Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Unsaid - Neil Abramson

There were many highlights from my experience at SIBA in Charleston this year, but one really stood out in my mind.  It was when I heard Neil Abramson speak on a panel about his new book "Unsaid".  What he had to say really got to me, and everyone else in the room.  Having loved and lost many pets, I knew this book would have the potential to bring me to my knees.  I generally avoid these types of books like the plague, but in this case, I knew I had to make an exception no matter what the result.  There was a certain kind of ethereal grace emanating from this book that I had to experience.

Synopsis:  In life, Helena was a woman who loved and cared for animals.  Her career as a veterinarian allowed her to give medical care to pets of all kinds, but also required that she help owners know when it was time to say goodbye and assist in that journey.  Helena has made mistakes though...one particular that haunts her, even now after she has passed away.  And these mistakes are keeping her earthbound.

Watching from a bird's eye view, Helena observes her husband struggle to keep his head above water, working as a high-powered attorney by day and caring for Helena's menagerie of animals by night.  She watches her mentor and vet partner struggle to keep the practice afloat.  She follows a lonely vet assistant and her young autistic son who has a special affinity with animals.  She regards her now absence from a project with a special chimp named Cindy, who is on the brink of breaking through the communication barrier between human and creature. 

When Cindy's life is threatened, it is up to her husband to save her, atone for Helena's guilt, and allow her soul to be at rest.

My opinion: There was a lot going on in this gentle book, but all of it embraced the non-verbal, the UNSAID, the spiritual connection between man and animal.  The wag of a tail, a whinny, a nudge, a whimper, eye-contact.  This is the way that animals try to communicate with us.  We just have to slow down long enough to hear them.  

It is with a quiet grace that Abramson addresses the issue, the importance, of knowing when to let go, both from the standpoint of grieving a friend/spouse/co-worker and from the standpoint of a sick pet.  This is perhaps the hardest, most painful thing in life, no?  I can't even think about it without going off the deep end.  But I never fell apart while under Abramson's spell.  He handled it all with kid gloves.  I only cried three times.

Many other issues were addressed too.  The care provided by a vet clinic, and handling it either with your heart or treating it as a business.  The challenges and blessings of raising an autistic child, and the connection such a child can have with animals (Temple Grandin is a perfect example).  Towards the end of the book, the wagons really circled around the issue of animal experimentation, and the rights of those animals, climaxing into a courtroom scene.  The overall focus of the novel, therefore, gets a bit diluted, but never loses its impact.  

If you are an animal-lover, this one is not to be missed.  The risk of tears is worth the reward of a story that will warm your heart.

4.5 out of 5 stars       


Monday, January 30, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

 To answer the first and most important question...no, I have not read the book.  It probably would have helped to negotiate the intricate plot and subtle nuances, but I just couldn't wait.  I've been nervously, anxiously checking my Flixter app for the exact day this movie would come to Orlando.

This had fun written all over it.  Let's start with the director, Tomas Alfredson.  This is his first blockbuster film, but probably earned his wings with his lesser-known but most excellent Swedish version of "Let the Right One In".  Throw that one on your Netflix Queue if you haven't already.  

The actors.  A whole stew of hotties that can act their little heads off.  Gary Oldman, of course, who isn't prettied up here but that is beside the point.  Even as greasy Sirius Black he was hot.  Colin Firth - no words necessary.  Tom Hardy, the man with the bod and lips.  And a couple of fairly unknown actors that have something special...Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch.  If you see the movie, just trust me and keep your eye on these two.  Call me superficial, but I'd have been plenty happy if they'd all just stood up there on the screen and smiled, danced a two-step and read the phonebook.

But they didn't.  They all played an important part in executing an extremely smart movie about espionage, skullduggery, murder and mayhem in the Cold War.  (The key word here is "smart". I love a good, twisty plot that challenges my brain cells, but unless you have read the book, this is going to feel like a two- or three-time rewatch kind of movie to really GET it.)

The most important thing to know is this.  Some British Intelligence spy business has gone very wrong in Budapest, and one of their own is taken down.  The head of the BI, Control (John Hurt) suspects there is a mole within the four members of the upper echelon of the organization.  Control retires, and forces his best agent, Smiley, (Gary Oldman) to step down with him.  The government asks Smiley to try to quietly determine who of the four individuals is the secret Soviet spy. 

From there it gets a little convoluted.  My advice is just to go with it.  Get the important facts straight in your head, and save the details for a later viewing.  The  ultimate evil-doer will be made clear in the end.  Then go read a detailed summary, read the book, whatever, and watch it again.      

The pacing was fast and sharp - never a dull moment.  The acting is superb.  It was almost overwhelming to have so much talent in one place.  I think what I loved most was the way it ended...with a rendition of the French song "La Mer" performed by Julio Iglesias, playing while a whole string of powerful events take place.  No dialogue, just violence, heartbreak, and bittersweet triumph while this gorgeous, groovy song is playing.  Wow.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: Ramping Up

 What a great week it's been!  I can honestly say for the first time in a long time that the past seven days have been NORMAL!  Sure I've done my share of running around, supporting the kids in their various extracurricular activities, having my body abused by Andre, a meeting here and an appointment there.  But I could actually breathe, take time for a prayer group, do some proper meal planning, and go for a walk or two.  It feels good.

