Hurston is one amazing author with a breathtaking gift, and am proud to call her a local author. I know they made this book into a TV movie, so I may do a Read the Book/See the Movie review. The kids and I have about a half a disc left on the 5th Harry Potter book, and am officially overdue to return the audio. I have renewed the maximum number of times, and just have to ride it out and pay my penance.

This morning I had to bid my parents goodbye, as they leave their winter home down here next door to us, and go back to Indiana. Life gets a whole lot harder when they are not around, that is for sure. It leaves me feeling a little melancholy.

I prepare myself for a tiny bit of normalcy next my disgustingly filthy house, preparing a proper meal of an evening, and regular exercise. It is also Holy Week, which is a very special time. On Thursday, the kids' begin their Spring Break as well. I'm really looking forward to all of it! Happy Palm Sunday!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Maui Highlights

It has been a little over two weeks since my family and I returned from Maui, but the memories are still fresh in my mind and heart. I don't believe we have ever had a vacation that has been so magical. We had some extraordinary experiences during our week stay, so of course I want to share them with you, just in case you decide that Maui is your next vacation destination.

1. Whale-watching

The Humpback Whale migration season runs approximately December through March, with the channels right off Maui being their super-highway. There are a many companies offering a 2-3 hour cruise, guaranteeing the opportunity to see whales. Smaller boats may give a better bird's eye view (at a significantly higher price tag), but by law all boats, big and small, must stay within a minimum number of feet from the animals. For this reason, your best value is to choose a larger boat, which charge about $35pp, or slightly less expensive for early morning and mid-afternoon departures. There are ample choices all leaving from the Lahaina marina, and while reservations are recommended, there seemed to be plenty of seats available for walk-ups.

We saw no fewer than three or four dozen whales in a two hour period. Some launching themselves out of the water, some slapping their fins in some sort of mating ritual, some mothers with calves. The sight was breath-taking. For those of you that own cameras with a good zoom and high shutter speed, you are going to catch some great photos. I didn't even do half bad with my little Sony.

2. Zip-lining

We zip-lined a couple of years ago in Park City Utah, and loved the rush. We were intrigued with the idea of experiencing it in the mountains of Maui. There are a few companies that offer packages, all of them offering 6 to 8 zip-lines over a 3 hour period. Prepare for sticker-shock, however, at prices that start at $150pp and up. Reservations are a must, as tour groups are small (about 10 persons). There are height and weight must be at least 10 years old and 80 pounds, and you can't weigh more than 260. (By the way, they DO put you on a scale to prove it! Ack! Don't they know we've been on vacation?)

Our zip-line company, Skyline Eco-Adventures, involved a 30 to 40 minute van ride over rough terrain, then transferring to a "tank van" (van with tank treads) to get us up to higher elevations. If you are prone to motion-sickness, this jaunt could bother you. You are then suited up with harnesses and helmets, given some basic rules, then leave the rest of the work to your guides. The zip-lines started off small (about 400 feet long) and worked their way up to over a thousand feet long, all of them stretched over deep ravines. At these altitudes, it often rains, which means you may get wet and will be hiking from line to line in sticky, red clay. Dress accordingly! I fear some clothes have been ruined.

All of this may sound a bit dire, but I promise you, the sensation is worth the money and hardship. The views are incredible, and as you become braver and braver, are able to manipulate 360 degree turns that enable you to get some panoramic shots from your camera. (The picture to the left is my son taking off on one of the smaller zip lines.)

3. The Old Lahaina Luau

You can't come to Hawaii and not experience a Luau, right? You will find most resorts offer them, all at pretty stiff prices of $110pp and up. The word on the street, however, is that they can be pretty cheesy. We think perhaps we found the crown jewel of them all in the Old Lahaina Luau. Our AAA guide called it a gem, and we agree. The price tag is slightly less than the resorts at $92pp for adults and $62pp for kids.

You are welcomed with fresh leis and mai tais and shown to your reserved table that is situated around a stage. Your very dedicated server (ours was willing to do just about anything for us, as he was bucking for a good tip at the end of the night!) explains that the event has an open bar, and he will retrieve any possible concoction we could ever dream of (I told him he was going to lose money on us). There is Hawaiian music being played by a live band, and we are free to wander from station to station that allows hands-on opportunities to play Hawaiian instruments, learn how the women used to make clothing, and how the men make wood carvings. You can even have a family portrait taken in the sunset.

You are then drawn to a pit where a pig has been roasting in an underground oven for over 12 hours. I won't show you the picture of "Wilbur", but the sight could make a vegetarian out of some folks. I, however, enjoyed some savory roast pork later. Table by table, we are called to help ourselves to an extensive buffet featuring classic Hawaiian foods. My favorite was the pork and the Mahi Mahi. It is also worth noting that a gentleman at our table was a celiac (gluten allergy), and he was provided with a special plate of acceptable foods.

After sunset, the show begins. Through song and dance, we learn about the history of Hawaii. The performers are graceful and beautiful, and you leave with a deeper respect for the Hawaiian culture.

