Tuesday, July 31, 2012

American Dervish - Ayad Akhtar (Audio)

At SIBA last fall, there was a tremendous buzz about this book.  The publisher, Hachette, was bubbling over about it's positive initial reception, and insisted all the bloggers take a copy.  

I know I'm probably going to sound like a shallow, predictable American by comparing my initial glance at "American Dervish" to "Cutting For Stone".  Yes, both books are a coming-of-age novel about Indian boys, there are family issues and religious issues, and...the short synopsis for both did not inspire me.

It took me 2 1/2 years to finally tackle "Cutting For Stone"...and I loved it.  I sat on my copy of "American Dervish" for 8 months before trusted audio file Literary Housewife raved about this book in the audio format and that pushed me to take the plunge.  

Synopsis: Hyatt Shah is a bright pre-pubescent boy, the only son of an upper middle-class Pakistani-American family that lives in Milwaukee.  His father is a doctor who has turned his back on his religion and has flagrant affairs, his mother is a tortured stay-at-homer who uses her son as a therapist for her marital woes.  

The whole family dynamic shifts when Hyatt's mother's best friend Mina and her son come to live with them after a failed marriage in Pakistan.  Mina is dynamic and beautiful, and awakens both Hyatt's sexuality and religious awareness.  In Hyatt's fervor to please Mina, he vows to become Koran scholar, which is unforgivable in the eyes of his father.  Additional tension is introduced when Mina falls in love with a Jewish colleague of Hyatt's father.

This ambitious debut novel delivers a rich array of complex conflicts in the Pakistani culture, such as misogyny, anti-Semitism (and general bigotry), old-world tradition versus the new generation, familial roles and hierarchies, and the difficulty of making sense of it all from a young boy's perspective.

My thoughts:  The tricky part about really selling the beauty of this book is how to write a synopsis that captures the imagination.  Yes yes yes, religion, growing up, family drama.  On paper, it sounds a little high-brow and over-wrought.  But it isn't.  It is gorgeous.

The prose is lush and confident in its mission.  The plot is so multi-layered and complicated, I was gripped throughout the entire book, almost as if I were reading a murder mystery!  The characters are not always sympathetic personalities...the father cheats, the mother is a martyr, Mina allows herself to be a pawn, and Hyatt makes some very bad decisions that have far-reaching impacts on people's lives.  There was conflict and tension oozing out of every chapter...there were times when I was spellbound and just couldn't stop listening.  

The level of hatred that Muslims have towards Jews, and their specific beliefs on WHY the Jews deserve this animosity, shocked me.  I found this insight enlightening and jarring.  And horrifying.  Yet with such an inflammatory topic, Akhtar handles it with delicacy and grace.  In fact, this was not the only subject that was explosive here, but Akhtar navigates through them all with the skill of a seasoned writer.

A few words about the audio production:  Had I not read Literate Housewife's review, I would have been nervous about the fact that the author narrates his own book.  But he was wonderful, as promised.  While he may not have had a wide range of vocals, his accents and his earnestness was such a pleasure to listen to.  I would hope that in all his future novels, he chooses to narrate them all.

Listening length:  9 hours and 28 minutes (368 pages)

4.5 out of 5 stars     

Monday, July 30, 2012

Monday Matinee: The Rape of Europa (2006)

Whenever I'm feeling a little uninspired, it is fun to watch something about WWII.  You know, gasp in horror and gnash your teeth at all the horrible things that Hitler did.  Most people are well-aware of the experiments, the concentration camps, the racism and crimes against humanity.  But I was particularly interested in pursuing a topic not often discussed...his theft of thousands of Europe's greatest pieces of art.  Dude did love his art, which is so contradictory to his otherwise hateful nature.  He even fancied himself an artist, but he wasn't very good.

For twelve years Hitler and his minions (particularly Goering) sacheted through museums and private homes, taking what they pleased and destroying what wasn't up to their standard.  Like it was their God-given right.  The Soviets got in on some of the action too, but this was mostly a German affair.
In this documentary, we travel through seven European countries that suffered from such pillaging, with specifics provided to illustrate the level of greed and despicability.  For example, this 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt entitled "Gold Portrait", was confiscated by the Nazi's from the subject's husband when he escaped to Switzerland.  It took years in the courts for the family to get the painting back in their possession, and in 2006 sold on the open market for $135 million.  Some have called it the "other Mona Lisa".

This painting, painted in 1513 by Italian High Renaissance Old Master Rafael and entitled "Portrait of a Young Man", was brought to Poland by a prince in the late 1700's (along with DaVinci's "Lady With an Ermine", seen below).  When the Nazi's invaded Poland in 1939, they took both items and eventually they ended up in Hitler's private collection.  The DaVinci painting was eventually returned to Poland, but the Rafael, and 843 other artifacts, were never found.  Most likely these items will resurface once those hiding the treasures die and their kids want to cash in, or older buildings are renovated and the paintings are found in a secret chamber.

