Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: The Juliet Spell by Douglas Rees

Because I am such a sucker for books and I want my children to find the same joy and escape in them that I do, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find books that I think they'll enjoy when I am in the bookstore. Most of the time, I fail miserably. I saw this book on the shelf and after reading the cover copy, wasn't sure my daughter would appreciate it. But the idea of a modern day reworking of the Romeo and Juliet tale caught my own fancy and I regretted not buying it for myself. I told my daughter the premise and she said she'd be willing to read it so immediately back to the bookstore we went. If I had bought it without asking her, odds are she never would have read it but because I wanted to read it too, she zipped through it, enjoyed it, and cheerfully passed it along to me. Obviously I was predisposed to like it and happily, it turned out to be a cute and fun young adult read.

Miranda is a high school theater geek who is trying out for the part of Juliet in the joint high school/community production. She desperately wants the part not only for herself but because her mother, who as an actress before she met Miranda's father, never got to play the part. Miranda thinks it would be lovely to be able to dedicate her performance to her mother, who has been a hard working single mother for the several years since Miranda's father left them to "find himself." Because Miranda wants the part so badly, she goes home and casts a spell to become famous. No, she's not a witch. She's just a teenaged girl desperately wishing, by any means possible, to be cast in the part she wants. But Miranda's spell does work. Sort of. At least when the smoke clears, it appears that Miranda has summoned a real Elizabethan actor into her kitchen. Best yet, his name is Edmund Shakeshank and he is William Shakespeare's younger brother. As Miranda helps him adjust to being plunked down in the twenty-first century, he helps her with her acting and together they run through some of the more entertaining Shakespeare plots all while the play in which they are both players runs into some significant road blocks.

The story over all is charming and fun and the Shakespeare references are entertaining. The novel is not without problems though. It is patently unbelievable and much of it was too easy. No one seems to blink much of an eye that Edmund was inadvertantly transported from his century to ours. And he, in turn, is only incredulous of a few major things rather than completely overwhelmed as any true Elizabethan would be in the same situation. Most of the plot is fairly predictable but there are a few delightful twists that keep the narrative tension from going slack. As a love story, it definitely captures immature high school relationships, as opposed to ones fully realized. The characters are pretty transparent but likable enough. The plot with Miranda's absent father is a false note and was certainly less enjoyable than the rest. While not high literature, the novel was goofy, frothy, entertaining fluff that continues to appeal despite its weaknesses; it left me smiling.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: More Than Words Can Say by Robert Barclay

My family is lucky enough to have a summer cottage that I have been spending time at every summer for my entire 40 years. It is a place deeply ingrained in my soul. It is my la querencia (roughly translated as the place of my heart). I could no more contemplate not going up there as I could fly to the moon. So when I read the premise of More Than Words Can Say, I was immediately captured. And I so wish that it had lived up to my expectations, offering me the same warm and wonderful feelings that being at the cottage always evokes in me. Instead it fell short.

Opening immediately following the death of Brooke Bartlett, her granddaughter Chelsea discovers, somewhat to her surprise, that she has inherited the family cottage, the one that her grandmother closed in 1942 and never re-opened, about which she was unwilling to speak, but which she paid to maintain ever since she left it so abruptly and without explanation. Chelsea's first reaction is to sell it sight unseen but when a letter from her grandmother tells her of the existence and location of a hidden journal, she opts to go to the cottage and look for answers to the mystery of why Brooke never again returned to Lake Evergreen.

Upon her arrival, she falls in love with the lake and the cottage, changing a short stay into a full summer in the Adirondacks. It doesn't hurt that her next door neighbor is a handsome, single doctor who is clearly exactly the sort of man for whom Chelsea has been looking unsuccessfully back home in Syracuse's social elite. She finds her grandmother's journal and together with Dr. Brandon Yale, she slowly reads through the pages, learning the secrets of that summer so long ago. As she reads of her grandmother's life, she starts to fall for Brandon, who has his own past demons to face.

The narrative flips back and forth from Chelsea and Brandon's growing relationship to the journal and the growing conundrum faced by Brooke. Each journal entry tails off into scenes from that summer of 1942, giving far more detail than the journal itself ostensibly would. The intertwining plotlines work together but their coincidences can be too numerous to be believable. The revelation of Brooke's secret is anti-climatic and the grief it seems to cause Chelsea is completely out of proportion to the secret itself. The fact that the secret is predictable and that both plots were telegraphed within pages of chief characters' introduction fed into this reaction.

The characterization of Chelsea and Brandon, Chelsea's mother and father, Brooke, Gregory, and all of the townspeople can't help rescue the plot from its failings either, as they are almost all one-dimensional and rather cliched. Dialogue between any of the characters is stilted and unbelievable. And the fact that Chelsea and Brandon feel the need to reiterate in only marginally different language what the journal has just clearly laid out for the reader caused this reader to become irrationally annoyed with these fictional characters. This isn't the only instance of clunky writing either. Little is done in the book without a qualifying adverb, leading to an overabundance of words ending in "ly" which only serve to point out the poor choice of verb they are so necessary to modify. And on a smaller scale, there are portions of the book, especially including those centered around the 1941 Chris Craft (one of which my grandfather owned when I was younger), that are not well researched or realistic.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I just didn't. Overall, it was too melodramatic, too predictable. If the plot had been more engaging or the ending more momentous, I might have been able to overlook the problems with the writing but in this case, I wasn't drawn into the story enough to look past the other stumbling blocks.

For more information about Robert Barclay and the book visit his publisher webpage. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for dissenting opinions and a few who agree with me too.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from our chaos to yours

One of these years we’re going to shock you all by skipping the letter and just sending a picture of us looking all perfect and shiny. That’s when you’ll know we’ve jumped the shark (or just plain gotten lazier than usual). Luckily for you, that year is not yet to be so you can thoroughly enjoy another year of our misadventures. Without further ado, the 2011 Knox year in review.

January: In the interest of starting the year off rather stupidly, Kristen ran the Disney half marathon with her sister, without training for it. Actually, if we’re going with full disclosure, Kristen ran (and walked rather a lot) of the half well behind her sister.

February: T. managed to fall twice this month and ended up with a soft cast on his right arm after the second time. Thankfully the final verdict was not broken but for the several days it took to hear that, Kristen had to struggle with fourth grade math. I mean she had to write out all his homework for him.

March: Kristen turned 40 this month. Remember when 40 was old? Yeah. It still is. Her parents took her with D. and without kids to Panama to celebrate. Three of the days there were spent learning to scuba dive, which Kristen took to like a fish to water (I know, big groan!) and was sorry to resurface each day. D. had a little more trouble adjusting his buoyancy but Kristen found it greatly entertaining to watch him float up towards the surface while the instructors chased after him to tug him back down.

April: The kids had spring break this month and we all traveled to Atlanta to watch Kristen’s dad scuba dive at the Atlanta Aquarium. The trip reminded us why we don’t love staying in hotels as a family given the arguments over the beds and the tv and the pullout. Good quality family time.

May: As the school year started to wind down, we found ourselves all over Charlotte and surrounding towns/states with dance competitions, tennis tournaments, and soccer games for the kids. Kristen and D. rarely saw each other because in order to make it all work, divide and conquer had to be the month’s game plan. We tend to split down gender lines but Kristen thinks next year it’s D.’s turn to do the dance hair and make-up and she’ll go burn, I mean bask, in the sun at an outdoor game/match.

June: We finally decided to acknowledge that we have three children and re-wrote our wills to include T. (He’s not even in double digits yet so we’re right on top of it!) The kids will be pleased to find that we have left them all of our debts. And one lucky family member will be less pleased to find we’ve left her our children for the duration. Perhaps we shouldn’t tell her that the lawyer says she can always turn the responsibility down as he made us give him a lengthy back-up list of guardians. And he hasn’t even met our kids!