There is nothing cheap and tacky about this event. Our table mates commented that they had been to several other luaus, but this one was by far the nicest. This is one experience that is not to be missed! For more information on the Historic Lahaina Luau, see Uptake's website here.

4. Snorkeling

Like whale-watching, snorkeling tours are everywhere and can be quite expensive. We were about tapped out at this point, so when our dinner server gave us some snorkeling tips one evening, we took her advice. We avoided the rental huts on beach, and drove into Lahaina and rented some pretty decent snorkeling equipment for $7 a day. We drove to a public ocean park just north of where we were staying, and dove in. We were blown away. The coral reef there is vibrant and full of fish and sea turtles. The cove is somewhat protected, so the waves are gentle. And if you remain still, you can even hear the whales. Ironically, this was my husband's and daughter's favorite activity, and by far the cheapest!

5. Haleakala National Park

When you think of Hawaii, you think of volcanoes, and we all really thought we needed to see one, even if it was dormant. So we packed our bags and took off for this National Park. It was about a 2 hour drive from our hotel, and took us from sea level to 10,000 feet. Unfortunately, at this altitude, the weather is changeable...foggy one minute, raining the next minute, and sunny the minute after that. It is also insanely cold - in the 30's, so make sure you pack pants and jackets. We enjoyed looking over the rim of the crater, being above the clouds, and stalking cute wildlife.

At the Maui airport, on our way home, we were already pulling up information on Hawaiian cruises. We were all sad to leave, and had a kind of glow on our faces for some time after we were back to the drudgery. We hope to return again someday. And to ensure this, prescribed by ancient Hawaiian lore, we all stopped at a high overlook on our way to the airport, and threw our leis into the ocean.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Guest post with Cilla McCain, author of Murder in Baker Company

I'm very pleased to introduce you to the author of the riveting true crime novel Murder in Baker Company, Cilla McCain. Cilla is a full-time writer dedicated to topics of social injustice. She is with us today to share one specific example of the difficulties that face our servicemen.

Throughout the years it took me to write "Murder In Baker Company" my main focus was on military families as a whole. But the other day, I received a letter from a former soldier who is now in a Washington State Prison. He was a Sergeant in the Army and a nurse in charge of treating our wounded troops during and after the Iraq invasion of March 2003.

By his 2nd deployment in March 2005, he was addicted to the narcotics he started taking to mentally block out the trauma of deployment and treating the gruesome wounds of our men and women. It was so severe that he couldn’t eat food because the smell reminded him of burned bodies.

When he returned home for the second time, he was spiraling out of control and eventually committed armed robbery to get money for the mind numbing drugs he no longer had easy access to. He sent me the following piece of literature written by a Nez Perce Warrior Indian Elder (circa 1865). It is the most stirring account of PTSD feelings that I have ever seen and it is still absolutely relevant today:

They said I would be changed in my body.
I would move through the physical world in a different manner.
I would hold myself in a different posture.
I would have pain where there was no blood.
I would react to sights, sounds, movement and touch in a crazy way, as though I were back in war.

They said I would be wounded in my thoughts.
I would forget how to trust, and I would think that others were trying to hurt me. I would see dangers in the kindness and concern of my relatives and others.

Most of all, I would not be able to think in a reasonable manner, and it would seem that everyone else was crazy.

They told me that it would appear to me that I was alone even in the midst of the people, and that there was no one else like me.

They warned me that it would be as though my emotions were locked up, and I would be cold in my heart and not remember the ways of caring for others.

While I might give meat and blankets to the elders, or food to the children, I would not be able to feel the goodness of these actions. That I would do these things out of habit and not from caring. They predicted that I might do harm to others without plan or intention.

They knew that my spirit would be wounded.

They said I would be lonely and that I would find no comfort in family, friends, elders or spirits. I would be cut off from both beauty and pain. My dreams would be dark and frightening. My days would be filled with searching and not finding. I would not be able to find connections between myself and the rest of creation. I would look forward to an early death.

And, I would need cleansing in all these things.

Thank you Cilla, for doing your part in bringing these issues to the forefront, and being my guest today. It saddens my heart to hear of another human being suffering in this way, and pray that some day he will find peace.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Give Support to Children's Miracle Network

Easter is just around the corner, and this adorable basket from Hershey's Better Basket Blog Hop for Children's Miracle Network was awarded to me, as a follower of JoAnn at Lakeside Musing.

If you aren't familiar with Children's Miracle Network, it is a worthwhile non-profit organization whose mission is to generate funds and awareness programs in partnership with and for the benefit of member hospitals/foundations and the children they are privileged to serve. When it comes to organizations that benefit children in need, my heart goes out, and this is one effort I always support.

So, how can a virtual basket help CMN?

Hershey’s is donating $10 per each blog participating in the Better Basket Blog Hop for Children’s Miracle Network up to total of $5,000.

The Rules:

* Copy and paste these rules to your blog post.

* Create a blog post giving a virtual Easter Basket to another blogger – you can give as many Virtual Baskets as you want.