But in reference to this week's post title, things ARE ramping up in several areas of my life.  In two weeks, my daughter will be going through her confirmation.  Preparing for this has required attendance to 8 classes that happen every Thursday night, and it will be a blessing to reclaim those evenings again.  On top of this ongoing project, my daughter has also progressed to her next official level of horseback riding.  Now comes cantering and jumping (gulp).    

After that is finished, my daughter has expressed her desire to volunteer at an animal shelter in order to get her community service hours for high school.  Until she turns 15, however, a parent must volunteer with her.  You see where this headed, don't you?  Our training begins on February 18th, and after a few weeks of shadowing other seasoned veterans, we will have to put in our hours.  Yes it is one more "thing" we will have to do in a week's time, but I'm secretly looking forward to this because I do love animals.  The biggest issue will be not coming home with all of them.

We are also preparing feverishly for our annual Adult Literacy League "Reading Between the Wines" event on March 1st.  I am in full tilt mode for collecting signed books for the auction.  I am THRILLED that Wendy Wax has agreed to donate a package consisting not only of her signed books but the chance to win your name in her next book!  Also the lovely authors of the Southern Belle View (Lisa Wingate, Beth Webb Hart, Marybeth Whalen, Rachel Hauck and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson) have all agreed to donate their signed books with some really adorable Belle goodies.  If any of you locals are interested in attending our event, which will feature Lisa See as our guest author, check out our site here.

I have turned one eyeball to the UCF Book Festival on March 31st as well.  We have so many excellent authors showing up for this one, but hello!  Joshilyn Jackson?!  You know, the author who is way at the top of my list?  Because I have read every one of her books?  I may have to take a Prozac to keep myself calm.  Starting on Friday, February 24, and every Friday through the end of March, I will review a book from a visiting author.  Stay tuned!

I've had a pretty good reading week as a result of all this wonderful normalcy.  On audio, I finished "The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Ackerman, as well as "This Beautiful Life" by Helen Schulman (both for book clubs).  I have just started "Perfect" by Ellen Hopkins (a UCF Book Festival author) and am LOVING IT.

In print I am *this* close to finishing "The Baker's Wife" by Sarah McCoy, and I'll just tell you that I love this book.  LOVE IT.  I know, a lot of reading love going on this week.  After I finish it today, I am looking forward to reading Maus I and II graphic novels, then binging on Sarah Pekkanen.  

I suppose I have bored you to death at this point.  I'm feeling chatty.  Hope you all have a wonderful, blessed Sunday!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wants and Needs - Jan/Feb Bookmarks

Back again with a nice long list of wants and needs from the latest edition of Bookmarks magazine (and ongoing and highly appreciated Christmas gift from my parents each year).  Fate has a way of noticing which books I mark, it seems, because a number of them have thrown themselves in my path.

The first bit of excitement when I opened the pages was a feature on Haruki Murakami.  Hey what do you know!  One of my goals this year was to read his work (my first will probably be "Kafka on the Shore") so it was a treat to learn a little more about the man.

Here are a whole long list of my Needs:    

1.  A Thousand Lives:  The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jamestown - Julia Scheeres

Nothing feeds my mind more than getting an insight to why ordinary people do horrific things, which is why I so love true crime.  To that end, I also enjoy learning why ordinary people become followers of something so outlandish like a cult.  I got this book at SIBA, so it is waiting anxiously on my bookshelves to be read.

2.  Agent 6 - Tom Rob Smith

I've read both of Tom Rob Smith's books in the series prior to this one.  Child 44 I loved.  The Secret Speech not so much.  I am willing to give Smith another go however, because I love the protagonist Leo Demidov, who survived Stalinist Russia and is now involved in a Cold War-era conspiracy.  I'm on hold at the library for this audio.  

3.  Believing the Lie - Elizabeth George

George has been working on this series, involving one Inspector Lynley, for ages.  In fact, this is installment number 17.  I joined the ranks about four installments ago and have loved every one of them.  I don't even really care what the topic of the book is, I just know I'll love it.  And from my lips to Penguin Audio's ears!  I received this in the mail from them just last week.  Narrated by Davina Porter! Totally made my day.

4.  Perfect - Ellen Hopkins

One of my goals for 2012 was to read more free verse novels, and this was at the top of the list.  Apparently it is a companion novel to "Impulse" which I must get my hands on as well.  The book addresses troublesome teen issues, such as drugs, ambition, eating disorders, the works.  Those who have read it love it.  The audio landed in my lap recently, loaned to me by Heather.

