Sunday, March 23, 2014

Loose Leafing: Good Stuff Marches On

Happy Sunday, all!  I have to tell you, I'm always admiring it when people post those "good stuff" posts where they simply list all the good things that are going on their lives, but all too often, I fail to post my own.  This March was made for good stuff, and for once, I'm not letting the opportunity to post about it pass me by.  So here's just a sampling of all the good stuff happening this month:

~ Turning 30 (Wait, how did this get on the good things list??)

~ Birthdayaganza! (Defined: The unintentional celebration of one's birthday with the continuous eating of cake and other birthday goodies with a variety of friends and family all month long.)

~ Spending my actual birthday weekend with my good friend Lover-o (We talked books, saw The Lego Movie, ate delicious food at Reading Terminal Market before accidentally sneaking into the Philly Flower Show - it's okay, we bought the tickets in advance!  Plus, we had a "snow day" that involved homemade soup, a cake that looked like a huge whoopie pie, and only one inch of snow. Everything is awesome - just like the movie says! PS, thanks again, Lover-o!)

~ Successfully purchasing enough new clothes in one day of outlet shopping to wear to a new job where real person clothes are required.

~ Getting some sweet goodies from my former co-workers (and friends!) for my departure (Bonus points: the orchid is still alive after 2 weeks or so!)

~ Starting a new job. (Wearing real clothes pays!)

~ Picking up my 5 game season tickets for the AAA minor league Yankees team, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders  (There was a party with free food and team mascots wandering around.  Here's to getting people excited about baseball while there's still snow on the ground!)

~ Having a great dinner (Mmm filet mignon!) with great friends and a spur of the moment (mostly positive) psychic reading, too.  Not that I'm not a total skeptic about that kind of thing. 

~ Taking a very successful and entertaining trip to the King of Prussia mall with my mom, aunt, and cousin where we "only" had to wait 40 minutes for a table at the Cheesecake Factory (which my iPhone knows should be capitalized, LOL) and discovered what fun The Container Store is (it's more than just containers, everybody!).  Bonus?  Getting a Cinnabon from the service plaza on the Northeast Extension.  Yum!

~ Writing this entire post from bed on my iPhone.  (Because inspiration can die between bed and computer, and I couldn't let that happen, could I?)

There it is, just a sampling of the good stuff March has had to offer, a little something to perk us all up while we wait for the temperatures to match the season and the post time-change sniffles to be sent packing.  Next reviews?  Dare we hope?  Hmmm...

In the meantime, what's been happening good in your life?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

One Hundred and Four Horses by Mandy Retzlaff

When Pat and Mandy Retzlaff settled on Crofton farm in lush Zimbabwe, they imagined giving their children the same sort of idyllic African childhood that Pat had experienced and leaving them the thriving farm as legacy when they were grown.  For a while, it seemed as if that would be the case as they threw themselves into farming tomatoes and tobacco, taking their kids for rides into the wild African bush on their favorite horses, and making friends with the family on the neighboring farm.  Unfortunately, the life they had dreamed for themselves and their children was not to become a reality.  Instead, the couple became wrapped up in the living nightmare of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, where farms were often stolen from their rightful white owners to be redistributed back to the African natives, or, more accurately, Mugabe's political cronies.

The Retzlaffs and their neighbors on Two Tree farm were driven under threat of violence from their homes and livelihoods in one shot, leaving them on the run for safety with their beloved horses in a nation that would continue to grow increasingly hostile to its white population.  Fleeing from farm to farm in search of a safe haven, each time refusing to leave their horses to uncertain, violent fates, Pat and Mandy soon got a reputation as being the "horse people," and many farmers and ranchers fleeing Zimbabwe sought them out to take in the horses that would otherwise be left behind. Eventually forced to leave behind the country they loved, One Hundred and Four Horses is Mandy's story of how she and her husband managed to ferry a nation's abandoned horses to new life.

I loved One Hundred and Four Horses.  It proved to be a huge reading funk-buster for me.  After struggling with a few books that were lackluster and whose characters seemed too affected for real life, the authenticity of Mandy Retzlaff's voice was a breath of fresh air.  The writing, while occasionally artless, gave the impression of being written letters by a well-loved friend going through an incredible trial.  Retzlaff's love for her kids and her occasionally hot-tempered, always determined husband shines through in her writing.  Furthermore, the couple's love and admiration for their horses, both the ones that started out as theirs and the ones that they adopted along the way, penetrates Retzlaff's narrative, so much so that I felt as if I knew and loved the horses, too, and would practically be biting my nails as they were rustled out from under one dangerous situation or another.

