Friday, August 11, 2017

The Freedom Writers Diary by The Freedom Writers

I found myself tearing up a bit at some of the diary entries in this book. Dammit, kids!

First year teacher Erin Gruwell found herself handed a class of "undesirable" kids that no one wanted and no one thought would go anywhere, let alone graduate. Thank goodness Ms. Gruwell was crazy optimistic and never lost faith. Her classes, 150 kids, ended up being the center of attention nationwide for their success. And that success started through reading and writing. My 2 favorite things. This book is a compilation of their diaries that take us through their freshman year to beyond.

In Long Beach, the good neighborhoods are not that far from the bad neighborhoods but they might as well be light years apart. The kids in Ms. Gruwell's class are mainly from the bad areas, where they worry that they'll be shot coming to and from school, or beat up because they are the wrong color, or whether they will have food once they get home or even if they will have a home. It's nearly impossible for kids in these circumstances to succeed. How do you split your time fearing for your life and doing homework? Most teachers had given up on the kids, knowing they'll end up like everyone else in their families. Ms. Gruwell didn't give up.

Reading the entries as the kids mocked this young white lady, knowing she wouldn't last 6 months there and how she earned their respect and brought out the best in them was amazing. Dust got in my eyes a few times.

The Freedom Writers went on to have a movie made about them, a documentary and created a foundation to assist teachers in helping at risk youth as well as mentoring and sponsoring the youth themselves so they can graduate and go to college.

Good book for some inspiration just when this world seems a bit worse for wear.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

I love Sedaris' sense of humor. It's witty and dry and often self-deprecating. Sedaris has been keeping diaries for 40+ years and this book contains the ones from 1977 to 2002. If anything, it's inspired me to start writing in my in journals again.

The diary entries are entertaining and Sedaris does admit that he left some of the more druggie ones out because he sounded like a crazy person. Considering what he left in, I'm surprised Sedaris is still alive.

There is no plot to discuss, no spoilers. Just a witty man with an incredible ability to observe and record the mundane and the bizarre from his life. If you've never read Sedaris, I wouldn't start with this. I would start with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim or When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Then come back to his diaries.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Monster by Jonathan Kellerman

Hey look, I read this out of order. Surprise!

I've had this book for over 17 years. I know this because the bookplate in the front has my old address. I had a strange feeling of deja vu when I read this but I also don't think I've read this before. Ardis Peake is a mad man and his killings were what sounded familiar.

Anywho, Dr. Delaware is back again helping solve a series of strange murders that, on the surface, don't really look related. But somehow, things tie back to Peake, locked up in Starkweather Hospital for the criminally insane and, boy, is he insane. Or, at the least, so medicated for insanity he's practically a vegetable. Until he escapes. WHAT? Yes.

The murder that got Delaware and Milo Sturgis to Starkweather was of Claire Argent, a psychologist at the hospital. As they start snooping around, or detecting, things start to become more confusing.

Is Peake a prophet?

Why was Claire so interested in Peake?

This was a pretty decent mystery that took me a bit to guess what was going on in the end. Clever.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Look at me, actually finishing an IRL book club book prior to book club night. I actually prefer the classics as book club fodder, rather than bios and more modern books. Discussing the latter with folks just doesn't hold my interest.

This was a pretty short (and free on Kindle) book. I was really diving into my pile o'mysteries but needed to get this read. Surprisingly, once I downloaded it and started reading, I was in it for the short haul. Before long I was at 30% read then 55% then 80% and hell, I might as well finish!

Buck is our main character. He's a large dog, weighing in at 140lbs, who lives a good life in Santa Clara Valley. The gardener, needing to pay some gambling debts, steals and sells Buck to folks who mistreat and starve him and ship him to Seattle. There, Buck encounters the man in the red sweater and starts shedding his domestic existence and embracing his wild side. Having to train as a sled dog in the Yukon ("train" - ie. being beaten and whipped until he does the right thing), Buck becomes more and more feral.

People can suck and Buck encounters those people in Hal, Charles and Mercedes from the US who buy Buck and his team to mush them across thousands of miles for gold. These people are so inept and cruel they deserved their fate, but taking the dogs down with them.... broke my heart. I find I usually feel more for animals than for people lately.

Buck ends up in the hands of Thornton and finally finds love of his master, which surprisingly, he realizes he didn't have in Santa Clara Valley. When a terrible and gruesome end comes, Buck is left on his own and gives over completely to his wild instincts and runs with a wolf pack for the reminder of his days.

Despite being a domesticated dog for a good portion of his years, Buck had the instincts of his foredogs and he learned to follow them and survive.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Dr. Death by Jonathan Kellerman

Looking at a regular Dr. Kevorkian here. Except in this case, the Dr. Death was Eldon Mate and he was found brutally murdered in his own "death van". Alex Delaware is a psychologist who sometimes (as in 14 books, sometimes) assists his Homicide Detective friend, Milo Sturgis, on cases.

Sturgis calls in Delaware to the scene and they meet the couple of hikers who discovered the body. It's a gruesome one and one where a considerable amount of people are happy Mate is dead, while others are sad that their confederate in assisted suicide was murdered. Very odd split of people. Delaware's first thought was to Richard Doss, a man whose daughter he counseled after her mother was "assisted" to death by Mate previously. Doss, a wealthy asshole, already has an alibi (well, isn't THAT suspicious?) but wants Delaware to see his daughter again to counsel her on college choices.

Things just start getting messy and complicated, with more and more characters filing into the scene, all with ample motive to want Mate dead. The story got interesting as you tried to sort everyone out and discard who couldn't possibly have performed such a murder.

And then, near the end, you are walloped in the face clear from left field. Thanks to this, I ended up with a book hangover this morning because I had to stay up, damn the time!, and finish.