Thanks to some brave souls whose passions are firmly on the side of the arts began to fight back almost immediately.  They dedicated their lives to hunting down and returning these paintings to their rightful owners.  But there was SO MUCH taken.  Over 100,000 items by some counts.  43% of all Polish cultural heritage was snatched away during the war.

Then there is Rose Valland, a mousy woman hired by the Nazis to do clerical work.  Secretly, she cataloged every piece of artwork the Nazis stole, which greatly aided in the recovery. 

Still, some are still fighting to retrieve their rightful heritage to this day through the courts.  I was more than a little annoyed when a German historian angrily protested the return of the stolen artifacts, saying that the Germans lost so many people in the war, and so they shouldn't have to do the honorable thing.  Really?  And nobody else did?  

For anyone who enjoys learning about WWII or art history, you will find this documentary fascinating.  For more information, there is also a book written by Lynn Nicholas of the same title.  


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: Joe Body

 OK seriously people!  I can't keep a straight face whenever I hear the Olympic commentators say the name of the Canadian coach for beach volleyball...Joe Body.  Hahaha!  Who has a name like that?  Is it real? Or did he decide that this would help his career and he made a legal change?  It just cracks me up.  We have been watching the Olympics, and it is so much fun.  Even archery is fun (except when Ti happens to mention that it reminds HER of a certain distressing book, then it became not so fun).

Speaking of body, I have to make a comment about an activity I have participated in the last two weeks.  My friend Michele has guested me into her fitness club on Saturday mornings for spin class.  I've never done spin before.  But here is what I learned.  If you can dig deep, and grind through torture and pain for 45 minutes and give it your all, you can burn some insane number of calories.  Last week I burned 900 calories, this week I burned 1,000.  I've never in my life experienced such a thing.  That is my healthy tip for the week.

We continue to try to get caught up from our vacation.  Various appointments, amped-up workouts getting my son ready for football next week, getting in some horseback riding, and making up our volunteer hours at the animal shelter.  My daughter took a shine to a pet rat in there, and had to hold it and scratch its head, while it licked her hand.  No, thanks, I refused to touch it. I love animals but rats are not on my list as a lovable animal!  

I also went to our Books, Babes and Bordeaux book club where we discussed "Gone Girl".  We had a large group this month, and everyone was blown away by this book.  It was one of those meetings where everyone was talking excitedly at the top of their lungs, all at the same time.  Good stuff.  There is a reason why this book is #1 on the bestseller list.  Next month we are tackling Alma Katsu's "The Taker"!!

I've been running around all day every day this week, so I'm still not doing a very good job of getting around to all your blogs.  It WILL calm down at some point, but I have no regular schedule right now.  So I'm not getting any reviews written nor am I reading much.  I am very close to finishing "The Chaperone" on audio, and after that I am diving into "The Discovery of Witches".  In print I finished (and loved with all my heart) Melina Marchetta's "Jellicoe Road".  This was a Rhapsody Jill recommendation, so it was mandatory reading, and am I glad.  Just read it.  If I can get my sluggish butt in gear, I will write the review and tell you a few thousand more times.  I'm now meandering my way through the latest graphic novel by Alison Bechdel called "Are You My Mother?".

And because I am a sloth of the highest order, I forgot to post about my winners of Karin Slaughter's "Criminal" in audio form.  But I did boot up Random.org yesterday morning and selected two names from those who expressed interest, and the winners are Caite from A Lovely Shore Breeze and Ti from Book Chatter.  Way to go ladies!  You are going to love this one.

I hope you all have a lovely Sunday.  After church, we've got horseback riding, and I am hoping that after that I'll get to Barnes & Noble and participate in a little pool floating.  And watch more Joe Body.     

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders - Didier Lefevre and Emmanuel Guibert

 Over the last year or two, I've really become enamoured with graphic novels.  Reading via visuals just tweaks a different side of my brain and offers a whole new literary experience.  So then Marie (Boston Bibliophile) did a little feature on various books about the war in Afghanistan, and she mentioned a book that was both a photographic memoir and a graphic novel.  Yes!  This is absolutely what I needed to read.

Synopsis:  In 1986, the organization of Doctors Without Borders (DWB) hired Didier Lefevre, a French journalist, to document one of their missions...to trek deep into northern Afghanistan to set up a clinic.  

