19 February 2018

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: 2 Good Books, 1 Good TV Show

2 good audiobooksI don't know what's wrong with me this year, but I haven't been watching as much Olympics as I usually do. I don't know if it's because of the nature of the coverage or because there always seems to be so much national news to absorb. Whatever the reason, the Olympics has mostly been in the background.

Thanks to my busy season, reading for pleasure is becoming a luxury. In case you didn't know or remember, I'm a freelance book editor, so after a 10-hour day of deskwork, my body wants to move and my eyes don't want to see any more printed (electronic) words.

Yay for audiobooks! I was able to listen to two very different books last week. I also started a new guilty pleasure television series.

Listening / Reading

Review: Chainbreaker by Tara SimChainbreaker by Tara Sim (Forever Young Audiobooks; 10 hr, 29 min) is the second entry in the steampunk, time-bending Timekeepers series. In an alternate England, Danny Hart is a clock mechanic, which is a highly skilled and important job because if the town clock towers aren't working correctly, then time itself doesn't flow as expected. Danny's talents entail more than just maintaining and fixing the cogs and gears; he can also manipulate the very strands of time and communicate with clock spirits, who inhabit the towers. In this outing, Danny and a fellow timekeeper, Daphane, are tapped to go to India, where someone or something is destroying clocks. Their job is to solve the mystery and learn more about the nature of time. Sim addresses a number of issues in this series. Danny is gay and is still dealing with feeling comfortable about coming out. Daphane must prove herself as a woman professional and struggles as the sole caretaker of her troubled mother. In India, we see the effects of colonization and a variety of prejudices. Finally, time, technology, religion, and mythology are tangled together and are at the heart of Sim's alternate world. The characters are well drawn so it's easy to get caught up in their lives. I like the developing friendships and the complexity of Danny's relationship with his boyfriend. The mystery of what is happening with the clock towers in India is nicely set up, and there's a good balance between action and description. If I have any complaint, it's that this book ends on a cliffhanger. Argh! Now I have to wait a year to find out what happens. The audiobook of Chainbreaker is read by Gary Furlong, and as I mention in my review of Timekeeper, the first book in the series, it took me a little time to warm up to him. But after the first twenty or thirty minutes, I became caught up in Furlong's performance. His consistent characterizations kept me on track, and his sense of pacing amped up the action scenes. I'll have more to say in my AudioFile magazine review. (Review copy for freelance assignment)

Review: I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamaraYou'll want to listen to or read I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (Harper Audio; 9 hr, 45 min) with the lights on. In fact, you may have trouble sleeping--like ever again! This true crime story follows the trail of the Golden State Killer, who raped at least 50 women and murdered at least a dozen people in California from the late 1970s to late 1980s. He's never been indentified. McNamara was fascinated by this young man, who terrorized women in their homes in the middle of the night. He was a stalker, voyeur, rapist, and murderer. Truly chilling, especially because he's still on the loose. McNamara died young and unexpectedly before finishing this book, which was was completed by other true crime writers / investigators who knew her and knew her work. The finished book flows smoothly, and editor's notes alert you to the sections that were compiled from McNamara's notes or taped interviews. McNamara's writing style is engaging and finds a balance between informative and poetic. She doesn't leave out the gruesome details, but neither is she prurient. What's particularly interesting is the developing technology, especially for the DNA evidence. Warning: this story is damn creepy and scary. I can't imagine what it was like to live in California during that time. The audiobook is brilliantly read by Gaba Zackman, who approaches the material matter-of-factly but with good expression. She blurs the line between narrator and author, which allowed me to lose myself in the story. I had a copy of an eGalley, and so read a little when listening wasn't convenient. If you decide to listen to the book, don't forget to download the supplemental materials, which include a few maps that you'll want to refer to. Author Gillian Flynn reads her own introduction to the book, and McNamara's husband, the comedian / actor Patton Oswalt reads his own conclusion. The very end of the book consists of a letter McNamara wrote to the killer; you'll want to read or listen to that more than once. If you're into true crime or nonfiction, you won't want to miss this book, which comes out next week. (Review copy from the publisher)


Okay, so apparently I live a very sheltered life. Until Saturday I hadn't even heard of the television show Parenthood. I'm now a little bit addicted. It stars Peter Krause (Six Feet Under) and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) as well as other recognizable actors and explores parenthood in its many stages and guises. Great escape viewing. Here's the official trailer, which was a little out of focus on my screen, but may look better on yours. The show is on DVD and available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu.

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17 February 2018

Weekend Cooking: Decanted (Documentary)

I'm a wine fan. I drink a glass almost every night, and I like to try different grapes, different regions, and different blends. I, however, am by no means a wine expert. There is always something new to learn, and watching a film makes learning fun.

The 2016 documentary Decanted (directed by Nick Kovacic and produced by Matthew Riggieri) takes a look at wine making in California's Napa Valley. The film starts with picking the 2014 grapes and follows the process through to the 2015 harvest.

Much of the focus is on a relatively new vineyard, Italics, which produces Bordeaux varietals and blends from the sixteen Napa Valley appellations. Throughout the film, we meet other growers, including Heidi Peterson Barrett, who has created several 100-point wines and, as film producer Kovacic notes, holds a world record for the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine.

