Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott - Kelly O'Connor McNees (Audio)

Before I start talking, you all need to get out your horse whips, tomatoes, eggs, and other weapons of derision.  I'll wait.

OK.  I've never read Little Women.  Nor have I read anything written by Louisa May Alcott.  I've told you before that my high school literary education was lacking, and I guess I'm paying the price now. It's for this reason that I never felt inclined to read any of the Alcott spin-offs, including this one, even though the reviews were glowing. 
Then I discovered that this novel was narrated by Emily Janice Card, the same narrator for my beloved "Revolution" by Jennifer Donnelly.  "Hey!  I can do this", I said to myself.  Just because I've not read Little Women doesn't mean I don't know anything about it.

Synopsis:  It is a fact that before Louisa May Alcott died, she burned some papers, but no one knows what they were.  It is also a fact that there was one summer in her life that is undocumented, the one her family spent in Walpole, NH, which is perplexing since Louisa kept journals consistently throughout her entire life.  Then of course there is the question of "why didn't Jo and Laurie get together?" in Little Women (an enigma that has haunted readers for over a hundred years).  McNees pieces together all these mysteries and imagines this lost summer that made Louisa who she was.

Based on a great deal of research and documented fact, a tale is spun of the family Alcott spent in Walpole in the summer of 1855.  Louisa has had some small successes as a writer, and longs to save up her money to move to Boston where she focus on her vocation full time.  It is in Walpole that she meets handsome Joseph Singer, who truly understands Louisa's free spirit and ambitions, and is a bibliophile himself.  First love and passion for her craft collide in Louisa's heart, however, and we get a glimpse of what might have shaped her spirit.

My thoughts:  I've always enjoyed stories that take place in the 19th century.  The dresses, the courtships, the expectations of women, all that hard work.  Then it is fun to see a woman with goals and dreams, like Louisa, blast through like a bull in a china shop (as I like to say) and upset the applecart.  I would like to think I would have been such a woman.

I cannot be the judge of whether the characters were true to form...I am clueless on all things Alcott.  But the ones created by McNees came alive for me.  My dander was up anytime Louisa's father Bronson opened his mouth.  I know he was all about sticking to his ideals, but he had no sense of responsibility for his family and would let them starve to prove a point.  I felt pity for beaten down Marmee.  While Louisa's two younger sisters weren't fully developed, it was hard not to love Anna.

Everything in this book worked for me.  I thought McNees perfectly captured the spirit of era, the chemistry between Louisa and Joseph, the dynamics between the sisters, and the internal battle raging inside one of America's greatest novelists.  Probably the biggest endorsement I can give to this book is...I am not a fan of Alcott (although I probably would be if I read her work), and I was completely taken with this novel.

I have to share with you the book trailer, which I saw for the first time at Bermudaonion.  It has to be the best book trailer ever.

A word about the audio production:  As I said earlier, it was the narrator that convinced me to read this book, so I knew this was going to be good.   Emily Janice Card just has this youthful voice that is pleasing and extremely easy to listen to.  She has earned a place on a very small list of narrators that I would listen to, regardless of what they were reading, even the phonebook.  (And did you know she is the daughter of the author Orson Scott Card?).  Keep your eyes open for her work.  She is going to set the audiobook world on fire.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Napa #10

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Skinny - Diana Spechler

Don't you love it when an author meanders around the blogosphere, sees a comment or post you've written, and then contacts you and offers you their book?  That is exactly what happened with "Skinny".  I had read a guest post by Diana on Heather's blog (Book Addiction), and was really taken with her totally hip and cool personality.  Which scored me a book.  I'd been hearing good things about it, so I wasted no time in picking it up.  And as luck and fate would have it, my other blogging half Jill (Rhapsody in Books) was reading it too, so we decided to post our thoughts simultaneously. 

Synopsis:  Gray has spend her entire life watching her parents obsess over food.  Her mother on one end of the spectrum, eating close to nothing, and her father, an obese binge-eater.  When her father dies of a heart-attack, and Gray is left with elephant-sized baggage filled with unresolved daddy issues, it is no surprise that she goes from a calorie-counting dieter to a binge-eater.  Over the period of a year, she gains 15 pounds (a horror for her) and drifts away from her live-in boyfriend. 

In the process of resolving her father's will, Gray discovers that her father has been supporting an illegitimate child named Eden.  When Gray learns that Eden is severely overweight and is attending a kids' weight-loss camp over the summer, Gray signs up for the same camp as a counselor to get closer to her half-sister. 

The camp, as it turns out, isn't the answer to Gray's problems.  The camp director is a sham; nobody working there is qualified.  There is a whole undercurrent of psychological distress with the campers and the counselors, none of which are handled appropriately.  Gray begins having an affair with one of the fitness instructors, knowing there will ultimately be repercussions.   Gray begins to sort out her emotions on her weight and body image, the half-sister she can't connect with, and her love life.  But the question is...can she fix herself or is it too late?

My thoughts:  Jill and I had a good time hashing out this book via e-mail, and in one conversation, I decided to list all the plot lines present in this story.  I mean, it was everywhere.  Here was the quick list I was able to rattle off, and chances are I'm missing a few:

Daddy issues
The reason behind the disconnect between father and daughter
Inter-faith relationships
Relationships drifting apart
Eating to mask bigger problems
Obsession with being skinny and body image
Sham of a weight camp
Summer flings
Cheating on boyfriend
Connection with half-sister
Psycho camp counselor

So yes, we cover alot of ground here.  It made for a quick entertaining read, but feeling a tad bit scattered. 

I also really didn't like Gray.  She was extremely selfish, and had some serious, deeply-embedded hang-ups that prevented her from a meaningful connection with anyone.  I would expect that she went on to live a very lonely life.  I was REALLY annoyed that she treated 15 pounds like the end of the world.  Seriously?  In my world, it is sucky to have to lose 15 pounds, but this is not insurmountable.  As the book progressed though, I realized that the obsession over the 15 pounds was just a symptom of bigger issues. 

At the same time I felt bad for Gray.  I can relate to the body image issues, and everything that goes with it.  It seemed like she wanted to be a better person, but just didn't have it in her.