July: As is usual, after R.’s dance nationals in Tampa, we headed to the cottage for vacation. Nothing like adding 8 driving hours to our usual 15. W. came down with the creeping crud this summer. After stumping the ER doctor, the dermatologist declared it the worst case of impetigo she’d seen in a long time. A cartload of drugs later, he was left only slightly polka dotted across his entire torso, a highly fashionable look for a 14 year old boy. D. was unable to make the cottage this year, spending his time traveling for work instead. Good thing he likes his job. And at least he got to avoid the contagious cooties flying around up north.

August: R. got braces on right before starting her last year in middle school. Luckily she is generally unfazed by them and usually resists ugly rubber band color combinations. W. started high school this month even though we’re pretty sure we’re not old enough to have a kid this old. Also, once home from Michigan, the kid activities ramped up again rather quickly. Tennis for W., dance for R., soccer for T., and gassing up the minivan for Kristen.

September: R. hit 13 this month. Yes, that makes two teenagers in one house at the same time. Pretty sure that should garner us a very fancy pity party or something.

October: D. was awarded the Microsoft Greater Southeastern Division Services Executive of the Year. This is really code for “the guy who knows the most people in any given bar in the greater southeastern US.” And anyone who knows him knows that he truly deserves this award!

November: W. got his braces off this month. D. turned 40 and had to stop teasing Kristen about being old. Kristen ran the Savannah half-marathon with friends and despite not training for the race again (bad habit, anyone?), she did actually run the entire way this time. Then, just to make her sound sportier than she really is, her tennis team went to states in Wilmington, NC the following weekend and ended up taking fourth place.

December: Kristen, belying her mature age, ruptured her ear drum this month, just like she used to do when she was four. She might have whined about it a bit more now though. Also this month, T, earned his very first tournament medal for soccer (2nd place). Kristen is now busy trying to get him to throw away all those stupid and meaningless dust-collecting “participation” trophies. He’s not on board yet but she’s determined to sway him eventually (or just slowly chuck them while he’s at school and can’t argue—because, after all, she’s the mom and can do evil things like this).

As 2011 comes to a close, we hope that all of you are surrounded by family, peace, love, and happiness now and throughout the coming year.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum

I am a complete sucker for the color blue and for flowers so the cover of this book grabbed me from the get go. I was less enchanted by the idea of a missionary story centered around a family with four daughters since unlike the rest of the world, I didn't love Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. (I loathed it, actually.) And while there were quite a few echoes of the aforementioned book, Meldrum's novel was gripping enough to keep the pages turning so that I could uncover the whole story here.

Opening with the imminent trial of mother Seena for the death of her husband Dick, this tale of family, relationships, religion, and race set in both Michigan and a small village in West Africa, takes turns both expected and unexpected. Dick and Seena's marriage is increasingly broken and showing cracks when Dick, a very devout Catholic, decides with the help of the local parish priest that the family, including all four daughters, Mary Grace, Mary Tessa, Mary Catherine, and Amaryllis, should go to Africa as missionaries. This ill-fated decision will change so much in all of their lives.

Dick Slepy is a pathologist whose obsession with his wife has manifested itself by him becoming more and more controlling and possessive. Seena gave up her schooling to marry Dick and she becomes more and more distant to both her husband and her daughters as her regrets mount. The Marys are all very different from one another. Mary Grace is a beautiful boy magnet while Mary Catherine is extremely pious. Mary Tessa questions everything around her in life and Amaryllis, the different one, is a synesthete who views everything, observes everything, and notices everything almost from an outsider's perspective. These six people are on a collision course with everything they know and believe as Africa distills their truest beings.

The novel is chock full of betrayal, dysfunction, and forbidden love. Each of the characters keeps secrets from the others and they all stay mostly aloof from one another. Even Seena's decided preference for Amaryllis over her other daughters comes off as a convenience in her mostly detached life. The novel's narration changes from chapter to chapter so that each of the Slepys has a chance as the major focus. And yet none of the characters come off as particularly appealing. They are all, with the possible exception of Amaryllis, so self-involved as to be blind to anything outside of themselves. Meldrum's writing is well done but somehow never quite drew me in. There was so much going on, so much of different significance in each character, the loaded history of the Slepy family, as well as the cultural differences and incorrect assumptions once they are in Africa that it was hard to settle where to place my attention. And the back and forth in time allowed the narrative tension to wax and wane a bit too much for my liking. Well written and complex, it is proving difficult to explain why this just didn't strike a cord with me but it didn't.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Be Thankful

Things I am thankful for today:

1. that the bag of rock hard brown sugar was only half full so it only raised an egg-sized lump and bruise when it fell on my foot from the top shelf in the pantry. (Nevermind that a friend of a friend is convinced I broke the stupid foot again.)

2. that Ocean Spray makes tasty cranberry sauce in a can so I don't have to make that in addition to everything else. (And they decorate it with those nice ridges too--so thoughtful.)

3. that I remembered to take the giblets and neck out of the turkey before I stuffed it. (And that it thawed in enough time to go in the oven this morning before I left to run the Turkey Trot.)

4. that I managed to (slowly) run the entire 5 miles of the Turkey Trot and still have control over my legs lo these many hours later.

5. that the kitchen shears that went missing long ago have somehow miraculously reappeared. (Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus. Oh wait... that's the next holiday.)

6. that some side dishes can survive being served at room temperature. (I'd ask for chafing dishes for Christmas but where the heck would I store them?)

7. that turkey contains tryptophan and therefore offers the perfect excuse for mid-afternoon napping.

8. that this year's yeast rolls were not like last year's inadvertent hockey pucks.

9. that no one argued with me about the timing of the meal based on their team's game time. (Going postal on Thanksgiving is not pretty.)

10. that all dishes and counters have been cleaned and the meal portion of the holiday is over for another year even if I did have to do it all myself. (The price of not listening to grumbling about the meal timing seems to be complete solitude in the kitchen after the meal while the rest of the family is glued to some dull as dirt football game.)

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and don't forget to count your many blessings today and every day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: A Watershed Year by Susan Schoenberger

When someone dies, it seems there are always things left to say. The ones left behind want to pick up a phone and tell their loved one something only to realize anew that the person is gone. But what if the same is true for the one who has died? What if there was more to say but there wasn't time to say it? What if those things that stayed unsaid could be said and could change the course of a life? A Watershed Year imagines just that scenario in a wonderful and credible way.

Lucy McVie has spent the past year of her life caring for her beloved friend Harlan as he fights cancer. Now a 38 year old college religion professor with an affinity for the saints, Lucy has known Harlan since they were in graduate school. She has also secretly been in love with him almost from the moment they met and so she thinks nothing of giving up time to care for him as he goes through treatment and then dies. After Harlan's death, Lucy must pick up the pieces of her neglected life. And then she receives an e-mail from Harlan that changes everything. He set up a program to send Lucy pre-written e-mails once a month starting several months after his death because he hasn't told her everything; he had more to say. The first e-mail hits on one of Lucy's unspoken, long-held wishes: to become a mother. Harlan tells her that he is certain that she will be a mother someday and that she will in fact be wonderful at it.

Once the e-mail opens Lucy to the possibility, she starts to make her way down the path to adopting. Things start to fall into place as she finds an agency specializing in Russian adoptions and is fast tracked to adopt 4 year old Mat whose eyes melt Lucy's heart when she sees his picture. At the same time, a colleague shows an interest in her romantically and her teaching career is only just hanging on by a thread. With so much going on in her life, it is not surprising that Lucy chooses to ignore the warning signs that everything may not be above board with the adoption. As in so much of her life, when she commits her heart, she does it fully and without reservation but also without understanding the emotional repercussions of such a commitment.