Of course, it isn't so easy as jumping on a few horses and heading out.  The team of DWB, while experienced in Afghan customs and language, are not local.  They must secure mules and horses, food, and local guides to "sneak" the team past various gun-wielding soldiers.  En route they must navigate land mines, Russian helicopters, food shortages, exposure, and exhaustion.  All of this is documented through photographs and expertly-drawn graphics of Lefevre's experience. 
Along the way, and once at the destination of the clinic, there is the actual work at hand that inspires the passion to make it all worthwhile...the caring for the injured and sick.  Surgeries performed on a dirty front porch, with no light or sterilization methods.  Landmine victims, gunshot wounds, infections, dysentery.  Some victims children, some victims that would kill the doctors if they were healthy.  

Fed up with the deplorable living conditions and having finished his goal of documenting DWB's work, Lefevre decides to return to civilization on his own.  Therein begins his real adventure.

My thoughts:  This book simply took my breath away.  Graphic novels always have a big impact on me because of their visual nature, but combined with actual photographs, it doesn't get any more stunning than this.  The dichotomy of poverty, illness and war paired up with individual acts of kindness and a beautiful landscape...it is incredibly memorable in this format.

The story inspires awe.  The dedication of these doctors to fulfill their Hippocratic Oath in this devastated country is the epitome of passion.  But let's up the ante a bit here...the leader of the mission is a woman.  In a country that views women as objects somewhere between dog poo and a piece of furniture.  Can we get a fist pump ladies?  

I was stunned to find out that in 2009 Lefevre died of heart failure at the age of 49. Still, for a photographic memoir, this book sold an unprecedented number of copies in France, has been translated in a number of languages and has won all kinds of awards.  As it should be.  This was his memoir, and I felt I got to know him, so learning of his death made me so sad.

My only complaint is that some of the photograph strips were small, and were hard to see.  Some were enlarged, but I wanted more.  Lefevre's black and white photos were stunning.  I have to imagine that his work would be well-supported by an exhibition.  Someone should get to work on that, and bring it on over to the US.  

Once you start this book, you won't be able to put it down until it is finished.  I think as a country who has dedicated so many lives to the war in Afghanistan, it is our duty to better understand what is going on over there, and appreciate the sacrifices made by Doctors Without Borders.  

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Philadelphia

Scenes from our day spent in Philadelphia on our field trip.  The top picture is the Assembly Room at Independence Hall, where all the action was...Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation were adopted here, and the Declaration of Independence was drafted here.  In the center of the room in the very back is the famous, original "Rising Sun" chair used by George Washington.  One of the tour guides told me that one time, when Ronald Reagan was visiting, he plopped down in it without asking, and the entire staff about wet their pants.  From there on out, when VIPs visit, a fake one is used, JUST IN CASE!  I laughed for hours over that story.   

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A few of my favorite things...

 Because I am a bonehead, and accidentally double-posted on July 12, I saw I had nothing coming up on the blog today.  So I thought now would be a perfect time to publish a post I'd been thinking about for awhile.

I develop unhealthy attachments to things now and again.  I immerse myself in them, and love them until I can't love them any more, and then I burn out.  But a few items have stood the test of time.  I thought I'd share the love, because you all should know such joy.

 1.  100 Calorie Klondike Ice Cream Sandwiches - When you are counting calories and have a sweet tooth, this will do the trick.  I've tried other things...the Fiber One 90 Calorie brownies, Hershey's Kisses, and other various ice cream goodies.  They either don't taste all that great, are more calories, or too addictive and you can't stop eating (kisses).  But these are DELICIOUS!!!

2.  Carol's Daughter hair products - These things are not all that easy to find.  Sephora has them, as well as Ulta, and you can get them online, often with free shipping.  And they are not cheap, but they make your hair do tricks.  They are made with all natural products like Monoi Oil, Acai, Shea and Cocoa Butters, and are sulfite free.  I also love that the owner, Lisa Price, named her product after her mother, and started making them in her garage.  The best thing is that they all smell wonderful.  My favorites are the ones that smell like Chocolate!

 3.  Rose's Botanicals -  I discovered this line of products when I was on vacation at St. George Island.  Rose has a shop over the bridge in Apalachicola, and I was drawn in by all of her homemade soaps and lotions that smell heavenly and leave your skin silky smooth.  I mean, it is pure decadence.  According to the woman at the store, Rose makes everything at her home in Sopchoppy, FL.  She uses goats milk and shea butter in her lotions and soaps, and some of the soaps are formed around natural sponges.  She offers over a dozens scents, but if you have a request, she will try to accommodate.  I love supporting small business owners, and Rose makes it easy with online shopping.  The only downside is that you can't touch and feel and smell, but she IS generous about sending samples when you order from her!

