Monday, September 30, 2013

The Silver Star

The Silver Star is the new novel from Jeannette Walls, the acclaimed author of the memoir The Glass Castle.

It’s 1970, and 12-year old Jean “Bean” Holliday and her 15-year old sister Liz are on their own since their mom, Charlotte, an aspiring singer, songwriter and actress with grand dreams of making it big has once again left them alone to pursue her career, this time traveling to Los Angeles for an audition as a backup singer. Bean and Liz are used to her frequent one to two night absences, but this time Charlotte’s been gone for four days and since the phone company turned off service, she has no way of getting through to the girls. Nonetheless, the girls are making do with a daily diet of Bean’s favorite meal, chicken pot pies, when they receive a letter from Charlotte with $200 to keep them in pies until her return.

When Mr. Spinelli, the local grocer, starts asking questions, the girls start to panic sure that the “bandersnatches” (Liz’s word from her favorite book) or “the do-gooding government busybodies who snooped around making sure that kids had the sort of families that busybodies thought they should have” would come split them and up and ship them off to parts unknown; and when Bean spots a police officer snooping through their front window, they quickly take action and decide to follow Liz’s plan. Despite the distance and scarcity of funds, the girls decide to travel to Mayfield, Charlotte’s family home located in Byler, VA and visit their Uncle Tinsley and Aunt Martha. With grand dreams of their own for family and a stable home, since Charlotte has found something wrong with every place they’d ever lived, they packed their clothes and Fido, Bean’s pet turtle, and embark on a cross-country journey that unbeknownst to them will bring them fun, excitement and self-discovery.

This was a lovely and charming book. As the narrator, Bean is funny, precocious and full of sass; while Liz, wise beyond her years, is the pseudo-parent for their little family, keeping Bean not only physically, but emotionally safe from their mom’s lack of care. In every sense, Liz is Bean’s constant and safe harbor in the storm; from saving her life as an infant, to sharing her bed with Bean so she wouldn’t cry, to protecting Bean from the sad realization that Charlotte is a fibber, like her grandiose tales of foxhunting with Jackie Kennedy when she was a child. Charlotte is a woman with illusions of grandeur carried from the days when her daddy owned the town’s cotton mill; who is too busy dwelling on the exploits of her past, like being homecoming queen, and grand dreams of fame in her future to do something as mundane as being a parent to her two wonderful girls.

I loved Bean and Liz’s courage in the face of so much diversity and the fact that they never let themselves become victims to their circumstances or the adults around them; instead they are emboldened by the knowledge that together they can do and face anything. I was so glad that despite his own fears and struggles, Uncle Tinsley stepped up and became someone the girls could love and trust; in truth, not only Uncle Tinsley but the whole Wyatt clan (Aunt Al, Ruth, and Joe) epitomized the best in what it means to be a family. Ultimately, Bean and Liz find what they most needed, family, that safety net which catches us all during times of trial.

The Silver Star is a wonderful book guaranteed to deliver more than a few laughs, as well as a new appreciation for family and the redemptive power of love.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Friday, September 27, 2013


Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA) has promoted Banned Books Week. Banned or challenged books are books that have either been removed or restricted in institutions on the basis of their content.

Did you know that Harry Potter is #1 on the list of banned/challenged books from 2000-2009? Or that 5,099 challenges were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom from 2000-2009, and include such classics as The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men, among others? In fact, in 2012, the number one challenged booked was Captain Underpants.

Below are some of the terms used to describe some of these banned books; click on each link to discover its true identity, you just may be surprised.

“No redeeming qualities”
"Vulgar and x-rated"
“A filthy, trashy novel”
“A filthy, filthy book”
“Makes promiscuous sex look like fun”

Celebrate your freedom to read and enjoy one of these “trashy” books.

Unholy Night

In Seth Grahame-Smith’s Unholy Night, the New York Times best-selling author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, brings us a twisted retelling of the classic story of the three wise men as only he can tell it.