* Link back to person who gave you an Easter Basket.

* Let each person you are giving a Virtual Easter Basket know you have given them a Basket.

* Leave your link at comment section. You can also find the official rules of this #betterbasket blog hop, and more information about Better Basket with Hershey’s there.

Hershey’s is donating $10 per each blog participating to the Better Basket Blog Hop to Children’s Miracle Network (up to total of $5,000 by blog posts written by April 4th, 2010). (Please note that only one blog post by each blog url will count towards the donation.)

I'm thinking the sky's the limit here, so instead of naming specific blogs, I would like to extend this basket to each and every one of you. My heart is warmed when I think that not only do I blog for the love of reading, but also to benefit others in need. So have a chocolate virtual egg (no calories!), share it with your friends, and do it for the kids!

Wordless Wednesday: Maui #3

Boats at the end of the rainbow?

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Murder in Baker Company: How Four American Soldiers Killed One of their Own - Cilla McCain

I have a penchant for true stories...memoirs, biographies, and above all else, true crime. Knowing the documented events actually occurred inspires a need to know more; to understand human frailties. Why did this happen? What sickness or deadly sin drove the crime to occur? What was the outcome? How are the families coping years later? When approached to review McCain's account of an American soldier murdered by four of his own men, I knew there was no way I could walk away from this one. This is a story that needs to be told.

When Richard Davis was reported as AWOL after he returned from Iraq on leave, his father Lanny knew something was wrong. Richard was an upstanding kid...fiercely loyal to his country and his parents. He would never shirk his responsibilities as a son and a soldier. So Lanny began to search for him, and assumed as a retired military officer himself, he would find help from his brotherhood. He was wrong. He was faced with a total lack of cooperation from the highest ranking officers on down. Calls were not returned, stalling and intimidation tactics were used, so it took months before Richard's body was actually found, brutally stabbed and burned in a wooded area outside Fort Benning, GA. A crime of intense hate.

What unfolds from thereon is a twisted, shocking story of a young man, Richard Davis, bullied by a gang of his fellow soldiers with a history of violence, depression and attempted suicide. A story of previously unstable soldiers under additional pressure, with shortages of food and water, exposed to superiors committing unforgivable war crimes. Yet none of these issues were addressed. Even when the murder was being investigated, the members of Baker Company were so terrified to tell the truth, they instead wrote an anonymous letter simply signed "Men of Baker Company". Throughout the story, one starts to get the sick feeling that there is alot of dirty little secrets that the military would like to keep to themselves, and would go to lengths to keep it that way.

The final nail in the hearts of Richard Davis' parents is threefold. First, the ringleader of the four murderers plea-bargained and received a much lesser sentence. Second, after all of the political maneuvering and legal protection of the plea-bargainer, they never really got any answers to WHY their son was brutally murdered. And third, they had to fight to get their son's remains released for burial long after the trial concluded. The injustice never ended for them.

It is interesting to note that this story caught the attention of writer/director Paul Haggis, who used elements of the Davis case to film the Oscar-nominated movie In the Valley of Elah.

My husband likes to hear about stories like this and play devil's advocate. He always asks if we have gotten the entire story. Is it politically slanted? In this instance, I'd say McCain has her facts pretty buttoned up. There were many military officials that refused to be interviewed, but despite this, McCain attempts to question all angles and back up statements with documents and corroborative evidence.

The writing is also very smooth and easy to read. The only thing that would stop you from finishing this book in a few days would just be the topic, which can inspire some pretty terrifying emotions in a reader. In the chapter covering the actual trial, when you hear about the acts committed against Davis, you may need to put the book down for a bit. It is more than even a hardened, true crime junkie like me can take. As the mother of a son, I can barely stomach the idea of someone's child suffering like this.

I would like to thank Jaime from Pump Up Your Book Promotion for the opportunity to review this phenomenal book!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, March 22, 2010

My weekend of Cursillo

I know you are used to hearing me ramble on about movies on Monday, but I needed to take a step back and regroup after my weekend retreat, and share my thoughts while they are still fresh.

I will state up front that one of the amazing things (as well as maddening!) is that for those who have made a Cursillo, what happens on this three day weekend is a BIG SECRET! This is not for any sinister reason, but just to keep from spoiling any of the magic and the surprises from potential candidates. So per my unwritten oath, I can't provide specifics.

Cursillo is an International Christian movement that was created originally in the Roman Catholic Church, but has been adopted by many different Christian denominations since its beginning. It originated in Spain, and became such a powerful instrument that it spread worldwide, with elected offices and an official corporate organization. So the story goes, on one of the first Cursillo weekends in Spain, a group of men were coming back from their weekend when their bus broke down. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the men started singing a traditional folk song called De Colores, changed it a bit to reflect the joy of their weekend, and has since become the theme song of the movement. The song talks about roosters, cluck-hens and babe-chicks (which we chose to think of ourselves this weekend - ha!), which is why you will see these symbols in conjunction with the movement.