4.  Under Armour Sports Bra - Call me weird, but sports bras are a very big deal with me so I had to mention this one.  For anyone out there that is "endowed" and jumps around a lot, you know exactly what I'm talking about.  My whole life, I have been on a mission to find one that keeps everything in place, and only NOW can I stop my search.  It doesn't have that X back (which makes everything spill out from your sides), has good elastics around the bottom, NO WIRES, and pads that can be worn in or taken out.  The price might make you catch your breath ($58) but for everyone that has my issues, you know this is a small price to pay to get what you need.  Sizes available in A through DD cup.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday Matinee: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

There weren't many summer movies that made my heart race with expectation, but this was one of them (just FYI, Prometheus was the other).  I, my friends, am a Bat-o-phile.  I watched Adam West on TV back when I was just a wee one, and my cousin and I played Batman and Robin for hours on end, running around fighting the evil cows and pigs.  I stood in line to see the Tim Burton series back in the '90's (despite the fact that they couldn't freaking make up their mind on who exactly was Batman...Michael Keaton?  Val Kilmer?  George Clooney?).  I have fully invested in the latest series, all written and directed by Christopher Nolan and starring a very consistent cast of Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.  These movies are smart, plot-driven, with well-drawn and fascinating characters, and the balls to throw important characters under the bus.  

Going into this movie, I knew it was the final of the trilogy.  How on earth will they end this thing and still leave me, the addict, at peace? How on earth will they be able to follow up the absolutely mind-blowing Oscar-winning performance of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight?  And Anne Hathaway in a cat suit?  I walked into the theater mentally swaggering, thinking "Bring. It. On.".

Eight years have passed since Batman took the fall for the death of Harvey Dent.  That, combined with Rachel's death, has forced Bruce Wayne into seclusion.  But now, an ex-communicated member of the League of Shadows, Bane (Tom Hardy), is wreaking havoc on Gotham, and attempting to ultimately destroy it.  Also running amuck about town is cat-burglar Selina Kyle.  Between the two terrorists, Wayne feels compelled to circle the wagons with the help of Alfred and Fox, and bring Batman out of retirement.

Bring it on they did.  The recurring cast of Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman has become emotional for me at this point.  They are family, man.  They are all superior actors.  They have a place in the story, and they pull all the threads together.    

But the new guys are equally as amazing.  I have a place in my heart for Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor, Inception) but BANE?  His gorgeous face is covered up, but look at the man!  I'd like to have the name of his trainer, introduce him to Andre.  I can't say there was a whole lot of acting going on behind the mask...it was all just menacing robotic stuff.  He sure doesn't match up with the Joker...but his backstory was compelling.

The addition of Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard (Midnight In Paris, Inception, La Vie En Rose) as love interest and rich chick was intriguing.  And Cat Woman!  I knew that Hathaway could act (highly recommend you see her in Rachel Getting Married), but she does a good roundhouse kick in stilettos, and looked pretty hot in that suit.  There is no room for a cupcake with that suit.  Rounding up the new kids, how about Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception), that little cutie?  Methinks we will be seeing more of him (wink, wink)...

It isn't necessary BUT EXTREMELY HELPFUL if you have seen the previous movies, because prior characters and plot threads are incorporated into this grande finale.  There is baggage that has been stored in the overhead bins and have come crashing down on our heads in the turbulence of this third installment.

The effects are nothing particularly special, except for one particular event of bombing the underground tunnels beneath the Gotham pro stadium, forcing the running back to scurry like hell while the earth falls apart behind him.  That was cool.  The attraction, though, is the actors, the screenplay, and the insanely satisfying conclusion to a trilogy that will go down in movie history as the best of them all.  

Just one word of advice.  Don't drink too much while you are watching...this is a long movie (close to 3 hours).  As a testament to the tension, I sat with my legs crossed for a very long time, afraid I was going to miss something important.

4.5 out of 5 stars


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Salon: Princess Training

 Well, I have two feet firmly planted back in reality.  We returned home from 2 1/2 weeks of vacation on Wednesday night.  Granted, it was nice to get back to the cooler Florida weather (seriously, what the heck is going on in the Midwest?) but is always a huge downer to come back to the drudgery of life...laundry, cleaning, cooking, and the 30-odd things on my to do list like back to school shopping, energy efficiency improvements provided to me by Progress Energy before we left, making appointments for stuff, blah blah.  I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!

The kids and I did take time to pop out and see the new Batman movie.  We had been waiting for this one for awhile and were REALLY excited about it.  Even though how on earth could you top the Heath Ledger performance in The Dark Knight?  I'm going to review it tomorrow, but just a little hint...we thought it was amazing. 

I do miss my family back in IN...don't really know when my parents will be back down in FL.  And I miss the tiny baby girl kitty that was saved from the jaws of disease and eventual death.  She is so tiny - barely over a pound, and needs lots of attention because she was abandoned by her mother as a newborn.  I would have stuck her in my pocket and brought her back with me, but there is this think thing of having six cats already...

