November 30, 2015

Recent Reads

138. By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review
Edit: A friend asked me why not a higher rating. My response: I found myself skimming through many of the interviews as I was not particularly interested in the question asked and answered, and I thought some of the questions themselves rather silly. I did really love the interviews with some of my fave authors, but like all anthologies, there were many interviews that did not hit the mark for me.
The New York Times Book Review has a weekly By the Book feature in which writers are asked about the books and authors they love. This book collects sixty five of these interviews.

I've dipped into this book over the course of a couple of weeks and enjoyed it. It's like meeting up with a reader friend over drinks and talking about books, so if that's your thing too, you'll enjoy this one as well. An unexpected pleasure was the the wonderful author sketches by Jillian Tamaki.

I've found loads of book recommendations to add to my TBR list, and I wish the author had added an appendix with a summary of authors and their recommended books; you know that only book lovers are going to pick this up, and you know this is going to fatten up our TBRs, so why not make it easier on us? Rating: 3 stars.

139. An Absent Mind
Book blurb: The ticking time bomb is Saul Reimer's sanity. His Alzheimer's is going to be the catalyst that will either bring his family together or tear it apart. Although An Absent Mind depicts Saul's arduous struggle with Alzheimer's, it is equally a story about his relationship with his loved ones and their shared journey.

This novella is less than 200 pages, and is a really quick read, but knowing the subject matter, you know that there is no happily-ever-after at the end. I'm conflicted about how to rate this one, so will try to work it out in this review.

Reading this story was almost like reading a play with stage scenery and actors. The story is told from multiple points of view: Saul, his family, and a doctor. I quite liked that we get Saul's point of view as the disease progresses, and the fact that we also hear about key events from his wife and kids, means that the reader gets a more complete sense of the scene. 

The story cycles through the various narrators at a pretty fast clip, and each section is really short, sometimes only a paragraph or a single sentence in length. The writing is very straightforward with no flourishes of any kind, and my largest complaint is that the various voices sound exactly the same. If the sections had not been labeled I would have been hard pressed to tell them apart.

The author's father also had Alzheimer's, and I'm not sure how much of this novel is based on his personal experience, but it is clear that he wanted to help others understand more about the destruction left in the wake of this disease. I think he did a good job with that, but I felt at somewhat of an emotional remove as the story unfolded, and I think a large part of that was due to the writing itself.

If you have never read a book on this disease, this would be a good introduction, and if you have not yet read it, I would highly recommend Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Rating: 3 stars.

140. The Complete Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (Hothead Paisan #1-2)
The Complete Collection combines Hothead Paisan and Revenge of Hothead Paisan with new strips in a single volume for the first time.

Holy smokes, but how have I not read this before?

Are you old enough to remember zines? Ah, the good old days of subversive zines. That I missed reading this when I was younger is a pity. If you are looking for fine art and colored illustrations look elsewhere. If you are a person who still thinks that girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice, what rock have you been living under?

This feminist, queer positive graphic novel, is comprised of black and white comic strips, with sketchy art, and a no-holds-barred-take-no-prisoners attitude, and is as fab and relevant today as when it was first published. As for Chicken, who does not love a cat who does yoga?

I have thoroughly enjoyed my travels to this fantasy world where sexists and homophones get what's coming to them. Why was this not made into a movie again? Rating: 5 stars.

141. Saga, Volume 5
Volume 5 collects issues #25-30. 

The excitement I feel when a new volume of Saga drops into my hands is one the fans of this series totally understand. All other books cease to exist, and I'm lost in this world for a while. 

In this installment, multiple stories collide, alliances are forged and broken, and the action is fast and furious. Loved many of the observations about parenting in this one. I'm already anticipating that day in the future when I'll sit down with the entire completed series and wallow in re-reading this story straight through. 

Now when is the next one due out again?  Rating: 4 stars.

November 23, 2015

Recent Reads

134. Lost at Sea
I believe I read someplace that this is the author's first foray into graphic novels, and it shows. His more recent stuff is better. 

Teenage angst on a road trip. The thing is that for many people being a teenager is a very angst ridden time of their lives, but this story does not do a good job of exploring what is going on with our protagonist. There are some interesting threads, but nothing really comes of any of them. It felt murky and unfinished, and I'm not a fan of the manga style illustrations for this story. 

This book is targeted for a teen audience, and maybe they'll get more out of it that I did. Not my cup of tea. Rating: 2 stars.

135. Chocky
Book blurb: Matthew's parents are worried. At eleven, he's much too old to have an imaginary friend, yet they find him talking to and arguing with a presence that even he admits is not physically there. This presence - Chocky - causes Matthew to ask difficult questions and say startling things.