The thieving Balthazar, a Syrian by birth who is known as the infamous Antioch Ghost, is fleeing Tel Arad on camel, burdened with the spoils of his latest daring heist from Decimus’, the new Rome-dispatched governor, walled compound. Captured and brought before Herod to be executed, the “scourge of Rome” instead pulls off the unlikeliest of escapes (straight out of Mission Impossible) with two other thieves imprisoned in the same cell in Herod’s palace; Melchyor, a Greek and self-described finest swordsman in the empire, and Gaspar, an African who claims his only talent as “being smart enough to partner with the best swordsman in the empire.” After the three thieves sneak away right under the guards noses, Herod rages at Balthazar’s humiliation of him, but that is quickly forgotten for as he looks to the Eastern sky there is a star brighter than any he has ever seen, and now he knows that the muttered prophecies of a Messiah born of a virgin in the Town of Bethlehem, who will topple all the kingdoms of the world including Herod’s has come to pass.

As the three “wise men” arrive in Bethlehem and decide to hide from Herod’s troops in the stable, they come across a young family. As the men startle the young new mother, her husband, Joseph, comes to her protection, only to end up with a black eye from Balthazar and threats of more dire consequences if he doesn’t put down the pitchfork he's holding. Joseph quickly explains his fears that they were Herod’s men, and openly confesses to the reasons for their own planned escape, as well as all the events which lead up to their current situation including Gabriel visiting Mary, Mary becoming pregnant, and his own vision in which Gabriel warned of Herod slaying all newborn males in Bethlehem. The three criminals listen and instead of offering assistance, insult Mary’s honor, hold the young family hostage, and mock Joseph and Mary’s beliefs as a joke.

It is as Balthazar and his companions are leaving Bethlehem, almost home free from Herod’s grasp, that they hear the first screams. A woman’s scream and then another. Dare they believe the carpenter’s crazy ramblings? Would Herod be insane enough to murder innocent infants? It is at that moment that Balthazar’s life is changed, for faced with escape, he decides to go back and help, and the horror he witnesses urges him to fight, to kill them all. The fates are decided by his stroke of conscience, and hence starts a long arduous journey towards safety for the three wise men who become the reluctant guides and protectors of Joseph, Mary and child.

This was a truly fun read. The book was quirky, funny, outrageous and brilliant. Now if the mere thought of altering a Bible story is sacrilegious to you, then please don’t even open this book, because there is plenty to be outraged by. If on the other hand, you can take it for what it is, a very original work of fiction, then go for it because the book truly has something for everyone one; action, humor, and even a little romance.

As I said, the action is plentiful, including some great battle scenes with plenty of swordplay, worthy of a Bond-movie. By far the best aspect of the book though is the character development of Balthazar. The author wonderfully fleshes out Balthazar’s character, and gives him enough muscle, sinew and heart through his wit, humor and backstory to humanize him and avoid painting him as black or white, or an all good or all evil caricature. The backstory involving his baby brother is especially effective in helping build Balthazar’s slow progression from criminal into a sympathetic character. In fact, over the span of the book the reader can slowly see his moral awakening leading to his ultimate role of hero by the end of the book.

Grahame-Smith once again manages to bend history seamlessly to his will in order to fashion an epic tale; every page of which is enthralling and exciting.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Returned

Jason Mott’s debut novel The Returned poses a serious moral dilemma, what would you do if your dead loved one came back? Embrace them with open arms, no questions asked? In The Returned, Lucille and Harold Hargrave from Arcadia, North Carolina face such a dilemma. Lucille and Harold are a married couple in their 70s whose life is torn asunder when their eight-year old son Jacob, whom they’d lost back in 1966 when he drowned during his birthday party is returned to them, still the same beautiful and precocious boy of eight. Jacob is not alone, he is one of many. The news is inundated with daily accounts of new Returned, the moniker given to the dead showing up alive in all corners of the globe. They appear at random; the same age as when they passed, but not necessarily where they died, left to search for the loved ones and lives they’d left behind.