Good job, Mr. Kellerman.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen

I really suck at series. Apparently I read the second book in the Mick Stranahan series first and the first one second. In my defense, I didn't realize it was a series since each book really stood alone pretty well. According to Goodreads, I read Skinny Dip back in 2005 and I gave it 2/5 stars. Huh....

Skin Tight was so entertaining that I read it in one day (thank goodness for vacations!). I had been reading some pretty heavy material and really just needed a fun, light book. Our mall now has a used book store (Book Nook) that benefits the Madison County Literacy Program and since I don't need a lot of reasons to book shop, I stopped in. Skin Tight was one of the books I picked up there.

So Mick Stranahan is an ex-investigator with the State Attorney's office. Ex because he shot a judge through the nostril. Technically self-defense against a corrupt judge who was trying to kill him but it made enough people uneasy that Mick was let go with a decent pension plan. Now he lives in a house on stilts in the backwaters of Florida, preferably without seeing people at all. All is well and good until someone shows up to his stilt house and tries to kill him. Dispatching the intruder with the pointy end of a stuffed marlin, Mick is just beginning this adventure of murder and mayhem.

Seriously, almost everyone dies in this book. I don't think I've seen so many deaths - intentional, humorous and otherwise.

The characters are truly characters and not quite so madcappy (that's a word, I swear) that you are put off by them, but you definitely lead the cheering squad when they get their (odd) comeuppance.

Hiaasen is one of those authors whom I love to read but kind of forget about until I come across his books somewhere. Then I buy up as many as I can.

Skinny Dip is book #2 (of 2 books, apparently) and, since I read it 12 years ago, I can't remember why I gave it 2/5 stars but Skin Tight was pretty good and I bet Skinny Dip would be good read immediately afterwards.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hunger by Roxane Gay

I've never heard of Roxane Gay, didn't know who she was and was only half listening to Trevor Noah interview her on The Daily Show. I ended up stopping what I was doing to listen to what she was saying. She wrote a book about being fat?

Hunger is a memoir of her body. Gay was gang raped at the age of 12 and, in a very short summary, began eating and eating and eating in order to build a fortress around her. She felt that if she was bigger, men wouldn't hurt her.

The book was amazing. Gay really articulated how she has to move through this world in her body. She was a "hot mess" for a while and has since moved into a better type of mess and is able to share her history, and how she became the woman she is, to us. It pained me to read, and know as true, how people think they can offer advice and criticism to fat people without batting an eye. I hear this stuff in our break room at work almost daily - someone critiquing someone else's food choices "That's not healthy. Aren't you diabetic?", "Should you be eating that?", "How many miles do you need to walk to burn THAT off?". Some of those were said to me, and even though the BMI says I'm overweight, my food choices shouldn't invite criticism from co-workers (or anyone for that matter).

Gay talks about being invisible yet highly visible. People don't see her, but they are upset she takes up so much space. Women, all women, are not supposed to take up space. Girls are taught that, either explicitly or implicitly, throughout their whole lives. And yet, here she is, taking up space.

This is really a great book to read to gain a perspective you probably didn't know you needed. EVERYONE targets fat people. Everyone has judgments about fat people and the majority of people love voicing those opinions. It's insane that we, as a whole, can target a group of people and think it's ok.

Read this.....

Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

This is not a book I would have picked up on my own. I read reviews and summaries and passed it by. But then it fell into my lap and I thought "Why not? You just need to read 50 pages then stop if you don't like it".

I devoured it.

It's not what I expected, not written how I expected, not the story I expected. Isn't there a cliche about judging a book by it's cover??

The premise of this book is explaining the (somewhat fictional) history of the painting Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth. I've not seen the painting before I started this book but admit to thinking "I don't care what that back story is".

Photo courtesy of MoMA
Christina's World - Andrew Wyeth

Kline introduces us to Christina Olson, in 1939. We don't know much about her except that she lives in a very old farm house and her young neighbor Betsy is dropping by to introduce her new beau, Andy Wyeth. Wyeth is fascinated by the story the house and the farm are telling and wants to paint and draw around their property. Christina is older, crippled with something we don't know yet, and she's taken by this artist. So he comes nearly daily to paint. Christina and her brother, Al, never get much company at the farm so they are amused by Wyeth.

The book travels back to 1896, where Christina is deathly ill with a fever. Her family is certain she will not survive, but she does, albeit with crippled legs and horrendous pain. That is the start of Christina's life - pain, falling, misery, humiliation and spinsterhood. She became, quite literally, a cat lady. Never leaving the farm, taking care of her family and never marrying.

The devil, however, is in the details. Christina was a very bright student. Her teacher wanted her to continue on with her schooling so Christina could take the teacher's place. Her father was emphatic that a crippled child needed no more schooling and she was to stay on at the farm and help there. That struck a severe blow - I felt that while reading it. Christina had a beau for a bit, but her circumstances caused rife with his parents. She had so many opportunities that other people dashed, it made my heart hurt for her. She managed to dash the opportunities of other people as well, so don't get too weepy.

The book travels us back and forth between Christina's past and present. We learn about her family history, how she was forced to grow up and how the painting came to be.

This is really a well written, well told story of a painting that I never even knew existed. I'm glad I gave this a try!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson

This was an interesting book in that it basically was like reading a Buddhist book, but with more profanity. I'm not sure I needed to read this since I do read Buddhist books, but it was still a good read and, hopefully, another shock to my system to wake me up.

Essentially, Manson believes we give too many fucks about too many things. Things that are not worth our time and consideration, we give fucks about. He references Charles Bukowski (a favorite of mine) and his struggle to become a writer. In the end, even Bukowski said "Don't try" but he did become pretty famous...mostly for being kind of a loser. But he excelled at being a loser! Don't try to be something you are not! Be you!