There isn't much of story line in Decanted, but it well conveys the atmosphere of the Napa Valley grape industry. I was left with a strong sense that wine making is a very personal endeavor, involving much hard work. Most of the owners were conscious of how their work played out over a fluid time line: past growing conditions, the current bottled wine, and their own future legacy. Several mentioned their wish to build something that could be passed along to their children or to others in the next generation.

The grape business combines both old and new techniques and technology. Each vintage, each wine reflects the weather as well as the winemaker's knowledge, skill, and craft. I was struck by one grower's remarks on the depth of his experience, which went something like this: "I've been in the business for 45 years. What that means is that I've made wine only 45 times." Well, that was something I've never really thought about.

Don't expect to learn how wine is made by watching Decanted. The film is more about a place and the people who are fully committed to their lives and their product. Some of the owners grew up around vineyards, others came to wine making as a second or third career, but all of them acted as stewards of the land and strove to create the best wine possible from what nature (and their hard work) gave them.

On the down side, Decanted suffers from a lack of direction. I think too many vineyards were featured, and I sometimes lost track of which person was associated with which vineyard. On the other hand, the filming itself showed off the beautiful valley, and I was definitely ready for a glass of California wine by the end of the movie. One other thing to keep in mind is that the film was made before last year's devastating wild fires.

I'm including the official trailer for Decanted. Note, however, I noticed a few scenes in the trailer that were definitely not in the final movie. Regardless, the trailer gives you a feel for the documentary.

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page.

NOTE: Mr. Linky sometimes is mean and will give you an error message. He's usually wrong and your link went through just fine the first time. Grrrr.

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16 February 2018

5 New Coming-of-Age Novels

I'm never sure what to say when someone asks me to name my favorite type of book because I like to read across the genres, I love literary fiction, and I don't hesitate to read middle grade books. Of course, I find often myself drawn to specific settings and themes, and one of those is the coming-of-age story. The five novels featured today all involve the loss of innocence, as the main characters contend with secrets, love, family, and a variety of pivotal life moments.

  • 5 coming-of-age books to read in FebruaryAll the Castles Burned by Michael Nye (Turner, Feb. 13): This novel is set in 1990s Cincinnati. Owen, 14 years old, has won a basketball scholarship to a local private day school, where he befriends an Uber-rich older teammate. Owen's freshman year includes more than book learning, as he realizes money doesn't make you a good person and one's parents are not infallible.
  • Things to Do When It's Raining Marissa Stapley (Graydon House, Feb. 6): I may be stretching the coming-of-age theme, but this is the story of a young woman, who returns to her home town after things go wrong in New York. While figuring out what to do next, she learns the true meaning of love, not only in romantic relationships but also in families and the strength it gives her to make difficult decisions on behalf of her grandparents.
  • Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (Soho, Feb. 20): In 1980s Oklahoma, Sequoyah, a teenager, is put in foster care after his mother is arrested on drug charges. Dreams of freedom, a taste of young love, coming to terms with his Cherokee background, and the lure of easy money draw the boy--and his foster siblings--into a dark and dangerous place.
  • The Calculus of Change by Jessie Hilb (Clarion, Feb. 27): Despite being smart and talented, teenage Aden suffers from insecurities related to being overweight and unresolved issues stemming from her mother's death, a decade earlier. When she's tapped to tutor Tate, cute, cool, and Jewish, she is forced to make decisions that will ultimate determine the type of person she really wants to be.
  • Rosie Colored Glasses by Brianna Wolfson (Mira, Feb. 20): After her parents divorce, 11-year-old Willow has trouble adjusting to joint custody; she wants to live full-time with her fun-loving mother, Rosie. But without the buffer of her more-aloof father, Willow begins to question her mother's choices, finally realizing that love and parenting are more complex and difficult than she had ever imagined.

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14 February 2018

Wordless Wednesday 484

Happy Valentine's Day

Taken in 2017. Click image to enlarge. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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12 February 2018

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: 5 Books for Winter Reading

5 Books for Winter ReadingLast week was the Super Bowl, this week it's the Olympics. I'm afraid I'm going to totally forget what's going on in Victoria (PBS), Frontier (Netflix), and whatever else we were watching.

I've started my annual period of working 10-hour days, 7 days a week, so watching a little ice skating, curling, or skiing makes for good escape. I usually don't get a lot of reading done in February and March, but you wouldn't know if from this week. How I managed to get through 5 books is a mystery.

Here are my thoughts on last week's books.Completely unplanned, I picked two boarding school books. One I listened to, and one I read. (Thanks to the publishers for all the review copies, print and audio, except the JD Robb audio, which I bought.)