5.  The Affair - Lee Child

You would think by the 16th installment of the Jack Reacher series (and I have read them all), they would start to get stale.  Well, I can feel staleness in the horizon if something doesn't change, but apparently Child has dodged that bullet for the moment by taking us back through time to when Reacher was fresh out of the military and taking on his last assignment with the Pentagon.  Hmmm, insight into the elusive Reacher?  Love it.  I just wish the library would get on with it and get it on audio...

And then there are a few wants as well:

1.  The Odds - Stewart O'Nan

This past year, I read my first O'Nan called "Emily, Alone".  It was not my favorite book for lack of plot, but O'Nan does have beautiful writing and a huge fan base.  Therefore, I'll be giving him another try with this one.  In his latest, he writes about a couple on the brink of divorce that takes a second honeymoon to Niagara Falls to give it one more shot.  

2.  The Scorpio Races - Maggie Stiefvater

Young adult dystopia, love story, flesh-eating water horses.  And because Jill loved it.

3.  The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje

I'm strangely drawn to this one, yet know very little about it.  Ondaatje's claim to fame is winning the Booker for "The English Patient", but this novel has been universally praised for it's themes...coming-of-age, morality, physical danger.  An 11 year-old leaves Sri Lanka on a three-week trip on an ocean liner to meet his mother in England.  And as they say, it isn't about the destination, but the journey as the young man encounters all walks of life.  Hmmm...  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Anya's Ghost - Vera Brosgol

All Anya has ever wanted was a good friend.  

High school can be pretty hard for a girl who has an immigrant past, whose mother embarrasses her, who has a body image problem, and whose dream guy is in love with the school hottie.  But when Anya falls into a well while walking through the park, everything changes.

The well contains a skeleton of a young girl.  The ghost of the girl, named Emily, has been waiting for someone to find her since 1918, when she was killed.  And now someone has.

Emily attaches herself to Anya and becomes her best friend.  She helps Anya with her tests, she gives her fashion advice, and encourages her to go after the boy of her dreams.  


Emily tells Anya a sad story about a lost love and her untimely and unsolved murder.  But when Anya begins to research the crime in an attempt to solve it, she soon suspects Emily may not have been completely honest.  Once that cat is out of the bag,  things begin to turn sinister.

My thoughts:  I truly enjoyed this book for many reasons.  First, this ill-intentioned ghost was so much fun in a creepy kind of way - sort of how you feel when you read Neil Gaiman.  (Brosgol was a storyboard artist for Coraline, so it all makes sense.)  Brosgol does a great job in transforming the image of a sweet, victimized girl to one with a terrifying glint in her eye.  It was totally Fatal Attraction-esque.

There are also good lessons here, such as respecting your parents, loving your body the way it is, and learning that the cute boy in school may not be all that nice.  Which makes this a perfect read for girls in the 12-14 age range.  This is an excellent debut from a talented artist...I look forward to her future work!  I want to thank Heather for the Christmas gift!  Lastly, I will leave you with a very cute book trailer...


4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Krakow #2

Wander down any side street in Krakow and you will find quaint little apartments and restaurants. It is the perfect place to put on your walking shoes and explore.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett (Audio)

Years ago, a friend of mine recommended I read Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto".  I never really took her seriously and blew it off for whatever I was into at the time.  When Patchett then released "State of Wonder" in 2011, and it got better than average reviews (some complained of it being a little slow in the middle), I decided it was time to give her a try.  And if it WAS slow in the middle, audio would get me through it.

I went into it knowing very little, only that it had to do with an eccentric scientist having "gone rogue" in the Amazon.  Hmmm, whispers of "Heart of Darkness" or "Apolcalypse Now".  That was all I really needed to know.

Synopsis:  Dr. Marina Singh is a middle-aged research scientist who works for a pharmaceutical company that is financially supporting a cutting edge drug development project in the Amazon jungle.  Marina's old mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, has been working on this project for years, but is completely unreachable, having disappeared under the radar and apparently gone native.  Marina's colleague was sent down recently to determine the project's status but died of an unidentified fever.  Marina has now been asked to travel to this foreign land, locate the rogue doctor in the wild, determine when the project will be complete (thus possibly making millions for her company) and bring back the effects of her deceased colleague.  Marina couldn't be more horrified at the prospect.

Once Marina arrives, however, she is drawn into a land that could just as well have been a different plant.  She encounters vigilant hippies whose sole purpose is to protect the whereabouts of Dr. Swenson, a deaf boy whom she wants to adopt as her own, man-eating snakes, a group of natives that love to do her hair, and poison arrow-wielding cannibals.  She also finds her mentor to be a force of nature, demanding and unyielding, sacrificing her life and career for the sake of a drug that could change the world.  

Strangely, in the Amazon, Marina begins to make peace with the phantoms that have haunted her for years.  In fact, she believes that she may never be the same again.

My thoughts: Chalk it up to a phenomenal audio production, or Patchett's beautiful writing, or the subject matter, but this book blew me away.  I was never bored, but really the opposite.  I was mesmerized.  

I was completely fascinated with everything about this tribe in the Amazon...their unique biology (won't say any more), the magical vegetation, and their customs.  I felt like I was right in there with Marina, battling the insects and the snakes.  

