30 September 2013

Ways To Procrastinate, Or: Fanfiction, YouTube, and My Own Private Eucharist

August was such an outstanding reading month for me that I suppose that it should come as no surprise that September finds me in a bit of a slump. My two days off each week are generally Friday and Saturday, and when I'm being good, in between various household chores, I spend those days reading, book and/or travel blogging, enjoying beverages of the adult variety, and watching bad TV with my friend. When I'm being bad, it means that I'm reading fanfiction, watching bad TV on the computer all day long, and consuming almost an entire loaf of freshly baked bread and almost an entire bottle of Bordeaux.
One of the best cheeses ever
Don't judge me, peoples. Bread & wine is a classic combination, and if you happen throw a little salted butter and a wedge of St. Andre cheese into the mix, then it practically counts as a meal.  If it was good enough for Jesus's last meal, it's good enough for me.

It helps that my husband has been away for a few days.  Though I always miss him when he is away, I also kinda like it, because it provides me an opportunity to lapse into my single ways: sloven laziness and an utter disregard for nutrition. The unwashed wineglasses pile up in the sink, I stay up late eating Goldfish crackers, Snickers, hummus, pretzels, cheese, apples, Golden Oreos, After Eight mints, and anything else I have to hand; drink beer, wine, rum, and bourbon;  and sleep until my dogs makes it very clear she has urgent and imminent needs.

Lest you think I'm a total lazeabout, I hasten to add that I multitask, at least while I'm eating and drinking: I played the Google pinata thingy about 50 times, I watched Joss Whedon's genius in the form of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, AND I got a little transfixed with Felicia Day (who is one of the stars of Dr. Horrible), making my way through her filmography on Netflix, then scouted for YouTube videos of her either singing or playing the violin (she's actually quite good), THEN working my way through her Flog, which I loved. How was it that other vaguely recognizing her from Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I didn't suspect her wonderfully geeky existence? Seriously, how adorable is she?

Pretty adorable.

I also watched the first episodes of Portlandia, Breaking Bad, and How I Met Your Mother. I think I really like Breaking Bad and will make encourage my husband to watch the rest with me.  I hear from family and other bloggers that the series finale is coming up soon, so I might as well jump on the bandwagon now.

I also read fanfiction.  Specifically, Harry Potter fanfiction.  More specifically, Hermione/Snape. There's one that's quite good called The Fire and the Rose, where Neville has an accident in potions that causes his cauldron to explode, and the polyjuice potion he was brewing becomes something else entirely: Hermione and Snape find themselves looking like each other, and the effects take months to wear off, not an hour. I usually skim it for the naughty bits but this time I've been reading it straight through.  It's interesting watching Hermione learn how to wield authority like a professor and watching Snape learn how to interact with Harry and Ron without becoming apoplectic. It's a solid piece of fanfiction, better written than average, with a conceit that plays out well. There aren't that many naughty bits--I think they occur in only two chapters--so if the thought of Hermione/Snape leaves you squicked, you could skip them.

Mina, aka The Grey Ghost
Him is the handsomest furry, purr-y, Murray boy, him is. 
Last, but never least, I made sure to spend plenty of quality time with my animules.  For my cats, that means lots of cuddles in bed. For my dog, however, that means going for rides in the car.  She's at her happiest with her nose stuck out the window, and it's the perfect time of year for enjoying a short ride in the car after work. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year and it's the only season in New England I particularly like. September and October are pretty glorious around here:
Looking over the Connecticut River valley, just up the road from my house
And here's Roxie, in all of her glory.  Don't you just love that ear action?  She's a dog, so she likes most things in life.  But of all the things she really likes, riding in cars is at the top of her list:
Roxie in the car
And that, my friends, is how I procrastinated.  All. Weekend. Long.  What did you do? 

23 September 2013

Anguilla, Pre- and Post-Trip Evaluations

Long Bay, Anguilla
Blogging about vacation once I'm back home is difficult on multiple levels: I am so busy catching up at work that I have very little time to devote to blogging and photo organization, and I'm so homesick for Anguilla that it feels like torture to be writing about my time there.  A few weeks later, once things settle down at work and in my heart, it theoretically would be easier to write about Anguilla, but by that time my reading momentum usually carries me somewhere else, and inevitably I abandon the last couple of posts that I had good intentions of writing.

This is what my desk looked like when I got back to work.
It is essentially a barricade. Just like Les Mis but with less singing.
Incidentally, that is a photo of Anguilla showing on my wall calendar.
Which brings me to this post.  I didn't write an Anguilla Wrap Up post for my 2013 vacation, and I've been too busy at work to share much news about our upcoming shorter trip to the island next month, but now that the new trip is drawing nearer every day, it seems like the perfect opportunity to indulge in my Anguillaphilia.