A loser!

Anyways, you do need to give a fuck, just give the right fucks. Choose your values wisely, be aware that you will ALWAYS have problems, and choose your problems wisely.

If you’re miserable in your current situation, chances are it’s because you feel like some part of it is outside your control—that there’s a problem you have no ability to solve, a problem that was somehow thrust upon you without your choosing. When we feel that we’re choosing our problems, we feel empowered. When we feel that our problems are being forced upon us against our will, we feel victimized and miserable.
He emphasizes that money is nice, but it's not going to make you happy. Once you have a value of "Make lots of money" and you make lots of money....then what? Doing what you love is more important and that actually is a Buddhist concept. In Buddhism, the thing you are grasping for will be the thing that makes you miserable. If you grasp for money, you will be unhappy. If you are not grasping but you are doing something you enjoy, you are happier.

I actually appreciated the section on  "....And then you die" more than I probably should have. Being sick my whole life, sometimes near death, I should realize how short life can be. And I used to. I really did. Then I grew up, became an adult, got a job and I trudge along in my daily duties. WTF? That's got to change, pronto.

I'm finally starting to get into the DO SOMETHING mode. Just start something. Anything. Manson tells us that motivation follows action, not the other way around, and I believe him. If you are waiting to be motivated before starting that new hobby, looking for a new job, etc. you will be sitting for a while. Do something to start that hobby or search for that job and motivation follows quickly afterwards.

All in all, a good book. Not a swift kick in the ass but a decent sized "Go get 'em" pat on the bum.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Ahead be spoilers.....

I've lost track of how many times I've read this but I felt like it has been a bit and I wanted to refresh myself before really diving into the Starz series. I didn't want to be surprised and question if what I was seeing was a deviation from the book or maybe I just didn't remember the book. It's a thing.... be happy that's not you.

Ian McShane and Cloris Leachman in the Starz series

I've seen enough of the series to be over the moon about it - the cast alone makes my heart pitter patter. But let's talk about the book. I listened to the 10th anniversary edition with a great cast of readers, plus an additional 12,000 words from Neil Gaiman. I loved that I remembered so much of it (I am 41, you know...getting older) but I loved even more when I was surprised by something and then remembered how it played out.

The basic plot is: Gods live in America, brought here by older generations in tales and folklore and sacrifices, but they fade as people forget about them. Newer Gods come in, ready to be worshiped by the next generation. The new Gods of Media, Internet, TV - all so easily worshiped by those of us who eagerly read and absorb the media. Gaiman references Norse mythology quite a bit in his novels, so it would help you to read up on it. Actually, read his book Norse Mythology. He makes it easy for you.

Shadow Moon is serving a sentence for robbery and is scheduled to get out soon. We know he's one of our main characters, but we really don't see why until much further into the book. Honestly, he's just the every day man who moves the Gods plot along and allows you to meet the necessary big players. He gets out of prison early because his wife, Laura, is killed in an car accident. While giving his best friend, who is driving, a blow job. The end must have been very very painful for Robbie.

Shadow's world starts spiraling downward.

On the way to Laura's funeral, he meets Wednesday, aka Odin (look him up), and through a very odd series of events, agrees to work for Wednesday as an errand boy. Shadow ends up on some odder errands that get him nearly killed by various people who apparently strongly dislike him. Wednesday hides him in a small community and hopes to keep Shadow safe until the war. But, not before Shadow loses a game of checkers to Chernabog, and promises to come back to get his head bashed in. Weird wager, y'all.

Did I not mention the war?

The old Gods vs the new Gods. Wednesday is rallying his troops to destroy the new Gods and the new Gods are doing the same. Things are gruesome as they start randomly killing each other (it was sad to see you go, Bilquis, you man-eater, you).

In the end, the war begins. Old Gods and new Gods begin killing each other. But....

I'm not giving anything else away at this point. There are more than enough twists and WTF moments to keep you going and you really need to go along for the ride. Then watch the show. Or watch the show, then read the book because, already there are differences which are significant.

Enjoy them both .....  and think about what you worship.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde

My book reading mojo went away for a bit. I've just been consuming newspapers and magazines but, honestly, with the world the way it is now, I started getting depressed. Pay It Foward ended up on my doorstep and was the perfect remedy for the hate and fear running around outside.

I think most, if not all, people know the concept of paying it forward. You help out someone who needs it and, instead of asking for anything in return, you ask the person to help out three people. Those three people help out three other people and so on. A movement of kindness sweeps across the world, wars are ended, enemies hug it out and everyone lives happily ever after. That's the gist, anyways.

I try to regularly do something for someone and then hope they pay the kindness forward. It's an honor system and we know how those work. But I still do it and still hope. This novel is about Trevor, a 12 year old, who gets an assignment from his teacher, Reuben St. Clair, to think about how one person can change the world and then to go out and do it. Trevor's idea was very simple. Help three people then ask them to help three more, etc. etc. Trevor does his bit but he's certain no one else has until a reporter shows up asking about the kid who got gangs to stop killing each other.

The senseless violence at the end wasn't necessary to make this an impactful book and I wish the ending had been different. The book made it's mark, without that ending. I understand there's a movie based on the book but I have not seen it, nor will I :)  Books are ALWAYS better than the movie.

Go pay it forward.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Turbo Twenty-Three by Janet Evanovich

Twenty-third (duh) in the Stephanie Plum series opens with a dead man in an ice cream truck dipped in chocolate and nuts. What?

So the Bogart Ice Cream company is having some troubles, even if you don't count the dead ice cream covered guy. Ranger gets Stephanie to work undercover at the Bogart factory to see what she can find out but Stephanie sucks at undercover. Actually, I'm still amazed Stephanie has a job, but she manages to scrape through every chaotic (sometimes Lula-induced) situation that comes her way.