Lucy's year after losing Harlan is indeed a watershed year for her. She learns about herself and her capacity for love. She makes some tough decisions; some that bring her joy and some that bring her sadness. She might not yet be as strong as Harlan says she can be but she struggles through and comes out stronger for it. As a character, she is lovely and realistic. The secondary characters are less fleshed out but this is, after all, Lucy's watershed year and so the focus is fittingly on her. The monthly e-mails from Harlan act as the catalyst for her adopting Mat but they also help her to come to a better understanding of who she really is inside, the person for whom Harlan cared so deeply. And the flashbacks to her relationship with Harlan offer a sweet glimpse into the past, helping to round out and explain Lucy as a character but also offering insight into the core nature of their realtionship.

Schoenberger has written a deeply moving tale, a wonderful and rich novel, one that packs many different emotional punches. Touching on grief and love and motherhood, she has created a true and touching story. Adoption is not easy. In fact, it is fraught with frustration, uncertainty, and hopelessness, even after Lucy brings Mat home. Grief is not simple. It is consuming and sneaky and constant. Love is not immediate or safe or perfect. It is hard won but all the sweeter for that. All of these things and more are true and Schoenberger has shown them to be so beautifully.

For more information about Susan Schoenberger and the book visit her webpage, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer

Interning Japanese-Americans in "relocation camps" during World War II is a shameful, and often ignored, part of US history. We imprisoned our own citizens based solely on their racial and cultural history and whether it was out of ignorance, fear, or greed, it was a terrible wrong. There are now increasing numbers of wonderful books, fiction and non-fiction, that have grown out of the internment experience but almost all of them are from the perspective of the Japanese-Americans. Schiffer has written the first book that I've come across that examines the effect of one of these camps on a young white girl in the area. I knew about the camps and have read extensively on the subject of them but I was unaware that such a camp was opened in the south where racial tensions were already simmering.

When the novel opens, Chess Morton is headed to the site of the former Camp Nine to meet David Matsui, a famous musician she knew 20 years prior when he was interned there as a boy with his family during the war. The intervening years separated them but his imminent return takes her back to that time when she was still so innocent and questioning. Then a 13 year old girl from the area's wealthiest family, she lived with her widowed mother just across from her paternal grandparents. Set apart from the community because of her family, her mother's progressiveness, and her own curiousity, Chess senses the underlying tensions swirling through tiny Rook, Arkansas. And when her grandfather, as her guardian, sells the land called Camp Nine to the government for a supposed prisoner of war camp, Chess will see the tensions come to a head and change her view of the world.

Rook is a farming community, traditional and strictly segregated, where interactions between whites and the blacks who serve them are rigidly codified and constrained. And it is into this world that the US government thrusts thousands of disenfranchised Japanese-Americans. Carolina March Morton, Chess's mother, is the daughter of Italian immigrants who married into the locally important Morton family but not before she went to college in California. When the Japanese-Americans arrive from California, Carolina sees in them not people who are enemies or suspect but simply people who lived where she was once so happy and with whom she can reminisce. She takes Chess with her to the camp, against Chess' wishes, so that she too can see the truth and shame of the situation, even at her young age. While Carolina teaches art classes at Camp Nine, Chess becomes friends with Henry and David Matsui. Henry is asked to answer yes to the "Loyalty Oath" and to go and fight for the country that has imprisoned him while David, slightly younger, sneaks out of camp to hone his musical skills with Uncle Willie, a blind blues player who lives in a cabin close to the camp.

There are many disparate plot lines threading through the narrative but their thematic similarity ties them together to form a coherent whole. Schiffer has a light touch when writing about very freighted topics and maintains the novel's tensions well but allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and judgements about the characters and their actions rather than heavy-handedly forcing an understanding. Her choice of Chess as narrator, an innocent who is nevertheless an insider by virtue of birth, is an interesting one and ultimately quite successful. That Chess doesn't fully understand the events of that time until her meeting twenty years later with David makes her narration just that much more authentic. As much as this novel is about the effects of the Japanese-American internment, it is equally about Chess' coming of age and the ways in which her understanding of the world, colored by the presence of the camp, matures and widens. Race, class, tolerance, and the prevailing power structure all play enormous roles in the novel. A different perspective on a shameful piece of our history, Schiffer has written a very readable and poignant tale.

For more information about Vivienne Schiffer and the book visit her webpage.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Savannah Rock and Roll Half Marathon

Remember how, I posted about my last 5K and mentioned that I was going to get serious about trying to train decently for my upcoming half marathons? Yeah, I lied. The two 5K's I did in the last couple of months are the farthest I've run since last January's Disney half. Yup, the same half where I vowed never to do an untrained half again. Apparently I am nothing but a big fat liar. Because this past weekend, I hopped in a car with two friends and headed to my parents' in Savannah to run yet another half for which I was woefully unprepared.

As convenient as it was to be able to stay at mom and dad's house, not being downtown in a hotel meant that we had to catch a shuttle to the race. This was a bit of a problem. We arrived at Savannah Mall, the shuttle location, at just past 6am. The race was scheduled to start at 7:30am. You'd have thought that surely that was enough time. Unfortunately it was not. We stood in lines at the mall, freezing our poor tail ends off waiting for buses for an inordinate amount of time. K., C., and I considered tackling some guys near us who were smart enough to be dressed for the weather in sweat pants. We figured that they could probably take us though, especially given that our hands had frozen into clenched up claws. At least the buses were heated but the shuttle location meant we had a lengthy drive into the city to the race. At 7:30, when the gun was ostensibly sounding at Bull and Bay Streets, we were still on the highway making our way into the city. For those of us with late starting corrals (ie the really slow pokes like me), this was not a big deal at all but it led to us being passed by much faster runners who had missed their scheduled start for more miles than we would have expected.

I really lucked out in that K. also fell down on the job as far as training was concerned so we were equally unprepared and could run together the entire way. Since I had gone 3 miles and she had gone 6, my big goal was to get past those two mile markers still running. I'm probably a colossal pain in the butt to run with because it's like I'm people watching at the mall. Poor K. had to endure me pointing out every oddity, every entertaining shirt, and every fun poster that passed us or that we passed. We had a good old time pointing out people who clearly tried to wear clothing that was 3 or more sizes too small for them. K. found one woman who had shorts so far up her bum it looked almost as if she was running in a thong. I pointed out the woman whose running skirt was so short that it was really more a scarf around her waist. I thought about taking some pictures of people from the rear (and not just these two) to show the incredible variety of shapes of people who run marathons and half marathons but then realized that I'd be highly annoyed if some stranger snapped a picture of my jiggly butt on a run without my permission. I'd probably think they were a bit of a pervert. So I refrained. (You should all breathe a sigh of relief since I had intended to post those pictures here too.)

Some of the most entertaining sights during the race were the backs of people's t-shirts. Now, the mass produced ones can be quite entertaining and pithy but my personal favorites are the homemade shirts. An older man ran past us at one point and he had a laminated card pinned to the back of his shirt. It said, "Estimated finish time: Tuesday around noon." The fact that I was seeing this from behind and watching it get smaller and smaller in the distance tells you a little bit about how fast untrained runners run a half marathon. Another one that made me chuckle was ironed on to the back of a woman (also going faster than us) which said "If a marathon was easy, it'd be called Yo Mama." There was the "I could be wearing that" kind of shirt that said "Muffin Tops 13.1." And then there was the truly inspirational: "Proof that all things are possible, -160 lbs." It does not need to be said that all of these people were running faster than we poky little puppies were since I was reading their backs.

