Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: Key Lime Pie Murder

I think if I weren't always on the lookout for further books to listen to while treadmill walking, I probably wouldn't go on with this series. It has begun to feel same-old, same-old. Moreover, despite wanting to know who the main character will end up marrying, I don't particularly enjoy being strung along for episode after episode without much satisfaction in that department. Alas, Hannah Swensen remains torn between the two loves of her life: Norman and Mike.

Once again, in this ninth installment, Key Lime Pie Murder, Hannah happens upon a dead body. The formula is intact. She introduces a few glitches in her personal life (this time around, her cat is seemingly sick without cause, her mother is working on some secret writing project, and her sisters are both competing in competitions in the Lake Eden Fair). The official detective, Mike, begs her not to investigate. She does anyway, with the help of Norman and her sisters. She ends up in a pickle as things grow to a climax in the story, and Norman and Mike manage to swoop in to save the day and save her hide.

I did consider jotting down a few of the recipes offered in this installment, but frankly, couldn't be bothered to take the time. I will keep my eye out for the compiled recipe book that is supposed to go along with the series and perhaps I will secure some of the recipes in that way. The one recipe from this book that I especially hope to find is the one for Mango Quick Bread (yum). It sounded moist and sweet.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: Wolf Hollow - Highly Recommend

While the last Newbery book I read didn't appeal to me, this one was a completely different experience. Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk, was outstanding from start to finish, fully deserving of its numerous accolades and awards. It opened with a bang up first sentence: "The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie." Indeed, the whole prologue was absolutely breathtaking. I knew I was in for a treat and I wasn't disappointed. The writing sings and it is a song well worth hearing.

Wolf Hollow takes it's name from a hollow where they trapped and buried wolves in holes to reduce the threatening population. How appropriate as we meet a true threat to our young protagonist. Annabelle is a sweet, sincere girl who has no idea what is in store when she first encounters Betty Glengarry, an "incorrigible" youngster sent to live with her grandparents. At first, Annabelle is determined to handle Bettty's bullying on her own, but over time, realizes that she is in over her head. Still, Annabelle is plucky, intelligent, and compassionate. She figures quite a bit out on her own, without the help of grown-ups, something sure to appeal to young readers.

This book will stun and enthrall readers of all ages as they watch Annabelle learn about the more difficult challenges of life. It takes on subjects of prejudice, justice, and mercy. Somehow the author manages to make readers feel empathy for both the bullied and the bully.

As Annabelle thinks on her plight, and the plight of Toby (another of Betty's targets), she wisely observes, "There might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried... there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried with me that day: If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?"

The story ends just as eloquently. Annabelle declares, "The wind always swept my words away like cloud shadows, as if it mattered more that I said them, than who heard them." Thus, readers are challenged to live lives that speak into the darkness of this world, even if their voices go unheard. I am a better person for having read this book, and I think other readers will be, as well.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I wanted to love this book. I really did. The cover is gorgeous, the idea is intriguing. and the endorsements are full of powerfully positive words ("spellbinding," "captivating," and "imaginative"). It is a New York Times bestseller and a Newbery winner. The Amazon page is full to the brim with accolades. I just can't bring myself to join the throngs.

I know there are friends of mine who would rave about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. People who love fairy tales, readers who enjoy fantastical stories, and lovers of magic will all be enthralled with it. I could imagine myself reading the book to an eager little girl (granddaughter perhaps, because I'm done in that department). But, the story never fully engaged me or pulled me in. Despite liking the portrayal of the little girl, I really struggled to care what happened to her because the story rambled and drifted aimlessly.

Living in the Protectorate sounds like it would be safe and cozy, doesn't it? But the whole idea of the Protectorate is held up by an annual sacrifice to the Witch in the dangerous forest around them. They hope that by offering up the youngest member, they will appease the thirst of the Witch. Thus, the story begins with a baby placed on a tree stump in the forest and left to its fate. The Witch does indeed come to take the baby, but falls in love with her and allows her to drink from the moon, thereby filling her with magic. That baby's mother is driven to madness and locked away in a tower. A young boy, training for a position as Elder, watches it all, convinced that something should be done to do away with this barbaric practice. So far, so good.

But, after that, the story begins to weave so poetic and allegorical that it began to bore me. Everything seems to be leading up to a climax, but it takes so long to get there and when things do finally come to a head (and I feared the girl would be mistaken for the witch and her throat slit - surely it couldn't end that way, I thought), it just sort of unravels and resolves quietly.