West End Bay, Anguilla
Highlights of June 2013: Well, this trip was amazing, so there were lots of highlights. The tasting menu at Veya was pretty spectacular (sea lice, anyone?). We tried a new restaurant, Dolce Vita, that we feel sure will become one of our favorites.  We discovered Long Bay for the first time. We spent more time on Rendezvous than on any other beach (except our "home" beach of Barnes Bay), thanks in large part to the opening of The Place. We met some really terrific people, both belongers (Andrea & Moe) and visitors (JP & Adria), and got to know folks in a way we hadn't on previous trips. We visited AARF (twice) to play with some puppies and kittens. We also were lucky enough to spend one night at the dreamy Las Esquinas, which is about as close to perfection as a place can get. We already loved Caribella, which is our home away from home on Anguilla, but we discovered on this trip that we liked a different unit better.
Barge and tugboat, seen from the road leading to Caribella
Lowlights: There aren't many.  The biggest one was the eyesore of a barge set up between Viceroy and Caribella to create a breakwater.  It's a completely asinine, not to mention megalomanic, project. The barge wasn't active every day, and we spent more of our days elsewhere on the island than on Barnes Bay, so it wasn't totally disruptive in that sense.  But it did disrupt the visual beauty of the horizon, and near the end of our trip the barge actually capsized, though how the hell a barge can capsize is beyond me. The loud techno-pop and DJ music from Viceroy was also occasionally disruptive, and if we didn't sleep with earplugs each night, we would have been seriously disgruntled. I can't imagine how loud it must be on site!
Capsized barge, seen from our balcony
As with most travelers to Anguilla, our last day is always full of bittersweetness.  Though I always miss my "animules" at home (one dog, three cats), it does feel tragic to leave Anguilla.  For the last few years we have opted to fly to St. Maarten instead of taking the ferry, and we do feel that it's worth the extra expense to us to have that extra bit of time on Anguilla, and not having to worry whether our bags have made it on board the boat is good, too.

Rendezvous Bay, seen from the air
When flying Anguilla Air Services to St. Maarten, we only need to be at the airport 30 minutes before the scheduled departure, and since we were the only two on board for this flight, I believe we even left a few minutes ahead of schedule.

Sad face, leaving Anguilla
Lines at the airport weren't too bad, but we were also fortunate enough to be flying up front on our way home.  We usually fly coach, but when booking through American Airlines we found that upgrading on the way home would only cost about $75 more per person, so we decided to live a little.
St. Maarten, seen from the air
We always stop by Geraud's to pick up a sandwich to go so that we can have one last taste of Anguilla while we're waiting in the St. Maarten airport. After we ate I was feeling a little restless--once we've crossed that line to St. Maarten, we're both eager to get home--so I poked around the gift and duty free shops and found something interesting.  I'd like to be a fly on the wall when someone orders this rum by name:
I'll have the Big Black Dick, barkeep.
The trip home was relatively uneventful, if a bit long.  The only connecting flight between Miami and Hartford leaves Miami after 9:00 pm, which means we're not usually back home and greeting our dog until around 2:00 in the morning. Oy! But of course Anguilla is worth all of that trouble and more. The most exciting part was between St. Maarten and Miami when we flew over the British Virgin Islands and I was able to get a good shot of Guana, where we honeymooned and spent our 5th anniversary:
That's Guana in almost the dead-center of the photo
One of the ways we ease back into our real lives is by recreating something we've eaten or drunk during our trip.  A few years ago I experimented with the frozen mojito from Cuisinart.  This time we made the pain au tomate from Las Esquinas. We made it a few times each week during July and August when the tomatoes were so gorgeous, and we devised a mixture that we love--we added a little garlic, basil, and crushed red pepper to the recipe given to us at Las Esquinas.
Our re-imagined pain au tomate
Remember when I mentioned that on our last full day we stopped off at Devonish Gallery and I bought a small oil painting by Antoine Chapon? I had a dickens of a time waiting for it to be shipped to me. Now that I think about it, this should go under the heading of Lowlights 2013. I purchased the painting on July 4 and paid for it to be shipped to me. On July 12, I emailed the gallery to ask for the tracking number on the painting, only to find that Mr Devonish hadn't even taken it to the post office yet. On July 27, when I tracked the package, the Anguilla postal website told me that it hadn't left the island yet. Excuse me? I know things take a long time to ship, and I did not want to pay a premium price to expedite the shipping, but that just seemed totally excessive to me.
Antoine Chapon's watercolor reproductions for sale
The painting did finally arrive in early August, however, and it arrived in perfect shape.  I kept the frame that the gallery provided, but I may upgrade it after I live with the image for a while if it seems to want it.
Here is a close-up of the painting

Here's the painting in situ in our home. 
The only cure for DIF (Dreaded Island Fever) is to plan a return trip, so that's what I spent my August doing. Our beloved Caribella is closed during the months of September and October, so I had to find a new place to try.  After many hours of research, I sent out inquiry emails to several villa owners and proposed a modestly reduced rate since (1) it's not just low season, it's LOW-low season, and (2) I'm an amateur travel writer/blogger who always reviews places I stay.  Quite a few were amenable to my rate negotiations, so then I had to spend time agonizing over which to choose.  Do we give preference to a villa's location on the island? Its view? Level of Luxury? Do we take the least expensive place and put that money towards our restaurant bills?

It's such a tough call, but we ended up choosing Sweet Return Villa, owned by a Canadian family who *usually* goes to Anguilla during the time we're going to be there, but there's a special milestone birthday celebration for them elsewhere this fall, so the villa was unexpectedly unoccupied. Its location seems ideal, and it offers some very nice amenities without being one of those over-the-top, we-don't-want-to-breathe-wrong-on-it luxury homes. It was neither the most nor the least expensive of our choices, but it offered the best value.