When Jacob is returned to Lucille and Harold by bureau agent Martin Bellamy, he gives them an out. It is up to them whether they want to keep Jacob or not. While life had moved on for Lucille and Harold, they had never stopped grieving the loss of their son, so Lucille welcomes the opportunity to, despite her creaking bones and aches of a woman in her 70s, greedily grab with both hands the role of mother which she had treasured and had to give up tragically too early a lifetime ago.

As more and more Returned are found though, panic and fear begins to grow among the population, for what are they to make of these beings? Are they a miracle from God, a poor imitation, a sign of the end of times or something even more sinister? In an effort to control the situation, the government begins collecting and housing the Returned and Arcadia becomes ground zero for the struggle between right and wrong, and the living and Returned.

While I enjoyed this book, I felt there was so much left unexplored and unexplained. Given the book’s premise, there were countless avenues which could’ve been taken to explain the other worldly events taking place. If you go the sci-fi route, it could’ve been aliens; if you go the religious route, it could’ve been a miracle from God. While none of those things are disputed, they are not posited as possible explanations either. Mott follows neither avenue of thought and never explains the what, where, and why of the Returned. We are merely expected to accept at face value that they are here.

Nonetheless, the characters are well defined with enough substance and heart to make you care. Lucille’s love for her child is palpable, as is Harold’s heartfelt and focused determination to believe and erase any doubts in his own mind that would prevent him from loving this child as his own. In addition to the main characters, there are also equally intriguing secondary characters and plotlines, such as the local preacher still pining for his first true love, or the young Returned family which had once been murdered in the once-thought of idyllic town of Arcadia.

Despite the vague plot points, the story is still a compelling read thanks to its focus on the familial storyline. It is the love between mother, father and child and the bonds that bind them together even after death which is the heart of this tale, and what make it a book worth reading.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Call me crazy, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and call this race over right now. Holly Henry will be the next Voice. Yup. The unassuming 19-year old was that good. I knew it as soon as she started singing, which is just about as how fast Blake buzzed in to get her on his team. After getting a four chair turn, the only question left for debate was which team she would choose. I had my fingers and toes crossed, chanting Blake, Blake, Blake in mind, and sure enough, wise beyond her years, Holly chose my favorite cowboy as her coach. Yay! Granted the auditions aren't even over, but I just loved, loved, loved her voice. You can view her audition here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

They're baaack!

Jim Carrey tweeted this picture of himself and Jeff Daniels on the set of Dumb and Dumber To (no, this is not a misspelling on my part) already in character as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. Can’t wait!

The Way Way Back

I’ve seen countless movies over the past year, most involving juvenile humor since they’ve been selected by my two teenage nephews. Nonetheless, I was able to sneak in this beaut by myself and I’m so glad I did.

The Way Way Back written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash features a stellar cast, including Sam Rockwell, Toni Colette, Steve Carell and Allison Janney. In this wonderfully sweet coming of age tale, Duncan (Liam James) is stuck spending his summer with his mom, Pam (Colette) and her obnoxious boyfriend, Trent (Carell) at his vacation home. As if dealing with Trent’s demeaning digs all summer wasn’t bad enough, throw in Trent’s snide daughter, Steph; the slightly crazy and boozy neighbor next door, Betty, as well as her son and beautiful daughter, Susanna. Redemption comes in the form of the Water Wizz and its resident manager, Owen (Rockwell), who takes pity on the poor young chap loitering at the park by his lonesome and offers him a job doing menial tasks around the water park. Over the span of the summer and with Owen’s help, Duncan manages to find friends, find himself and even helps his mother do a little soul searching of her own.

This was such a great film, sweet, funny and even poignant at times, to throw out a few adjectives, which is no big surprise since it comes from the brilliant minds of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who wrote (along with Alexander Payne) and won the Oscar for the screenplay to The Descendants. The film originally premiered in Sundance, and in addition to being its talented writers and directors (this was their directorial debut), the duo also exercised their acting chops in the film as Roddy and Lewis, employees at the Water Wizz.