The characters in the story were as equally as fascinating.  I wouldn't go so far as to say I loved them.  They were quirky and unique, Patchett unapologetic in creating their frailties.  Dr. Swenson was the dominant personality throughout, however, both when she is absent and present.  You have heard she is crazy, and when you meet her you know she is a few cards short of a deck, but only until you see the level of her dedication to the cause do you stand back (way back) and admire her begrudgingly.  Sort of like one of my old bosses.

Some of the scenes bordered on surreal!  Whether it be assisting in a native birth up in a tree hut, or a huge snake (python?  boa constrictor?  I don't remember, but something bad) almost killing a boy, or a few other things that shall remain unspoiled, I just kept shaking my head and wondering "what the hell"???

There has been some controversy over the ending Patchett chose for us.  When I was discussing it with Heather, I was really foggy on the whole thing.  (I must have been anticipating my next audio "11/22/63").  It did not end the way I expected or wanted, and honestly it felt a little too tidy for me.  But I won't let it diminish the overall wonder I felt at completion.

A few words about the audio production:  Our narrator for "State of Wonder" was Hope Davis, who is best known for her acting work in the movies.  She was truly everything you would want in a narrator.  Her pace was perfect, she displayed a wide range of accents, sexes and ages, and was extremely pleasant to listen to.  Apparently everyone else thought so too, because the audio book has garnered a list of awards and a spot on the year-end best of lists.

4.5 out of 5 stars   


Monday, January 23, 2012

House (1977)

As most of you may know, my sister is to movies the way I am to books.  She watches four to six movies a week, and travels to the Vancouver Film Festival each year (this year she saw 66 movies in two weeks - OMG).  She has a blog and writes for an online mag.  So when she meanders down from Minneapolis to visit us, I know she is going to bring something...interesting...to watch.

Our first "Kathie movie" was one that was a Japanese film made in 1977 and has been deemed a "masterpiece of le cinema du WTF!?", "Carrie raised to the seventh power", and "Suspiria spiraling ever upward into some psychedelic seventh heaven".  Alrighty then.  

The director Obayashi, aided by his 11 year-old daughter Chigumi, has created something almost indescribable.  A mixture of horror, surrealism, camp, and bizarre goofiness, it is hard to decide whether you should laugh, scream or just be annoyed.  This one is for open minds and eclectic tastes.

At its core, the premise is terrifying.  Seven teenage girls decide to vacation with one girl's spinster aunt who lives in a remote house.  One by one, the girls start disappearing, and it becomes apparent that the aunt (and perhaps the white fluffy pet cat) is in fact a demon spirit.

The effects are cheesy, the backdrops obviously fake, but when a possessed piano eats one girl limb by limb, or another girl finds her schoolmate's head in a well, or their favorite handsome teacher is transformed into a man-sized bunch of bananas, you know you ain't in Kansas anymore.

Better yet?  It is on Blu-Ray, and available on Netflix.  Just don't say I didn't warn you.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Angel of Death

 Happy happy morning my friends!  I'm pleased to announce that life has calmed down to a dull roar this week, and was able to get myself a little more in order.  Only one doctor appointment, one meeting and two worker guy appointments...not bad.

The kids had Monday off from school so the three of us went to Andre the Angel of Death (formerly known as the uber-trainer) for our dose of pain.  Then once my husband returned home early from work, we went to the movies...the boys going to see "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and my daughter and I seeing "The Devil Inside".  

Speaking of the Angel of Death, (a name which Andre has acquired since he told me I shouldn't drink wine or eat cheese) he has been doing his job three days a week in getting me in shape.  I have a long way to go, but have already lost 9 pounds and I feel great.  I'd feel a whole lot greater if I I could have a glass of wine or two, though.  

I got some other exciting news this week.  I was contacted by a local author who is the chairperson for this year's Sleuthfest, a conference for mystery writers, which will be held in Orlando on March 1 - 4, 2012.  She has invited me to sit on a panel called "Reviewing the Reviewers".  I'm a little nervous about it, but at the same time, what other genre is closer to my heart than mystery?  Totally cool.

I've really been in a mucky, sludgy place with my reading and blogging lately.  You know I love to have a little bit of cushion in prescheduled posts, and those are dwindling away while I run around not reading.  I'm going to try to pull myself out of this mess, but if things don't pick up soon, I will be forced to take a blogging break in order to get myself back on track.  I refuse to chase posts everyday.

On that note, what have I been up to with my reading?  I've been floundering in print, but this week was able to finish Taylor Polites' "The Rebel Wife" (Taylor rocks) and the hilarious graphic novel "What I Hate from A to Z" by Roz Chast (a recommendation from Jenners).  Now I'm getting somewhere!  I will be starting "The Baker's Wife" by Sarah McCoy today.