Generally, married couples attend these retreats, but there were singles there as well. The men go one weekend, then about two weeks later, their wives attend. In our case, my husband went last October, but I couldn't go until the spring. So my poor husband had to keep his mouth shut for a great deal longer than most men. And when you leave, all you want to do is talk about how incredible the experience was. So I give him credit!

The weekend is run by a team of people who have been through Cursillo, and the movement is their passion and their mission. They provide you the practical tools you need, as an adult, to renew your faith and live a Christian life. There are emotional stories...people overcoming unbelievable obstacles, baring their souls to show us that through God's love anything is possible. There is music. There is prayer. There is laughter. You are split up in teams that soon become your extended family. I found it almost inconceivable that THIS much love could be present among a group of women who were all strangers on Thursday night (especially after we all slept on bunk beds in the same room and shared the same bathroom!). You also are shown, in the most tangible way possible, how many people (some you know, and some you don't) are praying for you while you are away. It is simply overwhelming.

I am a type A person, and I have my life planned out for every minute of the day. I had to let that all go. I had no phone contact with my family. I never knew what time it was. The team worried about that for us. I didn't know when I was waking up, or going to sleep, or eating. This, people, was bizarre, but was important for the weekend to work. No noise, no distractions, singular focus. It was liberating.

I've had other spiritual epiphanies in my life. I was not born a Catholic, so I went through the RCIA program before my husband and I had children, a long preparatory process to become a Catholic. I was confirmed by the Bishop at Easter Vigil, and was as high as a kite afterwards. But that euphoria fades over time. The beauty about Cursillo is that they subscribe to weekly "grouping", monthly meetings, and various other vehicles to keep that feeling alive.

I don't know if any of you out there have ever experienced Cursillo. If you have not, I would encourage you from the bottom of my heart to seek it out. While it is officially supported by the Catholic Church, there are other denominations that host these weekends as well that have a similar structure. Google it and see if there is an active movement in your area. It is a gift. One that I promise you will never regret!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Salon: A Few Days Early

Hello friends! I am actually writing my Sunday Salon on Thursday, so I am cheating a little bit. I leave this evening to attend a three-day religious retreat called Cursillo. I am not allowed a phone, a computer or an iPod. I am miles from my house, on a secluded campus with about 40 other women. My husband attended the men's Cursillo last fall, but refuses to tell me what is going to happen, except that it will change my life, and I will come home mentally exhausted. Anyway, I couldn't NOT post a Sunday Salon, so you are getting the Thursday edition.

Let's just say it has been a crazy week, full of dentist appointments, various doctor appointments, a school play, setup for the book fair next week, and a golf tournament. I left my A game at home for the was shameful. But I did win a raffle prize consisting of a huge basket of Irish things plus other stuff...Irish whisky, Irish tea, a tea strainer, St. Patrick's Day socks and t-shirt, chocolate golf balls (mmmm), wine charms, St. Patrick's Day name it. So that was cool. I guess it made up for the 2 billion balls I hit into the water.

I managed to exercise just a tad more than the week before. Not much more, but a tad. Once the book fair is over with next week, I'm back on the case.

I still continue to read Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I'm completely invested. I just haven't had much sitting time, so I'm not even quite halfway through it. After I finished The Swan Thieves on audio, I went right into Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (loved it, but not as much as Shutter Island), and am nearly through David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, which is good for what ails ya. The kids and I have less than TWO DISCS left on Harry Potter 5, and should wrap that up next week.

I happened to read somewhere this past week that the Dewey 24-Hour Read-a-thon is happening on April 10th. Is this true? We have no volleyball games that day, the Adult Literacy League event is on the 9th, so I'm thinking I might be able to participate this time! I sure hope so! And maybe I can convince my daughter to do it with me!

So I will go incommunicado this evening, so you won't my yackity-yack around for awhile. In fact, you may not have me around much next week, as the book fair is like a full-time plus job. But I promise friends, I WILL be back!!!!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Stone's Fall - Iain Pears

Stone's Fall has been high on my list to read for some time, after an overwhelmingly positive five-star review from Jackie at Farm Lane Books. If you know Jackie, she doesn't hand out these types of reviews often, so when she does, I stand up and take notice. I put the book on my wish list, and lo and behold, my Secret Santa, Trisha at Eclectic/Eccentric, bought it for me this Christmas! I promptly put the book on my TBR Challenge list.

Despite Jackie's excellent review of this book, I still was not quite prepared for the enormity or the impact of this story.

The basic premise of the book revolves around a highly successful businessman, John Stone, who has tripped and fallen out of a window in his home and died tragically in turn-of-the-century London. His young widow hires a journalist (one completely inept in all things financial and our narrator in Part 1) to track down a unidentified child of Stone's who was bequeathed a large sum of money in his will. Stone is a shadowy, enigmatic figure; it is hard to pin him down. The more the journalist digs into Stone's complex world of bonds, buyouts, espionage and secrets, the more we all discover that there is more to Stone than meets the eye. The stage has been set with an intriguing cast of characters that surrounded Stone in life. An ambitious hooker. A British spy. A widow with a past. A fortune-teller. Colorful folks.