The film isn’t groundbreaking material, it actually puts me in mind of another summer classic, Meatballs. Rockwell brilliantly fills the Bill Murray role as the immature man-child, who becomes a friend and pseudo-father figure to a lonely boy who just needs to be loved; replace Camp North Star with the Water Wizz; Morty with Lewis, and Roxanne with Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph) and you’ve got a winning formula.

Nonetheless, what made this film great was the acting. Liam James is a revelation as Duncan. His young face conveys such sadness and loneliness at times that you can’t help but root for him. Rockwell brings the same precise skill and talent to his role that he brings to all his films. Colette conveys an abundance of compassion and pathos in her performance as the struggling single mom, so lost and beat down by her past that she’s willing to comprise herself for fear of being alone. I loved the fact that I hated Steve Carell in this movie. For a while, he’s been a bit of a one-trick pony, always playing the sad sack unlucky in love and a little simple minded, but he stretched himself in this role and was willing to make himself unlikable. The real discovery for me though was Allison Janney. I never watched her in The West Wing, and honestly always felt all the praise people heaped on her was overrated but she was so thoroughly immersed in her role, so believable and so darn funny.

I loved The Way Way Back and the whole lot of loveable losers at the Water Wizz. Look for it on DVD (release date October 22, 2013), you’ll be glad you did.


I can't wait for Resurrection, a new mid-season show set to air on ABC. It was equal parts love and intrigue when I came across the trailer some time ago. Every aspect of the trailer was perfect, from the dreamy and ethereal music to the story's premise and the possible themes of spirituality.

Given it's originality I was curious about the possibility of the show being based on a book, and lo and behold, I was right, it's based on "The Returned" by Jason Mott. I did read the book and will post a review in the days to come, so I am very curious to see how true to the book they stay; though I've already noted a couple discrepancies in the trailer alone. I must say that while the book was an enjoyable read, I felt like there were themes and paths left unexplored, and I think the story could benefit from the dramatic license employed by most television networks, as well as the compelling portrayals sure to come from this talented cast of actors. Let me say that having read the book, the selection of Kurtwood Smith (aka Red Forman) as the father is some genius casting. Looking forward to what will undoubtedly become appointment television for me.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Orphan Train

In the poignant novel Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, Molly is a 16-year old foster kid who’s been hardened by years being shuffled from one home to the next. When Molly faces the possibility of being sent to juvie for stealing from the public library a battered copy of her favorite book, her boyfriend’s mom, Terry, helps out by getting her a community service hours alternative. Instead of juvie, Molly will spend 50 hours helping Terry’s boss, 91-year old Vivian Daly, clean her attic. What starts off as a simple but tedious job turns into a life changing experience for Molly, as each box opened comes filled with both treasured and painful memories of Vivian’s childhood and her experience on the orphan train which took the then 9-year old Irish immigrant from the New York tenements that were her home to Minnesota.

This was a heart-wrenchingly beautiful novel, which uses Vivian’s fictional story to highlight the very real time in our American history when orphan trains transported a reported two hundred thousand children from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1959. The goal was a better life in the country for these young orphans instead of the squalor of NYC tenements but in truth many of these children were merely used as a source of free labor by struggling farming families.

The novel alternates between Molly’s story in 2011 Spruce Harbor, Maine and Vivian’s life in New York and Minnesota from 1929 to 1943. While Molly’s narrative was interesting and compelling, it merely served as a vehicle for the beating heart of the novel which is Vivian. Each word of Vivian’s experiences grabs your heart and squeezes it like a vise, so you feel her utter pain, loneliness, and hopelessness. You want to cry for this child left at the mercy of fate and the unscrupulous adults that touch her life.

While Molly uses her nose ring, Goth clothes and make-up to serve as the protective shell which keeps others at bay and protects her from the next heartache and disappointment, Vivian instead turned inward, to a place deep inside which others couldn’t touch. A disillusioned 9-year old Vivian heartbreakingly states:

“I feel myself retreating to someplace deep inside. It is a pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in. I feel a decade older than my years. I know too much; I have seen people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish, and this knowledge makes me wary.”