On audio, I was able to finish "Lunatics" by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel.  It was officially the goofiest, most insane thing I've ever listened to.  Probably best consumed in small doses.  Then I started "The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Ackerman for the Heathrow Literary Society, and should have it wrapped up in the next couple of days.  Fascinating story, not so exciting narrator.  Also, because I could only find it on MP3, I am listening to "The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman in the car.  I'm loving the narrator and the story, but I fear that I will not finish the 19 hour journey before my Skype book club meets.  But I'll do my best.

Today we will be churching and horsing, and other than that, probably nothing of consequence.  I love days like this.  Hope you all have a good one.  For those of you in 75% of the country with foul weather, I am sorry.  75 degrees in January is sort of getting old too (hee hee).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Best Friends, Occasional Enemies - Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella (Audio)

I'm back again with another addition to the Solid Gold Reviewer program from Audio Jukebox.  I was drawn to select this title because I am always interested in how other people navigate successfully through the mother/daughter minefield with their relationship intact!  My daughter is nearly 14, so I realize I have just entered the Danger Zone.

Lisa Scottoline is a successful author of legal thrillers, and her daughter is a young adult who has not only contributed with her mother on a weekly column in the Philadelphia Inquirer called "Chick Wit", but has written two essay collections with her.  

The book alternates back and forth between essays written by Lisa or Francesca on topics that aren't necessarily those of the published and famous, but are completely familiar to you and I.  None of them have much of a point, beyond a recounting of their daily trials and tribulations that affect us all.  Hating duvet covers (I'm with you girl), wondering which is worse - a mouse problem or the exterminator, the dating scene, and the joy and sorrow of owning a pet.  

My opinion:  This really was a sweet book written by two women that obviously adore each other and rely upon each other for support.  Some of the stories made me chuckle, and some made me very sad.  Either way, it was nice to know that two published, successful women have the same issues that we do.  I think if I met them, I would like them.  I would comment that the book has very little to do with navigating that mother/daughter minefield I was talking about, and more about life. 

Unfortunately, however, I don't think the audio forum is the way to experience this book.  In my world, I plug in and go...sometimes all day, sometimes for an hour, but usually for longer periods of time.  These short little vignettes are meant to be read in short doses.  A few before bedtime, a few while waiting at the doctor's office, a couple while waiting for your water to heat up for a cup of tea.  As a result, I started to get anxious when listening after awhile, and needed something more.  

Both authors actually narrated their own work, and they had very pleasant reading voices, so this was not the issue.

My best advice would be...if you are in the mood for something light, and female issue-driven, buy the book and put it on your nightstand.  It will serve you well!

2.5 out of 5 stars 


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Never Knowing - Chevy Stevens (Audio)

There has been buzz about Chevy Stevens ever since her debut novel, "Still Missing" was first published.  Deemed a taught and mental thriller, all the reviews I ever read said it was near impossible to put down.  Shame on me for allowing not one but TWO copies sit on my shelves unread.  

I was pretty happy when Stevens' second novel, "Never Knowing", was selected for Heathrow Literary Society's January read.  The member who nominated the book said she read both books in two days.  A very high recommendation indeed! Around the holidays, with all the chaos, this is just what I needed. 

Synopsis:  Sara Gallagher has always been curious about her birth parents.  With two siblings born naturally to her parents after her adoption, she has always felt left out, less loved.  As an adult, however, she has a daughter of her own, and is engaged to be married in just a few months to a man who deeply loves her.  Life is good.  

To get some closure before starting her new life, Sara decides to hire an investigator to find her birth mother.  When the research uncovers the fact that not only was her mother the sole survivor of a serial murderer, but that Sara was a product of rape from that incident, all hell breaks loose.  The serial murderer "John" is still out there, and soon learns he has a daughter.  He contacts Sara and tries to form a relationship with her.  This could be an opportunity for the police to finally catch the most wanted man in Canadian history, but things are a bit more complicated for Sara.  

She is worried she might have inherited her father's temper.  But she is strangely drawn to him.  But he is dangerous. And he could hurt her loved ones.  And what about that handsome police officer to whom she has grown close throughout the investigation?  Will her happy, normal life ever again be within her reach?

My thoughts:  Overall, I thought this was a decent thriller.  While there was some action, it was more heavily focused on the complicated, mental underpinnings of being stalked by a paternal serial murderer.  I suspect our book club will enjoy untangling all of the rat's nest of emotions addressed here...fear, betrayal, horror,   fascination, morbid curiosity, forbidden sexual attraction, the power of maternal instinct, courage...it's all in there.  

On the other hand, there were aspects of this story that drove me mad.  A great deal of time was spent immersed in the protagonist's inability to make a damned decision.  Will she help the police catch her father and defy her fiancé and family, or turn her back on her social responsibility?  She waffled at least four times.  In reality, yeah, I can understand this confusion.  But for purposes of plot, it did not inspire my investment in Sara, and grew old fast.  Two waffles would have been enough.  

I also thought there were some missed opportunities in the lack of development of the relationship between Sara and her birth mother.  It was a very large, loose thread.  In fact, there were loose threads everywhere you turned, the focus primarily resting on the father/daughter interaction.  What about her adoptive parents, her father's anger and her mother's illness, her dead ex-husband.  I'm sure this was by design, but it left me wanting.