I'll stop the blurb there, as I really think the less you know about this story and the genre it's in, the better your reading experience will be.

John Wyndham is a British author whose work I've been meaning to read for ages, as his works are considered classics. This one was first published in 1968, and holds up really well today. 

I listened to the audiobook, which is wonderfully narrated by Daniel Weyman. This delightful and charming novella takes a little over four hours to listen to, and I'd recommend it for both teen and adult readers. Rating: 4 stars.

136. Sandcastle
This is an interesting graphic novel to read as the weather turns crisper in these northern climes. You know that feeling when you're walking outside in the fall and your breath catches as you glimpse something out the corner of your eye, and then realize it is only falling leaves? 

This story is like that, only there is no relief to be had. It is hard to talk about this book without giving away the fun of discovering what it is about, so all I'll say is that it'll make you think about beach days very differently after you read this one. The black and white sketchy art wonderfully evokes the right mood for the story.

If you decide to read this, do not read the book blurbs, just pick it up and read it. Rating: 4 stars.

137. Disgraced: A Play
Book blurb: Everyone has been told that politics and religion are two subjects that should be off-limits at social gatherings. But watching these characters rip into these forbidden topics, there's no arguing that they make for ear-tickling good theater.

I've always loved plays, and have fond memories of both watching regular productions as a kid, and also acting in several, and to this day The Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof hold a special place in my heart.

There is something magical created by the words, the actors, the setting, and the audience when one watches a play. I don't however, as a general rule, read plays. There is so much lost when all you have are the words on a page, and I quite appreciated that in the forward the author talks about what is gained and lost when you see a production, as opposed to read the words.

This won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, and is really good. The characters and dialog draw out some of the experiences of being a Muslim in a post 9/11 America, and it is a frank exploration on race, religion, being an immigrant and a person of color, art, and relationships.

Life and love are complicated things, and this play sheds some light on the things we look at, but often do not see. I look forward to seeing the play in Boston next year. Rating: 4 stars.

November 19, 2015

Cinemascope: Madam Secretary (Season 1)

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Released in 2014.

Plot line: 
In the first season of the gripping political thriller Madam Secretary, Dr. Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) navigates the maze of politics to protect America and affect global issues. When the current Secretary of State is killed in a mysterious airplane accident, the White House turns to Elizabeth to take over the job. As a former CIA analyst, she understands the risks of the world. However, she's far less prepared for the treachery of politics.

This show has politics, drama, conspiracy, and smart women - all key ingredients to shows that I find binge watch worthy. And that is just what I have done with this season. My reading life suffered greatly once I stumbled upon it.

You can see the series trailer here. If you have yet to see it, this is a TV series worth watching.

November 16, 2015

Recent Reads

130. The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances
I gather that the Oatmeal has a Web presence, but he is not someone I knew anything about before picking up this book.

This graphic novel elaborates on the title of the book, and is a fun quick read. If you are looking for a serious running book look elsewhere, but if you think running might be for you, this book has some motivational tips with a fun digression on Japanese giant hornets. Rating: 3 stars.

131. El Deafo
The author lost her hearing when she was young, and this graphic novel memoir is about how she dealt with that loss, and how she negotiated starting a new school with a huge hearing aid strapped to her chest.

This book is targeted at the 8-12 year old reader, and gently explores themes of friendship, being different, and learning to appreciate who you are. The art is cute and colorful, and I liked the stylistic use of large bunny ears to underscore the importance of hearing, or lack there, of to this story.

This is a fun and quick read of this period of the author's younger years, and would be good book for the young readers in your life. Rating: 3 stars.

132. Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops
This book could best be described as "a miscellany of hilarious and peculiar bookshop moments."

You know how when you are sitting in a cafe sipping your drink and pretending to read a magazine, but what you're really doing is eavesdropping on conversations around you? Oh, you don't do that? Sure. Right. Whatever. Anyways, this book is like that. A collections of snippets of conversations in a book shop, between a customer and a book seller, or between customers. 

Some snippets made me laugh out loud, some made me smile, some had me shaking my head, and a couple I'm not sure I really understood. This book will take you about forty minutes to read, and I'd suggest it as ideal reading material for your next dental appointment or while waiting for a flu shot. Rating: 3 stars.

133. The Dragonet Prophecy (Wings of Fire #1)
"It is seriously so good! You have to read it before you die!" So declared my 10 year old nephew, Jonah. How can one resist such a recommendation? 

This is the first book (of eight) in the Wings of Fire series, and it's a story about dragons. There is a dragon war, lots of bad things happening, but there are these five young dragonets who are destined to save the day. Or are they?