The other place you find entertainment during a long and painful run you haven't trained for (are you sensing how important this training thing is yet?) is looking at the signs along the route. People make lots of encouraging signs for their loved ones. My family doesn't but hey, I only hold that slightly against them. Since I never get signs specifically encouraging me (and co-opting any encouragement intended for other Kristens doesn't count, especially when so many of them spell our name incorrectly--it's an EN, not an IN at the end), I love the funny ones. There was a guy under an overpass holding a sign that said "GO COMPLETE STRANGER GO." I think I fell a little bit in love with him when I saw it. The best was that some anonymous voice behind me shouted to him "Thanks complete stranger!" Another one I poked K. to check out said "Do it longer. Do it faster. Do it harder. (That's what she said.)" Yes, sexual humor is never out of place during an endurance run.

Pointing shirts and posters and people out to K. as we ran helped keep my mind off the fact that we were actually stupid enough to try to run that 13.1 miles. Because, in case you are under the impression that it's not far, you're wrong. Map out some of the routes you normally drive and you'll be shocked at how far 13 miles will actually get you. In any case, marathons always seem to bring out some interesting characters. There are, of course, the folks in costume. We had wonder woman on our bus to the race. And I saw 4 Where's Waldos posing for a picture after the race. But it's the characters you stumble across during the run who divert your attention best.

There was a guy just ahead of us who had a doggie squeak toy in his pocket. Any time there were people cheering on the course, he squeaked that toy for all he was worth. There was a barefoot runner. (Given the bloody stumps and blisters I generally have at the end of the race, barefoot running appeals to me not at all.) There was the young guy wearing a pink race shirt, pink knee high socks, and a black running skirt. I asked K. if she thought he'd lost a bet. She said she thought it was a choice and I suspect she was correct. In any case, he had the good sense to get a skirt that was the proper size, unlike the woman I'd seen earlier. There was a woman who must be a religious fundamentalist of some stripe as she was wearing a long black skirt to mid shin, stripey rainbow socks pulled up to cover what the skirt didn't, a long sleeved blouse type shirt, and had her hair in a braid that stretched below her bottom. There was a Marine running with a full pack, the Marine flag, and an American flag. Oo-rah to him! Personally I carry my extra 50 pounds around daily, evenly distributed over my entire body so I don't know what the big deal was but everyone else seemed impressed. ;-) One guy zipped past us singing at the top of his lungs to his music. A woman running beside us shouted to him, "That's right! You go! You'll never see us again." It's kind of hard to giggle and run at the same time. One guy was running with his girlfriend/wife and he was obviously trying to encourage her. She was just as obviously pretty much out of gas. If she hadn't been and I'd been her, I think I might have run faster for a minute just so I could catch him and kick him. He would run ahead of her a ways and then turn around and run backwards trying to convince her to catch him. I told K. that I thought that was incredibly annoying and I'd want to strangle him. Apparently I was a bit louder than I realized as a woman running next to them turned around and yelled back to me "I would too." Good to know I can be a judgmental big mouth even in the midst of a run. The worst person we saw though was a woman who had pooped her pants. She was running just slightly faster than we were so we had the benefit of the hideous smell (and unpleasant sight) for longer than we would have liked. I should add that each and every one of these people I mentioned was running faster than we were. Although we did pass the annoying boyfriend/husband and his clearly wiped out significant other walking towards the end of the race and she hadn't given him a black eye yet so she really must have loved him.

Although I hope I won't do another race so unprepared, I was really pleased that K. and I managed to run the entire 13.1 miles. We crossed the finish with a chip time of 2:39:29. Definitely slow but upright and running the whole way! Once we were finished, I needed a porta-potty rather desperately. A big greasy hamburger the night before the race was yet another of my poorer decisions and my body was about to extract revenge. You know it's a sad day when you look with pleasure on a porta-john. It's even sadder when your thigh muscles are incapable of allowing you to hover over the grungy seat but you don't care and only let out a moan of pleasure at finally sitting down. The moment of truth comes, of course, when you are finished and should really leave the john but find that standing up is last on your list of friendly options. Knees protesting madly, I made my way back to K. where we heard the overall awards being given out. When they started off by saying that third place in the women's half marathon went to someone from Charlotte, NC, I just knew they meant me. I'm just a bit older and slower than Alana Hadley. But only a bit. (And my son, hearing about her amazing performance, said "Our track team is dead!")

Since I wasn't going to be getting any awards, we headed back to the shuttle line to catch a bus back to the mall. I swear we walked another mile to get the shuttle ("How best should we mess with these runners who've just run a gajillion miles? Let's make the shuttle stops be forever away from the finish and see how long it takes them to hobble over to them. Yeah, that sounds like fun!") And once back to the mall, we had to make the equally long trek to my car. Being smarter than the average bear, we cut through the mall in all our stinky glory instead of going around the outside. K. needed a bathroom break on our way so I loitered outside near several other people who obviously had also just finished the run. As one girl came out of the bathroom, her waiting friend told her that she'd found out what the word they didn't know meant. Word geek that I am, I leaned in to hear her ask which word it was. Apparently the word "inaugural," as in "The Inaugural Savannah Rock and Roll Marathon" had stumped all three girls. I swear I weep for the youth of today.

All in all, a fun time. New things I learned from this run: I learned that stashing your phone up your sleeve during a long run is a bad plan. It now makes a sound like I am getting a text every minute or so even though I'm not. I thinking having it bang against my elbow for so long short-circuited something in it. It makes me sound really popular though! I also learned that stiffness sets in in different ways depending on your lack of training. For instance, having gone to the bathroom while out for dinner that night, I found that there was no way on God's green Earth than I was going to be able to raise my leg high enough to flush the toilet. Just another little indignity I never knew about before. And I learned that there are very good reasons to flash your father a rude gesture in church. I went with mom and dad to the Saturday night service after the race while K. and C. napped or rested back at their house. I'm pretty sure I moaned audibly when we had to stand to sing and again when we sat back down. I know I had to grab the chair in front of me for balance since I felt like someone had knee-capped me. It was at this point that dad pointed out an older gentleman in the row across from us who had also run the half that morning. This man was rising and sitting without any apparent discomfort. Show-off! And yes, I made a rather rude gesture in dad's general direction. The people behind us were probably horrified but I figure they were already distracted by my moaning and groaning so they weren't surprised when I turned out to be an impertinent and rude piece of baggage too.

Now we need to see if I have learned the most important lesson of all: TRAIN FOR THE BLASTED RACES! (But not until after the state tennis tournament is over as I wouldn't want to over train for that. ::grin::)

Review: Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett

As a mother, I can't begin to imagine the terror of hearing that your child has a terminal illness of ideopathic (unknown) origin and that you will most certainly lose him no matter what lengths you go to to save him. I do, however, know the terror of having your child collapse as we are a family riddled with vasovagal syncope problems and my two oldest have had EMS called for them at school. I would say there's nothing worse than running into a building past an ambulance with flashing lights to find your sweet child surrounded by medical personnel. But, of course, there is something far worse as the plot of this novel makes clear.

Cathleen Magee is a single mother who has spent all but the first six months of her precious son Colm's life trying to find out the underlying cause of Colm's collapses. Terrifyingly, during his collapses, he stops breathing and his heart stops. When the book opens, Colm has another of his episodes and he and his mother end up in the office of the doctor who finally diagnoses what is causing the problem. And it's not harmless. Although Colm has thus far always come back from the empty blackness he experiences when he is technically dead, Dr. Basu has to tell Cathleen that what Colm is suffering from is in fact a progressive and ultimately terminal illness. But such a diagnosis does not deter Cathleen, a devout Catholic, from her continued quest to find a cure for Colm, whether by means of medicine or miracle.