Part 2 and 3 of the novel progressively steps back in time, narrated by an associate of Stone's, and then finally Stone himself. Stone's history is revealed, peeled back layer by layer, as well as the history of his wife, his colleagues, and events that made Stone the man he is. Character development is intricately established; it is complex and thorough, in the form of 600 pages that cannot be quickly consumed.

Granted, I was reading this book while being distracted by bathroom renovations, book fair preparations, and the kids' busy schedules. But I questioned whether all those pages were necessary. Until I got to the end.

The only comparison I could come up with was this. Imagine you are hanging out with I.M. Pei while he is slinging together a bar of steel, and pane of glass, some bricks and stuff. Detailed work. He is talented for sure, a master, and fun to watch, but what is he really up to? Your mind wanders. Then you look up, and voila! The Pyramide du Louvre.

At it's heart, this is a classic mystery, with a completely unexpected, satisfying twist at the end. Jackie compared it to Fingersmith, and I wouldn't disagree. As with the I.M. Pei analogy, I look back on the reading experience, and wish I would have paid closer attention to details, with my new found knowledge gained at book's end. It begs for a re-read. It begs to have its praises sung. Read it now.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hold Tight - Harlan Coban (audio)

Right after I started blogging, I listened to my first Harlan Coban novel, Tell No One. It was an insanely wild ride, with twists and turns that no one could predict, and had I been rating my books at that time, I would have probably given it a 4.5 or 5. In my mind, he certainly established himself as mystery thriller writer with serious chops. My BFF, who was responsible for introducing me to the world of audios years ago, offered to loan me her library copy of this audio, and I didn't have to think twice. My blood pressure could use a little jolt!

Now normally in this portion of my review, I tell you about the plot. That is going to be difficult in this situation, because we had plots coming from every crevice of the story. The story is primarily focused on Tia and Mike Baye, a fairly normal suburban couple, and their children. Adam, their teenage son, has been going through a rough patch since his best friend's suicide, and his parents are concerned. They have even installed a computer program to spy on Adam's computer activities. Then Adam goes missing.

After two or three discs, I began to take notes on all of the plots that develop from chapter to chapter. We have a serial murderer on the loose, abducting, torturing and killing middle-aged women. We peek into the lives of the parents of Adam's friend that killed himself, and their belief there was more to it than just a depressed child. We learn about how a careless comment made by a teacher nearly ruined a young girl's life. About a little boy who needs an organ transplant, and in the process of testing, it is discovered that the child's father is not his biological parent. We enter a world of prescription drug dealing. Holy cow. Coban does manage to tie everything together in the end, but navigating through the maze of storylines became almost distracting. The coincidences and connections that had to occur to pull all the threads together tested my patience with its outlandishness.

The pace was frantic and quite satisfying though. The tension started out high, and continued to steadily build, to the point where you couldn't help but compulsively listen. Coban also introduces not only heart-racing action, but some philosophical issues that will hit close to home in the heart of any parent. What right does a child have to his or her privacy? Are you willing to jeopardize trust with your child to ensure their safety? Is there such a thing as parent over-involvement in their children's lives, thereby smothering them and not allowing them to rebel as all teenagers do?

The beauty about Coban's writing, if I may be so bold to judge after two of his books, is that he infuses passion into his words. Loss of a spouse, loss of a child, trying to do right by your family, making tough has never been better expressed than through his novels. It is clear that Coban is writing what he knows and what he feels. The emotion is palpable. Throw in some intrigue and murder most foul, and this is the package you are handed.

Put all that through the wine press, and you get another solid thriller with substance. It wasn't perfect, but worth your time. Just bring your compass.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Maui #2

Maui is for lovebirds.

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Read the Book/See the Movie: Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane (audio)

Many bloggers have told me Lehane's best work was Mystic River. I've not read this book yet, but that is soon to be remedied. I did read The Given Day in January, and it was solid, albeit a few discs too long. But with the movie Shutter Island on the horizon, a Scorcese film no less, I was compelled to give this one a shot. Perfect for the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge, yes?

I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into. Holy crap.

U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, with his partner Chuck, have been summoned to Aschecliffe Hospital, home to the most dangerous, criminally insane, located on isolated Shutter Island. Apparently, a psychotic patient named Rachel Solando has escaped and cannot be found. While the marshall's flounder in their investigation, running into roadblocks, secretive and unhelpful hospital personnel, and more questions than answers, we begin to get some history on Teddy. The man is seriously, emotionally damaged as a result of recently losing his wife tragically and from his experiences in WWII. He has dreams that take on significance, he hears his dead wife counseling him, he questions the existence of a God that allowed the Holocaust to occur.

And this is where I must stop. Telling you any more makes no sense. The further you get into the novel, the more you begin to live in Teddy's skin. You feel his doubts, his anguish, his confusion and desperation. There are smoke and mirrors. You begin to question everything. What is real? What is an illusion? Are you losing your mind? Is this a setup? Teddy has no clue, and you won't either. The book ends with a climax like I have never seen before. It is a total mindf**k.