It turns out that our two favorite restaurants--Veya and Dolce Vita-- are scheduled to open by the time we arrive on island (alas, most tourist-oriented places close for September & October), and now we're crossing our fingers that Geraud's will be open, too.  It's our favorite place for breakfast and lunch, and they tell me on Facebook that their re-opening date for October isn't set yet. We'll just have to see.

In the meantime, I'm planning our days around Anguilla's greatest charms: its beaches.  We'll be sure to take in our usual Rendezvous and Shoal Bay East, but our villa is close enough to Long Bay that it might be fun pretending to be castaways for the day, too.  And of course we cannot forget our friends at AARF.  We may even act as couriers for a pup or kitten on the way home to New England, where various foster families await.

Such a sweet little cow on Meads Bay
You do NOT want to mess with this MoFo MoGo. I saw him charge a pedestrian.
I can't wait to see what else Anguilla has in store for us on this trip.  We're only there for five nights, which is a shame, but I'll take it anyway. And as our last night on the island is DH's birthday, we may reprise our experience with the chef's tasting menu at Veya again.
Anguillian sunset over Barnes Bay
P. S. Happy birthday to my sweet and beautiful sister, Holly, today!

19 September 2013

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson: audio book review

This is my last entry for my Official Audio Book Review Week--looks like I'll only have four entries instead of five.  But, oh, what a book it was!  If you have ever read my blog before, you might know about my love for Bill Bryson.  I've read more of his books than any other author's, and I've even read every word of his reference books.  This is all the more unusual since Bryson is a nonfiction writer and I'm an unapologetic reader of novels and not much else.  I've even had the pleasure of meeting the man not once, but twice, and they were two of the best days of my adult life. The fact that he would still have very little, if any, awareness of my existence is not a justifiable reason for suicide, or so I keep telling myself.  Every day.

Anyway, I read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid back when it was first published, and my husband reminded me that we had listened to the audio of this book together during a trip to Hawaii (we did a lot of driving on the Big Island), which I had all but forgotten. So finishing up this audio book in my car last night was more like revisiting an old friend on two levels--both the content and the performance. Bryson is an excellent reader of his own books and I estimate that I've listened to his voice for upwards of 100 hours.

This book is a memoir of his childhood growing up in Des Moines, Iowa. He was the youngest of three children, born to a mother and father who both worked for the Des Moines Register (the local newspaper) at a time when not many women worked outside of the home, or at least not many wives and mothers. He grew up in a time of wonder (childhood in general) but also a time of national fear (the cold war, the Bay of Pigs, etc) and this juxtaposition makes for a pretty entertaining read.

Based on what I've read in his other books, I feel as if I generally have a good idea of Bryson's politics and social values, which is why some of the content in this memoir was all the more surprising. I don't actually believe that Bryson is a man who objectifies women or is homophobic (he does, alas, appear to be rather anti-Southern in most of his books), but those things were both present in his memoir.  That is, he spends a good bit of time specifically recalling the urgency with which he tries to enter the stripper tent year after year at the Iowa State Fair and trying to see naked women in general. Though Bryson becomes fast friends with a gay boy in his teens, there are the casual references to the negative social repercussions for kids who acted/looked/dressed gay, and the use of "gay" as a pejorative.

After a bit of reflection, I think Bryson was more likely trying to show an accurate reflection of growing up in middle America in the 1950s and 1960s, rather than trying to reflect his current views on anything in particular.

The downside, of course, of listening to a very funny audio book is that it's nearly impossible to excerpt   my favorite parts in a review.  Clearly it would take far more effort than I'm willing to expend to go find my copy of the actual book, flip through it, and decide which parts to quote here. So, suffice it to say that listening to Bryson is a singularly excellent experience.  If you've never read him before, I wouldn't necessarily recommend starting with Thunderbolt Kid--try A Walk in the Woods or In A Sunburned Country instead and prepare to be entertained and enlightened at once.

18 September 2013

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper: Audio Book Review

This is my third entry for my Official Audio Book Review Week.  When I made the dual discovery that the author of Ghost Hawk was THE Susan Cooper, and that the audio was read by the inimitable Jim Dale, I requested and received a complimentary from my sales rep.

Alas, I should have just judged this book by its cover. Its terrible, terrible cover.

Spoilers abound here, peoples.  Just sayin'.

First of all, the book is narrated in the first person.  Ugh.  It's also narrated by somebody who dies approximately one third of the way into the book.  Double ugh.

Little Hawk is a Wampanaog Indian. When he turns 11, he must spend three months on his own in the dead of winter in order to become a man.  This he survives, but when he returns to his village he finds that everybody has died from smallpox except his grandmother. Little Hawk and his grandmother meet up with another tribe, also hit by the smallpox, and somehow form a family.  Kind of like the Brady Bunch, except with more leather & outdoor living. Then Little Hawk meets a young white boy named John Wakeley when the white people ask the Wampanaogs about how to fish. Much later, Little Hawk encounters John again. When he tries to help John's father, trapped under a fallen tree, he is shot by some vicious white people who think all Indians are savage heathen.