While Cathleen prays for a miracle, even taking Colm to Assisi, Italy in search of a miracle healing, Colm himself, although only 7, recognizes that his time is short and that there will be no miracle. He also knows that there is no heaven because when he collapses, he descends into a dark nothingness. Reluctant to destroy his mother's hope, he confides in Dr. Basu, who has fallen hard for Cathleen and her small doomed son, despite the terrible tragedy in his own background. What Colm most wants, once he is assured that Dr. Basu and his uncle Sean will be there to support his mother when he is gone, is to find the father who abandoned him before he was born. Although wise beyond his years in so many ways, Colm is still searching for a complete family, in spite of the family he has gathered to himself and who all love him desperately.

The characters here are all lost and searching. They are searching for family, for completeness, for a sense of peace, for love, for faith, and for the certainty of an afterlife. Cathleen's need for hope and her desperate search for it anywhere she sees a glimmer is well done. She has wrapped her whole being into Colm's small failing body and if strength of will alone could keep him alive, she would be able to ensure he lives forever. Colm, while certainly more prescient than most children his age, comes across as too old. There is little about him of a child, making his character feel less authentic than his mother's. The additional storyline of uncle Sean's alcoholism is perhaps a bit too much. Obviously Sean is searching just as much as any of the other characters here but because he is not the focus of the story, his struggle and addiction take a backseat to the rest, almost minimizing the terrible toll alcoholism has on a family.

Since each of the characters' internal dialogues are revealed, the reader can see just what is driving each of them individually. This has benefits but it also has the drawback of sometimes being too easily laid out for the reader. Just as the existence of heaven and even faith itself is a mystery, the characters should not have explained all of their actions, leaving the actions themselves to speak for them. There was a lot of emotion packed into the pages here, as you would expect from a book that addresses the death (or potential death) or a child. The tension of wondering if Colm was going to finish his quest or if Cathleen would come to terms with his disagnosis ran consistently throughout the narrative. And yet when the end of the novel came, it was somehow a letdown, and left me feeling confused. I certainly understand what happened at the end but there were so many unfinished threads that I was astonished to find there was nothing further to read. It felt more like a full stop ending than a resolution, even one that deliberately left things unexplained. An interesting premise about facing the unknowable and unthinkable, sometimes with grace and other times with rage, it fell just slightly short of the promise for me.

For more information about Mary Curran Hackett and the book visit her webpage, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Everyone judges a book by the cover, whether they consciously admit it or not. This simple but startling black and red cover drew me from the start. It is powerful and clean and haunting. And so I admired it aesthetically but gave the book itself a wide berth. After all, it was too science-fictiony for my tastes. But the raves for this novel, a retelling of The Scarlet Letter possessing elements of The Handmaid's Tale, continued to pour in. And the cover continued to be oddly compelling to me. Finally giving in to this superficial appeal, I rationalized that I had liked both the Hawthorne and Atwood books. Not the best reason to read a book but I am so glad that everything combined to drive me to this amazing, chilling story.

In the dystopian future, the United States is a fundamentalist theocracy. Freedoms have been strictly curtailed and transgressions are punished harshly. Hannah Payne wakes up in the first pages of the book not wearing a scarlet letter but dyed entirely and completely scarlet aside from the whites of her eyes and her teeth. She has been thus "chromed" to brand her with the generic details of her crime: murder. Chroming is the new regime's solution to prison crowding. Rather than incarcerate any but the most violent criminals, the powers that be change the very appearance of criminals and release them to live as best they can in normal society. Although Hannah's crime of murder is indeed violent, the murder she has committed is of her unborn baby, rendering her safe to be released to the general public. She has terminated her pregnancy rather than implicate in adultery or politically destroy her beloved minister, Reverend Dale, now the national Minister of Faith.

After her initial and brief imprisonment to adjust to her chroming, Hannah is released back into an unforgiving public rife with zealous Christian vigilantes to make her way as best she can. Although her father and Reverend Dale try to ease her way a bit from afar, and in the latter's case, without implicating himself in her crime, she is quickly exposed to the worst that a rigid, unbending fundamentalist society offers. Before her crime she questioned the strictures by which her society required her to live as a woman, uneducated, and with an uncritical acceptance of religion as taught to her. But after her crime, out of self-preservation as much as anything, she comes to reject her naive, unquestioning self and starts to rely on critical thinking in order to survive. Her new situation challenges her previously blind belief in religion, the place of women in society, and love. But what place does a society which would chrome someone for an abortion and condemn her more harshly for withholding the name of her unborn baby's father have for a woman such as Hannah is becoming?

Jordan writes skillfully in creating her terrifying vision of the future. The panic Hannah, newly red, feels is beautifully conveyed to the reader and the threads of this panic combined with a determined resiliency weave throughout the narrative, draws the reader along in Hannah's extended ordeal. The pacing of the novel is incredibly well balanced, never allowing the reader to relax, forcing vigilance with each turn of the page. The novel addresses many controversial topics, abortion, religion, homosexuality, politics, etc. and may (will?) cause some readers outrage. But in truth, it should cause all readers outrage. Because the curtailing of rights is something that should never be taken lightly. A cautionary tale retaining the morality issues of Hawthorne and the political issues of the Atwood, this is its own worthy entry into the ranks of the terrifying dystopian tale.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Schadenfreude or you think you've had a bad day?

You know those days you want to declare a do-over? Or even worse, those days where you just want to move on and never acknowledge that they happened? The sort of day where the only potential it holds is to rival the worst day ever? Yeah. I had one of those days. Not a catastrophic day, but one designed to leave the participant (in this case me) weeping in her drink.

It all started out so very well. I got up and popped dinner in the crockpot. I remembered to unlock the door for the handyman. And I headed off to my tennis match. We lost. Then I walked out to the parking lot and ran across one of the pros. Now M.'s never been known for his warm and fuzzy motivational style. But today he was more like a warm fuzzy softball to the gut than ever. Since he had been giving a lesson on the next court over from our match, I teasingly asked him if he saw any of the good shots or if he only caught the bad ones. Then I joked that he made my partner and me nervous standing there watching (he did actually). He sort of shook his head at me so I laughed and said that yes, we were easily rattled. He kind of did a half laugh and started to walk off. Then he whirled around and delivered a rather scathing comment about my backhand and stumped off while I was still digesting. It was almost as if he was personally affronted that I cannot seem to pull myself together and execute what he wants me to do. He can't possibly be more frustrated with my playing than I am. :-P

On that positive note, I hopped in my car, still sweaty and gross, and noticed I was going to be late to my doctor's appointment. Have you ever noticed that when you are late, everyone on the road is determined to drive in the wrong lane and at speeds that would make a turtle dissolve into hysterical laughter? Yeah. So I called and let them know I was running late. They were not best pleased. Meanwhile, the phone rang again. The handyman's wife was calling because he was locked out of the house. Remember I said I'd unlocked the door? Well, I apparently unlocked the deadbolt and not the handle. Figures! And given that I was 30 minutes into an hour drive (and already late to boot), there was no way to go home and let him in. ::sigh:: Huge apologies given and accepted (at least until we need him for the next thing and he decides I'm too much of a flake to deal with).

I got to doctor's and after signing in, discover that I had an e-mail from dance essentially accusing me of being delinquent on my bill. Took a deep breath and e-mailed back that I had indeed paid and included check number and all pertinent details. Received response that asserted that I couldn't be more wrong. Took several more calming breaths and politely re-asserted correctness. Heard no more from them. Saw doctor and headed home. I decided that I had enough time to sneak home for a shower before picking R. up at school to take her to dance. When I walked into my house, it was clear there was something wrong. No smell of dinner perking along greeted me at the door. I detoured into the kitchen to find that although I had turned the crockpot on, I had not plugged it in. Makes it sort of hard to cook that way. Mind you, it is now 2:30pm and there's no prayer in hell that my beef burritos would be coocked in time for dinner. Weep quietly in the shower.