I felt hesitant about the undertones of the story. Was it poking fun at people who believe in a higher power, a God figure who works in mysterious ways? Was it mocking the idea of sacrifice? Why does the religious figure end up being the supreme evil entity? It felt like New Age philosophy triumphing over Christianity. Despite beautiful writing, I hesitantly read on, hoping for some form of redemption or some value to the story. Alas, I never found it. Am still confused by it, to be honest. Great potential, but sadly not a story to my tastes.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review: Dark Matter

I occasionally join in on the festivities of The Deliberate Reader's on-line book club. When I read the description for April's selection, Blake Crouch's Dark Matter, I was drawn in. Then, when I discovered it was a book I could listen to in audio form, my participation was clinched. The only thing that could have been better would have been for me to discover this a bit sooner (since I had to avoid viewing the questions for this whole first week and a half of April).

What a thought-provoking book! Jason Dessen lives a mediocre life with his lovely wife, Daniella, and his teen son, Charlie. He is a physics professor at a small Chicago college. Where would life have taken him if Daniella hadn't gotten pregnant and they hadn't chosen to get married? On a quiet night, heading home from a celebration for a colleague's recent achievement, Jason is kidnapped and drugged. He awakens to another world. A world where he supposedly went on to pursue the great scientific discovery of dark matter (innumerable alternate realities bent by individual human choices). In this world, his wife is not his wife and his child, never born. He is faced with a host of scenarios that might have happened if his choices had been different. But once trapped in this other world, he must find a way back to his truest self and the most important choices of his existence.

Who doesn't wonder what their life would have been like if they had simply taken a different path at any number of cross-roads? I've previously mentioned my own fascination with the "what ifs" of life. I loved the movie "Sliding Doors," for its treatment of just such a question. I enjoyed this book even more than that movie. I hated the villain, even though the villain was part-and-parcel of the hero. I desperately wanted Jason to end up in the life of his choosing, where love and happiness both rule supreme over success. I loved second-guessing how Jason could triumph over his dilemma. The twists in the tale were cleverly executed.

As for personal application, I thought long and hard about whether I would trade my current existence for something other, if that alternate life provided more success or a more satisfying path. Would I trade my time with my sons, if it meant more fulfillment in a career? Would I so long for the elusive grail of publication that I would be willing to trade personal happiness for it? Hmm. I think I should focus more energy on gratitude and less on wishful thinking.

There is some on-line talk of a movie production. I would welcome the experience. Moreover, it would be a movie my husband might even enjoy seeing with me (something we seldom do) - he's always game for philosophical rumination.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: By Your Side

It seems harder and harder to find clean reads in YA fiction these days. As I have conducted agent searches for my own books, it amazes me how many are looking for story lines that I would consider morally bankrupt. As that discouraging article mentioned in my August 2015 post suggested, "if you want to publish YA in this day and age, you should sex it up." Sadly, much of what is currently popular contains language, sex, opposition to religion and traditional family structures, and graphic violence. I know there are young adult readers out there who crave a good clean read. This author, and this book in particular, offers an interesting story line without caving to the modern thirst for smut and filth.

From everything I have read recently in my search for more wholesome literature, Kasie West is a name you can trust. In By Your Side, we meet Autumn Collins, a girl who suffers from an anxiety disorder. I'm sure numerous teen readers can relate to this character. When Autumn is accidentally locked in a library over a snowy holiday weekend, her panic emerges. It is ratcheted up a notch, when she discovers she is not alone. Dax Miller, a mysterious and notorious troublemaker, is hiding out in the library, as well. She is confused and dismayed when her prospective boyfriend, Jeff, doesn't immediately appear to rescue her. Why is nobody coming? Can she get along with Dax for the whole weekend? Will Autumn still want Jeff after getting to know Dax more?

This was a light-hearted, quick, and easy read. I was immediately drawn into the story. I loved the idea of being trapped in the library with a mysterious guy and was intrigued by the developing relationship between Autumn and Dax. The conflict is resolved in a satisfying manner and Autumn grows and changes as a result of the events she experiences. Kudos to Kasie West, her agent Michelle Wolfson, and Harper Teen for pushing this satisfying and safe read to publication.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: A Separation

At the outset of every new year, I tend to peruse lists of books recommended for book clubs. Katie Kitamura's A Separation landed on one of those lists this year as a recently released title worth group discussion. If it hadn't been so short, I might not have stuck with it. I guess I kept hoping it would improve, but it never seemed to change course and pick up speed. It is a very cerebral novel and thus, I understand why some might consider it a good book for discussion, but for me, the discussion possibilities were fairly slim.

Basically, the plot (if you can say there is any plot) revolves around a young woman who has secretly separated from her husband. When that husband, Christopher, goes missing in Greece, his mother sends the wife (the couple had made a pact not to inform his parents of the separation) to find her husband. The young woman, whose name we never learn, intends to find him and demand a divorce. However, before she can find him, she learns more about his infidelities and what has transpired since they agreed to separate.