I can't speak for the printed version, but the audio was beyond powerful. And when this climax occurs, about halfway through the last disc, prepare yourself. I can't remember EVER having a reaction quite this one. I stumbled off my elliptical trainer, and shaking, had to sit on the floor for awhile. I will even go out on a limb here, and double-dog dare you to listen to this audio and not have a intense reaction. I promise you, it will bring you to your knees.

This audio would not be what it is without the narrator Tom Stechschulte. While he has acting creds, he has also narrated McCarthy's No Country for Old Men and The Road, Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, and O'Brien's The Things They Carried. His voice is raw, rough and emotive, perfectly suited for the genre with which he is affiliated.

Knowing now, in advance, the twists (but with just as many questions as ever), how will the movie hold up? If I would have read a book version of The Sixth Sense, would the movie have made the same mind-blowing impact on me?

Additional note: After this book had its way with me, I mentioned it to one of my book club buddies, and we agreed this HAD to be the next book club selection, in which we would read the book, then reunite to see the movie together, then discuss the whole mess over drinks!


The book club members were all extremely excited to see the movie. We all grabbed hotdogs, popcorn and beer, and nestled in for a wild ride. Overall, the movie stayed fairly true to the book, up until the last sentence, but more on that in a minute. I felt there was perhaps more attention given to Teddy's emotional baggage with WWII, and less attention given to his relationship with his wife. Also, knowing the plot, its twists and turns, it was interesting how we easily spotted non-verbal cues that hinted that things weren't as they seemed. The climax (the one that forced me off my elliptical trainer) was just as impactful as on audio. My friend next to me cried. It made me nauseous. It was as visually disturbing as a scene could be.

But here is the deal guys. Mr. Scorcese or his screenwriter, or whoever, added one sentence to the end of the movie (that was NOT in the book) that completely changed the meaning and tone of the ending. I sat up in my theater seat and exploded "WHAT??". I couldn't believe it. Do I think that the edited ending added to the plot? Yes! Still, how dare they? I think I was the most insulted of the group...the others didn't get quite so passionate over it.

I thought all of the actors were well-cast. No complaints there. I used to sneer at DiCaprio, and thought him a twerp. I suppose he has proven himself enough times recently that I can now take him seriously.

Had I not read the book, I think I would have been a little confused throughout the movie. While the twists were not a surprise, we had the benefit of the back story, which really enhanced our viewing experience. The entire book club did feel, at the end of the day, that the book was better than the movie.

Book: 5 out 5 stars

Movie: 4 out 5 stars

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - Date Night

This week's Monday Movie Meme topic from the Bumbles is our personal musings on date night movies. Date night means many different things to many different people. If you are young, it means an opportunity to make out. Who really knows what drivel you are actually watching? To old married fogies like us, it means watching a (hopefully) quality movie that you can discuss after the fact. As long as one of you doesn't fall asleep. Which does tend to happen, especially if you are home in your comfy chairs and stretched out sweats and drinking wine.

It has been some time since I've been out on an official movie "date". If my husband and I have the rare privilege of going out without the kids, it is usually for fine dining or some type of event. Almost never a movie. We do that at home compliments of Netflix. So I have to crank the brain back to my high school and college days, and even after pondering the topic over a glass of wine, I'm not doing a good job of remembering squat.

In high school, despite my multitude of dates that I am sure included movies, I can only remember one. And that was my steady boyfriend Tom and I going to see Risky Business. I'm pretty sure we liked it, and I can't imagine I wasn't horrified by that sex scene on the train, but no specifics come to mind. A guy friend of mine took me to the movies once when I'd been dumped, but remember bitching to him about all my troubles, and don't think I saw more than ten minutes of the movie, and have no idea what movie it was, except that I'd seen it before.

Most of my movie escapades in high school were with my girlfriends. Ad nauseum, we saw An Officer and a Gentleman, Footloose, St. Elmo's Fire, all the slasher films, and Twilight Zone the movie. No guys crashed our party. I did see a slasher film (a 3D one...Halloween? Friday the 13th? Is there such a thing?) with a group of friends, and my friend Danny's hand got in the way of a fingernail of mine when I got scared and flailed around, and scarred him for awhile (at least through his senior pictures, which gave me a permanent reminder).

My best friend dated one of my ex-boyfriends for awhile. I think the goal was for the ex to make me jealous, and for the BFF to just see if he was all that. She went to see a Star Wars flick with him, then putt putt. I could have cared less.

Fast-forward to when I met my husband, about a year out of college. We had debts coming out of all cracks and crevices. So we cooked for each other at home with our mad culinary skillz, played tennis, went for walks dreaming about having two dimes to rub together, and watched some HBO. Once in awhile a dinner out at the local Chinese joint, where I learned to use chopsticks. I know we did frequent the dollar theater, but only can remember specifically seeing the movie Parenthood. We got in a huge debate on the name of one of the actresses. I swore on my future children's lives that it was Mia Farrow. It was not. Anytime I insist I am right, my husband only has to say two words...Mia Farrow.