I picked R. up and got her to dance early so I could follow-up on the missing check. They now remember me writing it so I am officially not a deadbeat but they can't find the check itself. (I no longer care at this point.) I start home from South Carolina (not the state we live in, incidentally) and have the presence of mind to call W. and tell him to remember he has tennis clinic and that I won't make it home in time to take him given the rush hour traffic. Luckily he can bike there. Unluckily, the phone rang again and it was him letting me know that I had driven off with his tennis racquet. Par for the course today!

Day's tally? Lost tennis match. Absorbed hurtful criticism from tennis pro. Late to doctor's appointment. Locked out the handyman. Dance lost my check. Didn't plug in the crockpot. Took W.'s tennis racquet with me to SC. And the day is not over yet. Really, it's been enough to piss off the Good Humor Man today. Now don't you all feel better about your day?

Review: Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

I freely admit I am a bit of a Jane Austen addict. And that addiction happily extends to sequels, prequels, and other Austen inspired writings. My shelves groan under the weight of books written by other Austen lovers. So when I saw this book was being published, I knew it had to find a home on my shelves.

This is a varied and entertaining collection of stories, many of which are written by the biggest names in Austen sequel writing. The stories are linked thematically by their Austen inspiration but they range a wide gamut aside from that initial similarity. There are stories that use Austen characters, some that use Austen (or her ghost) herself, and some that are modern retellings of classic Austen. They run from mysteries, to romance, to paranormal, and everything in between. As is the case in collections, there were stories I enjoyed more than others but even those that I expected to find less than appealing kept my attention and made me smile. Never once did I want to walk away from the book, reading voraciously through each story, enchanted by the so many differing and wildly inventive ways in which the authors had imagined their Austen inspirations. A fun and pleasurable read, this certainly earned its spot on my keeper shelves amongst the other Jane Austen related writings.

Thanks to Laurel Ann for sending me a copy for review.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson

I always thought tent revivals were the stuff of movies or of a time long since disappeared. And in some ways, I'm not wrong. Charismatic Holy Roller preachers are not terribly common any more, their ministries smaller. This memoir is the story of a woman who grew up in the shadow of one of the remaining tents, whose mother chose to follow the magnetic David Terrell around the country, and who has written a clear-eyed, compassionate, balanced story of her life growing up in this world set apart.

Johnson was only three when her mother, a gifted musician, packed Donna and her younger brother into a car and followed David Terrell as the revival organist. Johnson details her early years traveling with their evangelical family, falling asleep against her mother in the back of a car as they drove from one town to another. She captures the moments of childish rebellion, the sliding into sleep as the prayers lasted for hours into the night, the amalgam of people who formed the inner circle, and the wonderment and love that she felt towards Terrell. She chronicles faith healings and an exorcism. She describes the faithful evenhandedly. And she shares the heartwrenching moment when she and her brother and Terrell's children are left behind with a follower while the adults continued on the circuit.

As Terrell's fame as a preacher and faith healer grows and her mother's affair with him (which resulted in three children) becomes more intense, their lives change from the open hardscrabble existence that they once knew to a more secretive but fixed and financially secure lifestyle. Less visceral than her early childhood experiences and not as comprehensive about her experiences, Johnson chronicles this time in her life when she loses much of her faith, marries at the age of fifteen, and leaves her family for the first time. Despite her ultimate questioning about the paradoxes between Terrell's ministry and life of affluence, she never declares him a charlatan.

Her upbringing was unusual and despite the fact that she lives a life outside the one that she knew when she was young, this is not a complete repudiation memoir. The chasm between the life that Terrell leads on the back of his followers' assets and the lives that they lead, destitute after giving him their money, is a huge one. But Johnson manages not to demonize Terrell. She questions his morality and confronts his obvious sins but she also acknowledges the great draw of the miracles he's performed and does not dismiss them as manufactured for the revival believers. All in all a fascinating and balanced look at an unusual childhood and the ministry that pervaded every aspect of it.

For more information about Donna Johnson and the book visit her webpage.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Salon: Book Fair

I am coming to the end of my reign as middle school book fair queen. This past week marked my very last fall book fair. And I only have the spring book fair to get through before I pass the mantle to another sucker mom.

I have learned a lot chairing the book fair. I've learned about the kids. I've learned about the school staff. And I've learned valuable life lessons (more on these later).

The kids:

1. Middle school kids start out enthusiastic about the book fair. By the time they hit 8th grade though, all they want to buy (if anything), is a barnyard animal eraser. Even my own daughter (an 8th grader to be sure) does her book fair shopping under cover. She shops when we arrive to open the fair before the other kids are allowed in the building.

2. Flirting and hormones make everyone awkward. Book fair is prime time to flip hair enticingly, giggle breathlessly, and bat eyelashes. And that's just the boys.

3. Within 5 seconds of the class' arrival, it is possible to pick out the kid who will be loudest and most obnoxious during their stay at the fair. It is not possible to backhand this child (usually a boy) as deserved but he will accelerate your eye twitch in no time flat.

4. All middle schoolers have a maid. This is the only explanation I can come up with for their complete disregard for the mess they leave in their wakes.

5. No middle schooler ever listens. Again, this is the only way I can understand how multiple children ask me how much a certain poster costs less than a minute after I annouce to the assembled class that all posters cost $4.50.

The school staff:

1. You will learn things about staff that you should never know if you are sitting quietly and minding your own business. And what you learn will drive you closer to homeschooling than anything else in this world ever has. (For instance, there's the school's literacy coordinator who not only uses the work "like" every 5 seconds but who also heaps scorn on people "who use big words." Yes, I wanted to cry.)

2. A certain teacher must apply her make-up in the dark because she ends up having green skin. OK for Elphaba but rather disconcerting under plain, old, unflattering enough fluorescent lighting.

3. Some teachers have zero control over their classes. Others rule with an iron fist. This has no bearing on whether the kids like the teachers or not but as the book fair mom I can certainly tell you which ones I appreciate more.

4. The new librarian listens as well as the middle schoolers (see above). When asked to leave certain rooms unlocked so we can pack up and put things away at the end of the fair, she will blithely lock all doors and bug out for the weekend.

General life lessons:

1. Threats work. When I started threatening classes if they so much as poked one person with the hand pointers, they did not even try to poke each other again on the sly. (Perhaps the lesson is actually that I am scary. I prefer to think it's the threats work thing but I'm not ruling out scary.)

2. Boys don't want their purchases handed to them in a Justice bag or a Jewel box bag or any other girlie bag. They would prefer you bag their erasers and pokers in a Gamestop bag. Much cooler, thank you very much!

3. It's probably politic to leave all Total Wine bags at home regardless of how sturdy they are for holding books.

4. Eating out for lunch every day not only affects the number on the scale, it affects the amount of money you've actually spent at the bookfair. And by all rights neither number should be anywhere close to that large!

5. Sitting on your butt with nothing to do all day will make you more tired than an honest day's work.

6. Buying a book called The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook Gross Junior Addition will add immeasurably to your children's poop vocabulary and you have no one to blame but yourself when one of them announces to you that he is henceforth going to call poops "butt biscuits." Just another proud mom moment brought to you specially by the book fair.

Although book fair week is a long one, I have to admit I was pleased to see just how many books the kids did ultimately end up buying (and I don't just mean my kids). I got some quality reading time in myself (finished three books) in between classes. And I've done my volunteer duty towards the school for the first semester, allowing me to be completely guiltless when declining other thrilling opportunities. Win win all the way around.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Salon: Parenting and books, in short

Parenting and books. Not parenting books. My babies didn't read the latter, ergo neither did I. So this isn't about those kinds of books. This is more about various unclassified books. Random books and kids, really.