There are a few glimmers of hope in the early years, but they fade quickly like a sweet dream in the morning light. Yet each loss, each painful memory is a testament to the strength of the human spirit for those moments of suffering helped to shape the incredible woman Vivian became.

You read a story like Orphan Train or Room by Emma Donoghue, so full of pain with brief moments of redemption, and it seems like so much fiction. You think no one can suffer that much and walk, talk, breathe, let alone overcome and live or thrive; but it isn’t fiction, its real life for many. Look at the Cleveland three, Elizabeth Smart, or Jaycee Dugard. The human spirit and the will to live and believe that tomorrow can be a better day is a vision to behold.

In closing, please read this book; it is an experience you won’t soon forget. You will be the better for it, for great books like Orphan Train, give you the chance to feel someone else’s pain and to grieve with them and for them, and hopefully come through the experience a little kinder, a little more understanding for having at least figuratively walked in someone else’s shoes.

Peace Starts with Me

This past Saturday, September 21st was World Peace Day. I missed the opportunity to write a post on the day of because I was visiting my knuckleheads, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to still share a few words on the occasion. Sure September 21st is as good a day as any to commemorate and celebrate world peace, but like most days intended to celebrate someone (Mother's Day) or something (Earth Day), the truth is that it's up to us to make World Peace Day every day of the year.

Each day is an opportunity to foster peace in our world. Most of us will probably never solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or bring an end to a civil war, but we can think globally, yet act locally. We don't have to engender peace on a global scale or on the world stage for it to have meaning or merit, it can be through small acts of love, kindness and activism in our relationships, our homes, our neighborhoods. Love first, peace follows. So love your neighbor, let go of old grudges, volunteer in your neighborhood and be a catalyst towards making your village, town, or city into a community; a unified group of individuals with common goals and interests. Plus, the fringe benefit of making a difference for others is finding inner peace of your own.

American author Robert Fulghum stated “Peace is not something you wish for; it’s something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.” So get to work, because peace starts with you.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Eleanor & Park

I think the last book I loved is a good place to start for a new book review, and that book is Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. Set in 1986, over the span of a school year, this young-adult novel focuses on two misfit teenagers that form an unlikely friendship that leads to love, which ultimately serves to help them navigate the rocky seas of high school and life. Park is half-Korean, into punk music and Watchmen comics, and trying to fly under the radar of teachers and ex-friends alike, and Eleanor, nicknamed Big Red by the heartless bullies on the school bus, is a big girl with red hair and thrift store men’s clothes, trying to fly under the radar of her abusive stepfather, Richie. Having spent a year away from her home and family after being chased away by Richie, she’s finally home with her mom and siblings and arduously working to stay out of Richie’s sights. New to the neighborhood, Eleanor meets Park on the first bus ride to school when he grudgingly comes to her rescue and lets her sit next to him. Although initially wary, the two slowly bond over comics, music and their outsider status. As their relationship and feelings grow, Park’s mom, a Korean immigrant who met his dad when he was in the service, slowly softens her attitude toward her son’s “weird” girlfriend and comes to empathize with Eleanor’s family struggles and in doing so, Park’s home becomes Eleanor's safe haven from her troubled home life. But when Eleanor’s situation at home becomes dangerous, Park must decide whether he's willing to help Eleanor, even if it means losing her.

I so enjoyed this novel. It’s funny, sweet and has so much heart, yet it gently and very effectively takes on some serious topics such as bullying and abuse. The chapters alternate between Eleanor and Park’s POV, so you always feel like you have your hand on the pulse of what each is feeling and where they are coming from. I love an underdog story, and both Eleanor and Park are underdogs in their own right, struggling with different issues – some more serious than others – but Rowell gives every fear, hardship and concern merit. While Eleanor is dealing with abuse and poverty, Park’s own struggles with his dad and freedom of expression are in no way diminished or swept away as insignificant.