Also up for debate was the way Spechler wrapped up the book.  In about two pages, she summarized the rest of Gray's life in a sort of fast forward big picture summary.  It was jarring to be moving along at a steady pace, then go into hyperspeed for the last two pages.  I had to read it a couple times just to make sure I caught everything.  Was it poignant?  Was it rushed?  I can't decide. 

As much as it sounds like I'm being critical though, I did enjoy reading the book.  It is certainly discussion-worthy, and would be a great book club pick.  I'd like to thank Diana Spechler for sending me a copy of her book (she really is hip and cool).

Want another take on "Skinny"?  Hop on over to Jill's place.


Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday Movie Meme - Battle Ax

On my third and final week taking over the hosting duties of the Monday Movie Meme from the Bumbles, I allowed my husband to contribute to the theme.  It shouldn't come as any surprise then that this week, it is all about epic battle scenes.  We're not talking about a skirmish, or a fist fight.  But knock-down, drag-out, testosterone-filled armies bent on destroying each other.  These are the movies that make you want to beat your chest, scream, smear war paint on your face and grab the nearest weapon.  (Really?  You never feel like that?) 

1.  Braveheart - Of course.  Best battle scene of all time.

2.  Star Wars - After much passionate discussion over the dinner table, my family agreed that we best loved the Battle of Hoth, with all those Imperial Walkers crashing and burning.  Not to devalue light saber duels, with various limbs being severed, of course.

3.  Lord of the Rings:  The Twin Towers - There was no doubt in our minds that the Battle for Helms Deep was the best of the series.  All those flying orc heads, all those arrows, and the enormity of just a few brave men against thousands of murderous creatures.  I was almost ill from the intensity.

4.  Kill Bill - The battle between The Bride and the Crazy 88's, you know the one, absolutely must go on this list just to prove that you don't have to have testosterone coursing through your body to kick ass.  In this scene, when Uma sports a killer skin-tight yellow jump suit, she is outnumbered by about a hundred men wielding sabers, but she takes them all down without breaking a sweat. I really love that scene.  I read somewhere that Tarantino's original version was too much for the MPAA and they made him add some black and white to this scene to tone down all the blood. 

OK, so are we in tune with our inner Battle Ax?  Which scenes are your favorites?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Salon: The Home Sweet Home Edition

 My friends!  How the heck are ya?  After three weeks, I'm so happy to be home, sleeping in my own bed and taking showers in a structure that allows for stretching.  I have so much to share with you. Probably too much for this post.  So for the next, like, YEAR, you are going to see pictures on Not So Wordless Wednesday, lots of them.  For today, I thought I'd share some highlights.  Well, maybe not highlights but notable items from the trip:


1.  Every time we visit Poland, it encompasses my birthday, which is cool.  For every birthday, I get wine, chocolate, and my mother-in-law's homemade pierogies, which are to DIE for.

2.  Also for my birthday, I visited a rare "popular books" bookstore (most of them are academic bookstores) and found that all English books were 20% off!  Woo hoo!  I quickly grabbed two Marek Krajewski books, which are crime thrillers that all take place in Wroclaw, my husband's home town.  They are SLOWLY being translated to English.  MIL again to the rescue, and said they were a birthday present from her.

3.  I thought I saw Jo Nesbo on a plane from Copenhagen to Bergen, Norway.  I sat and stared at him intently for the entire flight, trying to figure out if it was really him.  I was so generally wound up to be in his home country, and so sure I'd find him, I probably would have thought a 300 pound hairy guy was him.  Anyway, it didn't look like this guy had a bump on his forehead, but then I thought maybe he'd had it removed?  I never approached the guy.  I was too nervous.  If there would have been a bump, I would have probably said something though.
4.  While hanging out in Gdansk, a business colleague of my husband's (a banker) claimed to have been entertained at Lech Walensa's home a couple of times, and offered to drive us by to check it out.  While we were sitting and gaping at this huge mansion, we were accosted by a security guy packing a gun.  We got the hell out of there.  Very exciting!

5.  Everyone in Poland has Internet now, except my in-laws.  Also 99% of those with Internet have password security.  These were dire times for me.  I spent most of my time (in the car, wandering in parks, shopping, etc.) attempting to "borrow" Internet through my netbook or phone.  It made me a little irritable.

6.  If I wasn't stealing Internet, then I was doing laundry.  Washing machines = very small.  No clothes dryers.  Everything had to be hung to dry.  For a family of four, this became my full-time job.

7.  The fish market in Bergen was a huge hit.  Everything was right off the boat.  I had king crab claws as big as my arm.  They were divine.  I didn't ask my husband what they cost.  Considering that a glass of beer was $15 and a bottle of Coke was $8, I really didn't want to know.  I just wanted to enjoy the meal in my blissful ignorance.

8.  I had some awesome reading.  Here is what I read:

Fallen - Karin Slaughter (audio)

Cutting For Stone - Abraham Verghese
The Mango Season - Amulya Mulladi
The Devil's Star - Jo Nesbo
The Fates Will Find Their Way - Hannah Pittard
The Doomsday Book - Connie Willis
Copper Sun - Sharon Draper (audio)
The End of the World in Breslau - Marek Krajewski

As you can see from the list, there were a couple of real chunksters in there, so I feel like I covered some ground.  I can tell you that most likely three or four of them will be five star reads.  Now I just have to write the darned reviews! It is daunting.

So there you go.  Obviously the entire trip was a highlight, but I'll get around to the rest of it via my pictures.  Right now I am attempting to get my life back in order and prepare for our three week trip to Indiana (the kids and I leave on July 7).  This trip will be more relaxing and there will be Internet so all is good.

Thanks to my mom and my BFF Michele, I have a replenished Amazon kitty after my birthday.  I had to do a little impulsive Kindle shopping yesterday after reading three weeks of EW, and I bought "Nemesis" by my man Nesbo, "Once Upon a River" by Bonnie Jo Campbell, and "The Hypnotist" by Lars Kepler.  I shall not want during my trip to Indiana!

Last night my family and I went out for a belated birthday dinner at our favorite steak place, and today I shall start the starvation process needed to be able to live with myself.  This afternoon I have a Skype book club meeting to discuss "Bloodroot", which I am excited about.  Did I miss anything awesome while I was gone?  If so please let me know and I will dig back through the posts and find it!  I'm glad to be back amongst you!