If you've read the previous book, we're in the same situation: Stephanie, Morelli (engaged to be engaged??) and Ranger. Lula and Connie add to the comic elements and there's plenty of chase scenes and action. For some reason, perhaps it's the ice cream element, I found #23 to be a particularly good book.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Golden Prey by John Sandford

Twenty-seventh in the Prey series and I'm still loving Lucas Davenport! I can't say that about to many series. I tore through this one and, towards the end, was reading at break-neck speed and ignoring all adult responsibilities. Thank goodness I don't have children.

Davenport is now a US Marshal, thanks to his actions in the previous book. He saved the life of Presidential candidate, Michaela Bowden, and she re-paid him with a cush job and no one to answer to. Naturally, his fellow Marshals don't care for him much but, Davenport himself is starting to feel at loose ends. He's a small fish in a giant pond and he needs someone to chase.

Enter Garvin Poole. A redneck hick with a mean killer streak, he's on the most wanted list and, with the help of his friend Sturgill Darling, just knocked over a drug cartel's counting house. After killing everyone inside, including a 6 year old girl, Poole and Darling walked away with millions in cash. The Federal Government isn't happy and neither is the cartel. Davenport takes on the case of hunting down Poole but he's competing with cartel killers, Soto and Kort. Davenport picks up two US Marshals, Bob and Rae, to assist after a near deadly shootout with Soto and Kort. We're flying, literally, over the southern and southwestern US with Davenport and co. and it's truly at mind-boggling speed.

There are a few moments when Davenport has an "ah ha" moment that speeds us along and you have to question his ability to consistently come up with these things. But then again, you don't, because it's Davenport, dammit! And he's just that good.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I had no particular reason for picking this up at the library except that it sounded good as I browsed the shelves. This is a book of short stories all focusing on immigrants.

The stories capture the people who fled to America and lost family along the way, who are now haunted by the ghosts of the dead. The ones who are sponsored and end up living in San Francisco with two gay men. The elderly professor who is battling, and losing, dementia and keeps calling his wife by the name of an old lover. And so on.

There are no heroic battles or anything spectacular with these stories, but they are solid and examine a snippet of the life of a refugee. Being forced to leave your country and land in another, very alien, country and try to survive takes courage.

All in all, a very good little book of short stories

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hugo Award Finalists Announced!

You can go here to see the list.

I always like book lists. Just more to add to my to-read pile! I'm slowly starting to get more into sci-fi so this seems like a good list to start from. Interestingly enough, I went to a talk by Charlie Jean Anders at Butler University recently. More on that to come......

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

I had finished reading Outlander back in December 2015 and, as much as I adored it, never got around to continuing the series. I watched the first season of the show (SWOON) and let season 2 pile up while I tackled Dragonfly in Amber. These are TOMES. I could hurl this book at a person's head and quite possibly knock them out cold. Dragonfly clocks in at about 740 pages.

 I ended up putting the actual book away and grabbed the audiobook, read by Davina Porter (fantastically read by, I might add), because I went a little crazy at the local library and checked out too many books. At least listening to Dragonfly kept me moving right along. I started reading this in February 2017 and, quite literally, just finished the book. I was thisclose to tearing into Voyager, the next book in the series, but stopped myself so I can finish my last library book. My goodness this is a fantastic series. To catch you up, here is my review of the first in the series, Outlander.

Dragonfly in Amber starts in a very unexpected way: Claire is back in her century, showing up on Roger Wakefield's doorstep in Invermess, in 1968. Roger, remember, was the little boy that Reverend Wakefield had adopted, whom we met in Outlander. Roger is quite grown up now and Claire arrives with her daughter, Brianna, a vibrant 20 year old red head. Start doing the math here, folks. Claire asks Roger to help research the fates of the clansman who fought at Culloden. In 1745, the Jacobites fight, and lose terribly, at Culloden, to try and put Charles Stuart back on the throne. It's a terrible battle that nearly wipes out the Scots and Claire wants closure, it seems, on the people that she knew and spent so many years with in 18th-century Scotland.

While researching, Roger, Brianna, and Claire seek out a cemetery and come across James Fraser's gravestone marked as the "Beloved Husband of Claire". That sparks the telling of her adventures to Brianna and Roger, including the telling of Brianna's true father, Jamie.

Part II takes us immediately to 1744, France, and Claire vomiting from morning sickness. Jamie and Claire are in "high society" France to do what they can to stop Charles Stuart from waging his war to gain the throne, using the Scots as pawns in his battle. A great deal happens on so many levels in Paris that I can't recount them all and, frankly, I wouldn't want to. This is a great story told by a great writer and it's worth the travel with Claire and Jamie.

We do end up back in Scotland, with many deaths, many upsets and many nail-biting moments. Claire, as we already know, ends up going back through the stones into her century and giving birth to Jamie's daughter, Brianna. The last bit of the book turned out to be more of a twisted path and left us with a shocking bit of revelation.

The audio book is approximately 38 hours long and the last, oh, 10 hours or so I devoured in 3 days. I really wished that I didn't have to sleep at that point...or work... but alas.

I highly recommend this series. It's daunting in size, but so very worth the time.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Choose my next book!

Or rather... choose my classic tome of 2017! 

Click to vote!

Voting is for one more week and you are choosing between:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's epic masterpiece intertwines the lives of private and public individuals during the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia. The fortunes of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, are intimately connected with the national history that is played out in parallel with their lives. Balls and soirees alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and generals, scenes of violent battles with everyday human passions in a work whose extraordinary imaginative power has never been surpassed. 