On the other hand, we returned home to fat, lazy, bitchy kittehs who think that the world owes them something, like this one.

Anyway, predictably, in my running around trying to make my life "normal" again, my reading has screeched to a halt.  Again.  I did finish Mary Roach's "Stiff" on audio and I just loved it.  It was better than "Spook".  I'm now listening to the very popular "The Chaperone" by Laura Moriarty.  I'm just saying, Elizabeth McGovern is an AMAZING narrator.

And in print I finished Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects" - wow, for a debut novel, it was pretty intense.  And at Rhapsody Jill's urging I am reading "Jellicoe Road" by Melina Marchetta...it is really good so far.  Amazing writing.

But I've saved my big news for last.  Well, it might not be big news to y'all, but to me, it is like I have agreed to climb Mt. Everest or split the atom or run for President of a small country.  At the behest of Dawn (She Is Too Fond of Books), who will be down here in February 2013 for a family vacation, I have agreed to run the Disney Princess Half Marathon with her and her daughter.  And whoever else wants to join the fray!  Just to clarify, yes that is 13.1 miles.  And yes, three months ago I couldn't run ONE MILE.  I'm a little scared but I have seven months to train and barring a knee blowout or something equally as horrible, there is no way I'm going to accept defeat on this one.  I'm finding that running is seriously FUN, it makes me feel good, and I'm getting better at it slowly.  Pray for me.

On that note, I'm headed out to put in a few miles before it gets hot.  Have a great Sunday and I promise I will try hard to come see you at the blogs next week!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Lifeboat - Charlotte Rogan (Audio)

The initial reviews coming in for this debut novel were exciting...I heard about character studies and unreliable narrators and human frailty.  Plus, what could be more intriguing that a lifeboat full of people in the middle of the ocean?  Survival skills, weather, animals, all clashing in one small place.  I had memories of "The Life of Pi", "Unbroken", Jack and Rose, Joe Versus the Volcano!  So when I was able to get my hands on an audio review copy (muchas gracias Mitch at Hachette Audio!), I was buzzing with anticipation.

Unfortunately it did not quite live up to my expectations.  It has taken me some time to admit this to even myself, because I'm one of the lone few that feels this way.  Let me tell you a bit about the premise:

Synopsis:  Grace Winter was only 22 when she met and married Henry, a wealthy businessman.  Convinced that she had found happiness and an end to her worries of money, she boarded an luxurious ocean liner with her new husband, headed across the Atlantic.  But when there is an explosion, the passengers' fears from the Titanic's sinking two years earlier are realized, and the ship goes down.  Grace's husband secures her a spot on one of the lifeboats, but it is immediately clear they are beyond capacity.  

Grace narrates her tale of survival, of dwindling supplies and harsh elements, that challenge the survivors.  But of bigger concern are the dramas unfolding within the boat...power struggles, alliances made and broken, hidden agendas and secrets carefully guarded.  As one could imagine, as resources wane, tension escalates, and things go very wrong for the inhabitants of the lifeboat, leaving Grace on trial for her life.  What really happened out there?  Can we trust a word she says?

My thoughts:  I think most everyone knows going into this book that Grace is telling her own cock-and-bull story (You like that?  Slang from the farm it is.)  She parses out what she wants us to hear and believe, as she sits in prison on trial for murder.  (This is not a spoiler...we know this in the first page.)  She is doing some fast-talking and tap dancing.  So you expect half-truths, and for her to be an unlikeable character.  Because of all the hype for the book, though, I figured the rug would be pulled out from under me, and I'd be blown away by some outlandish, unforeseeable plot twist.  I was not.

The character development WAS fun.  Under the stress, and the effort to survive, the lifeboat inhabitants turned into vile, scrappy, conniving creatures, and this was entertaining to observe.  But the observing all took place from an emotional distance, like you would at the monkey cage at the zoo.  It was hard to invest in any one person, and the pace was slow.  As I closed in on the end, I found that I was weary of Grace and wanted it to be over.

There are very discussable points here though, and for that reason, would make this a good choice for book clubs.  I wouldn't imagine it would be the 2012 favorite, but would anticipate lots of debate, which is ultimately what you want in a book club read. 

A few words about the audio production:  The narrator for this book was Rebecca Gibel, who is a new voice for me.  She did a decent job at bringing Grace to life, with her innocent-sounding voice with traces of undercurrent.  Neither was it overly memorable however.