Friday, June 24, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes - Sarah Vowell (Audio)

I listened to my first Sarah Vowell audio two years ago in Poland.  "The Wordy Shipmates" saved me from certain insanity resulting from a car ride from hell (ala loud Polish talking and a stinky dog).  Six months ago I listened to "Assassination Vacation", and have exhausted my library's inventory with "Unfamiliar Fishes".  With Vowell, it is one-stop shopping...a little funny bone tickling with her dry sarcastic wit, learn a bit of history, and brush up on your political issues, all at the same time.   It is a particular brand of fun I've not found anywhere else.

Synopsis:  We've moved on from the Mayflower and dead presidents, and are taking a vacation to beautiful Hawaii.  With a thorough and quirky tenacity, Vowell digs into the minutiae, and explains how Hawaii was cultivated by American missionaries into a little "mini me" New England.  At odds against these apostles of Christ were the sailors who thought it was their God-given right to have a full supply of whores.  It was their belief that prayer would kill them before the clap would.  At the center of the scuffle were the Hawaiian people ruled by an incestuous and sometimes crooked monarchy.  Add in a few lepers, opportunistic capitalists, and a sugar baron or two, and you have an extremely interesting coming-of-age tale that you might not find in the history books.

My thoughts:  I've always thought that life in high school would have been alot more entertaining if I had learned about history the Sarah Vowell way.  She is very good at sifting through oceans of data and finding the ironic facts that make a story juicy and worthy of repeating to your friends.  (I bet she would be a great garage sale partner!)  As always, I'm compelled to share a few quotes with you, just so you can see how damned clever she is:                  

"I guess if I had to pick a spiritual figurehead to possess the deed to the entirety of Earth, I'd go with Buddha, but only because he wouldn't want it."

"The groundswell of outrage over the invasion of Iraq often cited the preemptive war as a betrayal of American ideals. The subtext of the dissent was: 'This is not who we are.' But not if you were standing where I was. It was hard to see the look in that palace tour guide's eyes when she talked about the American flag flying over the palace and not realize that ever since 1898, from time to time, this is exactly who we are."

"I envy a people who celebrate their leader's private parts.  That they love those leaders so much they want them making newer, younger versions to tell the next generation what to do.  In the Democratic Republic where I live, any politician whose genitals have made the news probably isn't going to see his name on a ballot again."
In comparing this book to earlier ones, it did seem like it was heavy on facts and light on the humor.  Vowell has always been adept at packing in the trivia, to the point that your head spins.  But this particular history lesson needed a little more balance, as I found myself drifting a few times.  That being said, I will never miss an opportunity to listen to her.  I've bought into her gig hook, line and sinker.

A word about the audio production:  As always, Vowell narrates her own work, assisted by a large and star-studded cast to read for certain characters.  You can tell me this long list of actors and actresses are at the microphone because they are well-paid, but in my heart I know that humanity loves Sarah Vowell, and these folks believe in her shrewd and clever sense of right and wrong.  Their contributions are their act of solidarity. 

As with David Sedaris, I shall never read a Sarah Vowell book in print, even though all those facts can make your head spin when you are in listening mode.  No matter.  If 20% of what she says sticks to a brain cell, I consider the effort a success.

3.5 out of 5 stars   

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming - Joshilyn Jackson (Audio)

Before I started blogging I was a very focused reader.  I would discover a series or an author, and I would read absolutely everything that person had to offer.  That doesn't happen much anymore...just too much ground to cover.  But there are exceptions.  Sarah Waters, Marisa de los Santos (even though she's only written two, but I'm just sayin'), and Joshilyn Jackson.  I have consumed every Joshilyn Jackson book with vigor, starting with "Gods in Alabama", which I believe to be her best, proceeded by "Backseat Saints", "Between, Georgia", and now this one.  For me to get on this kind of roll is rare these days, so you must know that Jackson has something special going on.

What is it about Jackson that is so appealing to me?  Well, all her books are Southern.  All the stories have very strong female characters, all of them with Big Issues.  There is abuse, divorce, bigotry, childhood secrets, alcoholism, death, murder, you name it.  But as dour as all this sounds, it never is with Jackson.  Her ladies laugh to keep from crying because that is the Southern Way, and if that doesn't work, they take action.  Jackson's characters are flawed and lovable and real, and every damn one of them pries their way into your psyche.  If you read her books, you'll remember them, I promise.

With the exception of "Gods in Alabama", Jackson narrates her own audiobooks too.  If she were ever uninspired to write another book, she could make her living narrating because she is that good.  She is a personality unto herself, and that essence fills up my ears in every production and makes me love her even more.

But I'm pretty sure by now you are tired of hearing me pledge my undying loyalty here, so why don't I tell you a little bit about the book?

Synopsis:  Laurel didn't always have the perfect life.  She came from a poor, uneducated family rife with problems of drinking, abuse and denial.  But she escaped and is now a high-end quilt designer, married to a quiet but successful video game designer David, has a happy healthy 13-year-old daughter Shelby, and lives in a bubble of predictable suburbia (a lifestyle her unorthodox, take-no-prisoners sister Thalia loathes). 

One night, however, Laurel's perfect world is turned upside down when she sees the ghost of a young friend of Shelby's, and soon realizes the girl has drowned in Laurel's back yard pool.  Why was the girl even there in the middle of the night?  And why is Shelby acting so guilty?  Against her husband's wishes, Laurel calls in her sister Thalia to run interference with the cops and figure out what the heck happened.

But every time Thalia comes to town (and the reason why Laurel's husband can't stand her) all hell breaks loose.  The sisters fight.  Thalia plants the suspicion in Laurel's mind that David is cheating, questions are asked about happiness, and some pretty ugly secrets are revealed about Laurel and Thalia's childhood.  Laurel begins to wonder if her life will ever go back to normal.  What is normal anyway?

