Monday, October 31, 2016

Lily and the Octopus

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. In Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, denial is the only thing getting Ted Flask through the fear and heartache of facing the possible loss of his best friend. This utterly charming and emotional tale introduces us to two souls made for each other, who embark on an unforgettable, at times hilarious at others heartbreaking, odyssey as they fight a dastardly octopus intent on breaking the bonds of their love.

From the publisher: “When you sit down with Lily and the Octopus, you will be taken on an unforgettable ride. The magic of this novel is in the read, and we don’t want to spoil it by giving away too many details. We can tell you that this is a story about that special someone: the one you trust, the one you can’t live without. For Ted Flask, that someone special is his aging companion Lily, who happens to be a dog.”

I loved, no let me get this right, I LOVED Lily and the Octopus, and if you’re a dog lover; no, I lie, if you have a beating heart and a sense of humor, you will too. Our tale offers two characters with bigger than life personalities that you can’t help but love, with the grandest wish of all, being cool enough to be a part of their circle of love. Yes, Ted and Lily have the kind of friendship that lets them chat about cute boys (I’m partial to Clooney myself), play monopoly on a quiet night in, and of course, be there for each other in the brightest days, but especially the darkest hours. The tale does have some fantastical elements to amp up its charm and magic, which might turnoff some readers; but if you go with the flow folks, you’ll be carried off to serene seas and a love story you won’t soon forget.

A word of warning to fellow pet owners, this book captures both the joys and heartache of pet ownership, and all that encompasses, so caveat emptor. At odd passages, I was dragged back to past moments of fear and sorrow involving my pets; back to vet rooms during health scares when I stood with pain in the pit of my stomach and trepidation in my heart waiting for words I was afraid to hear; or worse yet, those heartrending moments of loss. For those whom this pain is still raw and new, you might want to skip this book right now. Keep it in mind though for the future because on par with the captured pain, it also joyfully highlights the beauty of loving a pet; the moments of unadulterated happiness, hilarity, grossness (plenty of those) and, of course, unconditional love.

Lily and the Octopus is a quirky, humdinger of a story that will have you smiling in delight, wiping away tears (or ‘eye rain’ as Lily would say), and hugging your furry friends a little closer.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Female of the Species

Vengeance in the name of justice denied sets the gears in motion in the gripping YA thriller, The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis. “This is how I kill someone;" as far as character introductions go, it's a doozy; and in those chilling words and one act of unspeakable violence, Alex Craft wields a darkness within previously kept at bay, but one which once unleashed will no longer be denied.

From the publisher: “Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. Three years ago, when her older sister, Anna, was murdered and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best—the language of violence. While her own crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people. Not with Jack, the star athlete who wants to really know her but still feels guilty over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered. And not with Peekay, the preacher’s kid with a defiant streak who befriends Alex while they volunteer at an animal shelter. Not anyone. As their senior year unfolds, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting these three teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.”

The Female of the Species was a thrill to read; a true page-turner with well-developed characters and a compelling plot that moved its protagonists at a relentless pace towards the tale's inexorable conclusion. The story was told through Alex, Jack and Peekay's alternating points of view, offering readers a more insightful perspective into Alex, the catalyst driving this dark tragic tale. If guided merely by Alex's judgment of herself, readers would assume that there was no redeeming value to this lost child; but in her interactions with Jack and Peekay, we see a wounded cynicism which belies her age, and an undeniable light and goodness in direct juxtaposition to the evil of her actions.

Though the author has woven the important subject of the rape culture found in schools into the tale, I found more thought-provoking the novel's theme of vigilante justice and whether the end justifies the means. Alex kills a rapist and murderer, thereby preventing a predator from finding new prey and victims. Is a murderer a murderer, and a victim a victim no matter the circumstance? Do both crimes have a moral equivalency? I've always felt in these instances that two wrongs don’t make a right; that justice should be left to our criminal justice system or to a higher power, with my sentiment extending equally to capital punishment. After all, it makes no sense that the State is killing someone for killing someone. I'll honestly confess though that I don't know how I'd feel if the injured party was a loved one; if the unbearable grief of their loss and seething anger at the suffering inflicted upon them would alter my moral standing. God willing I never have to find out.