Listening length:  7 hours and 47 minutes (288 pages)  

2.5 out of 5 stars         

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Washington DC #7

Visiting the Lincoln Memorial at dusk.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Criminal - Karin Slaughter (Audio)

When it comes to a series that features enigmatic characters, this one (officially called the "Will Trent Series") is right at the top of the list.  I've not read all of them, but the ones I have read have been outstanding.  The crimes in these novels are usually pretty graphic and grisly, but the real attraction is a cast of about six or seven that each gets a turn or two being the star of the show.  The females are true forces of nature...strong-willed, tenacious, professional, admirable.  You want to meet these women, you want to BE these women.

Last summer, AudioGo offered me the opportunity to review "Fallen" on audio.  They popped in this summer to once again allow me to review the next installment "Criminal" on audio as well.  They have also volunteered a giveaway as well, so stick around at the end for details!

Synopsis:  Will Trent is one of those guys who is tough to get to know.  He is an excellent agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, he grew up an orphan, he is still married to Angie (fellow orphan and whack job), he is dyslexic, and in love with Sara Linton, a pediatrician.  But of his past?  Will has always been very private about that.

Until now.  Will's history all comes bubbling to the surface when his father, a convicted murderer, is released from prison and a female student goes missing.  We travel back forty years to Atlanta's underbelly in the 1970's, when Will's boss Amanda Wagner and her colleague Evelyn Mitchell are just starting their careers in the police force.  Back to when women were supposed to be secretaries, when membership in the KKK is compulsory for police officers, and when missing prostitutes like Lucy Bennett are not a concern.  They ARE a concern for Amanda and Evelyn however, but little to they know that in their determination to carve out a place for themselves in a man's world, their first case will have implications for the rest of their lives.

My thoughts:  It seems like some of my favorite series (Jack Reacher and the Prey series for example) are turning our attention back to the genesis of the characters.  Which I absolutely love.  It is highly meaningful to find yourself suddenly privy to the backgrounds of protagonists that already feel like friends.  In this case, we not only learn about HOW Will became an orphan, and the significance of those who protected him while we was growing up, but the precarious ladder that Amanda and Evelyn had to climb to get where they are. It is a tribute to the women who battled and survived the sexism and discrimination during a time when feminism in the South was almost non-existent.

Slaughter has done a tremendous amount of research in order to effectively transport us back to the Atlanta of the mid-70's.  In fact, just to fuel our fire, she has even built a microsite that includes photos of various locations around Atlanta from the 70's and current day, advertisements and music from the 70's, and even interviews of female police officers back during that period.  Check it out, it is amazing.

Another attraction for me with this series is the palpable chemistry between Will and Sara.  Slaughter has really developed this story line well.  The interaction between the two is authentic and is a relationship you find yourself rooting for.

BY FAR, this is the best I've read in the series.  It is gripping from beginning to end, it is slimy and dark, and is inspirational and touching.  You could absolutely start the series with this novel, but will mean so much more to those who know and love Will, Sara, Amanda, Faith and Evelyn.
A few words about the audio production:  This is the first time I've listened to Kathleen Early as a narrator, but she did a phenomenal job.   There doesn't seem to be any consistency in the choice of narrators for Slaughter's books, but I'd be thrilled if they stuck with Early from here on out.  Here is a sample if you would like to hear what I'm talking about:

Listening length:  15 hours and 35 minutes (448 pages)

Giveaway:  For those in the US, I will be offering a giveaway of two copies of this audio book.  Please indicate your interest in the comments, as well as your e-mail address, and I will announce the winners on July 27th.

4.5 out of 5 stars     


Monday, July 16, 2012

Monday Matinee: Drive (2011)

Prepare yourself for a little shameless Ryan Gosling blather.

It's shallow, I realize, that gazing at Ryan Gosling was the driving (hah) motivation to watch this movie.  But he IS a good actor, so there's that.  And I did hear that the movie received a standing ovation at Cannes, and the director won the Best Director award.  It was also based on a book by James Sallis! I know, I'm justifying.

The movie has been classified as "neo noire crime thriller", and that sounds as good as anything.  I'd classify it as "riveting, and subtle when its not ultra-violent", and I know that doesn't make much sense, but it was just that kind of movie.  

So the object of our affection, named only "Driver", holds down several jobs.  He is a mechanic, he is a stunt driver, he races cars.  And because his body shop employer rubs elbows with the mob, he is also a driver-for-hire for criminals needing a slick, quick getaway from a robbery.  

Driver is a man of few words.  He approaches an oil change, rolling a car for an action scene, or racing through the city streets at 120 mph to avoid the police all with a stony-faced calm.  Smoooooth, baby.  Then he meets his beautiful neighbor (Carey Mulligan), a young mother whose husband is in prison.  And he falls in love.