The prodigious cast of characters, seem to act and move as if connected by threads of destiny as the novel relentlessly questions ideas of free will, fate, and providence. Yet Tolstoy's portrayal of marital relations and scenes of domesticity is as truthful and poignant as the grand themes that underlie them.

Roots by Alex Haley

When he was a boy in Henning, Tennessee, Alex Haley's grandmother used to tell him stories about their family—stories that went back to her grandparents, and their grandparents, down through the generations all the way to a man she called "the African." She said he had lived across the ocean near what he called the "Kamby Bolongo" and had been out in the forest one day chopping wood to make a drum when he was set upon by four men, beaten, chained and dragged aboard a slave ship bound for Colonial America.

Still vividly remembering the stories after he grew up and became a writer, Haley began to search for documentation that might authenticate the narrative. It took ten years and a half a million miles of travel across three continents to find it, but finally, in an astonishing feat of genealogical detective work, he discovered not only the name of "the African"--Kunta Kinte—but the precise location of Juffure, the very village in The Gambia, West Africa, from which he was abducted in 1767 at the age of sixteen and taken on the Lord Ligonier to Maryland and sold to a Virginia planter.

Haley has talked in Juffure with his own African sixth cousins. On September 29, 1967, he stood on the dock in Annapolis where his great-great-great-great-grandfather was taken ashore on September 29, 1767. Now he has written the monumental two-century drama of Kunta Kinte and the six generations who came after him—slaves and freedmen, farmers and blacksmiths, lumber mill workers and Pullman porters, lawyers and architects—and one author.

But Haley has done more than recapture the history of his own family. As the first black American writer to trace his origins back to their roots, he has told the story of 25,000,000 Americans of African descent. He has rediscovered for an entire people a rich cultural heritage that slavery took away from them, along with their names and their identities. But Roots speaks, finally, not just to blacks, or to whites, but to all people and all races everywhere, for the story it tells is one of the most eloquent testimonials ever written to the indomitability of the human spirit.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

'Call me Ishmael.' 

So begins Herman Melville's masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. As Ishmael is drawn into Captain Ahab's obsessive quest to slay the white whale Moby-Dick, he finds himself engaged in a metaphysical struggle between good and evil. More than just a novel of adventure, more than an paean to whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting social commentary, populated by some of the most enduring characters in literature; the crew of the Pequod, from stern, Quaker First Mate Starbuck, to the tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg, are a vision of the world in microcosm, the pinnacle of Melville's lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is a profound, poetic inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.
Herman Melville is now regarded as one of America's greatest novelists. Much of the material for his novels was drawn from his own experience as a seaman aboard whaling ships. He wrote his masterpiece Moby-Dick in 1851, and died in 1891.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.

Vote! Vote! Vote!

I want to read all of them but can only tackle one this year. Help me decide!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

I've heard of Scalzi, but I've never read anything by him. I assumed that, since I never cared for sci-fi growing up, I'm not going to ever enjoy sci-fi. Something neat must happen as you age because I enjoyed the HELL out of this book. What else have I missed? Who else do I need to start reading? I feel like I've lost a lot of time here!

I only meant to go renew my library card. My library is so smart, they place the new arrivals right as you walk in the door. You can't get to the front desk without seeing all those new, fresh, ready-to-be-read books. Scalzi was right up there and I thought "I've heard good things, maybe I should give it a try." So he went home with me,

I need to work on wrapping my head around sci-fi concepts of interplanetary living and space travel. But Scalzi's writing is so fantastic I didn't even care if some of the "light travel" concepts confused me. The Collapsing Empire is the first book in a new series (yay! now I get to wait for book 2!). Reading sci-fi is like working out, I think, the more I do it, the better I'll be at it. That's my theory anyways.

The Flow is an extradimensional field that people use to travel from planet to planet. You can't travel faster than light (physics!) so The Flow is necessary to trade at distant planets. The Earth is gone and new planets are inhabited by humans. It's good to know that ruling class still stands and humans are still out to make the most money and rule over the poorer people. Hub is the beginning and end of many of the Flow streams, hence...Hub, and the ruling house of Wu is the richest house while also being the Emperox of the entire planetary system. Several other houses, Lagos and Nohamapetan, want Wu's spot and they are willing to do whatever they need to in order to get it.

The Flow is disappearing. A Flow physicist who lives on End has been researching this for years, paid for by the previous Emperox. If the Flow to a planet disappears, that planet ceases to exist. The people of the planet are left on their own to die out over several years. Depressing, yes? The House of Nohamapetan gets similar information, except they are told the Flow streams are shifting and everything will move away from Hub and shift to End. Underhanded people that they are, they have a plan to rule End so when the shift happens, they will be the top dog.

Nothing goes to plan and it's entertaining to watch. I do adore that Lady Kiva from House Lagos swears like a sailor with Tourette's Syndrome. She's seriously my kind of girl.  I'm very ready for the next book to see where we go and I'm going to have to check out more of Scalzi's work. I'm in love!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I'm biased, I know, because I feel like Gaiman can do no wrong. I will read all of his books even if I'm a bit skeptical of the premise, such as Norse mythology. Not really my thing, but it's Neil Gaiman.

I have a new appreciation for Norse Mythology! Although, admittedly, I kept picturing Thor and Loki as Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston but, hey, movies ruin everything. Gaiman crafted the myths of gods with such an approach that made it less myth and more novel (captivating novel, no less).

He walks us through the players first: Odin, Thor and Loki. Then he guides us through all the pertinent stories that shape the myths from the Beginning to the End. The end leaves us with slaughter of the gods with Ragnarok. The story of Kvasir is actually the one that stuck with me the most. His blood, taken in a most brutal way, became the mead of poetry.