My thoughts:  As I said before, the beauty in Jackson's novels are her characters.  Every hilarious, quirky detail she adds to build a story or scene or a personality?  It just makes the whole experience personal, intimate and ultimately precious.  Whether it be the design details of Laurel's quilts, or Uncle Poot's creepy amputated ghost foot (you had to be there), Jackson's treasure trove of stuff that you get with every book is something you will stash away in your brain for future pondering. 

I couldn't help but love Laurel, with her insecurities.   Now, about Thalia.  She seems to be a favorite in this story, and I will admit, she was HELL ON WHEELS.  But I had a hard time trusting her.  There were moments when she was so venomous and brutal to her sister, it was scary.  I never quite forgave her for it, even if Laurel did.  On the other hand, if I ever needed someone to come to my defense, Thalia would be at the top of the list. 

The mystery in this story was resolved, but was far from predictable.  Jackson generally gives you fairly happy endings, but never in a way that feels contrived.  You want the best for these characters and it is pleasing to see them get it. 

A word about the audio production:  Well, I already told you, but I'll say it again.  Nobody does narration better than Jackson.  These little beauties are her children, and she pampers them and coddles them and makes sure they are taken care of in a way that few other narrators could manage.  At the end of my audio, there was a short interview with her as well, which just solidified my adoration. 

4.5 out of 5 stars      


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Napa #9

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy - Shellie Rushing Tomlinson

I had the pleasure of meeting Shellie Rushing Tomlinson at the UCF Book Festival a couple of months ago.  She is the type of personality that you can't help but love...she is pretty, vivacious, funny as hell, and very much Southern.  After ten minutes of talking to her, you would be more than comfortable having a girls' night out with her to dish about men, female problems and Twitter.  (Which, by the way, is exactly what this book is about.)

A little about Shellie.  She is the bestselling author of "Suck Your Stomach In & Put Some Color On!" (don't you just love her book titles?).  She is a newspaper columnist, a radio host, and creator of the website "The Belle of All Things Southern" which you HAVE to check out.  Seriously.   She is everything we know and love about Southern humor.  At the book festival, she was particularly excited about her new release of "Sue Ellen", because she was able to get Jeff Foxworthy to read and blurb it, against all odds. Bless her heart.

Synopsis:  What we have here is a Seven Bean Salad O' Fun.  What's on your mind ladies?  Hot flashes (for some of you including moi).  Bubba whispering aka man management.  Social media.  Birthin' babies.  Expanding mid-life middle sections.  The annoying chick that talks down to you through the GPS navigator.  Money troubles.  DIY projects.  Southern manners or lack thereof.  Whatever bee is in your bonnet, Shellie will help you through it, all with her pee-your-pants hilarious, laugh-to-keep-from-crying humor. 

But there is more!  Not only does she tell a funny story, but she offers funny little stories and words of wisdom from her readers in the side margin.  She translates Southern Speak (ever want to know what SRC is?  "Straight Running Crazy, used to describe the actions of someone who is no longer detouring from more lucid behavior, but going full steam ahead").  At the end of every chapter, she shares some honest-to-goodness recipes that help life go a little smoother.

My thoughts:  Whether you are a born and bred Southern gal, a transplant wannabe (like me), or just someone who looks at Southerners like they are a science experiment gone awry, you will find this book entertaining.  Shellie is fresh and real, and her writing felt very familiar to me, like I was listening to one of my girlfriends over a glass of wine. 

My only issue in reading this book was that it wasn't conducive to reading in long spurts.  I found it more impactful to read a chapter here, as I was waiting to pick up the kids, and a chapter there before bed, which is really the way I believe this book was meant to be read.

4 out of 5 stars     

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday Movie Meme - Prozac Anyone?

Welcome back to week two of the Sandy Edition of the Monday Movie Meme!  If you missed my post last week, I have assumed the role of assigning topics of the Monday Movie Meme to give the Bumbles a little rest. 

Just call me Susie Sunshine, because this week we are talking about DEPRESSING movies!  Not the tear-jerkers, friends, but the ones that make you want to drive your car into a wall.  Usually the movies I list here each week are ones I would recommend, but not this time around.  Unless you feel like a big dose of melancholy (and sometimes you do), you should avoid these at all costs.   

1.  The Squid and the Whale - Great director, great cast.  But I was sorely tempted to throw something large and destructive at the TV screen when I finished this one.  If you ever wanted to watch a slow, disturbing example of the horrors of divorce on the children, wallow in a couple of hours of this.

2.  Winter's Bone - yes, yes, I know it was nominated for four Oscars, and Jennifer Lawrence did a fine job of acting.  But really.  The idea of a 17-year- old raising her two younger siblings, caring for her insane mama, and trying to find her druggy daddy that skipped bail so she won't lose the house and have to live in the woods?  And more awfulness that I won't get into?  It all gave me a stomachache.

3.  Grave of the Fireflies - This little ray of sunshine is about two starving street orphans trying to survive in post WWII Japan.  It is a realistic and disturbing bit of animation, and has been deemed "profoundly human", but I'd rather not watch children die, thanks.

4. House of Sand and Fog - Again, more Oscars.  Oscar likes depression I think.  I will admit to being in awe of Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.  Their acting here was second to none, but there is nothing happy here.  I wanted to crawl under my covers for a week.

5.  Requiem For a Dream - I hesitated in putting this movie on my list.  Again, nothing happy here.  Absolutely NOTHING.  But yet it is so horrifying, you can't help but staring like a Looky Loo driving by a bad traffic accident.  You turn off the DVD with not so much depression as revulsion.  It is a fine line.

This is a therapy session of sorts!  So let it out...which movies make you feel horrid?  Get it off your chest, you'll feel better.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Third Rail - Michael Harvey (Audio)

I first discovered Michael Harvey and his gritty, Chicago-based crime thrillers after reading about his first novel (The Chicago Way) in Entertainment Weekly back before my blogging days.  I'd forgotten about him when Swapna mentioned that there were two more additions to the series.  I promptly listened to the second book, "The Fifth Floor" on audio, and was excited by all of the elements that contributed to make this a solid new series (The Great Chicago Fire, an honorable but tough protagonist, fast pacing, a brain-teasing mystery, and a local's guide to eating joints in my favorite city).  Onward to book three!