The Female of the Species was a memorable novel that chillingly and poignantly reminds us of the truth of Victor Hugo's astute words, “Every blade has two edges; he who wounds with one, wounds himself with the other” for an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Amy Ellis Nutt, is as much an illuminating novel on a transgender girl’s journey, as it is a testament to her strength and fortitude, and an ode to the amazing family that helped her to chart her path in life. Its every page speaks to the power of a parent's love to nurture and empower a child's sense of self to help them become who they were destined to be.

From the publisher: “When Wayne and Kelly Maines adopted identical twin boys, they thought their lives were complete. But it wasn’t long before they noticed a marked difference between Jonas and his brother, Wyatt. Jonas preferred sports and trucks and many of the things little boys were “supposed” to like; but Wyatt liked princess dolls and dress-up and playing Little Mermaid. By the time the twins were toddlers, confusion over Wyatt’s insistence that he was female began to tear the family apart. In the years that followed, the Maines came to question their long-held views on gender and identity, to accept and embrace Wyatt’s transition to Nicole, and to undergo an emotionally wrenching transformation of their own that would change all their lives forever.”

Becoming Nicole was an insightful, informative and emotional read. The author's unprecedented access to the family through journals, home videos, interviews, and medical records is evident in the honest and in-depth look at every obstacle, heartache and milestone, both large and small, which the Maines faced individually and as a family; from bullying at school, to facing their own fears and preconceived notions, to fighting and winning a landmark court battle. It’s a story of growth for child and parent alike, because while love came easy, acceptance of Nicole’s truth took a little longer for dad, Wayne, whom is now both her most ardent supporter and a public advocate for transgender rights.

As a science writer, the author offers an abundance of facts on the subject. Like the fact that genitals and gender identity develop differently before birth; that while genitals are an anatomical fact of nature, gender identity occurs in the brain and sometimes there is disconnect between the two. The most eye-opening statement for me, that led to a true moment of understanding, came from Dr. Norman Spack when he explained: “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with. Gender identity is who you go to bed as." The book provides a sensitive peek into the inner turmoil and fear of many transgender people who face a future not as their truest self, where the person in their head doesn’t match what they see in the mirror, at times forced to live a lie to please the world around them.

More than the scientific facts or legal rights battles highlighted in Becoming Nicole, what drew me in was the truth of this normal American family and the love, compassion, understanding and acceptance with which they surrounded their child. The suicide rate amongst transgender youth is at a staggering 40+%; not surprising given the hardship and heartache faced by many in their day-to-day life, including rejection by friends and family, discrimination, and sometimes actual physical abuse and violence. Just think of the lives changed if every transgender child, youth and/or adult could armor themselves against the outside world with the love of a family that said you are loved totally and unconditionally as you are, not in spite of your sexual orientation or gender identity, but because of it, because that is just one of the million and one things that make you, YOU.

Becoming Nicole is a worthwhile read that as it educates also opens hearts and minds.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Weird, Wonderful and Wearying

Wanton idleness and wonderful books were the theme of the day yesterday, when as planned I spent the day pinballing from couch to bed and back again during Dewey's readathon. Much like my dry run, I didn't make it to the 24-hour mark. Honestly, I've come to accept that if I couldn't pull off an allnighter when I was in my 20s, at 48 I might be asking for the impossible. By two o'clock in the morning, neither pride, love of books nor spirit of competition were speaking to me; I was deaf to all but the sirens call of my sweet pillow. Ultimately, having consumed three and a half books or 1108 pages and quadruple that amount in calories between snacks and meals, I proclaimed the day a success, and my weary body succumbed to sleep. As for the weird in the title, skeevy is probably more appropriate; but more on that later.