A word about the audio production:  Nine out of ten times, an audio can make a good book better, but not in this case.  The narrator, Carrington MacDuffie, was not a new voice for me.  I'd listened to her in "The Little Giant of Aberdeen County" and thought she did a wonderful job.  In this case, however, her depiction of Sara did not help matters.  Her inflections were forced and insincere (the only comparison I can make is to Shirley Temple, which is cute in a little girl in the 1930's who dances and sings, but doesn't work in this case).  About two discs into the audiobook, I began the terrible process of trying to separate the words and plot from what I was hearing in my ears.  

3 out of 5 stars  


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Krakow #1

One of the main highlights of Krakow Poland, besides the Wawel Castle, is the Wawel Cathedral.  Two cathedrals once stood in its place, the first constructed in the 11th century and the second in the 12th century, both destroyed by fire.  The current one that stands was built in the 14th century, and is an almost overwhelming display of marble, gold and Renaissance architecture. 

Within its walls (no photography allowed) is the tomb of nearly every important figure in Polish history...kings, queens, war heroes, and even the Polish President that died in an airplane crash in 2010.  It is a humbling experience to walk past all these gilded tombs. 

You may climb the steps to the bell tower, where you can touch this 28,000 pound bell for good luck.  Nope, you can't ring it.  It takes 12 people to do that.   

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dog On It - Spencer Quinn

 Every time I visit Sandmeyer's Bookstore in Chicago, I have a ball talking to the owner, Ellen, and letting her recommend her favorite books to me.  The two of us move through the store, pointing out this or that with commentary, and every shelf or two I grab something.  On my last visit, she pointed to this book and said "Oh this one is hilarious!  It is a mystery narrated by a dog."  My first reaction was to repel in horror.  Another "Racing in the Rain" to rip my heart out!  Ellen assured me that no, the dog does not die.  The dog will make you laugh.

As it turns out, this is the first of a series of four books that involve Chet and his P.I. master Bernie.  

Synopsis:  Chet and Bernie are a team, through thick and thin.  Bernie is a recently divorced, down-on-his-luck private eye who is struggling to make ends meet.  Chet is his dog who brings lots of skills to the relationship.  He is an (almost) certified K-9 dog, a great jumper, loves to ride shotgun in Bernie's beat-up old Porsche, and is Bernie's biggest fan.  

One day Bernie is approached by a distressed woman whose 15 year-old daughter has gone missing.  After a short period of time, Bernie is reassured that the girl has been located in Las Vegas and will be coming home soon, but something doesn't feel right.  Too much trouble has been happening to Bernie and Chet in the form of the girl's smarmy real estate father and some Russian mobsters.  The Bernie/Chet team is like a dog with a bone (ha) and refuses to rest until the details are nailed down and the girl is home safe.

My thoughts:  Ellen was right, this book was hilarious.  The entire story is narrated by Chet.  So we only know what Chet hears in conversations around him or what Bernie tells him.  Sometimes Chet will take a nap, go to the groomer's, or get lost in a rawhide chew, and in those cases, we might miss out on a few things.  Which is part of the fun.  The dog has a great attitude, ready to bite the leg of a bad guy, responds to anyone who will scratch behind his ears or give him treats, and is a loyal friend.

The mystery at hand is not all that complicated, with Russian mobsters being almost stereotypical antagonists, but that is not why we are here.  We are here because in the first 30 pages we fall in love with Chet.  He makes you want a dog just like him because he is funny and cool and unashamed of his doggy impulses.  It is obvious to me that the author knows his canines well.  Will this clever hook in telling a cozy mystery get old?  Well, the pressure is on Quinn's shoulders.  

Without a doubt I will be reading the rest of the series, to see if he is up to the challenge!

4 out of 5 stars         


Monday, January 16, 2012

The Artist (2011)

 Six months ago, if you had asked me if I were interested in seeing a silent black and white film...a NEW film...I would have turned you down.  I mean really?  In the days of big budget, special effects and CGI, who would even have the guts to make such a thing anyway?  

Michel Hazanavicious, backed by the Weinstein Company, that's who.  And it appears that the director's boldness has paid off in spades.  Jean Dujardin has already won the Best Actor Award in Cannes, where it premiered, and has been nominated for six Golden Globes in 2011, the most any one movie received.  

Dujardin plays George Valentin, a successful but self-absorbed silent movie star who runs into a Hollywood hopeful Peppy Miller (played by an ebullient Berenice Bejo), making a random but fated connection.

As Peppy earns her way into the movies through her dancing and contagious smile, and starts to climb her way to stardom through the emergence of sound film, George becomes a has-been and loses everything he owns.  That connection between the two actors is never broken though, and in a melodramatic and heart-warming climax, this one will leave you with a great big grin on your face knowing you have just witnessed something special.