Synopsis:  Michael Kelly is back, this time with a love interest and a puppy, both acquired in the previous novel.  He is thrust into the center of the action, as usual, when a sniper begins picking off innocent people, and Kelly is there to witness the first fatality.  After a few more bodies pile up, Kelly actually receives a phone call implying that these crimes have everything to do with him, and a deadly CTA accident that occurred back in his youth. 

Kelly, along with a police buddy, a retired officer, an attractive FBI agent, and a computer hacker, all team up to crack this case.  Except things are never quite as cut and dried as they seem.  In fact, the case becomes a complicated spiderweb of politics, vendettas, and hidden agendas that aren't all in alignment.  The past and present collide in this worthy thriller that won't leave Michael Kelly unscathed.

My thoughts:  Everything I've come to expect in Michael Harvey's novels are back, in spades.  I am finding that I like Kelly and more and more, as I get to know him.  He is attempting to carve out a life that is as close to comfortable as possible.  But you see, he's got these pesky ghosts that won't leave him be, and they are back to haunt him and possibly strip him of his chance at normalcy.  He's growing on me, in the best way possible.  I want to hug him.

Harvey hasn't backed off his pacing either.  He hits the ground running on this one, from page one.  And he doesn't allow any slack until you've turned the last page...and throws out a pretty intense "and oh by the way, take some of THIS" cliff-hanger material that I am quite sure will be used in future installments to terrorize us.  Good stuff, this.

But I always like to highlight the elements of a crime thriller that makes it different from the rest (Lord knows there is an epidemic of forgettable ones).  In this story, the differentiation comes in the layers.  This is a thinking man's (or woman's) mind-bender that has not one problem to solve, but many.  There is no way anyone, no matter how seasoned the reader, will figure out the why's and how's before it is time.  (I could almost imagine the author cackling with glee at his cleverness.)  I kept envisioning these yummy trifle desserts.  This is the perfect visual.      


I did have a rather large irritation with the plot that got under my skin and couldn't shake.  Without getting all specific on you, I felt that there was no good reason on the timing of one set of crimes.  Why now?  Why not years ago?  How does someone sit on a grievance, all calm-like, then one day go crazy?  It seemed way too convenient.  Harvey, don't go all deus ex machina on me dude.

A word about the audio production:  As with the previous audios, this one was narrated by Stephen Hoye.  I can't say that he is my favorite, but he seems to be the go-to guy for this series, and I appreciate the consistency.  His voice seems just a little too languorous for such an edgy series, but he does grow on you, and would never deter me from listening to another.

4 out of 5 stars  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Delirious - Daniel Palmer

I realize I have told you this story, but it bears mentioning again I think, because it is dear.  At the UCF Book Festival, I attended a panel that featured murder mystery writers, including the author of "Delirious", Daniel Palmer.  I was intrigued by the man.  He was handsome, he was the son of a famous author (Michael Palmer), and he had a very easy, likable personality.  But in the middle of his talk, he spoiled the ending of his upcoming book, and I was horrified!  I said so in my recap of the festival, and it didn't go unnoticed by Mr. Palmer.  He contacted me, was terribly sorry (he'd gotten carried away when he was talking about unpredictable villains), and as an apology, he sent me a copy of his debut novel, "Delirious".  I'd heard it was good...and I didn't know how THIS book ended!  Which is a good start.

Synopsis:  Charlie Giles has got the tiger by the tail.  He is an electronics wonderboy, has made his millions by selling his cutting edge concept to a large company on the East Coast, and has his loyal dog Monte to keep him company. 

OK, granted, he has a hard time with long-term relationships.  This might have something to do with his self-absorbed nature, and because of problems in his childhood.  His father, a schizophrenic, walked away from the family when Charlie was young, leaving him, his mother and his brother, who was diagnosed with not only schizophrenia as well, but with a rare type of epilepsy that is triggered by hearing one particular song.

One day, however, things get very strange.  Charlie is accused (and there is proof) that he gave company secrets to a competitor and watches porn at work.  He finds notes that he's written to himself but has no recollection of it.  Then bodies start to pile up that implicate his involvement.  Charlie feels like he is losing his mind.  Is he developing a mental illness, which could be inherited, or is someone messing with him?

My thoughts: Wow.  Well, now, that was a wild ride.  In fact, it really almost bordered on outlandish.  So many bizarre, mind-bending, surreal coincidences, I just shook my head.  I kept muttering to myself "there had damn well be a full accounting by the end of this book or Palmer is going to lose his credibility with me".  By that I mean that everything had better be explained.  This could not have been an easy task...I'm envisioning an elaborate spreadsheets and Gant charts.  But he pulled it off.  Was it all realistic?  No, but I was more than willing to stretch the boundaries for the sake of entertainment.

Palmer's pacing was excellent.  The beginning starts out as a leisurely stroll for a few chapters, then it takes off like a rocket and propels you through right to the last page.  It was really hard to resist the urge to sit up all night to finish it. 

I always appreciate a novel that introduces the reader to a topic of interest, in this case mental illness.  Palmer not only gives us an idea of what it is like to live with schizophrenia through Charlie's brother, but also the sacrifices and hardships shouldered by the surrounding family members.  I was also more than a little excited to see, for the second time in my life, a story that addresses the rare musicogenic epilepsy (the first time being Connie May Fowler's "The Problem With Murmur Lee").  This disease only affects five or six people in the country, but here it is again.  I can't say that I blame Connie or is an affliction that just begs to be written into a story.

At the festival, Palmer shared a story about the development of the character Charlie.  When he originally finished this novel, everyone liked the book but felt the protagonist was a horrible person that would inspire nothing but annoyance in the reader.  The solution, provided by a friend over a beer and a hotdog at a baseball game, was to give Charlie a dog.  I thought this was a clever suggestion...who can resist a guy who is loved by his dog?  After finishing the book however, even without the dog, I didn't think Charlie was so bad.  He was kind of an anti-hero, which I have a habit of liking.  Yes he was selfish and tended to live for his job, but I saw a good deal of personal growth on his part and felt there was hope for him.  (I'm still pleased Palmer gave him a dog though!)