This book starts with a map of the land, which is of course shaped like a dragon. Then there is a list of the types of dragons, their habitats and such, complete with drawings. And it all starts out with a prophecy. What's not to like?

There is nothing special about the writing, though the plot is quite fast paced with lots of intrigue and murder, and I can see why my nephew loves this series. The story explores themes of family, loyalty, friendship, courage, and teamwork, and is a rollicking fun ride.

I enjoyed this well enough, and look forward to discussing it with Jonah, but do not plan on continuing with the series. Though, don't take my word for it - many adults seems to love this series as much as my nephew. Rating: 3 stars.

November 12, 2015

Cinemascope: Jane The Virgin (Season 1)

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Released in 2014.

Plot line: 
The daughter of a teen mother, Jane Villanueva grew up determined not to repeat her mom's mistakes. At 23 her life is on track; Jane is studying to be a teacher and engaged to a handsome detective who supports her decision to remain a virgin until marriage. Then a routine clinic visit flips her life upside down. Inseminated by a specimen meant for a patient in the next room, now-pregnant Jane is in a situation made only more-insane when she learns that the sperm donor is her boss, Rafael. As her meticulously planned life gets more like the telenovelas she loves, she faces a lot of complicated decisions about where to go from here.

The words "satirical romantic comedy-drama television series" usually makes me pass on a show. What we find funny can really vary from person to person, so I watched the first couple of episodes without any expectations that I would like this show, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I do. Yes it is over the top in some ways, in a telenovela way to be exact, but it is fun, and surprisingly good. I especially love all the women in this show, and the Villanueva women in particular have won my heart.

You can see the series trailer here. If you have yet to see it, this is a TV series worth watching.

November 11, 2015

Jenni Chang and Lisa Dazols: This is what LGBT life is like around the world (Video)

As a gay couple in San Francisco, Jenni Chang and Lisa Dazols had a relatively easy time living the way they wanted. But outside the bubble of the Bay Area, what was life like for people still lacking basic rights? They set off on a world tour in search of "Supergays," LGBT people who were doing something extraordinary in the world. In 15 countries across Africa, Asia and South America — from India, recently home to the world's first openly gay prince, to Argentina, the first country in Latin America to grant marriage equality — they found the inspiring stories and the courageous, resilient and proud Supergays they had been looking for.

If the embedded video does not work, click here.

November 9, 2015

Recent Reads

127. Here
Book blurb: Built in six pages of interlocking panels, dated by year, it collapsed time and space to tell the story of the corner of a room - and its inhabitants - between the years 500,957,406,073 BC and 2033 AD.

I love books that experiment with a different way to tell a story. If you have yet to read Building Stories by Chris Ware, stop reading this review and start there. So very cool. This one is nothing like Ware's book, but is equally brilliant in weaving a story.

What's this graphic novel about? Well, it is the story of a corner of a room. And if you think that sounds boring, think again. Here's what I mean. Look up right now and gaze at a corner of the room you are in. If you are outdoors, shut your eyes and imagine a corner of your bedroom. Are you there? OK. Now imagine that you have the ability to wind time back and forth - like a time machine - only you do not move from your current position. You can move time back and forth a few years, decades, or even millennia, but you remain in the exact same location on the planet. What do you think you'd see in that corner over that time scale? Right??!!

I have never read a book like this, and it does something that only graphic novels can do so well. Check it out and let me know what you think. Rating: 4 stars.

128. Fifteen Dogs
Book blurb:
— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
— I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

This story starts with two gods walking into a Toronto bar. How could I resist?

What makes a human human? This question has niggled homo sapiens since we first had that thought. This novel explores whether other animals (dogs in this case) would handle themselves better if granted human consciousness and language. 

This story is both humorous and dark, thoughtful and meditative, and explores deeply philosophical questions. I read it in two sittings, and if you are a fan of Animal Farm, I'd highly recommend this one, though this one has less politics and more poetry. A warning to dog lovers out there - remember what these fifteen dogs have been granted, and gird yourself for what you know is coming. 

An interesting coincidence is that I started reading this book while listening to The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, and it works wonderfully as a companion piece. Rating: 4 stars.

129. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Book blurb: In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thailand–Burma Death Railway in 1943, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle's young wife two years earlier. His life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from pitiless beatings—until he receives a letter that will change him forever.

It is not a surprise to me that this book won the Man Booker prize in 2014. Finest fiction indeed. 

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer." 

I cannot think of the last book that made me examine my own soul as much as this one. It is not an easy read by any measure, but so, so worth it.