It was amazing to me how much you can understand from good acting and facial expressions, devoid of words.  After perhaps 10 minutes of hearing nothing but music, I completely forgot this was a silent film and was swept away by the romance and nostalgia of it all.  George was dashing, Peppy was gorgeous (she absolutely LIGHTS up the screen), and to add flavor there was even a loyal little Jack Russell terror and a devoted chauffeur (James Cromwell).  We even were treated with a little John Goodman as the studio director.  
I was also impressed with the director's clever slight-of-hand at using sound within the movie to symbolize the materialization of "talkies".  I won't go into the details, but was delighted with this creative little twist.

Also contrary to everything modern cinema is about, the movie only ran an hour and 40 minutes.  Perfect.  Admittedly, it has its share of predictability, in keeping with silent movies of the 1920's (thinking of the woman tied up on the train tracks only to be saved at the last minute by her knight in shining armor) but that is exactly why you will leave the theater smiling.  This is what movies used to be about.

The rating is PG-13 for one fun bird-flipping scene, some alcohol consumption and a threat of violence.  My kids (aged 13 and 12) loved it.  The release of The Artist has been limited thus far (only shown for one week at our only indie theater), but when it gets multiple Oscar nominations (and I promise you it will) there may be a chance for a wider audience to experience this magical film.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Salon: Coming up for air

 Good morning everyone!  I will just warn you...I have had "one of those weeks".  A Sandy Week.  I never mean to overwhelm you or sound like I am whining or bragging or anything like that.  I have no intentions of reciting my week for any reason except just to take a personal inventory of WHY I didn't get a damn thing done.  Makes me feel better.

As I told you last week, my sister was visiting so that contributed to the busy-ness, but can't really blame her for the overall chaos.  I drug that poor girl around with me everywhere I went.  I took her to my workout classes with Andre on Monday and Wednesday morning (I also worked out Thursday morning, but she was doing her best downward dogs with my mom).  I took her to my book club meeting Monday night (discussing "Before I Go To Sleep" by S.J. Watson) and my Heathrow Literary Society on Tuesday (discussing "Never Knowing" by Chevy Stevens).  No she didn't read the books but who cares.  We watched movies almost every night that we were home.  We cooked.  We went to see "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy", which was very good.  We visited my friend Craig's wine store to do some birthday shopping for my husband.

I had a walking date with a good friend on Tuesday so we could catch up on our lives.  I had an Adult Literacy League meeting on Wednesday night - the event is coming up on March 1st, so everything has kicked into high gear.  We celebrated my husband's actual birthday Thursday night. I went on a field trip with about 150 4th, 5th and 6th graders to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure all day Friday.  And in between all that, my daughter had her horseback riding lessons, her weekly Confirmation class,  and the kids had their own workout sessions with Andre as well.  Thank God I have my parents down here to help shuttle.  

I also took my husband to the Magnolia golf course at Disney yesterday for 18 holes for his birthday. 

I don't mind saying that I'm tired.

So I guess it should come as no shock that I read virtually NOTHING this week.  I tried really hard to get into "The History of History" but it is a dense book and it was going nowhere.  I will just have to come back to it later.  So I turned to a new book that I got from Kenneth Dixon (I have read and reviewed two of his previous books, which are always quirky and fun).  His new book, entitled "The Photo Album", is only 125 pages long, and I'm on page 50.  This is as good as it is going to get folks.  Until I can get my life back in order.  After I knock that one out, I am going to settle in with Taylor Polites "The Rebel Wife" which was one I got at SIBA and has been getting some serious accolades.  I don't mind saying that the SIBA bloggers fell in love with Taylor when we met him.  Then I think I will having a Sarah Pekkanen fest after that.  

On audio, I did slightly better.  Only because I squeezed in a day of housecleaning on Wednesday.  I finished "11/22/63" by Stephen King, and if I said I loved it last week, well now we are talking stratospheric, emotional, put-it-on-my-favorite-of-all-time love.  I was vacuuming and sobbing (sweeping and weeping?) when I wrapped that one up.  After that, nothing is going to measure up I am afraid.  I did want to allow time for some Penguin Audios, since they have been sending me some great selections, so I started a short one called "Lunatics" written and narrated by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel.  It is really an insane thing, this audio.  I am speechless.  

Today we are scheduled for church, horseback riding lessons, and a track banquet in the evening.  The kids don't have school on Monday, so once the three of us work on our fitness in the morning with Andre, we will see if anything else gets accomplished.  Maybe a nap?      


Friday, January 13, 2012

The Future of Us - Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

At SIBA this year, there was a session where each of the publishers were allowed one minute to stand up and promote the upcoming books they were excited about.  And Penguin talked about this one.  I couldn't help but get excited too, and snatched up a review copy.  Listen to the premise, and I bet you'll have the same reaction:

Synopsis:  Josh and Emma have been best friends and next-door neighbors for their entire lives.  That is, until six months ago, when Josh made his true, more romantic feelings known to Emma and scared her off.  Things do seem to be thawing a bit, and Josh decides to let Emma borrow an AOL download disc for her new computer.  It is 1996, and home computers and AOL are all the rage. 