This is a book that animal lovers will both love and hate.  The Retzlaffs' actions in saving so many  horses under such terrible circumstances were downright heroic and when things went their way, my heart soared.  Unfortunately, bad situations were rife in two countries in Africa where the rule of law had gone by the wayside, and obviously, death, destruction and frustration follow.  My heart was both warmed and broken at the same time as I experienced Mandy Retzlaff's roller coaster of a book.  There were some occurrences that were truly difficult to read about, but the Retzlaffs' tale is so irresistible that there was no stopping until the last page was turned and the fate of the horses secured.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag

Book reviews - I still write them!  No seriously, look, here's one now!

The House at the End of Hope Street is a novel about a magical house that shelters women in need for a set number of days.  Even better, the women who have benefited from the house’s healing in the past, many of which became famous for their accomplishments, linger in portraits that litter the walls doling out encouragement to the current denizens.  Benevolent spirits of house guardians past provide the women with whatever they need to nourish their souls and pick themselves up for a new start during their hundred day stays.
During the time of the book, the three women in need are Greer, a failed actress looking for a new path; Carmen,  a talented singer fleeing from an abusive husband; and Alba, a humiliated ex-scholar from a dysfunctional family of scholars whose secrets threaten to overwhelm her.  Each finds refuge in the house with Peggy, the aged house guardian, getting guidance from the photos on the wall, and in Alba’s case, the spirit who lives in the kitchen.

I think I’m in the minority when I say that I really didn’t like this book as much as I expected to like it.  Several bloggers I love and respect very much enjoyed this one.  For my part, I was entranced by the house and its guardian, but the three women in need of the house’s aid failed to captivate me.  By and large, I don’t mind when  a narrative switches focus among a few characters, in this case, however, I think the tactic does a disservice to the characters.  The pace of The House at the End of Hope Street felt off to me.  Van Praag bounces too quickly between characters not giving readers quite enough time to settle in with one and feel sympathy for her before veering off to the next.  Despite the fact that van Praag spends a good amount of time developing each of her characters, the brevity of the time we spend with each seems to undercut that and create a story that feels somehow shallower than what I'd hoped for.

There are some truly heartwarming moments lurking inside The House as van Praag’s characters negotiate their respective paths to self-discovery.  The House as a character unto itself is ripe with fun discoveries.  In the end, though, the awkward pacing held me at a distance and kept me from falling head over heels for this one. 

(Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publicist in exchange for my honest review.  Impressively, I've managed to review it before the paperback release date of March 25th.  Rather less fortunately, they were probably hoping I'd get this in in time for the, um, hardcover release.)

Anyhow, we interrupt this moment of book blogger guilt to post the picture of the paperback cover which I might possibly prefer to the hardback cover (which is also quite nice).  Which do you think?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Loose Leafing: New Year Do-Over?

Let's see, it's January 26th and the temperature outside is a balmy 31 degrees Fahrenheit.   These facts mean two things.  I've gone approximately 26 days (the whole year thus far) with nary a blog post, and we're having a freaking heat wave.  We started and continued this year in a deep freeze to which I'm sure many of you reading can relate considering that much of the U.S. seems to have been afflicted with an unusually cold winter so far.  I can't stand the cold or the snow, and the extreme cold had plunged me into my "midwinter misery" stage before I could squeeze in the "new year, better me!" stage.  I've always said that I'd rather sweat than freeze, and it's proving to be that much truer this winter when it seems like it's so cold, it's hard to just live much less be happy, or dig into the daunting task of self-improvement.

Instead of reading more books, writing more blog posts, getting new jobs, eating less food, and getting in shape; I have been chattering my teeth, watching a ludicrous amount of football for someone who is more or less disinterested in football, and falling into a serious reading funk.  In fact, only just this week did I manage to actually finish my first book of the year.  By rights, there are two on my list, but the first one I read most of last year.  The first victim of my reading funk was a blog tour book that I read about a hundred pages of and discarded, which was followed by another book randomly chosen from my own stacks which I, again, read about a hundred pages of and discarded.  On one hand, this is a good thing.  I'm getting more discerning and not finishing the books that it's a pretty good bet I'm not going to love.  On the other hand, being so "meh" about a book that you invest a hundred pages worth of time into it and then realize you couldn't care less about what happens does not exactly lead to the warm fuzzies.