When the husband is released from the can and comes home, Driver accepts his fate as man #2, but his love runs deep.  So much that when he learns that the husband must do "one more job" in order to get goons off his back and protect his family, he offers to help.  That is when things go awry, as one might imagine (because there never is just "one more job") and blood/brains/viscera is shed.  If you ever wanted to know what it sounds like when a head is stomped on?  Here is your chance.

Woven into this messy love triangle story is a fable about a scorpion and a frog.  You can draw analogies, sit around and drink wine and analyze all the parallels and hints and clues.  But at its core, it is just good film.  There is tension throughout, even when there isn't shooting and bashing.  Gosling is simply magnetic on screen, and is such a pleasure to watch.  

While Gosling was the main attraction (for me at least), the casting of all the other supporting characters was top-notch.  Carey Mulligan is cute and OK, we can buy the fact that Gosling might fall for her.  We have Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks...as goons!  Really bad goons!  Which was fun.  Who would have thought that bumbling, goofy Brooks had it in him?  There was a lot of chatter about the casting of Christina Hendricks (the hot red-headed TV actress mostly known for Mad Men) as a female goon, and that she didn't get a whole lot of air time.  But the time she had was well-spent.

We did kinda scratch our heads at the ending, which was...vague.  I had to do a little searching online to make sure we got it right.  It might be unsatisfying to those who like things wrapped up neatly.

My final barometer of a movie is if my husband stays awake for the whole thing without being poked by me.  He was wide-eyed throughout this one, which is an excellent sign.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Salon: Magic

Hey y'all!  Yes I'm still alive.  I have been pretty absent from the webz this week.  Sorry, I'm in vacation mode.  I will be returning home next week so we'll see if I can't get back into some kind of groove then.  

On the farm, we've been involved with kittehs.  My daughter, the cat whisperer, found three tiny little ones in the barn that were very sick and had been abandoned by their mother.  She attempted to nurse them back to health, but to no avail.  My dad finally caved and took them to the vet but two died.  (Sad face.)  The one seems to be on the mend.  Then we got two free black kittehs from an ad in the paper, and after two days, one disappeared and we assumed that the coyotes (which run wild around these parts) ate it.  It was spotted however about a half mile from the house up a tree.  My dad borrowed a bucket truck from a neighbor and my MOTHER went up in it and saved the poor thing.  Lord almighty.  My daughter has been getting driving lessons as well.  Not involved in that one.  And the kids have been going to the shooting range, learning the art of the firearm with my dad.  Not involved in that one either.

I have spent this past weekend with high school friends.  We do this every year, and is therapy.  We drink, we eat, we get together with other high school friends, we act like fools.  We went book shopping and had a long discussion about how one of us (Julie) has a serious crush on Joshilyn Jackson and wants to date her.  Or at least have her children.  I get that, I do.  We also took this opportunity to see Magic Mike.  Godawful movie plot, but SMOKING hot.  Like, it took an hour to get my heart rate back under a heart attack range.  So here is a little something for you ladies to enjoy this morning. 

You are welcome.  My reading is just off-the-map slow.  I THINK I might be able to get Karin Slaughter's "Criminal" finished on audio before Tuesday, but is going to take some work, like lock myself in the bathroom for a few hours kinda work.  HOWEVER.  This installment in the series is the best yet.  You can't miss it if you like Will Trent et al.  I'm also about 35% through Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects" in print and it is quite good.

So I'm off again.  Hope you all are having a wonderful weekend, and I look forward to catching back up with you later next week!     

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ocean Beach - Wendy Wax

About a year ago, I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing my first Wendy Wax book "Ten Beach Road".  About a month later, I was thrilled to not only meet Wendy, but a group of bloggers bid on the privilege to take her (and three other authors) to dinner at SIBA.  At that dinner I learned that the three women I so enjoyed in "Ten Beach Road" were coming back for a repeat performance in her sequel "Ocean Beach".  I became invested in the welfare of Avery, Nicole, Maddie and their friends and family, and I was excited to learn what they were up to these days.

Synopsis:  After the renovations of the Bella Flora went viral on YouTube in a reality-style homemade documentary, Avery, Nicole and Maddie have been offered an opportunity to do it all again in South Beach, Miami.  This time it will be for a reality series show called Do Over, and might just get them back on their feet financially since Bella Flora has yet to sell.  They've been tasked to bring a historic and architecturally-significant mansion, owned by a once-famous widower, back to its former glory.

But as they learned with Bella Flora, these projects all come with pitfalls.  And they've got them this time in spades.  First there is the network cameras that capture everything...every fight, every blunder, every bad hair day.  Then there is the philandering celebrity (who fathered Maddie's daughter's son Dustin) and his foul-mouthed wife who are in town and hovering around looking for trouble.  Even amongst themselves there is tension and undercurrents, especially since it is not only the three women in the mix, but Avery's mother and Maddie's daughter and grandson as well.