So there you go. It makes me wonder if I am slowly losing my faculties. I mean, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I hear certain songs! Why have all memories about movies slipped out my right ear and into the stratosphere? My theory is that I had more important things on my mind at the time. It's just a theory.

Sunday Salon: Checked out

Howdy friends! We're not in Maui anymore Toto...we boarded a plane last Monday, headed for home and some cold, hard reality! You know what it is like when you come home after a week of playing. 12 loads of laundry, no food, a dirty house, jet lag, and work/school the next day. To add insult to injury, my first official task was dealing with the local cable company in an attempt to hook up an additional TV in our new workout room. I think cable companies are uniformly obnoxious and incompetent nationwide, so I'm sure you understand it when I tell you I turn into a homicidal madwoman when they enter my home. I don't even like myself when they are around. I also had the pleasure of a couple of doctor's appointments this week as well, so I knew the vacation was officially over. But all was not lost. Let me reflect on the bright side of the week and stop my whining.

I had the pleasure of having lunch with a local author and blogging friend Danette Haworth. My daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed Danette's debut novel, Violet Raines Almost Got Struck By Lightning. She graciously donated a signed copy for the Adult Literacy League silent auction. AND, she gave me a preview copy of her new novel Summer of Moonlight Secrets, which is to be released in May. My daughter and I are all over this one! Stay tuned for that review in early May.

We also had another Adult Literacy League meeting, and are ramping up to a fever pitch for our annual fundraising event on April 9th. Oh, the books I've received for donation! Believe me when I tell you that each and every one of you, as book lovers, would be in pulp utopia over the book table alone at this event. And the exciting news is that I will be the monitor/host/garden variety obsessive for the book table, promoting and selling bidders on the literary feasts on the auction block.

Another highlight was book club, and our Read the Book/See the Movie extravaganza with Shutter Island (review coming this Tuesday). I think I've already waxed orgasmic over the book, and I really enjoyed the movie as well. I will zip my lip at this point, and save my rantings and blabbings for the review. I have yet to receive word on the next book selection, but am excited at the prospect of my BFF joining the club next month. One can never have enough nights out with the BFF.

I had a respectable week of reading for a change. I finished my ARC Murder in Baker Company on the airplane back from Maui, and also started and finished The Dead and the Gone, the second book in the Last Survivors Trilogy. My daughter and I both reviewed this one, which you will see in another couple of weeks. I started Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, and am only about 60 pages into it. But still, I remember why I fell in love with her book The Post-Birthday World. This woman's writing is so...clever. And smart. I want to have lunch with Lionel Shriver, at the risk of being made to look like a simpleton.

I also finished The Swan Thieves on audio (a long 17 discs!), and started Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (only 5 discs, believe it or not). I might become a fangirl of Lehane, only to be outloved by Connie May Fowler and Sarah Waters and Jacqueline Woodson. I'll let you know when I decide. The kids and I are closing in on the last few discs of the fifth Harry Potter audio book, with the 6th on the way from the library. This one has been very close to a commitment, but a good one nevertheless.

With all the ruckus this week, I am ashamed to report that I only exercised 4 miles. FOUR MILES! With every other week since January 1st averaging about 23 miles. I didn't even report it to Trisha, our host for the 100 Mile Fitness Challenge. I am embarrassed. I fear it will not improve for the month of March. Next week brings setup for the Book Fair of which I am in charge (I will take pictures), several more doctor appointments, final touches on my renovated bathroom, a golf tournament, and a three day religious retreat that promises an epiphany that will change my life (per my husband who participated in the fall).

I have attempted to make the rounds to visit my favorite blogs this week, but have failed miserably. I take pride in being a sociable blogger, but life has swallowed me whole. This may continue for another couple of weeks, but will be back in the saddle soon. I promise!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Universal Studios Orlando - From a local's point of view

A few weeks ago, my husband and I drove eleven whole miles to Universal Studios Orlando, where we would stay for the weekend with our kids. You might question our sanity...why on earth would we pay for a hotel in the same city in which we live? Why would we do this on an annual basis? We have a perfectly good explanation. And when I thought about it, we have learned a few tricks over the years that lead to a happier, less stressful visit to Universal Orlando's two theme parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Why not share these tricks with our friends?

1. If you can, stay on property

Universal has three onsite Loew's properties that are all very nice...Royal Pacific Resort (least expensive), Hard Rock Hotel (mid-priced) and Portofino Bay Hotel (most expensive). All are within walking distance from the parks, although Hard Rock Hotel is closest. You may also take a free water taxi to the parks as well. You will not need your car once you arrive.

If you stay on property, your room key acts as an express pass to any ride with an express option. This means no lines. It is worth its weight in gold, and is worth paying a little more for the hotels. Even during the slow months, lines for the popular rides will escalate to 45 minutes and up by mid-day. One new coaster, "Rip Ride Rockit", does not allow the express option, a major flaw in my opinion. This requires some special care and consideration. But more on that in a minute.