The novel had a very stream-of-consciousness feel to it. The reader is trapped inside the thoughts of the narrator as she ruminates on the deeper subjects of marriage, commitment, infidelity, responsibility, and relationships. The narrator talks about the ritualistic words "I do" paired with "the archaic and unreasonable phrase until death do us part." As far as the author and narrator are concerned, marriage is a temporary commitment, unrealistically expected to endure over time. Infidelities are to be expected. The eventual demise of relationships a foregone conclusion.

For me, this perspective rings shallow and untrue. I recognize the sacred covenant of marriage and aspire to uphold it. Thus, I could not stomach much of the thought processes elaborated in this novel. Moreover, I could not, in good conscience, recommend this as a book to foster realistic conversations about relationships and marriage, distance and divorce. I did not consider it "profound," "gripping," or "mesmerizing," as the accolades on the back cover profess. It was superficial, boring, and disturbing.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: Vicious Cycle

The author blurb on the back of Vicious Cycle proclaims the success of Christian author Terri Blackstock. She had sold over six million books at the time of this book's publication (2011). I'm sure the numbers would be even more astounding now, in 2017. She certainly has the skill to present a riveting story with a fast-moving plot and interesting conflicted characters.

In Vicious Cycle, the reader is sucked into the world of meth addiction. Just as an addict is desperate for another hit, I voraciously read chapter after chapter. In fact, when I sat down to finish the book, I ended up being late to pick Trevor up from his weightlifting session after school. Time began to blur and I forgot to keep my eye on the clock. It was also good for distracting my thoughts on the plane ride home from our spring break trip.

Although this is a second novel in a series, the author quickly brings the reader up to speed on details from the first book and plunges you into the action of the tale immediately. Lance Covington just wants to help his sister's friend, Jordan. Pregnant and recently released from a rehabilitation center for a meth addiction, Jordan needs clean friends to pull her away from the pressure of her thoroughly addicted family. When her mother and brother decide to sell Jordan's baby to gain money for drugs, Jordan hides the baby in Lance's car. Lance only wants to do the right thing, but is soon arrested for kidnapping.

The pacing was excellent. I felt so incredibly sorry for the characters whose lives were destroyed by drug addiction (I'm pretty sure it was an accurately painted picture). I wanted Lance to be cleared and Jordan to find a way to save her tiny baby. This was an engrossing tale of addiction and the desire for freedom. If you're looking for a good, clean read with a great deal of suspense, Terri Blackstock delivers in this novel.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: The Light in the Ruins

The only other Chris Bojhalian book I attempted was The Double Bind and I had a rather "meh" response to that one. I think this one was far more appealing. At least, it sucked me in quite quickly, held me on the edge of my seat waiting to determine the identity of the killer, and ended with a satisfying conclusion.

The Light in the Ruins jumps back and forth between the war time of 1943 and a later time of 1955. A killer has targeted the Rosati family, cutting out the hearts of both Franscesca Rosati and her mother-in-law, and investigator Serafina Bettini must pursue the killer to call him or her to justice. During the war, eighteen-year-old Cristina Rosati lives with her parents, her sister-in-law, and her niece and nephew in the family's ornate villa. When German officers visit the estate to view the Etruscan ruins, Cristina falls in love with a German lieutenant. Her peaceful bucolic existence is threatened by this relationship and the actions of the Germans on her property.

Serafina holds her own secrets and her own history of involvement in the war. She must battle the demons of the past to unveil a path through the present and face difficult memories to free the Rosati family of the threat of immanent murder. Both Serafina and Cristina provide interesting character studies for the reader.

Although the book won't make my top list at the end of the year, it was fairly enjoyable and a far better experience than his other novel, The Double Bind. I believe his writing skills are commendable, and his story-telling techniques quite polished. While I never fell in love with any of the characters, I did hope for a redemptive end to the story. I was glad to have listened to the book in audio form, as it preoccupied my thoughts on my daily treadmill time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Spring Break 2017 El Paso Style

This year, we were invited to visit my husband's older sister and her husband in El Paso, Texas. We left on the Monday of the boys' spring break. Thankfully, I happened upon a coupon for a parking facility near the airport called Fast Park. This made our parking experience quite stress-free. We simply showed up, received our identification ticket and were led to a parking space, where a shuttle bus driver loaded our luggage and drove us immediately to the airport. Within minutes, my husband's larger bag was checked and we were checked in and waiting in the appropriate terminal.

I must say, the first flight experience was a bit shaky for me. To begin with, we were on one of United's smaller airplanes (the man in front of me had to walk hunched over just to board the plane) and overhead storage was minimal. Thus, they required all roller bags be tagged and checked at the entrance to the plane. I really don't like to be separated from my luggage at all (that is why I almost always choose to fly with a minimal amount so it can fit in carry-on baggage). Then, once we sat down, we were informed that a maintenance issue had arisen. Yikes! It is always disconcerting to me to hear any news of possible difficulty with a plane. If that wasn't enough, it began to storm.