4 out of 5 stars        


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Napa #8

For more Wordless Wednesdays, click here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ghost World - Daniel Clowes

 Here is a snippet from my reading life.  I'm reading EW and there is a review for a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes.  Oooh!  Cool!  New stuff!   Darnit, the library doesn't have it.  But the article says that the author is known for his famous book and motion picture "Ghost World".  The library had that, so I ordered it.  When it finally shows up on my doorstep and I start reading it, I question my motivations for getting it in the first place.

It had to happen eventually.  After a year of being blown away by graphic novels, I've finally found one I didn't like.

Synopsis:  Please meet Enid and Rebecca, two friends recently graduated from high school, both angsty, conflicted, perched between childhood and adulthood.  We follow them around in their daily lives as they frequent various diners, observe others, make fun of others, complain about their love lives, and just generally have bitch fests and hurl insults at each other.

As the girls contemplate the next step in their lives, they deal with issues of jealousy, fear of the future, and nostalgia for their innocent youth...will Enid leave for college and abandon Rebecca?  Who is more interesting?  Why do neither of them have boyfriends?  Are they gay? Will they have success in their lives?  Will they always be friends?


My thoughts:  I'm scratching my head on this one.  It was hailed a cult classic, popular with young adults for its cutting edge portrayal of "real kids".  I don't know.  Maybe.  I'm not a kid anymore, but I remember being one.  Did I act like this?  Hell, I hope not. 

I can curse with the most colorful of sailors, but I guess when you are reading it in print, and the f-bomb is used repeated times on each page, I cease to find it amusing.  Seriously, I went looking for examples of the artwork, and found only the one above that didn't have foul language.

There was very little plot, which is OK.  I get it that the message is more about the worries and obsessions of this generation.  I am curious that this was made into a movie, however, with so little to go on.  Perhaps a plot was invented.  Has anyone seen this movie? 

Bottom line, the book didn't do much for me.  After reading GNs that make my brain hum, or make me cry, or make me laugh, this one just left me cold and apathetic.  If it weren't just 80 pages, I most likely would have DNF'd it.

I'm curious if any of you have read this book.  I'd love to get your input.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 13, 2011

Monday Movie Meme - Somebody Better Do Some 'Splainin'

Happy Monday Morning!  I am pleased to announce that for the next three weeks, I will be providing the topics for Monday Movie Meme.  While this does give Molly and Andy a much-needed break in their Meme-ish duties, I had an ulterior motive.  Since I am currently away in Poland, I wanted to be able to pre-schedule these posts, and the best way to do that is to come up with the topics myself.  The perk to all of this is that I get first dibs on the good movies!

So this week, I thought it would be fun to talk about those times when we sit for a couple of hours watching a movie, then walk out of the theater, or turn off the DVD player, and say "I have NO IDEA what that was all about".  These aren't the movies with twists, but are the ones with plots so complicated, I would bet even the director couldn't fully summarize it.  In most cases, we like these types of movies because they mess with your brain and give it a workout, and often we are compelled to see the movie again.  But other times...not so much.  Here are a few that left us scratching our heads:

1.  Inception - I knew going into this movie that it was...complex.  So I read the synopsis to my kids to give us all a head start.  My son and I left the theater with a general idea of what was going on.  I'm not sure about the rest of my party.  I loved its cleverness though.  This one definitely requires multiple viewings, and gets better with each one.

2. Pirates of the Carribbean 3:  At World's End - I was clueless from beginning to end of this movie.  I decided about a half hour into it, and feeling extremely frustrated, to just sit back and enjoy the effects and Johnny Depp.  That was enough for me, but I never watched it again.

3.  Memento - A favorite here a my place.  The plot revolves around a man with short-term memory issues, and a story that runs backwards in time, versus forwards.  Warning:  don't watch when you've had a glass of wine or two.  I made that mistake once.

4.  Donnie Darko - This movie has turned into a cult hit because of its surreal plot threads, it symbolism, and its tragic themes.  But beyond that, it is extremely unique, the acting is entertaining, I love the song Mad World, and I'd watch it over and over again.  Even if I'm not sure what is going on with that deranged rabbit.

5.  Mulholland Drive - I have no idea what this movie was about.  I think I was entertained.

So which movies left you wondering what you just watched?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bent Road - Lori Roy (Audio)

Right after reading Jenny's glowing review of debut novel "Bent Road", I had the distinct pleasure (along with Jenny and Heather) of meeting the author Lori Roy at the UCF Book Festival.   When Lori mentioned she actively participated in book club chats, Heather and I exchanged a glance.  We had the same idea...convince Books, Babes and Bordeaux to read this book and schedule another call-in! 

Synopsis:  It has been twenty years since Arthur Scott lived on Bent Road in Kansas.  He swore he would leave and never return after the death of his older sister Eve, but after black boys begin calling his teenage daughter in Detroit, he packs up his wife Celia and his three kids (Elaine - 18, Daniel - 14, Evie - 9) and heads south.  They soon settle down near Arthur's mother Seena, Arthur's sister Ruth and brother-in-law Ray, all strangers to Celia and the kids.  Celia just wants to be a good wife and make the transition as easy as possible, but things start to fall apart soon after arriving. 

Out of the gate, Celia senses an undercurrent of secrets kept hidden surrounding Eve's death.  It also becomes evident that all is not well with Ruth and Ray's marriage.  Then a young girl about Evie's age disappears, and the entire community casts their eyes to Ray, who was suspected of killing Eve years ago.  The kids struggle to make new friends, Daniel begins to have anger issues, and Evie obsesses over her dead namesake.  As recent and ancient secrets are revealed, Celia questions whether her family will be able to survive the repercussions.

My thoughts:  I was very torn with this book.  It was definitely a character-driven story, with the location playing a very important role in the atmosphere.  Tumbleweeds, barren farmland, tormented souls, dangerous secrets, dead kids.  This was seriously dark stuff.  But the problem I had was that I didn't like the characters at all.  Every dysfunctional personality trait was present here, down to little Evie who was only 9.  I'm really not sure I can list all the issues we witnessed in this book, but they all got under my skin.

But akin to gawking at an auto accident on the highway, I couldn't stop digging into these peoples' lives.  My heart broke for Daniel, who wanted to please his father and act like a man.  I wanted to shake Celia, and tell her not to take crap off her mother-in-law.  I was inclined to plug my ears every time Evie rattled on about her namesake aunt coming back home and then put on her old dresses and wore them to school.  I had a visceral reaction to these damaged people, so I know that Roy has done her job in the character development department.