Little Hawk dies but lives on as a ghost that only John Wakeley can see or hear. Oh, I get it.  The character is called Little Hawk when he's alive, but the book is called GHOST Hawk because he's a ghost for most of it. Which is convenient, as far as that goes, or else Susan Cooper would not have a narrator for the rest of her book. John grows up miraculously with a benevolence towards the Wampanaogs heretofore never exhibited by another white man. The white men are intolerant pricks who decide the best way to celebrate their freedom of religion is to punish everybody in the New World who doesn't believe what they believe.

Yes, I'm being glib, but in truth, the story of the European vanquishment of the native peoples of North America is tragic and underrepresented in our history, and the effect of the Puritans' brand of colonialism is both reprehensible and incalculable. Which is why it's a terrible shame that Susan Cooper's novel is so completely heavy-handed, so utterly lacking in nuance and shades of grey. I'm sad to say that I cannot recommend this book.  The page-turning magic that permeates Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series is completely missing here.  Even Jim Dale's rendering of the characters couldn't save this book.  He is truly a giant among audio book performers but he was not well-matched to this story.

It's clear that Cooper did a great deal of research for her book, and I know from hearing her speak that this story was inspired by the marshland around her house, which she feels must be sacred somehow. I just wish she had written a solid non-fiction account for young readers instead of this completely unsatisfying novel. 

17 September 2013

Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin

This post is round two in my Official Week of Audio Book Reviews.  I actually listened to this book back in March of this year, which means that my review will have more of the general and less of the specific about it.  It is NOT spoiler-free, however.

I probably would not have gravitated to Ron Irwin's novel, Flat Water Tuesday, to read, but MacMillan Publishing sent me an advance audio of it, which I was happy to listen to.  Neither the actual audio in my hand, neither the Goodreads site, tells me who read this book, which is a pretty terrible oversight. It was a man and he did a perfectly serviceable job, as far as my memory serves.

Despite not being particularly athletic ourselves, my best friends and I are drawn to what we call "sports triumph" stories, whether in books or film, and for stories as varied as The Mighty Ducks and Chariots of Fire.  We love the underdog aspects when there are any, and we love the pulling together as a team to overcome adversity.

Flat Water Tuesday is just such a novel.  Or more precisely, is half such a novel. Narrated in the first person by Rob Carrey, this is yet another story that ducks back and forth between Rob's present storyline as a documentary photographer and his past as a scholarship student at a prestigious prep school in Connecticut.  Let me say this off the bat: I cared not one whit for the present day story.  I usually don't in frameworks like these. They are overused and generally make for lazy storytelling. I am, however, a sucker for the prep school/boarding school genre.  My favorite film when I was of the prep school age myself was Dead Poets Society, and one of my favorite things about the Harry Potter books is the boarding school trope.

Rob is admitted to the Fenton School on scholarship as something like a 5th-year-senior because of his latent talent in rowing.  He's a blue collar kid from a blue collar town, and never mind where or how he learned to row a single shell anyway. That kind of probing question would tear apart this book. Can't look too closely at that improbability.  The main thing is that he's been recruited to Fenton to row in the coxed four (feel free to giggle here--I sure did), known within certain circles as...drumroll, please...the GOD FOUR.  I had to fight rolling my eyes every time the phrase THE GOD FOUR came up.  NB: I don't think those words are actually capitalized in the books, but you can tell that the characters are thinking of them in all caps anyway.

Okay, so there's class conflict, sexual tension, the town-vs-gown tradition, and the double stench of sweat and privilege permeating this book. Fine, that's about what I expected.  However, I found myself only mildly caring about any of this: Will Rob learn to row the right way? Will he date Ruth, the team's coxswain? Will anybody in the book recognize Ruth's anorexia (excuse me, she only weighs 80 frickin' pounds)? Will the Fenton School win THE GOD FOUR race this year? SPOILER: Oh yeah, and will the tightly-strung, good looking, rich, athletic, perfect captain of THE GOD FOUR turn out to be suicidal?  Dunno.  You'll have to read it and see.

I actually enjoyed learning a bit about the sport of rowing, and as I said, I am a sucker for a sports-triumph story.  But even the boarding school bits didn't hold my attention as much as I'd expected.  If I hadn't been listening to this book on audio, I doubt I would have finished it. More than Dead Poets Society, this book reminded me strongly of A Separate Peace, complete with the tragic end and the main character woefully debating his own complicity in that tragedy.

If you love rowing or if you love reading about the first world problems of thirty-something white men who are haunted by their past, this might be the book for you.  

16 September 2013

The Wave by Susan Casey: Audio Book Review

I have declared this week to be my Official Week of Audio Book Reviews.  I've got several audio books banging around in the back seat of my car, as that's where I get most of my book listening done: on my daily 25 minute commute.  I love listening to audio books and I will often listen to books that I would not otherwise pick up to read, but I have a difficult time reviewing them, separating the content from the performance.  So please bear with me.  If you have any fantastic listening recommendations, please let me know in the comments field!

The first one for review this week is one that I recently finished listening to: Susan Casey's book, The Wave: In Pursuit of The Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, read by Kirsten Potter. I borrowed this one from my mom's bookshelf when I visited her in Wisconsin a couple of years ago but I put off reading/listening to it for reasons that are too nebulous to name.  More the fool, me. This is an excellent book that frequently had me riveted during my drives, and my mind often drifted back to it when I was at work or at home, wondering where the narrative would take me next.