I loved Eleanor’s hope and bravery. I could so empathize with her insecurities about her image and having to cope with school bullies, thinking back on my own high school years, though she was much braver than I ever was at that age. Each character is so well written that they become very real, as you live each moment of the story with them.

I’m a total sap when it comes to a good love story, whether the characters are 30 or 16, so for me Eleanor & Park is the perfect combo of captivating story, great characters, and raw emotion.


“Austenland” is a romantic comedy written (with Shannon Hale) and directed by Jerusha Hess, one of the brilliant writers behind such comedy classics as “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre”. The story focuses on 30-something Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), who is in love with all things Jane Austen. When her last romantic relationship turns sour, in large part due to her Mr. Darcy obsession, she sets out to make her dreams a reality and, much to the dismay of her best friend, decides to spend her savings on a trip to Austenland, an immersive vacation resort in merry old England where guests step directly into the pages of Ms. Austen’s novel, complete with a beautiful manor, breathtaking gardens, opulent sitting rooms, fox hunts, afternoon embroidery and gallant suitors loyally portrayed by a varied cast of actors. There she befriends Ms. Charming (brilliantly portrayed by Jennifer Coolidge), a wealthy bachelorette there to fulfill some sexual dreams of her own. Unfortunately, Jane’s savings could only buy her the copper package, so she has to make do with a room in the servant’s quarters and a positively hideous array of governess-type gowns which transform her into Ms. Erstwhile during her stay. Of course, Austenland wouldn’t be complete without its resident Mr. Darcy, or in this case Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), the gorgeous yet aloof romantic hero capable of capturing any girl’s heart. Even the best laid plans go awry when Jane makes an instant connection with Martin (Bret McKenzie), a young footman, and gets a little more than she bargained for during her romantic adventure.

Where do I start? I loved this movie! For me, it hit all the right notes. It was sweet, funny, and most importantly romantic; the kind of deep sigh, silly grin on your face for the rest of the day kind of romantic. Keri Russell was perfect in her role. She portrayed an almost childlike hopefulness which was engaging. Jennifer Coolidge was an absolute scene stealer. Her character’s bawdy, outrageous and, at most time, inappropriate comments kept me in stitches. Last, but not least, JJ Feild was perfect as Mr. Nobley; at times aloof, annoying, charming, and vulnerable. Oh, and lest I forget, dreamy to look at too.

Granted this is not Masterpiece Theater or like any of the other countless movies which have been made to reverently bring to life Ms. Austen’s works, but I don’t think this was meant to be any of those things, a fact most critics seem to ignore. It’s a silly romantic romp meant to inspire giggles, smiles and guffaws, and of course those dreamy sighs I mentioned, as you take in this sweet confection and let yourself dream of a happily ever after of your own, with your own Mr. Darcy.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lake Como and Other Things

Well, hello out there. I guess I got some 'splainin' to do, though I doubt my readers (all 3 of you) have been waiting with bated breath for my return. What can I say? The past year has been jam-packed with work, family, volunteering and the countless getaways with George to Lake Como; it’s been crazy. Honestly, I have no life-altering adventures or steamy (or even tepid) romances to write home about, and no great excuse for the blogging absence other than that posting had become a bit of a chore, so I decided to just take a break. But, as in most things, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I kinda miss the old grind. Oh, not the writing, because unlike probably most bloggers, it doesn’t necessarily come easy for me, but I miss the sharing. I miss being able to sit down and just…BLAH!…blurt out all my thoughts and feelings on a random subject or book or movie.

I knew it was time to come back when I recently found myself visiting my own blog, rifling through past posts, and taking a trip down memory lane as I read my own words on both some happy and even painful moments in my life. It hit me how my blog had for a time served as a sort of not very private journal where I could lay my nerdy soul bare and just not give a fig if someone thought less of me for it.

So, here I am, back again. I’ve read a ton of books lately, which I’m just dying to tell you guys about. I’ve seen countless movies, but only two of which that make me want to run down the hallway screaming “go see this, go see it now”. What else? Not sure, but I’ll come up with something. Back soon.