Happily, however, I finally bumbled my sad reading self into Mandy Retzlaff's One Hundred and Four Horses, a heartwarming, heartbreaking memoir of rescuing a herd of horses from Robert Mugabe's increasingly hostile Zimbabwe, and the funk was finally busted.  Here's hoping I manage to churn out a full review of this book because I really very much liked it.  I've since moved on to a book helpfully chose from my stacks, Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman.  I was doubtful at first, but it's got its hooks in me now for sure, and I've been steadily devouring it this weekend.  Hopefully this one will help me put the reading funk firmly in the rearview.

This week offered an interesting occurrence in that while I was busy sucking at life and reading and everything, I unwittingly became the local poster child for shopping at the library's used book sale.  I mean, in the back of my mind I knew the local newspaper had a photographer roaming around, but surely he wouldn't take a picture of me, right?  Uh, wrong.

So, there I am, all dressed up in my blue "Property of HCSC" scrubs with mismatching red ancient Old Navy shirt looking all hyper-focused on my book nerdery, in full color in the local newspaper.  As much as I truly loath having my photo taken and don't think too much off this photo, either, I have to admit it's kind of fitting.  I mean, I kind of am the poster child for buying used books from local libraries.  Now it's just more official-ish. 

What?  You're wondering what delightful tomes are in my hands in that very picture?  Don't worry, I won't hold out on you.  Here they are!

(And if you're having trouble decoding the titles in the mildly abysmal iPhone photo that had to suffice because of the household-wide shortage of AA batteries or the Megan-wide shortage of energy to find the damn things, here's the list!)

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover
Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
One Moment, One Morning by Sarah Rayner
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation Vol. II (Oops, I thought it was volume I when I picked it up.)
The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen
The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Also, I was kind of in a hurry, so I totally picked up several duplicates of things I already had and that copy of the wrong volume of Octavian Nothing, so despite my poster-child status, this was not exactly my best book sale performance.  Nonetheless, I think I still picked some winners while achieving extremely limited fame.

Despite the improvements brought about this week, I'm thinking of striking January from the record and trying to get back to "new year, better me!" when the month turns over into February.  Then I can stop being sad that everyone is reading great books without me and losing lots of pounds while I get fatter and attempt to hibernate until the temperature tops 40 degrees.  Here's hoping this year can be "rebooted" and I'll come back to my blog a healthier, happier reader in February (or, if the fates allow, sooner)!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books Read in 2013

What a great year of reading!  Seriously, it's been such a good year of the reading, the likes of which I haven't had in a while.  I read very few books this year that I outright disliked.  Now, you would think in a year where I read nearly all books that I liked it would be tough to pick a top ten for this lovely meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Much to my surprise, this year it wasn't at all.  Among all the good reading this year there were still exactly ten stupendously extraordinary books that stood head and shoulders above the rest.  They did all the things that I want my books to do- they helped me escape from the humdrum moments of my daily life, they helped me learn things about history and want to know more, they made me think, they engaged my emotions profoundly, they often featured narrators that I could relate to almost completely, and helped me understand people and life itself more deeply.  Here they are in no particular order - the best of my reading year!

1. The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin - This is definitely the year that historical fiction found its way back onto my reading menu, and I'm so glad it did.  This book is about Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  It's got a brilliant first person narration from Anne's perspective, and Benjamin did a beautiful job of humanizing these famous historical figures. 

2. The Grave of God's Daughter by Brett Ellen Block - I think after you've been book blogging for a while, you fall into this mistaken belief that every book that's worth reading, you will have at least heard of from some fellow blogger (or maybe that's just me), but The Grave of God's Daughter proved that such a notion is ridiculous.  My parents bought me a copy at some long ago book sale, and it was rescued from the stacks just this year, and it is so good. It's a historical fiction coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in a hardscrabble western Pennsylvania town where there are a lot of secrets to be learned, some of which are closer to her and her family than she ever would have expected.