I appreciate short stories quite a bit as they take more thought and craft than long novels, I think. To be able to tell a story and engage the reader in just a few pages takes skill and Neil Gaiman has skill in abundance.

Even if you think Norse myths are not your thing, take a chance with this. Despite the unpronounceable names (how do you pronounce names that are almost all consonants???).... maybe listen to the audio :)

Top 10 Coolest Creatures from Norse Mythology

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I'm declaring this the best audio book of the year!!! I can't imagine how the written form looks because the audio was almost play-like with citations of sources all over the place. This really was a brilliant way to portray the death of Willie Lincoln and the grief of his father.

The bardo is the Buddhist concept of the space between life and moving on. The mid-life? Almost like purgatory, but, as is with most Buddhist concepts, leaving the decisions up to the deceased. In the bardo, the dead are not being punished or cleansed. They are dealing with their regrets and, for the most part, not even acknowledging that they are dead, despite seeing their own corpses inside their coffins (sick-boxes) in the cemetery (hospital-yard).

When Willie dies of typhoid at age 11, his body is sheltered in a borrowed mausoleum. Willie's ghost comes out in the night and we get introduced to the ghosts that are still refusing to leave the cemetery. Vollman (voiced by Nick Offerman), a printer, died when a beam caved in his skull and before he could consummate his marriage. Bevins (voiced by David Sedaris), is a young, closeted gay man who commits suicide when his lover dumps him for another man. When he was at death's door, he realized he didn't want to die. Unfortunately, it was too late and he is stuck in the bardo with great regrets. Reverend Thomas (voiced by George Saunders) is a confusing ghost. He has a permanent terrified look on his face but does not have real reason for not moving on. Later in the book, we get his story.

Abraham Lincoln visits his son in the night and holds him in the crypt. The ghosts are mesmerized and astounded that someone actually had someone who loved them visit. Willie decides to not move on so he can continue seeing his dad. Unfortunately, as ghosts tarry in the bardo, they begin to unravel mentally. Children begin losing touch very quickly and really should move on as fast as they can.

The audio book and it's cast of voices is simply mesmerizing. The hospital-yard portions are read from the point of view of all the ghosts who have not yet left and oh, those stories are heartbreaking. The Barons provided comic relief until you really listen to what they were saying about their lives, instead of how they said it. The moments of Lincoln grieving his son were so well done and can easily squeeze a tear from your eye.

The other part of the book is the story of Lincoln and how Willie died as told by citations of sources (some real, some invented). It's a bit jarring at first to hear so many citations but very quickly it melded into a good story, amusing at times for the sources that disagreed with each other ("The moon was red.", "The moon was bright white.", "There was no moon that night") and for the only time the sources agreed ("Lincoln was the homeliest of men","He was the ugliest man I've seen.","A homelier man was never found"). Poor Lincoln.

Saunders starts with the concept of the bardo but adds in so many different elements, including afterlife and how ghosts can influence living people, that it ends up being a really great mish-mash of different concepts. And really, who can tell if this would even be remotely true? We don't know what will happen when we die. Either way, this was fun, well-told, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. Get the audio book for this and skip the printed version. It will be worth it.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

This had been on my list before Fisher died so when I got the Audible credit, I went ahead and bought it. I've read several other of Fisher's books and they made me laugh. I was hoping this would do the same and give me a behind the scenes look at the making of Star Wars.

There were definite parts of this book that were very funny. Fisher herself read the book with her daughter Billie reading other parts. Overall, though, this book actually made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Fisher talked a great deal about her affair with a then-married Harrison Ford. Granted, it's 40 years after it happened and Ford has re-married twice more since then, but I think it was the "Maybe he'll divorce her and marry ME!" commentary that bothered me. Fisher was only 19 during the filming of Star Wars so her young, naive way of dealing with an older man made sense. The diaries that Fisher based this book on basically only covered the affair and her desperate need to have Ford just love her and swoop her away to bliss. This topic covered about 2/3 of the book.

There was a bit of funny insight from the set as well as some disturbing insight. I'm not sure Fisher found it disturbing, at least she blew it off in the book, but the crew getting a 19 year old female actor drunk as hell and then trying to escort her away from the party to be alone with them....that reads as dangerous to me. Fisher didn't believe any harm would come to her, but again, she was naive. "Luckily", Ford rescued her from the crew with the admonishment that she clearly couldn't make a decision for herself, only to go after her himself in the backseat of a car. Hence my Luckily in quotes. Harrison.....she was too drunk to make a decision for herself.

I did have trouble listening to a lovestruck, starry-eyed 19 year old girl's poetry. That wasn't the fun part of this book.

I think I will recommend Carrie's other books ahead of this one, but a die hard fan will still want to read The Princess Diarist.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Season of Stories: Free Streaming

Penguin Random House is offering up 6 weeks worth of stories, streaming freely to you! If you have an iPhone you can download the app. Otherwise, us Droid users can use the website at the link below.

The first stories are from Yaa Gyasi. You might remember how I gushed over Homegoing. No? Check out my review here.

Click me for stories!


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Uncaged by John Sandford and Michelle Cook

I'm a big fan of Sandford so I grabbed this from the library without reading anything about it. I wasn't terribly far into the audiobook when I had to stop and read up on it. It's not technically a typical Sandford, it's a YA Sandford! I thought the characters seemed awfully young....

The plot and premise were intriguing enough for me to continue, despite the youngness of it all. We start off with some animal rights activists who break into the Singular lab, which swears it's researching a cure for Parkinson's Disease, and let all the animals free. Thanks to an insider, they also know to steal the thumb drives with research and the hard drive to a computer to help decrypt the thumb drives.

Odin, a shy IT geek of a kid, is on the raid and ends up taking home a dog that has been experimented on. The crew heads off into the night after a gun-happy security guard starts shooting. The group is on the run.