You know how you fail daily at this parenting thing? OK, well, I fail daily even if others don't. But occasionally there are moments that tell me I sometimes, when the moon is blue and the stars are aligned and the force is with me, really succeed at it too. The moments when the waiter compliments one (or more) of my kids for being so polite, when we all have a dinner that is filled with teasing and laughter, and when we go to the bookstore. (Please don't tell my husband that I took the kids to the bookstore! Let Mastercard tell him in their own way and their own time. It'll give me a chance to flee the country before he sees the bill.)

It might be self-evident that a reading mom would have great bonding time with her kids over books but I know plenty of readers whose kids won't read at all. However, I got lucky and my kids are readers. They begged to go to the bookstore because it was flat painful that the newest Rick Riordan had been out for over a week and we didn't own it yet. They had already decided on the family reading order (some pretty intense, hotly contested bouts of Rock, Paper, Scissors determined this) and they were like addicts needing their fix. Best yet they knew I would never say no to a bookstore trip--or a book for that matter. What can I say, I'm easy! Amongst us, I do believe we've driven B&N stock up for this quarter, buying 3 books, 3 books, 5 books, and 7 books each. Shockingly, the 7 booker was not me. I'm so proud!

But that moment you know you've done something right? That moment you are certain they will never have to re-enact during lengthy therapy sessions? The drive home from the store. 2 of the 3 immediately opened their books and started reading. The third didn't simply because she already has 3 books on the go at home and didn't want to add a fourth (yet). The car was silent all. the. way. home. It was the most blissed out silence ever. And I, occupied by driving as I was, was a little jealous. Now they're each draped over a couch or chair, deep into their books, deep into different worlds, deep into their own imaginations. So the only thing left to say about today? And we all lived happily ever after, no parenting book necessary. :-)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

5K race thoughts

My current half marathon training plan is not just limited to sitting on the couch thinking I can run 13.1 miles or playing tennis (which includes running so it's legitimate, right?!) although both of these are indeed a vital part of my current training. I have also started running a few of the local 5K races, especially when they benefit good causes, to judge just how brutal this half next month is going to be. Last month I ran the Rock and Read 5K to benefit local libraries. It taught me that not running at all to train was about the dumbest idea I've had in a long time, probably since I decided that 3 kids was a good idea. So yeah, it ranks right up there amongst the dumbest ideas ever. It was also the slowest 5K I've ever run in my life. On the plus side, it lit a bit of a fire under my rapidly expanding butt. So this morning I ran another 5K to see how the latest change in exercise habits was treating me. The Big South 5K benefits middle school sports and although neither of the two older kids have played middle school sports (they prefer to do things that involve us having to pay large sums of money rather than the token amount school sports require), it's a good cause and better yet, it was close and I knew much of the route from my marathon training 3 years ago when I wasn't so fat and out of shape.

When I first woke up this morning, I have to admit I was not pleased to think I was going to have to drag myself out of bed and actually run. In fact, I laid in my toasty bed and seriously considered ditching the race. After all, I had paid the money and picked up my packet already. Who on earth would it hurt if I didn't run? Furthermore, this particular race didn't have shoe timing chips that would ultimately need to be returned to the timing folks; it had strips across the back of the race numbers and that strip is mine to keep forever. So I wouldn't even have to have forked over the postage to return the chip if I chose to luxuriate in my cocoon of blankets. It was a tough call, let me tell you! But I did eventually roll out of bed and head out into the chill morning.

The event was well set-up and there were 1000 runners; not bad for a two year old race. A flash mob of cheerleaders from one of the local middle schools busted out in a dance before the start. Runners as a group seem to be singularly unimpressed with such stuff right before the start of a race. I personally don't do perky in the morning. Ok, I don't do perky ever, but definitely not in the morning. But good for those girls getting out and doing that. My children didn't budge from their cozy beds to come out and run, walk, or cheer (they are mine after all). The race itself was through neighborhoods and very pleasant and after the first mile, slow starter that I am, I actually felt good. I managed to feel good through the entire race. So a definite improvement on last month (and my time was over a minute faster this time too).

I enjoy listening/eavesdropping on other people both before and during short races like this one. When parents are running with children and offering them encouragement, it helps me. But there are just some truly entertaining comments that I'd chuckle over if I wasn't breathing too hard to laugh. As we headed down the first slight downhill, a guy with good legs but a beer belly told his young daughter, "Pick up the pace downhill. When you're fat, you have to roll down as fast as you can." They sped off and left me in the dust. I was still plugging along at my usual pace when I came up behind two young boys, maybe 9 or 10 years old, who were walking together. The one turned to the other and said, "OK, let's run to the front now." And they took off and left me in the dust too (probably did make it to the front too, the little buggers). My favorite though (and it's only my favorite because it was said as I was passing them instead of the other way around) was the two teen/pre-teen girls in goofy stripey socks who stopped to walk at about 2.5 miles. The one said to the other as they were being passed by people behind them "Look at all the people we're going to have to catch now." I can't swear to it, but I'm pretty sure those stripey socks never did end up passing me. :-)

Casual races like this can be fun provided you don't get run over by a runner pushing a jogging stroller. I used to be impressed by these people but over time, I've noticed that they are all incredibly fit and thin. So pushing a jogging stroller is really no big deal for them. It's the roly poly runners like me who have to lug the weight around *all the time* who should be more impressive. Fit running mom or dad can ultimately hand that kid off to someone else and revert to their gazelle like nature while we hippos have no choice. I've got it way harder. Of course, they probably don't carb load the night before the race on mint Oreo cookies either, but I'm just trying to honor the spirit of the thing on my own terms. And I never did claim to be a real runner. Jogger, shuffler, dilettante, occasional slug, yes. Real runner, in my dreams.

I did feel good for the majority of the race (minus the amount of time that it takes me to get into my stride) and I managed to average under 10 minute miles so I'm doing better than I was. I still run with the heavy runners at the back of the pack: heavy as in weight, heavy as in heavy on their feet (you should hear some of the pounding footfalls), and heavy as in heavy breathers. The latter is me and apparently I'm a heavy and loud enough breather to scare people who are wearing iPods given the number of over the shoulder startled looks I got as I plugged along today. I will never be one of the front runners, not the 5-6 minute mile runners who finish their entire race before I hit mile 2, but I'd love to get back to my sub-nine minute pace. Not thinking that's likely for this half next month but maybe for the half in January if I do remember to get out and run sometime again before then.

Monday, October 3, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

The week started off well on the reviewing front but tapered off into reading only. Baby steps! This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Wishmaker by Ali Sethi
Stay by Allie Larkin
Tassy Morgan's Bluff by Jim Stinson
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress
Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
The Vagabond by Colette
Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
This Is Just Exactly Like You by Drew Perry

Reviews posted this week:

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson
The Silver Boat by Luanne Rice
Twelve by Twelve by William Powers

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum
The Wedding Cake War by Lynna Banning
Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney
Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom
Someone Will Be With You Shortly by Lisa Kogan
The Art of Saying Goodbye by Ellyn Bache
When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle
The First Husband by Laura Dave
Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister
The Mystery of the Third Lucretia by Susan Runholt
Next by James Hynes
Spanish Holiday by Kate Cann
The Little Woman Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas
Baby Don't Go by Susan Andersen
The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Unsaid by Neil Abramson
The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy
Harvest by Catherine Landis
The Sweetness of Tears by Nafisa Haji
The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew
Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber
Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley
The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories by Steve Almond
Withering Tights by Louise Rennison
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
True Love and Other Disasters by Rachel Gibson
The Winters in Bloom by Lisa Tucker
The Embers by Hyatt Bass
Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten
The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker
River House by Sarahlee Lawrence
The Sea Captain's Wife by Beth Powning
The Last River Child by Lori Ann Bloomfield
Saved by the Sea by David Helvarg
The Marriage of the Sea by Jane Alison
Down the Nile by Rosemary Mahoney
The Wishmaker by Ali Sethi
Stay by Allie Larkin
Tassy Morgan's Bluff by Jim Stinson
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress
Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst

Monday Mailbox

Just two books this past week but both should be good fun. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Last Blind Date by Linda Yellin came from Gallery Books..
A memoir about her love life, this happily ever after promises laughter along the way.

Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress came from Ballentine Books.
A collection of short stories inspired by Jane Austen? ::swoon:: This one is tailor made for my taste.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Savvy Verse and Wit as she is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Twelve by Twelve by William Powers

Our book club likes to read certain categories of books at least once a cycle. So when the non-fiction selection month was available, I jumped on it and chose this book. Not only was the premise fascinating to me, but it takes place in our state so I thought it would be perfect. Unfortunately, I think my choice earned the unanimous rotten tomato award for the year and I'd have to agree. There was so much promise left unfulfilled and that, combined with the fairly sanctimonious tone, was the kiss of death.

Powers, an ecological activist long worried about his own carbon footprint, hears of a doctor living in a 12x12 home completely off the grid. Intrigued by her lifestyle, he is offered the opportunity to move into her home during a time period when she is out west protesting and he jumps at the chance to live the life of a wildcrafter. But this leap is inauthentic at best, while musing on nature and this back to the earth lifestyle, Powers never embraces the life fully, falling back on his girlfriend's car, apartment, and the local wi-fi enabled cafe. He glorifies the tiny carbon footprint of living 12x12 and while his point that we should all do more to reduce our carbon consumption is valid, he also ignores the problems of living as Dr. Jackie has done. A major reason she's chosen her lifestyle is her disagreement with tax money being used for war. A legitimate ideological stance but neither she nor he addresses anything worthy that tax money is used for though, such as education. Opting out of taxes through living small means not supporting your local library or local schools, etc. And many of Power's neighbors during his sojourn in Jackie's home aren't truly living in 12x12 homes. Multiple 12x12 buildings to work around the taxation issue is just plain cheating.

And perhaps these issues wouldn't have been so off-putting had they been addressed in the text. Instead, Powers came across as sanctimonious, certain of his righteousness and superiority, and frankly just plain pedantic. The writing was overloaded with unrelated musings and recountings of his past experiences, including his past relationship which resulted in a daughter. Very little of this had any bearing on his living in a small 12x12 structure. Actually, very little of the book indeed, had much of an account of his daily living there. While this is not intended to be a how to guide (and nor did I expect such), including more of the realities and challenges of a life so different from what most of us generally live would have made for a more interesting read. Simply condemning technology for technology's sake left this reader bored and came off as rather disingenuous given Powers' continued reliance on the technology of which he approves but simply removed from Jackie's homesite.

We do need to be more mindful of our impact on the environment but this book ultimately didn't even detail the author's striving to be mindful. A disappointment all the way around.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: The Silver Boat by Luanne Rice

When you see white shells on a book cover, it is generally a pretty good indication that the book itself is a beach read. That is very definitely the case with Luanne Rice's latest, The Silver Boat.

Dar and her sisters are having to say goodbye to their family home on Martha's Vineyard after the long illness and eventual death of their mother. Dar is the only one remaining on the island, her sisters having built their lives and families elsewhere so she is perhaps the most affected by the hard decision to sell the family's house and land. As time winds down for the McCarthy daughters and the memories they have rooted in this home, Dar finds letters from her father to her mother. He had always maintained that his family had a royal land grant on the island and so he left to sail to Ireland in search of proof of his claim. Michael was always assumed lost at sea but something in the letters makes Dar believe that he could possibly have made it to Ireland and found the proof about which existence he was so adamant and so she heads off to investigate for herself.

While Dar takes the majority of the focus here, there is a veritable crush of other characters as well, all of whom seem to be suffering in some way. Both Delia and Rory, the other two sisters, are facing family dysfunction of grand proportions and Dar is a rather prickly, curmudgeonly, recovering alcoholic. Their friends on Martha's Vineyard are not terribly well-fleshed out and are unremittingly eccentric. Family drama this has in spades but it has too much going on and too little focus on the primary storyline to be terribly effective. It does, however, fulfill the promise of the cover: a superficially entertaining beach read albeit one that will stay in memory for a shorter time than the sand will stay in your beach bag.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

For me, I can't wait to read: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson. The book is being released by Grand Central Publishing on January 25, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY is a powerful saga of three generations of women, plagued by hardships and torn by a devastating secret, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of family. Fifteen-year-old Mosey Slocumb-spirited, sassy, and on the cusp of womanhood-is shaken when a small grave is unearthed in the backyard, and determined to figure out why it's there. Liza, her stroke-ravaged mother, is haunted by choices she made as a teenager. But it is Jenny, Mosey's strong and big-hearted grandmother, whose maternal love braids together the strands of the women's shared past-and who will stop at nothing to defend their future.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Review: Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

My husband and I got certified to scuba dive this past spring and I absolutely love it but I have to say that I am incredibly grateful that I didn't read this book before we took our classes. Holy toledo! The bends are a magnitude of 100 times worse than I ever imagined. But being underwater is phenomenal. I don't know that I'd ever want to do deep wreck diving; I'm probably more than content to always be one of the thousands of recreational divers out there. I will never turn down the chance to read about the men and women who dive on the edge of the knife blade though, risking their very lives, especially if the account is as gripping as Kurson's non-fiction account of the discovery and eventual identification of the mystery German U-boat laying in 230 feet of water off the coast of New Jersey, where no U-boat should have been according to official war accounts.

Kurson follows the two divers who were most instrumental in the identification of the U-boat, two men who initially disliked each other but came to respect the driving force behind their different desires to dive the wreck, put a name to it, and to honor the sailors who were forever trapped in their watery grave. Kurson weaves dramatic tension throughout his narrative, even ratcheting it up as he presents the terrible tragedies of first Steve Feldman's death and then Chris and Chrissy Rouse's. He never minimizes the risks taken by all of the divers although his main focus remains on Vietnam vet John Chatterton, who ultimately pulled the spare parts box that would identify the wreck and Richie Kohler, who felt such a responsibility to the long dead sailors that he traveled to Germany to meet with their families.

Kurson does tend to neglect many of the other divers, especially those on the initial dives, mentioning their names briefly but without offering any suggestion of their impressions or contributions. However, his laser focus on Chatterton and Kohler makes for a tight and thrilling narrative that will keep readers, even those with zero knowledge of diving, on the edge of their seats. His descriptions of the dangers inherent in deep water diving, especially in the 90's, before nitrox mixes gained ascendency for such dives, are absolutely heart pounding. And he is spot on when detailing the swirling mess of sediment that contributes to zero visibility. Kurson does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the physical effects of the bends or from the vision of what a drowned body would look like after 5 months in the water and these descriptions will induce horror indeed but they reinforce the dangers and their potential results to which these wreck divers willingly and repeatedly expose themselves.

The book is not all diving though; it is also an historical mystery and Kurson takes the reader along as, much to the dismay of Chatterton and Kohler, each credible theory about the identity of the U-boat falls apart. As the wreck continued to withhold its secrets, the divers had to do archival research and in the process discovered that history as it is written is not always accurate and true. And as they waded through both the factual and the murky, they learn quite a bit about U-boats themselves. At the end of the narrative, as the quest for the boat's identity is coming to its conclusion, Kurson also draws a very credible picture of life on this particular U-boat as well as the lives of the lost crew members.

The writing is polished and the story exciting. I gulped the book down in a little over a day, pulled ever onward by the mystery and the persistence of these men. Dramatic and intense, this was a cracking good read. I just hope the image of what happens to your blood in extreme cases of the bends fades from my head before I have the chance to put a regulator in my mouth again.

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