3. Angelfall  by Susan Ee - Angelfall was a book I never would have purchased but for the good opinion of bloggers, and I'm so glad I did.  It's YA fiction about a girl trying to keep her ragtag family together after the, um, angel apocalypse, we'll say.  The girl, Penryn, is a very strong character, and when she rescues a wounded angel who, she hopes, will help her find her angel-abducted sister, you know that's going to lead to some interesting situations.  I was totally absorbed, and I actually pre-ordered the second book in the series, which I never do.  I can't think of a stronger recommendation than that.  ;-)

4. World War Z by Max Brooks - This took me about an eon to read while I was on my tour (read: "slew of tiny vacations") this summer, and that usually sets the odds against my liking a book.  Not so with World War Z, which was so not what I expected.  I was thinking "juicy book about zombie apocalypse."  What I ended up with was a juicy book about the zombie apocalypse that also served as incredible social commentary about life as we know out and how easily it could change.  This truly is the thinking person's zombie novel, and I liked it that much more because of it.

5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - What can I say about The Fault in Our Stars?  I was untroubled by the only loosely realistic dialogue because I loved how snappy and intelligent it was.  I cried like a baby even though I knew I was supposed to cry like a baby which can often preclude crying.  I loved that John Green basically said at the outset that a story can be fully fiction but still totally communicate profound truths and then totally proved it. 

6. Brewster  by Mark Slouka - This is officially the book I feel like the biggest poop for having failed to review this year. It's kind of the age old story about a few teenagers coming of age in a small town they can't wait to leave behind, except it's got way more layers.  The narrator, Jon, is a budding track star whose brother died when he was a kid, and his parents have been emotionally distant ever since.  The narrator's best friend is a guy that can't say no to a fight whose tough exterior is covering a really, really bad home life.  Slouka captures the tension of the pivotal moment of a track race in a way that just about makes you hold your breath and nails that bittersweet feeling of a memory in the making, the perfect moment that you know won't last even as you're living it.  Plus, the climax of this book, when everything clicks for Jon and what he does and everything is probably the most emotionally wrenching (in a good way?) scene I've read in a long, long time.

7. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles - And this is first runner up in the "books I feel like crap for not reviewing this year."  First of all, it's New York City in 1930s, which is right in my wheelhouse.  Katey Kontent, the narrator, and her friend Eve meet a handsome well-to-do gentleman in a nightclub on New Years Eve.  Only he's not exactly what he seems and there is some tragedy, and then Katey's alternating between being a bookish loner and a skilled social climber, and it's a cool picture of the whole New York City mythology in which you can be whatever you want to be, but not without a certain amount of sacrifice.  For some reason, I felt a super-strong connection with Katey.  Her sense of humor and her tendency to be the odd one out made me totally pull for her when she risks it all for a chance to be somebody.  And also there is the handsome gentleman with all the secrets?  Yeah.

8. Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden - This is such a good example of really good "thoughtful" fiction.  By and large it's an exploration of the narrator's thoughts and memories for a day as she rattles around her best friend's house trying to come up with ideas for her next play to write. There's not really much action happening, but the narrator's inner life is so well-populated that you hardly notice. Madden makes the narrator's thoughts flow so naturally and comes out with some brilliant commentary about how fiction can be a profound vehicle for truth (which is something I'm apparently an especially big fan of this year). 

9. The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak - What can I say about The Book Thief that hasn't already been said?  I loved it as much as everyone else seems to have done, which is no surprise.  World War II-set books have always been a favorite of mine.  The only surprise here is that it took me so damn long to read it!

 10. I Shall Be Near to You  by Erin Lindsay McCabe - This is more of a 2014 preview (January 28th), and I lucked out getting a copy from Read it Forward.  It's the story of a girl who joins the Union Army during the American Civil War to be with her new husband.  Honestly, at first I thought I wouldn't like it, the book jumps right in without much background, but by the end, I was cheering for, Rosetta, the narrator, as she transforms from a naive girl into a strong, courageous woman.  It's definitely the sort of historical fiction that makes you want to know more - I'll definitely be seeking out some more reading about women who secretly served during the Civil War.

Runner-Ups (which totally wouldn't be in a lesser reading year!):

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
Come In and Cover Me by Gin Phillips