A word about the audio production:  The reader for this book was Marguerite Gavin, a new voice for me.  Truthfully, folks, I would never listen to another book read by her, a sentiment shared by a couple of my friends who also listened to this audio for book club.  This is the perfect reason why an author should be involved in the narrator casting.  I was forced to separate myself from the reader early on, and focus on the prose.  It could have ruined the book had I not.  My best advice would be to read the print version.

From the Books, Babes and Bordeaux:  We were lucky enough to have Lori visit us via Skype at our book club.  Because of technical difficulties, we did have to turn to a conference call on a telephone, but we enjoyed learning about her process of developing the plot, and she answered questions that some of us had on character motivations and such.  Lori also chatted about her favorite books (from Steinbeck to Hemingway to Lionel Shriver), and about her new endeavor set in Detroit in the '50's.  No word on when she will be finished, but she promised to let us know!

Several in our group did not finish the book for various reasons (one is pregnant and was distracted by the dark nature of the plot, a couple of others struggled with the audio narrator) but overall the group appreciated the wild and dark characterization and the twists in the story.  We even ate fried chicken and pie in honor of the home-cooked meals consumed in the story.  We did all agree that after the last few months, we are due for a torrid beach novel over the summer!

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Revolution - Jennifer Donnelly (Audio)

For months I'd been hearing about the wonders of Jennifer Donnelly from the blogiverse, but particularly from Rhapsody Jill.  Based on her recommendations, I'd already bought The Tea Rose and The Winter Rose on Kindle for my summer travels.  But when I discovered that "Revolution" existed on audio at my library (and that the audio won the Odyssey Honor pick), the question of which would be my first Donnelly was decided.

Synopsis:  Andi isn't your average modern teenager.  She attends an expensive private school in New York. She is a talented musician.  She is sullen, angry, and runs with a crowd that escapes their angsty lives by turning to drugs and alcohol.  And not so long ago, her little brother was tragically killed, destroying her parents' marriage and driving her mother to the brink of insanity.  Andi blames herself.  She is struggling through depression, and really could care less if she finishes her senior thesis that could springboard her to Julliard.

To assist in a little attitude adjustment, and help her focus on her thesis (which just happens to be about a French composer), Andi's father takes her to Paris over Christmas break.  While she is there, Andi discovers the diary of Alexandrine, a young woman who is the nanny to the doomed son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and literally fighting for her life during the French Revolution.  Obsessed with the diary, Andi finds a soul sister in Alex, discovering parallels between their lives and becoming invested in Alex and the last dauphin's fate.  One night at a party in the catacombs, however, the past and present collide, and Andi finds out exactly how similar they really are.

My thoughts:  Uhhh.  Words are failing me right now.  How can I express the depths to which I loved this book?

OK, well let's start with the music.  Andi was an equal opportunity music lover, and knew her stuff, from John Lee Hooker, to A Flock of Seagulls, to the Stones, to Radiohead. But spank me and call me Sally.  Her favorite was Pink Floyd, of the Syd Barrett era.  NOW we're talking.  Her recitation of the lyrics from Shine On You Crazy Diamond (which was written in honor of Syd) really sealed the deal.  The whipped cream and cherry on top of all of this fabulousness was original (and beautiful) rap lyrics written by Andi's Paris love interest Virgil.  My geek meter was maxed out.  If you don't believe me, here is the playlist.  For any music lover, it was brilliant.

Next, the French Revolution.  Donnelly could have told me anything about this period in history and I would have believed it.  Guess I didn't pay attention when we were learning this chapter in high school.  But it was fascinating stuff.  An imprisoned boy prince slowly going mad, guillotines and beheadings, treachery to overthrow the monarchy...all from the perspective of a young woman on the inside.  A young woman who is willful and strong and committed to protecting her young charge, even at the risk of her own life.  (Are you rolling your eyes at me?  Seriously, this is all new to me.)

And the pièce de résistance.  Time travel!  Now don't scoff.  It isn't corny, and it isn't overdone.  In fact, it is perfect for the progression of the plot.  Overall it was a small part of the story, but an important one.  One that tied it all together. 

I did not want this story to end.  I loved it for all the reasons described above.  I loved the characters (even the nasty ones), I felt Andi's pain, and I loved her handsome Tunisian with the dreds, the soul patch and the love for music.  Everyone was real and flawed and slightly hip.  Donnelly sucked me in from disc 1.  I'm going to remember this one for a long long time. 

A word about the audio production:  Whoever were the judges for the Odyssey Honor award (best audiobook for children and/or young adults) should be applauded.  This audio was excellent.  There were two narrators.  One for Andi (Emily Janice Card) and one for Alexandrine (Emma Bering).  Emily Janice Card was probably my favorite...she completely captured a disturbed modern teenager, and had impeccable accents.  Emma Bering had the formal lilt of a French girl from an earlier time - it seemed to fit the character perfectly.  If I were to see Card's name on another audio, I'd jump at the chance to listen to her again.

5 out of 5 stars


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Audiobook Week: Mid-week Meme

We are halfway through Audiobook Week 2011, and our lovely host Jen at Devourer of Books has compiled a list of thoughtful questions about all things audio.  (Jen was kind enough to send me these questions in advance of my trip so I could pre-post.  Thanks Jen, you rock!)


Current/most recent audiobook:
  I'm currently listening to "Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman, read by Lenny Henry.  I've had this baby on my iPod for over a year, originally recommended to me by Carrie at Books and Movies.


Impressions: That I am an idiot for waiting this long to listen to this book.  I mean, you know Gaiman right?  He is just a few steps off the path of normal, and his uniqueness tickles my fancy.  I've never listened to Lenny Henry before, but he is nailing the most wonderful Caribbean and British accents.  My ears and heart are happy.