Casey's story spans the watery parts of the globe, from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean, and all large bodies of water in between, exploring the phenomenon of wave science and how it has failed to predict the existence of rogue waves--that is, waves that appear out of nowhere and are more than twice  (or even three times) the height of all of the other waves surrounding it.  This might mean a fifty foot wave in twenty-foot seas, but more dangerously it can also mean a giant 125-foot wave in seas that otherwise top out at sixty feet. These are the waves that neither traditional wave science nor oceanography can predict, and they are the waves that sink hundreds of ship every year. They also happen to be exactly the thing that certain big-wave surfers want to be in the right place, at the right time, for.

Thus Casey leads the reader all over the world, from Hawai'i  to South Africa, from Tahiti to the Bank of Cortes (off the coast of Baja California), from the Orkney Islands to Australia, all in the name of science, or sport, or occasionally both. We meet international scientists specializing in wave theory, intrepid salvagers of sunken freighter cargo who work in the most dazzlingly dangerous conditions, and  Laird Hamilton and his comrades, a cohort of big-wave surfers who train hard and play harder, prepared to literally risk life or limb every time they meet a giant wave.

Rising seas, reduced salinity, and higher water temperatures may all combine in the near future to create  rogue waves, not to mention monster storms, that are beyond our imagining.  Some of the scientists interviewed for this book make meteorological proclamations that would not sound out of place in our current spate of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.  This book covers some seriously scary shit.

Curiously, it also inspired me watch dozens of YouTube videos of waves and tow-surfing, of which here is one for your viewing pleasure.  This is a video of Laird Hamilton, who happens to be the person most frequently mentioned and interviewed in the book, in Tahiti:

Casey writes with an odd reverence for Laird Hamilton, the man most often credited with pushing big wave surfing to the level it is now. He invented (with a friend) a method called tow-surfing (which I confess I heard as toe-surfing for at least the first half of the book, before it dawned on me), where surfers are towed on jet-skis at higher speeds to catch the biggest waves. Prior to that, surfers were only paddling out to meet the waves and could only work up so much velocity before dropping down into the barrel.

The reader, Kirsten Potter, does an overall very solid job with this book, and because Susan Casey occasionally writes with the narrative "I", I often forgot that it was not she reading her own book. I was only briefly and intermittently jolted out of the story when Potter mispronounced various commonplace words like quayside or gunwale. She nailed more difficult words, like with Tahiti's surfing mecca called Teahupoo, but floundered on Haleakala, the mountain on Maui.  Still, these brief instances aside, this is an audio book that I can wholly recommend, particularly if you're interested in nonfiction.

Here's one more video, this time of Garrett McNamara, also mentioned frequently in the book, taking on a 90-foot wave off the coast of Portugal:

12 September 2013

Book Review: Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

In one of those weird moments of synchronicity, my blogging life and my professional life are as one.  In my bookstore, a new-in-July paperback by the name of Tell the Wolves I'm Home started outselling almost every other fiction title released this summer. Curious about it, I picked it up for myself to read, and it was only after finishing it that I noticed that at least half a dozen of my favorite bloggers had already read this book. Carol Rifka Brunt's debut novel wasn't really on my radar until now, despite the  fact that it was published over a year ago in hardcover and that publications as varied as The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus, and O Magazine all named it one of the best books of 2012. How did it fly under the radar like that?

Turns out that the author is American but living in England and thus didn't tour here in the States at all to promote her book. Brunt lived for a while in my little part of the world, and thus my store sold quite a few copies when it was released in paperback, and as the timing would have it, she is going to be visiting my little part of the world next month.  She emailed me just a couple of days after I had finished reading the book, and if that isn't synchronicity, then I don't know what is!

Anyway, the book: June Elbus narrates this first person, coming of age tale in upstate New York in the 1980s, but this is no YA-style first person narrative of which I have grown increasingly weary.  No, think more of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. June feels like an outsider: her parents are both accountants and for much of the year don't have time for anything but preparing other peoples' taxes; her older sister Greta is smart, beautiful, and an extremely talented actress; she has no close friends. Only her godfather and uncle, Finn, understands her and ushers her through her very awkward adolescence. He lives in New York City and is her best friend, showing her fascinating places and encouraging her dreams of being a medieval-style falconer.

Which is why she feels all the more betrayed to learn, after Finn dies of AIDS, that a man named Toby was an important part of Finn's life, too--perhaps even more important to Finn that she was. The rest of June's family can only acknowledge Toby's existence enough to blame him for "murdering" Finn, but June feels both curiosity and pity for the man when her family forces him to leave his lover's funeral.  A few weeks later, she receives a package in the mail from Toby containing a rare Russian teapot that Finn always used for special occasions with June...and a letter asking June if she would meet Toby and share stories about Finn.

She ignores the letter at first, but eventually she changes her mind and starts making plans to see Toby, who is charming and clueless and just as adrift in a sea of loss as June is. Little by little, aspects of Finn that were only known to one or the other become shared knowledge.  Toby clearly has no idea what constitutes an appropriate pastime for his fourteen year old companion, but June thrills to the illicit cigarette smoking, occasional drinking, and long walks through lower Manhattan.