Shay is Odin's sister who is staying with a new set of foster parents. Odin gets in touch to tell her what happened and that he's running and Shay is off, running away from the foster home in Oregon to LA to find her brother. Odin and Shay briefly meet up so Odin can hand over the dog. Shortly after the meeting, Odin is abducted off the street by Singular people.

Singular isn't quite the company they want you to believe. As Shay falls into a group of runaways and their "parental figure", Twist, they all start planning on how to take Singular down and get Odin back. Along the way, we find out more about what Singular is up to and why the dog is so special.

I had 15 minutes left of the audiobook when I decided they clearly couldn't wrap this up in time. Another check on Goodreads and hello! it's a series!

Don't let the YA label turn you off. This is a Sandford book through and through.

Underground Railroad: Free streaming!

The post below strongly encourages you to read Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Well, the BBC is making that easy on you!

Click the link to find a free stream of the Underground Railroad: Click me!

Free until March 22nd!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Typically, when I read one of Oprah's magazines, I pay attention to books she recommends. There have been hits and misses (she doesn't have the home runs like Books on the Nightstand had) but her interview with Colson Whitehead was very interesting. His new book, Underground Railroad, is historical fiction that re-imagines the Underground Railroad that we all (should) know as an actual railway system that spirits away slaves to freedom. I had never read any of Whitehead's book so I made a Goodreads note to try this out.

Then, Whitehead and this book were featured in the book review section of the New York Times. I can't possibly ignore this now, can I? This book is chasing me everywhere. I put myself in line for it at the library. And then, there it was on NPR. Alright! I'm getting it!

The actual underground railroad was a series of secret routes and safe houses.

In Whitehead's world, the railroad is literally underground and comes complete with station agents who help the escaped slaves continue on to a new life.

I don't want to make this book sound cute. It's not. It's brutal and painful to read. It may be fiction but it's based in history and what slaves endured is horrifying at best. The book follows Cora, a slave on the Randall plantation. Her grandmother, Ajarry, was kidnapped from Africa and brought over to work to the cotton fields. Ajarry had Mabel who had Cora. The chapters are broken up in a way that we learn about Ajarry, Mabel, Ridgeway (a slave catcher), Caesar (Cora's runaway companion), Ethel, etc. interspersed with chapters about the various states Cora ends up in.

Mabel is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall plantation. She left Cora behind and that has been burning inside Cora ever since she became a stray. When the somewhat decent but still bad Randall brother died, the absolutely horrible and tyrannical brother took over his plantation. This prompted Cora and Caesar to run away to freedom. Lovey, Cora's friend, realizing what they were doing, took after them to find freedom herself. After a skirmish with night hunters, Cora kills a young white boy who was trying to capture her. Caesar and Cora get away, Lovey does not. We find out Lovey's fate later in the book.

Once Caesar and Cora find the first tunnel to the railway station, they are on their way to South Carolina. From here, the book follows Cora as she assumes a new identity, works for wages and tries to make a life. Ridgeway, the slave catcher who failed to catch Mabel, is not letting Cora get away.

Being that this is fiction, I am very curious if the chapter about North Carolina is true. While all of the book is difficult to read, the North Carolina chapter was particularly horrific. I've never been able to wrap my mind around how people could be considered property and how humans could treat other humans so badly. Yet there it is, in our history, repeated over and over and over again continuing on to present day.

I've said a few times that this book is hard to read. It is but it's worth the read. Our history is painful and it should never be shoved under the rug because we don't want to acknowledge how horrible our ancestors acted towards other human beings. Whitehead hit this one out of the park. Thank you for writing this, Mr. Whitehead!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Full of Life by John Fante

When I really love an author, I try to find out who inspires the author because chances are very good I'll love their inspiration as well.

When I found at the Charles Bukowski was inspired by John Fante, I picked up a few of Fante's books and started reading. I, once again, show my skill for picking books out of order because I don't realize they are a series and read Ask the Dust right off. Way back in 2006, I remember enjoying the story a great deal but wondering how Bukowski was influenced by Fante.

I found Full of Life in my stacks and decided to get back to Fante. Almost 10 years later, here's what I see now: Fante is a storyteller and the story is every day life. In the three books I've now read, Fante shows us his life as a struggling writer who finds some success. I do feel, now, that Fante and Bukowski are branches on the same tree (maturity on my part? who knows).

Full of Life gives us a snippet of Fante's life with his very pregnant and emotional wife, Joyce. An atheist, something about having a baby turns her to Roman Catholicism, and she insists on John joining her. Already a lapsed Catholic, John doesn't immediately run back to church.

By this time, Fante has sold some books and has some money. He also, unfortunately, has bought a house with termites. He fetches his father, Nick, to help fix the damaged flooring. Nick is a dramatic curmudgeon who truly loves his son but gives absolutely no end of grief to Fante.

So here we go. Basic life as told by Fante. No explosions. No mysteries to solve. No plot, really, to speak of. It's a book, and author, worth reading.

The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide by Francine Jay

So, per Goodreads, I started this in April 2016 and finished it February 2017. Don't let that influence you that this was a bad book!

Around 2014, I got a desperate need to purge things from my house that I no longer needed. I was shoved in this direction by my friend's sudden death and all of her things left undone, with her family sorting through her belongings. I really felt the urge to get my space organized and minimized. I was on a good kick for a while (paycheck stubs from my first ever job at 17 years old? Yeah...gotta go!) but lost my steam. Everything seemed very overwhelming. And my house continued to feel very FULL.

I downloaded this book on a recommendation and appreciated the breaking down of the pieces of getting rid of clutter and keeping it away. The reason it took so long to finish is because I was putting it down and going to a room and starting to declutter. See? It works!