Strangely, when they install it, there is a link to something called Facebook. The kids are stymied when they open it and see their lives, 15 years in the future.  At first it seems like a hoax, but they soon are convinced this is something bigger.  Emma is horrified by her "husband" and the life she seems to have.  Josh, however, is thrilled to see that he is married to the high school hottie.  They also find that when they make certain "tweaks", their future changes...break a vase, get in a fight, or just make up your mind you will or will not ever make a certain decision.  The two teenagers become obsessed with their future, and wonder if their lives will ever be the same (or sane) again.

My thoughts:  Penguin YA has cleverly partnered two of their hottest authors Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Carolyn Mackler (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things) to create a very thought-provoking and sweet love story that is bound to hit a note with the Facebook generation.

I love that Asher and Mackler don't get caught up in the "why" of the story.  They are having a little magical fun that gives the reader some food for thought.  Do you really want to know what lies in your future, or would it just drive you crazy and make you second guess every move you make?  They also weave in some typical teen themes...crushes on unattainables, dealing with family issues, and friendship.  

The story was very predictable, but it didn't lessen my enjoyment of it.  The prose makes for a quick, fun read.  I would offer a word of caution to parents of tween-aged kids...the book does make reference to teen pregnancy, use of condoms, and contained some scenes of heavy make-out sessions, so use your judgement for anyone under 13 or 14.

3.5 out of 5 stars


Thursday, January 12, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson (Audio)

Back before I started blogging, I experienced something that has only happened to me a handful of times in my reading life.  I was completely swept away - consumed, even - by a novel.  That novel was "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson.  It delved into the history of Chicago architecture, the 1893 World Fair, and a serial killer that was picking off young women who had come to the city to take advantage of job opportunities.  You couldn't have found a book more suited to my tastes, and will forever be in my top ten books ever.

On paper, "In the Garden of Beasts" should have had the same effect.  Erik Larson writing about an insider's view in 1933 Berlin, as Hitler was circling the wagons? I almost jumped out of my skin when I first read about it.  It made my "Wants and Needs" list.  I barged into line for the audio at my library.  It had my name aaaaaaaallll over it.

Synopsis: In 1933, a stodgy and humble professor from Chicago, William E. Dodd, was chosen to be the first US ambassador to Hitler's Germany.  The fact that he was far from the first choice because all previous candidates had declined the assignment should have been his first warning.  Nevertheless, armed with his shield of high morals, his wife, son and promiscuous daughter Martha, he sailed off to Germany determined to make a difference.

Almost immediately upon arriving, Dodd knew this was not the Germany he remembered from an earlier time.  Jews (and even a few Americans) were being attacked in the streets, Hitler was talking about building the "New Germany", and nobody paid attention to the earnest but bumbling ambassador.  He couldn't have been less equipped to manage the momentum building under his nose.

On the other hand, vivacious Martha was star-struck by the Nazi power, and slept her way through Berlin, the notches in her belt including a Gestapo commandant and a Soviet spy.  One of Hitler's men even tries to set her up with the Fuhrer himself. 

As the Dodds' time in Germany comes to a close, one of the most notorious signs of Hitler's rise in power occurs...the "Night of the Long Knives", when the Gestapo launches a massive preemptive strike against all of the Third Reich's enemies by invading their homes and executing their entire families.

My thoughts:  I find it amazing to actually see, from an American's point of view, what Berlin was like six long years before the invasion of Poland.  Hitler's master plan was one that did not happen overnight, but was strategically and methodically planned. The signs were there long before he set up the death camps.  Unfortunately, the people that could have made a difference either were afraid to say something or wrote him off as a goofball.

Nobody loves this stuff more than I do.  But I can't recommend this book.  And it breaks my heart. 

There are literally hundreds of names and facts, almost too broad in scope.  Too many to inspire any solid foundation upon which the reader may invest.  None of the characters are likable.  Dodd was weak and his daughter was a floozy.  US politicians turned their backs on Dodd's warnings, instead focusing on how much they disliked Dodd.  It all felt like a big ugly mess.  Does that make for good reading?  Perhaps, but the focus of the mess (how Hitler was allowed to grow into a monster, unchecked) strayed off-course, and more than once settled instead on Martha's sexcapades and Dodd's inadequacies.  It left me feeling irritated and confused.  And bored.

A word about the audio production:  It would be easy to blame the audio.  If you did, you would be half right, the audio did play a part in my unhappiness.  The narrator, Stephen Hoye, was not the right voice for the job.  He does a decent job at talking murder and mayhem in the Michael Harvey series, but he lacks the dynamics to hold your attention for 13 hours when historical fact is the main entree.  About halfway through, I began to do something I call "separating myself from the audio", and try to imagine reading the words.  I'm just not sure if reading this information would have made it any more palatable. 

When I look through the reviews on Amazon and other websites, I see that my opinion is not one that is shared by many people, and you need to know that.  Is it possible that the panache of Larson and WWII combined have clouded judgements?  I'm just asking...

2.5 out of 5 stars