Which is just as well, because the situation at home disintegrates a little bit more, week by week. A dark and bitter rift separates Greta and June where once they were best friends, Greta's destructive urges spiral out of control, and June doesn't know which adults in her life are worthy of her trust. Soon, the two separate halves of June's life meet in a perilous way, and something has to give: will June choose the normalcy of her home life over the unpredictable pleasures of her secret time with Toby?

Along the way there are two significant subplots: Finn's an artist revered by the 1980s art scene, but until a photographic reproduction of mysterious portrait featuring his two nieces shows up posthumously, critics believed he had stopped painting.  What the unveiling of this painting does to the family, particularly June and Greta, is a catalyst for the novel's denouement.  Similarly, along the way we learn that Finn and his sister (the girls' mother) both wanted to be artists growing up, but whereas Finn struck out on his own to see the world at a young age, the sister played it safe and stayed behind.  The mother's adult regrets over her youthful choices to play things safe twisted up with her own self-pity into something truly ugly by the time Finn came back into her life, which she used to effectively manipulate Finn and her children.

This is a fine novel that for some reason puts me in mind of To Kill a Mockingbird (a book I loved) and The Catcher in the Rye (a book I loathed because it felt gratuitously whiny), but there's a classic feel to Tell the Wolves I'm Home that makes shelving it with those other towers of coming of age classics a pretty reasonable thing to do. I feel that the author must have admired both of those books enormously and that shades of them come through, in homage, in her own novel.

Here are some passages that demonstrate pretty well what it's like to be in June's narrative mind:

Even though I don't believe in God, last year I convinced my mother to let me join the Catholic church choir in our town just so I could sing the Mozart Kyrie at Easter. I can't even really sing, but the thing is, if you close your eyes when you sing in Latin, and if you stand right at the back so our can keep one hand against the cold stone wall of the church, you can pretend you're in the Middle Ages. That's why I did it.  That's what I was in it for. 
It's hard to say exactly when we stopped being best friends, when we stopped even resembling two girls who were sisters. Greta went to high school and I was still in middle school.  Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got. . . weirder. I don't know. None of those things should have mattered, but I guess they did. I guess they were like water. Soft and harmless until enough time went by. Then all of a sudden you found yourself with the Grand Canyon on your hands.  
I looked at Toby's shoulders in front of me and I started to feel glad that he was with me. Not that it seemed like Toby would be much help if a real psychopath was waiting in the basement, but, still, it felt better knowingI'd be hacked to death with somebody else instead of all by myself.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is available in both paperback and hardcover. I actually bought a copy for myself after selling so many copies of it in the bookstore because I was curious about it.  I'm glad that I did.

NB: On 14 September, I've edited this post to add links to some other bloggers' reviews of this book.  So don't just take my word for this one, take theirs, too! (You should check out those links anyway because they are nifty book bloggers.) If I follow you and you've written a review of this book you'd like me to link to, just leave me a comment and I will.

Sarah Says Read, What Red Read, The Terrible Desire, Devouring Texts, Comma Enthusiast, and Reading the Bricks, who, incidentally, read this before the rest of us did. 

10 September 2013

Bluest Hair in Coldtown: Book Launch and Review

Sorry for the delay in posting, but you know, sometimes Real Life interferes with Book Life. One week ago tonight, my coworkers and I hosted the launch party for Holly Black's latest novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which is one of my favorite YA books for the season. When I'm really struck by a particular book and my store hosts an event for the author, I sometimes do wacky things like color my hair. For Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus from a couple of years ago, I went for a bright, fire engine red in honor of that book's reveurs. In honor of Tana, the heroine of Coldtown who has blue hair, and of Holly Black who also has blue hair, I decided to give myself blue hair for the day, too. I can't speak for Tana, but Holly's professionally-lightened-then-tinted hair looked considerably better than my spent-twenty-bucks-at-Sally's-for-temporary-blue, but it's the spirit that counts, right?

Holly with booksellers
I loved The Coldest Girl in Coldtown from page one, when I read it on the plane on my way to Anguilla for summer vacation a few months ago.  It's immediately engaging and well-written, and clearly this is not your daughter's vampire novel.  True, it's a young adult book, but Holly wrote this book in homage to the great vampire works she read growing up.  If you think vampire books begin and end with Twilight and thus haven't given them a fair shake, give this one a go.

Tana lives in a slightly futuristic world where a rogue vampire decided to break all of the ritualist rules of Vampire Secrecy by infecting hundreds and hundreds of people with the Cold, and they, in turn, infected thousands and thousands and so on. This created worldwide havoc, but at least in the US there are a handful of Coldtowns, where vampires and humans live side by side in an uneasy alliance: humans allow vamps to feed on them just a little via IV tubes rather than by biting (which spreads the Coldness), and therefore the vamps' food source doesn't dry up (literally) and the humans can keep on being human and not Cold.