Jay tackles every room and occasion (including your wedding clutter, if you have it) as well as mental clutter. Becoming a minimalist in body, soul and home is an aspiring thing. I'm happy that I've already made some good changes, but looking around, I have a ways to go.

Moving forward towards that minimalist lifestyle!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Chase by Janet Evanovich

The second in the Fox and O'Hare series. While some of the circumstances these two get into are a bit far-fetched, I love them. I love that Kate is a kick ass woman who doesn't need saving and that her ideas are often the ones that "save the day". These two characters really work well together and play off of each other nicely.

The Heist is all about a bronze rooster. Donated by the Chinese and living in the Smithsonian, the Chinese want it back. They send someone to come get it and while, normally, this isn't a problem, it's a problem. The rooster at the museum is a fake and we can't send a fake back to China, can we? Enter Fox and O'Hare, to steal back the real rooster and replace the fake before the rooster heads to China.

They are up against an asshole of a guy who is basically a rich, well protected jerk who buys stolen art. Thankfully, Fox and O'Hare know how to handle him. Which they do in quite a clever way, until the asshole, Carter Grove, realizes he's been robbed of the rooster. He sends an assassin their way, the Chinese pick up guy arrives early and the fake rooster is already on it's way to China and ....well, heck breaks loose.

Kate and Nick....they got it handled.

I'm enjoying this series more and more. Can't wait to get on to the next one.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich

Another Stephanie Plum book. Same premise as the 21 books before, same characters, same plot devices. Same laughs and entertainment factor, so I'm not complaining.

Plum and Lula are out to grab a college kid who skipped his court date. Somehow, this ends them up in the middle of an insane professor's plan to release fleas infected with the bubonic plague on the campus. There's also a quick encounter with a serial killer that chops up women and feeds the pieces to feral cats. And Morelli gets a colonoscopy.

Just read it. If you are a fan, you'll like it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I listened to this through the CraftLit podcast. This is another of those classic books where everyone knows the story (but please stop calling the monster Frankenstein) but very few people have actually read the story.

This was not the Frankenstein story I thought it would be.

(although I still really like Young Frankenstein)

Victor Frankenstein is a regular guy who has a deep interest in the natural sciences. He works feverishly to create a being, a life. There is very little fanfare when the monster awakens in the novel. What is evident is Victor's horror at what he has done. Victor abandons the monster to it's own devices while he goes into a "frenzy" or hysterical illness and is out of commission for quite a while. Quite literally, he lays eyes on his creation for moments before not seeing it again for YEARS.

Victor is a putz. He abandoned his creation because he didn't like how it looked. He created human life and turned his back on it. How differently this story would have been if he had taken the time to teach the monster how to be a decent human. But you can't really teach what you don't know, can you?

A member of Victor's family is found murdered with another member of the family arrested for it. Victor knows it's the monster getting his revenge. Yet each and every time he encounters the monster, he does nothing but flail at the injustice to HIM, Victor.

We get the monster's side of the story and end up very sympathetic to him while thinking more and more that Victor is a putz.

A showdown between the two is inevitable yet, Victor fails again to do anything. In the end, Victor dies without having stopped the monster and the monster moves on.

Excellent novel with a lot of "Really? Isn't that a coincidence?" which only sidebarred me a little. We needed the coincidences to keep the plot moving. This is very much a Romantic style novel (not Hallmark romantic....era Romantic) and Victor's flailing and monologues were a tad much for me sometimes. Overall, I'm so glad I now have the original Frankenstein under my belt. The movies misinformed me! :)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I'm truly going to try and keep up with the local book club this year. This is our first book and I really struggled reading it. The prose felt strangled and I kept getting dropped out of the actual story by the language. I read quite a bit and have a pretty good vocabulary but I had to keep asking me Kindle to define words because there was little to no context. Boom...dropped again.

I found that I didn't really want to finish this book but now I have an accountability partner for book club so I picked it up again and got myself through Part One.

Tony Webster and his friends bring new kid Adrian into their clique. The kids all sounded pretentious enough that I wanted to slap them but we sort through them "dealing" with a fellow students suicide. Dealing as in, it really doesn't seem like they cared. They move on through college with Tony getting a girlfriend, Veronica. There's nothing about her that seems remotely redeemable and, by the end of the novel, I really think she's only in this book to drop clues. Eventually, Tony and Veronica break up and Veronica and Adrian get together.

Then Adrian commits suicide.

Part Two actually got me more interested. Tony marries, has a kid, divorces. He moves through his mundane and adequate life. A perfectly acceptable, simple life. When he gets a letter from a lawyer letting him know that he came into money and documents from Veronica's mother when she passed. Oh, intrigue! Tony goes on a retiree's quest to get the documents from Veronica, which turn out to be Adrian's diary. Here is where Veronica is particularly 2D and useless. I will admit that the story picked up a bit, once you ignore the writing, and led to an interesting twist. A twist that I was completely unsure of when I got to it and had to go and re-read several sections and then check the interwebz to see if I was right. I was and that was weird.

So, Amanda, you say....was there anything you liked?

Yes, thanks for asking!  The gist of this book is about memory. How what you think you remember isn't really the reality you should remember. Tony reframed his memories to feel better about himself so when he sees his letter to Adrian and Veronica, he got a rude awakening of how horrible he actually was. We all do this, don't we? We smooth away the rough edges of memories so we can live with them and go on with our mundane lives.

I wrote down a section because it did hit home. My mundane life was stifling me so last year I made an effort to get out of my comfort zone and travel. This year, I have no desire to see another airport again for a long time, but I'm very happy I finally did the "immature" thing and packed my bags and winged around the country.

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.
We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly.
What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

I've always prided myself on being a mature, responsible realist.....maybe not anymore.