The day dawned cold, wet and windy as forecasted. I hit the ground running with the novel Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, a YA thriller that proved both gripping and insightful. Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley was up next and this one, though I hate to point fingers, might have been to blame for my readathon downfall. It was such a charming, funny and utterly touching read that I skipped my planned siesta, a fact which came back to bite me in the behind at 2 am. All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda was next at bat; an original and compelling thriller and murder mystery, uniquely told backwards from day 15 to day 1. Last, but not least, was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a biography filled with 'heartbreaking and hilarious, fascinating and freaky, vivid and morbid' stories from a young, twentysomething year old mortician. Hindsight is 20/20 they say, so here I acknowledge a moment of temporary insanity for knowing that I was barely keeping my eyes open, I decided to start my fourth book from the comfort of my warm bed. Dumb, de-dumb, dumb.

Now to the weird. It happened during Lily and the Octopus. I was reading and enjoying the book thoroughly when I turned the page and there flattened between the pages, like someone would press and dry a small delicate flower for posterity, was a bunch, a clump, a gaggle (I don't know what you'd call it), but more than a few long strands of hair. Eek! I was more than a little grossed out, but I calmly walked to my garbage can and let them slide into the receptacle without touching them. Again, I was a little skeeved but not enough to put the book down and stop reading. I continued reading, enjoying the story as much as before, when lo and behold, again more hair. I had to repeat the process, not once or twice, but 3 or 4 times.

Yes, in a stroke of pure genius (or not) it would appear the reader before me used their hair as an au naturale bookmark of sorts. Deranged or ingenious? You be the judge. The wackiest part of this story is that, swear on the Bible, this is not the first time this has happened to me. What are the freaking odds? I spared you all the gory details the first time, but a second time is just too freaky not to share. The worst part? I obviously share this enterprising weirdo's reading taste (unless there is more than one of them out there), so there's a good possibility this will happen again! I shudder at the thought.

All things considered, I'm glad for the experience. Will I do it again? Ugh, probably not. How many readathons do you really need in a lifetime? I'd say two should suffice to duly impress the masses.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon

It’s finally here! Man your battle stations, namely your couch. Yes, Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon takes place tomorrow October 22nd. My dry run back in May was relatively successful with three books read; I’m hoping I can duplicate my effort, if not improve on it. Rain and wind on schedule tomorrow for my neck of the woods. Could you ask for more perfect reading weather? Books, couch, and some yummy treats to keep me sugared up and wide awake. Ooh-wee, I can’t wait!

I hit the proverbial wall at around the 18-hour mark in May, so I’ve decided to rework my strategy and include a brief nap during the day. Yes, a little siesta shortly after lunch should hit the spot. A dreary day, a full belly, a cozy bed and the bedroom window open to hear the pitter-patter of rain; what could be better? On further thought, this might be a recipe for disaster. I better set an alarm or I might be waking up when the marathon is over.

As for reading materials, I have four books already on my reading pile (All Is Not Forgotten, All the Missing Girls, The Book of Joy and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes), but I’m still going to make a library run this afternoon in hopes of maybe picking up 1 or 2 more (it can’t hurt to have a little something for any mood), including maybe an audio book in case I get a little cabin fever. Now for the important stuff, snacks! A little sweet, a little savory, something hearty to ward off the chill and something ooey gooey and decadent to cap off a successful day. I’m going to come out of this more well-read but 5 pounds heavier.

Visit Dewey’s and sign up to participate; after all, the more the merrier.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Man Called Ove (Swedish film)

As you guys might recall from my book review, I loved the Swedish novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, so I was downright giddy when I learned there was a Swedish film made of the novel. Well, last Friday I went to my local fine arts cinema and caught a screening, and boy did it ever do the book justice. It was so beautiful!

Attendance was touch and go for a couple minutes because I couldn't find parking, but thankfully after the third loop through the train station parking lot, success. The movie was being screened in the tiniest theater imaginable, I think it seated 30 people, so with the late arrival thanks to parking and of course a stop at the concession stand for popcorn, drink and candy (what's a movie without them?), seating was limited to either the very front row or one single seat next to an elderly gentleman who had placed a bag on the chair. You're probably like, "and I care about this why?" I'm sharing this tidbit because he was so downright charming that it made my afternoon. Get this, I asked if he was saving the seat for someone and his response was "for you." Aww.