One day, Tana wakes up from an all night party to discover she is the only partygoer left alive from a mass vampire attack. When she discovers Aidan, an exboyfriend infected with the Cold, and Gavriel, a mysterious but insane vampire, chained up in a bedroom, her split decision to try to rescue them both by driving to the nearest Coldtown (in Springfield, MA) changes all of their lives. You'll find no romanticized notion of vampires, no helpless heroine, and no love triangles here.  Instead, you'll get a moral-but-complicated-heroine who often doesn't know what the right thing to do is, plus a vampire who is unhinged, secretive, and seductive. It's hard to predict whether the denouement will bring revenge, romance, or revolution. In other words, this book is thoroughly fun and refreshing.
Holly, answering questions from the audience
We had a packed audience for Holly's reading, followed by a vigorous Q&A, where I was both disappointed and relieved to learn that Holly wrote Coldtown as a one-off.  I've been saying for the last three years that what I'd really like were fewer series and more substantive single novels being published with complicated and interesting heroines, hold the love triangles, please.  Holly delivered *precisely* that, but next time I'll include the caveat "unless I really like the heroine, in which case please write more."

Anna obligingly demonstrates the proper placement for candy fangs
Holly also brought candy fangs for the entire audience and passed them around in a basket. My bookstore gave away fang glitter tattoos to everybody who came, and the publisher provided us with Coldtown glowsticks to give away to the first 50 people who bought the book.  So all in all, it was a pretty kick-ass night.

In parting, here's a photo of me before the event--you cannot really tell, but there are actually three shades of blue happening in my hair.  And my eyebrows are slightly tinted, too.  That's bookseller dedication, peoples.  It took three showers to wash all of the residual blue out of my hair and nearly an entire bottle of conditioner to get my regular hair texture back to normal, but it's so worth it. And for any of you publishers out there who would like to subsidize a professional color coordination of my hair for your next big event, you know where to find me!

09 September 2013

Last Month in Review: August 2013

Some of August, plus one July title
I usually write these posts in a more timely fashion, except when I skip them altogether. (My apologies, July.) Better late than pregnant, though, I reckon.  August was a very satisfying reading month for me. July had been disappointing, so it's just as well I didn't encapsulate it (except for Longbourn, which was excellent and everybody should read it), but I had several terrific back-to-back reads for August, plus a couple of duds. Twelve books in all, including two works of non-fiction, two audio books, one re-read, three YA, and one truly outstanding behemoth of a novel.

In chronological order, they were:

1. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.  This is narrative nonfiction of the highest order, dealing with Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans, and the misappropriation of both common sense and decency in one of the cities' hospitals. So good. So frustrating. Were medical staff euthanizing patients during those dark hours of madness? If they were, was it justifiable or criminal? I predict that this book will be making the awards circuits when the time comes.

2. These Three Remain by Pamela Aidan.  I had some respiratory issues last month and for those nights when I had to rest (i.e. not sleep) propped up in bed, this was a comfort re-read.  It's the best Jane Austen fanfiction I've ever read.

3. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  Whoa. I listened to this audio book that is Didion's record of the year she lost her husband and almost lost her daughter, twice.  I can't imagine. Really well written, honest and moving and surprising in equal measure. I'd never read Didion before, but I certainly will in the future.

4. After Her by Joyce Maynard.  This was a decent novel that also made my evenings of respiratory distress easier. Coming of age, a serial killer, misperceptions of youth.  A quick read.

5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  This was outstanding. Sure, it flagged every now and again, but if I had to decide which parts of its 700-page bulk to trim, I would flail with the impossibility of it. I hope to write a review of this one. This is a novel about dealing with tragedy, exploring the effects of what one truly great work of art can have one's life, and learning how to stop blaming one's parents (or upbringing) on one's adult actions. Plus a slew of other things.

6. Uninvited by Sophie Jordan.  This YA novel was so bad that I had to write a review of it. I have since learned that it is supposed to be the first book in a series.  Ugh.  The clap-trap the publishing world pushes off on us is terrible sometimes. DO NOT READ THIS BOOK IT IS AWFUL ENOUGH TO MAKE ME WANT TO USE A RUN-ON SENTENCE.

7. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  Read this one as a favor to a friend at Algonquin. It's a fun and lighthearted and improbable romp through the life of a widowed independent bookstore owner on an island suspiciously like Nantucket.

8. Someone Else's Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson. Totally fun read.  Darker moments (armed robbery, car bomb, rape) but overall pretty light and a little fluffy with large doses of Southern charm and humor. Review here.

9. Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor.  Another YA novel, but this one was excellent.  Think Ivy & Bean meets Love Story. Review here.

10. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey.  This audio book was absolutely riveting and I hope to review it soon.  It also earned me a second work of non-fiction on my reading list this month, so YAY.

11. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Many of my blogger friends (Reading the Bricks, What Red Read, Comma Enthusiast, The Terrible Desire, Sarah Says Read) read this book recently, but for whatever reason, this book wasn't on my radar from them (sorry, y'all!). No, it was my customers who were buying this book who did it.  I'm good at my job, so when customers start buying a book in quantities that I am not expecting, it takes me by surprise.  Turns out the author used to live in my area.  AND she's coming back from England to visit my bookstore next month and by a totally happy coincidence, I'd read her book THE DAY BEFORE SHE EMAILED ME. Review here.

12. I should have quit while I was ahead, but I also read Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens. I thought this was pretty terrible. DO NOT READ THIS BOOK IT IS ALSO AWFUL ENOUGH TO MAKE ME WANT TO WRITE A RUN-ON SENTENCE.