So against all odds, these strong women fortify themselves to weather whatever comes their way, be it a broken chandelier, a disgruntled wife or a forty-year old mystery that needs solving.

My thoughts:  For those people who read "Ten Beach Road", it is easy to fall right in step with "Ocean Beach".  Not much time has passed, and these three ladies are still hashing out the issues they struggled with earlier...a broken marriage, a baby born out of wedlock, ruined businesses, mother/daughter angst, relationships.  But in real life, this is the muck that we slog through and rarely is it resolved neatly or quickly.  There were also very similar house renovation aches and pains...sanding, glazing, cleaning, painting.  So in some ways, it is more of the same thing.

But the author also introduces some new aspects to the story which spices things up, particularly one of a forty-plus year old mystery of a missing child.  It wasn't a hard puzzle to figure out, but was a lot of fun to watch unfold.  

Having visited South Beach, it was also a treat to revisit the art deco architecture and decadent feel of the area.  It is definitely like no other place on earth, and seeing it through the eyes of these three ladies was proof of Wendy's research of the area.

This is definitely a worthy summer read...one with love, action, mystery and girlfriends.  Make sure you pack it in your bag next time you head out!

3 out of 5 stars

Spook - Mary Roach (Audio)

Almost since the first day I started blogging, I'd been hearing about the genius of Mary Roach.  She was the author who could dissect something misunderstood or science-y and make it accessible...and hilariously funny.  She has tackled subjects like sex, outer space, death, and here in this novel, the afterlife.

I basically foraged through every audio my library had of Roach's work and came up with both "Spook" and "Stiff".  I chose to listen to "Spook" first because you all know how much I like the ghosties.

Synopsis:  So have you ever wondered what happens when we die?  Is that it, or do we come back as a dung beetle, haunt those that wronged us while we walked the earth, hang out in heaven eating calorie-free Oreos, or participate in a little chit chat via a Ouija Board?  Mary Roach is on the case, and throws her weight into a little research to find out.

She travels to India to investigate reincarnation, she explores out-of-body after-death experiences with a cardiologist, she enrolls in a medium school in England, talks to philosophers about the physical existence (and proof?) of souls, and even unearthed a box of ectoplasm from the Cambridge University archive.  While she doggedly digs for answers with well-meaning and passionate scientists and scholars (she attempts an open mind), Mary can't resist giving us her two-cents worth of snarky commentary in footnotes scattered throughout.

A sample of such snark that erupts from Mary while attending her medium school:  

“I am very much out of my element here. There are moments, listening to the conversations going on around me, when I feel I am going to lose my mind. Earlier today, I heard someone say the words, "I felt at one with the divine source of creation." Mary Roach on a conducted tour of Hades. I had to fight the urge to push back my chair and start screaming: STAND BACK! ALL OF YOU! I'VE GOT AN ARTHUR FINDLAY BOX CUTTER! Instead, I quietly excused myself and went to the bar, to commune with spirits I know how to relate to.”

My thoughts:  I can see now why everyone loves a dose of Mary Roach now and again.  This book was filled with lots of facts and research, but she has sifted through it, finding all the curious (and wonky) elements for us.  I would loosely compare her to the beloved Ms. Sarah Vowell, who too loves her history, but has her own spin on things.

In fact, while it is obvious the woman is exceptionally smart, she is also "one of us", meaning like a girlfriend with whom I could have a good time sitting and watching, let's say, an A&E special on the Black Plague.  Lots of peanut gallery quips and mouthiness after a glass or two of wine.

It was when Mary interjected with her opinions that I liked most about this book.  I found the facts themselves to sometimes cause my mind to stray (not exactly the stuff I should be listening to perhaps while on the elliptical at the gym) but Mary's side comments made me laugh out loud.  More than once.  Because this was an audio, I am unable to find the quotes about one particular Victorian medium, a wife of a gynecologist, who produced large amounts of ectoplasm at seances, suspected to have been hidden in her lady parts.  But the ongoing dialogue on this one, the shock and HOW MUCH ectoplasm-ish stuff came from her "internal storage area", speculation on how she got it in and out of her in the middle of a seance...well, I nearly had to just sit down in the middle of a walk I was laughing so hard.

A few words about the audio production:  Based on some browsing online, it does not appear Ms. Roach is married to one particular narrator, as with some authors.  In "Spook", our narrator is Bernadette Quigley, a new voice for me.  I'm not entirely sure how I feel about her work here...at times she nailed the snarky essence of Mary Roach, and other times she did not.  The pacing felt off a bit, and sometimes seemed forced.  I'll be curious to listen to "Stiff" and see how that one holds up.

Listening length:  8 hours and 34 minutes (288 pages)

3.5 out of 5 stars