Review: People Like Us by Dana MelePeople Like Us by Dana Mele (Putnam, Feb. 27): Our protagonist, Kay, was not born to be an It Girl, but her family sends her to the prestigious Bates Academy after her best friend committed suicide and her brother died after being hit by a car. There she thrives as one of the most popular girls. But after she and her group discover the body of one of their own floating in the lake, Kay's life spins out of control: she's suddenly the victim of blackmail and is being manipulated into carrying out a revenge plot to destroy the lives of the other cool girls. This was a fast-paced double mystery (whodunit and what's Kay secret) and has all the good parts of a prep school thriller plus a couple unexpected twists. I went back and forth in guessing who could be trusted and who was telling the truth and thought the ending was very cleverly done. The LBGTQ characters were handled casually and naturally. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Listening Library; 9 hr, 18 min), read by Erin Spenser. She did a fine job with the teenage voices--both male and female--and she delivered on Kay's full range of emotions.

Review: S.T.A.G.S. by M. A. BennettS.T.A.G.S. by M. A. Bennett (Delacorte Press, Jan. 2018): Greer, not to the manor born, has earned a scholarship to St. Aidan the Great School (STAGS), the oldest school in England. With her northern accent and working-class background, Greer has no friends at her new school and is especially isolated because STAGS is an anti-technology institution: no television, no cellphones, no Internet, no laptops. That means she can't text her dad or call her old mates. When she's invited to join the cool kids on a weekend outing to one of their estates (think Downton Abbey or Brideshead), she says yes, even though she knows absolutely nothing about the "huntin' shootin' fishing' " promised by engraved invitation. Turns out two other plebeians were also asked to join in. Need I say that the visit is anything but a relaxed outdoorsmen (outdoorsperson) adventure? Greer soon learns the sinister side of upper-class privilege and finds herself in a deadly game of survival. Lots of things to like in this thriller, including Greer's down-to-earth but realistic reactions to the snooty kids at STAGS and her many pop movie references. Vivid descriptions of the estate and suitably creepy servants add to the atmosphere, and the plot includes a few surprises. A worthy entry in the prep school thriller genre.

Review: The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen ShapiroThe Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, Jan. 2018): I'm not sure what I was expecting from this true story of a teenage boy who attempted to stowaway on one of the ships Richard Byrd was taking to explore Antarctica in the late 1920s, but I ended up wanting something more. Billy Gawronski, son of a Polish upholsterer, yearned for an adventurous life. He sneaked aboard ship three times before Byrd, and Billy's father, agreed to let the boy join the expedition. The well-researched book goes into Billy's family history, life on the ship, and how the explorers used the boy for good publicity. Although the focus is on Billy, we also learn a little bit about three other men in Byrd's crew: a Jewish aviation mechanic, a black stowaway, and an Eagle Scout. America fell in love with Billy--the plucky kid who wouldn't take no for an answer--but their interest faded with the deepening economic depression after the mission was completed. The book ends by telling us about Billy's involvement in World War II and his later life. Shapiro is a good writer and tells a compelling story, but I'm not sure there was enough material here for a whole book. Still, I was happy to get to know Billy Gawronski, and I'm glad Shapiro brought him back into the spotlight. I alternated reading and listening to this book. The unabridged audiobook (Simon & Schuster Audio; 6 hr, 27 min) was nicely read by Jacques Roy, whose soft, straightforward delivery kept my interest and suited the book. His Polish accent sounded believable to me, but I'm not sure I'd know the difference.

Review: Holiday in Death by J. D. RobbI also listened to the unabridged audiobook of J. D. Robb's Holiday in Death (Brilliance Audio, 1998; 10 hr, 21 min) read by Susan Eriksen. Eve Dallas, murder investigator for a futuristic New York City, is tasked with finding the link between a deadly Santa and a dating service. I got fooled by some of the red herrings and will be looking askance at men in Santa suits from now on. I continue to enjoy Eve's relationship with the very sexy (and rich) Rourke and am happy to see their marriage strengthen. I had to laugh at Eve's take on the whole holiday shopping phenomenon; apparently nothing really changes in the future. I also liked seeing what her assistant, Peabody, was like when she wasn't on duty. I'm seven books in and am still looking forward to reading the rest of the series. At this point, I don't think I can think of more things to say about Eriken's narration. Just believe me that audiobooks are the way to go for the In Death series.

Review: The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell JohnsonTyrell Johnson's The Wolves of Winter (Scribner, Jan. 2018) is a mashup of thriller and dystopian. Set in the not-too-distant future (and kind of spookily believable), worldwide nuclear war is brought to a halt by a deadly flu pandemic. The McBride family has moved from small town Alaska to the wilds of the Yukon to hide: from the flu, from marshal law, and from the U.S. government. Besides one unsavory neighbor, 23-year-old Gwendolynn (Lynn) has seen only family for years, so when she spots a harmless-looking man and his dog in the woods one day, she succumbs to loneliness and invites him home. Naturally, her family is upset and suspicious--good survivalist instincts in a world gone haywire. That one chance meeting sets off a series of events that change all of their lives forever. This novel is full of adventure, beautiful descriptions of the northern woods, and realistic scenes involving a family that must stick together or die. The truth of the stranger's background, the journey through the snow, Lynn's conflicted feelings, and the family's decisions all ring true. You don't have to be a dystopian fan to find a lot to love in this novel, which is more Station 11 or the Dog Stars than it is Hunger Games or Pure. I highly recommended this novel.

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