06 September 2013

A to Z Bookish Survey

Part of my library shelves
My goodness, but this last week and a half has been exhausting.  Working long shifts, almost entirely on my feet, for textbook rush.  This might seem a bit like TMI, but there was actually one day where the only times I sat down were when I was in the bathroom.

Thus in between my aggressively scheduled naps today I plan to catch up on some blogging, and a fun & easy way to start seemed to be to participate in the A to Z Bookish Survey that I saw Red, Kayleigh, and Sarah do. Here we go:

Author You've Read the Most Books From: Bill Bryson.  He may, in fact, be the only prolific author whose entire published oeuvre I've read. Including his forthcoming book next month, this means sixteen books, and I'm including his two dictionary/reference books because I've read every word of those, too.

Best Sequel Ever: This one is pretty difficult.  I've read a lot of series. But for this I'll choose Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is my favorite individual book in my favorite series.

Currently Reading: A few things, actually. I'm just a few pages into The Lion Seeker, a novel about  family of Lithuania Jews who move to South Africa before WWII.  It's about to burst forth with trials, tribulations, race, apartheid, and anti-Semitism, I can just feel it. I'm also about 100 pages into The Tilted World by Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, and I surprised myself by re-reading last night The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion in an effort to prepare for his author appearance at my store next month.

Drink of Choice While Reading: I'm actually not super-particular.  Hot herbal tea with lots of lime and agave is a favorite during the cooler months, water or iced tea during the warmer months.

E-reader or Physical Book:  I still prefer the physical book but I'm slowly adjusting to reading on my Kobo.

Fictional Character That You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School: If Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables books had been around then, definitely him. I liked nice guys back in high school.  Still do, I reckon. I also liked misunderstood underdogs, so I reckon I'd have wanted to date Harry Potter, too. However, if I had been at all open to the possibility of dating a girl, then Luna Lovegood would have ticked ALL of my boxes. (I grew up in a pretty small and homophobic town; even if I'd been a lesbian I would never have acted on it.)

Glad You Gave This Book a Chance: I'll go with A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Not only was it the first audio book I ever listened to, but it introduced me to one of my favorite writers at a time when I was reading fiction almost exclusively.

Hidden Book Gem: This makes no sense to me. Does this mean undiscovered? If so, I choose Yoko Ogawa's quiet and wonderful book called The Housekeeper and the Professor. I don't think I've ever seen it reviewed by any other book blogger.

Important Moment in Your Reading Life: Hmmm...I suppose it was the first time I ever got lost in a book, but I have no idea of what that book was.  I'll also say that when I discovered fanfiction it was a pretty important moment.

Just Finished: Teen Spirit by Francesca Lia Block. Ugh, please don't bother with it.

Kind of Books You Won't Read: Horror.  I don't like getting scared. I also can't imagine reading a nonfiction book about sports, but I wouldn't refuse to read one.

Longest Book You've Read: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (in translation). Or maybe Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  Not sure which one is longer.

Major Book Hangover: Every Harry Potter book. Also The Fellowship of the Ring. Just. Couldn't. Talk. To. People. After. Reading.

Number of Bookcases: Too lazy to get up to count them.  My computer work station is in my library, and from where I sit I can count eleven. (See photo above for reference)

One Book You've Read Multiple Times: I'll count the Harry Potter series as one book, then.

Preferred Place to Read: Well, on a beach in the Caribbean for druthers.  But short of that, propped up in my bed next to my cats.

Quote That Inspires You: Too many. "Not all who wander are lost" is a good one but over used. The opening lines of The Great Gatsby are certainly words to live by.

Reading Regret: Sticking with books that weren't good enough to finish.  I've wasted a lot of time in my life doing that.  I'm better now at putting books down if they're not the right fit at the right time for me.

Series You Started and Need To Finish: There are not any completed series out there that I feel compelled to finish that I've not finished already.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books: The Harry Potter series, Pride and Prejudice and The Lord of the Rings

Unapologetic Fangirl For: Harry Potter--the canon and the fan fiction.

Very Excited for This Release More Than All the Others: Um, I have no idea. I just learned that Dinaw Mengestu has a new book out in winter 2014.  That's pretty cool. But I've already read most of the books forthcoming this fall that I was excited about because I have the best job in the world that gives me early books to read: Bill Bryson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Donna Tartt, Gayle Forman, Rainbow Rowell, etc. Oh, wait. I should maybe say my husband's book.  His memoir will be published by Algonquin, but probably not until 2015.

Worst Bookish Habit: Not reviewing the books I read immediately after finishing them.  When I don't do that, I usually end up not reviewing them at all.

X Marks the Spot--Start at the Top Left of Your Shelf and pick the 27th book: The Lovers Dictionary by David Levithan.

Your Latest Book Purchase: I have no idea.  But my latest book-related purchase was yesterday, where I bought a Great Gatsby cover for my Kobo.

ZZZZ-snatcher Book (Last Book That Kept You Up Way Late): Hmmm...it's been a long time, but I think maybe Eleanor and Park was the last book that I stayed up to finish because I couldn't put it down.

How about you?  Which of these would be the most difficult for you to answer? Have you done this A-Z survey already?  If so, link to it in your comments!