A couple of things to keep in mind if you decide to read it:

1. The first 20 to 30 pages setup the entire book, and in my opinion the author gives us hints as to how to read the story.

2. Most stories have a beginning and an end, and the story tends to move in a linear manner from one to the other. There is nothing linear about this story. It is like a nautilus - the story folds in on itself again and again.

3. There are several points and counterpoints in this story; lots of duality, and one of the keys to fully immersing yourself in this story is to find those points. For example: Doorigo and Nakamura, Keith and Ella, etc.

4. We often talk about the notion of walking in someone else's shoes, but can we really? The author is incredibly skillful in his ability to create multiple first person narratives, and we do get the chance to walk in those proverbial shoes. 

5. War is hell, we all know this yes? And yet, we are asked to spend time in this partuclar hell. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This book explores so many themes: love and loss, fidelity and betrayal, honor and duty, morality and war, family and belonging. The thing about most war stories, is that they are written from a particular point of view; we often get only one version of the story. This one switches sides frequently, and I have never read a book that examines something from such various points of view without an axe to grind. 

A note on the audiobook production. This book is wonderfully narrated by David Atlas. The thing about the audio is that I could not skim, or close my eyes during the hard parts. I heard every single word, and that made me feel like I was embedded in the scene.

Yes, the writing is lyrical and beautiful, but the most important thing to me is that I am not the same person I was before I read this book.  Rating: 5 stars.

November 7, 2015

THE LAB: DECOY - A portrait session with a twist (Video)

Interesting food for thought.

A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what's in front of it. To prove this we invited six photographers to a portrait session with a twist. ‘Decoy’ is one of six experiments from The Lab, designed to shift creative thinking behind the lens.

If the embedded video does not work, click here.

November 5, 2015

Cinemascope: Penny Dreadful (Season 1)

Cinemascope is a regular blog post where I will share with you movies and TV shows I think are worth watching.

Released in 2014.

Plot line: Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, American gunslinger Ethan Chandler and medium Vanessa Ives unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London.

I like to watch something creepy around Halloween, and this fit the bill perfectly. Showtime has created a fun show including some of literature's most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. Penny Dreadful is a frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama.

You can see the series trailer here. If you have yet to see it, this is a TV series worth watching.

November 2, 2015

Recent Reads

123. The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave #1)
How could I not pick up a book touted as a cross between The Passage and Ender's Game? And it starts with this quote by Stephen Hawking: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans.” Talk about right in my wheel house!

I picked it up to read over Labor Day weekend, and was done in a couple of sittings. The thing to note is that this is a book targeted at a Young Adult audience, so the pacing is fast, the action kinda non-stop, and it is really light on dialogue and character development. I quite liked the premise and the slow reveal of what constitutes the 5th Wave, but there is just not enough meat on the bones for my taste - not enough of the Sci in Sci-fi, the characters are not well fleshed out, and talk about unbelievable coincidences! But, based on Goodreads reviews, I am clearly in the minority on this one.

While I did not love it, it was a quick, if mindless, read - and that can be exactly the right book at the right time. As for me, I'd be curious to see what my nieces and nephews think of it, but I'll be passing on the rest of this trilogy. Rating: 2 stars.

124. Manifest Destiny, Vol. 2: Amphibia & Insecta
Book blurb: Lewis, Clark and the surviving members of their expedition continue westward across America, only to learn there is nowhere to run on a river. Collects Manifest Destiny Issues #7-12.

This continues to be a fun graphic novel series about the alternative history of the Lewis and Clark expedition. There are more monstrous creatures, and dangers abound both on land and on water. We know that they'll make it through, but finding out how is half the fun. The art continues to be wonderful, and the writing is better than the first volume, so that makes me happy. I want to get my hands on the alternate journal that was kept during this expedition. Wonder if it can be found in Monticello ... there are some artifacts from the trip I saw there on a visit a couple of years ago. Need to make friends with a docent I guess. Rating: 3 stars.

125. Air, Volume 2: Flying Machine
Book blurb: In this second volume, Blythe's mysterious rescuer reveals the truth behind one of the most shocking disappearances in aviation history - a secret tied to the origin of hyperprax flight. As the race to find the device begins, Blythe must master her skills as a hyperpract. 

I've always wondered what happened to Amelia Earhart. Now I know. This four book graphic novel series is a fun romp into different dimensions, time frames, and even bodies; the part when our heroine ends up in the young body of the man she loves - creepy and cool at the same time. I've got the next book queued up. Rating: 3 stars.

126. Vincent
Video review:
Rating: 3 stars.