For those of you who haven't read the book (you totally should), A Man Called Ove tells the story of the eponymous hero, "the quintessential angry old man next door. An isolated retiree with strict principles and a short fuse, who spends his days enforcing block association rules that only he cares about, and visiting his wife’s grave. Ove has given up on life. Enter a boisterous young family next door who accidentally flattens Ove’s mailbox while moving in and earning his special brand of ire. Yet from this inauspicious beginning an unlikely friendship forms." Think Grumpy Old Men meets It's A Wonderful Life. Honestly, the film was heartwarming, charming, funny, and poignant; in part due to the great source material but also thanks to the utterly riveting and emotional performance by the lead actor, Rolf LassgÃ¥rd.

The film was sweet and sentimental but in the best way, not sappy or maudlin. Much like the book, the director relied on flashbacks to share with the viewer the hidden truths of this curmudgeon's bittersweet life of love and loss and the fact that behind that scowling exterior beat a heart of gold. Of course, by the end of the film I was a mess, both figuratively and literally since I didn't have tissues and I had tears streaking down my red cheeks, a runny nose and was this close, like a hair's breath, from choked sobs. I didn't feel bad though because remember my charmer and seat buddy, he was a mess too! Yup, he was sniffling like there's no tomorrow and you know the whole shoulder shake you do when you're holding in tears, yup that was him. A man after my own heart.

Long story short, do yourself a favor and go see A Man Called Ove; you'll be thanking me if you do; after you finish blowing your nose from crying.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Because I'm Watching

FDR said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which is profound and good advice, but in my case totally impossible. I mean he’s totally overlooked spiders, snakes, heights, roller coasters, public speaking, and things that go bump in the night. Yeah, I’m pretty lily-livered if I do say so myself. All joking aside, I don’t mind a good scare when it comes in book form and from the comfort of my own couch and Christina Dodd’s, Because I’m Watching, had the potential of delivering in spades. What could be scarier than your own fear used as a weapon against you in a psychological warfare where the enemy seems to be inside your own mind?

From the publisher: "The survivor of a college dorm massacre, a woman accused of her lover's murder, Madeline Hewitson is haunted by ghosts and tormented by a killer only she can see. At night, she works, writing and drawing the monster that slithers through her imagination, and living in fear of those moments when the doors of her mind unhinge and her nightmare lives in the daylight. A seasoned military veteran, Jacob Denisov lives alone in his small, darkened home, sleepless, starving, and angry. Every day he lives with the guilt that comes from his own failures and the carnage that followed. When neighbor Madeline Hewitson drives her car through the front wall of his house, she breaks his house--and his life--wide open. Forced to view the world outside, Jacob watches Maddie, recognizes a kindred spirit and wonders what she fears more than herself. Has someone caught her in a twisted labyrinth of revenge and compassion, guilt and redemption, murder and madness?"

I might have tipped you off as to my lukewarm feelings on the book when I used the dreaded word “potential” in my first paragraph. Because I’m Watching was a good book; not great, but by no means a total waste of time. I found it to be a great idea poorly executed, though I’ll concede that the problem might lie with me, or namely my preferences as a reader. The problem, as I see it, is that as a romantic suspense novel it tried to successfully deliver on both genres (romance and suspense), and ended up holding true to the saying ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ It was neither sweetly, sweepingly, movingly romantic nor thrillingly, frighteningly, suspenseful.

Given the frightening premise of the tale, Dodd could have done so much to ratchet up the tension if she'd helped readers to better grasp Maddie’s escalating sense of horror. Instead of telling us of Maddie’s fear, put us in the room with her and make us feel it; make our heart pound a little faster, make us cringe and shiver right along with her. Why not add a little suspense and make us truly doubt whether she's just batshit crazy? As for the identity of the villain, way too predictable; Nate the Great could've solved this case.

Because I’m Watching was a pleasant read that could’ve amped up its spook factor for a more spine-tingling, tense read; if you like that type of thing, which I do (in books only).