After a full 45 minutes or more on the tarmac, we finally lifted off (with me gripping the arm-rests of my seat and praying through the bumpy launch until we were above the clouds). Even then, I found it difficult to avert my attention to the book I brought to bide the time. Thankfully, Sean was undeterred and began reading right off the bat.

We easily made our connecting flight and I was relieved to find that we were on a bit larger plane. As we approached El Paso, it was obvious that this part of the country didn't resemble our own at all. It seemed like a barren wasteland of rocks and ridges, with very little green. The boys were fascinated and thoroughly excited. Phil and Martha met us at the baggage check area and we headed off for a quick bite to eat at a restaurant serving soups and sandwiches (not Sean's first choice of selection  - I was a bit perturbed with his refusal to eat the bread bowl of delicious cheddar broccoli soup his dad had ordered for him, but at least he did eat once I went back up and ordered him a BLT with chips).

If Trevor had had his way, they would have jumped right into Phil and Martha's pool the minute we arrived at their house. We convinced him that the water would be quite chilly and forced him to wait until morning. When Tuesday morning dawned, it became quite clear that we would not be experiencing typical El Paso weather. It was downright frigid (about 50-some degrees). Nonetheless, the boys were intent upon trying out the pool.

We had expressed a desire to go into Mexico, so the boys could say they visited another country. They decided rather than driving just over the border, where it might be unsafe, we would drive to Columbus, New Mexico and cross over the border to a place called Puerto Palomas. We visited what's known as The Pink Store and had a fantastic authentic Mexican lunch. Trevor got the most tantalizing serving of nachos (chock full of beef - his favorite). John, thinking ahead to our planned evening cookout, went meat-less and ordered a quesadilla. I was thrilled with my Tostada Trio (one avocado, one beef, one bean) and a side of refried beans. Sean wimped out with an American order for a cheeseburger and fries. The food was fantastic.

Trevor decided to purchase a souvenir and selected a cow skull. This led to a funny moment when we had to declare what we were departing with. I said "It's a skull ... but not a human one ... just a decorative cow one." We were ushered out rather quickly, as they were arresting a young man for who knows what (drug or weapon smuggling??).

The boys spent most of the afternoon in the pool, despite the chilly temperatures. Then, that evening Martha graced us with a cookout. We had hoped to eat by the pool, but I'm just as glad we ended up around the table. John's niece Sarah, and her husband, Saul, joined us and we had a delightful time talking together.

The next day, our plan of attack included a hike up the nearby Franklin mountain. We got quite a workout and everyone but John took a tumble in the rocks on the way down (it was quite steep and the rocks just give out beneath your feet even when careful). The view was amazing. Knowing I couldn't trust my own photography skills, I didn't even bring my phone along, but I managed to get a few photos from Sean and John and then Martha took a few shots of all of us together.

This led to the most disturbing part of our spring break jaunt. When we returned from the hike, I was determined to wash our dusty clothes. Trevor and Sean had jumped in the pool again and I grabbed up Trevor's discarded shorts and t-shirt off the floor. I tossed everything in and about five minutes later, Trevor came dashing inside to ask where his shorts were. He had left his I-phone in the pocket and I had failed to check pockets thoroughly. We were devastated, to say the least. John was furious, in fact. Talk about a downer!

That evening, we drove over to Sarah and Saul's townhouse to see their place and meet their cat (a feisty young thing called Sasha). Then, we all headed together to another authentic Mexican restaurant, Barrigas. Saul ordered an appetizer called queso fundido (a melted cheese with green chiles, mushrooms, and chorizo) and taught us how to fork off the stringy cheese and slap it onto a tortilla. It was quite yummy. John ordered a beef soup, I ordered chicken breast campesina (filled with cream cheese and spinach - ah, my love of spinach), Trevor ordered beefy tacos, and Sean ordered another cheeseburger plate. Again, another fabulous meal!

Thursday, temperatures returned to normal, just as we were ready to depart and head for home. Martha made a pit stop at a Barnes and Noble so we could buy the fifth book of the Percy Jackson series for Sean to read on the trip home (he devoured the library's copy of the fourth on the trip there). Our flights back (El Paso to Denver to Indy) were uneventful and we made the close connection. Once we secured our luggage and had a quick bite at the over-priced airport Chik-fil-A, the Fast Park shuttle bus awaited us and transported us quickly back to our car (I'd definitely recommend this business to anyone flying out of Indy and needing to leave a car parked nearby - they provide a free newspaper and water bottle, in addition to covered parking, immediate shuttle transport, and reasonable rates). All-in-all, it was a splendid spring break adventure.

------- (And, thanks to putting the phone immediately in rice, and taking it to a phone repair place, we only had to pay $90 to replace the screen and the battery to get it working normally again. He didn't lose a single photo. Shwew!)