Your room key also gets you into the park approximately 30 minutes before the masses, giving you plenty of time to race around and ride in the front row of your favorite ride. If you like roller coasters, my advice would be to ride front row of The Hulk and Dueling Dragons (which will be called something else once Harry Potter opens), which are both located in Islands of Adventure.

2. Buy passes online

This comes in handy particularly if you are a Florida Resident. Tickets are significantly cheaper if you buy them this way. Also there are often promotional perks for buying online, like coupons.

3. High thrill or low key?

Each park is distinct in the type of featured attractions. Both parks have rides for small children, but Islands of Adventure features some high thrill rides with height requirements equivalent to a 10 or 11 year old kid. Universal Studios rides generally are more gentle. So if you have a little one, or a big one that isn't interested in going high, fast and upside down and getting wet, Universal Studios might be where you spend more of your time.

4. Leave the backpack at home

In addition to the requisite searches performed on all bags going into the parks, which can take some time, there are a number of rides where you cannot take your bags. You are required to rent a locker to store them while riding. This may not bother you, but I would rather just wear shorts with pockets and not deal with it.

5. Civilized dining

Both parks have ample options for fast food, but I'm not a big fan of the greasy grab-and-go. I like to take a nice time-out and be waited on. In Islands of Adventure, I would recommend the restaurant Mythos, located within a rock formation with waterfalls.

In Universal Studios, our favorite is Lombard's Seafood Grill, in the re-creation of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. It is Universal Studios' flagship restaurant for a good reason. The fish is fresh, the wait staff is friendly and attentive, and the atmosphere is plush and quiet.

There are other phenomenal, five star restaurants immediately outside the parks as well. Some of our favorites are Tchoup Chop at Royal Pacific, Mama Della's at Portofino Bay, The Palm at Hard Rock Hotel, and Emeril's at City Walk. Most of these restaurants fill up quickly, so make sure you make reservations well in advance.

Keep in mind that most restaurants honor the AAA discount, so bring your card and don't for get to mention it to your server.

I should also mention that Universal also offers a family meal plan...$20 per day for adults and $10 for kids for one park, and slightly more for two parks. This allows you to eat all day at a select number of the grab-and-go eating establishments (Mythos and Lombard's are not included!). This is a pretty good deal if you plan on eating more than one meal inside the parks, and you don't mind fast food. Keep in mind these participating locations are not open for breakfast. Personally, this would not be an option I would choose, but you need to be aware that it is heavily promoted.

6. Harry Potter is coming

The air is almost electric with anticipation for the newest addition to Islands of Adventure, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Construction of Phase 1 is nearly complete as you can see below, and employees tell us they think it will be open in April or May. The grand opening is going to be huge. I shudder to think what crowds will be like when it happens.

7. Plan ahead if you want to ride "Rip Ride Rockit"

Universal Studios latest crown jewel is this ride, which opened last summer. The hook for this ride, beyond it being an amazing roller coaster, is that you are allowed to select one of about 30 songs to listen to while you ride. They have something for, rock and roll, pop, electronic, and rap. There is also a video camera built into the back of each seat to capture your every facial expression, which can be viewed (and purchased of course) after you disembark.

The ride is insanely popular, and does not have an express option yet. What this means is that 30 minutes after the park opens, you are looking at about an hour wait or more. So unless you have the patience to stand in long lines, your best bet is to make this ride your first stop of the day.

Universal however, will not let even early visitors (those who stay on property) to proceed past a certain point in this park until the park officially opens, which only allows you to ride Jimmy Neutron and Shrek 4D early. The result is about a hundred twitchy people amassing in a dense crowd, waiting for "the signal" from a sacrificial Universal employee. Once that signal comes, it is like running with the bulls, all heading in one direction, and it is scary. I'm not sure who thought this was a good idea, because eventually someone will get hurt or trampled. My advice is to make peace with an extra five or ten minutes of wait, and avoid bodily harm by steering clear of the mob.

8. For those who aren't staying on property

Not everyone is in the position to stay in one of the Universal hotels, but instead stay in a less expensive hotel or with friends. My family has annual passes, so more often than not, we are popping in when the kids get a day off from school or on the weekend. Your best bet in this situation is to get to the parks when they open, and hit as many rides as you can before noon. In the afternoon, just about all rides have excruciatingly long waits. Save the afternoon for an enjoyable lunch, shopping in the parks or in the shops right outside the park at CityWalk, going to the movies at CityWalk, or, if you have little ones, playing at one of the parks playgrounds.

Unless you have a pass that includes parking, you will be charged $14 a day. All parking is in a garage and is covered, which is nice in the summer when it is hot and rains daily. Budget some extra time to get from the parking garage to the parks - at least 15 minutes or more. It is a long walk and there are no trolleys like you see at other parks.

If you ever wander down here to my neck of the woods, and visit our fair city and its theme parks, I hope this helps!

For more information on Universal Studios Orlando, click here for UpTake's website.