Current favorite audiobook:  That is really not a fair question.  Like asking which child is my favorite.  My brain threatens to explode if I even try to think about it.  So I will narrow down the field and tell you my favorite audio from 2011, which is still not an easy task.  In choosing a favorite audio, it has to be a combination of a great story and a great narrator.  If one of these aspects doesn't deliver, it becomes a mediocre experience.  That being said, I'd have to say that my favorite this year would be "A Visit From the Good Squad" by Jennifer Egan, narrated by Roxana Ortega.  Runner up?  "Revolution" by Jennifer Donnelly, narrated by Emily Janice Card, which will be reviewed tomorrow.

One narrator who always makes you choose audio over print: Sorry Jen, I'm not going to be able to stick to one narrator, because there are a few that must be mentioned.  It's that favorite kid thing again.

Simon Vance will always have my audio heart.  Not only would I refuse a printed copy of anything he narrated, I will even seek him out just to get more of him.  Known as the voice of the Stieg Larsson trilogy, he's got so much more going on than that, and is regularly awarded for his excellence every year in the Audies.

Emily Janice Card is a new find for me.  She narrated "Revolution" by Jennifer Donnelly.  I was so taken with her, I grabbed "The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott", which is a book I never would have read otherwise.  (I never even read "Little Women"!)  She is a delight to listen to.

Cassandra Campbell keeps finding her way into my ears, and she is always a highlight.  Some of my most treasured audios..."The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", "The School of Essential Ingredients", "You Know When the Men Are Gone"...all of them brought to me through her capable voice.

Genre you most often choose to listen to:  I am an equal opportunity audio listener, so my audio lineup reflects my overall interests.  I've listened to non-fiction, memoirs, literary fiction, social commentary, comedy, crime thrillers, horror, you name it.  I have found, though, that short stories do not translate well on audio for some reason.


If given the choice, you will always choose audio when:  there is an audio available.  Audios are much easier for me to crank through than print, because I don't sit down during the day, and at night when I do, I fall asleep.  I will also always choose audio for longer books.

There are also a few authors that must be experienced in audio only.  David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and Joshilyn Jackson all self-narrate, and deliver their books in the spirit in which they are intended.  Seriously, if I were offered any of their books in print, I would refuse them.

If given the choice, you will always choose print when: the book is a collectible or the cover is so gorgeous it must me kept and admired.  I don't find myself in this position often though.  I would also refuse an audio if I knew I didn't like the narrator.  I won't mention names, because I don't want to be mean, but there are some that make the hair on my neck stand up, and I swear I will never listen to them again.

What are some of your audio highs and lows?  Current listens?  Please share! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bloodroot - Amy Greene (Audio)

Most definitely the first thing you notice about the novel "Bloodroot" is that gorgeous cover.  Having seen it dozens of times at the bookstore, it is still impossible for me to walk by it and not touch the cover.  But I first heard about this book when it was reviewed in Entertainment Weekly when it first came out nearly a year and a half ago.  It immediately went up on my list, but was only when my Skype book club assigned it as the June read did I snap up the audio.  (Unfortunately I will be out of the country for this meeting, but that didn't stop me from reading it.)

Synopsis:  High up in the Tennessee Smokies, on Bloodroot Mountain, lives a community of poor simple folk.  They are of the land, and most rarely leave the place which they, and generations before them, were born and raised.  Others yearn to leave, and some of them do, but they always return.  At the center of this story is the Lamb family, whose hopes and dreams rest upon the shoulders of the young and beautiful Myra.  The family has been filled with tragedy and a legendary curse, which has left Myra parentless, and raised by her grandmother Byrdie.  On Bloodroot Mountain, the children live a hard life and grow up before their time, and Myra's destiny seems to have been determined the day she was born.  Her downfall begins the moment she sets eyes on John Odom.

The story of Myra is told by the people surrounding her over a period of her grandmother Byrdie, an awkward neighbor boy in love with Myra, and Myra's twin children Johnny and Laura, all of them building the legend and myth of her.  Myra has a special magic, possibly handed down from earlier generations, she is beautiful and innocent, she is negligent and insane, she is damaged and afraid.  We are filled with more questions than answers with these stories.  What went wrong with Myra's marriage to John?  When John disappeared, what happened to him?  It is only at the end of the book, when we hear from Myra herself, that we get our answers.

Greene also fills in the gaps to make this ultimately a multi-generation family saga about the cycle of abuse, dysfunction and acceptance of fate that beleaguers those that live in Appalachia.  She also provides a tiny sliver of hope that it may not be impossible to break the cycle, given the will and faith and determination.

My thoughts: In the hands of another author, this story had the potential to be a huge buzz-kill.  The circumstances of those living in this corner of Appalachia is dire.  Homes no more than shacks without the benefit of indoor plumbing, feral unschooled children running wild, domestic abuse, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy...this was the fate of everyone born on Bloodroot Mountain.  A fate accepted with weary resignation. 

And while it was tough to stomach this lifestyle, Greene distracts the reader with beautiful but conversational prose that hypnotized me.  She also has structured her storytelling by allowing various narrators, starting in an outer circle around Myra Lamb and moving inward, to build tension.  It's like hearing about a person from a good friend for years and years, then when you finally meet the person, they are larger than life.  By the time we actually meet Myra, she is almost mystical.  We have learned to care about her through the eyes of those that love her.  We know that life has gone very wrong for Myra, and by the end of the book, I was nervous and anxious to get her side of the truth. 

The plot did have a tendency to wander off the beaten path.  Don't get me wrong, it was never boring.  There's too much filth and sadness for it to be boring.  It just got off-topic, and delved into the lives of those surrounding Myra. 

I do have to mention that in the second part of the book, when the narrators change to Myra's kids, Johnny and Laura, I had NO IDEA who the hell was talking for a whole disc.  Johnny?  You mean Myra's husband?  Who?  I figured it out, but I had to wonder if this was an audio problem, or if it was equally as confusing in print.

A word about the audio production:  99 out of 100 times, if an audio has multiple narrators, it is going to be a home run.  I've seen this with "Testimony", "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and "Let the Great World Spin".  This was also the case with "Bloodroot".  There were six narrators in all, one for each of the narrators in the book.  Each voice was cast perfect for the character, whether it be for and old mountain woman or a young teenage roughneck.  This, along with Greene's writing and story structure, contributed to make this audio an absolute "must listen". 

4.5 out of 5 stars